Transit Proposal: Madison


Madison is a mid-sized city located in Wisconsin, about 130 kilometres west of Milwaukee. The metropolitan area is home to 680,000 inhabitants, of which 269,000 live in Madison city proper. The city is distinct among other midwestern cities by its unique geography, with the dense city centre built on an isthmus formed by Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. Several other lakes are found throughout the metropolitan region, which precipitate a unique pattern of growth.

Satellite imagery of Madison (Source: Google Earth)

There is a strong case for a rapid transit network in Madison:

  • Distinctive geography has created strong transit corridors through the core

  • The city centre is a strong hub, with a high concentration of public sector jobs, shopping districts, residential growth and event venues

  • Madison has historically demonstrated progressive urban policy, exemplified by projects like the State Street pedestrian mall

  • Pre-war neighbourhoods adjacent to the city centre have a walkable and transit-conducive street grid

State Street (Source: Richard HurdCC-BY-2.0)

Transit in Madison Today

From 2004 to 2014, Madison Metro (Madison’s transit agency) saw a 40% increase in ridership. 58,000 daily trips were taken on Metro in 2018, in a service area of about 260,000.

Madison’s existing transit system is a hub-and-spoke style bus system, with routes connecting major terminals to important points in the city. A large proportion of routes serve suburb-city centre commutes. Terminals are designated as ‘transfer points’ on the system map, and four are located in various suburbs of the city. In the city centre, most routes loop around Capitol Square. This serves as another important transfer point, although this is not denoted by Metro.

Almost all routes operate with 30-minute or 60-minute headways. The 30-minute routes form the basis of the bus network. Service typically ends before 23:00. Route 80 and 84 are university-funded routes that provide zero-fare trips between UW campus, downtown, and Eagle Heights every 15 minutes throughout the day, with late night service.

Bus Rapid Transit

As it looks to the future, Madison is currently exploring options for a bus rapid transit system – although, it will resemble a BRT-lite system. Supported by investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, Madison has potential to be a transportation leader among small/mid-sized university cities.

Bus Rapid Transit Concept approved by the City of Madison in 2021 (Source: City of Madison)

Rapid Transit Proposal

I have proposed a rapid transit concept for Madison based on travel patterns, population density, employment density, growth nodes and existing infrastructure. Modes and stop locations were chosen based on demand, and the possibility of utilizing existing infrastructure.

The fully built-out network consists of:

  • Two light rail lines, with a total length of 44 km and 38 stations

  • One bus rapid transit line, with a total length of 15.2 km and 17 stations

  • Three suburban rail lines, with a total length of 59 km and 17 stations

  • 8 rapid bus routes

Alignment methodology

Building on the existing network

As Madison’s existing bus network does not offer much variance with respect to headways, little information about corridor demand can be gleaned from frequency. The only corridor with frequent service is between the large UW campus area and the city centre – a very obvious corridor to include in the scope of a rapid transit line.

An alternate approach is to identify corridors where many services interline. These corridors can indicate where there is established demand, which may not necessarily reflect where major destinations or high densities occur. Below, I have highlighted such segments in red on the existing system:

Main transit corridors overlayed on original Madison Metro map

West of the isthmus, the primary corridors are Campus Drive/University Avenue, Park Street-Fish Hatchery Road, and Whitney Way.

East of the isthmus, the primary corridors are Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street.

The city centre presents many options; several routes consolidate on three corridors that run the length of the isthmus. Gorham Street/Johnson Street (a continuation of of Campus Drive/University Avenue) and Washington Avenue are the primary corridors, which connect to corridors to the east and west of Madison’s city centre.

Existing infrastructure and right-of-ways

It is best practice to take advantage of existing infrastructure when designing a rapid transit network – this reduces cost, construction timelines and potential community opposition. OpenRailwayMap is an excellent and easily accessible source:

Source: OpenRailwayMap

The freight railway from central Madison to Middleton coincides with the major transit corridor identified previously, and presents as an opportunity for rapid rail transit. Other railways can potentially support rail service to Stoughton, Cottage Grove, Sun Prarie and Waunakee.

Population and employment density

It is ideal to establish rapid transit between/along areas where the highest concentration of people live, work and study. The conceptual system’s LRT, BRT and priority bus lines are overlayed on population and employment density maps to show how the system can serve these areas:

There are nine noteworthy areas with high employment density and/or population density:

  1. Downtown

  2. University

  3. Burr Oaks

  4. Allied Community/Dunn's Marsh

  5. Maple Woods

  6. Monona

  7. Airport Area/East Town

  8. West Town

  9. Greenway Station/Middleton

Proposed Lines

Light Rail

LRT will form the core of the system, transporting the largest proportion of rapid transit users. Both lines serve the most popular corridors in Madison. LRT will utilize new viaducts, crossing gates and existing freight rail rights-of-way to increase average speed outside of central Madison. A 2.65-kilometre transit mall on Campus Drive/Johnson Street (2.25 km), Pinckney Street (200 m), Mifflin Street (90 m) and Webster Street (110 m) will allow trams to move at street level through the city centre with less traffic interference while simultaneously providing more infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Since Johnson Street will no longer allow general vehicular traffic, University Avenue will be converted into a two-way street.

