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Message to Cap Metro: Don’t worry about TNCs

Tuesday, July 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A prominent mass transportation expert told the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors on Monday that ride-hailing services have little impact on public transit ridership.

The data presented by Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit, contradict one of Capital Metro’s official explanations for a sinking number of passengers.

“Ride-sourcing has a small negative on transit ridership, and the impact is very concentrated to certain markets,” Walker explained. He pointed to the minimal bump in ridership the transit agency had seen in May when ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft ceased operations in Austin city limits. In February, Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, told the Austin Monitor that both companies were to blame in part for a 7.7 percent year-over-year drop in ridership. The agency also cited rainy weather and a fare increase.

“Uber and Lyft leaving town caused about a 1 percent uptick in ridership,” Walker explained to the Monitor after his presentation. “That gives you a sense of probably what their downward impact was when they first appeared.”

Walker is in Austin to speak at an American Public Transportation Association conference. Hemingson said on Twitter on Monday that Walker was invited to speak to the Capital Metro board “to get input on transit’s future” in a time of emerging transportation technologies. Walker’s broader presentation made a robust case for continued investment in traditional bus service.

“There’s an enormous amount of public relations noise coming out of the tech industry, and most of it is directed towards people who don’t understand transit very well,” Walker said. “And transit leaders like yourselves really have to be able to confront that and say, ‘No. The fixed-route service, especially frequent fixed-route service, is doing something incredible that no tech innovators are doing or show any signs of doing.’”

Walker also took aim at the notion that bus routes do not lead to the kind of economic activity created by the more permanent infrastructure of a light rail system. He cited as evidence the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

“You’re not going to abandon Guadalupe-Lamar,” Walker said. “That’s a permanent service even though it’s buses. Why is it permanent? Because the land-use conditions are favorable, and that’s what creates the permanence.”

Walker’s presentation came months before Capital Metro’s unveiling of its next long-range service plan, known as Connections 2025. That potentially transformative update is expected to come out this fall. Walker’s own consulting firm came close to helping guide the Connections 2025 process, but Capital Metro’s board ended up selecting a rival consulting firm, Transportation Management & Design, last fall.

City Council Member Delia Garza, who sits on the Capital Metro board, noted after Walker’s presentation that Connections 2025 seeks to strike a balance between funding efforts to increase ridership along the busiest routes and funding provision of equitable service to the agency’s entire coverage area. She asked whether Capital Metro could replicate Houston’s successful implementation of a frequent bus network. Walker’s firm worked on designing that network, which has led to a notable bump in the number of Houston Metro riders.

Walker told the board members that ultimately they would have to decide on which balance best fits the agency’s needs. He cautioned that any cuts made to coverage in favor of increasing service along the busiest routes would necessarily create a political backlash.

“Yes, it is hard to strike a balance. But the way this particular trade-off works, it’s the kind of choice that only elected officials can make,” said Walker.

Chairman Wade Cooper offered that a “third dimension” to the coverage-versus-ridership question is bringing in suburban commuters along Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard. “A lot of good can be done by relieving congestion on those routes,” he suggested.

“You’ll notice me carefully not saying that transit will actually reduce congestion,” Walker countered. “But what it certainly does is provide a choice, which enables then more growth that would’ve been impossible if driving had been the only way to get around.”

Capital Metro CEO Linda Watson asked Walker for his input on another challenge the transit agency is facing. She explained that a recurring request from the public is for the creation of dedicated bus lanes along Austin’s busiest roads.

“In almost all the cases, in fact, you’re giving up a lane of automobile traffic, which gets impossible to do in those corridors,” Watson said.

“All I can say is that as your city gets denser, this gets easier,” Walker replied.

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