New Year, New Network: Connections 2025 Looks Fresh, but Feels Oh-So-Familiar

After months of analysis paralysis, Connections 2025, Capital Metro’s shiny new transit system, is almost here. I witnessed the board of directors approve the first set of service changes back in November. The new local bus network is slated to roll out in June 2018.

In the spirit of other transit network redesigns, Connections 2025 will transform Austin’s bus network from a collection of downtown-oriented radials to an intuitive, connected grid with vastly expanded frequent service. Capital Metro will become much more useful for non-commute trips; journeys not involving downtown will be much more convenient to take, while weekend service will be largely on par with weekday service.

At least, that’s the pitch. And if you’re a transit rider or public transit advocate, that all sounds like pretty good stuff. Austin clearly needs a new bus network; Capital Metro’s decades-old system is inconvenient and frustrating to use.

But as excited as I am for the new network, it has some flaws that will probably leave it just short of achieving its full potential. I have two main quibbles with Connections 2025, and I think the root cause (as I wrote, awkwardly, last year) is Capital Metro’s consistent failure to engage with its riders and its constituents.

The ridership vs coverage dial may be set too far in the ridership direction.

Alright, let me just say that I like frequent service just as much as the next guy. And, full disclaimer: I’m an able-bodied college student living in one of Austin’s most affluent central neighborhoods; I’ll have good service no matter what. But our city’s unique geographical situation makes me wonder whether we should lean so strongly toward the ridership goal on the ridership-coverage spectrum.

Capital Metro often points to the “suburbanization of poverty” as one of the reasons for its recent ridership slide. According to this theory, the gentrification train has pushed Austin’s working class out of transit-friendly central neighborhoods, and now they’re stuck in the crappy exurbs with little to no service.

If that’s true, then it seems curious that Capital Metro plans to eliminate so much “fringe” service in June. Connections 2025 board meetings have been filled with scores of North and East Austin riders complaining they’ll be left stranded, miles away from any bus stop.

Centrally located neighborhoods will also feel the shift in priorities. Exposition residents have been particularly vocal about losing all service along Exposition Boulevard–this after losing a local bus and UT shuttle in the previous 10-year service plan. The straightlining of Route 5, a local bus route that winds through the South First and North University neighborhoods, has also proved controversial.

Is the replacement of Route 5 a walk too far?

People will always be upset by change, and they will always use hyperbole; but maybe we shouldn’t have sacrificed so much coverage in the new network. In fact, the draft Connections 2025 plan had no hourly circular routes. A single one was added for coverage purposes after the public comment period.

Who made the decision to favor ridership so strongly? Capital Metro can only point to its Internet surveys. Going more in-depth, perhaps by presenting a variety of service concepts on the ridership-coverage spectrum, would have gone a long way toward building up some much-needed public relations and goodwill.

Instead, I almost feel as if Capital Metro is chasing the latest trend in the transit industry at the expense of its existing rider base.

Trying to make good transit work on bad Austin streets is putting the cart before the horse.

It’s hard to provide quality transit service in Austin because of issues that aren’t easy to fix: geometry, geography, urban form. The Connections 2025 strategy is basically to disregard these problems now and hope they’ll go away in the future. That’s a little too fast, even for my taste.

Our city has a notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly street network. Half of our streets are missing sidewalks, and crossing an arterial on foot (six lanes of traffic plus turning lanes, medians, slip lanes, and yield lights… and you have 20 seconds) can be downright suicidal.

This, combined with our disconnected street grid, means that the bus stop walkshed is always smaller than you would presume from looking at Google Maps. So when Capital Metro claims that Connections 2025 will keep 99 percent of existing customers within half a mile of bus service, critics charge that half a mile is way too generous. Other transit reimagining efforts, like Houston’s highly successful one, use a quarter-mile coverage standard.

To return to the Route 5 elimination: the June service change will effectively consolidate two twice-hourly services south of the river (existing Routes 5 and 10) into one four-times-per-hour service (new Route 10) along First Street. In theory, riders might be willing to trade a slightly farther walk for faster, more frequent, and more reliable service along a main street.

