Guide to Riding the Bus in Milwaukee: Routes and More

Now that gas prices are consistently over $2.00 a gallon, many Milwaukee residents have started to use the bus system. They’re finding out what us regular public transit users have known for a long time: riding the bus is inexpensive, convenient, and even fun. While Milwaukee does not offer light rail or a subway, the city is served by the Milwaukee County Transit System, a comprehensive bus service with almost 60 regular routes.

Why Take the Bus in Milwaukee?

The costs and hassles of driving all the time can add up fast. On top of gas and regular maintenance expenses, there are parking charges, insurance premiums, and annual registration fees – even if you own your car outright. Whether you abandon an auto entirely or simply choose to reduce its use, you are bound to save money by using transit.

A weekly bus pass for MCTS costs under $15 and allows unlimited rides. At less than $60 a month, riding the bus is quite a deal. Though using the bus requires a little more planning and flexibility on your part, imagine putting that extra money toward things that really matter, like activities with friends and family, dining out, pursuing your hobbies, or just padding your savings account for a rainy day.

The benefits of using the bus in Milwaukee are more than just financial. Next to walking or riding bicycles everywhere (which are also great ideas!), using public transit is the best way to reduce transportation pollution in the Milwaukee area. Lots of riders on one bus means fewer fumes per person, which makes for cleaner air. It also reduces congestion so that other vehicles spend less time in idle traffic and produce less pollution.

There is also a vital community component to riding the bus. Milwaukee is a diverse city, and taking transit helps citizens interact instead of staying cloistered in their separate cars. I’ve personally engaged in some great conversations while riding the bus: I’ve learned about new books and restaurants, chatted about our Milwaukee Brewers, and discussed new releases at the video store. Especially when you ride a regular route, you start to recognize people day after day. They start to say hello, and a little community begins to develop while you ride. As in any city, there are some eccentric characters who ride the bus in Milwaukee, but these people tend to create harmlessly colorful episodes and, if anything, provide some comic relief. I’ve never had a major problem with a fellow rider, and I take the bus day in and day out.

If you’re not in the mood for chitchat, you can always listen to music, read a book, or peruse the local paper. The huge windows on the bus also make for great people watching. Many Milwaukee buses now feature TV screens that show Transit Television Network, a channel that offers weather information, human interest stories, world news headlines, local advertising, trivia, and even recipe ideas. Its rapid-fire format is perfect for short rides.

Last but not least, remember that Milwaukee is a northern city with relatively snowy winters and a number of ongoing construction endeavors, like the Marquette Intercharge Project (which will be tying up downtown traffic until 2007 or later). Riding the bus in Milwaukee allows you to avoid the day-to-day hassles of driving. Free yourself of road rage, winter driving woes, and parking dramatics.

How to Ride the Bus in Milwaukee

One reason many people avoid the bus is that they don’t know how it works. They think it’s a convenient idea for other people, but they worry that it’s complicated or confusing. I had these same concerns when I casted off my car and placed myself in the hands of the Milwaukee County Transit System.

The MCTS website (www.ridemcts.com) is remarkably easy to use and even offers a little flash tutorial for those unsure of how to catch the bus, pay fares, and signal for a stop. All the schedules are available in both HTML and .PDF (Adobe Acrobat) formats. In addition, the website posts a list of any special services, route changes, or detours. If you prefer hard copies of transit maps and route guides, they’re easy to come by in many public buildings. The Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) student center, located downtown on Broadway, is usually well-stocked with route guides.

If you don’t have a schedule handy, it’s easy to call the BusLine, the automated phone system that allows you to hear a list of times after you select a route and direction. By calling the MCTS Bus Line at 414-344-6711, you can also talk to a transit representative from (approximately) 6:30am to 9:30pm. I’ve used the automated service many times and have even spoken to a representative on the few occasions when I had a question. These transit representatives are incredibly knowledgeable about the Milwaukee area and can help you plan a trip if you’re headed somewhere unfamiliar in the city.

