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Madison’s transit system grows more fragmented

Green Cab’s closure, a weakened taxi network, and a coming bus network redesign aggravate the mobility barriers disabled Madisonians face.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweentam. Image description: A multicolored draft map of Madison Metro's redesigned bus routes, overlaid with symbols of a taxi, a person in a wheelchair, and a question mark, accompanied by circles of bright red.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweentam. Image description: A multicolored draft map of Madison Metro’s redesigned bus routes, overlaid with symbols of a taxi, a person in a wheelchair, and a question mark, accompanied by circles of bright red.

Green Cab’s closure, a weakened taxi network, and a coming bus network redesign aggravate the mobility barriers disabled Madisonians face.

Before Green Cab shut down in November, Jada Wren used the company’s taxis almost daily to go to work, basketball practice, or just to see friends. 

“I was a little shocked and sad at the same time [when Green Cab closed],” Wren says. “Most of [the drivers] were very nice and funny. They liked to joke around with me.” 

In addition to the personal touch, Green Cab provided more flexibility for Wren, who receives IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct) services, which helps adults with disabilities live independently. Green Cab and IRIS had a payment system that allowed her to make impromptu trips, whereas other transit options had to be approved in advance.

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So when Green Cab and its parent company, Zerology, announced it would discontinue service in Madison, Wren was “really stressed out because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. Wren’s IRIS social worker developed a transportation plan with a patchwork of providers to get her to work and regularly scheduled activities. But she lost the flexibility she had with Green Cab, which means she’s now limited in where she can go and when. 

“[Using Green Cab] was easier to get to places I didn’t know, or if it was dark out,” Wren says. “If I don’t know where I’m going I get moody and frustrated sometimes.”

You would think that Union Cab would be relieved to see a competitor close, but General Manager Bill Carter says the rideshare industry and pandemic have left other cab companies with limited capacity to cover the increased demand. Green Cab had already thrown a wrench into the local transportation landscape in spring of 2022, when it stopped offering 24/7, on-demand service, in violation of the City of Madison’s taxi ordinance.

“[Ride sharing companies are] what has had the biggest effect on the cab companies,” Carter says. “Before they came in, there were four cab companies [in Madison] and they were all a lot larger than what they are.”

Carter noticed an influx of IRIS clients after Green Cab closed, such as Wren. Initially Green Cab did not provide services specifically aimed at people with disabilities, but as it bought out other transportation companies it expanded its offerings, such as rides to IRIS recipients, and non-emergency medical transportation. Now, Union Cab is struggling to pick up the slack.

“There was really no way that we would be positioned to fill in for that without any type of warning that it was coming,” Carter says. “Union was struggling to handle the on-demand business the way it was. And now of course, we have all these other requests on top of that, so it’s going to be probably a rough go for a little bit here.”

A proposed grant that would help cab companies purchase accessible taxicabs is moving through the Madison City Council approval process. District 3 Alder Erik Paulson first proposed a similar program for the city’s 2023 budget, but it was voted down. Paulson says that adding newer vehicles to the fleet would ease some of the strain on accessible transportation in the wake of Green Cab’s closure. Carter told WORT this month that many of Union’s accessible cabs are over a decade old.

The broader context is the Madison area’s and the wider United States’ car-centric infrastructure, which limits the usefulness of other modes of transportation, says Carey McAndrews, a professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture. 

“In European countries and other regions in the world, people travel with a mix of different ways, and the idea is that you could have these choices to serve different types of trips for different types of purposes,” McAndrews says. “If you can imagine the heterogeneity of everybody’s lives, there’s a specific way to travel that would fit that really well.” 

“But in the US, and, in our context, most of our activities are pretty spread out. And if you have to travel sort of quickly, to get there you have to have these higher-speed modes [of transit],” McAndrews says. “And so that’s where transit, taxis, and some people use bicycles and cars fit in. Because you can travel these long distances in a reasonable amount of time.”

The question of how to ensure everyone can access transportation is only going to become more complicated as Wisconsin’s population continues to age and more people find themselves unable to operate a private vehicle. According to a report from Wisconsin Watch about elderly transportation services around Brown County, Wisconsin’s Department of Administration estimates that people over the age of 65 will comprise a quarter of the state’s population by 2040. In 2010, that age group made up 14% of the population.

Madison’s Metro Transit agency plans to implement a redesigned network of bus routes in June. Initial studies showed that the new system will benefit low-income communities and communities of color. But those studies also faced criticism, and disability advocates have pointed out that consolidating bus lines to increase frequency would require people to travel further to get to bus stops, which would disproportionately affect the elderly and people with disabilities. And some neighborhoods have had to fight to retain access to public transit. 

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McAndrews pointed out that the full impact of implementation will not be known for some time. 

“Madison already has a pretty high quality transit system and very high transit ridership compared to its peer cities,” McAndrews said. “So the redesign was thinking about well, what would we do to improve that service even more to serve more people with more hours of the day?”

For riders, Madison’s system being considered high quality compared to its peers shows how low quality public transit is throughout the United States. 

Whatever gaps there may be with the redesign, cabs will be expected to fill. But Carter says the city hasn’t really been proactive with communicating about transit changes with Union. He was working on an article for the company newsletter about the changes with McAndrews when she pointed out that some of the bus stops he thought were eliminated had been added back in. 

Carter says the whole process has been top-down, with the city starting with the addition of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and then redesigning the bus system in response. Carter is on the Dane County specialized transportation committee and attending city transit meetings and presentations, but says the city’s transportation system treats cabs as an afterthought. 

“No one talks to us,” Carter says. “So they do what they do and then I think that the results [will] come out and people will be scrambling to try to shore it up once they find out where the problems are.”

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