- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
The ridership numbers were stark, coming just two weeks before Capital Metro was to launch what amounts to a whole new bus system.
“I wish I had better news for you,” Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s planning chief, told the transit agency board at a May 25 work session.
Boardings on the system in the second quarter of the fiscal year, January through March, were down about 5 percent, Hemingson said. The daily average: 80,750.
And for the first six months of the 2017-18 fiscal year, Cap Metro ridership overall is down 3.5 percent. The slump includes, for the first time in years, a drop in MetroRail boardings as well; they were 5.4 percent lower in the first quarter than in the same three months of 2017.
All of this comes on the heels of four consecutive years of falling Cap Metro ridership, a drop of more than 12 percent since 2013.
So as the agency and Austin get set to hear about the inevitable broken eggs resulting from the omelet of a new system debuting this week, the plain fact is that Cap Metro had no choice but to rethink its $262 million-a-year service. At some point, a slump becomes an entrenched trajectory, even a “death spiral,” as Hemingson memorably said in a 2017 board meeting.
Hemingson’s news of continued falling ridership, Cap Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper said at that May 25 meeting, “is a message we really need to take to heart. Not many businesses can withstand a 5 percent downturn without making material change.”
Cap Remap, the revamped system that kicks into high gear with Monday’s new workweek, qualifies as material change.
Cap Metro, which has about 80 bus routes along with MetroRail and some other specialized services, is eliminating 15 routes, adding 10 and changing the routing or timing (or both) of 52 others. But the heart of the change is that 14 routes, forming a comprehensive east-west and north-south grid throughout Capital Metro’s 535-square-mile service area, will become “frequent” routes.
Buses on those routes will show up at least every 15 minutes from early in the morning until midevening, seven days a week. Until the change, three years in the making, the Cap Metro system had just six frequent routes. And those routes with closer spacing of buses over the past year have been an exception among the generally gloomy news, showing ridership increases.
So, if the overhaul works as Cap Metro officials hope and expect, many more current and potential riders will be within a half-mile of bus lines that run more often, with less wiggle in their routes and better, simpler connections to the system as a whole. And that, in turn, could (should?) lead to a reversal of the ridership loss.
Cap Metro, in fact, is predicting a 3 percent ridership gain in the first year. We’ll see on that. The agency has had a spotty record on this score in recent years.
What is undeniable, unfortunately, is that some much smaller subset of riders will find themselves with longer walks to bus stops and, in some cases, a longer ride overall because the direct route they had before now requires a transfer to a second bus. The agency estimates that the residences of 600 current riders will now be more than a half-mile from a bus route.
Some people will be hurt, in other words, with greater trouble reaching their jobs or medical care or other critical aspects of daily life. The agency, the Cap Metro board and the media have been hearing from such people, and their stories are real and disturbing.
And some transit wonks who have carefully studied the Cap Remap routes have been active on Twitter, criticizing specific connections or other service decisions. For instance, several rapid bus stops (for the No. 801 and No. 803 routes) are in the middle of long north-south blocks, while the connecting east-west route might be a third of a mile away at an intersecting street. On a hot day (we get a few of those in Austin), or for people who have trouble getting around, even that relatively short walk could be a problem.
Some have charged that the revised system will hurt some low-income or minority customers. Comparing the maps, as I have done, would seem to belie that. The bulk of the added frequent service is east of Interstate 35, home to greater percentages of people of color and those of limited means.
Cap Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke, who started just three months ago and inherited the Cap Remap makeover after the board approved it in November, said the Federal Transit Administration did an equity analysis of the plan and declared in writing that it would not have a “disparate impact” on historically disadvantaged transit riders.
“I’ve never seen anything more clear from the FTA,” Clarke told the board in May. “Not only do we not have disparate impacts, (the FTA analysis) says that we are providing even more service to low-income and minority populations in Austin. Sometimes facts matter in the conversation.”
But Clarke said the plan by definition is not perfect and certainly not set in stone. The agency, he said, will be examining ridership statistics this summer and into the fall. Expect changes in January, he said, when Cap Metro makes one of its three regular service alterations each year.
“We’re never going to get this 100 percent correct,” Clarke said. “While there will be some people who have negative impacts, and we have to work through that, there will be a lot of other people who see very positive impacts.”
For this first week, those positive impacts include free fares for all, including on MetroRail, a sort of peace offering from Cap Metro for those confused or upset by the change, as well as a marketing tool to perhaps draw some new customers into the tent.
That fare moratorium will run through Saturday.