Did Minneapolis Just Host the Most Public Transit-Dependent Game in Super Bowl History?

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Minneapolis' Blue Line pictured in 2007. Ridership on both of the Twin Cities' light rail lines were limited to ticket holders for Super Bowl LII. (Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When it comes to car-free transportation, Minneapolis’ bike culture has long monopolized the spotlight, and deservedly so. But public transit in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is fairly robust as well: two light rail lines and a commuter rail line complement over 120 bus lines that fan across the sprawling, lake-speckled patchwork of neighborhoods that comprise the Twin Cities. For a city of Minneapolis’ size, the Metro Transit-operated system is safe, efficient and boasts an ever-expanding ridership. It works.

And then along came Super Bowl LII. Sunday’s big game (not to mention the 10-day parade of festivities leading up to the main event) provided the city with a high-volume, high-visibility opportunity to show off its public transit system, which was honored as System of the Year by the American Public Transportation Association in 2016. (Houston, host city of Super Bowl LI, received similar honors in 2015.)

Prior to the game, Mark Benedict, director of light rail operations with Metro Transit, went as far to call the Justin Timberlake-starring pigskin spectacle the "most transient-reliant Super Bowl ever played." An impressive claim — but what, in Benedict’s estimation, makes it true?

As Benedict explains to Smart Cities Dive, a primary reason why Super Bowl LII was so dependent on public transportation was the location of the game itself. Completed in 2016, host venue U.S. Bank Stadium, a fixed-roof glass behemoth known for its unfortunate bird-disorienting abilities, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Minneapolis (Downtown East, to be exact). Perched just a stone’s throw from Mill City’s historic Mississippi riverfront, U.S. Bank Stadium is somewhat of a rarity in the world of Super Bowl stadiums: in lieu of being located away from a city’s downtown core and on the fringes of an urban area, U.S. Bank Stadium is in the midst of it all.

U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Completed in 2016, the Minnesota Vikings' home stadium is a glassy, angular affair located in the heart of Minneapolis. (Photo: Mac H/flickr)

Light rail's time to shine

Both of Metro Transit’s 24/7 light rail lines — the 12-mile Blue Line, opened in 2004, and the 11-mile Green Line, opened in 2014 — service U.S. Bank Stadium Station, a primary transfer point for the lines. While the entire Metro Transit system was given the chance to flex its muscle during Super Bowl LII and its lead-up, Benedict notes that it was light rail, which normally comprises roughly 13 percent of Metro Transit’s normal ridership, that got the real game day workout. Normal service was even suspended to allow for the lines to serve as ticket holder-only transit arteries to and from the stadium.

"For most of the locations into U.S. Bank, we are sequestering the rail line and pulling nearly all of the trains out of normal service to provide direct service to the game from two starting points," Benedict told Smart Cities Dive. "All that we’ll be transporting by train will be ticket holders who also have in their possession this Metro Transit electronic ticket on their smart phones."

In addition to whisking an estimated 20,000 light rail riders to and from the game, the two starting points — the Blue Line’s Mall of America Station and Stadium Village Station, near the University of Minnesota, on the Green Line — served as major security screening checkpoints to help alleviate security-related bottlenecks at and around U.S. Bank Stadium. That is, by having ticket holders go through security at either starting point before boarding a (secured and very much express) light rail train, additional screenings at the game were rendered unnecessary.

"The process eases the burden of on-site screening at the stadium. There was concern that the footprint where the stadium sits is too small to have 70,000 to 80,000 people screened in the downtown area," Benedict explained. "It’s really a value-added service from a customer standpoint, a and it solves a security problem."

After the nail-biter of a game, special tickets to access trains were not required, meaning more riders likely took light rail out than the 20,000 ticket holders who took light rail in. "Post-game we’re going to pound the stadium with trains, one after another, to get all the fans out quickly," said Benedict.

U.S. Bank Stadium Light Rail METRO Station, Minneapolis
The calm before the storm: Metro Transit's U.S. Bank Stadium Station pictured in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII. (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr)

Bus riders aren't left in the cold

Because of the crucial role light rail played on game day, Metro Transit’s bus lines — the true public transit workhorse in the Twin Cities — remained dedicated to regular, everyday riders but with a beefed-up presence along key routes to accommodate for a potential influx of customers trying to navigate around a city plagued with heavy traffic and road closures. Furthermore, Super Bowl attendees were discouraged from using city buses to get to U.S. Bank Stadium.

Considering the ultra-frigid temps of Minneapolis in early February, Metro Transit was extra conscientious to not leave its dedicated ridership stranded at bus stops in the dangerously bitter cold. It was 2 degrees Fahrenheit outside U.S Bank Stadium at kickoff and dropped to 0 degrees by halftime, making the game the coldest in Super Bowl history.

As Smart City Dive notes, only five previous Super Bowls have been played in cold-weather cities: East Rutherford, New Jersey (2014); Indianapolis (2012); Pontiac/Detroit (1982, 2006); and once before in Minneapolis at the old Metrodome (RIP) in 1992. Held at MetLife Stadium, Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 was exceptional in that it was hosted in a northern city and held outdoors.

Historically, cities with balmier February temps like New Orleans, Miami, Tampa, and San Diego play host to the Super Bowl. Atlanta, which has hosted twice before, will welcome the Super Bowl yet again in 2019 at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Temperatures hovered in the mid-40s in Atlanta yesterday — near tropical compared to the Twin Cities.) Following Atlanta, the warming trend will continue with Super Bowls scheduled for Miami (2020), Tampa (2021) and Los Angeles (2022).

One of the reasons cold weather cities are more rarely awarded Super Bowl hosting duties by the NFL is because of the higher potential for winter weather impacting game day transportation. It's understandable ... massive events are much easier to plan without worry of blizzards or sub-zero temps fouling things up. And yes, Minneapolis had a contingency plan.

A Metro Transit bus in Minneapolis
Metro Transit's extensive bus network comprises a significant bulk of system ridership, although light rail is on the rise. (Photo: Michael Hicks/flickr)

Speaking to Smart City Dive, Brian Funk, deputy chief operating officer for Metro Transit’s bus network, explains that maintaining a focus on serving regular customers with minimal disruptions — even in a city turned upside-down by the Super Bowl — was a key takeaway during a public transit-related confab held between Minneapolis city leaders and transit officials from the previous two Super Bowl host cities, Houston and Santa Clara, California.

Many would claim, however, that Metro Transit didn’t truly take this “regular customer first" approach to heart. Despite ramped-up bus service picking up the slack in the absence of a functioning-as-normal light rail system, activist groups were critical of the decision to limit Blue and Green Line access to ticket holders on game day. Some protestors braved the cold and temporarily blocked access to the trains in the hours leading up to kickoff.

"Activists are using this moment to stand with athletes who have protested throughout the past two football seasons calling attention to the murder of Black people by police and to the city of Minneapolis' banning city residents from using public transit without a Super Bowl ticket," reads a news release issued by a coalition of groups including Black Lives Matter.

Cold weather and protests aside, there was little argument as to the Philadelphia Eagles' preferred method of transportation when departing U.S. Bank Stadium following the game: flying high.