The Bus Stops Here: A neighborhood commute card

--The Bus Stops Here is produced monthly by members of the Madison Area Bus Advocates

For someone who just rode in an over-crowded bus sometimes referred to as a “cattle car,” it may be hard to imagine that Metro was plagued by the opposite problem 10 years ago, when it started a special bus pass program for such large institutions as the UW, MATC, Edgewood College, and several hospitals.

Consider the UW.  It was adopting a new master plan that limited the number of parking stalls on its campus and was therefore looking to facilitate people’s use of non-automobile travel modes.  Metro was happy to offer a special pass that might boost its ridership.  Thus started a relationship that I like to refer to as “an uneasy partnership.”

The special pass was different from Metro’s regular adult unlimited ride pass.  One swipe was only good for a non-transferable ride.  If a trip required a transfer, another card swipe was required and another charge was incurred.  The cost of each swipe was adjusted to compensate for its no-transfer quality.  The special pass was only available to institutions with a potentially large number of users.  Even mid-sized institutions were not large enough.  Since Metro already offered a range of fare options to a diverse general public, it could only justify handling yet another option if the special pass were used by a large group in which everyone was treated the same, as a regular adult passenger. 

Various environmental, civic, and political groups liked the idea of the special pass for different reasons, and wanted it available to smaller entities, not just large institutions.  Metro too wanted to make the pass more widely available but could not figure out how to do so without having to take on unreasonable extra administrative costs.  After experimenting with several scenarios, it more or less settled on its current Commute Card program.

The program is available to businesses or organizations of any size, and now boasts serving over a hundred of them.  It is flexible, having no minimum usage or participant requirement.  Each card is tracked by a serial number, and Metro sends out an invoice to the participating organizations or businesses once a month showing the number of rides and cost per serial number.  Those organizations or businesses must administer the program from there to ensure proper reimbursement.

One neighborhood group with environmental concerns that saw the potential of the Commute Card early on was called Sustainable Atwood. People from the SASY (Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara) neighborhood wanted to create environmentally sustainable models of urban forestry, transportation, solar energy, and resource sharing for other neighborhoods based on their own experience.  A skilled librarian took on the challenge of making the Commute Card work for the neighborhood, and with others, through trial and error over several years, did so. 

What started as a time-consuming, person-by-person, face-to-face project that tried to use bank programs ill-designed to handle the needs of the project, has, over the years, morphed into a successful, automated program that can handle someone’s transit needs exclusively through Internet-based transactions.  Most recently, Sustainable Atwood has dropped the requirement that an individual participant live in the SASY neighborhood since no other Madison neighborhood has yet developed a Commute Card program.  But the hope is that other neighborhoods, perhaps banding together, will.

Currently, the program charges a $15 annual administrative fee and an initial $40 deposit. The individual participant must also submit a signed service agreement contract. In exchange, the individual receives a Commute Card that can be used as often or as seldom as wished for the entire year, paying whatever costs are incurred monthly either online through a mechanism such as PayPal or by check and snail mail.  There is no need to carry exact change for a bus ride, and one actually saves more off the regular cash fare of a non-transfer bus ride the more one travels by bus.

Using a Commute Card can thus be a win-win solution but it would be foolish to be complacent.  When Metro proposed a bus fare hike in the Fall of 2012, the cost of a Commute Card ride was $1.15.   Metro proposed raising that to $1.50, potentially killing the incentive for most businesses or organizations to bother with a Commute Card since they would be taking on most of its actual administration.  Although the proposed fare increase was averted by some deft action on the part of the Common Council, the cost of a Commute Card ride was successfully raised to $1.25 the following year.  And it would be naïve to think that another proposed rise is not currently being discussed behind closed doors.  But the more the card is used, and the less complacent its users, the more politically difficult a noticeable increase will be.  After all, ask a politician to justify spending so much of your taxes on road re-construction compared to supporting the bus when their constituents use the bus.  Exact figures do not appear to exist, but the per capita figure for Madison in 2010 appears to be less than $1 for the bus for every $2 for the roads.