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Urban Transportation Commission reacts to Capital Metro route changes

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 by Jessi Devenyns

In September, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority informed the Austin public that there would be a major restructuring of citywide bus lines to kick-start the Connections 2025 transit plan. To elaborate on the exact changes, on Oct. 10, Caitlin D’Alton, a senior planner at the agency, offered the members of the Urban Transportation Commission a detailed overview.

D’Alton said she is confident that the proposed changes will boost ridership, based on her experience with more recent changes like the elimination of the premium fare structure that has increased MetroRapid ridership by 30 percent. Now, the idea is to create 14 more high-frequency lines that are available to bus riders throughout the city.

Although Capital Metro will make changes to over half the current routes through remapping or outright elimination, D’Alton stressed that this plan, though a major step, does not encompass all the modifications that will be made for Connections 2025. This distinction became especially important for Commissioner JD Gins.

“I want to hear Cap Metro saying we need dedicated lanes right away. That’s what I was hoping to hear out of you,” he said.

The new high-frequency routes will run at 15-minute intervals and will be within a half-mile walk of 80 percent of Capital Metro’s frequent ridership base. “We acknowledge that some of our customers would have to transfer due to these changes,” said D’Alton. “However, we know this is a recipe for ridership increase.” Each transfer has an expected average wait time of seven minutes.

Though a half mile might seem like a long journey for the average commuter, D’Alton explained, “People are willing to walk further for better service. It’s not something we read, it’s something our customers told us.”

Nevertheless, commission Chair D’Ann Johnson disapproved of the idea of people with mobility issues being asked to walk five blocks (the equivalent of half a mile in Austin). She also indicated uncertainty with this distance complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Zenobia Joseph, a frequent critic of Capital Metro, also voiced her concern with the new average distance to high-frequency bus stops. “I asked the board chairman on Sept. 29, 2017, that before they eliminate these bus routes that they actually walk the terrain,” she said. In particular, she was unsure of how some Austinites would be able to cope with hilly terrain as well as the lack of sidewalks in certain areas.

Adding fewer, more frequent routes, however, has allowed Capital Metro to address one of the biggest concerns expressed by its ridership: the lack of east-west travel within the system. D’Alton explained that these changes will result in a 30 percent increase in customers in all parts of Austin who will have access to frequent service. She expects these new routes to have increased ridership.

Commissioner Kelly Davis noted, “I did notice two empty buses go by during this presentation.” She explained her remark saying, “By and large the people who have a choice don’t choose to ride the bus. I’m just wondering if the service changes will do enough to change that on their own.”

Johnson expressed her concern about so many of the traditional East Austin bus routes being removed and the effect that will have on the populations that depend on the bus for their primary form of transport. “There’s five social service providers that are on the Route 37 that has been eliminated, and no one came to us about this,” she said.

D’Alton explained that Capital Metro is taking an equitable approach to the restructuring of the routes but that they are still analyzing the changes. She was able to confirm based on geography and density that “less than 1 percent of our riders will be outside a 10-minute walk to service.”

Joseph said she had concerns about Title VI compliance of this project. “The surveys for these new routes were not representative,” she said. “They were 72 percent white, 52 percent were females and 94 percent were educated. This is not the average transit-dependent riders.” She said that these statistics are readily available on the Connections 2025 website.

Furthermore, she indicated that despite assurances that the city had approached this project through an equitable lens, she had not seen any evidence of that. “I asked for the service equity analysis. It took me six times to ask for that information. I have not seen anything tangible.”

Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s director of service planning, said that further information about the equity analysis will be available in late October before the plan goes to the board of Capital Metro for a vote.

Photo by John Flynn.

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