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The City of Madison is having elections this spring. The primary will take place on February 19; the general election will be on April 2. Find information on how to register to vote here.
On January 15, Madison Bikes was co-sponsor for a non-partisan candidate forum for the mayoral primary. At the event, two questions related to transportation were asked. You can watch the video of the entire event on the City Channel, and we have transcribed the candidates’ answers in full.
The candidates in attendance were (in alphabetical order)
Question: Research shows that there is a large proportion of the population that is interested in biking for transportation. They may bike on the Southwest Path or during Ride the Drive. But they do not feel safe and comfortable having to bike on a busy road or painted bike lanes next to cars. How are you going to create a connected network of bike facilities in Madison that is safe and comfortable and serves people of all ages and of all abilities?
Mo Cheeks: That’s an awesome questions. Thank you to the submitter. Madison is in a position right now where we have actually an extremely high percentage of bike ridership. Something like 10% of our modal transportation in Madison is by bike. Which is remarkable. Particularly in the north, where we know it gets plenty cold. And yet we know there is another 60 % of sort of interested folks that are not considered strong bike riders – these are the folks that would be interested in bike riding, as Shabnam said, but are hesitant a little bit. We know that the way that we get those folks to ride a bike more often – which is going to be important as we try to reduce congestion and reduce the use of automobiles – is to connect paths. As someone who represents an extremely diverse district on the city council, I know that – actually speaking of the Southwest Bike Path: Southwest Bike Path is really easy to get on to from some areas. And we know it’s an incomplete solution depending on where you want to go – whether you want to go downtown to the other side of the Capitol, or if you want to get to a job on the far west side – there are plenty of incomplete bike and ped paths. And so in order for us to get better at that the answer is simply: We need to be completing bike and ped paths. And that needs to be a priority if we’re going to make it easier for people, we’re going to have to invest in that as a priority.
Satya Rhodes Conway: Thank you and thanks to the Bikies for that question. If we are going to address climate change, which we have to do in the next decade, then part of our solution has to be reducing emissions from our transportation sector. And biking is part of that solution because it’s at least carbon emissions free. And so we have to make it possible for folks of all ages and abilities to feel comfortable using bikes as a form of transportation, but frankly also walking and using transit. And so the three modes need to be connected to each other. Madison is a Platinum biking city, but that’s not good enough. We need to be increasing our mode share, even though we have a high mode share already. And that means that we need to invest in connections. One of the things that I did when I was on the council, which took a good long time because it took some serious convincing of both the business community and the neighborhoods, was make sure that Sherman Avenue was accessible to bikers but also safe for pedestrians and cars. And we now have bike lanes on Sherman Avenue, which is something which some people thought would never happen. But that’s not good enough, right? We need to have a bike path in that area as well, and that’s part of why in my role as the chair of the Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Committee we have recommended improving their bike connections. Or what I would like to call: The Smoky Link behind the Oscar Mayer site. But it’s a critical priority and it’s something that we’re going to need to make sure is part of our capital investment going forward.
Paul Soglin: A couple of years ago, the League of American Bicyclists did name us as the fifth city being designated with Platinum status – the highest regard they’ve ever given in regards to bicycling. And it was in recognition of the bicycle lanes, the bicycle paths, all the networks of using rail lines that were abandoned. But we’ve got a challenge, which is what happens when you’re off of those paths, when you’re off of those old trails, and you want to get right onto a city street. And we have a dilemma. Part of it is our design in terms of the widths of our streets. And the second part of it is winter. Now, well, that’s a reality. And so the challenge is how can we provide protection for the bicycle from the automobile traffic. And we’re working on that right now. We’re looking at how other cities with wider streets are managing it. We’re looking at the types of dividers available. I was out at Saris just a couple of months ago, and they build the bike racks and they’re now working on these kinds of protective devices. The key critical element for us is how you get the snow off of it with the divider right there. Collapsible ones are one of the possibilities that they’re working on. You can collapse it, plow, and then raise it. But I would say that in the next couple of years we will see some of these protected dividing devices on Madison’s streets, particularly most likely starting with East Washington. Thank you.
Raj Shukla: So I’m a year-round cyclist. Which I can do because I do have access to protected lanes nearby me. I do ride on the road sometimes too. And there are four reasons that I think we have to focus on different modes of transportation than just driving or just transit. The first is environmental. The second is our health and safety. The third is economic. And the fourth is equity. When it comes to the environmental side of this — I think Satya spoke to it – part of our challenge here is reducing emissions as fast as we can if we’re going to tackle climate change. Cycling is one path to get there. So that alone is a good reason to prioritize it. The benefits that we get by reducing traffic, by reducing the air pollution that results from traffic are also well known. Now I want to talk about some other elements of this that aren’t always brought up. Here is some of the research that I’ve seen. If you have a storefront that has easy access for cyclists or pedestrians, that store actually in aggregate makes more money than stores that rely on car traffic. When you think about cycling and who has access to those networks and who doesn’t, it’s typically – let me rephrase this: When you look at who is riding a bike to commute most often, it’s two groups of people: It’s people who have money and who have access to cycling infrastructure, or it’s people who can’t afford a car. There’s a real equity dimension to giving people as many opportunities and many ways to travel as they possibly can. And as mayor I would like to make a goal for the city to expand protected bike lanes by about five miles, at least. I’d love to go a lot farther. But that should be our goal: Rapidly expanding the infrastructure for cyclists to use safely in our city.
