A super-cheap way to improve transit

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Last week the Austin Transportation Dept announced plans to put in place “interim” transit priority lanes on a two-mile stretch of E. Riverside, between Summit St & Grove Blvd:

These aren’t full-fledged dedicated lanes, but rather painted lanes, similar to what exists currently on sections of Guad & Lavaca downtown, that are supposed to be reserved for buses and bikes. Cars should only enter to make right turns.

From ATD:

East Riverside Drive is a major transit corridor for Capital Metro, and the nine bus routes that will operate in these transit priority lanes carry almost 20% of Capital Metro’s riders. During pre-COVID normal traffic periods, the thousands of Austin residents on board these routes experienced persistent delays during peak hours while traveling to work, school, and other destinations…

…The installation of transit priority lanes on this corridor, we estimate the potential for transit travel time savings of up to 5.5 minutes during peak periods compared to pre-COVID travel times. General purpose traffic may see an increase in travel time during peak periods, but these impacts are anticipated to be minimal.

5.5 mins is huge! This is long overdue and hopefully indicates an appetite at City Hall for similar changes on other major transit corridors. One obvious example is the Drag, which is where the 803 and 801 MetroRapid buses end up getting stuck during rush-hour, resulting in major delays and “bunching,” where buses that are supposed to be 10 minutes apart end up right behind one another.

Unlike the ones on Guad & Lavaca, these lanes won’t be red. That’s because they’re “interim” and the red paint is apparently expensive. At least the good stuff is. When Cap Metro tried to use the cheap stuff it quickly faded to Aggie maroon. Sad. The project will cost an estimated $100k, ATD tells me.

This is only an “interim” project because E. Riverside will eventually be home to the Blue Line, one of Project Connect’s two light rail lines. There may still be a good argument for keeping bus priority lanes, but a big chunk of today’s bus riders will be on the train.

These types of projects are the result of an interlocal agreement between Cap Metro and the city. Cap Metro pays to build it and the city is responsible for maintaining it. The city owns the road, so it’s up to the city whether to allocate a portion of it to transit. Usually these decisions can be made administratively by city staff, but obviously City Council can intervene if it chooses.

If the city is serious about achieving the goals outlined in all of its lofty plans, such as reducing the percentage of commuters in single-occupancy vehicles to 50% by 2039, it needs to get much more aggressive in reallocating right-of-way from cars to other modes: transit, bikes, pedestrians.

Austin voters have made clear, through Prop A & Prop B, that they’re willing to pay for alternatives to cars. Those major investments are necessary, but there are also ways to significantly enhance transit service (thus making it more popular) at a fraction of the cost. All you have to do is take a little bit of space away from cars.

This is just a small sample of what you get EVERY weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

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