Wear: Capital Metro hopes ‘frequent’ buses lead to more frequent boardings

Capital Metro already had express buses. Last year, it added rapid buses. Starting Monday, we get “frequent” buses.

See a theme there? Expect the agency to unveil warp speed bus service eventually, if ridership doesn’t pick up.

And that is, after all, the point of Capital Metro and its 1 percent sales tax: to provide rides for people who cannot drive, or have no personal vehicles, or have one but would like a potentially cheaper, less stressful and perhaps more environmentally friendly alternative. And for Capital Metro, generating riders has been a problem.

Overall boardings fell 2.6 percent in the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, and ridership so far this fiscal year is down another 3.6 percent. If that trend holds, Capital Metro would have about 32 million boardings in 2014-15, more or less what it had in 2001, when Central Texas had a lot fewer people living in it.

Agency officials, asked about the ridership slump, point to fare increases the past two Januarys, including a 25 percent hike in the basic fare this year (from $1 a ride to $1.25), and to what has been admittedly lousy weather (in transit terms) over the past couple of months. And the strong economy is a factor as well. With unemployment down to about 3 percent locally, more people can afford cars, and the gas to keep them going.

Which puts transit’s inherent disadvantages in play. Such as travel speed. And the inflexibility of the system (the bus goes where it goes, not necessarily where you want it to go). And then there’s the schedule hassle factor. Walking toward a stop only to see the tail end of the last bus a block or two away has a high irk factor.

Frequent service — “frequent” generally defined as having buses come by at intervals of 15 minutes or less — is meant to address at least that last factor. When buses come by that often, a person no longer has to look up the schedule because the wait, on average, will be only a few minutes. Transit agencies around the country have been introducing frequent bus service, or beefing up existing frequent networks, particularly as the economic recovery has boosted their tax revenue and budgets. It’s Capital Metro’s turn.

“You don’t have to schedule your life around transit anymore when it’s every 15 minutes or better” for a bus arrival, Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president for strategic planning and development, told me last week.

As of Monday, four of the agency’s 45 basic bus routes — the Nos. 7, 300, 325 and 331 — will go to 15-minute frequencies from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, with 20-minute (“kinda frequent”) intervals on weekday evenings until 10 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. A fifth route, the No. 20, will go to 20-minute frequencies weekdays and Saturdays.

By and large, based on a look last week at those routes’ previous schedules, they were running 20- to 32-minute frequencies, tending toward the lower end of that at rush hour and the upper end evenings and Saturdays. So, yes, the buses will come by much more frequently.

The hope, Hemingson said, is that having buses make more frequent runs will boost ridership by 600,000 to 1 million a year. The cost will be about $2 million annually, he said, virtually all of that from the cost of having more buses and drivers on the road. And if it works, there will be a second phase in 2017 (when the agency would devote an additional nine buses to expand the effort to other routes) and a third one early next decade.

It’s worth noting that the schedule will not be compressed for the No. 1, which runs the length of the city north-south on North Lamar Boulevard and South Congress Avenue, or the N0.3, a similar expansive route on Burnet Road and South Lamar Boulevard. The No. 1, among the agency’s most well-used routes with about 6,750 boardings a day, generally runs on 26-minute intervals weekdays. The No. 3, with about 4,200 boardings a day (more than the 325, 331 and 20), is on a 30-minute frequency.

Why? The two routes run on roughly the same path as the No. 801 and No. 803 “rapid” bus routes, which began last year. Those routes not only have a lot fewer stops (thus the rapid name), but also have 12- to 15-minute frequencies on weekdays. So, in effect, there is already frequent service — albeit at a “premium” fare 50 cents higher per ride — in those two popular corridors.

When the light rail initiative failed in November’s election, Capital Metro’s board president at the time, former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez, said it was time to pour more resources into the bus system. Hemingson said this frequent service approach was actually in an agency plan concocted five years ago, but that only now, with potential rail expenses no longer a factor and sales taxes running ahead of expectations for the past several years, is the money available to pay for the extra service.

We’re all paying for Capital Metro when we buy something at the store through that sales tax levy, and many of those people getting on the bus (though not all) represent one fewer person who otherwise would be in a car. Full buses mean a better payoff on the taxes, and a slightly emptier street and highway network.

Here’s hoping that frequent buses mean more frequent boardings.

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