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Capital Metro bus
Monday, November 20, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy

New to Austin’s public transit system? A Cap Metro employee will ride the bus with you

Priscilla Jove, 19, sat cross-legged on a bench at a bus stop on the corner of West Oltorf Street and South Lamar Boulevard Saturday afternoon. A biology student at Austin Community College, Jove was headed out to study. She said she rides the bus because she’s not just curious about the human body – but also human behavior.

“All different sorts of people ride the bus,” said Jove. “It’s a great way to learn about them, to see how they behave, how they interact with other people.”

But there’s another reason Jove takes public transit. “Owning a car is too expensive,” she said.

As Jove boarded a bus headed north, a small crowd of people began to gather at the stop to await a bus headed to East Austin. They had congregated for what’s called a “transit adventure,” where employees of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and city of Austin ride the bus with nearby residents to hopefully demonstrate how simple ditching a car can be.

It’s all part of a new program called Smart Trips Austin. In April, City Council members voted to fund Smart Trips for five years at a cost of at least $900,000, most of which will be provided by Capital Metro. The program focuses resources – including staff-led biking or transit adventures and free bike and walking equipment, such as water bottles or Austin B-cycle day passes – on a specific region of the city’s closer-in neighborhoods in hopes that anyone who uses a car to get around Austin will consider alternative methods of travel.

“If you are invested in your neighborhood and you realize … that you’re a block or two walk over to transit or to a good bikeway and that it’s gonna be close to your work as well, then you’re really motivated to try it for that purpose,” said Lonny Stern, a special projects coordinator with Capital Metro.

To be clear, Jove is not the kind of person Capital Metro and the city of Austin are concerned with when they run a program like Smart Trips. According to Stern, the program focuses on neighborhoods closer to downtown where there tends to be greater bike, pedestrian and transit infrastructure already. These neighborhoods also tend to be the wealthiest in the city.

South Central Austin, a collection of neighborhoods including Bouldin Creek and Zilker, where the Smart Trips program is currently focused, had a 2015 median household income of $69,473, more than $10,000 greater than the median for Austin overall. Forty-eight percent of households owned a car, compared to 41 percent across the city.

A 2016 pilot of the Smart Trips program focused on neighborhoods in North Central Austin – regions including Hyde Park and Brentwood. That area had a 2015 median household income of $56,830, closer to the city’s overall median.

“I think it’s a fair thing to look at about the program, about whether or not you’re doing this in an area where people have a lot of resources already available,” said Stern. “And the truth is we’re trying to find the low-hanging fruit. The people who live closest to downtown and/or work downtown have every reason to be using services that they’re not using to the level they could.”

Staff does pre- and post-program surveys to calculate the effect, if any, the program has had on local travel behavior. In the 2016 program, respondents increased their transit use on any given day by 5.9 percent.

Stern said when a neighborhood has good public transit options, the challenge is convincing people to recognize those options and to take advantage of them.

“A lot of times the places that have the most infrastructure, we’re catering to people who are the wealthiest households. … I recognize that,” said Stern. “But at the same time, you don’t want to set people up for failure. So, if you’re gonna show people it’s quick and easy or you can add this into your week, you want to make sure that the infrastructure is there to support them.”

But is educating people about their options enough? Michael Walk, a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said transit has to be more convenient than driving for people to make the switch.

“It comes down to the convenience of the transit trip in comparison with other options,” said Walk. “The car can be a very, very convenient option. Leave when you want, go when you want, go where you want without limitations – except finding a parking spot. … Really what usually is the defining factor when it comes to the choice a person makes is whether the transit trip is convenient and comparable to taking a car for that trip.”

Saturday’s transit adventure included major parts of the East Austin Studio Tour – by bus, of course. But of the six people who came along for the ride, only two were not Capital Metro, city of Austin or Smart Trips consultant employees. A young couple drove in from San Marcos because, they said, they wanted to see the art.

“It looked like fun, and we like art,” said Claudia Perez, who came along with her boyfriend, Fernando Menendez. And although they didn’t come to necessarily ride transit, they shared their thoughts on what it would take for them – if they lived in Austin – to ditch their cars.

“It really comes down to convenience,” said Menendez. “Being able to get the pass, being able to save time. Being able to save time and money – I feel like that’s usually the biggest deal.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jsevse [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

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