Public Policy Forum Blog

Speeding Up Bus Services in the Milwaukee Area

After a decade of service cuts and fare increases, the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) has managed to stabilize bus services, develop new express routes, and introduce an electronic fare card system in recent years. While these are welcomed improvements, MCTS has fallen behind many peer transit systems in implementing other common strategies for improving the speed and efficiency of bus services.

In Picking Up the Pace, a new report released today by the Public Policy Forum, we find that several such strategies may hold promise to improve transit in the Milwaukee area. Some would involve relatively small changes to existing MCTS bus routes, while others could involve substantial capital investment, but all reflect a recognition that high-quality bus service plays an important role in a balanced and effective transportation system.

The report is a follow-up to a December 2013 Forum report, Getting to Work, which described the lack of viable mass transit options available to Milwaukee County residents wishing to access jobs in the suburbs. The findings of that report led Forum researchers to ask how other metro areas had addressed similar bus service challenges, as well as how they had responded to the general challenge of improving bus service effectiveness and attractiveness.

Using a recent analysis of transit best practices by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies for guidance, the report identifies and discusses several strategies for improving bus speeds, including the following:

  • Increased Stop Spacing. The transit authority in Spokane, Washington implemented a “Stop Consolidation Program” that strategically reduced the number of bus stops throughout its system by 35%. Many of those stops had been added based on requests, as opposed to need. Transit planners point to increased bus speeds and improved travel times since the program’s inception, and ridership set a record in 2014.
  • Transit Signal Priority. King County Transit in Seattle grants transit signal priority to buses on six “RapidRide” express bus routes, which means that buses are equipped with technology that allows them to trigger green lights at busy intersections under appropriate circumstances. This strategy has reduced travel times by an average of 5.5% on those six routes and improved on-time performance.
  • Bus-Only Lanes or Shoulders. Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul uses a “Bus-Only Shoulders” program as a low-cost way to provide faster transit service in areas where congestion is a consistent problem. The program allows buses to use shoulder lanes under certain conditions to ensure faster speeds and on-time performance. The program started as an experiment in 1991 and has grown to comprise a network of more than 300 miles along arterial roads and highways.
  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Bus rapid transit combines a variety of improvements to produce a faster and more comfortable level of service. Those may include exclusive bus lanes; stops and stations that allow for level boarding; off-board fare collection; and advanced communications technologies, including transit signal priority. The report examines four distinctive BRT examples from across the country, ranging from Nashville’s “BRT lite” services (modest upgrades to express bus routes) to Cleveland’s HealthLine, which entailed major capital investment that allows BRT buses to operate similarly to light rail trains.

In Milwaukee, the east-west corridor may offer the most logical and advantageous setting for experimenting with one or more of the strategies examined in the report. The segment of Wisconsin Avenue extending from Cass Street to 35th Street already is the busiest transit corridor in the region, with 17 different bus routes currently in operation. Introducing a BRT service in the east-west corridor would connect the region's two largest employment centers – downtown and the Regional Medical Center – and would directly serve both UWM and Marquette, while also mitigating the impacts of several years of I-94 reconstruction.

In light of MCTS’ substantial long-term fiscal challenges, it will be difficult to maintain existing bus services, let alone make major improvements such as BRT. Other metro areas facing similar financial challenges have mustered up the resources to implement such improvements, however, in part because they researched and recognized the benefits that faster and more convenient bus service could bring to their citizens and local economies.

In Milwaukee, where the notion of rapid transit either has been dismissed by those who do not support public investment in transit, or has focused exclusively on commuter and light rail, we have never seriously considered those benefits and what it might take to realize them. With years of major highway reconstruction on the horizon and the demand for workers in both downtown Milwaukee and the suburbs likely to grow, we would suggest that the time to start doing so is now.

Joe Peterangelo