Transit Advocacy Is Not Urbanism

It’s not too often I attempt to write a justification for my existence, but here goes.

Few people in Austin are willing to talk about public transportation right now, which seems odd given the major developments in Connections 2025 (now branded “Cap Remap”) and Project Connect. This is a gap I’ve tried to fill with my new transit blog, the Austin Metro Journal.

Capital Metro’s board meetings draw a small cohort of regular critics, but they focus on individual service planning and customer service issues (“I don’t like the way y’all cut service to my neighborhood post office”) and thereby miss the bigger picture. I’d put Austin’s light rail boosters in the same camp. These folks have the best intentions, but they’re narrowly focused on building a specific transit technology.

On the flip side, you have Austin’s “urbanists” and policy wonks, comprised mostly of millennials and techies, who see public transit as a stepping-stone to a New Urbanist utopia complete with Vision Zero, universal cycle tracks, and—let’s be honest—Manhattan-like densities. Urbanists certainly value public transit, but it’s not their main focus. They care about transit insofar as it paves the way for their starry-eyed visions.

And then you have me, the guy who’s interested in critiquing Capital Metro and advocating for better service for Austin transit riders. Continue reading “Transit Advocacy Is Not Urbanism”

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. Continue reading “New Year, New Network: Connections 2025 Looks Fresh, but Feels Oh-So-Familiar”

Prototype Sustainable Map for the UT Austin Campus

I usually keep my writings on my personal blog and The Daily Texan separate, but I’ll make an exception here: this post is an addendum to my recent opinion column on sustainability and the UT campus map.

Here’s how I think the campus map should look like. I took the visitor map from the Parking and Transportation Services website and added the UT shuttle campus circulators and some suggested bicycling routes.

(I’m not a huge fan of the segregated bike lanes on Guadalupe and Dean Keeton, but they are depicted for posterity’s sake.)

If we want to claim the mantle of a sustainable campus, a map like this is just plain common sense.

Polymathic Scholars Transit Talk

I have been meaning to publish this for awhile, but it sat on my back burner.

On March 3, I gave a talk to my fellow Polymathic Scholars on the importance public transportation. It’s sort of a hybrid presentation that explains both how to use transit and also how it’s planned.

Check out the slides here.

A Speech I Gave at Today’s Capital Metro Board Meeting

Good afternoon. My name is Ryan, and I am a UT undergraduate studying computer science, urban studies, and public transportation. I have followed the Connections 2025 system redesign with much interest. I think it’s a forward-thinking plan with good principles; but I am here today to share with you some concerns I have with the draft plan. Continue reading “A Speech I Gave at Today’s Capital Metro Board Meeting”

Proposition One “Mobility Bond” Represents Business as Usual for Austin Transportation

This piece was originally submitted to The Daily Texan as an op-ed, but wasn’t published.

Soon, Austin voters will decide on the $720 million so-called “Mobility Bond” that promises much-needed relief for our city’s traffic woes. Though overshadowed by this year’s unprecedented presidential election, there’s plenty of enthusiasm to go around for this important local issue, too. “Vote Prop One” signs line my daily walk to campus. The Daily Texan endorsed the bond a few days ago.

Everyone agrees that something must be done about Austin’s transportation crisis. But for years, our city has lacked the political will to deploy truly efficient and cost-effective solutions. First came the Red Line commuter rail “starter line” between downtown and Leander. After several years of operation, it’s a drain on Capital Metro’s resources that carries very few riders. It’s no secret why: the line does not serve UT or much of downtown. Service is very limited, with trains running half-hourly at rush hour and hourly off-peak, and no evening or Sunday service. Continue reading “Proposition One “Mobility Bond” Represents Business as Usual for Austin Transportation”

A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware

Take a ride on DART route 11, and by the mere act of considering it, you feel as though you were in some exclusive club.

One glance at the schedule leaves you immediately overwhelmed. A stylized map purports to depict the general layout of route 11, but the geography is so distorted that whether the route traverses Wilmington or some vague recollection of the city, you cannot tell. The tables of departures are populated with enigmatic, inconsistent times and buses that only serve specific portions of the route; lists of cryptic destination signs for each trip add to the confusion. Reading route 11’s schedule is an achievement in and of itself.

Take a ride on route 11, and begin your trip in the desolate Wilmington suburbs. A few minutes later than scheduled, the bus pulls up. The driver is curt, but in a hurry. A display next to his dashboard reads “7 minutes behind.” Much to your surprise, he pulls away as you are still paying the fare.