Bus Rapid Transit

The BRT system supports corridors where demand does not necessitate LRT.

Rapid Bus

The proposed priority bus system provides frequent and reliable transit access to areas of the city unserved by the proposed rapid transit network. Madison’s 8-route priority bus network will feature 15-minute or better all-day service, queue jump lanes, some forms of transit signal priority, and enhanced shelters. The network will also operate throughout the night, with 30-minute headways. Due to interlined priority bus lines, bus lanes will be installed on a short segment of Washington Avenue west of the Capitol. The geography of Madison prevents a comprehensive grid network, however the priority corridors do provide orbital and radial services that connect to rapid transit.

L1 - Yellow Line

The Yellow Line (L1) forms the main spine of the transit system and is expected to be the busiest line in the network. The line connects Greenway Station, Downtown Middleton, Whitney, UW Campus, Downtown Madison and Marquette. The line also provides an important link to Dane County Regional Airport.

The existing rail corridor to Greenway Station will be twin-tracked and made exclusive to Yellow Line trains.

L2 - Blue Line

The Blue Line (L2) connects significant nodes at Cahill, Badger, Downtown Madison, Marquette, East Town and Sun Prarie.

Blue Line can be built in two phases, as demand for rail service to Sun Prarie may not materialize initially. Phase 1 extends to East Town, a major shopping centre and bus hub that anchors eastern Madison.

LRT is chosen to as it allows interlining with Yellow Line infrastructure through the isthmus. Light rail line along Washington Avenue would be proximal to trip generators in eastern Madison, and hence a suburban rail option from University Station to Sun Prarie using existing ROW was not pursued. Instead, the LRT will utilize this ROW beyond Madison to access Sun Prarie’s town centre.

B1 - Purple Line

Purple Line (B1) is a two-branched BRT line that connects Whitney LRT station to points in western and southern Madison. B1-B connects to a commercial and residential hub at West Town. B1-A functions as a north-south orbital line. Much of B1-A’s corridor is low-density; nonetheless, the line is beneficial in providing coverage in an area with poor transit, and providing opportunities for transit-oriented development.

Purple Line will use median dedicated transit lanes along its entire length, considering the generous amount of median space available on all of the roads selected for the BRT.

S1 - Stoughton Line

Stoughton Line (S1) connects small suburbs south of the city. This includes the small suburban municipalities of McFarland and Stoughton, which have approximate populations of 9,604 and 13,294 respectively (based on US Census). In Madison, Expo Station serves the Valliant Energy Centre which hosts exhibitions and other events. This is a short 5-minute ride from downtown’s University Station.

S2 - Cottage Grove Line

Cottage Grove Line (S2) connects Madison to the village of Cottage Grove (population 7,254). However, this municipality alone does not constitute the utility of this line. Much of the line will serve stations in populated areas of Madison not served by the LRT/BRT system: Olbrich, Pinney and Buckeye stations will provide quick access to Madison’s eastern suburbs, enhanced by connections to priority bus routes. S2 may become the busiest suburban line, and could warrant all-day frequent service should further demand materialize.

S3 - Waunakee Line

Waunakee Line (S3) provides rail service to the village of Waunakee (population 14,879). In Madison, the line introduces a high-quality suburban rail link to the suburbs of Vera Court and Maple Woods. Due to poor existing land uses around the stations that exclusively serve S3, and the proximity of L1 within Madison, I expect S3 to be the lowest-performing suburban line.

Ponder at these alignments in detail below:

Line L1.png
Line L2.png
Line B1.png
Line R1.png
Line R2.png
Line R3.png

The network by the numbers

Trams, trains and busses

Articulated buses will operate on the BRT system. The B1-A service may use standard-sized buses due to lower demand.

Low-floor LRVs were selected for the LRT system. The low-floor design allows for simple and well-integrated guideway designs through the downtown transit mall. Given Madison’s small population, it is very unlikely that issues with capacity would affect the low-floor system for the foreseeable future.

Two-car trains will be used to minimize station footprints through the narrow rights-of-way in central Madison. The use of small trains permit fast and acceptably frequent rail service with suitable capacity to areas of relatively low demand – where traditionally sized commuter trains would otherwise provide far more capacity than required. Stations used by S1 and S2 will be expandable up to four-car trains (minimum 80 metre platform length).


The proposed Madison network is quite large for a city of 680,000. However, it is not unrealistic in similarly-sized cities outside of North America. Given that all of the suburban rail and much of the light rail system can be built on existing rail rights-of-way or wide streets, construction costs can remain low. The most significant costs may be associated with the construction of elevated guideways for the LRT system. Regardless, Madison’s strong city centre, progressive urban policies, transit-conducive geography and large university population are fundamental to supporting such an expansive transit system.