WISPIRG is one of many members of the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation (CMRT), which includes environmental organizations, faith and social justice groups, public transit advocates, and others. This week, CMRT is holding a Week of Action to draw attention to the need for better public transportation in Wisconsin. One of the ways we’re doing that is by asking transit riders across the state to share their public transportation stories with us. In this guest post, our summer campaign associate Macklyn Hutchison writes on her conversations with transit riders about their experience with the public transportation system.
Guest Post, by Macklyn Hutchison
This week, I went from bus stop to bus stop across Madison talking to transit riders about their experiences on the bus, and why they choose to use public transportation. Decision-makers should take note: Public transportation matters to people, and in order to meet the needs of today and tomorrow, we have to make investments in options that are accessible, less expensive, and more environmentally responsible.
For one, WISPIRG’s research has shown that young people like me increasingly want to live in places with public transit, walking and biking options, and other non-driving modes of transportation. At the other end of the age spectrum, Wisconsin’s population is rapidly growing older, and seniors who are unable to drive themselves will need reliable public transportation to have the freedom and independence to reach important places in their communities.
I spoke to a woman named Katherine who illustrated the importance of bus accessibility for the elderly in her hometown of Eau Claire. She told me that many of her friends can no longer drive, and that they rely on the city bus to get everywhere. Because buses run infrequently and don’t run at all on Sunday, seniors and people with disabilities are reliant on Lyft or friends with cars to drive them around - or else they are stranded at home and cut off from social life. “A lot of people just want to take the bus to go to church or weekend activities,” said Katherine, “but because there’s no Sunday bus, they aren’t able to get around.”
Several college students I spoke to referred to the bus as their only option to get around besides walking or biking. Abbey from UW-Madison spoke of the exorbitant prices of parking on campus, and said that the bus was not only a cheaper transportation option than driving, but was overall less stressful and more convenient. Alyssa from Edgewood College said that the only walking-distance area of Madison from Edgewood’s campus was Monroe Street, and that students needed the bus in order to access downtown or any other areas of the city. Leigh from UW-Madison said that most students, like her, didn’t have cars and needed the bus to get groceries and get to class in the winter.
Naomi, a regular transit-rider who lived in Madison for years before moving to New Jersey, spoke of the inequity in Madison’s bus system. She said that the current bus routes disadvantage low-income, Black, and Latinx people by having fewer routes through their neighborhoods, and only running every 30 minutes to 1 hour. “The bus system creates opportunities for low-income residents for education and employment,” she said, “but it also should be expanded to provide better service to communities in need.” Naomi’s impressions are confirmed by Arrive Together, a comprehensive report by the Sierra Club Wisconsin Chapter and many of our partner organizations about inequitable access to public transportation in Wisconsin.
Many Wisconsinites rely on public transportation, and those who do see significant room for improvement. Naomi and Katherine were far from the only regular transit riders who told me they wanted the system to be expanded. But for the last two decades or more, decision-makers have prioritized building new highways or adding lanes to existing roads. This has driven up debt and left us with fewer resources to invest in much-needed local infrastructure improvements, from public transit to local road repair and safe sidewalks and bike paths. The result is a transportation system that poorly serves too many Wisconsinites, puts more car traffic on the road, and produces massive pollution that harms public health and the climate.
As long as state leaders keep underfunding public transit and other critical alternatives, we’ll be stuck with a transportation system that leaves behind many people, like those I spoke with. Instead, we ought to focus on transportation investments that improve quality of life for everyone, use our tax dollars responsibly, and benefit public health and the environment.