Nick Hart: What was the question again? [moderator reads question again] I feel that’s self-evident. I mean you just build safer bike lanes. I live on the Tenney neighborhood. You got East Mifflin that’s wide open that no one ever uses – I never see anyone on that. But I think we continue to cultivate a robust and support culture for bicyclists, with the exception of unicyclists. And – you guys are laughing – it’s coming. I’m sorry to hear, you’re right. But yeah, I think we just continue cultivating a robust support culture for cyclists. Stay in your lane.
Toriana Pettaway: There are several points that I want to point out. To make things safer in the community, one of the points that I want to talk about is transit-dependent – the last mile. In our city we need to think about those residents who need to commute in the city and don’t have the transportation accessibility on the bus. So that’s one element. There’s the concept of the “last mile” in the community. One of the things that we can definitely do is make sure that safety is available in the last mile, is also a solution for the residents who don’t have access for buses that come every 30 minutes or every hour in the community, that bike transportation is available for them. We can make sure that there are bike stations available for them and also for commuters who are coming from outside of the city, who work into the city, that those stations are provided to them. Also addressing the environmental issues and lowering emissions. If we can also convince residents who are also commuting into the city and parking on our residential streets to not do that, we can also improve safety in the city, that our streets would be clear so that our city employees can clean streets more efficiently, so that the bikers that are already in the city, using streets in the city would feel more safe commuting with bikes in the city. That’s a very real solution. Those are things that are very easily accessible, we can address these things very easily if we are really tapping solutions that could work, like tomorrow. If we’re providing networks that have real viable solutions for bikers to be transformed over night. Those are things that we can do right now. But we have to build the network with the bike paths and with other transit solutions that we don’t have existing right now. Simple fix.
Question: This next question, question on transportation, we’ll start with Satya. This question was submitted by the Madison Area Bus Advocates, and they ask: “Madison’s mayor oversees a city department of transportation that is responsible for a multi-modal mobility and parking system. How would you expand on our current transportation system? What is your vision for making it more environmentally and economically sustainable, socially just, safer, socially just, healthier, socially just, and affordable? Please give an example.
Satya Rhodes Conway: Thanks MABA. I have been a bus commuter ever since I moved to Madison because my first employer subsidized my bus pass for me. And my current employer does that as well. I think that our bus system is a critical component of our full transportation system. But our transportation system has to be about creating access for people regardless of mode. Right? We shouldn’t be building a transportation system for vehicles; we should be building a transportation system for people. And part of that is for people that are transit-dependent. And I think my top transportation priority would be to bring rapid transit to Madison. It’s something that we have talked about for somewhere between 30 and 40 years, and yet we don’t have a rapid transit system yet here in Madison. And I have to ask: Why? What is that about? I will provide the leadership it takes to get that happening, to get rapid buses on our streets, and to build out a bus rapid transit system as soon as possible. It’s a critical improvement that we need to make. And that needs to be a climate-friendly system. So we need to be buying electric buses so that we can reduce the emissions. And it needs to be a system that is regional, not just for the city of Madison. Until the legislature in its infinite lack of wisdom returns to us the ability to form a regional transportation system, we’re going to have to build those collaborations with the county and surrounding municipalities ourselves. But I cannot emphasize how much of a priority this is for me. We need rapid transit in the city of Madison, and I will work to make that happen.
Paul Soglin: I hope I can do this in less than three hours. My apologies. Bus rapid transit is our most immediate goals, and I think it’s one of the top and most critical needs for our community at this time. If you look at rapid transit systems throughout the country, the evidence is clear: They not only work, but they also need state and federal participation. We simply cannot come up with hundreds of millions of dollars that’s needed. What we have been doing is fashioning our design for the future on the assumption that we will get bus rapid transit. Now there are several things that need to happen along the way. The first is we need the state’s authority not just to create a regional transit authority, an RTA, but we have to have its taxing authority. There must be the revenue to establish such an authority, so we can pay for the buses and what is turning out to be one of our biggest obstructions: a garage to take care of them. We’re talking about 40, 50, 60 million dollars not for the fleet itself but for the building. One of the key objectives – I’m going to repeat it – is to work with the Evers administration and getting the authority to set up an RTA that would cover about 75% of the population of Dane County. We have already ordered four electric buses. And we are envisioning that the system will become all electric, with solar. We are talking about collaboration not only with the other communities that would make up the RTA, but MG&E has been a very healthy partner in this design. In addition we’ve got to get federal participation. The federal government has to assist us as it has so many other cities throughout the United States. But we will get there.
