The Bus Stops Here: Weekend service leaves many stranded

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

“Weekday service seems way up here while weekend service seems way down there. ... I'd like to see them inchBus service scales back on the weekends, perhaps too much for those who work those days.Bus service scales back on the weekends, perhaps too much for those who work those days. closer together.”

In 2012 Madison’s Metro Transit was recognized as the best mid-sized transit system in North America by the premier national transportation association. While ridership on other major systems in Wisconsin has declined in recent years due to forced service cuts and related factors, ridership on Metro continues to grow.

So it can be a surprise for many to discover that weekend service is significantly poorer than service during the week.

The city followed the national post-World War II trend of expanding in a car-centric, socially divisive manner under the short-sighted and mistaken belief that to do so was fiscally advantageous.  To try to keep up with this expansion, Metro had to look for “efficiencies” that usually involved cutting existing service, especially in the evenings, on weekends, and during holidays.

Whereas daytime weekday riders include both choice and transit dependent riders, riders at other times tend to be limited to the truly transit dependent.

Today, less than two thirds of Madison is accessible by bus at any time. Newcomers often try to resist this conclusion, even for years, considering cars asocial, expensive, wasteful, unhealthy and/or environmentally unfriendly. But in the end, most succumb. Those who cannot drive must accommodate the best they can to being taken for granted as transit dependent, but usually wish they could have a car.  In fact, they may even have a car but cannot afford to use it.

If someone works second or third shift, or at different times that are not all between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on a weekday, he/she cannot depend on the bus to get both to and from work. People may want to participate in civic or recreational functions that occur in the evening after 6:00 p.m., starting after bus service is meager if it still exists and ending after even meager service has ceased.  (Events are rarely planned with bus schedules in mind, including at the downtown Overture Center.) 

And finally, lives include seven, not five, days in a week. Weekends or evenings are often when people can perform errands that take them to the mall or grocery store.  Yet bus service then is only a fraction of what it is during peak commute hours on weekdays.

Look at Metro Transit’s Ride Guide.It lists 62 bus routes. But only 18 of them run all the time Metro is in operation. Most of them, 51 routes, run at peak times on weekdays; 31 routes cover off-peak times on weekdays; and only 26 run on weekends, six exclusively so. Thus the geographic area covered on weekends is much more limited than what is covered on weekdays. Even the link between the north and east transfer points (#17) does not run on weekends.

Weekend service suffers from less frequent service and a more limited time frame as well.  Three examples of routes that run all the time but in a much more limited fashion in the evenings and on weekends are the #6, the #4, and the #13.  An example of a route limited to weekends that replaces a weekday route is the #7.

Route 6 is the workhorse that takes people to and from East Towne Mall. On weekdays, it runs every 15 minutes during peak hours (roughly 5:30-9:00 a.m. and 2:30-6:00 p.m.) and every 30 minutes at other times until about midnight.  In contrast, on weekends it has only hourly service beginning around 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 7:30 a.m. on Sundays, and ends both days around 11:00 p.m.

Route 4 goes to Schenk’s Corners and the Dane County Zoo. On weekdays it runs every half hour from around 5:30 a.m. until about 6:00 p.m., then hourly until about 11:30 p.m. On weekends, it operates hourly all day beginning around 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays and 8:00 a.m. on Sundays, ending both days around 10:30 p.m.

Route 13, running between University Ave. at Park St. and the South Transfer Point, is the major way to get to the Alliant Energy Center where they hold such large events as the Dane County Fair and the World Dairy Expo. On weekdays, it runs every half hour at peak times and hourly the rest of the time, starting around 5:30 a.m. and ending around 11:15 p.m.  On weekends it runs hourly all the time until about 10:00 p.m., starting around 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 7:30 a.m. on Sundays.

Route 7 substitutes for weekday Route 3 and, on the west side, the Tokay Blvd. branch of Route 6.  Whereas Route 3 runs every half hour by Edgewood College (which has an unlimited ride pass for students) on Monroe St. and stops near the entrance to Olbrich Gardens on the east side, weekend Route 7 only goes by Edgewood College hourly and stops half a mile away from Olbrich Gardens.

Requests for increased service seems routine at public hearings about the bus.  And as routinely, those pleas are answered with “insufficient money.”  That may be the reality, but an argument can also be made that better weekend bus service could boost both ridership among “choice” riders, public favor, and ultimately political support. Added service for special events -- athletic events, farmer's markets, art fairs, Freak Fest, etc. -- could be especially strategic as people look for ways to deal with limited parking.

So there is good reason to laud Metro’s weekday service used by both “choice” and “transit dependent” riders, but please remember that evening, midday, and weekend service is much more limited and used primarily by the “transit dependent” only.