In practice, First Street, like many other Austin avenues, has few pedestrian crossing opportunities, and many of them are uncomfortable and unsafe. Unless that changes, the straightlining attempt could be overly ambitious. Riders wouldn’t be sold on the benefits and Capital Metro would face political pressure to restore the old Route 5.

Transfers are another potential issue. A big gripe I have with the current system is that its bus routes, besides generally being infrequent, are designed to serve single markets instead of working together to serve many in tandem.

As a result, there are several seemingly obvious transfer points that Capital Metro completely screwed over. These bus stops look close on paper, but they are actually too far from each other to walk between, or they aren’t connected by sidewalks.

Some striking examples of this are MetroRapid Route 803, which doesn’t connect to local buses running along Braker Lane by the Domain, and the Route 100 Airport Flyer, which comes close to but doesn’t stop at Republic Square, Austin’s primary downtown bus hub. (“[This bus] is not for us,” explained one service worker to me after making the connection between Republic Square and the 100.)

A ludicrous transfer scenario that won’t get fixed in June.

These quirks will be exacerbated when Connections 2025 implements a grid network that depends on transfers. For the whole system to work, transfers have to be as seamless and easy as possible.

So, what is Capital Metro doing to make sure that happens? Frankly, not much. The existing bus stops are largely being retained in their present locations–so the new bus network will retain many of those painful transfers, as I explained to the board back in November.

And this isn’t necessarily Capital Metro’s fault. You can’t exactly slap the perfect bus stop right on top of a slip lane or at a location without a sidewalk. To really address this problem, we need to reconstruct streets and intersections, which of course takes time, money, and political will we probably don’t have.

Some Capital Metro planners I’ve spoken to see the 2016 Mobility Bond as a way to address these urban form issues. Maybe the bond’s corridor renovations will pan out–but they could take years. I would rather we hold off and make some reasonable compromises before rushing to shoehorn ridership-oriented transit into a hostile environment.

Conclusion: focus on the details, and listen to your customers.

It’s good to see Capital Metro focus on big-picture goals like more frequency and more efficiency, but the agency often misses the little things like missing sidewalks and inconvenient transfers. Those “bugs” add up and make the transit experience unnecessarily complicated and frustrating.

Capital Metro can only address these little things by listening to its customers. Unfortunately, the agency has a poor reputation for public outreach. For example, its Customer Service Advisory Committee, saddled by a general lack of interest, has several vacancies and regularly cancels meetings. The committee wasn’t even consulted before the November vote to approve the June service changes.

Connections 2025 may represent a titanic shift in planning, but in terms of community engagement, it’s apparently business as usual. It’s not a good sign when angry riders storm into public meetings thinking that Capital Metro is just “going to do whatever the f*** it wants.”

That’s a shame–because riders do not need to be perpetually at odds with their transit agency. We’re open to change. One speaker at the November board meeting even made a plug for Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit book and the ridership-coverage spectrum. We appreciate service improvements when we understand and accept the trade-offs.

I believe in the virtues of high-frequency service, so I’m still confident that the new network will reverse Capital Metro’s ridership decline. At the very least, it should halt it. But the outrage at public hearings, the dissenting board votes, and Capital Metro’s continuing failure to address on-the-ground issues all give me pause.

From my perspective, Connections 2025 is a step in the right direction, but it could have been so much more. As a pro-ridership guy, my “win” almost feels illegitimate. I feel like I won the electoral college but lost the popular vote. Or I won because superdelegates put me over the top.

The problem with Capital Metro is bigger than its outdated bus network. The agency has forgotten its core purpose–to provide transit service for Austin that reflects our agreed-upon values.

Chasing shiny network redesigns and freeway BRT projects creates the appearance of activity, but it does not fix the dysfunction that lurks underneath. It’s long past time for Capital Metro to stop scoring political points, and start talking transit.

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