Re: Milwaukee County Transit System Development Plan: 2009–2013 Transit Service Improvement Alternatives.

The Plan

Send your response to: Transit

A Response by Bill Sell

Dear Transit Planners

I appreciate that you have a difficult job in a day of when politics is sometimes hostile to practical, wise investment in our infrastructure. Many believe Transit is a luxury because, they say, “I have a car. I don’t need it.” And elected officials pander to that tune rather than educate the citizen.

Your MCTS Plan 2009, however, too, is lacking. If anything it is not bold enough. You are open to serious criticism while your opening position on Plan 2009 does not reach far enough. While I understand the need to accommodate many interests, the opening position should be strong and capable of absorbing some compromise. Plan 2009 is a tepid response to a need that stretches far beyond the solution your Plan offers, while ignoring voices in the community for access to jobs, schools, and parks.

MCTS Plan 2009 Bypasses Significant Public Comment in Devising Plan 2009

The Public Hearing. The public commented on the MCTS 2007 transit plan in early 2007. Late that same year the County Government cut Transit severely through the winter and spring of 2008. Plan 2009 does not mention the suggestions to the County Board’s public hearing on October 30, 2007. Hundreds showed up, most citizens objecting to one or the other aspects of the proposed budget, including transit. Granted some routes were saved, but some were cut in spite of reasoned protests. Those comments in October 2007 are no less relevant than the handful who responded to the request for comments in February and March, 2007.

Slow Slide Downward. One reference to 2000 levels claims that 2013 goals (Alt 1) would be only a percent short of 2000 levels. This simple numeric calculation is a statistical dodge; it does not include the growth of need in that 13 year period, which could be 5 to 10 percent. The difference between 2000 levels and 2013 goals would, then, be still 6 to 11 percent short of the 2000 levels. The report suggests that the goal in the Plan is only to slow down the continued failure of our transit.

Alternative 1 should be aggressive and bold. Plan 2009 should have the input of development economics, not simply the numbers at hand in Transit offices. Building a weak system is building for failure. If we want commerce to support buses, Transit must use these plans to bolster confidence in Transit.

Plan 2009 should also have specifics on recruiting riders of choice.

A weakened transit system is doomed. If Alternative 1 improvements do not work in the minds of the taxpayers, Transit will suffer political failure, which Milwaukee’s economy cannot afford.

Milwaukee can aim for a strong transit system, one that will carry substantially higher loads of passengers. Without that as a goal, Transit will continue to leak passengers.

Specifics. Now, given there is in the Plan 2009 no public comment about the 2007–2008 cuts, I mention some specifics that I believe must be restored for the health of Milwaukee County:

  • Serve the County Parks. South Shore: Restore Route 53 east to Delaware serving several bars, a popular grocery store, a struggling Delaware business district, and South Shore Park. With connections west via Route 51. Lake: Restore Route 22 to Lake Park, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays. Whitnall and Root River Parks - go into the parks. County government should promote County assets.
  • Serve the opening of the Stritch campus in St. Francis. This is an opportunity to finesse the transportation market to the advantage of County Transit. If it fails, it can be cancelled; if it is not offered, it will not succeed. A strategic objective would offer bus service before the parking lots and cars arrive. Again, build for success; late-coming reactive gestures set Transit up for failure. Write schedules with Stritch course schedules in mind.
  • South side Route 11. Reduce those route-damaging headways of 40 minutes.
  • Return Route 11 service to the Milwaukee Public School System offices.
  • The incipient failure of Route 11 to support passengers on the south side will be used as “evidence” in a year or so to eliminate that route completely. It was the 2007 cuts that brought Route 11 to its knees. 40 minute headways and personal safety demand that the rider have a cell phone or a schedule, particularly in the winter.
  • Some - any - service to downtown County Government offices. A bus stop, both ways, beneath the 9th Street covered entrance to 901 N. 9th Street. Given that 12th and Wisconsin is served already by 5 routes, move Routes 12 and 31 to serve the County building. The personal traffic in the Courthouse is as dense as any other building in the city. A crowd is Transit’s customer base.
  • Restore service to that West Vliet Street business corridor that is east of Washington Park.
  • The increased service of the Plan 2009 to the southern part of the County is blinkered. Work with the South Suburban Chamber of Commerce to build access to jobs.
  • Deliver passengers to their destination: Bus stops on the fringe of Bay Shore deliver passengers to the outer edge of parking lots, rather than to store doors. Bay Shore should have a central bus stop. The bus stop at the airport is invisible. The Intermodal should have a bus stop (maybe the layover too) underneath the auto overhang. These niggling neglects of passenger comfort and convenience send a message that the bus rider is second class and that Milwaukee does not care.

