Public Transit Nightmare: You Can't Always Get Where You Want

Busses Following Busses

I was sitting on the bus one morning, heading in the total opposite direction that I needed to go. I was trying to get to my girlfriend’s soccer game on William Cannon, just east of the 35. In a car, it would’ve been a five minute trip—east on Ben White, south on 35, east on William Cannon, done. The bus was supposedly going to take one hour.

The bus was going really slow, like two miles an hour, along some backroads. We stopped and honked at a group of people who were near a bus stop, even though they were waving us on the whole time. When my bus took me to my first transfer point, I jumped off and skated a block and a half across the street. The next bus came about 15 minutes later. I was the only person on the bus. I flashed the driver my day pass and he got upset, “No, you need to …” and pointed to the ticket swiper. It beeped and I got a seat.

We started making good time. About twenty minutes in, we were more than half way there. An hour? I thought. We’ll definitely beat that! And we probably would’ve if the bus hadn’t turned off onto some more backroads and headed in the opposite direction of where I needed to go.

This part took forever. After a while I thought maybe I’d missed my stop. Or that maybe I could beat the bus on my skateboard if I got off right then. I’d looked at the map before I left and saw it do a few weird turns and whatnot, but I definitely would’ve noticed something like this. We picked up a couple people next to a grocery store. They all swiped their day passes slowly and carefully.

Damn, now I only had 20 minutes to catch the game. The bus made a couple more bizarre loops and we ended up parking in front of a deserted middle school. “Should I wait?” I thought. I couldn’t remember if the bus was going to get back on Pleasant Valley and head south towards William Cannon. I decided to get off the bus and take my chances. I imagined the bus zooming past me as I skated down the road, and the driver laughing: You sucker!Yeah, that would’ve sucked, butit would still be better than staying on the bus and having it go in the wrong direction, forcing me to skate twice as far.

Really, heading in the wrong direction on a bus is just part of the whole … experience. Nobody said that taking the bus was going to be convenient. Not everyone gets a bus line right in front of where they live heading exactly how they’d drive to where they’re going. That’s what cars are for. But in Austin, the transit system isn’t just inconvenient, it’s almost totally unusable for anyone who’s not a UT student, or a downtown day-time worker/shopper.

What They’re Doing Now

Let’s look at how Austin’s bus system is laid out. Capital Metro’s big assumption is simple: most people, including those riding the bus, will want to go downtown. So the bus lines are drawn. Starting from the outer parts of town, they converge towards the center, downtown. This is the “radial” system. Like a bike wheel, routes are spokes and they go from the edges toward the center where they meet. It’s the most common bus system design in the U.S., especially in smaller cities.

Once the buses get downtown, they crawl from block-to-block, dropping people off and picking ‘em up, bumping into and waiting for each other while cars and bikes speed by. The majority of Capital Metro’s fleet goes through downtown at some point.

Only the most popular route comes often at all: the combo route #1, made of the 1L and 1M, which serve the North Lamar and South Congress “corridor.” The 1L & 1M are basically the same route, except they split off during their last five miles and then meet back up. According to Cap Metro they come roughly every 12 minutes.

The 1 isn’t the only bus doing that route. The 101 is a “limited” route that heads along the same streets as the 1 and it makes less stops. Because of that, it’s able to get around faster than either of the 1 routes.

Overlapping routes aren’t limited to the 1 and 101. Almost all of Capital Metro’s lines run across and alongside one another, driving up costs and competing for customers. Anyone who’s ever seen a bunch of buses following each other has seen the phenomena known as “duplication.”

If I’m standing on Congress with my shirt soaking through with sweat, I’m going to take the first bus that comes, no matter which one it is. It costs a hell of a lot to run a single bus route. Half million dollar fuel purchases are made several times a month, and last year alone it cost Austin over 36 million dollars to run the buses, not including maintenance, etc. The more often a bus comes around on a route (known as “frequency”) the more it costs to run. The more direct routes there are, the longer they need to be. If they’re all overlapping along the way, it gets impossible to afford increased bus frequency on those routes.

Butmost people are headed downtown isn’t the only thing at the foundation of Capital Metro. They’re also assuming that riders prefer direct routes to trips with transfers.

