The Bus Stops Here: When it comes to Metro, Can One Size Fit All?

Maybe you have had the experience too of someone saying that they’d be much more inclined to support higher taxes for transit if they felt their money would be well spent, or that their community would affiliate with Madison’s Metro Transit if they felt the cost were more reasonable. The most common examples of waste? 1) bus drivers making over $100,000 a year and 2) the common sight of empty buses.

Worker rules at Metro have changed since a few operators gamed the system to the tune of $100,000-plus salaries.  Much of what they did may no longer be possible, although many people still grumble that Metro salaries are way out of proportion.  I cannot comment on that one way or another as I have not looked into that issue yet.

But I can comment on the issue of empty buses because I have now been on a couple of committees that were supposed to look into the issue.  The existence of empty buses is easily apparent on the one hand but facilely explained away on the other.  Never mind that those explanations convey a message of obtuseness obviously opposite to what is intended.  Can one honestly think someone can be persuaded that she is not seeing what she sees??  More likely, facile arguments make one unnecessarily vulnerable to critics far less sympathetic to transit than I am.  I want to face the issue head on so transit can be made more efficient and convenient--a transportation mode of first choice--but others want a reason to starve transit even more than it already is being starved.  Citing empty buses gives them valuable ammunition.

But let us step back to 2007 when Madison’s then-Mayor felt that the regular Transit and Parking Commission did not have sufficient time to indulge in long range visioning, so formed an Ad Hoc Long Range Metro Planning Committee.   One of the charges of that committee was to examine “the possibility of the use of smaller buses and demand response, route deviation methods on certain generally low-use routes at certain off-peak times.”

I had the good fortune of being on that committee.  So imagine my frustration when my repeated attempts at having the committee address the topic were squelched.  Instead, Metro steered the committee to only recommend that someone else study the issue (p.16 of Final Report).  Metro’s General Manager felt he already knew the answer so could not lead a study of the issue. So much for that committee’s charge, although it at least did not drop the topic entirely.

Fast forward to 2012 and the development of a Bus Size Study whose purpose was to “determine if any operating efficiencies can be gained from employing vehicles other than the current standardized fleet of 40-foot buses for fixed route service...”  Since eyes deal with perception, I found that statement curious but also intriguing.  So again, I had the good fortune of being asked to join the study oversight committee.  But this time, it was the study’s consultant who disappointed by saying repeatedly that the study was only to look at what was, not what could be, or in other words inside not outside the box.  So the idea, originally stated in 2007 (after a lot of observation and comment) ended up only considered to be a “next step” to be engaged in sometime in the future along with some other good ideas that in the end could greatly increase Metro’s efficiency (Chapter 9 of a final report).

To be fair, I should point out that the recently concluded Bus Size Study found that Metro was indeed being run efficiently given the resources it had.  And if one thinks inside the box, there are good reasons for empty buses.   Buses need to run empty from/to their storage place (or bus barn) out to/from where their runs begin.  And they need to have capacity for a large crowd, even if that crowd only rides for a fraction of the route while the buses run virtually empty the rest of the way.  However, inside the box is a schema that was developed decades ago when Metro Transit served a much smaller, more compactly-settled area.  Subsequent land use planning has been focused on automobile travel and tends to involve a sprawl that is anathema to good transit.  Our present transit system is anachronistic, and modernizing it requires more, not less, resources.  What my and other eyes see is a system that could be a whole lot more efficient if only ....

It is not the vision that needs changing, it is the reality.  Maybe the current administration understands that because it recently established a Sustainable Madison Transportation Plan Oversight Committee that has begun to explore pedestrian, transit, bicycle and roadway issues throughout the city.  It is too early to tell what will happen of course as the whole study process just began in earnest last Fall.  But here is hoping that the study will, at last, think outside the box, and that that will include a better consideration of diversified fleet comprised of large, medium and small sized buses.



Metro Bus Size Studies

Any mention in any of ad nauseum planning efforts about "customer comfort"? At peak times, the problem isn't empty buses, it's overstuffed buses. I'm getting tired of standing up for much of the ride to and from work.

Interesting to read about Metro's shift to perimeter-style buses to "ease overcrowding"; but that doesn't make the ride any more comfortable if you are one of the standees.

I can't wait for warmer weather to return, I'll be riding my bike as much as possible and avoiding rides on Metro.