2025: the Mistake Capital Metro Shouldn’t Make

Capital Metro’s ongoing Connections 2025 study promises to restructure Austin’s transit network to be more frequent, reliable, and efficient. It’s in the vein of other successful network redesigns, particularly the one in Houston last year. And as with any redesign, it’s been a lightning rod for controversy, as I observed first-hand in the November board meeting. Schoolchildren, those with disabilities, the elderly, and business owners pleaded with the board to reconsider changing their bus routes.

As I have previously noted, I think that 2025 is a mostly good plan. The results of other network restructurings like Houston’s have been astounding, and I’m excited at the prospect of similar opportunities for Austin. And given the archaic design of Capital Metro’s bus network, some sort of ground-up redesign was long overdue. Routes meander slowly in a hub-and-spoke pattern from suburbs to downtown. Service is duplicated, hurting efficiency. Headways are long and inconsistent, meaning a printed schedule is mandatory, even for a route used on a regular basis. To a rider, the whole thing is difficult to decipher and frustrating to use.

Under the current 2025 draft plan, services would be consolidated into a few key urban corridors with dependable 15-minute service seven days a week. In contrast, Capital Metro’s current branded “Frequent Network” has much less coverage and only operates on weekdays. (In fact, no Capital Metro service operates at a headway better than 20 minutes on weekends, including MetroRapid.) Routes on 30 minute headways would serve less demanding areas, and “flex” routes and frequent community circulars would fill the remaining gaps in the new network. Connections 2025 is also thinking big, with tentative plans for 15-minute MetroRail headways from downtown to Kramer Station and median-running Bus Rapid Transit along Interstate 35.

As a transit enthusiast and an able, urban core rider, I welcome these improvements wholeheartedly. But the mistake that Capital Metro is making is that it is failing to be transparent in the 2025 redesign process.

I saw this in the anger and zeal directed toward the board in that meeting late November. Of course, any massive redesign will be condemned by those resistant to change, even for the better. But what struck me about these concerned citizens was that they were trying to start a conversation Capital Metro never seemed interested in having.

“You should rename ‘Connections 2025’ to ‘Coverage 2025,'” said one disabled rider at the board meeting. There was a stark divide between the agency’s planners and its constituents that should not have existed.

Capital Metro says that the public overwhelmingly preferred frequent service to coverage in outlying areas. By the web surveys, that may be true, but sending a Survey Monkey to a mailing list does not constitute community engagement. Everyone deserves a voice, especially those that aren’t digitally affluent. After the 2025 draft plan was released, the agency held various public open houses to get public feedback on the plan. But by then, it was too late to any major changes or shape its core principles. This kind of public outreach should have been done before, not after the creation of the draft plan.

Contrast this approach with the current redesign of the Anchorage transit system by Jarrett Walker’s transit consulting firm. There’s an extensive public presentation process in which Walker explains the different priorities that a transit agency must balance and provides some concrete service concepts to look at. These represent sincere attempts to engage the community and explicate the meaning of complex concepts like “frequent service,” “stop spacing,” and “route coverage.” But to the people of Austin, they are meaningless buzzwords on a Capital Metro web survey.

Important details are also left out of the draft proposal. For example, my discussions with Capital Metro planners suggest that the 15-minute MetroRail service is contingent on additional funding. I-35 BRT is being studied by TXDOT, not Capital Metro, and there are not yet any firm proposals. And the proposed UT shuttle changes would have to be approved by the UT student government and could be affected by funding from the university. This kind of information should be prominent on the draft proposal so that riders understand just what we’re getting.

Despite some small misgivings over the connectivity of the proposed frequent network in North Austin, I remain excited at the prospect of its implementation. Still, the coverage tradeoff is inevitable, and not everyone is happy. Capital Metro can’t satisfy everyone, but it can make a better attempt to understand the needs of its riders and reconcile its conflicting goals. One striking feature of the 2025 draft transit plan is the lack of any 60 minute routes. Though the focus on frequency is noble, implementing these to serve low-demand areas where transit is proposed to be cut entirely would make the plan more politically feasible. This was done in Houston, where the proposed “flex” bus routes were ultimately scrapped in favor of traditional hourly circulators.

Capital Metro has a lot of ground to make up if it wants to regain its reputation as an accountable and transparent public agency. The botched 2014 rollout of MetroRapid, in which a frequent local service was gutted for a less frequent, premium-fare, limited-stop service, still irks many riders, even as the premium fare is set to be discontinued next month. That same year, Austin voted down a flawed light rail proposal that many alleged to have served the interests of affluent downtown businesses and real estate developers rather than its traffic-strangled residents.

Connections 2025 is an ambitious step toward a better transit system for Austin, but it is also a missed opportunity for Capital Metro to foster a deeper relationship with the community it serves. If the draft transit plan felt more organic and homegrown, born out of local dialog, discussion, and compromise, and less like the product of far-removed transit consultants from San Diego, then Connections 2025 could have improved not just Capital Metro’s bus network but also its public relations problem. Instead, it is a missed opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

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