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A sweeping redesign of the Metro Transit bus system in Madison promises fewer routes and transfers, more frequent and consistent service with more direct service to outlying areas, and eliminating transfer points and buses from lower State Street.
But for some residents, it will mean longer walks to the bus stop and less service.
The draft network plan, just released for public review, is the closest look so far at how often and exactly where Metro will operate when perhaps the largest overhaul of the system ever is implemented in mid-2023.
“The Metro network redesign is a great opportunity to make sure transit serves our entire community as efficiently as possible,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “Through extensive community engagement, Metro has produced a draft map that increases access to employment and other destinations, particularly for low-income households and people of color.”
The draft redesign envisions bus rapid transit — a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service that would run on city streets and dedicated lanes with special stations — as the backbone of the new network. The initial 15.5-mile, east-to-west BRT route will run roughly from East Towne to West Towne, while a future route will run from north to south.
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While BRT gets the most attention, the draft network reconfigures bus service in all parts of the city with a completely new set of routes designed to better meet the goal of connecting the most people with the places they need to go in a reasonable amount of time, city officials said.
So far, the plan is getting a mix of positive and sharply critical reviews.
“It’s clear that the new design radically improves access for a large percentage of the city’s residents,” said Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District, a member of the city’s Transportation Policy and Planning Board. “Our transit system is heavily subsidized by tax dollars, and while we grapple with a huge structural deficit, I believe this redesign provides more direct, frequent, and consistent service with the limited resources we have available.”
But Susan De Vos, president of Madison Area Bus Advocates, described rider reaction as “shock.”
“People are losing bus service,” she said. “This is being done in the name of equity, but in truth it shows a lack of understanding of what equity is about. Provide the option of lifting all boats so everyone in Madison can live a good life without a car. Do not require people to walk so far to a bus stop, because they won’t.”
The city is scheduling a series of community meetings on the draft network, the first an online community meeting at 6 p.m., Feb. 24. After those meetings are over, the Transportation Planning and Policy Board may make changes to the plan, with final approvals expected in the spring or summer 2022 and service starting in mid-2023.
More with less
Currently, Metro has bus routes that reach nearly all the city’s neighborhoods.
But the network doesn’t conveniently serve many trips because it favors extensive coverage over direct and frequent service, as well as peak-hour trips to Downtown over all-day service. Many areas are served once an hour or less, sometimes on one-way loops, and many routes require transfers for short trips while some routes change completely on weekends. Trips can take much longer outside peak hours, and between outlying locations.
The city has been exploring two main alternatives for the redesign: “ridership,” which focuses service on fewer routes so buses could run more often, and “coverage,” which delivers service to as many areas as possible. The city doesn’t have the resources to fully do both, officials said.
The draft network leans toward ridership, meaning focusing service in high-density corridors, more frequent service, little expansion of coverage, changing coverage in some areas with some riders having to walk farther to catch a bus, and dropping the transfer point system established in 1998.
The redesign is intended to take full advantage of BRT and make sure the benefits of future BRT routes extend beyond the initial east-west route to the whole city, officials said.
The proposed BRT routes would run every 15 minutes or better, seven days a week, with improvements on other routes to allow riders to connect more quickly and easily, they said.
“People will see fewer routes, but routes that are longer, straighter, and run more frequently,” city transportation planner Mike Cechvala said. “Service will be simpler as well as more consistent and easier to use. There will be no more transfer points and very few one-way loops. Many more people will have access to service that runs every 15 minutes or better in the middle of the day, whereas today most routes run every 30 to 60 minutes.’’
Those who live or work along the frequent corridors like East Washington, Atwood, Northport and University avenues, Mineral Point and Cottage Grove roads, and Monroe and Park streets will not have to wait more than 15 minutes for a bus most of the time, he said. And people who live outside of the transfer points will see a much more useful bus system, even without a high-frequency route, he said.
“Many more low-income people in peripheral Madison will be able to access jobs and other destinations in a reasonable amount of time,” Cechvala said. “Transit will be a more realistic choice for many people.”
Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said he “very much appreciates” that the draft network removes all buses from the 400, 500 and 600 blocks of State Street. It still has BRT service on the 100, 200 and 300 blocks of that street.
The redesign “bodes well for the possibility of a future pedestrian promenade on the lower blocks for the street,” he said.
Metro hasn’t decided what to do with its four transfer points. “It’s possible they may be developed into housing or other uses. In their place, we will have several less formal places where people will make transfers,” Cechvala said.
But some areas are farther from all-day transit service. Some people will have a longer walk to bus stops, with the median increased distance about one block. And some areas will continue to be served during peak hours only.
If implemented, 8% of city residents would live closer to all-day bus service, 72% would live about the same distance from the nearest all-day bus, and 20% would live farther from all-day bus service.
“I think one of the biggest disappointments with the new plan is how it fails to deliver increased service frequency for vast portions of the city,” said Jonathan Mertzig of Madison Area Bus Advocates. “Outside of a handful of core routes, most lines have 30 minute intervals between service with reductions to 60-minute on weekends and late evenings.”
Ald. Gary Halverson, 17th District, said the redesign provides inadequate service to the East Towne mall area.
“The East Towne mall area has historically been a strong economic engine for the city and we should be working to encourage revitalization,” he said. Eliminating bus routes to the mall area does the opposite.”
Ald. Charles Myadze, 18th District, voiced similar concerns for the North Side.
“Neither BRT or the transit redesign meet basic tests of equity and access for the people of the North Side,” he said. “We are left with unacceptable wait times, reduced routes that don’t get us where we need to go, and long walks to catch the bus. I will continue to oppose transportation schemes that fail to meet the needs of Madison residents, many of them people of color, who use the bus out of necessity rather than choice.”
On the North Side, the vast majority of low-income neighborhoods are along Northport Drive, Cechvala said. “These residents will see a much more frequent and direct service than they have today with buses every 15 minutes instead of every 30, with no forced transfer at the North Transfer Point, but direct service to the Isthmus, Downtown, and other places.”
Overall, 42% of Madison residents would live close to a bus route that runs every 15 minutes or better, versus only 11% today, Metro officials said. Only 6% of people who are currently within a quarter-mile walk of transit would now be outside the quarter-mile walk, they said.
In addition to fixed-route services, paratransit services for people with disabilities will be expanded in tandem with new all-day service to neighborhoods that previously only had service at peak times. Seniors who have difficulties accessing certain stops may qualify for conditional paratransit door-to-door access, they said.
The city is listening, Cechvala stressed. “We have already heard many comments about the North Side, near South Side, and Near West Side,” he said. “We hope to address as many concerns as possible while still maintaining the benefits of the draft plan — more frequent service and more direct routes.”
“I’m looking forward to further community engagement to make sure we get the final map right, and to implementing these improvements,” Rhodes-Conway said.
No new funding
A major challenge is reimagining the system in a way that doesn’t increase costs.
So far, the city is committing the same amount of money for operations in the redesign as to the current system before COVID-19, or about $60 million annually accounting for inflation.
“Given that there are no funds for expanding Metro’s resources for the entire network, I am generally in favor of the draft with some tweaks rather than significant changes,” said Ald. Patrick Heck, 2nd District.
“Madison simply doesn’t have enough — or doesn’t choose to dedicate enough — funding to improve bus frequency outside a handful of corridors,” Mertzig said. “The proposed maps could form the backbone of a high-frequency system. But without funding, we’re stuck with something that isn’t much better — and in some cases significantly worse — than the status quo.”
“There are some neighborhoods that will inevitably lose some transit access and have to walk farther with this plan,” Cechvala said. “With more funding Metro could maintain service in some of those areas while also achieving our goals of having routes run more frequently. There are still some routes on the map that run every 30 or 60 minutes, or during rush hour only. With more funding we could make those routes more frequent or could run them all day.”
While the redesign enhances night and weekend service, more money would also let Metro bring that service to be nearly equal to weekday service, general manager Justin Stuehrenberg said.
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