Downtown: The Madison Story

Here to There - Welcome to the multi-modal Madison of the future

If you think getting around is difficult now, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The new census will make it official, but population estimates for the last decade were 11,000-plus in the city and 68,252 for the three-county metro area—Dane, Columbia and Iowa.

The Isthmus 2020 report completed in 1998 envisioned a new broad-boundary downtown with 4,000 more housing units and 10,000 more jobs on the Isthmus. UW–Madison has a list of building projects. St. Mary’s and Meriter are growing their campuses in place. The Capitol East District along East Washington has the potential for a major new job center. How will we manage it?

Clearly Madisonians like transportation choices. Metro ridership has grown from 10 million trips in 2000 to 13 million in 2010. When the “missing link” bike path near UW’s east campus became a perceived need it was built. The growth of the area’s bicycling economy is spectacular. Reports indicate that the industry rivals deer hunting as an economic engine in Wisconsin, and produces about $1.5 billion in economic activity per year. And vehicle registration has increased from 182,717 in the year 2000 to 202,369 at the end of 2009.

Some of the best data on mode choice comes from the 2007 UW–Madison survey of campus trips. In good weather bicycling accounted for 12.9 percent, bus and vanpool riders were 22.4 percent, and less than half, or 47.8 percent, drove alone in their car. In bad weather the single driver numbers increased to 50.7 percent and a fair amount of bike use shifted to transit. And those are not just students but faculty and staff with 14,000 employee bus passes.

But Madisonians aren’t the only ones making these choices. Since 1988 Madison Metro has had standing agreements with suburban communities that chose to provide bus service, including long-time partners Fitchburg, Middleton and the town of Madison, and more recently Verona and Shorewood Hills. The Federal Transit Administration ranks us as the twentieth-best transit ridership per capita for the largest 100 metro areas.

While we look for new tools to meet our transportation needs and choices we also use the old ones. Annually Madison spends more than $50 million on road projects, building new streets and repaving existing ones. Some projects can be really expensive. Rebuilding East Washington Avenue cost $77 million, and the Monona Drive rebuild will cost between $20 and $25 million. The first phase of the Verona Road reconstruction project has an estimated cost of $80 million and the second phase is estimated at $45 million. For the rebuilding of Stoughton Road, another major project, the cost ranges from $150–$295 million.

A new tool is encouraging more residents to choose bicycle transportation by making Madison a Platinum Bike Community. Among the ideas from the Platinum Bike report is establishing an arterial bike network—just as we have an arterial street network. Local streets should work as complete streets, meaning they serve all transportation uses, not just the auto. Some of these ideas got a boost from the recent trip by the mayor, the county executive and others to bike-friendly cities in Europe. But it’s not just pro-cycling politicians who are pushing their own agendas. A 2002 survey by the National Association of Realtors and  National Association of Home Builders found that a nearby bikeway was ranked “the second most important neighborhood amenity” for homebuyers. 

Madison boasts 35 miles of dedicated pedestrian/bike paths and is in the process of designating streets such as East Mifflin and East Wilson bike boulevards, where cycling would be the primary mode. Currently under development is a new path linking areas in the Oscar Mayer vicinity north and east of the Capitol. The planned Cannonball Path on the southwest side is a partnership between the city and Fitchburg.

Another new tool for expanding choice is the recently created Dane County Regional Transit Authority. Four public transit systems—Madison Metro, Monona Lift, Sun Prairie shared ride taxi  and Stoughton shared ride taxi—accommodate residents, including the 6.6 percent of county households without auto access. Additionally, Dane County social services contract with many providers for elderly and specialized transit. The regional approach would allow for transfers between local systems, which currently doesn’t exist. It would also avoid emergencies: the town of Madison almost withdrew from bus service because it didn’t budget for unexpected fuel cost increases in its small municipal structure. Yet the area contains some of the most transit-dependent residents.

So what might a more transit-rich future look like? Better bus service could include express routes from surrounding munici-palities to key areas: downtown, UW campus and the hospitals. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) with dedicated lanes in some areas and signal pre-emption for express buses would make travel time more competitive with the auto. Fitchburg has proposed its own bus connection point to improve suburban-urban links with coordinated schedules. More park-and-ride options, some located at the origins of express routes, are also part of the coming equation. These would permit a portion of the major commute on transit and still allow for errand trips on the way home. Other park-and-ride lots should be located at pre-congestion stages so folks could split trips and avoid the traffic jams, not to mention high parking costs. Closer in transit trips also benefit from frequent service options not available at the fringe.

Madison has a unique geography as the only place where a state capitol and a major university are located on a narrow isthmus. Worked fine with horses in the 19th century but today we’ve got a problem. Some think the city is too small for commuter rail transit, but the high density we have is in the destinations on that narrow isthmus. The major trip corridor in the region extends from east to west, and we have built East Washington Avenue to capacity and are in the process of rebuilding University Avenue. They will work for us now but do not provide the growth for our future.

So we can drive merrily along and assume our transportation problems will somehow work themselves out after congestion creates total gridlock. Or we can have some foresight. Sure most folks will still drive but wouldn’t it be nice if those drivers in the two cars in front of you rode the bus and biked so you had a little more of the road for yourself? The reality of the Madison area is that if you provide transportation choices, a sustainable number of citizens will choose them.

Dick Wagner, a former member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, currently serves on the Board of Directors for Downtown Madison, Inc.




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