Madison’s bus system needs to serve Madison’s nightlife. (Photo by Amy Meredith on Flickr.)
Welcome back to Small Fixes, an occasional series that proposes small but meaningful things the City of Madison and other organizations can do to strengthen arts and music in Madison. (Also, I’m excited to say that I have some guest contributions in the works for this, so look for more voices to be part of this soon and reach me if you’d like to contribute an idea.)
In a frequently quoted talk a few years ago, former Bogota, Colombia, mayor Enrique Penalosa said that “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one in which even the rich use public transport.” I would add that an advanced city is one where we use public transit not only for getting to and from work, but for getting to and from the things we enjoy in our free time.
Currently, Madison’s bus network doesn’t encourage such a balance. Yes, we have a decent and growing options outside of the personal car, and greater than average initiative in using them: Tons of walkable areas, a robust system of bike paths and bike lanes, cab companies, and the novel “let’s break the law and treat it as a business expense because ‘disruptive'” strategies of Lyft. Madison Metro’s bus service is great for getting to and from work, if you work on the UW-Madison campus or downtown, and if you live in a relatively central area, and if you have a plan, and if your work schedule is 9-to-5 or something close. Outside of that, it’s spotty. Because of the bus network’s design—routes are built around the odd shape of the city, and named for transfer points and odd reference points—Metro lends itself well to routine, not to taking advantages of varying options with relative spontaneity. And except for a few routes that circulate around campus, it’s basically all done by about 12:30 a.m.
And, wherever we are in the “most bike-friendly cities” listicles race this week, and whatever we’d like to believe, Madison is still very much a car town. I’m glad there’s been so much discussion in the local media about how younger people look for non-driving options when choosing how to live and work. And beyond the logic of “attracting millennials,” expanding the use and scope of public transit is an environmental imperative and a social one. Finally, as Alan Talaga wrote recently, diverse transportation options have a lot to do with living a well-rounded life.
Which means we should look at how our transportation network serves arts audiences. (Granted, the Rocky Rococo bus wrap is a work of art unto itself.) I’m going to focus specifically on the bus system here, because it’s something we already have an infrastructure for, and it’s something that we’re all paying for—if it’s public transit, that pretty much means it’s not going to pay for itself without being subsidized. And bus networks should be thinking about how to build up their support and interest among the public, as federal grants get cut and the Walker administration pursues a transportation policy that’s car-centric even for America. Plus, buses offer a middle ground for people who want an alternative to driving but choose not to bike.
Of course, expanding bus service hours or adding bus routes would not be a small fix. But there are simpler things we can do more immediately to start the conversation about how Metro can play a significant role beyond the commute.
So when *does* Metro seem to go out of its way to do that? With Miller Coors-sponsored free rides on New Year’s Eve and during Taste of Madison (which, now that JJO Band Camp isn’t happening, now stands unopposed as the most horrid event of the summer). I would propose seeking private or nonprofit support, preferably not from a multinational horsepiss giant, for other free-rides days throughout the year, and/or for expanded-service days with actual late-night service. They could be timed for a few of the weekends during fall when Madison gets in a lot of touring music, or for MMOCA Gallery Nights, or for the various weekends when a lot of popular arts events coincide.
This depends on the generosity of a donor and the effort of securing it, and isn’t exactly sustainable, but in the long run it can help more people feel they have a stake in our bus network. There must be companies and organizations who’d be willing to support such a program, not to mention venues, arts organizations, concert promoters, and others who would have an obvious incentive to help spread the word. And if we’re optimistic, that’d be a good starting point to discuss expanding service and using transit as a way to connect people with Madison’s cultural offerings.
In the long run, perhaps this is really just asking the city to subsidize our trips too and from the entertainment options of our choosing. Which is no more unreasonable than the city granting $25,000 to a one-day event, subsidizing the Overture Center, or subsidizing a convention center that doesn’t even provide straight numbers in return. A transit network is bound to have its gaps, but it’s possible to bend it toward a more well-rounded existence.