AURA is pleased with the CapMetro’s announcement of a renewed focus on the user experience of the bus system. The staff presentation at the June 25, 2018 CapMetro board meeting mentioned an array of improvements, including stop upgrades, schedule optimization, and service reliability. We are especially excited for shelters that actually shelter: shade screens at bus stops are essential in a Texas summer. (Or a Texas Fall, or a Texas Spring, for that matter.) But, after years of a focus on suburban and “choice riders” it is refreshing to see commitment to the city’s humblest, most important transit mode.
Buses are the workhorses of public transit in America, where in every city except New York and Atlanta buses carry more passengers annually than rail. This is certainly true in Austin, where there are 31 trips by bus for every trip by rail. Even if Project Connect proposes and implements a region-wide light rail system, buses will continue to carry more passengers in Austin than rail for decades to come. Thus, investment in buses is investment in the future of transit.
Cap Remap is another aspect of that investment. While there are tradeoffs in service, AURA’s position is that frequent routes work substantially better than the system of infrequent, more indirect routes they replaced. CapMetro’s recent adjustment to Route 350 shows that they are taking seriously the need to fine tune the system to address problems.
The City of Austin must step up and also commit to investment in Austin’s principal mode of transit. AURA again calls on Austin transportation department to dedicate right of way to transit, starting with extending transit priority lanes from downtown past UT as envisioned in the Guadalupe corridor plan. Going forward, we would like to see the Strategic Mobility Plan contain a robust policy of transit priority across the city. In addition, because every transit trip starts and ends with walking, the city must invest in safer streets, safer crossings, and a full sidewalk network.
We also call on CTRMA and TXDOT to use their vast resources to meaningfully improve transit in the region. CTRMA has built shared use paths alongside their toll roads, and allows CapMetro buses on their express lanes on MoPAC and this is good, but small in the grand scheme of their capabilities. For the cost overrun on the MoPAC express lanes alone, CTRMA could have funded the entire city of Austin bike master plan. Similarly, for the cost of rebuilding one overpass over I-35, TXDOT could build 80 miles of sidewalk.
CapMetro’s announcement is important and encouraging, but it is just the start. It will require ongoing cooperation and dedication from the city and the regional mobility agencies to create a modern bus system and a truly multimodal city.
The most significant transportation news of the last two weeks has been Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million dollar bond proposal, as well as the June 1st staff presentation on bond possibilities. Both the mayor and the staff are very focused on funding “smart corridors” that will mostly benefit car mobility with limited provisions for bikes, pedestrians, and transit.
Possibly overshadowed by this, was, two weeks ago, the dedication of a much smaller amount of money, which also signified a strike in favor of continued car dependence. At the May 23, 2016 Capital Metro Board Meeting, the board gave final approval to the expansion of the parking lot at the Lakeline Park and Ride. The $1.8 million dollar expansion will add an additional 460 spaces at the suburban P&R, which is also the site of one of the red line train stations.
The P&R expansion is troubling for a number of reasons, not least of which is the perversity of a planner for a mass transit agency declaring himself “excited to have a 1,000 car parking lot.” Some other concerns:
1) Transit works best when it helps people get out of their cars, but at a P&R, every trip still starts in a car. In some cities, both congestion and transportation emissions are actually increased by park and rides.
2) As demonstrated on page 20 of the AURA transit vision, park and rides are incredibly inefficient: it takes more than 30 parking spaces to fill a commuter bus. Depending on the size of the parking spaces, that could be as big as 1/3rd of an acre.
3) Even when they are successful, commuter routes are far less efficient than local routes. With every parking space filled, Lakeline station’s routes carry half as many riders per hour of service as the local routes.
4) CapMetro cited South by Southwest and other festivals as times when the Lakeline P&R exceeded capacity. These seem like the kind of times – when lots of alcohol is involved – when it’s most advantageous to force people out of their cars. What good is it to use CapMetro as a “safe ride home” if that ride is only to a parking lot?
5) Although technically in North Austin, the Lakeline P&R is very close to Cedar Park, a city which pulled out of the CapMetro service area in 1998. So this P&R will not only subsidize the driving habits of suburbanites, it subsidizes the driving habits of suburbanites who don’t even contribute to the sales tax base.
But the largest issue may be the huge opportunity cost for other necessary capital projects. CapMetro is dedicating a huge amount of money to improve the comfort of suburban riders while its local bus facilities remain inadequate. Not every CapMetro bus stop has a shelter, but even the ones that do are lacking. Whereas most cities have 3-walled bus shelters, Austin shelters only have a roof. Accordingly, they only provide shelter when the sun is directly overhead or when rain is falling straight down. As the examples below show, shelters frequently fail at basic protections.
Drenched commuters at an Austin MetroRapid stop.
Source: Seth Goodman
Indeed, Capital Metro has blamed many of its ridership woes recently on “weather events” reducing ridership. And yet, cities all over North America have successful transit systems in places with far worse weather than mostly sunny Austin. Cities like Chicago have made strong shelters for local routes.
A local bus shelter in Chicago both protects from the elements and displays bus arrival times. Source: Seth Goodman
Coincidentally, a basic 3 wall and roof shelter costs $4,200, slightly more than a parking space at the Lakeline P&R expansion. And there are slightly fewer major stops – stops with more than 50 riders/day – in the system than there will be new parking spaces. Thus, providing every major stop with a basic shelter would cost the same as the P&R expansion. Although CapMetro’s 5-year capital budget calls for nearly $6 million in bus stop improvements, these are legally required ADA improvements, not efforts to provide better shade. Even at the busiest bus stop in the city, Republic Square, upgrades to the bus facilities will not include additional shades or weather protections.
An Austin bus stop at 5:30 in the afternoon on a 95 degree day: a typical roof-only bus shelter no longer provides shade to any part of the bench.
Source: John Laycock
This indifference is particularly galling given that some stops actually do have good facilities – the ones at Park and Rides. According to Capital Metro’s service guidelines,
“Amenities [for large Park and Rides] consist of an enclosed climate-controlled facility from 1,250 square feet to 1,800 square feet in size, security personnel or facility attendants, water fountains, vending equipment, information kiosks, single use restroom for attendant and operators, extensive lighting, landscaping to enhanced surroundings, signage and graphics, and additional seating areas with shelters/canopies at bus positions.” (Emphasis mine.)
Nothing about this makes sense except for a restroom for the operators. Why do park and rides, which presumably serve commuters who wait for the bus in the morning when the weather is coolest, need air-conditioned shelters? Presumably, if air conditioning were really that necessary, park and riders could stay in their cars. And if there is an air-conditioned shelter, why are there “additional seating areas with shelters?” And, why, if this is the kind of shelter Capital Metro is willing to build, why won’t they build them for local stops in the city, which are used all day long, by thousands of people, who do not have cars they can wait in?
For the price of the Lakeline parking lot, Capital Metro could put a 3-wall shelter on every stop with more than 50 people. Or it could build 45 top of the line air-conditioned shelters. Or look into putting real-time bus arrival information at every single stop. Or something in between. It’s about priorities: the Lakeline P&R prioritizes the well-being of cars, not people. Capital Metro should invest in their existing riders in the core of the city rather than trying to lure suburban riders who already own a car anyway.