I mean, hell yeah, people love direct routes. This is especially true in Austin where you’ll probably get hassled for change from a guy with one last rotting tooth (“Hey man, I’m tryin’ to get enough for a day pass”) for a half hour while your skin crackles under the sun like frying food. But direct routes are what cars are especially made for. And since you can’t give everyone a direct route, you gotta start picking winners and losers. That’s what Cap Metro is doing.

Conventional transit wisdom says that if you take direct routes away from people who currently have them, then you’ll lose those riders. But how far should a transit system go to please this type of rider?

Having a radial system with lots of overlapping service and as many direct routes as possible makes a system not just expensive. It also makes it confusing as hell. The Capital Metro service map is a perfect example. Trying to trace a route on it is a rugged test of both sides of the brain. If you look at it closely enough, you can make out the text: Riders—Trace your route through this psychotic maze of similarly colored lines with numbers spilling out all over! Fuck you! Hahahahahaha … But direct lines force complexity. And total insanity is the next step.

Austin Madness vs Portland Simplicity

Caption: Austin is the classic case of a system that tries to draw as many straight lines between destinations as possible. The result is a total fucking mess of a map. Can you follow any of these routes? Would you want to be lost, or trying to get anywhere new using this system? If you’re reading this article, this Cap Metro map might be yet another source of Austin insanity for you. Look at Portland’s grid system on the right. Routes and route numbers aren’t clumped on top of each other. The result: you can actually read the damn map! Not to mention the fact that the system is built so riders can go other places than just downtown.

Another problem with direct routes is that they make timed connections between buses tough. Most Cap Metro routes that should logically connect just don’t. Because so much effort (money) is put towards direct routes, timing every intersection of buses isn’t a priority. In order for an easy transfer to be made, the buses would need to be scheduled around each other, and come a lot more often than they do. But when you have a bus system full of long direct routes, timing transfers gets difficult and unreliable. According to a consultant hired by Capital Metro, buses arrived 52.0% on-time, 37.0% early and 11.0% late.

Infrequent service makes missing a bus a big problem. It makes getting lost or missing a stop scary. (Like the time my friend missed his stop and before he knew it, the bus pulled onto MoPac and headed north.) Since Cap Metro’s service is unreliable, even if you do have a smart phone with a QR code reader, you’ll never really know when the next bus is coming, where it’s going, or if you’ll be able to connect to others along the way.

This far, Capital Metro seems to be trying to please too many people. They’re trying to entice people who have cars with super-inefficient direct routes. They’re trying to please the tax paying public by not increasing service and keeping costs as low as the current system will allow. They’re trying to dilute the venom of transit-hating Texans who’re realizing that I-35 isn’t going to get any bigger, by not demanding bus-only lanes like there are in other big cities.

Driving everything towards downtown makes sense on the surface. It’s one of the only guaranteed markets for mass transit. But who really wants to take the bus downtown? (As a side note, according to a Capital Metro analysis, "Approximately 13,000 bus passengers travel to downtown Austin on a daily basis. Based on a 2005 Origin & Destination Study, about 80 percent of those passengers transfer to another route." So not everyone is headed downtown.) Parking is relatively cheap, easy, and—except during South-by—there are always open spaces. Compare Austin’s $1 per hour downtown parking with Dallas’ easily $1.50 per 20 minutes and Houston’s maximum of $1.50 per ten-minutes. With come as you are Austin parking, the only serious bus-using demographic we’re gonna get will be people who’re tryin’ to save a buck, poor people without cars, free-riding UT students, and the homeless.

I can hear it now: “But if we stop running direct routes, then people will stop riding. Capital Metro won’t make any money!” The fixation with Capital Metro making money is mostly a phony concern. They don’t make shit on fares. In 2011, Capital Metro cost 195.6 million dollars to run. Fares only added up to just 9.9 million dollars, just 5% of the total expenses. That’s why it makes zero sense when Capital Metro does things like increase fares for disabled people in order to lower the cost of the Red Line, Austin’s commuter rail.

A little history: There’ve been recent attempts to build service that goes beyond regular buses. In 2000, Austinites were given a chance to vote on a proposal for a light rail system that would’ve run down Lamar, Guadalupe, and Congress.

Light rail is sort of like a mix between a street car trolley like you might be able to imagine in a movie about San Francisco, and a heavy freight train that you wait for at a rail road crossing. The rail is called “light” because it can run on a track built onto the street and because the trains are smaller and slower than freight trains. Usually light rail is on a separate track from regular roads, but it’s possible for cars to share a lane with a light rail train.

