Capital Metro is hemorrhaging bus riders.
Average daily ridership has fallen more than 20 percent in the past four years, from almost 130,000 boardings a day in 2012 to about 102,000 a day this spring. And that most recent figure was down 4.2 percent from the previous spring, meaning the bleeding has not slowed down.
And lest anyone think that all those former bus riders have moved to MetroRail, the agency’s commuter line to Leander, it is generating about 650 more rides a day now than in 2012. That covers about 2 percent of the loss in bus boardings.
The obvious questions: Why the plunge, and what is Cap Metro trying to do about it? The “why” part, naturally, has a lot of tentacles.
At a Cap Metro board meeting last week, the popular theory was that, in effect, the agency’s customers have been moving away. This is the so-called suburbanization of poverty argument, the idea that as Austin housing has become more expensive — rents and home prices in gentrifying areas — people who might have used the bus rather than a car are instead now living in Pflugerville or Hutto or Bastrop.
And demographic data from the U.S. Census, as the Statesman has reported, have shown decreasing poverty levels in Austin and increasing poverty levels in some of the city’s suburbs.
One problem with this theory: If you move out into Sprawlville, almost by definition that means you already had a car, or have to get one now. So there’s a bit of a logic problem there.
Nonetheless, Capital Metro has been engaged over the past year or two in trying to chase at least some of those riders. The agency has a service area of cities and other jurisdictions that voted years ago to join the Cap Metro fold and therefore impose a 1 percent sales tax that goes directly to the transit agency’s coffers.
A town that is not a member of Cap Metro — such as Round Rock, Pflugerville, Hutto, Buda, Kyle or Cedar Park — is not eligible for bus or rail service. But Cap Metro can reach separate agreements with such cities in which some of the federal money now going to the agency would instead go directly to those cities for transit needs. Then, if elected officials in those areas agree to throw in more of their tax dollars, Cap Metro could extend some bus service to them.
The agency and several cities are planning for such service, said Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development. However, Hemingson said, “in the big scheme of things, it’s a very small ridership contribution.”
No, that 28,000 loss of boardings has to do with far more than people moving.
First of all, the University of Texas shuttle system has lost 17,000 daily boardings, half of it ridership in those four years.
UT pays Cap Metro about $6.4 million a year to provide the rides, and that figure has not grown nearly enough over the past decade to keep up with inflation of the agency’s cost of running the buses. The result is that Cap Metro has been trimming the service — five routes have been eliminated since 2012, and others have had route or frequency changes.
Beyond that, West Campus has gone vertical and dense with high-rise residential buildings catering to students, putting more and more of them within walking distance of class.
But Cap Metro has been hit with other external forces and suffered at least one significant self-inflicted wound.
With gas prices at 10-year lows, particularly taking into account inflation, taking the car has become an ever more painless option. People who rushed to Cap Metro’s web page and then bus stops during 2008’s summer of $4-a-gallon gas now have returned to their cars. And with unemployment hovering around 3 percent locally, more people can afford to get a car in the first place. Fare hikes in 2014 and 2015 didn’t help, but the decline has continued into 2016.
And now there is an explosion of transportation options, particularly for the younger and often financially comfortable people moving into the core of the city. While some of them might have taken the bus in the past, since June of 2014 they have been able to use ride-hailing services, such as Uber or Lyft — or any of the replacement companies that have popped up after those industry leaders chose to leave in May. Car2go short-term rental cars are more prevalent now, as are B-cycle stations.
How much effect have any of those had, individually? Hemingson can’t say.
Fewer routes, fewer riders
Then there’s the rapid bus problem. Capital Metro in the spring of 2012 was getting more than 17,000 boardings a day from its three routes plying the North Lamar Boulevard/South Congress Avenue corridor running up the spine of the city. In January 2014, the agency canceled two of those routes and add the No. 801, a somewhat faster and somewhat more expensive alternative on roughly the same route.
It hasn’t gone well.
As of this spring, the old No. 1 slower service had 5,733 boardings a day. The No. 801 was 5,676, for a combined 11,409 boardings a day, down a third over four years. The cheaper service comes by less often, and the more expensive service has fewer stops. That is a bad combo.
The other rapid bus corridor, with the old No. 3 and the No. 803 rapid bus, has seen an extra 2,000 boardings a day because there is actually more service now. But taken together, the two corridors are off 4,000 rides daily.
One thing that has worked is a move a year ago to more frequent service on five other routes. Those routes have seen an 1,800-boardings-a-day increase in the past year, perhaps offering a road map for future changes.
The agency is paying attention to all this, Hemingson said, and has consultants working on a plan — a transfusion, if you will. We’ll see if the doctoring works.