“The bus is late,” said the man at the bus station at the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Thierer Road. He said the words cooly, as if the six had a reputation for running behind.

He pointed to the time chart on the inside of the hut. “It was supposed to come at 1:58,” he smiled and gestured down the road. “When it’s coming, we should see it turn off of Independence Lane.”

It was probably the panicked look in my eyes that told him to reassure me, that no, I wasn’t going to miss the bus. Or maybe it was the game of human frogger he saw me play across the four lanes of East Washington. Either way, he was right. The bus took a right off of Independence Lane and shortly came to our rescue.

The next one was 20 minutes out, which would’ve made me late for an interview.

Had I missed it, I had the option to take an Uber, providing expediency for a cost. I have options in how I travel.

But the same luxury isn’t afforded to everyone.

The low-income communities in Madison are one such group. Eric Sundquist, director of State Smart Transportation Initiatives, said these communities are being pushed to the outskirts of the city.

Though housing is more affordable there, this suburbanization of poverty breeds unequal access to transportation and in turn, inefficiency and unequal access to schools, jobs and health options, Jessie Lerner, who oversees development and partnership at Sustain Dane, said.

But this disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

Citywide, 11.5 percent of people have to travel for longer than 45 minutes, according to the Madison Department of Transportation. For black people, that number rises to 26.7 percent, and to 19.6 percent for low-income people.

For white people, that number is only 9.7 percent.

When low-income individuals are pushed to the outskirts of the community, they have limited access to jobs because there isn’t a quick, efficient transportation system in place, David Trowbridge, transportation and policy planning manager for the city, said.

“Transportation affects every single person every day,” Lerner said. “Having a multimodal transportation system, where we’re not relying on a vehicle, is what helps level the playing field and gives people access and choices to whatever their needs are.”

While adequate transportation can mitigate social inequities, it’s also the leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, a force wreaking havoc over the city, the nation and the world at large.

As the city looks to balance the effects of climate change with fostering social equity, transportation is at the forefront of the conversation.

The environmental impacts and beyond

Hidden in a plethora of articles about Black Friday savings and Thanksgiving leftover recipes, the White House released the fourth National Climate Assessment, which found transportation contributes the highest amount of greenhouse gases over any other sector.

Sixty percent of those emissions are from light-weight vehicles, like cars, according to the EPA.

Satya Rhodes-Conway, senior outreach specialist for the Center of Wisconsin Strategy and mayoral candidate, said the only way to effectively reduce emissions is to get at the center of the problem: transportation.

“If you are looking at sustainability and reducing climate emissions, you have to look at the transportation sector,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Otherwise you’re just not touching a huge contributor.”

Those who have a choice in how they ride, or choice riders, have different options in transportation, usually live downtown and have frequent, convenient and fast service, Robbie Webber, SSTI senior associate, said. Those who don’t have a choice in transportation, on the other hand, are referred to as lifeline riders. These riders usually live in places where bus stops are fewer and further in between.

‘Scottholes’ campaign critical of Walker’s handling of transportation infrastructureA statewide union of engineers has been flying a plane over campus during Badger football game days with a banner Read…

Sundquist said choice riders tend to use their own vehicle. In turn, the city will have more congestion and air pollution and will lose out on public transportation fees.

But those who can’t afford a car are stuck, Sundquist said.

“They’re limited in places they can apply to work and actually work,” Sundquist said. “They have huge personal burdens … They may not be able to get to school or food stores.”

Additionally, those who live on the outskirts of Madison often face a tradeoff between affordable housing and transportation access, which Sundquist said is “a big mismatch.”

The cost of housing tends to be cheaper off the isthmus than in downtown Madison. But when factoring in transportation costs, individuals who live in these more affordable areas oftentimes spend more than those who live downtown, according to the housing and transportation index.

“You give people more opportunities when they don’t have to rely on a car,” Webber said. “It’s just pulling them down by a weight in the water.”

And while ride-hailing options, including Uber and Lyft, reduce the need to own a car, they eat away at transit ridership, Sundquist said. Thus, it erodes funding from the transit system and adds to emissions.

When families on the outskirts do have to rely on cars, they may have to drive longer because they’re further away from everything. That in turn contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, Sundquist said. It’s essential to develop schools, stores, grocery stores and other necessities close together so people don’t have to rely on only one type of transportation.

