Transit lines grow ridership, investments lead the way

Date: Monday, February 11, 2019

METRO Green Line, METRO Blue Line and A Line each set annual ridership records, while demand for Metro Mobility continues to climb

Three transit lines are connecting even more regional riders to jobs, school, services, recreation, shopping and other activities. The Metropolitan Council’s Regional Ridership Report shows the METRO Green Line, METRO Blue Line and A Line have all outdistanced their previous year’s ridership.

“Transit is a critical component to building and sustaining a prosperous community, particularly for the members of our communities who rely on it most,” said Gov. Tim Walz. “I’m encouraged to see that we’re investing in services people need and use. We need to commit to a comprehensive vision for regular investment in a transportation system to support the day-to-day needs of our residents.”

“We’ve seen how investing in transit creates a stronger system that supports our growing region,” said Chair Nora Slawik. “With around 700,000 new people expected by 2040, we need to figure out today how we get in front of the significant increase in transit demand. Our region relies on a comprehensive transportation system that offers mobility options to all people, in order to remain economically competitive and connect people with opportunities.”

A bus rider walking up to an approaching A Line bus at the Snelling and Grand stop.In 2018, the METRO Green Line saw a record 13.8 million rides, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Annual ridership has risen every year since the Green Line opened in 2014. More than 11 million rides were taken on the METRO Blue Line, also setting an annual ridership record. The A Line surpassed last year’s ridership with a record 1.6 million rides. Since introducing bus rapid transit (BRT) service, ridership throughout the A Line corridor has increased by about one-third.

Light rail and BRT are part of the region’s transit system that includes local and express bus, commuter rail, on-demand and contracted services. Businesses cite transit as one of the most important assets to attract and retain employees, while more and more people prioritize transit as a factor when choosing where to live and work.

Staff will present the full ridership report (PDF) at today's Transportation Committee meeting.

Nationally, through third quarter of 2018, transit ridership has slipped by about 3 percent, driven largely by a steady drop in bus ridership. Overall, 2018 regional ridership across transit types and providers declined 1.3 percent from 2017 — from 95.4 million to 94.2 million.

Across the country, low gas prices have affected transit ridership. The Twin Cities region also experienced a dip in ridership following the October 2017 fare increase. While ridership in the region overall is showing signs of rebounding, budget constraints have slowed growth. Given the anticipated long-term structural deficit, Metro Transit has been planning more conservatively and is therefore unable to reinvest in the regular route bus system, which could improve route performance and support ridership growth.

"While ridership is down by just over 1 percent, reductions in ridership were expected — given the fare increase combined with lower gas prices, overall ridership is better than anticipated,” said Wes Kooistra, Metro Transit’s General Manager. “Still, future ridership growth requires long-term solutions to the budget challenges that fall most heavily on our bus service. Bus service is the workhorse of our transit system, providing more than 70 percent of total transit rides. Funding is critically needed to both sustain our current services and to invest in service expansion and improvements. Investment in quality transit services will drive ridership growth.”

Regional providers — Maple Grove Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink and SouthWest Transit — served 5.1 million riders, representing a slightly less than 1 percent overall drop in ridership. The University of Minnesota ridership, providing 4.1 million rides, grew by 4 percent.

Demand for Metro Mobility puts strain on transit budget

At the same time, demand for Metro Mobility keeps growing. Metro Mobility’s 2018 ridership is up 6 percent to 2.4 million rides over last year and has averaged a year-over-year increase of 30.5 percent over the past five years. That annual growth between 5 percent and 8 percent is expected to keep rising well into the future.

“Transit, and specifically Metro Mobility, is a lifeline for so many aging people and those who have a disability, helping them get to jobs, medical appointments, social activities and other destinations,” said Nick Thompson, Director of Metropolitan Council Transportation Services, which oversees Metro Mobility operations. “We must be in a position to meet new riders’ needs, deliver the quality service they deserve, and expand service where it’s needed.”

This ridership growth closely tracks the Twin Cities metro area’s changing demographics. As baby boomers age, the number of seniors, age 65 and older, continues to balloon, growing from more than 280,000 in 2010 (11 percent of the population) to nearly 380,000 in 2017 (13.4 percent of the population).

Metro Mobility is a shared-ride public transportation service for certified riders who are unable to use regular bus or train routes because of a disability or health condition. The service is on-demand and is mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state law.

“For many years, the growth in Metro Mobility demand has put a strain on our transit budget,” continued Chair Slawik. “As those costs increase, they are taking up a larger and larger portion of our transit budget, leaving little funding left for the bus system and constraining the build-out of our bus system. We need to find a sustainable way to meet the growing need of Metro Mobility, so it’s not left to compete with the bus system for resources. Based on what we’ve seen since the A Line opened in 2016, I feel confident that future investments in the regional transit system will cause bus ridership to rise again.”

More BRT service coming soon

Later this year, the Council will bring the same combination of BRT’s faster, more frequent service and high-quality stations to the Penn Avenue corridor, now home to the region’s sixth busiest bus route, Route 19. “Speed and reliability are two ways BRT improves the customer experience, attracts new riders, and keeps them using the service,” said Kooistra. “Features like signal prioritization, well designed bus stops and easy on-off make for a better, more predictable ride for everyone.”

In the coming years, BRT will serve several corridors now hosting some of our busiest bus routes, including 5, 6 and 21. In just two short years, BRT will also come to Interstate 35W, with the completion of the METRO Orange Line.

Each year the Council compiles data about transit ridership across the seven-county region, from Metro Transit’s bus and rail service to suburban providers’ local and express bus service, to more specialized services. Regional transit ridership combines the number of rides on all types of transit and by all the region’s transit providers.

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