Paying Your Fare

There are three basic ways to pay your fare on Milwaukee buses. You can pay cash with exact change, but this is the most expensive option because it does not involve a discount. As of November 2005, the regular cash fare is $1.75. Sheets of 10 bus tickets are available at retail outlets across Milwaukee for $13.00, with the average price per ticket at $1.30. This is a savings of $0.45 over the cash fare. The benefit of tickets is that they do not expire, so they’re a great choice for someone who rides the bus fewer than 10 times a week. The unlimited riding weekly pass (Sunday-Saturday) is currently $13.00, the same price as 10 tickets. If you know will make at least five round trips each week, the bus pass is the best way to save. It’s also the easiest to use, as no transfer tickets are ever necessary. You simply flash it to the bus driver when boarding.

If you attend Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, or the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, then check with your school about the U-PASS program, which allows free rides for students. There are also special discounts for children, students, senior citizens, and disabled persons. For details, by sure to check www.ridemcts.com.

The Milwaukee Suburbs and Flyers

Milwaukee County Transit System buses serve some of Milwaukee’s suburbs adequately, including Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Glendale, West Allis, West Milwaukee, and parts of Wauwatosa. For other suburbs, the service is more limited. If you live in a more distant suburb or in an area where bus service is not as accessible, you may wish to use the Park and Ride car lots and then take the Flyer service downtown. Flyer buses use the freeway system and act like express routes, shooting back and forth between downtown stops and outlying suburban destinations at peak times of day. The current fare for Flyer buses is somewhat higher, but it is still reasonable at $2.05. The MCTS website provides extensive details on park-and-ride lots as well as Flyer services.

Challenges

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that riding the bus in Milwaukee sometimes comes with challenges. I believe these issues are manageable with planning and a positive attitude, but transit riders (just like auto drivers) should be prepared to encounter occasional difficulties.

The Milwaukee bus system works on an incredibly well-choreographed schedule, with the vasy majority of buses hitting their destination points within a few minutes of their scheduled times. [Compared to the Chicago bus system, Milwaukee’s runs like clockwork.] However, on occasion a bus will be late due to traffic, maintenance problems, heavy ridership, or users who need special assistance. The best way to avoid delays and problems is to travel one bus ahead of schedule so that you arrive at your destination early. Just as if you were driving somewhere and unsure of the traffic situation, leave early.

Milwaukee’s bus system does not run 24 hours a day. As a result, some planning is required if you want to take late-night trips. The busiest routes (like Routes 30, 18, and 15) run well past midnight and even into the 1:00am hour. However, less frequently traveled routes stop earlier, often by midnight or a little earlier. Because you will save money by using the bus, it is sometime feasible to take a cab on the rare occasions when you may be out past the end of bus service. Many buses resume service during the 4:00 and 5:00am hours, so early morning transit is usually less of a problem than late-night transit. To keep things in perspective, remember that bus services must respond to the demands of their riders. If more and more people ride the bus in Milwaukee, the system will have more money in its operating budget. This could allow even more extensive schedules.

Lastly, riding the bus also means waiting for the bus and sometimes being exposed to the elements. Because Milwaukee experiences a full four seasons, it’s usually a good idea to be prepared for various weather conditions. Carry an umbrella with you at all times, just in case you’re at a stop without a bus shelter. Dress warmly in the winter, and bring along a hat and gloves even if you’re not sure you’ll need them. This is similar to carrying emergency supplies in your car. I feel that I have the most comfortable bus experiences when I carry a messenger bag or backpack so that I can tote things like books, an iPod, bus schedules, gum, an umbrella, a hat, or even a sweater. Take your cues from residents of other urban areas who don’t own vehicles: carry a bag with you and you’ll feel more at home on the Milwaukee buses.

Riding the Bus for Special Occasions

If you’re not sold on the idea of abandoning your car entirely, or if you absolutely need to drive to work, then at least keep the bus in mind for some special situations:

�· You can take public transit to and from the airport. General Mitchell International Airport is served by MCTS Route 80, which easily heads downtown. This is a great way to avoid the sometimes exorbitant fees for airport parking.
�· Summerfest and other Milwaukee lakefront festivals are served by special bus routes during the summer months, reducing some of the traffic congestion and parking problems.
�· MCTS offers special service to Miller Park and to the Bradley Center for Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks home games, respectively.
�· Though bus service does not always run until bar close, you can take transit instead of driving for a night on the town. This alleviates the need for a designated driver.

For more information about the Milwaukee County Transit System and all its services, please visit the www.ridemcts.com website. Happy riding!

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