“If you live in these neighborhoods, you have a very low percentage of jobs in the regions that are within a half an hour or 45 minutes,” Trowbridge said. “We hear stories of people living in these neighborhoods and it takes them 90 minutes to two hours because they have to transfer.”

Systemwide, about 18.9 percent of all riders transfer buses. For white people it’s 14.9 percent, black people 48.4 percent and low-income 34.3 percent.

The bus system in place now is inefficient, especially outside of the transfer points, Webber said. Outside those transfer points, there may only be weekday hours, or peak hours.

“If you live on the edge of town, you probably have one bus. It may only run during peak hours and maybe, if you’re really lucky, it runs once an hour during off-peak,” Webber said. “Maybe it runs on weekends, maybe it runs at night. If it doesn’t then you’re totally screwed. If you miss that one bus, you have to wait an hour. That makes your travel time really long.”

The solution would seem to be better coverage and more frequent service, but the funds are limited, Webber said.

But the fact of the matter is it’s difficult to provide coverage to those who live in the urban sprawl, Sundquist said.

Funding for transportation isn’t unlimited, and it’s often cheaper to provide more frequent busing to a smaller space where there are more people than it is to extend service, Webber said.  

“[Transportation] is critical to all sorts of different pieces of daily life,” Rhodes-Conway said. “And so the accessibility, the convenience, the cost of transportation all play a huge role in … whether there’s an equitable opportunity.”

Rapid riding

The man sat next to me on the bus and our conversation volleyed back and forth for the whole 40 minutes it took me to get from the bus stop to my apartment.

He’s taken the six every Friday to get from his house on West Washington, transfers buses around the Capitol and takes the bus to the mosque on East Washington. And then he does the same thing to get back.

He also told me he shattered his foot playing soccer a while back and hasn’t been able to work since.

I’m able bodied, which is a fortune I don’t think about very often. Plus, living in downtown Madison, I’m within less than 0.1 miles from seven bus stops and a B-Cycle station. If I weren’t able bodied, I would have options.

On the outskirts, where development is spread out, accessibility to public transportation is more limited. This partially has to do with not having enough place to store buses and a lack of funding for more routes, Ald. Zach Wood, District 8 said.

The Madison bus system is currently set up for people who commute downtown, Rhodes-Conway said. But the system isn’t set up to move people from downtown to jobs on the periphery, further widening the gap.

Setting up an equitable metro system leaves the city with choices to make. Like many cities, Madison has tried to maintain a balance, Webber said.

The city can set up transit for either choice riders or lifeline riders to fulfill either environmental or equity goals respectively. The city is trying to maintain both options despite lack of funding, Webber said.

But because service doesn’t extend past city limits into neighboring cities like Middleton and Fitchburg unless those governments pay for service, Madison cannot adequately balance environmental and equity goals.

Officials discuss campus carry, sexual assault, transportation at Safety Town HallGovernment officials, authority figures and community members gathered Wednesday night to explore solutions to various safety issues facing University of Read…

Bus rapid transit could be a solution to that.

BRT is a bussing system that would have limited stops and quicker service, connecting people from their homes to their closest bus stop. Madison plans to pilot BRT so it first runs from the east corridor to the west, where there’s job density and more choice riders. BRT looks to address both climate and equity goals, Trowbridge, who leads Madison’s project, said.

It would have its own lane and traffic signals, which would allow it to travel quicker, reducing idle times and speeding up travel time, Trowbridge said. Additionally, it would come every 10 to 15 minutes.  

The first public hearing for BRT will be held Dec. 12 at Madison Public Library from 6 to 8 p.m.

“If we really want to … double [ridership] like the mayor says he wants to, we really have to do something like bus rapid transit. Something that really provides the fast service,” Trowbridge said. “If you’re driving now, there’s really no incentive to ride the bus unless it’s much faster. You do see some cost savings, but is it worth an hour extra each way? We really need to work on that.”  

While there’s enthusiasm at the city level, financially there isn’t much interest in increasing transit at the statewide level, Trowbridge said. Plus, funding from the federal government is stagnant, which makes for an intense competition for grants between different cities interested in expanding transportation.

There’s interest out there to eventually expand transportation outside Madison. But regional planning and intergovernmental cooperation is necessary.

