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Rubber meets the road on Madison bus system redesign

17 Jul 2023 7:29 AM | WIPTA Admin (Administrator)

A Madison Metro bus pulls up to a bus shelter.

Sunday morning Brian Skinner was making his first trip on Madison’s newly redesigned bus system from his Middleton home to downtown Madison. He picked up the R2 on its brief stretch going east along University Avenue. But the R2 route in that direction quickly takes a northern tack, reaches the end of its route, makes a loop, and comes back through Middleton before ultimately heading east on Old Sauk Road toward downtown.

“I stood on the wrong side of the street,” Skinner tells Isthmus the following afternoon while he waits for a bus outside the Hamel Music Center on University Avenue. “If I stood on the right side of the street it wouldn’t have gone all the hell through Middleton,” he adds. “I know that now.”

Skinner says he got help on Sunday from a “ride guide” when he transferred buses at the west-side American Red Cross on Sheboygan Avenue. The ride guide, one of about 50 customer service staff the city hired to help Madisonians navigate the new system, explained to a still confused Skinner what had happened and pointed out where to stand next time. On weekdays, Skinner can now take the R2 bus from his home near the Willy Street Co-Op West more directly to the UW Memorial Union, where he swims, compared to the winding 70 and 72 routes which he used to take. More direct service and reduced travel times were a goal of the redesign.

Despite the rocky start, Skinner was enthusiastic Monday about the new routes. “It’s a very efficient system, I have no complaints,” he says. “It seems to be working really well.”

The ride guides who helped Skinner were part of an outreach campaign put together by city officials ahead of the new system’s launch Sunday; the city held community engagement meetings throughout the city and distributed posters and other signage at stops urging riders to plan their new trips ahead of time. Proponents of the redesign, the largest change to the city’s bus system since the implementation of transfer points in 1998, say it will include more frequent service along main thoroughfares, reducing travel times and transfers (three of the system’s four transfer points have been eliminated). The trade-off is expected to be some longer walks for riders and fewer routes going into neighborhoods.

This reporter rode the new bus system widely over its first two days of operation, talking to riders and ride guides on buses and at key stops in every part of the city. For some riders, the transition was smooth. For others, there was frustration and delay. For most, it was simply an adjustment that required a bit of help.

For Shelby Beltzer, the elimination of transfer points threw her off at first. But by Sunday afternoon, she was exploring the new system on a west-side A bus traveling along Mineral Point Road and helping other riders find their way.

“I [moved] here in December so I just got used to the number system,” says Beltzer, who sometimes just likes riding the buses to explore the city or visit East Towne and West Towne malls. “I’m a wanderer,” she says. Now, the A goes directly between the two malls without stops at transfer points. “It hasn’t been inconvenient for me at all,” she says.

That wasn’t the case for a rider Beltzer was helping, who said she had been trying to get back to Middleton for more than two hours before hopping off quickly to catch an R1 bus headed north on High Point Road.

Many riders in the first days of the system’s launch were tentative as they boarded the bus. “Is this the 6?” one rider asked Sunday afternoon when getting on a bus at the East Washington Avenue overpass at Marquette Street. “This is the A,” the driver responded. “It’s not the 6? Do you go to Festival [Foods]?” “Yes I do.” Some passengers had more extensive questions, and drivers attempted to help with route planning. But they, too, are learning the new system and generally had limited time at each stop for longer conversations.

Despite the city’s outreach efforts, many riders interviewed said they had not heard the system was changing. They figured out their trip by using the information at hand, whether that was provided by a driver, a ride guide or a fellow passenger.

Some of the confusion led to negative reviews. “It needs to go back to how it was,” says a rider named Lawanda who identifies herself as homeless. Sitting on a bench at a Capitol Square bus stop Monday morning, she’s frustrated. A bus driver told her to head to Main Street to catch a bus going toward her destination, the east side Walmart on Nakoosa Trail, but she didn’t know where Main Street was. She felt better after a ride guide stopped by and used landmarks rather than street names to point her to a nearby stop.

“The good thing is [the buses] come more frequently. That’s the one thing I noticed yesterday,” says Lawanda. “That is the best. It’s okay if you miss a bus because another one is coming back-to-back.”

Another woman at the same Capitol Square stop declined an interview because she said her route, the 75 that runs to Epic’s campus in Verona, hadn’t changed. Moments later the woman walked away from the stop while making a phone call: “My bus changed [departure times]!” she shouted to this reporter. “It sucks!”

With new routes and new end destinations listed on bus displays, several riders were prepared to board the right bus, but got on going the wrong direction. Skinner’s mistake Sunday morning resulted in a 30-minute detour. A ride guide on Johnson Street midday Monday helped a rider catch the A in the right direction by walking with him a block to University Avenue. 

David Alvarado, a ride guide who has been focusing on helping Spanish speaking riders along Park Street, near Post Road, and at the South Transfer Point, says he helped redirect a Spanish speaking woman about to commute home in the wrong direction Monday afternoon.

“I’ve been telling people about this system for two weeks,” says Alvarado. “But it’s different when you get out there and have to tell people exactly where they need to go.

“The lack of transfer points especially made it confusing for people at first,” he adds. “But once people figure it out, they’re happy.” That sentiment was echoed by other ride guides who did not want to speak on the record.

Calls to the Metro call center shot up during the route launch, nearing 1,000 by 3:30 p.m. on Monday, according to Jeremy Olson, who oversees Metro’s ride guide operation. The center typically receives 300 to 400 calls a day. “It was a bit overwhelming, but that is part of change,” says Olson.

On average, callers waited about five or six minutes to reach someone. One call from Isthmus on Monday morning was picked up without a wait, and another required a wait of about four minutes.

Olson says ride guides fanned out to closed stops in addition to the transfer points to help point riders in the right direction. In two days of widespread riding and spot checks of closed stops, this reporter observed only one rider waiting at a stop no longer being served, on Northport Road near the Northside Town Center late Monday morning. The closed stop was still on the B bus route, so a bus driver pulled over to the old stop, let the man board, pointed out where his new stop was farther up the street, and continued on.

But another rider who identified herself as disabled and didn’t want to be named struggled with the new system and had to transfer several times to get to the northeast part of the city and back on Sunday. Despite a frustrating morning involving delays and rain, the woman said the changes must be equally frustrating for Metro’s drivers. “You must be up for sainthood today,” she said to one as she boarded the A bus, a more direct route back to her home suggested to her by another driver.

Olson noted that concerns for people with limited mobility have been a discussion point throughout the redesign process, suggesting that those in need apply for paratransit service and noting that “we do not have a bus system that goes to every doorstep." As recently as 2017, Metro’s paratransit service did go to every doorstep, but after the loss of millions of dollars in federal Medicaid funding, the city contracted out the service, now run by three private companies. After applying, applicants usually wait weeks before a determination of eligibility.

Metro’s redesigned system is likely to face additional growing pains. Two weeks into the new routes, Metro officials will assess how the system is running and make some new tweaks, and will do so again if necessary roughly each quarter.

When UW-Madison students return to campus in August, Metro again plans to deploy ride guides to educate the new population about the changes. One undergraduate student named Grace, who is staying in Madison for the summer, found out the bus system had been redesigned when she arrived at her stop outside Witte Hall Monday afternoon. 

Grace, who was born in Kenya and grew up in St. Louis, says the possibility of improvements excites her, but it might catch her fellow students off guard. “I think it’s gonna kind of shock people when they come back from summer break,” she says. “People are already learning about new buildings, new processes, new schedules. And this will be another new thing.”

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