Austin probably has better bus routes now

Today was the first day when Capital Metro’s new bus routes and schedules took effect. Without spending an enormous amount of time analyzing population density block-by-block, it’s really hard for me to judge the routing decisions they made.

But if nothing else, this is a great day for Austin public transit because there will be more buses coming more frequently throughout the city. The total number of frequent routes that come at least every 15 minutes from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. will increase from six to 14. Here is the map of just the frequent routes:

New Frequent Routes.png

The benefit of greater frequency should be self-evident, but I explained it anyway in an article for the Chronicle in November:

“Frequency is freedom.”

That’s how Jarrett Walker, a widely read transit evangelist, describes the basis for a sound system of public transportation. “High frequency means transit is coming soon, which means that it approximates the feeling of liberty you have with your private vehicle – that you can go any time.”

In reporting that article, I really tried to find evidence-based objections to the route changes. Those may exist, but none of the people opposing the plan were in possession of them. That’s not to say there aren’t some people getting shafted:

Walker points to Route 323, which is what the 6 becomes when it reaches its eastern terminus near Martin Luther King and Tannehill. Currently, the 323 goes east on MLK, then heads north, up Johnny Morris, Loyola, and Springdale, finally snaking west across North Austin via Rutherford and Anderson, operating about every 30 minutes during peak hours and boasting a respectable weekday daily ridership of over 1,100. Under the new plan, however, the eastern half of that route will be lopped off. Those at the Pecan Park mobile home park on Johnny Morris, for instance, will either have to walk three-quarters of a mile to get to a new East-West route (37) serving Colony Park, or take the once-an-hour “feeder” route (233).

“Pecan Park Mobile Homes currently generate less than 15 weekday boardings,” says Deeter. “The proposed 60-minute service matches that amount of trip generation.”

There are a couple of more compelling loss-of-service accounts. I’m particularly concerned about the loss of service along Bolm Road, which serves the Johnston Terrace neighborhood in East Austin.

Nevertheless, accounts such as these somehow morphed into a narrative embraced by some under-informed public officials that the route changes amounted to a massive middle finger to everybody except downtown yuppies. That’s simply not true.

If you want to get a deep dive into the implications of all of the service changes, check out these incredible maps and analysis by Ryan Young, a young transit wonk who just graduated from UT-Austin with a computer science degree. He points out that, with a few exceptions, many of the claims of “lost service” are simply less convenient service, meaning longer walks for certain addresses. Granted, as every transit wonk knows, walking distance is nothing to sneer at; it can make or break a transit system, particularly in a car-friendly city with 100-degree summers.

Here’s Ryan’s map of my area of town:


I live right in the middle of that large swath of South Central Austin bordered by Lamar, South 1st, Oltorf and 71 that is something of a no-man’s land for transit. It’s at least partially a victim of it’s awful street network, which was clearly designed by people who never considered that the future residents might want to take a bus. It’s the same issue bedeviling Cap Metro as it tries to serve East Austin –– the further you get from downtown, the less predictable and connected the street grid.

The red dots are eliminated stops, the blue dots are continued stops and the green dots are new stops. As you can see, there aren’t too many green spots in my hood. One of the big changes, noted by Ryan, is the elimination of service along South 5th, a beautiful, shaded street that is my preferred bike route downtown. People are going to have to instead trek to Lamar or South 1st, although there will be a commuter “flyer” route that comes down South 5th at rush hour.

The route I use the most is the 803, which, along with the other MetroRapid route, the 801, is supposed to come every 10 minutes during peak hours (7 am to 6 pm). Now it will have the added benefit of coming at least every 15 minutes on the weekends as well.

Now that it’s summer, I plan on using the bus more often to get downtown, instead of biking the whole way. I consider my bus service pretty good for one reason: I have a bike. If I weren’t willing or able to bike to the 803 stop 0.7 miles away, I wouldn’t feel so good about my options.

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