SXSW Bus Riders Left in the Cold

Why doesn't Cap Metro prepare for rider rushes?

On Monday, Capital Metro was basking in its visible (albeit delayed) success of the Red Line MetroRail launch. Alas, only a few days before, the transit agency was once again stumbling badly in its basic mass transit mission.

It would seem reasonable that if the first day of the South by Southwest Music Conference coincides with St. Patrick's Day (aka the night every amateur drinker heads to Sixth Street), a transit agency would want a few extra buses for the Night Owl routes, especially the northbound 481. Apparently that thought hadn't occurred to the folks at Cap Metro. The result: The 2:10am No. 481 (which travels up North Lamar) arrived at Sixth and Congress 20 minutes late. The bus was overwhelmed, police were called in for crowd control, and dozens of passengers – including this reporter – had to wait in chilly weather for the next one, the 2:40am bus (which also came 20 minutes late). My head finally hit the pillow just before 4am; Chronicle colleague Richard Whittaker just gave up and walked the 40 blocks home.

Far worse than a herd of drunks being forced to wait was what happened further down the line – other would-be passengers watched helplessly as the full bus didn't even stop for them. At about 3:05am, my bus managed to squeeze in a couple of UT staffers finishing their late-night shifts; they said they'd been waiting nearly two hours.

After the Chronicle pointed out these problems to Cap Metro, the agency announced it would have extra buses on Night Owl standby for the remainder of SXSW. Whittaker reports that Capital Metro has previously failed to prepare for such predictable ridership surges on similar events, such as New Year's Eve and Eeyore's Birthday. "What we have to do is look at the ridership we had last week," said Cap Metro interim CEO/President Doug Allen when questioned afterward about the snafu. "We are somewhat constrained as anyone would be on our budget. Rolling extra buses out costs money. The bulk of our service is intended to be able to move people during the regular work time." Asked whether predictable surges in ridership should be part of annual planning, Allen said: "We'll be looking at that. If we can get some sponsorships to help beef up some service, that would help us. Next year, we haven't made any plans to perhaps use the rail, but that's always a possibility.

"The good thing," he added, "is people use the system and see value in it."

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Capital Metro, South by Southwest, Night Owl, Doug Allen

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