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State Street businesses should not call the shots on Bus Rapid Transit

Business owners’ recent comments about BRT stations reveal their ignorance and contempt of public transit.

Business owners’ recent comments about BRT stations reveal their ignorance and contempt of public transit.

Illustration: Three abstract figures await a bus in an altered rendering of one of Madison’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit stations. One figure appears to be stepping onto a displaced Madison skyline. Illustration by Tone Madison, station rendering and skyline image via cityofmadison.com.

In the latest battle to save the soul of the city of Madison, i.e. turn State Street into a pedestrian mall, the State Street business community lined up at a Common Council Executive Committee Meeting on Tuesday, July 13 to testify against plans to include Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stops on State Street. The public comments were made before an update on the BRT project from City of Madison Transportation Director Tom Lynch, and they clearly illustrated why business owners should not be allowed to dictate major infrastructure decisions. Not only was there an impressive amount of confusion regarding buses and bus riders, but there was also an unfortunate undercurrent of entitlement and a real sense of victimhood throughout the remarks, which you can listen to here (the BRT agenda item was taken up at 35:15).  

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While many (though not all) of the speakers claimed to support Bus Rapid Transit in some form, they are opposed to the plan to include two BRT stops between the 100 and 300 blocks of State Street. The plan adds new, significantly larger BRT boarding stations specifically designed to allow for faster boarding, as the word “rapid” might imply. Business owners complain that the boarding station designs will be too obstructive and may block customers from seeing their storefronts. The city quickly responded to these complaints with a new, less obstructive design, which was apparently not good enough. Business owners are also concerned that investing in BRT infrastructure on State Street will deter the city from eventually turning State Street into a pedestrian mall. 

I also spoke at the meeting. As I’ve written in the past, for the last eight years I’ve worked one block away from Capitol Square. Throughout that time, I’ve traveled to work by bike or by bus more and more often to offset the expense of parking. In 2019, I sold my car altogether. Something I’ve learned as a bus rider is that the safety, comfort, and convenience of transit users is unfortunately an inconsistent priority throughout the city. Meanwhile, the safety, comfort, and convenience of customers in one of Madison’s most cherished business districts is a high priority, which means that State Street is one of the most comfortable areas to catch a bus, with no car traffic, spacious, covered bus stops, good pedestrian infrastructure, and sidewalks that are consistently cleared of snow and ice. Unsurprisingly. I want bus stops to stay where I know they’ll continue to receive the attention transit riders deserve and where businesses are more immediately accessible to transit riders.

Even if BRT and transit weren’t personal concerns of mine, I would be opposed to any change to the plans at this point. The city requested $80 million from the federal government to support the project, which it is now slated to receive. This federal funding is a necessary component for the BRT system to move forward, and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s office has been clear that a delay in moving forward could jeopardize the funding

What’s more, we have known for years now about serious inequities in our transit system. Unless you live and work in very specific areas in Madison, using the bus as your primary mode of transportation is not feasible. Surprising no one, people of color in Madison are more likely to be on the losing end of the spectrum between car-free and thriving and having to spend 90 minutes on the bus just to get to a job. Abigail Becker detailed these inequities in an excellent Capital Times article in 2019. Citing Metro Transit’s 2016 equity analysis, Becker writes that “African American riders transferred 2.5 times more and spent 25% more time traveling than white riders. Forty percent of Hispanic riders transferred compared to 25 percent of non-Hispanic riders, and Hispanic riders spent 9% more time traveling.” 

Bus Rapid Transit will not solve these problems entirely. Transit aficionados in our city can list the many ways the project falls short and the additional steps they’d like to see the city take to develop a great public transportation system. But it’s an important step forward and the time to take it is now, not several years from now or in another decade. 

Meanwhile, many of the individuals who spoke against BRT on State Street seem to struggle with the very concept of what buses do

Sean Scannell, who along with his wife Stacey became owners of the Soap Opera in 2016, was the first to expose a general misunderstanding of this point when he offered up alternatives to placing bus stops on State Street during the July 13 meeting. (Scannell tells Tone Madison he is no longer involved in the business and wasn’t speaking on its behalf.)

“Why not Johnson and Gorham?” Scannell asked. “We have these two very, very busy streets where there’s not many pedestrians walking on so there’s less concern of safety for people, too.” 

Well, no, because buses transport people. People who step off a bus onto a sidewalk to head to their final destination become pedestrians, as are people walking from a destination to a bus stop. By suggesting that we put bus stops on Johnson and Gorham Streets, “two very, very busy streets,” Scannell is suggesting that we put more pedestrians onto streets which, by his own admission, are less safe. 

Pedestrian and bike safety came up several times throughout the meeting in ways that made it clear that the speakers a) do not recognize that bus riders are pedestrians and b) do not actually know much about what makes pedestrians and cyclists unsafe. Pedestrians and cyclists are mostly hit by cars, not buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that of the 5,429 pedestrians who were struck and killed by a vehicle in 2018, 4,514 were hit by a car or a “light truck” (i.e. SUV, pick-up, or van) while 44 were hit by a bus. Meanwhile, buses actually reduce the number of car trips and thus cars on the street. 

Scannell was also the first to tap into a second thread of misunderstanding that was reiterated throughout the meeting when he declared that “Pedestrians buy things, buses don’t buy things.” He did then admit that buses bring people who buy things, but again suggested that these potential customers, who he clearly holds dear, be carted over to Johnson and Gorham. 

He wasn’t alone in his skepticism that bus riders are customers. Multiple speakers seemed incredulous that their customers might arrive by bus. Carmelo Alfano, who owns Madison Modern Market, said: “Tom Lynch forecasted that the BRT line will primarily be used by people commuting to and from work. Yet we continue to hear suggestions that State Street would benefit from congested bus traffic,” and “I know of very few customers who take the bus.” 