Raj Shukla: So everyone that’s spoken so far has talked about the need for bus rapid transit and the obstacles to getting it. Which are largely financial. And largely a function of a state legislature that isn’t very nice to places like Madison and places all over the state. I actually began my career working in Milwaukee on building a regional transit authority in southeastern Wisconsin. The business community wanted it, the local elected wanted it, the county executives wanted it, the state legislature was in the way. So there is the question that all of us have to have: We can institute a wheel tax or something like that to fund transit more robustly. That seems like a hard political lift too. Or we can have leadership – and we can have leadership that can actually build coalitions of elected around the state to try and sway some of the Republican votes that we’re going to need to sway in order to get a regional transit authority. So here is what I’d say I do right now in my role at River Alliance of Wisconsin: I work with local groups and local elected officials in rural Wisconsin and in urban Wisconsin, from places like Green Bay, to Wasau, to Eau Claire, to Racine. And we fight for hard compromises that protect water quality in those locations. We’ve built relationships with people across the aisle, we motivate them to take aggressive environmental stands in a difficult environment for them, and we do it by being absolutely committed to demonstrating the economic benefits of clean water. But I would say that I can do the same on regional transit as well. From our perspective here as a rapidly growing city that needs a regional system if we’re going to continue to grow. And if we’re going to continue to grow equitably and in a way that’s environmentally responsible.
Nick Hart: Again, to reiterate what I said opening is that the most marginalized and underrepresented people are affected the most by this. So in terms of public transportation I think to continue to develop city transportation options that evolve with the growing needs of our community. It’s another complicated area requiring interlocking strategies. We need to improve and expand on the bus service provided throughout the city, especially the higher-need areas and neighborhoods with people who rely heavily, are more dependent on transportation and should be able to work, run errands and travel around the city in a way that is reliable and as painless as possible. And continually to engineer traffic solutions for all the areas of the city.
Toriana Pettaway: Thank you. This is a very tough issue. And to get straight to the point: Regional mass rapid transit will happen in the city of Madison. When will it happen? I would say soon. One of the things that we need to do as solutions to manifest this is definitely have real partnership with our surrounding communities. There are many ways that we can bring about this happening without state legislature support. One of the things that we can start doing right away and some of the conversations that have actually already started happening is looking at our community stakeholders: There are many funders that we can start talking to right now in our cities. Other communities have looked at clergy to start rattling behind mass rapid transit. They’ve looked at corporate sponsors to look at supporting mass rapid transit. Now looking at what Nick talked about and our most marginalized community: Once this happens in our community and as your mayor, some of the things that I want to make sure that don’t happen when it comes – because it will come and we will find ways to fund this in our community and make sure that our most marginalized and our low-income who are transit dependent in our community and are disabled – who are oftentimes the ones who are put out first, because paratransit is one of those things that our most challenged and the [inaudible] in our community. Most of our services areas who have two transfers or two to three transfers and travel times in our community. Some of these areas, when you go up and down University Avenue, Mineral Point, don’t even have to look at a service schedule. When we have solutions like where should these transit delivery areas go, those are the types of things that our community partners and our regional communities and our municipalities, those are the things that we should work with. But my solution is that when we talk to municipalities and the stakeholders that they’re working with – our clergymen, our churches, and our developers – we can come up with real solutions that don’t necessarily have to come from the state legislature. Let’s get innovative, y’all!
Mo Cheeks: So to be clear: Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to be able to get around our city, to have access to jobs, access to school, access to food. One of the first experiences I had when I was elected to the city council in 2013, was I had a parent call me and say, “Hey, with this Verona Road reconstruction, I’m being informed that one of the bus routes that goes past our house is going to be removed for a period of time.” This parent was extremely concerned – in fact, several members of the neighborhood were upset at the thought because this was one of the routes that allowed their child to be able to come home from school, from after-school activities and things like that. And so through that experience, I remember being brand new to the city council, and I went to one of my first committee meetings, I sat down and advocated on their behalf, and the committee ended up going with the neighborhood instead of the original recommendation to remove that route. I called that parent afterward and she’s literally crying, she’s in tears. She said, “You don’t understand how much of a threat this was to my life, to what I believed that my child would be able to have access to after-school activities.” And so I think it’s really important that we bring this back to a conversation about people. As mayor, one of the things that’s going to be critical – not in addition to advocating for bus rapid transit – I’m going to be advocating for a comprehensive transportation plan. Right, so bus rapid transit, it’s super important. Increasing access to transit on the bus is important – I’m a bus rider myself, and that’s the primary way that I get to work. But we need to be thinking about – from a justice perspective we need to be prioritizing other solutions – things like access to the bus during the late hours for late-night shift workers. We need to be working with the private sector to make sure that they’re investing in not only subsidizing rides but creating a rideshare program because there are plenty of places right now that you can’t get access to on the bus in a convenient fashion. So it’s comprehensive.