Getting out of our traffic jam
There’s one major area where Madison falls short: traffic.
Whenever those lists measuring cities’ advantages, benefits and general livability are released, Madison is usually ranked near the top.
We’re regularly heralded as exceptional across any number of categories — the best place for recent college grads to live, the best city for parks, the healthiest, the happiest. The list goes on and on. We’ve even been ranked at the top of lists for having the best-tasting water.
But there’s one major area where Madison falls short: traffic. The Beltline Highway — which was built to ease congestion and route traffic around the city instead of through it — is often clogged with cars. If you’re traveling toward or away from downtown, our two beautiful lakes provide not only scenic views but also a number of opportunities for bottlenecked, stop-and-go traffic — and headaches — along the isthmus. We simply have too many vehicles and not enough roads.
City leaders are well aware that this has been a problem for some time. “Our city was designed for car use over the last 50 years,” says Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “But with the increased population growth we’ve had, we’re starting to edge into [having] real congestion.”
And that’s not even including the problems that arise when streets need fixing from such heavy use. “It’s a constant process of renewal and repair,” adds Rhodes-Conway about the never-ending road-construction season.
A look at the numbers shows that our traffic troubles will continue to get worse in the future. Population and employment projections point to tremendous growth over the next few decades. Currently, Madison and Dane County have populations of just more than 258,000 and 542,000 residents, respectively. If those numbers continue to grow at current rates, by 2050 the city’s population will jump to more than 355,000 residents and as many as 1 million people could be living throughout the county.
And because Madison is the employment center of the county, that will increase the daily vehicle trip rates of those driving through Madison — and most likely downtown — just as drastically. The city of Madison is expected to gain another 45,000 jobs by 2050, with 10,000 of those located on the isthmus alone. In all, these resident and job increases — and all the back-and-forth traveling that goes along with them — equate to an increase of some 800,000 more vehicle trips being made each day throughout the region.
Madison has also experienced considerable residential and commercial growth in the past five to 10 years, and there has not been a corresponding increase in transportation capacity, says the city’s transportation director, Tom Lynch. “This has put us in a reactive mode to meet our transportation needs.” Lynch says. “If we’re going to continue being reactive, rather than proactive, we’re going to end up in a situation like Austin,” which is in the top 20 of the most congested places in America. “Modeling from the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board indicates that congestion will double by the year 2050, even with 40% of the new trips taking alternate modes [of transportation],” he notes.
But to be proactive and avoid the nightmare that Madison traffic could become, we’ll need to make changes in how we travel around the city and broaden the transportation options available to all.
Citing a 2014 report, Lynch says just more than 60% of city commuters drive in single-occupancy vehicles, about 10% use public transit, another 10% walk, 5% ride a bike and about 8% work from home or commute in different ways.
Severely limited space downtown makes adding more roads impossible, so Lynch says increasing alternate transportation choices is the only option. “We can’t really add lanes to any of the roads on the isthmus, so what do we do?” he asks. “Well, I think we can increase that public transit and bike use.”
Rhodes-Conway agrees and has been a champion of alternative transportation options since the very beginning of her campaign for mayor two years ago.
“We’re not going to be able to meet all of the [transportation] demand through just a street network for cars,” she says during a recent interview while riding on a Metro Transit bus as it takes her downtown from her near east side home. She adds that adequate transportation, along with ample, affordable housing, are two of her priorities. “Those are the two key things that, if we don’t get them right, they’re going to hold back our economy,” she says. “We need to be exploring alternative transportation options for both economic and environmental reasons. We can’t wait.”
Here are a few alternative transportation options you can use right away, a couple to consider for another day and others to dream about for the future.
Bus Rapid Transit
As a big part of the city’s MetroForward>> initiative, the so-called “bus rapid transit” system, or BRT, has the potential to revolutionize the way city residents ride on public transit because it will revolutionize how buses ride on city roads.
The first thing most will notice about BRT is that the buses look very different. “They’re double-long with the accordion in the middle,” says Mayor Rhodes-Conway of the BRT buses. “They almost look like trains.”
That extended design is meant to pack in more passengers while still allowing the bus to turn sharp city corners. But that’s not BRT’s main selling point.
As the name implies, “the whole idea is that everything about the bus and the [BRT] system is meant to make your bus ride faster,” the mayor continues. “A lot faster.”