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Emma Stepien, longtime manager of Madison Modern Market, also seemed to question data Rhodes-Conway shared previously about the number of transit riders who boarded a bus at the top of State Street in 2019 who reported interacting with a State Street business. Stepien attempted to counter this by pointing out that “In the 2015 Metro Transit Onboard Survey, looking at ridership for the entire Metro Madison system versus the top of State Street, it showed that 71.3% of rider trip purpose was to work.” 

It seems pretty silly to have to explain something that is so obvious to me as a bus rider and regular human, but apparently it’s needed: transit riders, much like people in cars, combine trips. For example, while the primary purpose of most of my bus trips downtown is to get to work, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get coffee or lunch during the day, or dinner or a beer after work. I have also shopped for gifts, groceries, books, and other random shit I probably didn’t need downtown after arriving there by bus, primarily for work. Similarly, if a person who drives to work stops at a Starbucks drive through on the way, they would probably not describe Starbucks as the primary purpose of their trip, nor would someone who stopped at the grocery store on the way home from work report grocery shopping as the reason they left the house that morning, and yet the business interactions did take place. Incredible!

In addition to my own anecdotal experience, other cities that have implemented BRT have noted economic benefits to nearby businesses. The City of Madison cites the American Public Transportation Association’s finding that for every dollar invested in public transportation, $4 is generated in economic returns. A study by the New York City Department of Transportation found that implementing BRT along a segment of Fordham Road in the Bronx helped increase economic activity in the same area, with businesses reporting an increase in sales even as they lost parking. There’s good reason to believe that businesses and property owners alike will benefit from BRT.

I also don’t care if it benefits them or not—and you shouldn’t either. Our current transit system is insufficient and suffers from serious inequities that leave large swathes of our community disconnected from the city. The planet is in the middle of a frightening, climate-change fueled meltdown and transportation is the number one source of carbon emissions in the United States. Furthermore, car traffic in Madison regularly kills and injures people. Getting cars off the road is an imperative. To be clear, I do not believe that Bus Rapid Transit will hurt profits. At the same time, if it did put people—and the environment—before profits, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon.

This is not the first time that business owners on State Street have demanded special treatment or suggested that they’ve been unjustly singled out for hardship. In fact, business owners on State Street have been wringing their hands for years about rising crime and “bad” behavior on State Street while calling for an increased police presence in the area. But while many of us took the opportunity of the pandemic and last summer’s uprising against white supremacy to do some soul-searching about our place in the world and our complicity in causing harm, the entitlement and lack of self-awareness on display last Tuesday made it very clear that for others, nothing has changed. 

The worst of this attitude came from Joe Perkins, owner of Tutto Pasta, who shouted at Common Council President and District 12 Alder Syed Abbas, demanded answers to barely coherent questions, and accused the city of cutting the legs off his business. “I lost $500,000,” he screamed at one point during his comments. To hear him speak, you would think the pandemic was a coordinated attack on him and his business personally, and not a global phenomenon that has killed millions of people and left millions more destitute and homeless. 

In response to this tirade, Tiffany Kenney, Executive Director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, said, “I do want to give us all a second to breathe after Joe’s passion. Joe represents one of our downtown businesses and I’m here to represent them as a whole.” Of course Perkins wasn’t “passionate.” He was threatening and abrasive.

But while no one on the call could match Perkins for bluster, the same inability to place one’s own concerns into a city-wide perspective prevailed throughout the comments and was extremely disheartening. It’s not just that business owners are predictably interested in profit above all else, but that they’ve constructed an entire mythology about how State Street is central to the vibrancy of the community—the “beating heart” of downtown Madison, as Craig Bartlett, former associate publisher of Isthmus, referred to it during his comments at meeting. I think that’s overstating things quite a bit, but if you do believe it, how do you then justify prolonging the disconnect that currently exists between many members of our community and our city’s “beating heart”? 

Speakers complained about the lack of democracy, and how they didn’t feel heard, though in reality few issues have garnered as much media attention as the constant evaluation of the health and vibrancy of State Street, with business owners’ concerns always front and center. The subject of a possible pedestrian mall alone has been discussed in numerous articles in the past few months. And yet to hear business owners speak, the State Street corridor is the most neglected corner of the city.

Worst of all, however, it wasn’t just business owners bleating about the horrors of buses on State Street. Christina Brungardt, director of the non-profit Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, also got in on the act, speaking out on behalf of businesses and unironically referring to State Street as a “struggling neighborhood.” Brungardt also complained that the new BRT stations will prevent the public from viewing and being inspired by art in MMoCA’s windows. In a letter to the editor published recently in the Wisconsin State Journal, a MMoCA volunteer similarly fretted that a new station would prevent the public from viewing the museum’s historic facade. It is difficult to share these concerns, knowing that the station will not be several stories tall or built directly abutting the building itself. It is also distressing to know that the director of a free and public museum does not regard bus riders waiting at bus stops as members of the public who might be engaged or inspired by art.  

At this point, the question of where the BRT stops are located feels, to me, secondary to a more important issue, which is who determines how the city works and who it is for. Business owners and property owners relentlessly insist that every aspect of public life in Madison be molded to suit their interests, and assert their needs as a top concern in every conversation from transportation to public health policy. In the meantime, the day-to-day needs of regular people are neglected and we do nothing to resolve racist inequities. This state of affairs has not worked well for Madison to date. Regardless of how individuals feel about BRT stops on State Street, hopefully we can all recognize that allowing a group of business owners to completely derail a major infrastructure project that is years in the making doesn’t bode well for our collective futures. 

Correction: This article initially stated that Sean Scannell was a co-owner of the Soap Opera on State Street. He is no longer involved in the business, and the reference has been updated.

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