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.
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.
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.