A northbound Orange Line bus stops at the new Lake Street & I-35W station in south Minneapolis. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Mike Scott already knows how much time the new Orange Line is saving him. 

For years, Scott rode the Route 535 bus from downtown Minneapolis to his job in the medical device industry in Bloomington. Like many longtime bus riders, he’d come to notice all of Route 535’s inefficiencies: The extra right turns it would make to reach an out-of-the-way stop or the extra time waiting for people to exit the front door before boarding riders could enter.  He’s been saving an average of seven minutes each way since the new line opened December 4. 

“I like this better,” Scott said. “It’s comfortable and it’s efficient.”

For Scott and other riders of color who use public transit to go to work or visit loved ones along the Interstate 35W corridor, the $150 million Orange Line is introducing a new kind of service. The Orange Line is the state’s latest and largest highway bus rapid transit project. 

Building BRT

Bus rapid transit features larger buses, fewer stops, payment before boarding, and multi-door access. Those features are intended to make it a faster, more enjoyable experience. Service runs on a regular schedule like the light rail: buses come every 15 minutes throughout the day, making the ride more consistent and timely.  

With a significantly lower cost than light-rail or traditional subways, Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council are betting that a fully developed bus rapid transit system will make the Twin Cities a place where more people will turn to transit. 

Building that system—and making it attractive to residents—is critical to Minnesota’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. Transportation is now the highest source of fossil fuel pollution in the state, according to a 2020 report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Emissions from vehicles are only down 7 percent from 2005. 

Map of the Orange Line route. submitted image

People of color are disproportionately likely to live near major roadways that expose them to vehicle pollution, state data shows. People of color are also more likely to rely on public transportation to get around. 

With the Orange Line, Metro Transit now operates four bus rapid transit routes. Bus rapid transit in Minnesota comes in two forms. Arterial lines with letter names run on city and county roads in the urban core. Highway lines with color names spread across the region. Both types often lack a key signifier for bus rapid transit worldwide: truly dedicated lanes. 

The A Line mostly runs along Snelling Avenue in St. Paul; the C Line connects Brooklyn Center to downtown Minneapolis via Penn Avenue on the northside. A suburban south metro route, the Red Line, links Apple Valley to the Mall of America. 

But more routes are on the way. The D Line, which will replace the current Route 5 bus line and connect Brooklyn Park to the Mall of America through Minneapolis, is on pace to open in late 2022. The B Line, linking South Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul along Lake Street and Marshall and Selby avenues, is scheduled to open by 2024. 

In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature approved funding for the E Line (Southdale to the University of Minnesota through uptown and downtown Minneapolis) and the F Line (Northeast Minneapolis to Blaine via Central Avenue). 

More highway routes are also planned. The Gold Line, linking St. Paul to Woodbury along Interstate 94, will begin construction this spring. The Purple Line connecting St. Paul to White Bear Lake, recently cleared a key federal funding approval hurdle and could be operational by 2026, the Star Tribune reported

Spreading the word

As Metro Transit builds out its bus rapid transit system, planners are trying to spread the word to riders about its benefits. Survey data shows that people want reliable service with easy-to-understand routes, community engagement specialist Cody Olson said. 

“With these projects we can make good on those promises,” Olson said. 

That’s the case for Mark Afanasyev, a first generation Russian American who regularly takes transit from his home in south Minneapolis to visit his parents in Burnsville. He used to ride Route 5 to the Mall of America before transferring to a suburban line that brought him to Burnsville. Now, he’s able to hop on the Orange Line and take it directly to meet family. 

“It’s a lot simpler and it’s more convenient,” Afanasyev said.  

Metro Transit data shows that people of color are more likely to live within a five-minute walk of the Orange Line route in Minneapolis, Richfield, Bloomington, and Burnsville. That diversity means communicating with people from multiple cultural and linguistic backgrounds. 

“We’re looking at who lives near these lines and what languages they speak,” Olson said.  

In the midtown area of south Minneapolis, for example, Metro Transit has sent direct mail to households in English, Spanish, Somali, and Oromo. The agency tries to partner with community groups, and to advertise in multiple languages through cultural media outlets (including Somali language ads for the Orange Line that ran in Sahan Journal). 

Transit planners communicate with riders in the design and construction phase of projects, Olson said. And an advertising blitz runs in advance of the line opening, and in the following weeks. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...