Q&A: Transit Key to a Socialist Future

Artsy bus stop in downtown Madison. Unfortunately, when the stop came back into use, the beautifications were taken away.

The bus stop was beautiful. An elaborate, colorful mosaic of shapes. Flowers in pots and a pinwheel surrounded a wrought metal bench. The problem is that the bus stop is not being used as buses are detoured during construction. Turn the page as the detour disappears, and the bus stop becomes functional. Bench and pretty decorations disappear.

An overlooked but key part of the struggle for socialism is the role of transportation in revitalizing communities, creating an eco-sensible future, and making the commons accessible to all. Right now, in Madison, a plan is being drawn up to establish a Bus Rapid Transit system.

The first route is due to start in late 2024 and to run east/west through downtown. Expected ridership will be 13,000 to 14,000. It will be funded by the feds and the City of Madison. The BRT will have stations on raised platforms and will run through the heart of downtown. The furthest west it will go is Middleton. To the east, service on the main line will end at East Springs. Metro Transit on its website also says that local services will run more frequently on weekends and evenings. On East Washington and Mineral Point, BRT stations may be “center running,” meaning that passengers will wait for the buses at a station in the center of the street, rather than to the side. At the very end of the route, wait times will be 15 minutes, while buses may run more often in the downtown area. Bicycle lanes and walkways for pedestrians are scheduled for improvement due to the change in bus traffic. 

But overlooked in the conversations are issues such as high fares and the still obvious bias toward the private automobile. 

Also, the input of residents has been spotty, with the concerns of the most vulnerable often given short shrift. These dynamics were described in a recent article in Tone. 

When the specifics of the redesign were released as a draft plan, concerns about the impact of the loss of neighborhood service on older adults, disabled people, low income communities, and people of color quickly followed. South Madison Unite! issued a statement opposing proposed cuts to service on Routes 13 and 4. The South Metropolitan Planning Council and Dane County NAACP have also pushed back against proposed cuts to service in South side neighborhoods. The ACLU of Wisconsin sent a letter to Madison’s Metro Transit agency urging a full equity analysis of the impacts of the redesign—an analysis that Metro says will come after the final approval of the redesign by Madison’s Common Council. Tone, Madison’s Southdale Neighborhood fights for transportation without representation

In addition, many residents in Southdale are Spanish speakers, making it difficult for them to give feedback on how important the bus system is in their daily lives.

Community organizations have raised concerns and criticisms of the current redesign plan. When Wisconsin ACLU sent a letter to Metro Transit asking for a full equity analysis of the plan, Metro Transit said this will come after the Madison Common Council gives its final approval. 

The Southdale neighborhood is an example of a pattern of neighborhoods populated by people of color being carved up by a highway system meant to serve well-heeled suburbanites. The Town of Madison’s 2009 neighborhood plan describes the area, as “isolated, yet surrounded by an extensive transportation network.” Being ringed by highways doesn’t help much if you don’t have a car and are denied bus service. Simple necessities such as buying groceries can become ordeals for residents who don’t own a car. The redesign would force some to trudge a mile to a single stop on Rimrock Road; very difficult for elderly or disabled residents of the neighborhood. 

In addition, residents of the Southdale neighborhood were given short notice of the meeting, there were a series of meetings in rapid succession, and community members had to provide translation into Spanish for those who do not speak English. This rushing  of the plan places an undue burden on working people with less free time and capacity to attend meetings than more privileged citizens. 

Spotty bus service in neighborhoods comes at a high price tag. Currently, the standard adult fare is $2, way too high for the working poor who depend on the bus for transportation. Low-income passes are available, but they are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis to people at 150% of the federal poverty line. Get a jump on the first or 15th of the month, or you’re out of luck. Also, if you’re just above the means tested line you cannot get this discounted pass. Another example of putting extra burdens on people who have the least time and money. 

One answer is simple: free fares. More and more cities around the country are instituting free fares. For example, Corvallis Oregon, home to Oregon State University, recently implemented a fareless transport system and saw a two-thirds increase in ridership. Failing that, a monthly pass costing $50 or less would go a long way to boosting ridership.

Many ordinary citizens in Madison are very supportive of mass transit. “Residents who communicated with me were very opinionated about all forms of transit. Overall, I’d say the majority of residents I spoke to wanted the city to prioritize mass transit over single occupancy motor vehicles,” according to Marsha Rummel, an active DSA member who served as Alder for District 6 for 14 years, from 2007-2021. Rummel says, “The awareness of the environmental hazards from fossil fuels and motor vehicles is widely understood on the east side of Madison. Every day I think most people who see the impacts of climate change understand that an effective public transit system would reduce carbon emissions.”

In Madison, despite public support among the people for mass transit, State Street merchants have opposed plans to introduce BRT articulated buses, citing the length of the buses. For them, aesthetic concerns outweigh practicality. This highlights a class divide. 

Anti-transit sign on a State St. business.

Wealth says one thing, but science says another, as studies back up the benefits to the environment. Public transport produces 30% less carbon dioxide. In addition to the improved air, it relieves congestion in crowded city centers, and makes streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

In addition, a thriving public transit system can improve the health of individuals. The system needs to make it easy for everyone to get to medical care; healthy, affordable food stores; and employment.

We can learn from other countries. Many nations have modern mass transit that is new, clean, reliable, and easy to use. Yet, mass transit remains the most neglected part of our rotting infrastructure. Americans spend more money on gasoline than other developed countries, even though the cost per gallon is less

A recent Jacobin article examines how mass transit projects are tackled in other developed countries. The U.S.A. lags well behind other nations in mass transit and is even losing the expertise for implementing large scale transportation initiatives. Even when projects are approved, they are overpriced and very slow to complete due to opposition by wealthier communities; inefficient, wasteful contracts; and simple inexperience building such systems. 

One of the roadblocks to having decent mass transit in our country is racism. Often transit systems have been ways to enforce segregation. Bus services are limited in suburban and exurban areas to keep people of color out. Even when encouraging more mass transit, distinctions are made between “choice” riders and “dependent” riders. Those forced to ride the bus are often ignored, while those who are using park and ride from suburban areas have a smoother time.

Too often, new routes are designed for those with privilege rather than the needs of all, especially leaving out people of color. This not only includes cushier buses in some cases, but also shelters and places to sit provided to suburban residents, in contrast with unsheltered bus stops in poorer areas. 

The question is: if the growing awareness of the importance of mass transit in fighting climate change will translate into an effective public policy. Madison is moving toward a change in transit; let’s hope it will not be just a prettier, still inefficient system. We need affordable mass transit which serves all of us. Mass transit needs to be a priority rather than an afterthought.

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