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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.

5 Replies to “Transit Day: Billings MT”

  1. I’ve been in Missoula a few times where I have friends, but my last visit was in 2000 and it has apparently grown significantly since then. I don’t think there was a transit system when I was there; I borrowed a bicycle, and on First Night (a New Year’s Eve festival with performing arts all over town) the shuttle buses were school buses. But my friends said that Missoula was the most liberal/environmentalist city in Montana because of the university. The main walkable/interesting street was Higgins Street near the university, running from downtown to the southern hill. I was on my first Greyhound cross-country trip, back when Greyhound had a Seattle-Chicago run.

    I stayed in Missoula a few days and then had an hour bus layover in Billings. I walked around the station in Billings and found a good cafe/organic sandwich shop a couple blocks away. But there wasn’t much else there, and certainly not hordes of chain stores and malls.

    Now Greyhound ends in Missoula. There were regional carriers that took over the segments between there to Minneapolis, but I don’t know if they still exist there because Greyhound’s website won’t sell a through ticket anymore. If you enter Seattle-Billings or Seattle-Chicago it comes up blank. It did that before for a few years, then it routed you through Pasco/Boise/Denver to Chicago (which I did once), but now it’s coming up blank again.

    1. A quick search shows that nonstop flights between Seattle and Billings to exist, but they’re extremely expensive ($500/round trip). The nearest Amtrak stop is some 200 miles to the north.

      Practically, the only reasonable way visiting there would make any sense would be as a rest stop on a cross-country road trip, in which case non-car transportation doesn’t really matter.

    2. Yes, when my friends occasionally flew to Missoula it was around $500. Some of them lived here for several years but then moved back, and one of them does catering on the side so people will sometimes fly him to Seattle for a weekend to cater a wedding or event.

    3. Another thing is, like in eastern Washington and the Olympic Penninsula, if you want to hear certain kinds of bands or attend events or parties, they’re not all local every weekend, so there’s one in one city and people drive hundreds of miles from all around to it, then a few months later there’s one in another city and people drive to that.

  2. When I lived in Cody Billings was the nearest big city. I don’t think there’s much in the way of centralizing forces there. It’s a big oil refinery town.

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