The bus speeds down the narrow suburban thoroughfare, lined with humble New England homes with proud grass lawns out front and the forest looming in the back. Route 11 passes underneath the busy Interstate 95, navigates the maze of intersections between its offramps and the local streets, and turns onto the four lonely lanes of the Washington Street Extension, flanked by wilderness on both sides. Continue reading “A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware”

GET Upcoming Service Changes

Golden Empire Transit is going to hold a public hearing on some proposed service changes.

A few thoughts:

  • 21/22/44 are due to see more buses (which means slight frequency increases, I guess). Always a good thing! The 21/22 especially deserve 20-minute or better frequencies on the weekends.
  • 61 finally gets evening service! (As this is my go-to bus route this is advantageous for me personally 🙂 .) It sucked not having a ride after 6 PM. Still needs a frequency increase (which is actually on GET’s long-term plans). One can dream.
  • 62 will get evening service too.
  • 82 will now provide evening service to the Northwest Promenade, meaning better access to the businesses there and connections (albeit poorly-timed) to the 61.
  • Holiday service has been eliminated, but with those abysmal boarding numbers, I suppose it’s not hard to see why.

Since GET is just now proposing these changes, perhaps their ridership is finally starting to see an increase since the route reorganization and the summer 2014 strike.

Capital Metro: What’s Wrong, and How to Fix It

Having lived in Austin for some months now I’ve been surprised by the lack of quality public transportation in a so-called “liberal” and “weird” city.

Austinites like Mike Dahmus criticize Capital Metro constantly for being inefficient, opaque, and making all the wrong decisions.

After many sleepless nights thinking about Capital Metro’s shortcomings, I thought I’d add my viewpoint to the Austin transit scene.

  • Poorly laid out routes. Just look at the Capital Metro system map (warning: ridiculously large PDF) and see how Austin’s transit lines are structured. It’s clear that they are designed to do one thing: provide single-seat rides from the suburbs to the downtown core. But this is the 21st century, and as modern transit planners have noted, downtown just isn’t that important anymore. What happens if you want to go somewhere else besides downtown? On Capital Metro, be prepared for numerous transfers, long waits, and very, very long travel times.
  • Too focused on coverage. So many of Capital Metro’s routes zigzag through neighborhoods and detour into strip malls to provide “service” to those special-interest areas. Also, particularly in the downtown/UT core, there are far too many stops. This is the safe way to run transit if you’re looking to appease your political base, but the fact is that streamlining routes and consolidating stops would go a long way in speeding up service. This would result in a more efficient system, increased frequencies, and lower operating costs.
  • Not enough frequency or weekend service. Routes have 30-minute headways if you’re lucky. On weekends, particularly Sundays, be prepared to wait 45 to 60 minutes for the next bus. Also, there are no express buses running on the weekend.
  • Too confusing. Bus stops signs are nearly impossible to decipher, and in a lot of cases the information is incomplete (e.g. no indication that certain stops are drop-off only). The headways are not only long, they’re also inconsistent (varying between 25-35 minutes), forcing you to check the schedule to really know when the bus will arrive. I have also seen riders get on the wrong route or attempt to pay for an express bus with a local day pass. Maybe Capital Metro should stop flashing random messages like “ATX IS HANDS FREE” on the destination blinds.
  • Commuter-oriented. Far too many of Capital Metro’s services are only useful to commuters. I’m talking about buses that only run one direction in the morning and the other direction in the evening. Or coach-style buses to nowhere with no obvious connections to local service. Good transit isn’t about getting you to work and back – it’s about being there for all your transportation needs, anytime, anywhere.
  • Trains to nowhere. Austin’s over-hyped MetroRail service connects North Austin’s far-flung suburbs with downtown. Well, in theory. The downtown station is half-mile walk from the local bus routes, so walking that distance to make a transfer is a pain. (Furthermore, forget about making a transfer to Amtrak or Lone Star Rail if it ever gets built.) And MetroRail completely misses the UT campus, making it useless for students. Capital Metro’s latest rail expansion plan (November 2014) called for light rail tracks in a very low-ridership corridor. It reeked of developer speculation and special-interest lobbying; Austinites were smart to turn it down.
  • Poor downtown coverage. So you ride the bus downtown. Great, the mediocre bus system is working to your advantage. But where do you go from here? Capital Metro recently realigned all services onto the same pair of streets, so many downtown attractions are a half-mile walk or more from the nearest bus stop. Oh, and the downtown circulator named the “Dillo” was cut a few years ago.

“Crap Metro” should follow the lead of other cities like Houston, which is transforming its bus system into an efficient grid network and built a cost-effective, high-ridership light rail system. (Oh, the irony! A conservative Texas city with progressive transit policies!)

Instead, it’s poured all its resources into more commuter-centric services and a “Bus Rapid Transit” project that isn’t actually BRT and has a premium fare.

I am shocked that Austinites aren’t demanding better.