Wear: Will a huge $600,000 guitar boost bus ridership to the Austin airport?

3:12 p.m Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 Local
The Capital Metro bus stop at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in December got a $600,000 makeover in the form of a giant guitar. BEN WEAR / AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

I left the newsroom about 10:50 a.m. Thursday to catch the bus for a 12:59 p.m. flight to Denver that I wasn’t taking.

Then I not-really hefted my nonexistent suitcase and phantom carry-on through the American-Statesman’s west parking lot and across South Congress Avenue to Capital Metro’s bus stop in front of the Embassy Suites. I got there in plenty of time for the No. 100 Airport Flyer bus, which from looking at the schedule was likely to arrive about 11 a.m.

The point was to go and look at the new Capital Metro bus stop at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s lower level, a 52-foot-long guitar made of plastic and metal. And to experience the No. 100 before it goes away in June and is replaced by a much different No. 20 route. And to write about buses and airports.

Why? Because the city-owned airport, using funds generated by concessions, parking and other Austin-Bergstrom revenue (and no Capital Metro money, I’m told), spent about $600,000 installing the snazzy blue-and-green facsimile of a six-string, dedicating it in a mid-December. And because the two routes that serve the airport now — this will change in June — drop off or pick up just 1 percent of the airport’s ever-expanding passenger traffic.

When I got to the South Congress stop — also going away in June, in favor of a nearby stop on East Riverside Drive — there was just one other person there, a young man who turned out to have limited English skills and a desire to take the No. 1 bus going south rather than the No. 100 heading east. I directed him to that East Riverside stop, which serves the No. 1 already.

RELATED: Big changes in Cap Metro bus system due to arrive in June

When the bus came at 11:02 a.m., I was the only one who got on, joining two others already aboard. I paid my $2.50 for a day pass (Capital Metro got an added 50 cents because the ticket machine doesn’t dispense change) and settled into a seat. By the time we negotiated the No. 100’s four other stops in the six or so miles to the airport and arrived at 11:30, five more passengers had gotten aboard. All had suitcases and apparently were flying out that day.

So, seven passengers total headed to the airport (not counting me, the faux traveler) that midday. When the return trip began, there were two new folks who boarded at the airport, and this reporter.

I’ll stop right here and emphasize that my experience is completely anecdotal. What matters, in sizing up airport bus service, are the overall numbers, and I’ll get to those in a moment.

That outbound trip, counting the walk and the wait, took exactly 40 minutes, probably about double the time for me to drive there from the Statesman and park. But the key word there is “park.” The walk or shuttle drive from a lot on or near the airport property likely would have added another 10 minutes. And airport surface lot parking costs, at minimum, $7 a day.

So the bus, in this case, is only a bit slower (at least for now — more on that below) and much cheaper than driving and parking. Of course, other alternatives exist, including the expensive options of a cab or a ride-hailing service. Or you could prevail on a friend or family member to take you out there. But for that driver, who has to make two round-trips to the airport for your flight and your return, the time expenditure is much greater than taking the bus, and their time matters as well.

RELATED: The new stop comes as the airport is undergoing a terminal expansion

So, given all that, what’s the ridership for the No. 100, and the No. 350, which for now approaches the airport from another direction and serves North Austin? Probably not nearly as much as you might think.

Total boardings for the No. 100 over the latest 12-month period (through November) were about 362,000, or about 990 per day, according to Capital Metro. But that overstates the airport element considerably, because the route runs from the University of Texas through downtown before going to the airport on East Riverside and Texas 71. A lot of people get on and off it along the way, and their trips have nothing to do with the airport.

A better measure: the total people who get off and on at the airport stop. That number, looking at monthly figures over the past year, has varied from 334 per day to 453 per day. So the airport supplies between a third and a half of the total ridership for the No. 100.

To put all those numbers in context, I figured out the total time that buses run the No. 100 route over a year. It’s about 17,000 hours, based on Capital Metro’s published schedule. That means, on average, that the route has about 21 boardings an hour. But remember, on average, the airport supplies only seven to 10 of those boardings per hour.

What to make of that? Capital Metro, in an analysis of the sweeping bus route changes coming in June, said the minimum standard for route “productivity” is 15 boardings an hour. So, by that measure, the No. 100 would be acceptable, if not exactly bountiful.

As for the No. 350, it has much greater ridership on a much longer route. But fewer than 60 of its 2,000 or so boardings a day are associated with the airport. And, beyond that, the No. 350 will no longer serve the airport beginning in mid-June.

Neither will the No. 100, as I noted above. It will be erased from the Capital Metro system, and the East Riverside run to the airport will fall to a re-routed No. 20 bus. There is good news and bad news embedded in that switch.

The No. 20 will be a so-called “frequent” route, running for most of the day and evening (and weekends) on 15-minute intervals. That is twice as often as the No. 100, which runs once every 30 minutes. However, the No. 20 will have 26 stops between Lady Bird Lake and the airport, five times as many as the No. 100. More of a creeper, in other words, than a flyer.

We’ll see what that the net effect of those changes will be on people using the bus to get to and from the airport.

As I’ve written before in this space, transit service for airports is not the slam dunk some people seem to think it is. People have luggage when they fly, of course, and lugging it onto and off a public bus is a hassle. People tend to rush to the airport on the front end, and then long for home when they return, so making those trips last longer is a disincentive. And, of course, for people who live or work nowhere near the No. 100’s route (or the No. 20 soon), using the bus is not much of an option.

But the numbers indicate that, for at least several hundred people each day, it makes sense. Maybe having a giant, fanciful guitar waiting for them at the curb outside baggage claim will boost that number a little.

If not, at least the airport has an interesting piece of public art.