Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 September, 2019

Moving Madison Metro Forward

Earlier this week Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway held a press conference to announce the launch of MetroForward, a plan to improve public transit in the Madison area. As someone who rides the bus, I was quite happy to hear about it and eagerly watched it online shortly after it had transpired.

As with most plans, the devil will be in the details, i.e. – funding, but the fact that the initiative to improve bus service now has name and got a low-level dog and pony show to kick things off is a good first step. The mayor's campaign promises now have a formal commitment which is more than her predecessors ever did. I have no reason to believe that Paul Soglin was anti-transit, but during his (presumably) final reign he seemed to do little more than lament the paucity of state and federal funding. His attitude was "We're screwed until Democrats run the show" while pumping cash into a public market plan and overseeing the construction of new parking ramps. Before him Dave Cieslewicz held court on the fourth floor and never spared telling us how important it was to attract and retain the "creative class". Despite having drunk the Richard Florida kool aid long and deep, Cieslewicz's notable contribution to public transit was raising fares. More important for him were bike lanes/paths and ensuring a luxury hotel could ignore historic preservation rules and build a new tower.

While neither Soglin nor Cieslewicz were anti-transit, it didn't seem to be a big priority for them either. As transit consultant Jarrett Walker said when he spoke here in Madison in 2011, "Core cities have to do things for themselves." While improvements to Metro Transit may ultimately depend on federal largesse, I credit Rhodes-Conway for taking action, however dependent on others, instead of sitting around doing virtually nil. Her budget "advanced the construction of a $12.9 million new satellite bus facility to 2020 and 2021 from 2023" which is a huge step as that new facility is the lynchpin for any expansion of bus service as is rightly one of four basic goals of MetroForward.

Speaking of those goals, they are:

1) Expand Accessibility and Service – the city and Metro Transit have, to their credit, been forthcoming about the fact that low income people and racial minorities in Madison have longer bus rides and make more transfers than your typical white middle class Madisonian. To address this, MetroForward proposes to make available more subsidized and free bus passes; improve weekend and evening service; and add new routes so people can get to Madison College's new south side campus. (The south side being where many of Madison's low income and people of color live.)
2) Modernize Metro Facilities to Serve our Growing Region – modernize the current bus maintenance/storage facility which is both outdated and over capacity. And build a new one.

3) Focus on Sustainability – move to all-electric buses.

4) Implement Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – provide a more train-like experience with bigger buses, fancy stops, and, more importantly, more frequency and shorter ride times.

All of these are laudable things. Returning to Jarrett Walker's talk, I think there's something missing from this mish-mash of goals and ideology: appeals to selfishness. As I wrote at the time, "[Walker] said that he didn't know of any region where transit arguments were won by appealing to fairness and avoiding an appeal to selfish elements." Equity arguments are all well and good but MetroForward needs to explicitly appeal to those not affected by poorer service and simply drive everywhere. Lauding that it's cheaper and better for the environment, perhaps. But especially that it's cheaper.

Really, I am unsure how to wage a good marketing campaign on behalf of MetroForward. And that why I am going to suggest that Madison hire Jarrett Walker + Associates. They "foster clear conversations about transit" and would be able to help MetroForward create conversations involving as many people as possible while laying the cards on the table so we can make informed choices. Secondly, they redesign transit networks. I think it would behoove us to have a third party come in who is not bound by any bureaucratic inertia and assess our options. Since we are looking at spending $100+ million on BRT, I am especially concerned about the transfer points.

The current transfer point system was put into place in 1998 and not every transfer point was placed where good practice dictated they should be for optimal bus service. Available land was a factor. But also consider the East Transfer Point. It was originally to be located in the Madison East Shopping Center lot but that got nixed, with neighborhood pushback fueled by perceived fears of (presumably black) people loitering around certainly being one of the reasons. Before we spend 9 figures on BRT, I think we should ask if the transfer points are located in the best spots for transit use. If not, we should consider moving them.

While core cities have to do things for themselves, it doesn't mean they have to do them alone.

At the press conference announcing MetroForward, there were a variety of people there to express their support. Vanessa McDowell of YWCA Madison praised the project's ability to address equity issues; Cassie Steiner of the local chapter of the Sierra Club spoke of the necessity of transit to address environmental concerns; and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi talked about upcoming expansion at the Dane County Airport and how he would like it to integrate the proposed BRT system.

But Sun Prairie mayor Paul Esser was also there to demonstrate his city's desire to be a partner in MetroForward. During the Q&A Rhodes-Conway said that Madison was in discussion with Monona as well. It'd be nice to have Metro service to Monona, which ended several years ago, again. In addition to getting neighboring municipalities to join in on the fun, it is also important to create partnerships with the private sector. Zach Brandon, President of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, spoke at the press conference. The GMCC included a renewed call for legalizing Regional Transit Authorities in its latest legislative agenda. While there is reason to be skeptical about RTA's (Jarrett Walker noted that communities that care the least tend to dominate them), it is nice to see additional private sector support for public transit**.

The challenge ahead is to bring things promises to fruition and this will be no mean feat. But we seem to have a good, diverse (and hopefully growing) coalition of parties who want MetroForward to be a success and are willing to work to make it so.

**My understanding is that the Metro routes that service Verona, well Epic Systems really, are paid for, at least partly, by Epic. And I was told that American Family Insurance wants more BRT service to their main campus on the northern edge of the city so that employees don't have to drive to the company's fancy new Spark building near downtown.


Madison Area Bus Advocates

"Transfer point: Madison accelerates plans to upgrade its transit system", The Capital Times, 5 June 2019

Human Transit (Jarrett Walker's blog)

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