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For Capital Metro, UT shuttles ground what could be high-flying ridership numbers

Monday, May 1, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s latest systemwide ridership statistics would be trending upward were it not for an unlikely population: college students.

According to recently posted data, the agency gave fewer rides in March than it did over the same period last year.

That was despite a significant increase in passengers on MetroRapid and small uptick on regular local routes.

The lead albatross weighing down the agency’s total numbers is its University of Texas shuttle service, which sloughed off a whopping 23.5 percent of its ridership – equal to 477,785 trips – in one year to account for a total of 1,554,852 passengers in March 2017.

New buses deployed last year are partly to blame since non-students are now required to pay fares and students must swipe their UT ID cards, a situation that likely pushed some riders to mainline service.

However, Capital Metro Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development Todd Hemingson told the Austin Monitor last week that there are three other reasons for the drop-off. First, he said, UT’s financial contribution to Capital Metro to operate the 12 shuttle routes has remained flat for several years even as operations costs have increased, which has led to service cuts.

Capital Metro’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget estimated that service levels would remain flat this year with an estimated payout from the university of $6.6 million.

Furthermore, the city’s adoption of the University Neighborhood Overlay Plan in 2004 has induced rapid densification of West Campus, drawing hordes of students to live within a short walk to campus from otherwise transit-dependent areas such as East Riverside Drive and Far West Boulevard.

Finally, Hemingson pointed out that a detour around UT’s construction of a pedestrian mall on Speedway took a huge toll on the two most popular shuttles, the Nos. 640 and 642, also known respectively as the Forty Acres and West Campus shuttles. Both circulators used to drive down West 21st Street between Guadalupe to Red River streets until crews shut down the intersection at Speedway to work on the pedestrian mall.

“That’s led to us having to use some very convoluted and unfriendly routing that has made it not attractive to ride,” Hemingson said, referring to the detour that took the buses down Martin Luther King Boulevard, a street further away from classrooms and lined with parking lots and garages.

In the fall of 2015, 3,588 students boarded the Forty Acres shuttle each weekday. A year later, that number had dropped to 1,638. On the West Campus shuttle, weekday ridership dropped from 3,651 to 2,025 in the same period.

Even though work on the mall is complete, UT has decided to make the detours permanent.

In an email, Blanca Gamez, assistant director of UT’s Parking and Transportation Services, explained to the Monitor the university’s rationale for cutting service that can quickly take students to the other side of the large campus.

“Now that it is a pedestrian mall filled with thousands of students, this east-west crossing is in direct conflict with north-south pedestrian traffic,” she wrote.

“This conflict creates safety concerns based on the large number of students (on foot and on bike) moving through this area and the crossing directly through this pedestrian traffic with buses. Couple this with buses that have schedules to maintain and the … time required to cross through thousands of students on foot with priority presents a potential for unsafe conflicts.”

It remains unclear how many more pedestrians the university expects to traverse the intersection now that mall is complete compared to how many used it when it was a limited access mixed-use roadway.

Gamez also pointed out that some of the declines in shuttle service have been offset by increases in Capital Metro’s other offerings that operate on similar routes. While many routes have indeed lost hundreds of riders – the No. 661 Far West shuttle going from 2,663 to 2,345 riders between the fall 2015 and 2016 semesters is a typical example – none experienced declines as drastic as the West Campus or Forty Acres shuttles have recently seen.

“We have cut hours but primarily through route consolidation, route transitions, and frequency adjustments,” Gamez said. “Therefore, we end a duplicate shuttle route and transfer those students to a mainline route that runs along the same corridor. This is both more efficient for Cap Metro but also presents an opportunity for costs savings.” She explained that UT pays Capital Metro for shuttle service based on hours of operation. For mainline service, the university pays for each time a student ID card is swiped at the farebox.

Gamez also pointed out that even though shuttle ridership is on the decline, student interest in parking permits has not increased.

“In fact, this is trending down as well,” she wrote. “Permits are required 24/7 on campus and so anyone driving to campus has a permit. Therefore, while people may moving away from bus usage in some numbers, those people are not turning to cars.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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