Is it time to take buses off state street?

Adam Fagen, copyright 2012. (click here for more information on copyright and license) 

In an interview this week with WISC, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said he would like the City Council to look into moving city buses off State Street.

Soglin said he has always strongly backed buses on State Street since the thoroughfare was closed to normal automobile traffic in the 1970s. But he feels now is the time to reconsider that position.

This is a good idea.

And I’m not necessarily saying it’s a good idea to eliminate buses from the street, but it is a very good idea for the City Council to study the possibility.

Without a car, I rely on the Metro system to get me just about everywhere out of walking distance from my apartment. And living downtown, the majority of these trips include a path down State Street. It’s typical that I might travel on a bus down State Street 10-15 times per week.  

And on these trips, I see both the current problems as well as the possible solutions.


The Problems

1. Traffic Jams

State Street offers a narrow passage for automobile traffic. Which allows for wider sidewalks. But this means the street is just wide enough for two buses to pass each other. The street is narrowed further when delivery vehicles park on the edge to serve local businesses.

This means slow passage for buses. I’ve sat on plenty of buses stuck on State Street because there is no place to go until the oncoming line of buses moves or the delivery is completed.


2. Bicycle Safety

All of this results in a lot of inconvenience for bus passengers. But more critically, it becomes a safety hazard for bicyclists on State Street. In a city (and world) increasingly stressing the importance of bicycle infrastructure, State Street is a roll of the dice when you’re on two wheels.

Dodging buses and delivery vehicles is a harrowing slalom on what should be the city’s marquee bicycle thoroughfare. Watch this video and imagine how much better we could be doing to accommodate bicyclists.


3. Slow Passage

For all the reasons of problem number one, plus the additional reasons of problem number two, combined with traffic lights that are timed to drive bus passengers insane, it takes a long time to get down even just a few blocks of State Street.

This is a problem not created by the presence of buses, but a problem that results from bus routes being forced down State Street. Metro recently eliminated a number of bus stops in my neighborhood to cut down on the time it takes routes to get through the isthmus. But increasing efficiency for buses on State Street would do far more to solve that problem. Perhaps the City needs to look at timing the traffic lights on State Street to facilitate bus flow. Or:


The Solutions

1. Remove All Buses

Removing all buses from State Street creates a safer environment for bicyclists and pedestrians. Some might even argue it helps the aesthetics. But the issue with the isthmus is that we’re in a tight space and alternative routes are not entirely abundant. How do you maintain convenient access to State Street for bus riders? A few possible options, with perhaps some minor street reconstruction, are below:


2. Remove Most Buses

Any study should include a look at which routes are bringing passengers to State Street and which routes are simply taking them through. Allowing just one or two important routes to continue down State Street could alleviate congestion, improve safety and still deliver most riders conveniently to their destinations.


3. Remove Buses in Warm Months

I would like to use my bicycle to commute everywhere, and I do a lot in the warm months. But the reality of Madison, Wisconsin is that most bicyclists will not/ cannot travel in the cold and the snow. Those riders need an alternative in the winter and the bus is a good substitution.

Fewer bicyclists in winter means less overall traffic on State Street, which could mean a less significant safety issue in the cold months. Additionally, in the warmer months, it’s more reasonable that a bus passenger would be OK walking an extra block or two to access State Street from the new bus routes. So can we have State Street routes in the winter and non-State Street routes in the summer and shoulder seasons?


4. Do Nothing

We can talk a lot about real convenience issues. And we can also discuss potential safety issues. But it’s a reality that there are no immediate colossal problems with buses traveling down State Street. By large credit to the skilled Metro drivers, buses are not running into each other, they’re not colliding with delivery vehicles and they’re not hitting people. I’ve never seen any of those things once.

So leaving things as they are is not a bad option. But the City Council should say yes to Mayor Soglin’s suggestion and take a real look at what our potential better options might be.