La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds issued a proclamation Wednesday morning at Grand River Station commemorating Saturday as Transit Equity Day.
The national day of action honors the birthday of Rosa Parks and her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a year-long protest of racist policies for Black riders and a lack of service in Black neighborhoods in Montgomery that culminated in a 1956 Supreme Court decision ruling segregated seating on public transit is illegal.
“Increased community access to public transit; reduction in racial, economic and other disparities in access to transit; and increased opportunities for employment in good jobs using less polluting, safer public transit form a key part of a ‘just transition’ from a fossil fuel to a renewable energy-based, just economy,” said Reynolds in the proclamation.
Transit managers, union leaders, elected officials and frequent bus riders joined Reynolds in recognizing the ability for public transit to increase accessibility to community services for residents who do not drive.
The La Crosse MTU is the only Wisconsin transit service outside of Milwaukee and Madison that runs on Sunday, and was the first service in the state to use electric buses for regular service.
The MTU also connects with the Scenic Mississippi Regional Transit bus system and the Onalaska-Holmen-West Salem shared ride taxi. Onalaska Alderman Larry Jiracek, who spoke at the Grand River Station event, said riders of the shared taxi included people commuting to work but also those with appointments at Gunderson and Mayo hospitals.
“We have to have a place to live, we have to have food, we have to get places, and transit equity day is a time to think about whether how we get places is fair right now,” said Cathy Van Maren, La Crosse Area Transportation Advocates member.
Between 30% and 40% of La Crosse residents over the age of 15 are nondrivers, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The department defines non-drivers as having no license or no vehicle matched to them through Department of Motor Vehicle records.
La Crosse has the highest percentage of nondrivers in the county and is among the top municipalities statewide by percentage of nondrivers.
The DOT estimates that more than 40% of residents who live between Cass and Clinton streets and in areas surrounding the Mayo Hospital, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus and west of Gundersen hospital do not drive.
Whether someone drives or not depends on several factors, including age, physical condition and where they work. Affordability is another reason why many don’t drive. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates the average yearly cost to own a car in 2022 was nearly $11,000.
According to a White House fact sheet published in 2021, Wisconsin residents who rely on public transportation spend over 60% more time commuting, and non-white households in the state are nearly six times more likely to use public transportation.
The drive for increased accessibility to public transit fueled the creation of the La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility’s Circulator Route on the South Side.
“We realized there was a need for service on the South Side,” said Adam Lorentz, MTU director.
Looking forward, Lorentz said third-shift workers have expressed interest in extended service times. Service times differ by route, but all MTU service stops before 11 p.m. on weekdays and before 8 p.m. on weekends.
Reynold’s proclamation also highlighted the potential for public transit to support the city’s commitment to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
The MTU unveiled two electric, zero emissions buses last summer. The city has four more under contract, and hopes to get three more new electric buses, Lorentz said.
“We’ve been a model for different agencies across the country of how agencies our size bring electric vehicles into our system, not only for the now but for the future as well.”
This year’s focus on transit equity comes as local public transit rebounds from low ridership during start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ridership fell by nearly 40 percent from 2019 to 2020 as lockdowns closed workplaces and social spaces and close proximity to others posed health risks. In 2019 the MTU provided more than 920,000 rides. In 2017, ridership between fixed routes and paratransit services hit over 1 million rides.
The MTU last year provided nearly 760,000 rides on fixed routes and over 18,000 rides through the paratransit service, a 48 percent increase in ridership from 2021.
Nearly one in six rides on MTU fixed route buses last year were by passengers using a disabled persons pass, totaling nearly 125,000 rides.
Passengers with student passes from Western Technical College, Viterbo University and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse last year took more than 87,000 rides on the MTU.
The SMRT bus system provided over 18,000 rides and the Onalaska/Holmen/West Salem Public Transit Taxi provided over 48,000 rides last year. Both systems saw an increase in ridership from 2021.
Buses to downtown areas across the country ran empty during the pandemic as fewer workers traveled to work, but that hasn’t been the case in La Crosse, said Lorentz. Part of the reason is La Crosse’s unique geography wedged between the river and bluffs, but also due to increased interest in using public transit.“We always focus that there’s the people that need the bus, but we’re also seeing an increase of riders who want to ride the bus,” said Lorentz. “When you talk about the Milwaukees, the Chicagos, the Minneapolises, that they have that bus culture, we’re starting to see that come here in La Crosse, and that’s an exciting thing.”