Extension of services. While extension of service in (and to) the far reaches of the County is long overdue, it appears to this reader that these extensions may have a liability - failure alert! The extensions will have the challenge of building a ridership - how long will tax payers accept what they see as “empty buses”? Where is the marketing plan to pull in new riders? Success is predicated on filling buses as soon as they are seen on those new streets. Hand out free tickets, passes, coffee, newspapers; provide WiFi on these new buses. These are inexpensive investments that Transit needs to make.

The Long Walk to the Bus

More frequent headways is the most desirable aspect of Plan 2009.

Express service is welcome but why remove local stops? The passengers Transit loses over this mistake may never return. (See “Local Bus Stop Cancellations” below).

At the hearing I heard officials say that new bus stop separations would be 1/4 mile; then I heard another official say 1/3 mile to 1/2 mile. This spreading of individual bus stops from each other to longer distances, on top of the long-forgotten MCTS benchmark of 1/4 mile from the rider’s home to the bus route, erodes the hope of garnering passengers. And the growing senior population should not be left out of these Plans; there will be more of us.

Consider that the heaviest wear and tear on these buses are those frequent starts and stops they must make per mile. Give each bus a “turn” at being an Express bus, doing more miles with fewer starts and stops, thereby increasing their long term value. I’m no mechanical engineer, but depreciation of our assets - I’m told by folks who know - figures in a major way into the County financial straightjacket.

Express Buses Now. In fact, while new buses would be welcome, we can have express buses now. New (bright red?) signage will make it clear to the rider which bus stop is only for express, and which bus stop is for both buses. Economize, the tradition of our efficient Milwaukee County Transit, until we have the dedicated funding and a restored fleet. Using leapfrogging express buses as the paradigm, Transit could introduce express service widely with minimal effort or cost. Besides the Routes mentioned on page 3 of Plan 2009, other routes could be enhanced rotating present equipment. Routes (using 28 mph for an estimated express rate):

  • 15 (serves 11 major commercial centers of the County), Chicago and Drexel to Bay Shore Town Center: 36 minutes express instead of 86 minutes current standard.
  • 62 (a busy cross-town service), 22 minutes instead of 47 minutes from UWM to 124th St.
  • 31 (serving the labor market at the County grounds and Mayfair), Downtown Transit Center to 10000 Watertown Plank Road would be 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes.

Local Bus Stop Cancellations

In building express service, there is no need to challenge your clientele by taking away local service.

Express service can be mixed, on the same Route, with local service. (See above The Long Walk to the Bus) Express will leapfrog the slower service. Someone walking to the bus will be able to board at a local stop, ride a bit, and transfer at an express stop.

Let me call attention to a claim in the MCTS 2009 BRT discussion:

The upgrading of express bus routes to BRT could also entail some route realignment and wider stop spacing, along with re-introduction of local bus service. —page 4.

Folly. Once you lose those local passengers by dropping bus stops you will have to rebuild that ridership. Because of their jobs, age, and health, riders will have made accommodation to the loss of local service while the BRT whizzes past. In fact, they might not even be available for express service a year or two later, under your plan for reintroduction.

The Curious Route of our First Express Service

The BRT first project (MidTown to State Fair) is an odd choice. I know that Transit counts or estimates ridership, but I also understand that you do not have a statistical base to tell you both where riders board and where they alight. Granted Route 23 and 18 are fairly busy (by no means the busiest routes of the system), there are routes that carry more volume.