How it works: From the start, BRT is about efficiency. “You pay on the platform, before the bus gets there, so everyone can just walk right on,” explains Rhodes-Conway, noting that people fumbling for bus fare or looking for their bus passes often slow down the ride. The BRT buses will also have their own dedicated lane where feasible, so it will often be unimpeded by other vehicles. “And in places where it doesn’t have a dedicated lane, it has what they call a queue jump, so it can pull up beside the traffic and go first [while] everybody else [in cars] has to wait,” Rhodes-Conway says. Additionally, traffic signal priority systems will hold green lights longer for approaching BRT vehicles.
In all, the high-frequency, high-capacity BRT system will run from the eastern to western parts of the city and back again and include some downtown loops and routes. It will provide much faster rides for up to 98 riders (49 seats and standing room for another 49) per BRT bus because of its preferential treatment in traffic.
But we’ll have to wait a bit for that faster ride. With a price tag last estimated to be between $120 million and $130 million, the city hopes to receive some federal grant subsidies that will have the program fully operational by 2024.
How it helps: Given the speed and ease of use promised, Rhodes-Conway thinks it will appeal to current public transit users while drawing new users out of their cars and onto the BRT buses. She even goes so far as to say riding the BRT will be enjoyable. “I think it’ll be fun because it will be so much quicker,” she explains. “It’s going to be an easier, faster ride. It’s going to be a great experience.”
This wildly popular bike-sharing program, founded and funded by the nearby Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle Corp., has been on the local scene for almost a decade. Mostly downtown but expanding outward, the company’s dozens of bike-docking stations have become ubiquitous throughout the city.
How it works: Riders sign up for memberships based on their needs at either daily, weekly, monthly or annual rates. Using an app or a membership card, riders check out a bike, go about their two-wheeled travels and return it to any docking station. Last June, the company swapped out standard bicycles for 300 new pedal-assisted electric ones. In 2019, the program’s nearly 6,500 members took more than 230,000 trips — that’s up 124% from last year. Not only did the trips double, but the mileage the bikes were ridden doubled as well.
How it helps: “Bike sharing is the bike’s role within public transit,” says BCycle Executive Director Morgan Ramaker — meaning that, like buses and other shared transportation, it aims to reduce and even replace car use. And that’s exactly what’s happening. A recent survey of BCycle members “found that 37% of people said they were less likely to use their cars because of BCycle,” adds Ramaker. “The promise of the e-bike to be a true single-occupancy vehicle replacement is really exciting. There were probably only a limited number of people who saw a classic bicycle as an option for that, but the e-bike opens that up for a lot more people.”
Like the name suggests, the Rideshare Etc. program helps folks find and share rides in and around the city.
The program began more than 40 years ago, “around the time of the oil crisis, when the federal government wanted to promote ridesharing as a way to reduce congestion, air pollution, energy consumption and reliance on fossil fuels,” says Zia Brucaya, transportation options program manager for the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board, which operates Rideshare Etc. “Ours was one of a number of programs that started up all around the nation.”
How it works: Through its website, the program operates as a kind of one-stop shop for most of the ride-sharing options in the area. Whether you’re seeking to join a carpool or drive one yourself, plan a trip using public transit or find someone to bike with on your commute, you can create an account and enter your starting location and destination to see other riders and options. There is no cost to use the Rideshare program to find a ride match. Compensation for carpooling users is agreed upon and handled among the users themselves.
How it helps: “It’s all about ride-matching and providing options to reduce those single-occupancy vehicles,” explains Brucaya. “Even if it’s just once or twice a week that someone chooses not to drive alone in their car to work, that makes a big difference when it’s spread out over hundreds or thousands of people choosing to share a ride around Dane County.”
Currently, the program has more than 4,200 registered users with about half of those active for matching with other commuters. Over the last two years, more than 1,200 new users have signed up for the service, and 1,392 people are registered for the Dane County-funded Guaranteed Ride Home program, which makes it easier for commuters to leave their personal vehicles at home.
The state’s vanpool program is exactly what is sounds like — it’s a carpool program using vans. Big vans. Fifteen-person passenger vans.
Established more than 25 years ago, it has a simple goal of getting employees who work in the city but live outside it to “share commuting costs and reduce congestion [by] riding to Madison together,” says Jim Langdon, an administrator of the state Department of Administration’s Division of Enterprise Operations, which operates the program.
How it works: A vanpool group is made up of at least eight riders, including one passenger coordinator and the driver. While it’s a state-run program, “it’s not restricted to only state employees — employees of private companies and local government can also participate,” explains Langdon, adding that there is a requirement that each van have at least one rider who is a state employee.