There was a war around the 2000 project. At the time, former Council member Max Nofziger called the project un-Austin and expensive. Then-Council member Daryl Slusher supported the project, contrasting a light rail with a future of congested lines of buses and cars… sort of like we have now.

A “Critical Analysis” of the light rail proposal called “Trolley Folley” was published in Sept. 2000, by two researchers Thomas A. Rubin and Wendell Cox. It criticized the plan, saying that no other cities’ light rail projects decongested anything. It compared the number of people a light rail line can move compared to a freeway line. It went on to argue that Austin isn’t dense enough for light rail to be useful and that the billion dollar project was just too expensive.

Voters rejected the proposal. Four years later, in 2004, Austin felt the need to do some kind of rail so they offered voters something else: commuter rail. This one passed and now we have the Capital Metro Red Line, a heavy rail project meant to serve the suburbs, which uses old freight lines. It starts downtown at 4^th^ and Trinity, goes east away from the main roads, and then way out northwest penetrating deep into Suburbia towards Leander.

The project cost more than it was supposed to (big surprise!), but it was a lot cheaper than the 2000 light rail proposal. It was cheaper to build, but barely anyone rides it. It loses way more money than it makes from rider fares. If you divide the cost of running the rail by how many people use it, we’re spending around $35 per person riding. A ticket costs between one and two dollars.

Because ridership on the Red Line is so low, Capital Metro is trying to market it with “It’s Ladies Night”, and they are running the line until midnight. Will this work? I think they need to answer this first: will people want to leave their cars at home so they can leave 6^th^ Street early and possibly get stranded?

Everything seems stacked against Capital Metro. The bus system is a giant, uncoordinated mess … And is totally irrelevant to most of Austin. They cheaped out on rail and now we have a line that is massively expensive to run, and, again, something that is useless to most of inner Austin. Do they have any good ideas?

What They Plan on Doing

Don’t think that Capital Metro doesn’t feel the scorn of Austin’s growing population—from suburbia who doesn’t get much from the system, to the Central Austinites who will only use it as a last resort.

The next big thing we’re about to spend money on in the hopes of vaporizing our congestion problem is MetroRapid, the “Austin” version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

Bus Rapid Transit is a kind of bus service that tries to reach the speeds and reliability of rail. Part of the reason rail is so fast is because it has its own road. During rush hour you can imagine why this would be important. Usually, BRT lines have their own lanes that cars aren’t allowed to use. This serves as a kind of rail, but other buses can also jump in here and there and get the time savings, too. BRT lines are cheaper to build than rail and they’re more flexible.

MetroRapid is bringing those big slinky buses to town, the 60 footers. (A normal bus is 40 feet.) They’re presenting this as some kind of miracle in reliability, comfort, and high-technology. Each bus will get this little device that can make a green light stay green for a couple seconds longer.

That’s MetroRapid’s biggest selling point. Keeping a light green for a couple seconds. Here’s from their cornball website: “Imagine a traffic light that stays green a little longer just for you … As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘that’s no ordinary bus.’”

Just think about this for a second. MetroRapid buses won’t have their own dedicated lanes. No. Hell no. The Texans would never allow that. Come and take it! They’d say, shotguns in hand, surrounding whatever lane was scheduled to get confiscated and repainted “Capital Metro Bus Only.” So get ready to see gigantic 60 foot buses sitting in miles of gridlock traffic, green light or not.

Austin’s MetroRapid is being funded mostly through the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program. The program hands out money for transportation projects that follow certain requirements, including frequent service (every 10 minutes during peak, 15 otherwise), “special branding,” minimum of 14 hours per day of service, “substantial” transit stations, and “signal priority” (that light changing capability). Altogether, Cap Metro will get 38 million dollars from the Federal Government towards the project and will have to pay the rest: 9.5 million dollars.

MetroRapid will have two main lines: one heading through South Congress to North Lamar and the other running from South Lamar to Burnet Road. They’re throwing out big numbers, with time savings of up to 25%. But if you look at their numbers closely, you can see that they’re comparing the savings to the slower local routes that make a ton of stops. If you make a realistic comparison between MetroRapid and the 101 Limited route that it will be replacing, travel times are only different by zero to three minutes. That’s assuming their numbers aren’t overly optimistic.

