Fewer routes, more rides: Madison’s bus route redesign has some elderly, disabled concerned

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The bus stop on Londonderry Drive, which would be cut under draft plans for the city's metro transit redesign

MADISON, Wis. — As the city of Madison prepares to transition from a low-frequency, high-transfer metro transit system to an overhauled map with fewer routes and more service, some residents say the draft plans cut out routes heavily used by older, disabled, or low income populations–among others.

The overhaul is happening alongside another major transit change, as the city moves forward in bringing bus rapid transit (BRT) to the city in 2024. Faster, larger and more efficient buses and stations will replace the existing metro buses along some of the city’s most-traveled corridors, months after the entire route system undergoes its metro redesign in 2023 in a way that complements BRT.

For many in Madison, bus route changes will mean service every 15 minutes instead of the current status quo of 30 to 60 minutes–with far more people getting access to the system, channeling them to jobs across the area.

“Because we have fewer routes, we’re able to put more buses on each route so the wait time between buses is lower,” city transportation planner Michael Cechvala explained of the redesign draft plans. “The travel times is lower because buses are traveling in straighter lines.”

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(Left) Existing metro routes (Right) Draft plans for metro redesign (Source: City of Madison)

Elderly, disabled residents fear disproportionate impact

For some, it’s déjà vu.

In 2018, elderly and disabled residents at Dryden Terrace Apartments on Madison’s north side successfully fought to keep their neighborhood bus stop on Londonderry Drive. Today, they’re they’re trying to do it all again.

“We don’t want this change to happen,” resident Victor Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of people sitting behind desks and carrying on and trying to tell us what’s going to be good for us. And we know that it’s not.”

The existing bus stop gives the large affordable housing complex easy 15-minute access by bus to the doorstep of the north side’s Pick ‘n Save, what residents say is their closest affordable grocery store. Under the draft changes, residents would lose their bus stop and have to walk 300 feet down an incline to Northport Drive and catch a bus that would only take them as far as the busy intersection on Packers Ave. and Aberg Ave., where the city has proposed installing a sidewalk to cover the remaining half-mile or so to the grocery store, which would also lose its direct stop under the draft plans.

“It’s very frustrating. It’s going to be much more difficult,” Dryden Terrace resident Kim Owens said. “In the winter it gets dark so early, depending on the weather.”

Similar concerns with draft plans cutting out lower-frequency neighborhood routes are echoed by residents on Madison’s south side. A letter from South Madison Neighbors to the city’s transportation board opposed the discontinuation of several bus routes in their neighborhoods.

“Certainly, bus service running up and down Madison’s major arteries presents advantages; but, as laid out in the draft plans, the cost of achieving this goal is the elimination of some essential local bus service,” the letter read.

‘Full listening mode’: City planners emphasize equity, evolving nature of plans

When the metro redesign process began roughly a year ago, city transportation planner Michael Cechvala said the majority of feedback from stakeholders and the community wanted a ridership emphasis for the new routes.

Currently, the city’s metro map is a sprawling web of numerous transfer points, circuitous or one-way routes, and slow or infrequent trips during peak travel hours. The result is a system that’s inconveniently timed and placed for the majority of bus transit users, the city says.

“People are transferring between all these various routes that have low frequency, and they’re on the routes going into and out of neighborhoods,” he said.

A coverage-focused model would focus on service everywhere in the city, but the ridership-focused model that the board wants planners to prioritize emphasizes fewer routes with more buses and no transfers. Without the funding to do everything, a ridership-focused system will result in one where some may have to travel farther to a bus stop but is more convenient to a larger number of people.

“We’re able to put more buses on each route so the wait time between buses is lower, the travel times is lower because buses are traveling in straighter lines,” Cechvala said.

The decision is policy set by the city’s transportation board and council, which then falls to the city’s Department of Transportation staff to map out and implement. Designing new routes that match the city’s goals while striking the right balance for everybody is an ongoing process, and one the city is collecting feedback through an online survey and numerous neighborhood meetings to achieve.

Cechvala is personally reading every complaint and feedback submitted–amounting to hundreds of responses to analyze and potentially work into amendments to draft plans. The draft maps don’t reflect the final product which must be approved by the board and city council, and he says the transportation department is already working on a number of amendments to address both the concerns of North side residents as well as concerns from residents all over the proposed system.

“There are a lot of different, competing interests. We have overcrowding downtown, we have people who say it takes too long to ride the bus, and we have issues where people can’t walk very far and so they need the bus service to be close by,” he explained. “We’re not trying to dismiss any of these issues, we’re just trying to find the right balance for the new transit network.”

While the bus stop on Londonderry–which recently sees about 10 boardings a day–is unlikely to stay in the new plan, they’re considering alternatives to getting some form of local bus service to the north side Pick ‘n Save. They’re also drawing up amendments to address several complaints from the West and South sides about the existing drafts, and he’s urging residents to continue submitting feedback and attending neighborhood sessions to ensure their voices are heard. Others may have to use an expanded paratransit system, less convenient but more direct.

In a city where 60,000 people were using the metro system daily before the pandemic, there are thousands of opinions to be heard.

“What we try to do is listen to all of them and look at the content of what they are trying to ask for,” he said. “We get a few people that are very passionate and very angry, so we try to separate that and look at the content and not try to give more weight to people who are saying something in an angry voice–but to give everybody equitable access in shaping and forming the new system.”

Residents losing easier service on the North side point to a lack of funding cutting them out of the process. The city is reworking their maps without a transit budget increase, estimating at this time that they’ll be operating in 2023 with the same pre-pandemic budget as 2019.

“The way they are finding the (funds) is by cutting local neighborhood transit routes that people depend on,” Owens said.

“If we had more funding,” Cechvala acknowledged, “We would be able to do more with this.”

Photojournalist Mark Schilling contributed to this report.