David Michael Miller
Michael Barrett doesn't ride the bus all that much, as he mostly gets around by bicycle.
But his mom and an elderly neighbor both depend on Madison Metro to get out. And so Barrett, who is a member of Madison Area Bus Advocates, fears how changes proposed by Madison Metro -- to thin out bus stops along routes through the isthmus -- might limit some people's independence.
"Just watching my mom and her aging, I see it's a struggle to stay engaged in the community as more and more barriers keep being put in front of her," Barrett says. "It gets harder and harder for her to compete against the car system."
But Madison Metro says the elimination of some bus stops along heavily used bus routes is a necessary evil, to help make the buses run faster and more efficiently. It is planning to cut stops along a few routes, including Jenifer Street, a neighborhood where many people ride the bus and have grown accustomed to their stops.
Chuck Kamp, Madison Metro's general manager, recognizes that some people won't like the changes. But he insists the changes will improve the overall system, which hit 15 million riders for the first time last year.
"I think it benefits the whole, even if there is a smaller group negatively impacted," Kamp says. "That often happens when you're making changes with a transit system."
This year, the city is going to rebuild Jenifer Street from Spaight Street to Few Street, along with portions of some cross streets. During the reconstruction, Metro will most likely reroute buses that run on Jenifer Street one block over to Spaight Street (the detour routes are not yet final).
Madison Metro will move the routes back to Jenifer when the street reopens in the fall, but plans to have fewer stops. Right now, there are stops at all seven intersections on Jenifer between Williamson and Baldwin Street. Buses on these routes don't have to stop at every intersection, only if they see someone standing at a stop or if someone signals they want to get off.
But this system, Metro officials say, makes it extremely difficult to run buses on time. Kamp says that these routes routinely arrive late at transfer points, meaning passengers are regularly missing connections.
Says Kamp: "If I miss a bus at a transfer point, I'm going to have a half-hour wait, maybe an hour on weekends."
Metro's solution is to cut down on the number of bus stops on heavily used routes. In its 2013-2017 Transit Development Plan, Metro recommends "a bus stop consolidation program to remove or relocate excessive bus stops in central Madison, particularly on the Jenifer Street, Johnson Street, Gorham Street and Monroe Street corridors. This project is needed to bring these corridors into compliance with the Transit Planning Guidelines of spacing bus stops, in general, between 3/16 and 1/4 mile apart."
On the peripheries of the city, which tend to be more sparsely populated, bus stops are already spaced out that much or more, Metro says. But on the dense isthmus, there may be too many stops.
Last year, Metro thinned stops along Gorham and Johnson streets. Residents protested the proposed elimination of the stop in front of Yahara House, a clubhouse for people with mental illness at 802 Gorham St. Metro reconsidered and left it there.
Officials say the streamlining of the stops on Johnson and Gorham has improved bus times, with a gain of 30 seconds to two minutes.
"An average person is going to say 'a minute -- that doesn't matter a bit.' But it can matter a whole lot because it might mean the difference of a bus making a transfer point," says Drew Beck, Metro Transit planning manager. "And you multiply that over the number of trips going through there, if they're all saving a minute, that adds up substantially."
For Jenifer Street, the bus company has tentatively proposed stops every other block, at Williamson, Paterson, Ingersoll and Baldwin, eliminating stops at Spaight, Brearly and Few streets.
Metro's proposals are not going over well with many who ride the bus. At a meeting at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center to discuss the proposals, about 80 residents were in near uniform opposition to the idea of closing any of the stops.
"It's well understood that the goal is to move buses through the city faster," said Carl DuRocher, a former member of the Transit and Parking Commission, which oversees Metro. "My counterpoint is the goal of Metro is not to move buses through the city, it's to move people."
DuRocher says he understands why Metro is contemplating the changes. If buses travel more efficiently, more people will ride them. However, he says eliminating stops doesn't improve people's experience. "When people think it takes longer to take Metro, that includes walking to a bus stop," he says in a follow-up call with Isthmus. "That's not affected by eliminating bus stops."
Laurie Wermter, who lives on Williamson Street, argues that denser neighborhoods like hers warrant more stops. "People shouldn't have to walk a quarter of a mile to ride the bus," she says. "Many people moved to that area because of the good bus service there."
She notes that Willy Street is a popular destination and fears eliminating stops will discourage visitors from coming here.
Barrett is not swayed by Metro's statistics and logic. "Their excuses about pushing buses through the isthmus quickly is pitting bus rider against bus rider and not really necessary," he says. "We can have a good bus system."
Barrett blames the slow bus travel on poor development planning and suburbanization. "When you push development out further and further, your bus system is going to get stretched, and you're going to have a hard time making connections."
Kamp concedes that a lot of people won't like losing stops on Jenifer Street, but insists they will help the system overall. Metro will also look at cutting stops on Monroe Street when it is rebuilt in a year or two.
He notes that ridership along the Gorham and Johnson routes continues to grow, despite the loss of stops. Kamp adds that people with mobility problems who might have a tough time walking an extra block can arrange rides through Metro's paratransit service.
Although that service costs more for the city and patrons, Kamp says, it might be worth it for some people to rely on it more.
"That trade-off, where they're using a higher-cost service... if they can't navigate an extra block is worth it to benefit the system," Kamp says. "I think that's a net gain, even if there is that adjustment."