Just like light rail, Capital Metro watered down BRT. They took a mode of rapid transit that works in other cities, stripped away everything different and good about it like segregated bus-only lanes, and turned it into a regular bus that’s slightly bigger. Austin is a ridiculously congested city. This is why MetroRapid neededto have its own way of getting past gridlock traffic. Traffic is bad now, but imagine how bad it will be in 2014 when MetroRapid is supposed to be totally on line.

Cap Metro isn’t giving up, though. Even if their own ideas aren’t so hot, they’ve got some more ideas they paid for.

In 2009, Cap Metro hired an Everett, WA-based company to analyze Austin’s current transit situation and develop a 10-year plan to improve ridership, cost-effectiveness, “route-directness and system connectivity.” (Talk about conflicting ideas.) The result: Service Plan 2020.

Their overall recommendations boiled down to a few things: consolidating overlapping routes and increasing frequency along main roads. They also said that we need bus lanes, and a downtown Transit Center should be built, which brings us to a funny story.

In November 2007, the State Preservation Board told Cap Metro that they had to get rid of the “Capitol Transfer Center.” It was basically just a big bus stop with a bus lane, but the board insisted that, since it was on the Capitol grounds at 11^th^ and Congress, it was a “safety and security concern.” So they tore it down, and now, in the Service Plan 2020, they’re proposing we build one down the street on 11^th^ and Lavaca / Guadalupe. (Next time, instead of tearing down an entire stop to get rid of the homeless people, they could use a psychological warfare approach like they did all across the Pacific Northwest & Colorado and just play classical music. I’ve seen it and it works.)

Talk about redundancy, it looks like light rail is breaking out from the grave and might end up, yet again, on the ballot. They’re proposing a new light rail plan that runs from the Mueller Development in East Austin, down Airport, Red River, San Jacinto, then onto 17^th^ where it will run along Guadalupe and Lavaca. That’s just the first phase, which could cost over 400 million dollars. The second phase would run down Riverside, and have separate lines running along 9^th^ and 10^th^.

Like a lot of things Austin does, this project would be paid for with already-rising property taxes and the hope of more Federal money. There will be another heated battle to be fought over this, I’m sure. Just remember that nobody knows how much this will help … people get real emotional when they start talking about bus vs. rail, as I’m sure the comments section of this article will show.

In the plan’s current form, it doesn’t serve the corridors heavily, and it will share the road with cars for part of the route. It seems like since cars are the problem, getting around them would be critical, just like with BRT. The issue of trust in Capital Metro is something to think about, too. If they can’t run an effective bus system or a successful commuter rail line, can they be trusted with a half-billion dollar urban rail project?

Capital Metro Revenue

Caption: Here's where Capital Metro gets its money. As you can see, it is about as publicly funded as it gets. That's not necessarily a bad thing until you think about things like: Why raise rates on the disabled?

When Things Get Complicated, Think Simpler

It’s like they say: to any problem there are multiple solutions. Capital Metro’s plan of running direct lines all over, trying to make everyone happy but really just pissing off everyone, is only one possible solution.

A frequent grid system, championed by the enlightened public transit planning consultant Jarret Talker, author of Human Transit, is another way of thinking about the problem. In the grid model, transit lines are aligned like a grid and route duplication doesn’t exist where it’s not absolutely needed. Individual transit lines head down main roads, not just ones toward downtown. The savings gotten from removing overlapping service is put toward bus frequency, a critical staple of the system.

An imaginary, oversimplified Austin grid might look something like this: some extremely frequent lines heading downtown, North and South, probably along Lamar/Burnet and Congress/Guadalupe. Maybe instead of having a route that heads across Riverside, then up Congress and up further North, a simpler & more frequent Riverside-only route could exist. Since so many people do need to go to UT & downtown, the lines running along those roads would have to come so often that you’d never need to look at a schedule. East-west roads like Oltorf, Dean Keeton, & MLK could also run frequently and just connect with the major north-south corridors.

Those are just some examples, but that’s the way grid systems in other cities work. Connect main routes, run them frequently, and give riders more practical options about where they can take the bus. Ideally, if a bus comes around enough, riders can just walk out and grab a bus without worrying about missing or catching it. If the routes are simpler, then the whole system will be easier to remember.