The measure of success is significant. This measure - especially on our First Express Bus - would give the County taxpayer some reassurance about the long-term goals of local transit - namely, that it may succeed. The hybrid BRT route does not seem to serve current high RBH routes.

I observe that there is a more direct route from Midtown to the State Fair, viz., Route 76 (which has a lower RBH than other routes being considered for BRT). If people are actually traveling from MidTown to State Fair now, they would be on Route 76 (25 minutes) Route 76. But the RBH is not compelling enough to call for the first BRT, which should NOT be allowed to fail.

How will a partially used Express service bolster confidence in the taxpayer for more development?

Was there any economic development analysis to bolster this choice? Did Transit engage the opinion of developers in sketching out this route?

Economists and rail consultants point to consistent and dense development that comes from the implementation of rail. This kind of development will not grow around a BRT service, particularly a route that is not obviously a development magnet, or a route that appears to be a political whim. What politicians give they can take away - as the 2007–2008 cuts have shown. Embedded rail, while costly initially, will convince developers to plant their investments nearby because the entire County (not a few politicians) will have made a commitment to that route. Density in strategic parts of the city brings the cost of living in a city down, while increasing the livability of the city. shows how transportation costs affect home affordability. The closer you live to public transit, the less likely you will need a car. This is what a city has the power to do, if it has the will.


MCTS self promotion is tepid. The Transit officials I have met are decent caring people who love their jobs but there seems to be something blocking them when a citizen steps forward with ideas to recruit more riders.

Take for example that web page. It is dead. Same old same old. Don’t be afraid of blogs, Facebook, and the like. Your riders are there.

Consider the inept promotions of MCTS Plan 2009. Well, I happened to see MCTS Plan 2009 promoted on Transit TV - that quaint tiny video on some buses. And I am not asking for a repeat performance. Here is what we saw: The TTV promos were 28 seconds, compared to 240 seconds in that same small space to show off the Transit TV or County Transit logo. The Plan promos were in the smallest print on the bottom of the screen and were covered during bus stop announcements. The shills and scams on TTV always used to get 80% of screen real estate. One gets the impression Transit is too shy to promote itself.
I don’t want to see TTV on buses, and have written about it elsewhere; it does not belong in long-range planning for a successful Transit service. It draws zero new passengers.

Please add to the Plan

I would like you to add to the MCTS Plan 2009 the following items. I see these steps as essential to a successfully managed transportation service:

  • A plan to boost ridership and to build a robust system that will grow. Specifics, please.
  • A plan to recruit passengers of choice, riders who have options. Specifics, please.
  • Management culture should be a part of a public service plan. A client-centered management culture of curiosity, a desire to meet passengers and a desire to recruit passengers. The current method, a survey, is antiseptic, and avoids talking to people while they are riding the bus. The survey omits people who no longer ride the bus. Transit has no handle on their quitting.
  • A phone number which the rider can call to praise something a driver has done to help a passenger.
  • A Driver of the Month award.
  • A plan to enhance all job descriptions at Transit to require X number of hours on the bus periodically, all seasons. Executives, managers and staff will bring back suggestions for improvements. They will see things they do not see from the desk.
  • High level, positive thinking about the marriage of County assets: airport, parks, transit. The bicycle racks will add a dimension to marketing buses; put them in this Plan as part of your plan to build ridership. How are you going to exploit those bike racks? Instead of County trying to sell the parks to corporations (a wretched idea), why not sell parks to us, the citizens, and make bus-party trips? Engage volunteers with travel agency experience.
  • A culture that welcomes suggestions and engages the citizen.
  • A citizens transit advisory committee that is visible to the community and actively reaching out to people who do not ride the bus. We know there is one, somewhere. But what do they do, really?

It is time to move. Your specialty is to move people. Move us. Convince us to Move with you.

Bill Sell
Email Comments on Bill's remarks, Please

Last edited by bs.   Page last modified on February 21, 2009

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