Numbers tell many different stories about Cap Metro

Transit enthusiast and never-driver Dan Keshet put together some interesting graphs on Cap Metro ridership which he is generously sharing with the AustinPolitics.NET community. (You can explore all the graphs on your own here)

If nothing else, the graphs show that the widely-bemoaned fall in transit ridership in recent years is largely due to a few distinct factors, notably the dramatic decline of the UT Shuttle.

Let’s take a look at the overall systemwide figures, by month. As you can see, the figures for the last few months of this year are about the same as those months in 2017 but they’re performing well below the 2016 and 2015 summer/fall months. So that’s pretty depressing.


So what’s driving the big decline in ridership? This graph makes it pretty clear:


Basic bus service increased ever-so-slightly, largely driven by major growth in Metro Rapid ridership. Rideshare, MetroRail and Paratransit (Metro Access) have held steady.  But UT ridership has plummeted. This graph, that focused on every mode except bus, makes that even more apparent:


Why happened to the UT Shuttle? Keshet did an explainer on that a while back. There are a few theories, but the most compelling one to me is the stupendous increase in housing in the West Campus area. As this other Keshet graph shows, it’s rigoddamndiculous.

Then there are special events:


As you can see, “Special events” is really all about ACL, and it can really throw the overall numbers off. I’m a proud member of the silent (but substantial) minority of Austinites who don’t give a crap about live music and I was out of town this past October, so I don’t have any insight into the precipitous decline in ACL-related bus trips. Especially since Uber/Lyft were already well-established in 2015. Maybe we’ve just had a few lame ACLs.

Keshet did a graph where he removed special events and the UT Shuttle to get at what he terms the agency’s “core service.”  CoreService.png

But there is at least one potentially troubling question that these graphs can’t answer: Has the boost in ridership since ReMap simply been the result of increased transfers? In other words, are the same people getting counted more than once because they are now boarding more buses to get to the same place? Cap Metro has not provided any data to assuage these concerns.

This other graph, which focuses on weekday ridership, raises another big concern.


Essentially, the improvements we’ve seen this year were largely driven by big increases in weekend ridership, particularly on Sundays. This graph shows what Sunday ridership is like without festivals:


The increase in Sunday ridership is clearly a result of CapMetro boosting frequency on weekends. That’s great. People should have access to reliable transit service on weekends. But the problem is that no matter how popular weekend buses become, they’ll never generate nearly as many riders as weekday buses. That means that each weekend bus is much more heavily subsidized: a much smaller portion of what Cap Metro is spending to run weekend service is being offset by bus fares.

BUT…again, things don’t look so bad when you take out UT Shuttle and special events. In fact, this reflects very positively on Cap ReMap. In June, July, August and September Cap Metro’s core weekday ridership was higher than in the previous three years. The steep decline in October is almost certainly due to the severe storms we had.

Weekday Minus UT.png

In summation, what these graphs suggest is that Cap Metro experienced a steep decline in non-college ridership in 2016 but that it reversed that trend in 2017 (largely due to eliminating the MetroRapid premium fare & bolstering frequency for MetroRapid) and has made further gains since the implementation of Cap ReMap in June 2018.

Granted, Cap Metro’s problems began long the period covered by these charts. Ben Wear explained last year: “The agency’s 30.4 million boardings in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 is 14 percent below the 2008 ridership, and roughly equal to the 1997 ridership total when Austin was much smaller.”

There’s a lot more work to do. But the figures suggest that Cap Metro’s constituency of bus riders is not shrinking and may in fact be expanding. Fingers crossed that things keep moving in the right direction.

5 thoughts on “Numbers tell many different stories about Cap Metro

  1. Let me reply to the Sunday ridership issue first. Weekend ridership is very important to a successful transit system; heavy weekend usage means that people are relying on the public transit system for most or all of their transportation needs. If people drive their cars on weekend, they’re likely to continue driving them the rest of the week.

    Weekend ridership on Cap Metro is high enough so that total weekend ridership is, effectively, a sixth weekday. Place with successful transit systems, like Portland show a similar pattern.

    1. I agree…but what I’m saying is that if you’re delivering buses at the same frequency on weekends, there is a higher per-rider subsidy.

      1. There’s huge variation in the per route subsidy so I’m pretty sure that the subsidy for, say, the 7 or 300 to run frequently on weekends is far lower than the subsidy to run the 5 or the 19 any time.

  2. The claim that increase transfers are the actual source of increased ridership is probably mostly conspiracy theory.
    Sometime in 2019 Cap Metro will do their five year origin/destination study; one of the questions they ask is whether people have transferred. Until those results come out, Cap Metro won’t be able to definitively say whether the number of changes per rider has increased. In the meantime, though, there’s some pretty convincing arguments that this theory is false.

    First, Lawrence Deeter of Cap Metro says that Cap Metro actually asked other transit agencies which have implemented similar route changes, such as Houston, what their data showed. He said that none of the agencies reported that the number of transfers had increased.

    More concretely, Remap has eliminated at least one place in which substantial numbers of riders had to change. Putting the 1 route back on North Lamar and eliminating the 275 means that more than a 1,000 riders a day who used to have to change at North Lamar Transit Center now have a one seat ride. The additional east/west routes have also reduced the need for transfers; getting from University Park to Crestview used to take two buses and two hours; now, it’s a single bus and 40 minutes.

    Individuals who now have to transfer and didn’t have to before tend to be vocal about their experience. I suspect that individuals who now enjoy a one seat ride are less vocal.

    1. I hope you’re right, although Cap Metro seemed to indicate that they anticipated more transfers. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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