Interview with Brian Lamb, General Manager of Metro Transit

Brian Lamb oversees a transit system with 2,700 employees who operate a light-rail line, a commuter rail line, and 125 local, express, and contract bus routes. Lamb was a key figure in completing the first light-rail line operating in Minnesota, the Hiawatha Line, and in opening the Northstar commuter rail line.

TLC’s Communications Manager, Hilary Reeves, sat down with Brian Lamb to talk about the new Twins Stadium, commuting in the Twin Cities, and bus rapid transit.

Hilary: How did everything go with the opening day at Twins stadium?

Brian: We were just delighted –this was an opportunity to display multiple modes in actual operation. We’ve been trying to make sure we have all the points of the compass covered in terms of transit needs. This was the first game where we brought the Northstar commuter rail in and we had 501 people board that special train to come into the game and they all seemed to be very excited. We have also a new express operation out at Country Rd 73 and 394 to get people from the western suburbs in for the Twins games.  Those customers started to arrive 2 hours before the game and they were lining up!  We counted more than 600 people who used that particular express route.  Service after the game goes for an hour after the last out.  Since 2004, Hiawatha has been synonymous with events at the Metrodome and people just made that smooth transition. Not to say that we couldn’t use more capacity –it’s a challenge, particularly the afternoon games that go right up against PM rush hour.  Our challenge is how to not adversely affect our regular day to day customers while providing good alternatives for game goers.  I think we did pretty well yesterday. We were able to learn from our experience a week ago with the exhibition games against St. Louis.  For those games, we saw that the trains got so full north of Fort Snelling that people couldn’t always board north of that point. For opening day, we put a couple of single car trains at Fort Snelling and ran them only north of that stop.  Overall, we ended up with 17% modal split, which is a good healthy start and an opportunity for us to continue to build.  We know that about 39,000 patrons were at the ball game and between bus, light rail and commuter rail; we served at least 6,700 of them –about 17%. When the Twins were at the Metrodome, we consistently served 10-12% of the patrons, so it’s a healthy jump and an opportunity to look at ways to improve. Moreover, the 17% was just transit.  We do know that at the St. Louis games, they ran out of bike rack space!

Hilary: How does that 17% compare to the overall numbers in terms of commutes into downtown to work?

Brian: Our surveys over the last 7 years have recorded a 36-40% modal.  St Paul has less concentrated employment in downtown and hence less transit options which puts them at about 22%.  I think the biggest concentrated area we’ve seen growth from is the University of Minnesota with expansion of the UPASS program; we’re at about 40% modal split there.

Hilary: Tell me about how should we understand the recent changes to Marquette & 2nd – what do those changes mean for the overall system?

Brian: It’s such a fundamentally important infrastructure improvement.  One of the things I applaud the City of Minneapolis for is their long term vision of employment growth in their downtown core.  Around the country, more downtowns have reached employment peaks or plateaus and job creation is only happening in suburbs. The City of Minneapolis understands that for them to make their vision of downtown employment growth a reality, they must create ways to move people into downtown efficiently without the use of cars.  Part of their Access Minneapolis plan, which they finalized and approved in 2006, was to prioritize transit because the fact of the matter is that we aren’t creating more streets downtown! Instead, we have to make the streets work more effectively. With 44 thousand people coming into downtown on express buses, they recognized the need to prioritize the bus system which led to the double lane feature on Marquette and 2nd. That improvement has essentially tripled capacity during peak hours.  Additionally, we’ve found that the change has sped up the trip through downtown. Previously, the buses were traveling 5 to 7 miles per hour.  So at a brisk walk, you could walk faster than the bus service. The beauty of plan is that we’ve already been able to demonstrate 55% increase in travel time on Marquette and 2nd.  That makes transit a more viable transit option for downtown.

Hilary: Would you consider the system on Marquette and 2nd to be bus rapid transit?

