Ridership Woes For CapMetro Continue in 2014

With transit ridership increasing to record highs, 2014 was a year of optimism for many transit agencies across the US. Thanks to the economic recovery, many agencies that were previously focusing their efforts on mere survival have begun to expand and improve service. Seattle’s King County Metro Transit, for example, attributes their record ridership numbers to improved service and increased efficiency. Unfortunately, for those of us in Austin, CapMetro riders won’t be joining in that celebration.

According to the agency’s planners, systemwide ridership has gone down 3.6% over the past year. This has many people asking why Austin, which is growing in leaps and bounds, isn’t experiencing the same ridership growth as other cities in the US.

It turns out that weak ridership isn’t new. When we look at ridership trends in Austin over the past two decades, as Julio Gonzalez Altamirano of Keep Austin Wonky recently did, we see that “bus ridership has remained stagnant for over 15 years even as Austin experienced substantial population growth and bus spending significantly increased.” Julio correctly attributes ridership stagnation to both land use and Capital Metro’s own transit policies. While it is true that Austin’s land use policies stack the cards against Capital Metro in considerable ways, the agency should be held accountable for implementing policies that adversely affect ridership.

ridership-spending-index

So what specific Capital Metro policies contributed to the ridership decrease over this past year? I believe that the reduction of Route 1 frequency, the reconfiguration of routes through downtown, and the fare restructure have all contributed to the ridership decrease in 2014.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues:

Route 1 Frequency Cuts

With the launch of MetroRapid Route 801 in early 2014, the decision was made to cut the frequency of the popular Route 1 in half. Initially, Capital Metro hoped that the new MetroRapid route would attract existing Route 1 riders. What resulted was the Route 1 being so overcrowded that drivers were having to pass people up at the stop because the bus was over capacity. The month that this change took place, around 40 people showed up at the Capital Metro Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee (CSAC) meeting to speak about the frequency cuts to Route 1 (more speakers than all other CSAC meetings that I have attended for the past four years combined). KUT and KEYE both ran stories on how riders were upset. People even signed petitions and discussed the issue on Reddit. Regardless of your views on the new MetroRapid service, one cannot deny that this disruption had a sizable impact on ridership in 2014.

Fare Restructure

fares

During this same time, Capital Metro implemented a new fare structure. With the launch of MetroRapid, Capital Metro decided to implement a new fare structure that put local and MetroRapid service categories. Because of this, MetroRapid fares ended up being 50% more than local service. While theoretically this may have made some sense, in reality MetroRapid and local service just aren’t all that different to have different fares. This has unfortunately added to the transit system’s complexity and created what many see as a two-class transit system. CapMetro’s fare restructure likely had the biggest impact on ridership that any other policy implemented in 2014.

Downtown Route Reconfiguration

Also in conjunction with the frequency cuts to Route 1 and the fare changes, transit service through downtown was moved from Congress Avenue to the Guadalupe/Lavaca corridor. Where once riders waited for their bus on one of Austin’s most walkable streets, they now had to navigate a patchwork of sidewalks to reach the auto-dominated Guadalupe/Lavaca corridor.

Some of these changes, like the reconfiguration of bus routes through downtown, will likely only have a temporary effect on ridership. In fact, I believe that the transit priority lanes will end up growing ridership by making transit service through downtown faster and more reliable for riders. Other changes, if not addressed, may have long lasting effects on ridership.

We can fix it!

If CapMetro is serious about growing ridership in 2015, they should focus on policies that would have the most immediate impact on riders’ lives. By restoring the frequency on Route 1, increasing service on high-demand routes, and addressing the confusing and troublesome fare structure, CapMetro could make up for the ground lost over the past year.

Cities across the US are experiencing higher ridership by making smart decisions on how they use their scarce transit dollars. With the right leaders making transit policy at Capital Metro, Austin can too.

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12 thoughts on “Ridership Woes For CapMetro Continue in 2014

  1. I think the Guadalavaca change downtown may have made things better for people travelling through downtown, but a guy like Don Dickson will talk your ear off how it made things demonstrably worse for people whose destination is downtown (at least Congress and points east, which is the majority). I don’t know if making the streets more walkable will solve any of those issues, which boil down to making a 30 second walk into a 10 minute one.

  2. I think your analysis is spot on, but the recommendations are unhelpful due to budgetary reality. Restoring or adding frequency costs money that will have to be found elsewhere in the budget. Bringing the MetroRapid fares into parity with local (which I absolutely agree should be done) would have a negative impace on revenue which would have to be made up.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, James! Do you not think that the ridership that my recommendations would attract would make up for the costs of providing that service? If not, what is the proper balance between ridership, operating expenses, and fare revenue? What would have been your specific recommendations? Interested in hearing your opinion on this. We are all really excited about what y’all have been able to accomplish in Houston.

  3. James Llamas says:

    Generally speaking, it’s very difficult to completely cover operating costs with fares, even on high ridership services. Marginal operating cost of a bus is probably in the vicinity of $80 per hour, and average fare once you account for transfers, passes, and discounts is 70 cents per boarding at most. So there is going to be a gap.

    I’m no expert on fare elasticity so I have no idea whether going to $1.25 across the board (with corresponding price adjustments on passes) and using the additional revenue to add high-ridership service would net more riders or fewer. But I think periodic fare increases are necessary for fare recovery to keep up with inflation and cost increases.

    I wouldn’t say there is a “proper” balance among ridership, fare revenue, and operating ratio but rather that it depends on your goals. A system more optimized toward high ridership with have higher numbers on those metrics than one that tends toward coverage or has no clear goals (like CapMetro or Houston METRO before Reimagining). A high ridership network needs to have a number of well-connected routes that are individually designed to achieve high ridership. This means simple, straight, frequent routes along dense corridors that are reasonably pedestrian friendly.I don’t see all that many routes in the CapMetro system fitting that description. The MetroRapid lines lack adequate frequency. Most others have twists and turns that hurt their directness and average speed. Added frequency on such routes is less likely to be rewarded with ridership.

    By designing routes from scratch like we did in Reimagining, you’re able to optimize to the goal they’re intended to achieve and free up resources that may currently be over allocated to areas where low ridership is a predictable outcome or wasted on duplicative service. As I tried to communicate at the Strong Towns event, Austin appears to be in a situation like Houston’s where such a dramatic redesign would be beneficial if transit is to take on more relevance in the region.

    • Right, “make up” and “proper” were a poor choice of words. I agree with you. I think we are generally on the same page when it comes to transit planning. I tend to advocate for a ridership model over a coverage model in all but a few circumstances. I would like to see more Austinites be able to take advantage of “abundant access”, as Jarrett so often talks about. It’s funny that you commented because I was recently asked to make an email introduction between you and a friend of mine that teaches at UT. Email forthcoming!

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  5. Novacek says:

    ” with bus ridership decreasing a whopping 7% ” The slide specifically calls out that it’s not an apples to apples comparison (that ridership doesn’t include any metrorapid ridership, i.e. it was _expected_ and intended to drop).

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