Madison Metro staffers recently met with the South Metropolitan Planning Council, a neighborhood group, to hear concerns about the upcoming redesign of the city’s bus network, scheduled for implementation in June 2023. The overhaul of Madison’s bus system promises to bring more frequent and direct service. But south-side residents at the meeting were frustrated.

Carrie Rothburd said it didn’t matter to residents how frequently the buses would run if convenient bus stops were removed in the process. “There are large numbers of people who will have trouble,” Rothburd said at the May 16 meeting.

Metro Planning and Scheduling Manager Sean Hedgpeth acknowledged that the transit network design would result in longer walks to bus stops for some people in south-side neighborhoods. But he argued that streamlining routes along major corridors would make the whole network faster, easier to navigate, and a more viable transit option for more people.

“Bus service every 15 minutes on Park Street is going to be transformative,” Hedgpeth said. “I think it’s a great thing for the neighborhood.”

The draft plan for the transit network redesign was released in January. Since then Metro has held dozens of public meetings and conducted surveys. On May 19, at the final community meeting, Metro planners released 17 amendments to the network redesign draft plan — many of which include several different options for the Transportation Policy and Planning Board and ultimately city alders to select from before a new network map is finalized in June.

Groups including South Madison Unite, Dane County NAACP, and Madison Area Bus Advocates have balked at the consolidation of routes, calling the draft plan inequitable, especially for people with disabilities and low-income families who depend on bus service. The amendments are intended to strike a balance, according to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Metro staff, between efficient bus service and accessibility. New routes are expected to be added but as a result, hours of service for the new central Bus Rapid Transit routes that make up the backbone of the new network will likely be reduced.

Metro planners are now recommending a new route on the south side that would travel along Olin Avenue, Badger Road and Fish Hatchery Road before connecting to central BRT routes. The amendment is good news for residents in the Bay Creek neighborhood, especially for folks at Romnes Apartments on Olin Avenue, who will keep a bus stop right outside the public housing complex where many seniors and people with disabilities live. But the South Metropolitan Planning Council isn’t happy with any of the proposed compromises that will be considered in the coming weeks. They are pushing Metro to consider a route that snakes through the Capitol View and Bram’s Addition neighborhoods, as well as Bay Creek, mirroring Route 13 in the current bus network.

Hedgpeth addressed that proposal at the May 16 meeting.

“That would make it more circuitous and it would degrade the service for people on certain ends of the loop,” he said. “Staff didn’t see that as a viable alternative. I’m sure that opinion is not shared by people in this meeting but I’m here to answer questions.”

Responded Dave Davis: “What’s the point of having public input if you don’t listen to us?”

Rhodes-Conway opened the final community meeting, noting that the network redesign has been in the planning stages for more than a year and has been thoroughly studied.

“The bigger picture is that the current system doesn’t actually serve all of our residents well,” the mayor said. “When we look at the data of who gets served well and who doesn’t, the current system, the current map, is exacerbating the racial disparities that we see in Madison.”

Rhodes-Conway added that the current Metro route system relies on four transfer points near the edges of the city and was designed more than 20 years ago. The tangle of more than 60 routes may mean a bus stop is close by, but the farther you get from the core of the city, the more infrequently a bus comes by. In many cases, riders also need to get on a different bus at one of the transfer points. The result is that it can take hours by bus to get to the same place reached by car in 15 or 20 minutes.

“We want people to be able to get to work on transit. We want it to work for people to get where they need to be. That’s the impetus for these changes and this whole project,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Staff did a lot of work to analyze the data of the current system, to look at the demographics of the city, to look at where the employment centers are, to look at where people live, to break that out by race and ethnicity and by income. And to lay all those maps together to help design a new system.”

Ald. Charles Myadze, who represents the north side, is pleased that the new route network will speed up service; residents in his district are only a short drive from downtown but it can take more than an hour to commute by bus. He successfully helped lobby for route amendments that will provide north-side residents direct access to the Pick ’n Save on Aberg Avenue, a chief concern when Metro first released its draft plan, but regrets he had to expend that energy.

“The city got this whole process backwards. I shouldn’t have had to fight to restore some of these routes in the first place,” Myadze tells Isthmus. “I don’t think these changes are enough, either. If somebody robs you of $100 and they come back and give you $20, how is that equity? I don’t think the metrics used to judge how this redesign affects marginalized communities were sufficient and we ought to do that before moving forward with anything.”

Several alders Isthmus spoke with wanted to wait until the public has a chance to weigh in on amendments to the transit redesign network at the final community listening session on May 31. But privately, they expressed frustration with some of the complaints that the new network is inherently worse for marginalized people. More than one alder called these concerns “ignorant” and not supported by the data.

Transit Planner Mike Cechvala says it isn’t uncommon for Metro to hear complaints whenever a bus stop is moved or a route is changed.

“Plenty of concerns we’ve heard are solved when we actually talk through the changes to people on an individual basis. More will be solved with the amendments that are being proposed. We are trying to create a fixed-route system that works for as many people as possible, including people with disabilities and mobility issues. But we will never be able to create a bus system where absolutely everyone will have a stop less than a block away,” says Cechvala. “It is definitely a challenge to communicate the benefits of this new system. You don’t hear from all the people who will be newly served and who this will be a huge game-changer for.”

Cechvala says residents still have opportunities to lobby for changes to the new network redesign at the Transportation Policy and Planning Board meeting on June 6 and when it’s up for a final vote before the Madison Common Council on June 7.

People often mistake service coverage as being synonymous with equity, says Cechvala. “Moving to a system that has fewer routes that are more frequent and more direct doesn’t mean we’re moving to a system that’s less equitable. It’s actually the opposite. We are building a system that’s more usable so that low-income people who are living in Madison’s peripheral neighborhoods can actually get to their jobs, do the things that they need to do, and spend more time with their families.”

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