"Frequency is freedom."
That's how Jarrett Walker, a widely read transit evangelist, describes the basis for a sound system of public transportation. "High frequency means transit is coming soon, which means that it approximates the feeling of liberty you have with your private vehicle – that you can go any time."
Liberated was likely not how Leticia Hinkle felt as she waited for the Route 7 bus at the corner of Fourth and Guadalupe on a recent Thursday morning. The home health aide was trying to get across town to an appointment, catching the Route 6 bus at Pleasant Valley before transferring to the 7, which she'd take a few miles south. She'd just missed the 7 when she got to the Downtown stop. Luckily, that's one of the Capital Metro Transit Authority's six "frequent" routes, so she'd only have to wait 15 minutes. On her way back, however, she may have had to wait 40 minutes before she could transfer back to the 6.
Hinkle has had a car before and would like to get one again if she is able to save enough money. But even if she does buy one, she still plans to ride the bus, at least occasionally. "Sometimes I might not have the gas money," she explains. "Transit, it can be a hassle sometimes, but at the same time it's a blessing. Some people can't drive at all. That's the only way they can get back and forth."
Soon, Hinkle might not need to wait so long to catch her transfer. On Nov. 15, Cap Metro's board will vote on a plan to significantly redesign its bus routes as part of the multi-year effort known as "Connections 2025." The cornerstone of the plan is an increase in the number of "frequent" routes from six to 14. On all of those routes, buses will come at least every 15 minutes on weekdays. Four of those will be "rapid" routes (including the existing 801 and 803), coming every 7-10 minutes. Most of the other standard routes would provide service every 30 minutes, down from the current waits, sometimes as much as 50 minutes.
For Hinkle and others who don't own cars, the benefit of Connections 2025 is obvious: The bus that you depend on comes more often, meaning less time spent waiting on a street corner. But the additional $10 million per year that Cap Metro plans to pour into buses is not just about making life easier for those who most need transit. Rather, the hope is that it can reverse a troubling decline in ridership. Austin's population grew by about 80,000 between the fall of 2012 and the fall of 2016, yet during that same period the average weekday ridership on Cap Metro buses dropped by 30,000 (from 133,000 to 103,000).
Theories abound to explain the decline. Low gas prices, hotter-than-average summers, and the advent of ridesharing apps each play a role. Planners are also focused on the exodus of Austin's low-income population from the urban core into the city's outer edges. The newcomers replacing them generally have more money and are less likely to depend on transit, or at least a transit system that does not appear to provide them any advantage over driving. But the authority has also made mistakes, most notably its decision to charge 50 cents extra ($1.75) for its two North-South "rapid" routes (the 801 and 803) when they were introduced three years ago. It wasn't just the additional half-dollar; passengers who'd already bought a $1.25 ticket from another route couldn't transfer onto the new routes without buying a new ticket. Since reducing the fare in January, ridership has jumped 30% on the rapid routes, according to Lawrence Deeter, a Cap Metro senior planner.
To John Laycock, who analyzes transit policy for the urbanist advocacy group AURA, "as long as you have free parking immediately next to wherever you're going, there's going to be almost no incentive to take the bus. … If you've grown up driving a car your whole life and you think the bus is for poor people." There's not much that Cap Metro, a regional authority, can directly do to make people like driving their cars less. It can ask (but not tell) the city to reconsider its parking requirements or reshape its streets in ways that favor public transit over private vehicles. But if its goal is to boost ridership while spending as little as possible, the most obvious strategy would be to develop the best possible service for those in the densely populated central city – a service so effective that even the affluent would opt for transit over cars. And in order to put in place that top-tier service within the urban core, the agency would cut routes that serve the outskirts and typically have lower ridership. Problem is, the outskirts are increasingly where you'll find those most in need of Cap Metro's services.
"Out of all the changes I've seen, this is the worst one," said Anthony Walker, a bus driver in his 27th year with Cap Metro, and his third careening along Route 6. Shortly after noon on a recent weekday, Walker's bus had only a handful of riders on board. It had been packed a few hours before, as it headed Downtown at rush hour. Last fall, Route 6 averaged 575 passengers per day, down from 777 in 2012. Walker doubles as vice president of the East Side Coalition; he said the plan is going "to hurt more people than it helps."