Van groups are organized according to riders’ home locations. Riders start their commute as far out as Waukesha and Evansville and as close as Janesville and Sun Prairie. “Most of our riders come in from around 25 to 50 miles outside of the city,” says Langdon. Costs per rider are minimal. For example, a nearly full van of riders making a 40-mile round trip will cost each rider about $60 per month, which covers gas, maintenance, insurance and parking. Lastly, because they’re state vehicles, all drivers must have a relatively clean driving record and complete approved van driver training.
How it helps: Currently, more than 50 different routes are used by almost 600 riders every day of the workweek. That’s a lot of cars that are no longer clogging up the Beltline and downtown. “It’s a form of mass transit,” adds Langdon. “It’s commuting with others on the same basis as they might on a bus or a train.”
With the goal of providing vehicles for those who only occasionally need a car, Zerology’s car-sharing model makes sense for a lot of Madison residents: Rent it only when you need it. In addition, the company has an all-electric fleet of brand-new Teslas (pictured), and that drives up the desirability.
Through this eco-friendly, occasional-use model, tech entrepreneur and Zerology founder and CEO Shree Kalluri says he aims “to “significantly reduce transportation-related emissions in the fastest possible way because it’s an urgent problem that needs to be solved.”
How it works: “We need to put more people in the vehicles and make the vehicles [produce] zero emissions,” says Kalluri. While it may sound simple, there’s expansive infrastructure required for this shared mobility model. Step one took place late last year, when Kalluri partnered with Green Cab to swap out all of its cabs — more than 20 vehicles — with the new electric Teslas.
Next, Zerology is piloting the car-sharing enterprise this spring. The program places a number of the same zero-carbon-emission Teslas and other electronic vehicles at apartment buildings and other spots around town, making them ready and available to rent by the hour as folks need them. “We’ll probably have close to 60 vehicles by the end of April,” Kalluri says.
And, of course, there’s an app that ties this all together. “You use the app to see where [the rental] vehicles are and to check [one] out,” he continues, adding that “it’s station-based rental, meaning you check [the car] out from one place and return it to the same place” because it needs to be plugged in to charge for the next user. The Zerology app also aims to connect users to other modes of transportation, including public transit, bike-sharing and other options.
How it helps: Kalluri is adamant that his plan will work. “We can and will take multiple vehicles off the street. That means less emissions and less traffic and congestion,” he says, adding that word about his program is spreading. “There is a general awareness that is increasing, and people like the fact that you can do what is convenient for you with our vehicles and still positively impact the environment.”
There’s also another benefit, he adds: “It’s not just about electric vehicles — it’s also about making the cultural shift of people being comfortable sharing a vehicle with others who are not in their immediate social circle.” But that sharing is necessary to have an immediate impact on traffic-related woes.
Also necessary is flexibility and outside-the-box thinking, because when it comes to transportation needs, “one size doesn’t fit all,” he says.
Some proposed transportation solutions may seem a bit like far-off, sci-fi fantasies. While these ideas might not help us with our immediate issues, they’re still worth exploring. Enter Badgerloop.
This design project, led by a team of enterprising University of Wisconsin–Madison students with majors ranging from astronautics to mechanical engineering and applied mathematics to computer science, is part of SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod Competition. Since 2015, the student team has created prototypes of a passenger vehicle that would travel inside long, tubed tracks across considerable distances, such as between cities.
How it works: Imagine it as an enclosed, incredibly fast subway system, possibly built underground, that connects metropolitan areas. The passenger vehicle — known as “the pod” — is powered exclusively by high voltage and low voltage battery systems. It has one main propulsion wheel and six other small wheels for stability, none of which are driven by a motor. The pod can move at high speeds because the usual car-centric hindrances — like wind resistance, traffic and stoplights — are eliminated. “The pod we’re making right now is designed to hit about 165 miles per hour,” says Ezra Boley, a senior UW–Madison computer engineering student who is also the current president of the Badgerloop student team. “But eventually we’re looking to make a pod that can travel 400 miles per hour or faster.”
How it could help: Boley says the Hyperloop project could help alleviate transportation problems in a couple of different ways. “It would solve the issue of those mid-distance commutes — like from Madison to Minneapolis — that are four to five hours long, which is a considerable car ride but isn’t quite long enough to fly,” he says. “Imagine that trip taking less than an hour.”
