Electric buses? Meh

From Ryan Young’s last article for the Austin Monitor:

At (Cap Metro’s) July 30 board meeting, Dottie Watkins, vice president of bus operations, discussed some of the first steps the agency is taking on the road to a zero-emissions fleet.

“This really is the most exciting technology that us bus geeks have faced in a long time,” she said. “The industry as a whole has looked at battery-electric buses. We’ve been monitoring the technology for about 10 years, and folks are saying, okay, I think the technology is about ready.”

Watkins said Capital Metro is planning to purchase 40 electric buses between 2022 and 2024, as part of phase one of the fleet’s electrification. Still unknown: which models of buses, and what their capabilities will be.

In an ideal world, we will have electric buses. In fact, New York City has committed to making all of its buses electric by the time I’m 52. The economic case for electric buses actually makes a lot more sense than for personal cars.

If the bus business in Austin were booming like the car business, I’d say we should electrify the shit out of those suckers. Alas, it’s not. Despite some very encouraging figures in the first month of Cap Metro’s new routes, we’re still far, far away from the type of ridership that a city of this size should command.

Why do so few people take the bus? It’s not because they’re not electric. It’s because for most people, taking the bus takes a lot more time than driving. In many parts of the city (although far fewer parts as of June 7), the buses don’t come that often. And if you have to transfer, that means getting off one bus and then waiting for another bus that doesn’t come that often. Basically, it’s something only a poor person would endure.

Cap Metro took an important step on June 7 towards making the system much better for a lot of people. There are now 14 “frequent” routes (that come every 15 minutes), up from six. And the ridership figures in June suggest that that was the right call.

So I don’t really want to see Cap Metro invest significant funds trying to become a leader in electric buses. Instead, I  want to see the agency focus on building on the success of Cap ReMap by continuing to make service as frequent as possible in as many parts of the city as possible.

Cap Metro has already learned the hard way that bells and whistles don’t count for much when it comes to ridership. The much-hyped MetroRapid routes (801 & 803) attracted disastrously low ridership in their first two years of operation despite featuring sexy new buses, bus shelters with electric schedules and WiFi. None of those things could make up for the fact that Cap Metro inexplicably decided to charge passengers 50¢ more for those routes and the stops on the route were much farther apart than on other routes. The good news is that Cap Metro has righted some of those wrongs and as a result ridership on those two routes has been steadily climbing over the last 18 months.

There are countless factors that influence whether a person takes public transit, so arguably a sleek electric bus whose engine purrs instead of growls could convince a few more people to ditch their cars. But providing a cheap, reliable means of transportation would convince even more people.

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