Solving Lakeville’s Problems: A Modest Transit Proposal

This post is the third in a series covering my hometown, a typical third-ring suburb; Lakeville, MN. I suggest reading parts I (the problems) and II (land use, walking, and biking recommendations) first.

My last post talked about loosening Lakeville’s zoning code across the board, allowing neighborhoods to accept more people of different incomes and life places, while also making it possible for people to walk and bike to neighborhood-scale commercial uses. I outlined a few things the city can do to make walking and biking year-round safer and more accessible. I wrote those first because I believe they’re the easiest, cheapest, and most effective ways to improve neighborhoods for all in a short timeframe.

That said, I’m not going to pretend residents will always be able to walk from a residential neighborhood to a job 2 miles away. Or that biking from downtown Lakeville to Crystal Lake will be a reasonable option 365 days a year. It does rain and snow here, and sometimes the temperatures are too cold to take kids out for a bike ride (even if people make a bigger deal about our weather and seasonal infrastructure than they should).

Minneapolis recently hosted the Winter Cycling Congress. It can be done!

Like our central cities, transit is the final key to extending mobility to people of all ages, incomes, and abilities for the entire year. It makes living car-lite possible, it allows neighborhoods to add residents without requiring expensive street/road widening, and (along with bicycling) allows for cheaper parking-lite housing to be developed.

So I’m going to say it: Lakeville, like many outer suburbs, should operate a transit network that links neighborhoods and job centers within its borders while connecting to the larger region. Before I go into how, let me talk about…

Local Precedent

Did you know Lakeville already runs a local transit system? You see it every day, shuttling thousands of residents about the city.

No metaphor intended, seriously.

Busing kids to and fro every day (well, for 9 months) costs taxpayers nearly $6 million dollars a year to operate, and almost none of those costs are borne by users directly. This is especially true when you consider 80% of the school district’s general fund (which funds the transportation contract) comes from the State of Minnesota. That number, by the way, is larger than the share of Metro Transit’s operating budget covered by state funds, which totals ~60% when you include MVST and general fund dollars.

Some things to remember. These kids don’t feel demeaned by having to share a bus seat with someone else. These kids are capable of walking more than the distance from the living room to the garage, then waiting in all sorts of weather for a bus to pick them up. They’re capable of figuring out which bus to board in the afternoon, and even where to go for after-school daycare. This suburb that prioritizes cars is clearly okay with running noisy, diesel buses up and down city streets to pick up humans. Finally, barely anyone questions whether this costly service is a waste of the taxpayer dollar.

You just do it. You fund it because you know there are people who can’t reasonably drop their kids off at school in the morning or be available to pick them up in the early afternoon. You know that there are people who aren’t old enough or can’t afford car ownership who need to get around to a legitimate daily destination. You do it because you know, deep down, that having 500 people waiting to pick their kid up at each elementary school would be a traffic nightmare and transit is a solution to inescapable geometry problems, even in spread-out suburbs.

A Lakeville Transit System

I’m not going to pretend that my proposal is 100% fleshed out, that there aren’t other potentially good routes, or that the number and placement of stops isn’t too many or few. I can’t give anyone a modeled daily ridership estimate because I wasn’t paid six-figures for a study.

can tell you that I tried to connect major population, shopping, job, and school destinations across the city. I tried to follow a grid that gives flexibility for riders by offering a single transfer between bus routes to get around. I tried to connect these to planned regional transit routes to extend the local system’s utility. I tried to keep stations infrequent to maintain decent operating speed (lowering trip times). Those were my goals. Here’s the system:

This system focuses on connecting downtown Lakeville and the Argonne shopping area to each other as well as surrounding neighborhoods (I’ll talk more about this in my final post), as well as industrial/warehouse jobs in the Air Lake district. Buses would run at 15 minute headways (4 buses per hour) all day from 6 AM til 10 PM, every day of the week. If you don’t ride buses often, this may or may not sound like an infrequent schedule. But I assure you, it’s better than most bus routes in (far denser) Minneapolis and St Paul. Take a look at Metro Transit’s high-frequency network, which is defined as 15 minute or better headways from 6AM-7PM on weekdays. So this would be a pretty damn good local transit network, all things considered.