Final designs envision a passenger pod that would carry fewer people than a commuter train, but would leave much more frequently. For example, a theoretical Hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco would transport 28 passengers in each pod, with pods departing every two minutes. “It would transport people who live farther out from the cities where they work,” continues Boley. “I think it has a lot of potential to improve people’s lives.”
The Badgerloop team of UW–Madison students competed at a hyperloop competition in Los Angeles last year (above). Pictured on the opposite page is a test run of a Badgerloop pod conducted in Madison.
Some still have hope that high-speed trains will someday criss-cross the state, the Midwest and the country. One of those people is Rick Harnish, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group High Speed Rail Alliance.
He says these faster-than-normal trains, which travel at speeds of 125 miles per hour and up, have already been “transformative” in other countries, such as Spain. “Currently, high-speed trains are going from Madrid to Barcelona — which is about the distance from Chicago to St. Paul — in about two and a half hours,” he explains.
How it could happen: In order to get a high-speed train system in the Midwest and Wisconsin, we would need to take a number of steps, says Harnish, noting that a long-term vision is key. “First, you need to continue growing the Amtrak service as it is. But the most important next step is to create a business plan for the [high-speed rail] network,” he explains. “And that network is not just that core high-speed line from Chicago to St. Paul — it’s feeder trains and feeder buses” to connect communities to each other as the network grows. “And then, segments [of 220-miles per hour high-speed rail line] of 50 to 200 miles are added over time,” he continues. Then, as it goes, “we will understand what we need to pay for this year and what we need to pay for next year, and when the revenues start to kick in we’ll be using that to pay for the later steps. It will be expensive, but it’s worth doing.”
Pictured on left is the InterCity Express, or ICE, which is a high-speed train that connects major cities in Germany. This particular train is on the Frankfurt-Cologne high-speed line near Limburg traveling at 186 miles per hour. Above is a high-speed train that links Rome and Milan that is stopped at a platform under Bologna Centrale railway station, accessed by new tunnels to minimize impact to the city.
Smart City Growth
One way to reduce traffic and combat congestion is to almost completely eliminate the need for cars.
By designing cities, towns and neighborhoods that put all of the places people need to go — like work, home, the doctor’s office and the grocery store — near each other and next to places they want to go, such as restaurants, the gym and entertainment venues, cars cease to be a necessity.
“I call that location-efficient design,” says James LaGro Jr., a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture who studies smart growth, sustainable development, walkability, transportation, land use and urban design. “If you’re living in a location-efficient neighborhood, you can easily walk to a park or a restaurant or a grocery store or a shop and maybe a school or library is nearby. And you probably have access to a bike trail and good public transit.”
Putting all of these desirable destinations in close proximity to each other is the opposite of the spread-out, far-from-everything suburban design model, notes LaGro.
He adds that locally, developers are responding to increased demand for location-efficient housing areas with new construction.
“Even out on the fringes of cities, there are new developments where they’re creating new neighborhoods with all these features that people want,” explains LaGro. “So it could be a former cornfield gets converted to a new neighborhood, which is what’s happening out on the west side of Madison.”
“Another thing is that even older neighborhoods can be improved, so city planners try to find ways of converting or redeveloping former car dealerships or empty lots — those big pieces of land that were used either for industrial or commercial purposes for decades but are no longer really economically viable,” he says. “You see that on the East Washington Avenue here.”
A few other places around town could also fit more location-efficient neighborhoods. “Bigger parcels of land, like shopping malls, are being converted to brand-new neighborhoods in a lot of communities around the country and around the world,” continues LaGro. “And that’s now on the horizon for Madison, with West Towne Mall and East Towne Mall potentially becoming new neighborhoods at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.”
Those converted areas also have an added benefit for city planners and developers. “It’s a lot more expensive to develop on the fringes of cities in terms of municipal services because you have to build new infrastructure into former agricultural areas, whereas redeveloping parcels of land like shopping centers, that infrastructure is already there,” he continues. “It may need to be upgraded or expanded in capacity to some extent, like sewer pipes and things like that, but a lot of the infrastructure is already there.”
And, of course, when location efficiency is accomplished, transportation planning is rolled into every step of the design. “This allows people to live closer to where they work so they don’t have to commute far, and also, [these new areas] have other transportation options built in,” concludes LaGro. “They can take either a bus or bus rapid transit or they could bike or even walk. There are just a lot more transportation options when this is done right.”
Steven Potter is a Madison-based reporter (who has never owned a car).