Madison’s Southdale neighborhood fights for transportation, without representation

Residents won a partial victory in their struggle to preserve bus service within their neighborhood. Now, the decision heads to the Madison Common Council where they—once again—have no elected representation.
Illustration: Collaged map of the Southdale neighborhood with the current and proposed bus routes drawn. The current route for the area is in orange, it weaves through the Southdale neighborhood and includes 11 stops. The proposed bus route is in black along Rimrock Road and includes a single stop in the Southdale neighborhood. Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.

Residents won a partial victory in their struggle to preserve bus service within their neighborhood. Now, the decision heads to the Madison Common Council where they—once again—have no elected representation.

Many residents of the Southdale neighborhood—tucked between the triangle of Rimrock Road, U.S. Highway 14, and the Beltline—didn’t find out that Metro Transit was proposing cutting bus service within their neighborhood as part of a network-wide redesign until more than two months after draft plans were released. When residents did come to understand the redesign’s implications, there was an outpouring of outrage and concern. Much of the testimony at public meetings on May 11 and May 24 focused on the impact that reduced bus access would have on kids and on adults who are older, disabled, and/or commuting to work.

Despite the fact that the area is currently part of the Town of Madison, Southdale residents had to plead their case to Fitchburg’s city government, which doesn’t actually represent them because they’re not in Fitchburg—yet. Southdale will become part of Fitchburg on October 31, when the Town of Madison dissolves, its scattered North and South side neighborhoods split between the City of Madison and Fitchburg.

Thanks to resident organizing, Fitchburg’s Common Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, May 24 to fund the costs of continuing bus service for the neighborhood. But now the decision heads to the City of Madison’s Transportation Policy and Planning Board, and ultimately to Madison’s Common Council—where again, Southdale residents will be without elected representation.

Despite their victory at Tuesday’s meeting, Southdale residents were already warily preparing for the next May 31 public input meeting, and the final votes June 6 and 7. People expressed anger, sadness, frustration, and exhaustion with both the possibility that they could lose bus access, as well as the fact that they had to show up again and again to have their concerns taken seriously.

Speaking after the meeting, Southdale resident Claudia Paynter responded to Alders welcoming Paynter and her neighbors from the Town of Madison into Fitchburg. 

“Lo que yo quiero decir como dice la señorita que ella se siente orgullosa de que nosotros vamos a hacer parte de su comunidad—nosotros no,” Paynter says (like several Southdale residents quoted in this story, Paynter was interviewed in Spanish; their direct quotes will be followed by English translations). “Nosotros nos sentimos que estamos fuera de todas las decisiones que se están tomando y las malas decisiones que han tomado ellos.”

Translation: “I would like to say that what the woman said, that she feels proud that we are going to be a part of her community—we don’t,” Paynter says. “We feel like we are outside of all of the decisions they are making and all of the bad decisions they have made.”

Another Southdale resident, Belmi, said she appreciated the vote but was still concerned: “Estoy agradecida con el voto. Preocupada por las personas del tránsito del bus porque al aparecer no están pensando ellos en ayudarnos, si no más bien en cuanto van a gastar.”

Translated: “I am grateful for the vote. I am worried because it seems that the people from the bus transit system are not thinking of helping us, but rather how much they are going to spend.”

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Metro’s redesign pulls back from neighborhoods

Southdale is one of many neighborhoods that would lose bus service under Madison Metro’s Transit Network Redesign, a complete overhaul of bus service that will take effect next year. The redesign is separate from, but intended to complement, Metro’s planned East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. BRT will replace the current bus service downtown (but won’t go into effect until the end of 2024 at the earliest). The Transit Network Redesign is a “reboot” of everything else.

The changes Metro staff propose within the redesign are major, ranging from the structural (no more transfer points) to the superficial (bus routes are identified by letters rather than numbers). Instead of traveling through neighborhoods, the redesigned routes stick to major roads, a change Metro staff explain as a preference for faster and more frequent bus service. 

When the specifics of the redesign were released as a draft plan, concerns about the impact of the loss of neighborhood service on older adults, disabled people, low income communities, and people of color quickly followed. South Madison Unite! issued a statement opposing proposed cuts to service on Routes 13 and 4. The South Metropolitan Planning Council and Dane County NAACP have also pushed back against proposed cuts to service in South side neighborhoods. The ACLU of Wisconsin sent a letter to Madison’s Metro Transit agency urging a full equity analysis of the impacts of the redesign—an analysis that Metro says will come after the final approval of the redesign by Madison’s Common Council.

A tentative victory

Although Southdale is far from the only neighborhood advocating for continued service, the path for Southdale residents to (at least partially) preserve their public transportation access is unique—both because of the stakes, and because the area is in a strange kind of limbo between three municipal governments.

The initial May 11 neighborhood meeting hosted by Fitchburg and Metro Transit was only scheduled after questions about the redesign cropped up at a separate Fitchburg meeting addressing the Town of Madison’s dissolution in the fall. It left residents with less than two weeks to share information with each other and to reach not-their-elected-officials before the Fitchburg Common Council’s May 24 vote. (I did try to reach Town of Madison elected officials. Their direct contact information is not available on the Town of Madison website (or anywhere, apparently), and they did not return a message left with the business office).

