Wear: Some quick thoughts about rapid bus

Hard to know what to make of rapid bus.

Some people will get to work a little faster, maybe, when Capital Metro’s sorta new, semi-express bus service begins Jan. 26. But they’ll have to pay 50 percent more than they do now for the comparable No. 101 route, or the multistop No. 1L and 1M, on the same North Lamar Boulevard/South Congress Avenue corridor.

The MetroRapid buses will come by more often than the buses on the 101 route, which will cease to exist. The MetroRapid buses will begin running earlier in the morning and keep running until much later. But the milk-run route, a combined No. 1, will come by only half as often as it currently does.

The new MetroRapid stations will have wireless Internet and real-time message boards saying when the next bus will arrive and will allow rear-door boarding. But WiFi seemed like a bigger deal when rapid bus service was proposed a decade ago, before most people had Internet and email access on their phones.

The 60-foot-long articulated buses on the new No. 801 MetroRapid route, half again as long as Capital Metro’s typical 40-foot bus, in theory will be more efficient because one bus driver can carry many more people on each run. But a 60-foot bus, all things being equal, will use more fuel than a 40-foot bus.

And MetroRapid, Capital Metro officials hope, within two years could increase ridership 10 percent from the 17,000-plus combined daily boardings on the 101 and 1 routes.

Or it might not. Bringing more people into the transit fold has been tough over the past decade.

Capital Metro’s 33.9 million boardings last year were still about 3 percent below the 35 million in 2008, when Central Texas had about 10 percent fewer people. Houston Metro has seen overall bus and rail ridership drop 7 percent over that period.

On top of all this, MetroRapid’s imminent opening — and a $38 million federal grant paying for 80 percent of it — was a major factor in the recent decision to choose a different corridor for urban rail’s probable first segment. So it would be nice if it were to make a real difference.

For those of you not steeped in MetroRapid’s history, which I’m going to guess is almost everyone reading this, the turn to a “rapid bus” approach was born out of the 2000 electoral failure of a 52-mile light rail plan. That $1.9 billion plan, narrowly rejected by Capital Metro voters, included a rail line up the Guadalupe Street/North Lamar corridor.

So Capital Metro came back in 2004 with a plan it called All Systems Go! (the agency’s exclamation mark, not mine) that included what became the MetroRail commuter line to Leander and numerous rapid bus lines. The idea was that if Austin voters would not approve rail running in the streets — the existing MetroRail is mostly on old freight right of way — perhaps they would be OK with faster buses.

Which, by the way, wouldn’t require an election.

But even that was a compromise. Bus rapid transit, in its ideal form, runs on separate right of way and doesn’t have to stop at traffic lights. MetroRapid, on the other hand, will run in regular lanes with cars (except for downtown) and will face red lights.

Yes, the buses will be equipped with a “signal priority” device that can keep lights green a bit longer. But the devices, at the city of Austin’s behest, will not be able to make a red light go green prematurely, and under the agreement between the city and the transit agency can’t be used downtown at all.

At one point a couple of years ago, Capital Metro was predicting only a modest time savings on the 801, versus the existing 101, in South Austin and no time savings at all in the North Austin run. They’re more optimistic now. Coming from the Tech Ridge stop near Wells Branch to downtown, which takes 42 to 48 minutes now on the 101, will take 34 to 45 minutes on the 801, Capital Metro planning director Todd Hemingson told me.

The time savings will be more pronounced on the No. 803 rapid bus route, which will displace the No. 3 (like the 1L/1M, a multistop milk run) in the Burnet Road/South Lamar Boulevard corridor this summer.

But MetroRapid will be a premium service under Capital Metro’s new fares, which also start this month. A one-way fare will be $1.50, versus $1 for a regular bus like the No. 1. The 31-day pass, which most people use, will cost $49.50 for premium service as opposed to $33 for regular buses.

Right now, about 80 percent of those 17,000 daily rides in this corridor, Capital Metro’s most popular, occur on the slower buses, the No. 1M and 1L, and 20 percent are on the No. 101. Why? The bus stops are much closer to each other on the 1L and 1M.

Yes, it might take an extra 10 to 20 minutes to get where you’re going because of all the stops, but riders on average have shorter walks to get to 1L and 1M bus stops, and there might be shorter walks for riders when exiting to get to their destinations. This still will be the case when the 801 displaces the 101.

I drove most of the route last week. Going south, I counted 20 stops for the 1L/1M in the five miles between East Riverside Drive and William Cannon Boulevard, or one per quarter-mile. That same stretch will have seven stops on the 801, an average interval between stops of about seven-tenths of a mile.

Up north, I found 44 stops for the 1L/1M in the 8.5 miles between West 11th Street downtown and Kramer Lane, an average distance of about two-tenths of a mile between stops. On the 801, there will be 12 stops over that same interval, again about seven-tenths of a mile between stops.

That means that people will have a choice: walk to a No. 1 stop, perhaps wait longer for the bus than before, and then take that same slower ride they get now on the 1L/1M. Or walk farther — in some cases three times as far — to and from a MetroRapid stop, pay more and get a faster ride.

Hemingson said the agency is predicting that 85 percent of the boarding now will be on the faster but costlier 801, flipping the ridership trend on its head. And, in time, an offering that will lure more riders overall.

As always, we’ll see. Nothing is ever simple with Capital Metro.

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