The endless argument in public transit policy circles, in Austin and elsewhere, is always about what to buy, normally presented as a stark choice between sleek trains and stodgy buses.
Transit expert Jarrett Walker, in a speech Wednesday to a Real Estate Council of Austin breakfast, said that debate misses the point about what really gets people out of their cars and onto a public transportation vehicle. Yes, a light rail train might be spiffier than a bus, but if it only runs once every 30 minutes or an hour because of the great expense of building the system and running it, it won’t serve most people’s needs.
“There really isn’t much difference between bus and rail,” he told the audience of about 300, including many local elected officials. “Above all, frequency matters.”
Walker, a consultant based in Portland, Ore., and the author of “Human Transit,” which has become essential reading for people looking at the issue, turned away from transit for a moment to make his point. Picture a suburbanite with a home and a driveway, and a car parked in that driveway. That person, he said, has perfect transportation freedom to get up and go whenever he or she likes.
Now put a gate at the end of that driveway, he said, one that opens only once an hour for a short time. What would matter more to that car owner, he asked, how long it takes to drive somewhere, or the fact that he or she could only leave or come home a few times a day? That lack of freedom of movement, and thus reduced economic and social opportunity, is what transit users face, he said.
“Frequent buses are the sweet spot,” Walker said.
The key, Walker said, is creating a transit system that responds to people’s basic need to gather, and to get there as quickly as possible and on time. And that means having service so frequent in more fertile transit soil — areas with high density, good sidewalk systems and other elements that encourage ridership — that a potential rider can simply walk to the stop and expect a bus to come along quickly. A transit driveway, in other words, with a gate open most of the time.
Walker consulted on an overhaul of Houston Metro’s bus system over the past couple of years. Houston Metro officials and Walker took a complex, inefficient system and eliminated some routes, changed most of the others and ramped up the frequency of many of those routes. The new system will be dominated by a grid of east-west and north-south routes, rather than a hub-and-spoke system based on the out-of-date idea that most Houstonians work downtown.
The results of these massive changes, which take effect this month, won’t be known for a while.
But Portland has had an extensive frequent bus network for many years, and Capital Metro, which has seen stagnant bus ridership for more than 15 years, already is running some routes more often. The agency began service on two “rapid” bus routes in 2014, each of them with service every 15 to 20 minutes most of the time, and in June it increased weekday and evening frequency to 15 to 20 minutes on five more routes.
“They’re all wholly consistent with what Jarrett is recommending,” Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president for strategic planning and development, said after Walker’s speech. “We still have work to do, but we think we’re moving in the right direction.”
The agency’s board later this month will consider a contract for a yearlong study of the system, one likely to result in more changes of the sort Walker advocates.
Austin-area voters have now said “no” twice to expensive light rail systems, and “yes” once to a much cheaper commuter rail line. Walker, without addressing those elections, indicated that the public needs to see the utility of public transit before digging deep into its collective pockets. Frequent and full Capital Metro buses would be a powerful argument for mass transit.
“That is the best case for rail,” Walker said, “that you’re doing all you can with buses.”