In the first detailed survey of Metro Transit riders since 2008, users gave high marks for overall satisfaction and other areas with the biggest concerns centered on crowding and cleanliness of buses, waiting times and safety at transfer points.
The survey also revealed that blacks are three times more likely to transfer than whites and make longer trips and have longer travel times. It also shows lower-income people are more likely than the system’s riders as a whole to pay $2 cash fares than use less-expensive pass programs.
The 91 percent of riders who rated overall satisfaction good or very good is up from 79 percent in the last survey seven years ago.
“We are encouraged to hear so many areas where we’re viewed as performing well,” Metro general manager Chuck Kamp said. “(But) it’s important to step back and notice areas where our customers are saying, hey, you can be doing better. This is very helpful data to Metro in so many ways.”
The survey, conducted among riders while on board, shows roughly 80 percent gave good or very good ratings for personal safety on board or at bus stops, driver courtesy, maps and schedules, online planning, convenience of routes, travel time on buses, and bus tracking. A strong majority of respondents offered good or very good ratings in all of 13 categories.
But there were some high percentages of fair or poor ratings in several areas, including 43 percent for crowding on buses, 30 percent for cleanliness of buses, 29 percent for time waiting for buses, and 26 percent for personal safety at transfer points.
Transit and Parking Commission chairman Gary Poulson said the survey will help with system planning and strategies on issues of racial equity. The commission will want to evaluate the responses “sooner rather than later,” he said.
Madison Area Transportation Planning Board planner Mike Cechvala is scheduled to present the survey to the commission on Wednesday.
Metro had a record 15.2 million riders in 2014, but the total could be down about 4 percent when final numbers are in this year, largely due to low gas prices that make driving a car more affordable, Kamp said.
Still, the bus system suffers from crowding issues, the survey says.
The obvious answer is more buses, but the city has no extra funds and a jammed bus garage on East Washington Avenue has no more storage space, Poulson said.
Although most riders didn’t need a transfer, the survey found minorities much more likely to transfer than whites, with blacks three times more likely to do so. Blacks also make longer trips on average and have longer travel times, it says.
The high percentage of transfers may be because many diverse neighborhoods are on the city’s outskirts, outside of Metro’s four transfer stations, the survey says.
Concerns about crowding and minorities needing more transfers, longer trips and spending more time on buses can be addressed by implementing Bus Rapid Transit, a high-frequency, high-capacity, limited-stop service that can run on city streets or dedicated lanes, or even a rail corridor, Kamp said.
A BRT system covering about 21 miles would boost capacity, cut travel times and be a catalyst for economic development, a Madison Transit Corridor Study Report from 2013 says. BRT corridors would better serve low-income people and minorities living on the periphery, Kamp said.
The city is eyeing a roughly $138 million to $192 million system, including $35 million for a new bus garage, and another $9.8 million annually to run it.
The city could access federal funds to provide 50 to 80 percent of capital costs, but there currently is no solid local funding source for remaining capital and operational costs, Kamp said. The city and Dane County are now forming a regional BRT steering committee to explore funding and other issues, he said.
The city could have BRT within five years, depending on financing, he said.
Survey results showing that low-income people rely more on the $2 cash fare will help the Transit and Parking Commission decide how to generate $500,000 more in revenue authorized by the City Council in the 2016 budget, Kamp said. The survey offers a reason to minimize or avoid a cash fare increase and to look for the revenue in other fare or pass areas, he said.
Metro is continuing to address concerns about cleanliness, Kamp said, noting that the 2016 budget includes money for two more part-time cleaners.
And Metro is addressing wait times through technology, like an app that lets users track buses, and by trimming the number of stops on some routes, he said. But Metro must also further explore if the timing of stops at transfer points creates problems, he said.
Although the survey suggests riders feel safe on buses and at bus stops, concerns persist about safety at Metro’s four transfer points.
Metro has taken actions including installing cameras and budgeting $100,000 in overtime for police at transfer stations, Kamp said. But a long-term solution rests in relocating transfer points to areas of more activity, such as shopping centers, he said.
The transportation planning board does an on-board survey roughly every five years, with the last one done in 2008.
Results were based on nearly 5,800 valid surveys during typical weekdays on the system’s fixed routes — but not UW-Madison circulator, paratransit or supplemental school routes — between February and April.
The survey methodology is different from a poll but is scientific and reliable, and offers a “good overall picture,” Cechvala said.