A system like this forces most users to change buses often. Generally, people really hate transfers, especially transit planners. “Transfer penalty” refers to how big of a pain in the ass getting onto another line is. This can be measured in time, money, comfort, safety, etc. In Austin, transfer penalties would be calculated by things like making it necessary to buy a day pass (there are no free transfers in Austin!), having to cross the street, walking a block, waiting in the sun at an unsheltered stop, the chance of missing a bus and having to wait at least a half hour, etc.

Avoiding transfers at all costs doesn’t come cheap. A grid planner would argue that if the bus frequency is high enough and the stops are timed well enough, then the wait times between buses would be low, and transfer penalties would be much smaller.

An important thing to keep in mind is that Austin is a booming city. While downtown is still important and always will be, there are a lot of other places that people are going to need to be in a reasonable amount of time. Austin needs a multi-destination transit system.

Another City & Drivin’ Around

Looking at Portland’s transit system is a relief compared to Austin’s cluttered mess. They have a grid of fast and frequent (“every 15 minutes or better” during rush hour) light rail trains that head all over the city. These intersect with a grid of frequent bus lines. For the most part, only one bus line heads down each major road. There’s also a streetcar that runs a box through downtown, and a commuter rail that travels through the suburbs and intersects. While most people might have to transfer to get where they want to be, doing it isn’t as painful as it is in Austin.

Using a frequent grid, very little route duplication, and a mix of transportation modes (bus, streetcar, light rail), Portland made a system that gives riders a lot of options about where they can go. They can get downtown fast, but they can also go other places quickly, too.

Six years ago, I was hitchhiking at a busy intersection next to a yuppie strip mall in suburbia. I’d been standin’ there for about an hour with my sign, not having any luck. I had about 150 miles to go and I was starting to get worried about the sun falling lower & lower. A dreadlocked homeless man with a jewel glued on his forehead walked up to me: “You should have started panhandling to buy a Greyhound ticket. Man, you look like you’re 14! I’m 27 and I make 40 dollars an hour!” But I wasn’t just hitching because it was cheaper. I was doing it because I knew if I got lucky—and trust me, I got lucky as hell—I could usually beat the greyhound by four or five hours. Mass transit isn’t much different.

When it comes down to it, routine travel is all about time. Or wasted time. People will pick whatever mode of transit that takes the least time. This is why my friend will call a taxi to take him to work, and shell out 15 or so bucks, when there’s a perfectly direct bus route that can bring him there. That’s why you see so many bikers busting their asses through bumper-to-bumper traffic literally everywhere. Austin is a driving city for a reason. Biking sucks and it’s easy to get killed, but at least on a bike you’re in control of where you can go and when you’ll get there. Riding the bus is ridiculous. I can’t tell you how many times my coworkers have called me, 30 minutes before their shift starts, “Hey dude … uhh, I guess my bus came early and I missed it, so now I’m walking back to get my bike and I don’t know how long it’s gonna take me to get to work.” Or worse: “Hey, Brandon, my bus broke down, I’m waiting for another one to come. I’m going to be a couple minutes late.” A couple minutestook an hour.

If people want direct routes, they can jump in their car. Most of them do. That’s why the roads are so congested. Driving is the only real freedom you can get in this city, even if it means going three miles per hour on I-35. You know that if you’re stuck in traffic, the bus is in a whole different world of pain.

Arguing for spending billions of dollars on transit solutions, like taking away a lane for cars and giving it to buses, in a city that’s always been dependent on cars will be hard. I bet if you put a bond on the ballot that said “Add two non-toll lanes to I-35 and Mopac, both ways,” it would pass so heavily that it would blow away all previous Austin voting records. That’s not a realistic solution, but neither is half-assing public transit. If you’re going to spend the money, it should be well thought-out and not idealized. Telling people what they want to hear, both in terms of low-cost and high-effectiveness is a good set up for failure. And that’s what Capital Metro has done so far.

A real transit system should be more than a bus that takes you from where you live to a major destination. The reason people drive their cars everywhere isn’t just because the bus doesn’t go downtown enough, or because it’s too expensive or infrequent, it’s because when riding the buses here you’re a prisoner inside a complicated & unreliable maze of A-to-B lines. Until Austin figures out a way to make people free within the transit system, nobody’s really going to choose to give up their car, and we’ll just be clogging up our roads with multi-million dollar public transit failures.

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