Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
An important part of Milwaukee design history is coming to a close to make way for modern transit tech.
Kindra Murphy started her career as collector of Milwaukee transit design four years ago. More recently, she's run into a catch.
She initially discovered a cache of Milwaukee weekly bus passes at a flea market just south of Minneapolis. Murphy, a graphic designer and associate professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, bought up a few hundred of the vintage weekly transit cards.
"They had a designer thinking about what was going to make 52 of these go together," Murphy says. "They followed some stylistic tendencies from decade to decade. Think of bus passes now. They're so neutral, they're so boring, there's nothing exciting about them."
The Wisconsin women running the flea wouldn't part with the entire collection, which they acquired from an estate sale, Murphy says. Worse still, the prices kept rising. When she went back to the same junk market two years ago to acquire some more, they'd doubled in price, from four for a buck to two for one dollar. Right now, on eBay, vintage Milwaukee transit passes are listed for $4.99 a pop.
"Most of them were these beautiful typographic design experiences," Murphy says. "Maybe 'design experience' is too strong a word."
Maybe not. For nearly 100 years, Milwaukee has been designing and printing weekly bus passes for the county in-house. For the most part, the passes are organized by years. Some years are bright and funky. Some are service oriented. Taken together, they showcase the history of Milwaukee—and even reportedly saved a man's life once. So says Tom Roehl, manager of printing for the Milwaukee County Transit System.
"This is utility art, like what you see on the boxtops of cereal boxes," Roehl says. "No one pays attention to those great artists."
The passes—and those great artists—are a neglected part of Milwaukee history. Transit history, too: Milwaukee claims to be the first city to implement weekly transit passes. And they are literally going out of style. As soon as late this year, Milwaukee County Transit System aims to fully phase them out.
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When the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (TMER&L) incorporated in 1896, it operated the city's second mass transit system. The streetcar service was a successor to the horse-and-buggy car service. The new streetcar ran on coins—requiring the conductor to make change for fares constantly. So on August 18, 1919, TMER&L launched an experiment on its Racine division: a weekly transit pass.
Charles Damaske, president of the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transit Historical Society, says that it was an overnight success. "In January, 1921, [the weekly pass] was used on the Kenosha system, and it was found to be very profitable, with ridership increases on these two systems," Damaske writes in an email. "The following year it was used on the Milwaukee routes and stayed for many years."
Between 1921 and 1930, the passes were plain-Jane, according to Damaske. But the in-house printing shop at TMER&L added some punch to the printing process in 1930: color, plus some razzmatazz. The passes offered public-service announcements and fundraising notices as well as scenes and quotes from civic history. "Occasionally a pass would offer a free round trip on one of the five interurban lines of the Milwaukee system," Damaske writes.
Since the week of May 4-10, 1930, to the present day, TMER&L—and later, the Milwaukee County Transit System—has designed and printed weekly transit passes. After Milwaukee streetcar service was discontinued in 1958, the printing shop continued making the passes for the bus. Since 1970, and for various years before that, all the work has been done in-house.
Roehl says that the printing shop at MCTS has a complete set of every weekly pass ever issued. Just months after Roehl arrived in 1992, he took over design duties from the previous designer, Klaus Birkhain, who worked by night as a photoengraver for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (then the Journal).
"When I took over in 1992, it was still board art. They were doing it completely by hand," Roehl says. "We’d shoot them, make negatives, and make the plates. In 1992, if you’ll remember, Macintosh came around. We changed to that by force of circumstance. The artist [Birkhain] had gotten sick, and I sure as heck wasn’t a good artist, so I learned the graphic design program on the computer."
Roehl describes the passes of the '50s and '60s as "utilitarian." Birkhain got the idea to use the pass as an advertisement for Milwaukee services and nonprofit organizations, a practice that continues to this day.
"Definitely in the 1970s they became more ad-based, which aren’t as interesting to me" from a design perspective, Murphy says. "But there are kind of funny ones as well. The drive-through library. A lot of them were ads that were in a way public service."
"It was like giving back to the community," Roehl says. "I've been told the story by the American Lung Association that we saved someone's life because they got a checkup after seeing it on a bus pass."
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Murphy's collection of Milwaukee bus passes spans around 500 printed between 1930 and 1998; among her sets, some of which she's scanned and put on Flickr, are a few complete years. In her limited research, Murphy hasn't uncovered a transit system whose design even compares. (San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system has some good runs, she says, and so do several Japanese transit agencies, but none comes close to Milwaukee.)
"The color palette. The colors are insane!" Murphy says. "They’re better in real life. Fluorescent ink."
She says that she also likes to imagine the daily commuter who would collect decade after decade's worth of weekly passes—another testament to the value of Milwaukee design.
"This would be my dream job," Murphy says. "I never thought, 'Yeah, I’d like to design bus tickets.' This person had fun. They had crazy creative freedom."
For the last 17 years, that job has belonged to Cheryl Malkowski. As pre/press operator and graphic designer for MCTS, she works with with various Milwaukee nonprofit organizations, cultural centers, and civic agencies to gather info to use for the passes. Then she wraps their messages into her own custom designs. (Among other duties: The printing shop designs and produces all graphics work for Milwaukee County Transit System.)
Malkowski has designed the weekly passes through May. Up next is festival season, she says: Every weekly pass will celebrate a different annual ethnic festival taking place in Milwaukee this summer.
"Polish Fest. Festa Italiania. Irish Fest. German Fest. Indian Summer. We’ve got them all," Malkowski says. "Each one has different logos and different colors. They’ll send pictures of past festivals, maybe of dancers, whatever they’ve got going on there. Like bocce balls for the Italians."
At some point in 2015, it may be possible to round out a completist set of Milwaukee weekly bus passes. The county is phasing out the printed passes in favor of the new M-Card, a standardized electronic fare system. MCTS doesn't have a date set yet for the final phaseout of print passes, but the agency has already cut weekly production from 40,000 passes to 10,000 passes.
"That’s a big part of my job," Malkowski says. "We’re going to be losing work, and it’s kind of a neat thing for people to see, too. It’s such a specialized thing. Not many transit systems have this. None of them, actually."
When the print passes go and the electronic system is adopted universally, Milwaukee will have a transit system that's easier for riders to use and more secure. Yet it will lose something in the process. That part of Milwaukee history is worth remembering. When it comes to utility design, it's far too easy to forget.
"We're disappointed that it's transitioning, but we've made transitions in the past," Roehl says. "Sometimes with gains you get some sacrifices, too."