“I think we probably could’ve, we probably should’ve had the conversation sooner,” says City of Madison Transportation Planner Mike Cechvala. “These areas are kind of in this gray limbo area where they’re not really in the City of Madison, they’re not really in Fitchburg. … I think if not for that we probably would’ve known, we probably would’ve had the conversation sooner.”

Southdale is also pinched between three highways—an example of American highway construction’s long history of reinforcing segregation and carving up neighborhoods. The Town of Madison’s 2009 neighborhood plan describes the neighborhood as “isolated yet surrounded by an extensive transportation network.” The borders of the neighborhood are physically defined by these flawed transportation networks, but residents pointed out that this “reduced” access under Metro’s redesign essentially eliminates access to transportation—to employment, grocery stores—for many of them.

Within the redesign, Route 16 between the South and East transfer points would become the G bus. At the East end, the G bus will actually pass through a more residential neighborhood than Route 16 does, as it travels along Dempsey Road instead of Atwood Avenue. But at its South end, the redesign would cut service from the more than 10 Route 16 bus stops that currently serve Southdale to just one stop on Rimrock Road—nearly a mile-long walk from some homes in the neighborhood.

The current map for Madison Metro's bus Route 16, via Metro Transit’s website.
The current map for Route 16, via Metro Transit’s website.

Gabriela Gonzalez lives in Southdale and reiterated concerns expressed by many other residents. 

“Estoy inconforme por lo que quieren, por los cambios que quieren hacer porque ellos piensen que afecten sólo a un pequeño grupo, y somos un grupo grande,” said Gonzalez after the May 24 meeting. “Y toda esa zona de los apartamentos de la Deer Valley, toda esa zona hay muchos niños, hay muchas personas mayores con discapacidad, entonces se tienen que poner a pensar que nos afectan. Nos afectan en verdad. Tenemos que ir a trabajar. Tenemos doble trabajo. Los niños tienen que ir a la escuela. Hay personas adultas con discapacidades. Tenemos que tomar el bus para ir a comprar comida, para ir al doctor.”

Translation: “I am dissatisfied with what they want, with the changes that they want to make because they think it will only affect a small group, and we are a big group,” said Gonzalez after the May 24 meeting. “This whole area of Deer Valley apartments, this entire area has a lot of kids, a lot of older people with disabilities, therefore they need to think about how this affects us. This really affects us. We have to go to work. We have two jobs. The kids have to go to school. There are adults with disabilities. We have to take the bus to buy food, to go to the doctor.”

It’s “hard to explain how just a few blocks in the neighborhood will make a world of a difference for access,” says Southdale resident Josh Jenkins, who helped spread the word to neighbors about the impact of the redesign and upcoming meetings. 

Jenkins shared a recent email he sent to residents with information about participating in the May 31 public hearing for the Metro redesign. Jenkins describes Southdale as “a community of apartment complexes and small homes with roughly 1,800 residents in the Town of Madison. Our community is a majority Black and Brown families. We are a dense and diverse urban community, and the Metro redesign draft would virtually eliminate our bus service.”

The email notes that the frequent number of public meetings requiring input in quick succession are an undue burden, inaccessible to working families, and have lacked adequate translation. 

“Close to 30% of the community are native Spanish-speakers,” Jenkins writes, but “at most of the meetings in the last 3 weeks, community members have had to provide our own interpretation services so our neighbors could understand the proceedings and testify.”

After the pushback from Southdale residents at the initial May 11 neighborhood meeting, Metro staff introduced amendments 16A and 16B (also referred to as G-1 and G-2) to restore some bus service. Amendment 16A brings the G bus one to two blocks closer to Southdale, but places the new bus stop in the middle of an isolated and undeveloped area. 

Amendment 16B would bring the G bus back down East Badger Road and Pheasant Ridge Trail—the first portion of the current Route 16’s loop through the neighborhood—before it cuts back over to Rimrock Road. 16B, though, is dependent on Fitchburg extending Latitude 43 Street, a dead-end road in that undeveloped area, to pass between two existing apartment buildings and connect to Pheasant Ridge Trail.

Fitchburg Alder Jay Allen, one of two alders who will represent Southdale residents on the Fitchburg Common Council come November, proposed a new amendment during the May 24 meeting. In addition to the Pheasant Ridge Trail loop of 16B, amendment 16C would bring the G bus further into the neighborhood along Deer Valley Road and Ski Lane before it loops back up to Novation Parkway and Rimrock Road. 16C service would be similar to the current Route 16 service, though it would still cut out at least a few current bus stops along Rimrock Road.

Fitchburg’s Common Council voted unanimously to adopt Amendment 16C, and to pay for any increased costs of continuing to provide bus service within Southdale. 

