Friday, February 16

Madison's Transit Future; or How I Don't Believe There Should Be a Trolley

Once upon a time, a mayor had a grand dream to build a trolley in a beautiful city. Using the philosophy that "if you build it, they will come" he continues to relentlessly pursue it.

I, however, believe, politics aside, that it should not happen. It is not a wise decision financially and streetcars wouldn't fit the type of city Madison is.

Madison is expected to grow. I've heard 100,000 people, or something like that, in the next decade or two. But, the city is not growing up, it's growing out. A few days ago, one of the leaders of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin spoke to my environmental studies class. He made a big deal of how lots of surrounding farmland is going to be developed and that a streetcar was a good idea.

Building a trolley will do nothing to stop the city from spreading out. Especially when it may only run within this area:

I don't think the bulk of Madisonian's trips originate and terminate within these bounds. Perhaps people would drive in, get off the Beltline at Park and ride the trolley in? They can already do that with the buses. Who would drive 20-30 minutes towards the city, then park, wait another 10 minutes for the streetcar, then ride it for at least a half an hour as it stops every other block for a few miles into the downtown instead of just driving another 5 or 10 minutes?

Taking out a lot of the city residents and most commuters, that leaves tourists and UW students. We already have the free buses around campus and bus passes. It would be silly to build streetcars for the Kohl Center and Camp Randall. Then the only other people who come to the downtown are people and school groups going to the Capitol.

Buses are a better option for the city. We already have them. They are flexible and don't need tracks. They also go faster than streetcars, which typically go about as fast as bicycles. I believe that people who already use alternative methods of transport or live in the downtown and already bike, will continue to bike. I think a trolley would be pretty cool, but I wouldn't ride it to go on a trolley ride.

Another important point is that Madison is not the right kind of city for streetcars; it is not dense enough. I've seen trolleys in German cities. Their cities are also 4 and 5 story, wall-to-wall houses, apartments, and shops for blocks and miles. Here, the streets are wide and the buildings are low-density and surrounded by grass.

A streetcar in Munich, Germany. Notice the size of the buildings on the street. There's nothing like that in Madison, except for on Capitol Square.

Here's more Munich from a church bell tower, typical European city blocks.

Here are a few tips I think the city should take, if it is serious:

  • Make a greenbelt to counter urban encroachment on Dane County countryside. England uses the greenbelt system and it seems to be the only practical way to preserve countryside. My home town has "smart growth" planning but it's too complicated and it usually gets dominated by stupid people. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid. Simply designate land to remain unbuilt. In England, they specify that fields and land within commutable range of a city are to remain natural, which keeps growth in the town. If it weren't for this, a lot of their country would be sprawl.
  • Encourage denser growth. They don't seem to like taller buildings in the downtown, yet that's exactly the city needs more of. Where there are concentrations of people many things work better. City services are more efficient as well as enough market exists that shops will start to open along the streets and people won't have to drive to get to work or shop as much. Madison isn't a Paris or London and it won't ever be, but houses should be built as row houses within a few feet of the sidewalk. People seldom use parks because every house is already surrounded by one.
  • Eliminate most zoning. Once houses and buildings are built closer and with more efficient uses, however the market will allow, perhaps with natural materials like brick, so they'll last for centuries, stores and shops will want to spring up on corners, but if the entire neighborhood is zoned residential, they can't.
  • Encourage mixed growth. As I've mentioned before, when shops are mixed in with residences, people walk a lot more. Also, shops are often locally owned, so their revenue will be put back into the local economy. I think this would manifest as shops on the ground level and apartments or condos above.
  • Don't build more roads and don't make current ones wider. More bigger roads only encourage more cars. Also, by not building, the city will save money. Besides, if/when gas runs out, what are we going to do with all the roads we've built?
  • Run express bus routes. From Johnson and Park, it takes nearly an hour to get the 6 miles to West Town's shopping. The most annoying thing about the bus is that it stops every other block. I think the best urban mode of transport is the subway because its quick and its stops are farther apart. Metro should pick some locations to be important connections, off the top of my head, I would say the N/S/E/W transfer points, Capitol Square, and somewhere in the campus. Then then should plan some new bus routes, perhaps a dozen, that crisscross the city stopping every mile or two and stop at these places for sure. I think travel time is a big deterrent keeping people from taking the bus. Doing it this way, after only a few stops a person would get across town quickly. They should run it quasi-subway style and it may attract some people that wouldn't ride it otherwise.
If these are taken into account, I think the city could prosper without expanding into the surrounding land. Eventually, as newer buildings are built with density taken into account, mass transportation would be used more frequently. Street life would prosper. State Streets would pop up across the city. And eventually, a trolley would be plausible.


