Friday, November 14, 2008

What Pittsburgh Could Learn from Minneapolis Transit

Greetings everyone! Glad to be back. A few questions before the post:

Umm, where the hell have you been?

I moved to Minneapolis in August 2008. More in my last post.

Damn it, we're dying here! Pittsburgh only has 16 days left of transit service!

Yes, the news appears grim back in Pittsburgh. On November 23rd the union will vote on a strike after the Port Authority forced the contract into effect December 1st. The Post-Gazette has a story about how companies and people are preparing for the buses and trains to stop We reported on the story back in March. Watch for coverage here, and hopefully we'll have a few comments from those who ride Port Authority on a daily basis

So you went to Minneapolis and abandoned your transit blog? Did you abandon transit too?

Heck no. I am proud to be a daily rider of Metro Transit. It is the transit agency for Minneapolis, St. Paul, and surrounding areas. How does it stack up?

  • Around 70 million trips yearly* (Equal to Port Authority)
  • 118 Routes and one light rail line (vs 183 bus routes and 3 light rail lines in Pittsburgh)
  • Serving a population of 3,175,041 in the Metro Area (Allegheny County has 1,281,666 people)
*Other carriers such as MVTA operate in the suburbs, and bring up the total to 73 million. Numbers for this year are rising, and may hit 78 million.

So looking at these numbers, Port Authority seems to have higher ridership. Pittsburgh has more routes, but Pittsburgh is definitely a much harder city to get around due to hills, mountains, and three rivers. It's a lot more flat in the Twin Cities, streets are in a grid, and there's only one river (and a major tributary) here.

So what does Minneapolis do right compared to Pittsburgh?

Ease of paying fares. The Go-To Card was fully implemented in early 2007. It is a great piece of technology, also seen in Boston and hopefully soon in Pittsburgh.

The system is easy to use. First, you can buy a reloadable plastic smart card (currently free) from local stores, light rail stations, and by mail. You can add money to the card and/or you can add up to two monthly passes.

When you board the bus, you touch your card to a reader at the front of the bus (shown below). On light rail, you touch the card to a sensor on the train platform. You can even pay for multiple people if you enough cash or passes loaded onto the card.

The reader beeps, and even shows your balance. The great thing is that you don't even have to take your card out of your wallet; I usually just hold my whole wallet up to the sensor since it uses radio waves rather than magnetic strips. In addition, you can register your card in case of loss and easily recover any balance. Most workplaces and Universities also offer Go-To cards as an employee perk with tax benefits (also true in Pittsburgh).

To those who don't want to use the Go-To Card can also pay in cash, coins, or using older paper-based passes sold in some areas. Day Passes and 6-Hour Event Passes are available and are a great option for visitors. Fares are similar, though Express and Rush Hour fares are more expensive. There is no zone system though, and transfers are free.

Can Pittsburgh do it? Hopefully, they will soon. If the buses stay running, of course.

Free and Easy Transfers. Free transfers aren't the only great thing. Transfers are good for unlimited use for 2 1/2 hours on buses or trains. That means transfers could actually pay for a round trip if you are running to the store. Transfers are either slips of paper printed on the bus with a magnetic strip, or are implemented automatically on Go-To Cards. The on board transfer printer is also a reader, and makes it so the driver does not have to squint and see if you pass is valid. Both of these features speed up loading, but so does the next one...

Could Pittsburgh do it? Hopefully when smart cards are introduced, a overhaul of the transfers will be looked at. Free transfers were considered during the January 2007 proposed cuts.

Back Door Unloading. One of the top complaints in Pittsburgh is the sparse use of the back door on buses outside of downtown. The problem with Port Authority's buses is that the back door is controlled by the driver, which allows people to enter without paying fares. Here in Minneapolis, that problem is solved because the door can be pushed open from the inside. The driver still has to switch it on though as a safety issue. As soon as the person exits, the door closes.

Could Pittsburgh do it? Probably not unless new buses are acquired or old ones are retrofitted, since the ability to exit is a mechanical feature. And of course add in the confusing pay as you get off thing...

Real-time info with NexTrip. The phone system for buses and trains, NexTrip, provides real time information via phone, internet, and visually at a few stops. The automated phone system now has voice recognition, but is a bit less sophisticated than Let's Go!, described here earlier this year. But the feature of real time departures makes the phone number (612-373-3333) worth putting into your cell.

Could Pittsburgh do it? Fitting every bus with a GPS system costs money that the Port Authority probably doesn't have. Though a system-wide automated bus information number is very possible.

The light rail actually goes somewhere. Ok, sorry to those on the T. But Minneapolis has one line (the Hiawatha Line) that services Downtown Minneapolis, the Target Center, the Metrodome, the Airport, and the Mall of America. An extension to the new Target Field is due when the facility opens in 2010. And in 2014, light rail will also extend to the University of Minnesota and Downtown St. Paul. Sorry T, but Minneapolis has you beat there.