Walker points to Route 323, which is what the 6 becomes when it reaches its eastern terminus near Martin Luther King and Tannehill. Currently, the 323 goes east on MLK, then heads north, up Johnny Morris, Loyola, and Springdale, finally snaking west across North Austin via Rutherford and Anderson, operating about every 30 minutes during peak hours and boasting a respectable weekday daily ridership of over 1,100. Under the new plan, however, the eastern half of that route will be lopped off. Those at the Pecan Park mobile home park on Johnny Morris, for instance, will either have to walk three-quarters of a mile to get to a new East-West route (37) serving Colony Park, or take the once-an-hour "feeder" route (233).
"Pecan Park Mobile Homes currently generate less than 15 weekday boardings," says Deeter. "The proposed 60-minute service matches that amount of trip generation."
Similarly, LBJ High School and its surrounding neighborhoods will lose access to Route 37, which comes down Pecan Brook Road every 20 minutes at peak times. They will instead get hourly "feeder" service to connect them to the redesigned 37 to the south, or the new "rapid" 820 line just west of Hwy. 183. Deeter defends that change, as well: "Customers asked us for a network that is easier to understand." Having buses stay on major roads is a big part of that: Rather than having the 37 deviate onto Pecan Brook, he says, it should remain on Loyola. He adds that the existing Route 20 will continue to serve LBJ twice a day, to coincide with the beginning and end of the school day.
Supporters of the plan, including Cap Metro itself, acknowledge that every policy has certain casualties. Yet they argue that in the aggregate the plan will help more than it hurts. A study that Laycock and fellow AURA member Jay Crossley put together earlier this year found that twice as many households will now be within one-quarter of a mile of a bus stop with frequent service, while only small parts of the city would lose access, notably in the North and Northeast. The study also found that households in poverty would see a 75% increase in access to frequent bus stops. Jeb Boyt, president of the Austin chapter of the Alliance for Public Transportation, says it's a balancing act. "In order to provide the frequency of service, they had to cut back on the more widespread delivery of service," he says.
Mike Dahmus, a transit blogger who is known for getting into heated online spats with fellow urbanists, argues that the plan tries to do too much for those outside the core. He highlights a reduction in service to Hyde Park, one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, as well as the already implemented extension of the 801 rapid route to Slaughter Lane, as flawed attempts to address the suburbanization of poverty, a phenomenon he says is "largely a myth used by suburbanites to gain access to services they aren't paying taxes for." The most obvious example, he says, is MetroRail. The money Cap Metro spends to bring commuters into town from as far away as Leander dwarfs the revenue it brings in through fares.
City Council Member Delia Garza, who sits on Cap Metro's board (along with Council colleagues Ann Kitchen and Pio Renteria, and six others), is inclined to support the plan. But she's concerned about those who might lose service, including in her sprawling Southeast district, which stretches across many areas that were traditionally considered the suburbs but are now rapidly growing. Deeter says there are only two routes targeted for elimination whose passengers will have "no alternative available": the 970 and 122. Those routes average fewer than 10 riders per day. It would make more sense for them to be served by the agency's ridesharing program, where a group of people set up a carpool and get access to a Metro van, plus a $450-$500 per month subsidy to cover gas.
Cap Metro is also exploring alternative options for getting to people who aren't efficiently served by a 40-foot bus. Hence the "Mobility Innovation Zones," a still-vague component of Connections 2025 that focuses on connecting people in outer areas of the city with the more centralized transit system. Potential tools include an on-demand pickup service that is already operating on a pilot basis in Mueller and Windsor Park, or "partnerships" with existing transportation network companies, such as Ride Austin or Uber, that make those services cheaper. According to the plan, the innovation zones won't come until at least 2019. One of the six being considered is in Tarrytown, which is currently served by three different bus routes (4, 18, and 21/22) that connect the affluent Westside neighborhood to Downtown and points east. Enfield Road and Exposition Boulevard, both heavily trafficked roads, will no longer see regular bus service.
Few tears are being shed over one of Austin's richest neighborhoods losing access to a service that few of its residents actually use, but there are worries about the impact that might have on people who travel into the area for work, notably service employees and domestic workers. Kitchen said recently that she couldn't support the plan unless those routes are maintained – at least until the innovation zone alternatives are in place.
The route changes are only part of a more long-term plan, Project Connect, which envisions a number of ambitious transit strategies, including a "Bus Rapid Transit" system that zooms down I-35 in a dedicated lane by 2023 and additional "Park and Ride" facilities to connect suburbanites to commuter bus service. And of course, the prospect of rail is always out there, assuming voters will one day grant consent.
But first, people need to start riding the bus.
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