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Planning Commissioners raise concerns about proposed bus routes

Thursday, October 6, 2016 by Jack Craver

Members of the Planning Commission raised concerns at a meeting last week in response to a presentation on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s planned overhaul of bus routes.

The ambitious 10-year plan, Connections 2025, aims to create a bus system that delivers more frequent service to more areas of the city, allowing more Austinites to rely on public transit to get around the city.

Under the new plan, explained Caitlin D’Alton, a transportation planner for Capital Metro, over half of Austin’s total population would be within a half-mile of “frequent transit,” up from less than a third today. Among regular bus riders, she said, the percentage within that distance of regular bus service would increase from 50 percent to 82 percent.

A big part of that plan hinges on the addition of two “MetroRapid” bus lines going east and west that will operate similarly to the two existing north-south rapid lines, the 801 and the 803. They will ideally arrive every 7.5 to 10 minutes during peak times, down from the current 12 to 15 minutes.

Those dramatic changes, the agency says, will make buses a more attractive and feasible transportation option for thousands throughout the city who currently rely on cars.

The problem, said Commissioner Chito Vela, is that there is strong evidence that the moves toward rapid transit that Capital Metro has already pursued have actually led to a decline in ridership. Daily ridership on the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, which used to be served by the 101 express route – in addition to the 1 local route, which still serves that corridor – has dropped from roughly 15,000 to 12,000 since the 801 rapid transit route replaced the 101 in 2014.

That drop, he said, came despite a number of improvements to the route aimed at making bus travel more attractive, including the implementation of designated bus lanes, Wi-Fi access on the buses and new shelters that let passengers know when their rides are coming. In addition, more housing has been built along the corridor, meaning there are more potential riders.

“We got everything we want, and ridership drops,” he said.

D’Alton conceded that some people now live farther away from bus stops than previously, since the 801 has fewer stops than the line it replaced. In addition, she said, the buses now come less frequently on the local 1 route than before.

She outlined other reasons the city’s most-trafficked corridor may have seen a decline in ridership.

For one, D’Alton said, the higher fare that people have to pay for MetroRapid ($1.75 versus $1.25) is troublesome, since those who switch onto a MetroRapid from a local bus must buy a new ticket. The agency plans to ditch the higher fare by the beginning of 2017, she said.

D’Alton also theorized that much of the new housing that has been built along the corridor has been luxury units “with lots of parking spaces,” meaning that well-to-do people who do not depend on daily bus use have displaced lower-income people who do. Many of the heaviest bus users, she said, are being priced out of the city and being pushed into the suburbs.

Vela wasn’t happy with any of the explanations. A fare decrease is a “simple change” that should not take so long to implement, he said. He also didn’t buy the theory regarding gentrification along the corridors and the suburbanization of poverty.

“If that was the problem, we’d see a long-term, gradual decline in bus service,” he said in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

What happened on the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, Vela said, was simply a decline in the quality of service.

“That’s the most obvious conclusion to draw,” he said, adding that he was worried that the new plan focuses too much on providing rapid commuter transit to transport suburbanites into the city, at the expense of local service within the urban core.

D’Alton said that the “first stab” at rapid transit had displayed strengths and weaknesses, and that the Connections 2025 plan was intended to “alleviate some of those errors that we’ve made.”

For instance, while stops on the two existing rapid bus lines are up to a half-mile apart, the maximum distance will be reduced to a third of a mile under the draft plan. The agency’s consulting team, she said, is relying on best practices established in other cities, including Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Other commissioners voiced concerns about routes throughout the city that will be eliminated or altered. James Shieh highlighted areas planned for major development, such as the Grove at Shoal Creek, that are largely neglected by the draft plan, while Patricia Seeger noted the lack of bus coverage west and east of the core.

Chair Stephen Oliver said that while it saddens him that the plan does not offer much for many residents in certain parts of the city, he recognizes that some low-density areas do not accommodate public transit. That is why it is important, he argued, for transit planning to align with Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive land-use plan.

“If we don’t get a better handle on this relationship between land use and the transit service we want for those areas, I think we’re going to continue to disappoint ourselves,” he said.

D’Alton assured commissioners that the current plan is merely a draft, and that Capital Metro is still gathering input on potential changes.

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