The Bus Stops Here: Bus Rapid Transit is NOT Your Regular Local Bus

Make new friends but keep the old, One is silver and the other gold – old ditty

Popular confusion about what Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) means was made worse last month by an ill-informed editorial in one of Madison’s most widely read media outlets, the Wisconsin State Journal. Some of us had hoped that there would be well-placed correction of that misinformation, either through other media outlets, by transit management or planners or by government officials. To my dismay, however, misinformed ideas instead appear to be spreading, and in an alarming fashion. So the purpose of this column is to clarify that Bus Rapid Transit is not the same as the local bus.

There are at least six types of bus lines: 1) Core local lines; 2) Extra commuter service at peak times; 3) Circulators and shuttles; 4) Paratransit for those unable to use regular Mainline; 5) Intercity lines; and 6) Express or rapid bus lines. Bus Rapid Transit falls within category #6, NOT in category #1. Bus Rapid Transit is NOT the local bus.

Up until now, Madison’s Metro Transit has mostly had core local buses with some extra commuter lines. It has also had a limited number of peak hour express runs and, on the UW campus and with the UW Hospitals and Clinics, circulators and shuttles. Indeed, common complaints are that current service is too oriented toward daytime commuters at the expense of evening or weekend users, and that Madison has no intercity bus terminal.

But to supposedly aver, that “... the neighborhood around Williamson and Jenifer streets has resisted the idea [of Bus Rapid Transit] , preferring a bus stop on most blocks” is an unfortunate conflation of core buses (type #1) with express or rapid buses (type #6). Bus Rapid Transit would run on a major arterial such as East Washington Avenue, not on either Jenifer Street or Williamson Street. So why wasn’t even that corrected? 

Yes, people did not want bus stops in their neighborhood eliminated when the issue surfaced earlier this year. Metro Transit had planned to eliminate stops that serviced the neighborhood center, Madison’s social justice center, and the headquarters of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. In fact, the Council had located where it did because of the location’s access to transit. 

More generally however, bus stops in densely populated areas (only possible when people mainly walk, bike or use transit) should ideally be around 500-750 feet apart. As the final report of the Ad Hoc Long Range Metro Transit Planning Committee states (p.9): “Metro’s number one priority is and should be to ... keep current customers and increase their usage.“ Eliminating those bus stops would have been in clear violation of that recommendation.

Nor is it contradictory to want to keep local bus stops and to want Bus Rapid Transit. Rather, that stance is what one would expect of a truly transit-oriented area that valued social inclusivity. Some of the local stops could be skipped over by extra express commuter runs, but the stops would not warrant elimination because the local bus would still use them.

At the same time, Bus Rapid Transit would ideally run up and down East Washington Avenue as an addition to local bus service. A pedestrian on East Washington Avenue. should be able to easily get to Monona Drive, Park Street, University Avenue, Mineral Point Road, State Street, Monroe Street or elsewhere quickly and comfortably without a car. The regional Transportation Planning Board (Madison Area MPO) oversaw a preliminary study into having Bus Rapid Transit in the Madison area (the full report is here). There would be great benefit to having it here but not at the expense of our local bus.

It is disappointing and unnecessarily divisive to pit Bus Rapid Transitagainst good local bus service. People who directly or indirectly use public transit of any kind are natural allies since public transit of various kinds provides access to many things in a relatively inexpensive way while keeping our carbon footprint down, alleviating congestion, and promoting independence, public health and social equity. Transit systems can provide good-paying local and green jobs.

Nor does it make sense to dismantle naturally-occurring Transit Oriented Developments in the center of Madison even while applying to the Federal Government for grants to plan Transit Oriented Developments on the outskirts of town in the name of “social equity.” Better for EVERYONE that we increase social equity EVERYWHERE.

The reality is that Madison and the surrounding urbanized area has just become too large to be served adequately by only one type of bus. It needs more express or rapid buses, not by cannibalizing core service and disenfranchising present users but by adding more skip-stop express and/or Bus Rapid Transit buses and adding new users.

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