Pushing the boundaries

The Metro doesn’t stop on Monona Drive, an entity of the city of Monona.

It just moseys its way down the road until it’s back in the city of Madison.

Some call it petty, others call it a lack of regional transit authority. For municipalities that pay for transportation, like Fitchburg, Middleton and Verona, the bus will run to the requested amount of service the city — or in Verona’s case, Epic — pays for, Webber said. Monona has its own transit system which isn’t part of the Metro.

Wisconsin is the only state in the Midwest that doesn’t have an RTA, something taken away by the Walker administration, Webber said. This affects the way transportation in the region operates.

“If you have a regional transit authority, or some other sort of mechanism to provide [funds] … there’s ways that communities have figured this out and have really seen their systems grow,” Trowbridge said. “We can’t just create an RTA, the state needs to give us authority, which is a problem because we have these legislators up north who have no clue what transit is. They just think it’s wasteful for cities and don’t really get how it helps cities grow sustainably.”

Madison’s population grew the most of any municipality in the state last year, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Fitchburg, Sun Prairie and Verona were also among the top ten gainers.

With the growth the city has seen, there’s a vast need for a more comprehensive transportation system to maintain and improve Madisonians’ quality of life and livability, Lerner said.

With new leadership, Trowbridge is hopeful that an RTA is in the cards, allowing for service to surrounding municipalities where need is high.

“This intergovernmental agreement model is just very short-sighted and very difficult to sustain,” Trowbridge said. “These communities are under levy limits as well, and they can’t afford to always have the level of transit they need. They have other needs, they’re growing.”

Right now, the focus is to help pay for the first phase of BRT.

Historically, a pattern of funding shortages and lack of emphasis on transportation is evident across the state.

Dane County has looked at a commuter rail, streetcar and a high speed rail, Webber said. The high speed rail was supposed to connect Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to the Twin Cities, a project which the state got $810 million for and Gov. Scott Walker rejected in 2010, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

At a local level, the city bought a few electric buses as a nod to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re still looking to add regular buses for additional routes, Wood said. But a few years ago, Madison’s federal grant proposal to add additional storage for buses was beat out by Milwaukee’s proposal to build streetcars.

“There are more good projects across the country asking for that money than there is money available,” Wood said. “Not every project that deserves the money unfortunately is going to get it.”

Former Madison Mayor discusses bike infrastructure, alternative transportation in urban planningFormer Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz delivered a lecture Monday about bike planning and alternative transportation in urban environments. Shannon Kim, an Read…

Rhodes-Conway said there hasn’t been enough attention at any governmental level to transportation initiatives.

In an upcoming local election season, where all of the seats for city council and the mayor’s office are up for grabs, positive change for transportation initiatives could be in the limelight.

When there’s a political will, there’s a way

Mayoral candidate Rhodes-Conway said sustainable, rapid transportation is a top priority for her.

“[Rapid transit] is one of the very short list of things that determine the path that Madison goes on and what kind of city we’re going to be,” Rhodes-Conway said. “If we don’t invest in rapid transit now, traffic just gets worse, it gets harder and harder to get downtown, it gets more discouraging … just a whole cascade of problems.”

Changes start when politicians have the political will, or the courage to reallocate funds from one priority to another, Rhodes-Conway said.

“We’ve been talking about bus rapid transit in this community for 30 years,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I don’t see any big red rapid buses on the street.”

Right now, the city has “picked the low-hanging fruit,” Webber said. They’ve turned old rail corridors into bike and walking paths and put cut-throughs between apartment buildings. But in terms of tangible reductions to car traffic on the roads, the city has yet to pick that apple.

For example, new construction on roads like Monroe Street saw an addition of a lane during rush hour traffic to and from the city, with the three lanes switching off, Webber said. But during peak times, pedestrians have three lanes to cross instead of two and no bike path, which prioritizes parking and moving cars. This helps neither environmental nor equity goals.

That priority lies within the constituents’ commitment to and awareness of sustainable transportation. And with reports of how climate change is increasingly shaping the way of the future, it’s time for local action, Lerner said.

“What I think about is, how do we build a transit system that makes people’s lives easier and that speaks to the woman who is trying to get a job and misses her job interview because she missed the bus and the next bus doesn’t come for an hour,” Rhodes-Conway said. “That shouldn’t happen.”