Can Pittsburgh do it? Doubtful. Light rail to the airport and Oakland is constantly debated. Read about the ups and downs of Oakland light rail here. To Pittsburgh's defense, light rail to the Airport and Oakland has many obstacles: distance, topography, rivers, and an already crowded road system.

A Guaranteed Ride Home. This is a regional program that gives those who have bus passes (or walk or bike to work) two free cab rides every six months up to $25 each. The coupons also work in buses or trains, and can be combined for more expensive trips. It's a great way to encourage alternative transportation for those who worry about having to leave work early or staying late and missing the last express bus home.

Can Pittsburgh do it? It will require more funding, but they definitely should. It makes transit riders all fuzzy knowing that they can always take a taxi if needed.

Schedules at the stops! Yep, at a lot of shelters around the city the schedules are posted for all routes. Even at ones owned by advertising agencies. I've lamented about this before. And if a stop is out of service? There's a very simple white paper sign: "Buses do not stop here."

Can Pittsburgh do it? Hell yes they should, and somehow they should force Clear Channel (the advertiser and owner of many bus shelters) to allow bus information in their precious shelters.

Schedules on the buses! Metro Transit seems to be a lot better about putting the right schedules on the buses. Hmm... I've also lamented about this before. See a pattern?

Can Pittsburgh do it? They sure can. Just plan ahead more.

A system map! In print and online. Ok, this is getting ridiculous. Did Metro Transit read my post?

Can Pittsburgh do it? They may have to hire someone to make it, but it's a bit unbelievable that they don't have an internal one.

Driving on the shoulder! Yes, buses are allowed to drive on interstate and local road shoulders if necessary to bypass traffic. State law requires cars to allow buses to merge back into traffic, though in practice this may not happen.

Can Pittsburgh do it? It would take legislation, but whether this is necessary given the busways is not known.

A free rider newsletter! TAKEOUT is published every month and is always hanging on the bars in buses and trains. It contains news about upcoming events and is mostly a paper copy of the news section of the website. However, it allows those without a computer to read about service changes and other information.

Can Pittsburgh do it? Sure, it would be a great way to spread info about changes and upcoming events and even the status of the North Shore Connector.

Free rides! Metro Transit seems to be better about encouraging users to try the system out. They give free rides to hockey fans, arts festival goers, attendees of the world famous Minnesota State Fair, those going to the downtown Holiday Festival, partiers on St Patrick's Day... Heck, even when I sent away for the "New Rider Information" packet they included two free tickets.

Can Pittsburgh do it? Maybe if they attracted more sponsors.

Easy info by mail. The website has an easy to use form that allows you to send away for schedules, system maps, bike riding brochures, and all kinds of info. There's a great New Rider Information book that shows how to read schedules, pay fares, etc.

Can Pittsburgh do it? Sure. This is easy web stuff, they already offer information by mail but over the phone. This feature makes it a lot easier to try out the bus for the first time.

Frequency information. The schedules are a lot better when describing the overall frequency of buses and trains, as seen on my route's info page. Some routes are even designated as High-Frequency routes, and schedules and stops reflect which routes are frequent (described as being every 15 minutes or better weekdays from 6 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.)

Can Pittsburgh do it? Yes, the designation as being "high-frequency" can attract residents to look for places to live and work that fall on a high-freq line. It's all about publicity and letting riders know which buses are worth waiting for even without a schedule.

Nice drivers! This is just my opinion, but the drivers seem to be more willing to answer rider questions. This is a state known for being nice though. However, I have had the occasional surly driver.

Can Pittsburgh do it? With more group hugs and sunshine perhaps.

Wow, that was a lot of good stuff. But don't sweat it Pittsburgh, an upcoming post will be about what's better back home. Yes, there are some things.


  1. Glad to see you posting again. I enjoyed the idea of your blog and was sad to see you go.

    A couple of those ideas you had, I think, could be made possible unofficially if there was a bit of organization. For instance, some kind soul could go around Pittsburgh pasting up schedules at bus stops (though this may bring up a litter issue, but really, is flyering for bars and clubs any different?) and someone could make a newsletter that's distributed on buses (kinda like a print version of this blog?!). I think a lot of people who would normally just stare out the window or into space would actually read it, and maybe organize and talk about issues.

    Re: friendly bus drivers, I ride the 38C now and I have to say, I quite enjoy my bus drivers. They remind me of Marvin, the paranoid android.

  2. I was pretty impressed with Minneapolis transit when I flew there for a conference in June. Getting to the university from the airport--and back again--was pretty simple. I was amazed at the number of people who apparently hadn't read the easy directions in our conference info and who therefore took shuttles...