Earlier this year, AURA released Transit City: A Vision for a Multimodal Austin wherein we outlined a number of critical steps for increasing ridership on public transportation. Our recommendations focused on ways to increase the usefulness of transit in order to make riding a better option for more people. AURA is pleased that a number of these recommendations are reflected in the draft of Capital Metro’s Connections 2025 plan. We view the core of the plan as a network of frequent bus routes across the city, which was one of AURA’s highest priorities. It will be key to implement truly frequent service with appropriate stop spacing, generally no more than ¼ mile spacing between stops along all the frequent routes, whether they are officially dubbed “MetroRapid” or local. There are a few parts of the plan, including the perplexing proposal to put high capacity bus service on I-35 and continued large investments in the high cost Red Line, that seem highly questionable. The actual plan as written so far, though, would be a huge improvement over current service. More detailed suggestions follow.
FREQUENT AND DIRECT TRANSIT LINES
The draft of Connections 2025 indicates a strong shift to the kind of direct, high-frequency transit network that 1) is easy for new riders to understand, 2) reduces wait times, 3) moves people efficiently, and 4) ultimately makes transit more useful to more people. We applaud Capital Metro and their consultant, TMD, for proposing a bold network redesign that will bring frequent service to a large portion of Austinites. There will undoubtedly be calls to dilute this vision in favor of more low-frequency routes to places where few people currently choose to use the service; we urge Capital Metro to remain focused on providing high-quality service where it will have the greatest benefit for the most people. In doing so, it is critical that Capital Metro follow a data-driven assessment of current conditions rather than speculative claims of where people might ride based on little evidence.
Limited stops on MetroRapid (sometimes in excess of a mile apart) were billed as a way to speed up service, but without exclusive right-of-way and off-board fare payment, infrequent stops have done little to make MetroRapid any faster than parallel local routes. Furthermore, in the hostile pedestrian environment along most of Austin’s major thoroughfares, stops in excess of a quarter mile apart don’t make as much sense as they might in a more walkable city. Therefore AURA was pleased that the need for additional stops has been acknowledged in the Connections 2025 draft. The final draft should clarify a commitment to standard stop spacing of every quarter mile and outline a specific short-term plan to address the problem. Riders should not have to wait on construction of expensive “branded” stations to remedy this. Using existing local stops can provide an interim solution until new stations arrive.
Capital Metro’s consultant was spot-on in its recommendation to lower premium fares to match the rest of the local system, and we applaud the board’s swift action to equalize fares. Premium fares on MetroRapid have negatively affected the transit system’s ability to perform as a coherent network.
Ever since the ‘Dillo service was canceled, Austin has lacked a downtown circulator to help distribute commuters around the Central Business District. With most lines running along a central corridor, circulator routes could be a boon for potential riders who need to get to the far ends of downtown. They could also prove an excellent resource for people who need to make short trips during the day. AURA is concerned that the plan to collect fares on these short routes will bog down the boarding process and slow the circulators to the point of uselessness. The beginning of fare collection on the ‘Dillo was widely—and accurately—regarded as the death knell for the service. Capital Metro should not make the same mistake twice.
I-35 BUS RAPID TRANSIT
AURA was perplexed by a proposal to build Bus Rapid Transit along I-35. As the arterial’s grim history attests, highways and people on foot are incompatible, so we are worried that riders might not be able to safely access stations in the middle. The route seems like it could become a glorified commuter line to park-and-rides on either end instead of contributing to an interconnected high-frequency network. While cities like Chicago and Bogotá have implemented well-ridden transit down the center of highways, the excessive noise, air pollution, and all-around stressful environment is far from ideal. AURA is also concerned that precious time and resources will be spent planning a project that will ultimately require the support and collaboration of TxDOT, a dubious partner that has historically shown little interest in transit.
From lavishing millions of dollars on expanded park-and-rides, to a seemingly endless list of high-dollar improvements to the Red Line, Capital Metro has prioritized investments for the auto-oriented suburbs while investing little in basic amenities for its core riders. AURA is concerned that Connections 2025 will continue the pattern of expanding commuter service and shifting resources away from more urban parts of the city. Chasing so-called “choice riders” in distant, sprawling neighborhoods costs more and serves fewer people. If Austin is to become a truly transit-oriented city, Capital Metro must prioritize service and infrastructure improvements in the dense urban places where public transportation naturally does best and where the large majority of its riders currently live.
DEDICATED TRANSIT LANES AND OFF-BOARD FARE PAYMENT
With the shift to a high-frequency network, dedicated transit lanes and off-board fare payment will have an even bigger potential to speed up transit and make it an attractive alternative to sitting in traffic. These, along with better stop shelters, require cooperation from city departments and other entities outside of Capital Metro’s control. Nevertheless, it is up to Capital Metro to take the first step and publicly commit to the rollout of these improvements. Given the ambition of the I-35 BRT, we were disappointed to not see any stated ambition for more and better transit lanes on local streets or off-board fare payment systems in the draft of Connections 2025. Transit advocates like AURA stand ready to pressure non-cooperative entities that resist collaboration on these vital improvements. The Austin City Council (which has a significant presence on the Board) has the power to ensure cooperation in most cases. We need Capital Metro to lead Austin toward its transit-oriented future. An expanded network of transit lanes and the ability to pay the fare before boarding—instead of one by one while the bus idles—are essential to that vision.
ALIGNMENT OF THE 820
The proposed MetroRapid 820 is a strong choice of route that will provide an upgrade in service to southeast and northeast Austin. However, we think that it is a grave mistake to align the route on the southern edge of Mueller instead of going through Mueller directly. Mueller is a walkable neighborhood with a mix of restaurants, retail, park space, a grocery store, and major employers. It is worth the few extra minutes of route time for the bus to reach these destinations.
By its name, Connections 2025 sets a 9 year horizon for implementation, although we understand there will be different phasing and most of the plan will be implemented well before 2025. AURA feels that the best parts of the plan should be implemented first. Streamlining the fares, implementing the core network, and building infill stops on the MetroRapid lines should all take precedence over the other parts of the plan.