Magic elixir or Kool-Aid?
The Capital Metro board next month will decide whether to quaff a deep drink of a trendy transit beverage called frequency. The agency’s spaghetti bowl of 82 routes, with buses that tend to show up at stops 20 minutes apart at best and often far longer, would be rearranged into something more closely resembling a grid.
Most important, 14 primary bus routes would be “frequent” when the changes go into effect in June 2018. That means that seven days a week, from near dawn until 8 p.m., the buses would show up at least every 15 minutes. The theory, based on what Houston and some other urban transit authorities have turned to in recent years, is that having buses come by that often will free potential riders from having to consult a schedule because the wait will be short no matter what.
The result, under this concept, is increased ridership, something Capital Metro dearly desires. The agency’s 30.4 million boardings in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 is 14 percent below the 2008 ridership, and roughly equal to the 1997 ridership total when Austin was much smaller.
But there will be costs, both human and fiscal.
The plan that the Capital Metro board will vote on Nov. 15 would eliminate 17 routes — including the No. 331, one of the six current frequent routes — and it would alter 27, in some cases marooning current riders far from a route.
And unless the eight-member panel decides otherwise, it would cut off door-t0-door service for almost 100 of the agency’s most transit-dependent customers, people whose disabilities render them unable to use regular bus service.
But overall hours of bus and rail service would increase almost 9 percent in the fiscal year that begins a year from now, after the change occurs.
The board, in other words, faces a classic policy choice: Keep the current system and its laggard ridership, or boost ridership, seemingly at the expense of some of those riding now. And that assumes the radically different approach will in fact significantly boost ridership.
Was Houston miracle a mirage?
Wade Cooper, an Austin lawyer who chairs the Capital Metro board, said that in a time when transit is challenged by changing demographic trends, low gas prices and a variety of new transportation competitors, “bold decisions” are a necessity.
“Change is a challenge, and getting it right and predicting it is also a challenge,” Cooper said at the September board meeting. “A lot of our (former) riders have been voting with their feet. Our ridership is down, and our costs are up. And the public is not going to stand for us continuing to spend more dollars to move fewer people.”
Supporters of the bus overhaul often refer to the August 2015 makeover of the Houston bus system, which similarly converted a radially designed bus routing map into one comprising more east-west and north-south routes, with increased frequency on many of those routes.
The Houston change, at least initially, seemed to be a pure success. Average weekday ridership in that first month shot up almost 10 percent over the previous August, adding about 27,000 boardings. And there were year-over-year increases of 1 to 8 percent in the 10 months that followed.
But the results have been mixed since then, with monthly decreases between July 2016 and January of this year as Houston’s economy was buffeted by an oil and gas industry slump. Comparing July of this year with July 2015 — the month before the system change occurred — the average weekday ridership was down about 1 percent. The Houston transit miracle might seem more like a mirage.
Some riders could be stranded
Meanwhile, the Capital Metro board at several of its monthly meetings this year has been hearing from people, some of them tearful, who say they would lose bus service when the proposed changes take effect in June.
Becca Liu, a University of Texas professor who uses a wheelchair, lives in the Oak Hill area. If the routes change as currently recommended, her home would be farther than three-quarters of a mile from a remaining regular Capital Metro bus route. Because her residence would fall outside that corridor, federal disability law would no longer require the agency to provide her MetroAccess, door-to-door service.
“Work, health care and independence would all be taken away,” Liu said. “I do not have an alternative. Getting around for me is a necessity, not a convenience.”
Cooper and other Capital Metro board members have indicated they probably will “grandfather” that paratransit service, at least for some undefined but limited period, for some or all of those whose homes are thrown out of the 1.5-mile-wide legal corridors. The annual cost to do so, Capital Metro Vice President Todd Hemingson told the board in February, would approach $1 million a year.
Capital Metro’s total operating budget for the current fiscal year is $262.4 million, and the agency has more than $150 million in reserves.
The change would also affect an unknown number of riders on Capital Metro’s regular, “fixed route” bus service. In some cases, the canceled routes would be replaced by others just a few blocks away, often with more frequent service.
But there are some routes headed to the dust heap — the No. 323 in Northeast Austin and parts of the No. 240 in North Austin, for instance — that would leave some riders with no realistic alternative other than moving.
Advocates say frequency is freedom
John Laycock, a member of AURA, an Austin organization that advocates for urban density and transit, lamented to the Capital Metro board earlier this year that “much has been made of what would be lost.”
“But what we are gaining,” he added, “is substantial.”
Laycock, who had analyzed a similar Capital Metro grid system with more frequent service, as outlined in a long-range plan approved by the board in February, said the area within a quarter-mile of frequent bus routes would increase from 16 square miles to 35 square miles. An additional 2,600 blocks, he said, would be within easy walking distance of a frequent bus stop.
“So some people are losing their service,” Laycock said in an interview last week, “but they’re gaining access to a system that would be much more helpful.”
Lawrence Deeter, a principal planner with Capital Metro who has overseen the bus overhaul, said that currently about 50 percent of Capital Metro customers have access to frequent service, which he defines as being within a half-mile of the route. With the nine added frequent routes and other changes, he said, 80 percent would be that close.
“Frequency is freedom,” he told the board, repeating a mantra from national advocates of closely spaced bus runs.
Cooper said the bus system changes, albeit with some last-minute tweaks next month, must occur to keep Capital Metro viable.
“The public expects us to deliver better ridership, and we have an obligations to do that,” Cooper said last week. “It’s the best thing for the city. And it will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long haul.”
Bus proposal highlights
If the Capital Metro board approves the route changes as currently proposed, here are the changes riders would see next June:
Routes that would be eliminated: 21/22, 100, 110, 122, 127, 240, 275, 320, 331*, 338, 392, 464, 490, 491, 492, 653 and 970.
Routes that would be “frequent”: 2, 4, 7*, 10, 17, 18, 20, 300*, 311, 325*, 22, 335, 801* and 803*.
Routes that would be added: 105, 310, 315, 322, 324, 327, 335, 337, 338, 345 and 382.
* Already a “frequent” route