Metro Transit provided over 15 million bus rides in the Madison area during 2014, and despite lower gas prices, ridership continues to grow. Mick Rusch, Metro Transit’s marketing and customer services manager, attributes the popularity to the fact that more and more people are choosing to use public transit in place of owning a car. Millennials, in particular, are ditching their cars and choosing to settle in downtown areas where they’re able to rely on public transit. Hiring managers at Epic, one of Dane County’s largest employers, tell Mick that new hires specifically ask where to live based on accessible bus routes. “The wave of people who are interested in transit just seems to keep growing,” says Mick.
Metro Transit’s popularity has caused the bus system to outgrow its existing infrastructure. Some routes have trouble maintaining a regular schedule when riders at overcrowded stops must file on and pay one by one, and buses on main routes are often at capacity during peak hours, forcing them to pass riders waiting to board. Fixing the issue is not as simple as running more buses. The real issue is where to store additional buses. Metro Transit’s current storage facility on E. Washington Avenue is built to hold 160 buses, and they are currently squeezing in over 200 buses as well as paratransit vehicles. The building also houses maintenance facilities, which are becoming inadequate for the size of the fleet.
During peak commuting hours when the university and local schools are in full swing, up to 178 buses are on the roads. During slower hours in the middle of the day, the number of buses drops to around 63. The majority of drivers work split shifts (2–3 blocks of time per day) to accommodate peaks in demand for rides. Metro Transit employs approximately 330 drivers, most of whom work full time. Jim Killerlain, who oversees driver training, says no two shifts are alike. Drivers are scheduled in 14-week cycles. Some drive different routes from day to day while others drive the same route for multiple cycles. The assignments depend both on driver preferences and on customer needs. With no standard shift hours and peak times varying slightly by route, even the timing of shifts is inconsistent. Drivers often switch shifts while on the route, which is meant to save time by not requiring the drivers to return to the garage where the buses are stored each time the driver changes.
Metro Transit depends on customer and community feedback to shape their offerings and consider service changes. The general public can submit feedback online, by email, by phone, or at public hearings held for proposed changes in service or raises in fares. Metro Transit’s Service Development Committee meets every other week to review customer feedback and requests for service additions or changes. The committee includes employees from planning and scheduling, customer service, operations, and administration so issues can be examined from several perspectives. They read and respond to every piece of feedback, and every comment is considered when it comes to route changes.
At a public hearing last year, one woman spoke in opposition of a proposal to end Route 8’s weekend service. She had a health condition that prevented her from driving and she relied on Route 8 to travel downtown for the Farmers’ Market and shows at the Overture Center. Her concern caused Mick and his counterparts to examine the issue further. They realized the service cut would leave other people in similar predicaments, so they scrapped the entire route change.
In 2013, public transportation didn’t reach the Owl Creek neighborhood on the far southeast side of Madison, isolating the area and complicating daily travel. Drew Beck, Metro Transit’s Planning Manager, says neighborhood residents worked with their alderperson to lobby for bus service, specifically requesting service that would bring students to and from school in time to participate in before- and after-school activities. The alderperson successfully fought on their behalf and secured funding for the route in the city budget. Route 31 might not exist if Metro Transit made decisions based solely on efficiency and profitability. “It is a balancing act of balancing productivity with peoples’ needs,” says Drew. “Serving a social equity need in the community can be a worthwhile route.”
The most frequent complaints, overcrowded buses and late arrivals, come as no surprise given the current capacity constraints. Extreme overloads, where buses with seating for 40 people are holding as many as 70, occur on the routes traveling through the isthmus corridor. “These are big picture problems, and we need to do something more than adjusting routes to move forward on these,” says Mick.
Addressing the capacity issues will take efforts beyond increasing the number of running buses. Even if Metro Transit had the funds to buy additional buses and expand service, they have no garage space in which to store the buses. They have considered converting a city-owned facility on Nakoosa Trail into a satellite bus garage that would hold about 70 additional vehicles and could be ready within the next five years. “We are also looking at existing space to lease in the short term that could hold 15 buses or so, and provide a little breathing room and the ability to add some service here and there,” says Mick.
Metro Transit receives a mixture of federal, state, and local funding, but additional funding would be necessary for significant expansion to truly address the area’s growing needs. One option is to create a Regional Transit Authority, which would be funded by sales-tax increases and could be used to build a bus rapid transit system that would expand service to areas like Sun Prairie, Verona, Middleton, Stoughton, and Oregon and drastically reduce overcrowding and delays.
Bus rapid transit systems are high-frequency, limited-stop transit systems that operate similarly to trains. The proposed bus rapid transit system would run main routes from surrounding communities to the downtown Madison area and stop at select points along the way. Riders would pay ahead of time to speed up the boarding process, accordion-style buses would offer significantly higher capacities than current city buses, and the system would be synchronized with the traffic lights to limit delays.
As Metro Transit continues to consider how to address increasing demand, Mick notices employees recognizing the importance of what they’re doing more than ever. “Our drivers and customer service representatives know that a lot of people rely on them. They take pride in the fact that they get people to their classes and jobs and keep the community moving.”
Cara Lombardo is a writer and a CPA.
Photographs provided by Metro Transit.