Brian: No, but I would consider it a component of bus rapid transit (BRT) once we do BRT systems in place. The Marquette and 2nd system will be the cornerstone for access in downtown Minneapolis. BRT in this region is going to take on two or three different looks. For example, BRT on 35W will be operating up and down the middle of the corridor with a transit facility on 46th St at 35 W. 46th St has a bridge over 35W that has been widened. Local South Minneapolis buses can pull off on the side and riders will be able to take an elevator or stairs in a climate controlled environment to get on an express bus running up and down 35W that will act as limited stop bus to and from downtown.  Going along with this system, we will redesign the Lake St area to have a station. After that, the bus will continue down to 66th St, to 82nd near the intersection of 494, and eventually out into Bloomington. Eventually some BRT buses will terminate out in Lakeville.  The first BRT system you’ll see is out on Cedar Ave in the Apple Valley area later this year or early 2011. We will be able to have a station by station every ½ mile BRT application that will link into downtown during peak hours while serving the Mall of America during off peak hours and also connect up with the Hiawatha line.  The third type of BRT application that we’re looking at is for local street applications –Broadway or Snelling. We’re looking at how we can provide good, fast, and frequent service while giving customers upgrade in amenities to make it a more seamless operation. We’re scoping out those applications.  Another option we’re exploring is signal timing to make sure we’re moving buses in the best way.  We’re experimenting with the Urban Partnership Agreement up on Central Avenue so that some of the technology improvements allows us to outfit our buses and the signals on Central Ave to give extended signals so buses don’t get hung up with the red lights every time.

Hilary: There were recent studies from the Met Council that said three times as many people would like to use transit than currently do. How do you see your plans for future improvements playing into that desire for people to use transit and do you think these improvements will help meet that gap?

Brian: I don’t know if I’d call it a gap or an opportunity for growth.  We’ve paid close attention the last few years to what existing and prospective customers are telling.  Every year, about 10% of our riders have been riding for a year or less. In a year where we don’t grow our ridership, not only are we getting a 10% infusion of new riders, but by definition, we’re losing 10%.  Part of growth is strategies to maintain current riders, so we’re focused on what they’re telling us is important to them.  Reliability is extremely important, including arrival time. You should have enough options so you don’t have to plan your life around transit –instead transit fits into your life.  With prospect riders, they’ve t
old us that the question of frequency and reliability are very important to them along with the idea of comparable travel time. So getting back to strategies like signal timing, we hope we’ll be able to attract new riders while maintaining our current base.

Hilary: Do you find that it is hard for people to adapt to using transit?

Brian: That barrier is a key issue – no one wants to appear stupid the first time they ride a bus.  People have questions like what is the fare, how do I access the service, what routes go where, how do I stop the bus –people who haven’t taken transit before can be inhibited by those questions.  We’ve worked hard on several fronts to break those questions down into understandable elements.  Things like our web site make a big difference. Through web page use and automated telephone options, we’ve created better opportunities for professional transit orientation staff to help new riders personally.  The professionalism of the staff has gone through the roof –they are very helpful specialists to get people over that hump of uncertainty.  Close to 90% of the people who call for help end up taking the trip they were calling about.  On the other hand, this is one reason rail is so successful; it’s clear where the train is going to go.  With the bus system, you don’t have those clear signals.  Going back to some of the tools coming out with our new web site, people can go to an interactive map and click the stop by their house to see the routes that serve that stop.  You can visually see the diagram as well as the schedule in an easy to understand way.  That interactive map goes live Saturday, April 17th.

Hilary: What systems does metro transit encompass?

Brian: We’re continuing to evolve. Five years ago we were simply the bus providers but we’re far more than that now.  We operate the light rail and commuter rail but even in the last couple of years we are now positioned to be the one stop shop.  For car poolers, we have services where you can go online and find out what system is available for your area. We’ve tried to align ourselves with the bicycling community –it’s a compatible fit.  Our buses and trains have equipment to transport bicycles. We’re finding more and more people are using bicycles like park and ride lots –to link up portions of their trips with transit for commuting and recreation.

Hilary: Do you have problem with exceeding capacity of bike racks?

Brian: Occasionally, especially on certain popular routes.  People are good about it and we’ve looked at making our bike racks able to carry an additional bike. It’s all a matter of balancing capacity with safety issues.

Hilary: What do bicyclists do if the bicycle rack on a bus is full?

Brian: They can wait for the next bus, or ask the driver if you can bring the bicycle on board.  The driver knows what’s coming up on the route and if it will get too busy to have a bicycle on board–so it’s a good idea to respect the driver’s decision.

Hilary: Do you know how your approach to transit compares with other transit organizations in other similar cities?

