At a recent meeting of the Cap Metro board attended by City Council members, CM Delia Garza implored the transit agency to focus on what really matters: getting people functional, frequent transit. “We get into the weeds with certain ideas and what we think is best … people don’t care what color the bus is,” she said.
Accusing public officials of getting distracted by the latest transit toy is a common theme in debates over public transportation. And the accusation often has merit. In Austin, the most poignant display of the phenomenon came with the MetroRapid, the two bus routes (801 & 803) that Cap Metro introduced in 2014.
The two “rapid” lines would be express versions of Routes 1 & 3. They would come more frequently, but they would only stop every half-mile or so, instead of every quarter-mile. Also, the buses themselves would look different and include WiFi, the fare would cost 50¢ more, and they would have new bus shelters equipped with digital signs telling you when the next bus is arriving.
The first couple years of MetroRapid were an unmitigated disaster. A lot of people who rode routes 1 or 3 weren’t interested in the new routes because they didn’t serve the stop nearest to their home. Also, they definitely didn’t like paying the extra 50¢, especially if they were transferring from another route, in which case they had to buy an entirely new ticket to get on the MetroRapid. So instead of a $1.25 trip, they’d have to pay $3.
People who weren’t happy with the new MetroRapid service could still get the 1&3, which were still running, except that Cap Metro had reduced their frequency as a result of the MetroRapids.
The result was that cumulative bus ridership on all of those routes –– 1, 3, 801, 803 –– dropped to levels lower than it had been under the ancien regime.
Luckily, Cap Metro has begun to undo some of those errors. It has gotten rid of the premium fare, it has filled put in place stops in areas where there should have been stops all along and it has further boosted frequency. The result has been a dramatic boost in ridership on the MetroRapids.
But there’s still the shelter issue. The shelters, like the premium fare, were part of a branding exercise to distinguish the sleek, sexy MetroRapid service from the smelly old fixed routes. AURA has raised a stink about them, saying that they aren’t really shelters. Despite costing way more money than regular bus shelters, the shiny MetroRapid structures don’t do nearly as good a job of protecting you from the sun or rain. But functionality wasn’t top-of-mind when they were designed. Like the premium fare, the new shelters were part of a branding exercise to distinguish the sleek, sexy MetroRapid service from the smelly old fixed routes.
To me, the greatest problem is not the design of the new shelters. It’s that the 803 and 801 shelters are often separated by as much as 100 yards from the other shelter where all of the other routes, including the 1 & 3, stop.
For instance, I catch the 803 at Bluebonnet & Lamar. But if the 3 arrives first, I’d be happy to take it. Except that if I’m standing at the 803 shelter as I see the 3 approaching, I better start booking it to the “normal” shelter in order for the driver to see me and stop.
This makes no sense at all. The great majority of those who ride the 803 would be content to ride the 3 if it arrives first, and vice versa. The same goes for the 801 and the 1. Yes, there are some people who might eschew the MetroRapids because they don’t stop as near to their home as the local routes, but they represent a minority of riders.
At some stops, there aren’t separate shelters, and people pick up the local routes at the MetroRapid shelter. Cap Metro should do this across the board. I get that branding matters. But when it comes to transit, people aren’t looking for a flashy brand. They’re looking for a convenient, affordable, reliable brand.