A plan to simplify and invigorate public transit in Duluth would reduce the number of bus routes by more than half, while creating two high-frequency routes to serve as workhorses in the rebuilt network.
The Duluth Transit Authority announced its proposal this month, giving riders and residents until Aug. 2 to comment about the proposal.
“It might be the most substantial change in our history,” said Chris Belden, the DTA’s director of planning and grants.
The plan is cost-neutral and features 14 simplified routes recreated from the network’s 33 existing ones.
There would be no decrease in service hours. Instead, the new network would expand its well-utilized weekend service by 25%, and prioritize connecting more people to key destinations over having widespread geographic coverage.
The two high-frequency routes would feature pickups every 10-15 minutes along routes to the Miller Hill Mall area and the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Other high-density areas of focus include the Spirit Valley neighborhood in West Duluth, Lincoln Park, downtown Duluth, and Superior, where riders would see marked improvements in wait times.
Back in Duluth, one proposed new line would provide a continuous route running the length of the city from Gary-New Duluth to Lakeside. The current system doesn't allow a rider to do that without alighting.
In terms of equity, the DTA says the plan better serves minority and low-income households by providing increased access to frequent service.
The proposed redesign followed a survey conducted by the DTA earlier this year, which showed respondents favoring a less complicated system with higher frequency service.
“The recipe for attracting ridership is frequency of service,” Belden said. “The utility of transit in Duluth and Superior becomes a lot stronger when people can get to where they’re going in a reasonable amount of time.”
In order to be implemented by a planned launch next summer, the proposal will need to stand up to public opinion and gain the approval of the DTA’s board of directors at its meeting in August.
James Gittemeier is the principal planner at the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council, which helps coordinate transportation projects in the Northland. Gittemeier said it was past time for the Twin Ports to reassess its public transit service, which, throughout the years, has favored widespread coverage of the Twin Ports over frequency.
“The sacrifice we’ve made trying to reach all corners is that where our core ridership is, they are less served,” Gittemeier said.
Instead of tweaking the existing network, as has been the local practice, planners decided to create the new network from scratch.
"We erased all the routes and timetables — all of it," Belden said, describing a deep examination of the system and data, in consultation with Connetics Transportation Group, of Chicago.
“We saw with this that we needed to do a full-blown redesign of the system," he added.
It allowed planners to purge oddities and arcane elements from the system's legacy. For instance, in some cases a round trip can feature different routes to and from the destination. Gittemeier, who likes to test the system, said he once waited an hour for a return bus before realizing one wasn't routed back the same way he'd come.
"We have been tweaking this system since the 1960s, and there are different commuting patterns, especially now with people working from home," Gittemeier said, describing how he sees weekend buses filled with people going to the mall and Walmart when, historically, weekends have been a time of reduced service.
The result of the DTA's introspection is a proposed network reboot dubbed the “Better Bus Blueprint." It echoes a 2017 analysis which also indicated the DTA should focus on a higher frequency network.
The two proposed high-frequency routes would run from Spirit Valley in West Duluth to UMD, and from the downtown Duluth Transportation Center to the mall area. The DTA says those routes running all day would make it so that 16,000 more people and 14,000 more jobs would be within walking distance of frequent bus service.
The remaining 12 new routes would provide rides at 30- to 60-minute frequencies, while offering ample transfer opportunities to the two high-frequency routes.
Streamlining routes down to 14 figures to make it so new riders will more quickly learn to navigate the system, and alleviate confusion associated with having so many different trip patterns and start/stop times.
The tradeoff comes with a system that will have less of a physical reach, and require some DTA users to travel longer distances than they’re used to in order to reach a bus stop.
“But even with the system we have now there are winners and losers,” Gittemeier said. “This is a public service, and we’re trying to serve the greater good.”
Some of the biggest changes would be made in Superior, where missing a bus to Duluth can mean an hour’s wait until the next one.
Under the proposal, service in low ridership areas of Superior would be discontinued and diverted in favor of using shorter paths through town with greater frequency, and for longer service hours. Superior residents have been requesting later service hours for many years, Belden said.
“We would essentially be taking resources from low ridership areas, and doubling them up to run the majority of the day every half-hour between Duluth and Superior all the way until midnight,” Belden said.
If approved, the DTA would implement the new service levels next June.
Belden said the DTA's future intention would be to build-out the high-frequency routes with arterial features such as more robust passenger stations, limited stops, and technology that prioritizes transit at stop lights.
The high-frequency routes would not include dedicated bus lanes, a feature of bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit is a system used in densely populated urban areas, and treats busing more like passenger train travel.
The DTA refers to its proposed high-frequency routes as "pre-BRT" routes.
For those interested in viewing and commenting on the plan, visit tinyurl.com/BetterBusBlueprint.