Brian: It’s a mixed bag throughout the country. Some organizations encompass a holistic approach while others have focused on a specific mode. We’re one of the few transit properties in the region that has fair reciprocity between providers and modes (ie, bus and light rail). That has been a conscious effort to make sure the transit is integrated and tied together.  Portland has a multi modal effort and so do we.

Hilary: BWTC, as part of the NTP program, funded a look at bicycle and walking connections to transit. How do local jurisdictions perceive transit access in their areas?

Brian: I think it’s a growing awareness. The City of Minneapolis is a leader in many ways in creating bicycle lanes and an arterial street network. I would like to see more integration with the trail maps to involve counties and local jurisdictions. Our new web site will have interactive maps! Our hope is that it leads to a new level of discovery on how things connect. I might discover that I can take Hiawatha out to a whole new area.  We’re in close contact with nice ride about their bike sharing program and are talking with the University of Minnesota about next stages of Cyclopath.  Internally, we’re engaged on a safety campaign related to bicyclists and pedestrians. We’re working to educate operators on driving safely in that kind of environment that encourages bicycling and walking. The whole concept is something that can continue to grow – marrying the Hour Car with the transit system is one area that I think has a great deal of potential. People think about how they use different tools for different purposes and transit tools should be the same way.

Hilary: What do you see as the biggest needs or priorities for Metro Transit in the next few years? What about the new bus garage that was part of the bonding proposal?  What do you need to create a better system?

Brian: It’s safe to say that we can’t successfully ask people to take alternatives if we can’t guarantee that those alternatives will be there for the long haul. Consistent funding for the operating side of the business is critical. I go back to the point of our existing and potential customers looking for a frequent and speedy system.  Specifically you asked about the 6th operating facility that we didn’t get funding for in the bonding bill –it will be a difficult sell when you have restrictive bonding levels over the long run, so we’re going to have to be creative on how we put together a package. Fact of the matter is that we can’t grow much more without that operating facility.  The five that we have now are all near capacity. The nature of our vehicles continues to evolve as well –the 60 foot buses are simply longer than what we’ve had before and by definition take up more space.

Hilary: At the Twins games, is there more capacity for the 17% modal shift to grow?

Brian: I think our long range goal for things like the Twins games should be closer to 30-35% modal shift. I believe we can hit that with the Central Corridor which will serve the front door and be an attractive option for people from the East metro.  We’ll also have the Southwest Corridor to increase capacity. We’re making continuous improvements on Hiawatha. Our platforms can now accommodate 3 car trains.  Those will increase the capacity by 50% with very little incremental operating costs since we’re not adding labor costs. I’m also bolstered by the success of the 394 express concept –we’ll have opportunity to build on that as well.

The number of buses we’ve provided during the rush hour has dropped since 2002 – from 800 to 732. Those numbers are a bit deceiving because we’ve added the light rail. We’re focused on improving the overall efficiency of the system as a whole. 2008 had highest ridership rate since 1956 –gas prices helped those numbers but the whole idea of funding is that you have to be in the position to offer people alternatives when they want it and that is why the advanced planning is so important. Northstar is currently serving 2,000 customers a day, but as congestion and gas prices continue to rise, Northstar ridership will grow and we have the capacity to accommodate that growth.

Hilary: Should the money go to light rail or expanded bus service?

Brian: We do not see it as an either or –just as we’ve talked about the tool box of transit options, different modes all serve their purp
ose.  Buses give you flexibility of routes and can’t be replicated by rail. On the other hand, if you have a corridor that has development potential and the ridership is marked, you can expand the capacity in cost effective way with rail after the front end cost of building the rail.

Hilary: Anything you wanted to add?

Brian: In the last five years, our use of technology has changed so much. Our web site and transit signal priorities are examples. The whole idea of real time management and real time information is one that I’m very excited about. Having our buses outfitted with GPS allowed us to track the buses and make corrections during the course of the business day to keep them on schedule. I’ll put our transit performance time up against any similar big cities across the nation. Right now, our on time performance is 90% for the bus.  Now we’ve gotten to the point where we have used that management tool and can push that info out to our customers with programs like Next Trip. Fare technology like the go-to card has also improved.  Go-to cards make it easy to hop on the bus. Soon you’ll be able to add value to your go-to card online or over the phone. After that, you’ll be able to set up a system with your financial institution where they automatically add fare money if you’re getting low.