On an earlier trip to Missoula MT, I used the local transit system to “see the sights”. I was hoping to have the same opportunity to “see the sights” on a recent trip to Billings by using the local transit system “MET” as a tour bus. Unfortunately, the Billings system falls way below the ambitious standards of Missoula’s transit system, despite the fact that Billings has almost twice the population of Missoula. Billing’s system is clearly a minimal system that radiates away from a downtown transit center with timed, but irregular pulses. The most frequent route–the 1D–leaves the transit center at intervals varying from 30 to 50 minutes. Most other routes offer service at intervals between 60-80 minutes and provide up to 11 trips a day with many routes only running at peak hours. The buses are also old and ridership appears to be very low.
Billings would be a very difficult city to create an effective transit system despite a strongly gridded road system and generally flat geography. The city of Billings is the regional shopping and services center for a huge geographic area and many people who live in smaller towns will drive for several hours to do their shopping in Billings. The result is that the local retail scene is dominated by chain stores and restaurants. Independent businesses are almost non-existent in Billings and most of the main roads that lead to the many shopping malls are lined with other chain stores and their acres of asphalt parking lots. With summer temperatures that jump above 100 and winter temps that can fall below zero, waiting for a bus, walking or bike riding in Billings can be difficult. Urbanization doesn’t seem to be emerging in Billings like it seems to be emerging in Missoula. Downtown Billings is a ghost town after 6 pm with most restaurants closing after the lunch rush. Virtually the only building that keeps the lights on in the evening is Billing’s modernist downtown library (worth visiting). More malls, more roads and more cars seem to be Billing’s destiny. A thriving public transit system doesn’t seem possible. Fortunately I had a rental car during my trip.