I’m assuming the Orange Line will eventually be extended from the Burnsville Parkway station to the Burnsville Center and then down to Lakeville. I’d prefer a stop at the Argonne shopping area in addition to the Kenrick Ave Park & Ride. I also assume the Red Line will be extended down Cedar Ave. This is why all three local bus routes converge at Argonne and then the P&R, and two of them connect with the Red Line – providing all-day flexibility in extending job access via a transfer to the Orange Line. There’s an extension of the Green Line (L1) on every other bus into downtown Farmington, linking the two downtowns and a decent chunk of each population.

Based on bus frequency and estimated operating speeds, I calculate this network would need 10 buses to meet service requirements with a spare. I also estimate an annual operating cost of $6-7 million based on Metro Transit operating expenses per revenue hour. Every stop (there are only 39!) should get a heated shelter. Period. At $30,000 per heated shelter, this is roughly $1.2 million up-front capital cost, or equivalent to a third of a mile of a new suburban 4-lane road. Seems like a good deal. I’d strongly recommend putting a couple small bike racks at each station to make biking to the bus a reasonable option for folks outside the walk-shed.

I’d also recommend using real urban transport vehicles (low floor for accessible entry), and savings could be had by buying smaller buses rather than the full-sized ones Metro Transit uses. This reduces noise, road wear/tear, and (most importantly) capital/operating costs. It’s a very common practice. At roughly $150,000 each, all 10 could be purchased for ~$1.5 million, and will likely last 10-12 years.

Example of a small urban bus.

You may not believe that a system like this would have utility for many Lakeville residents. Like I said, I can’t put forward a ridership model. However, I do know that a good chunk of Lakeville’s jobs are served by by transit lines:

via Cenus OnTheMap tool, 2013 data

In fact, of the 14,150 jobs within Lakeville’s borders, just shy of 10,000 (70%!) are within a 1/3 mile radius of the stations I proposed:

And, while the OnTheMap tool doesn’t give us total population (it only focuses on number of workers and jobs), we know that over 10,300 workers who live in Lakeville (but whose job may be anywhere), 35% of the ~29,600 total, live within that same 1/3 mile radius of each station:

Over 1,000 workers both live and work within these service areas. Today. That’s 1,000 people driving to and from their job every day that could ditch their car (or second car) in favor of a combination of biking and busing. How many additional people and jobs could move to Lakeville over the next 30 years with a system like this? How many kids could ride this system to school, allowing the school bus contract to be slowly reduced? How many people currently riding the bus to the (free) Kenrick Park & Ride (with an $8.7 million construction cost) or other express bus station could choose to just hop the bus from the nearest station instead? It’s not crazy to think a local transit system could achieve 5-10% mode share in Lakeville in just a short time.

Finally, the thing I’m sure every suburban driver cares about, farebox recovery. At just 1,000 daily riders, this bus network would only recover 7% of its operating cost at typical Metro Transit fares. Of course, no one in Lakeville is questioning what percent of their road maintenance and reconstruction budget comes from the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax, and registration fees, so I’m not sure why farebox recovery matters. In this case, it’s so low (with likely no crowding), that I’d propose just making it free. Yes, you read that right. It’s really not that radical of an idea, especially for smaller towns. Call me when Lakeville starts charging for on-street parking before complaining about a free bus system.

So there you have it. At an initial cost for shelters and buses of maybe $3 million and an ongoing annual operating cost of $6-7 million, Lakeville could connect almost all its commercial destinations and a significant chunk of its residents. You’re already spending nearly $6 million on school buses, Lakeville. Why not do the same for everyone else?