Susan De Vos said...

These are good comments and suggestions. I should add that there is a group in the Madison Area that embraces the suggestions and has gone farther. We suggest that there be at least six different kinds of buses: 1)local core service running almost all the time; 2) direct commuter service to and from outside Madison; 3) service with limited stops inside Madison; 4) circulators and shuttles (with or without concatenated wires for running electrically), 5) services for special needs populations, 6) connectors to intercity transport carriers (airports, train and bus terminals). Our group is called the Madison Area Bus Advocates -- -- and our Strategic Plan is posted on our website. Our mission is to engage in research, education, partnership, and advocacy with the goals of increasing bus ridership, expanding bus service, and improving the bus system as an efficient, clean, convenient, and affordable means of travel in the greater Madison area.

Rich said...

Without going into the rest of your post -- which likely offers some good ideas --

--stopping sprawl require fighting on multiple fronts;

--the Study Area Map does NOT indicate that streetcars will NOT help curb sprawl. Your conclusion--and WHY--are off.

--Trolleys PROMPT density--they don't require that it be pre-existing. In every case, significant density has followed, increasing the local tax base, and mititgating the current property tax burden.

--The diff between the STUDY area and Madison's periphery is not relevant--& nor revelatory. Cities that don't grow up---have to grow out. Growing vertically (in the Study Area) will decrease pressure to grow out.

--Trolley's do NOT replace cars. They're a modal shift for pedestrians. So if you're trip-chaining WITHIN the city, you can hop the trolley from West Campus to the Capitol, or from the Capitol to EWash--instead of walking or driving. It makes walking possible. That'd be a huge lift to folks wanting to hit 2 or 3 or 4 spots--that are 2 or 3 miles apart. NO time to walk.

"I don't think the bulk of Madisonian's trips originate and terminate within these bounds."

Lots of them do. Those that don't may well prefer to park ONCE, then zip around by trolley.

"Perhaps people would drive in, get off the Beltline at Park and ride the trolley in? They can already do that with the buses."

Why not? But busses are not the same. They're indirect, unreliable, confusing to figure out, infrequent, and display poor customer service.

The other ideas may be great. And I'm not sure I like trolleys either. But it's a two-front war against sprawl. A growth boundary PLUS opportunities to build vertically IN Madison are all part of the solution. Trolleys can open up significant development/ density b/c investors are guaranteed continued, convenient access.

--Trips that don't originate w/in the Study Area require a different solution: either BRT or light rail.

Agree with your bullets, except
a) greenbelt? Tell it to Fitchburg, which is currently encroaching on the self-assigned greenbelt of the Town of Dunn. That's beyond Madison's control.

b) eliminate zoning? Reckless, and not gonna happen. also it'll kill the golden goose of Madison's livable neighborhoods.

c) Trolley's will focus devt along a few key corridors--and WILL leverage density there.

d) the city IS working to increase density in these same corridors. East Wash BUILD process, etc.

Dorshorst said...

I could tell you why a town like Madison needs a streetcar, but I'm afraid that you'd be the only one who'd understand.

Streetcar! Streetcar! Street...Doh.

Mike said...

Dorshorst-Out with it then! Don't mean to burst your bubble, but you've got to be 35 to be president. You want to co-take over Canada or something instead?

Rich-I didn't quite think about that. Building a trolley would tell developers that they've got a virtually permanent source of transport, whereas buses come and go. However the city must weight the added tax revenue of redevelopment against the cost of the trolley responsibly. Government grants and money from the feds and state don't just come from nowhere; it comes from all taxpayers. I was looking at the City's Comprehensive Plan with trains and the trolley makes more sense then. It seems kind of pointless just by itself.

Also, Houston, Texas has never had land zoning. Things like the redevelopment of University Square need to be encouraged, yet things like the daily cardinal are against it.

Susan-I'm already quite busy between classes, the newspaper, and the CR's, but good luck. There are some related civil engineering transportation groups that you might want to contact. Your group makes some really good points about the Metro. I think it's silly that the bus seldom goes to the airport (only a few times on weekdays, I think?). But to do your points it'd take a lot of money. I think a few special express routes and covering the airport and the Amtrak station would be a really good start. Then do a 'free bus ride week' to get people back on to try the bus. Oh, and I guess you could use the post if you want to; I'd be curious to hear where it goes.