Jeramey Jannene

Brookings Institution Study Doesn’t Match MCTS Ridership

By - May 13th, 2011 05:25 pm

The Milwaukee County Transit System lost ridership at more than six times the national average in 2010. The lingering effects of the recession drove down ridership nearly everywhere, but MCTS was hit especially hard and saw record low ridership for the second year in a row. A large part of the reason for the 4.75% decline in ridership was fare increases coupled with the elimination of 3 routes and the elimination of the information call center. In short, the continued funding reductions to the bus system did exactly what one would expect them to do, caused fares to go up, routes to be cut, and ridership to plummet.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel produced a infographic that details the fare increases and route reductions over the past ten years, but it can be best be summarized that starting in 2001 MCTS has been forced to raise fares and/or reduce service every year. Over the past 10 years, riders have been asked to pay more for less service. The fact that the system is losing riders shouldn’t come as a surprise. Further ridership losses can only be expected over the next two years with Governor Scott Walker, who was Milwaukee County Executive during almost all of the 10-year period,  proposing to reduce state aid to MCTS and reclassify mass transit as a social service (moving it from Transportation fund to the General fund) by $7 million in his Executive Budget proposal, .

A recently released study by the Brookings Institution appears to contradict the expectation that MCTS ridership should be falling faster (or rising slower) than the national average though, announcing that Milwaukee ranks 14th out of the 100 largest US metropolitan areas in terms of job access and system coverage.

While the coming state aid cuts to MCTS and other area transit systems will substantially drop access to mass transit for Milwaukee-area residents, and render the 14th ranked job access and system coverage argument mute, let’s explore for a moment why Milwaukee supposedly has great access to mass transit, but fails to take advantage.

Why does Milwaukee’s ridership not reflect the quality access and coverage it supposedly has? A few hypothesis.


The report concludes that jobs are accessible if a transit trip takes 90 minutes or less to get to them. Given that the average commute time in the Milwaukee region is 22 minutes, it’s tough to imagine many people opting for a much longer commute via bus even if it saves them money. It would be interesting to know how Milwaukee would fare in the rankings if jobs were considered accessible only by a 60 minute commute.

Lack of Fixed Guideway System

From New York City and Chicago to Portland and Minneapolis, cities that have fixed guideway systems may not consistently score as highly as the Milwaukee region’s  bus-only systems did on the “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America” study rankings, but they have what ultimately matters at the end of the day, riders. The cities that have fixed guideway systems such as light rail, commuter rail, or subways consistently have higher ridership numbers both in terms of total riders and mode share (percentage of commuters using mass transit) than Milwaukee.

Fixed guideway systems often allow riders to travel at faster speeds, covering greater distances and better connecting a region than traditional bus service. Their speed, and frequently higher-quality ride, do a much better job at attracting choice riders than traditional bus service.

Urban Design Patterns

One potential reason a higher level of transit adoption isn’t seen in the Milwaukee region could be because of how job centers are configured. The study indicates that 49% of jobs are accessible via transit (within 3/4 of a mile of a stop), but how many of those jobs are configured to allow easy access? Riders are likely to be discouraged if they have to traverse entire parking lots, cross massive arterial streets, enter through the rear of buildings, or don’t have covered bus stops to wait in.

Service Frequency

The report concludes that rush hour headway in Milwaukee is 6.4 minutes. My transit-rich  residence rates at a 2.8 minutes, which would be nice, but is far from practice. My guess is that the 2.8 minutes is calculated based on the three bus routes that cross the area (15, 21, 30), ignoring the fact that is impossible to wait for all three at the same time (although nearby access to two of the routes was a big factor in deciding where to live). Furthermore, only two of the three buses could be used to head downtown, with Route 21 being largely irrelevant to my daily needs. My effective headway is much greater than reported by the Brookings Institution, something that I think could be found all over the region. Look for yourself.


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