Transportation Planner Mike Cechvala told residents and Fitchburg officials at the May 24 meeting that Metro staff would recommend either amendment 16A or 16B, and not 16C. But in the packet of proposed redesign amendments updated May 25, Metro staff do not indicate a recommendation for any of the Route 16/G amendments. In a follow-up conversation, Cechvala says that Metro decided to withhold any recommendation because the guidance they received from one policy body—Fitchburg’s Common Council—conflicts with the guidance they’ve received from the City of Madison’s Transportation Policy and Planning Board

“We’ve asked our oversight body, [Madison’s Transportation Policy and Planning Board], where we should be on this coverage to ridership spectrum,” says Cechvala. “Should we have routes that go into neighborhoods and run once an hour or should we have fewer routes that run more frequently and are more direct? And they gave us pretty clear direction to try to design the system to move in that ridership direction of fewer routes that are more direct.”

Amendment 16C “doesn’t really meet that trade-off of trying to keep the route direct while also serving the neighborhood,” says Cechvala. “And so then we got conflicting guidance from the City of Fitchburg who said you know they wanted to really maintain as much coverage as possible. And so that’s why we pulled our staff recommendation because we simply got conflicting guidance and so that’s where we say it’s, you know, it’s out of our hands. We’re not going to make the choice, we’re not going to make a recommendation.”

Next steps for Southdale 

After the Fitchburg Common Council’s unanimous vote in support of 16C, there was scattered applause from residents who had stayed to watch the meeting after public testimony. 

Amendment 16C, stamped with red text noting that it is supported by Fitchburg’s Common Council, will move forward along with the redesign draft plan and full packet of amendments (including 16A and 16B) for consideration by the City of Madison Transportation Policy and Planning Board on Monday, June 6, and then the full Madison Common Council on Tuesday, June 7 for a final vote. 

Alder Allen, who introduced amendment 16C, closed this portion of the agenda with a call to Southdale residents to continue their advocacy. 

“For all of you who came tonight, thank you for coming,” Allen said. “And I would ask if you have time, go to the Madison Council meeting on at 6:30 on June, I think it’s June 7, where they’re going to make the final vote on this, because they need to know that this is what we want, because I think you heard tonight that Mike [Cechvala] is not going to give this a staff recommendation. So if we want to get this changed the Council’s gonna have to make it happen.”

Ridership vs. coverage

In the redesign, ridership and coverage approaches are often framed as competing priorities between more frequent and direct service (ridership), and more extensive service through neighborhoods (coverage.)

“Equity was used as a major guiding part of drawing these routes,” says Cechvala. “In the coverage to ridership spectrum I think there has been some confusion that coverage is equity and ridership is luxury, or something. And that’s absolutely not the case.” Cechvala says Metro has heard from low-income riders that because of long travel times, bus service “is not usable to them.” 

“We’ve done onboard surveys and found out that low-income people and people of color have substantially longer travel times than the system as an average,” says Cechvala. “They’re more likely to transfer buses and a lot of that has to do with peripheral neighborhoods and people working on the other side of town and just having to sit on the bus for just hours and hours, and that’s what we’re trying to fix to the degree we can with this project.”

But public testimony from people who will no longer be able to reach bus stops that are moved out of neighborhoods have echoed a point that Jenkins makes in his email: “The Draft Plan states walking greater distances is an acceptable cost to increase bus frequency in some areas. But if we can’t access the closest bus route, what good is increased bus frequency?”

“We understand Metro’s goals,” Jenkins writes, “but we maintain that the new ‘ridership’ model would be a huge blow to our community and many others in Madison and surroundings. Metro claims to be preserving service within 1/2 mile of low-income neighborhoods, but we say ½ mile is too far.  For a community of elders, disabled folks, children, youth and families, 10 blocks is too many.”

In a conversation the week before Fitchburg’s May 24 vote, Fitchburg Alder Gabriella Gerhardt pointed out the structural challenges to a ridership approach. 

“They prioritize ridership which means that buses come more frequently but that means that they can’t go to as many places over coverage. And ultimately for certain neighborhoods that functionally eliminates bus service for them,” says Gerhardt. “This whole process is not meant to target people, but because of the structural inequality in the way our city was built and histories of redlining, those decisions, those ‘logical’ decisions end up negatively impacting these neighborhoods.”

In his email, Jenkins lists five demands from the Southdale community for Metro and the City of Madison. Although amendment 16C is the first demand, the next three demands support other redesign amendments—4E (Bram’s Addition), 13 (Allied Drive) and 9 (Northport)—to restore some service to South and North side neighborhoods. The final demand opposes the draft plan for the redesign as a whole, and calls for an equity study that separates low-income student populations from “generational low-income neighborhoods” as well as “effective outreach and dialogue in low-income communities that face service cuts.”

Speakers from other neighborhoods reinforced some of these demands during the May 31 public hearing, including support for various amendments, a slow down of the redesign process, and a distinction between low-income households on and off of campus in Metro’s equity analyses.

Though Southdale’s route to preserving bus service might be particularly circuitous, the neighborhood’s residents won’t be the only ones speaking out and watching next week’s votes on the future of Metro’s network redesign.

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