Austin’s Cap Metro Transit Agency: Rapidly Loosing Ridership in Rapidly Increasing Population

COST Commentary: Ben Wear, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, “hits the nail on the head” with the article below regarding Cap Metro’s declining transit ridership. The decline is much longer than discussed in this article and the decline is now accelerating. Cap Metro’s total transit ridership today is less than it was in 1999 while the Austin area has experienced the fastest growing population of any U.S. region, or among the fastest growing, for many years. The cost of transit ridership has grown much faster than inflation, resulting in an increasing burden on taxpayers to subsidize transit ridership. This taxpayer cost is part of the rapidly increasing unaffordability of the Austin region.

Austin area light rail plans have been based on UT/student ridership being about one-third of total transit and rail ridership. Today UT ridership is less than one-half of this and declining. Planners did not responsibly project the future by a wide margin as discussed in the article below. This is the normal story of a relatively young, rapidly growing city. The future geographic structure of Austin, the living locations of UT students and technology driven transportation alternatives are a few of the major considerations which were ignored, misunderstood or poorly projected by transit transportation planners. In addition, Cap Metro and Austin city leaders did not adequately study, understand and consider transportation implications which were obvious in numerous cities similar to Austin.

The dynamics of Austin being a rapidly changing city with declining transit use and of transportation alternatives being rapidly transformed by technology are both compelling reasons that any “fixed rail” or “fixed corridor” transit approach is totally ineffective and not cost-effective to serve the greater good of Austin area citizens’ mobility needs of the future.

Austin’s declining transit ridership, with less ridership today than in 1999, is not unique. It is occurring in similar forms in Texas cities of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio as well as other similar cities in the U.S. Houston has lost major transit ridership since 1999 (before light rail) and Dallas transit ridership is up very slightly (7.3%) after spending billions of taxpayer dollars to build the longest light rail system in the nation. Much of the slight ridership increase in Dallas is due to transfers between the light rail and buses. The number of individual one-way trips is an even smaller increase. San Antonio, with a bus only and most cost-effective transit system of all major Texas cities, has also lost 9.4% of its transit system ridership from 2011 through 2015 and now has less transit ridership than in 1999.

Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are among the fastest growing regional populations in the U.S. Future transportation plans must be responsibly evaluated and the most cost-effective alternatives chosen to meet the needs of citizens. Texas cities have a history of biased, self serving or incompetent transit and elected officials making mobility decisions which degrade the overall mobility of their communities. These officials seem to believe they know what is best for citizens and try to force fundamental changes in a large portion of people’s daily mobility decisions. This has not worked, and will not work, anywhere as people free to make decisions will make them in a way which best serves their needs and quality-of-life.

A major element to mobility failure in Austin has been the long habit of spending large, disproportionate shares of limited transportation funds to support mobility modes which are used by a minuscule portion of the citizens such as passenger rail systems and bicycles as well as poorly managed bus systems which are based on archaic, ineffective operational concepts. Citizens’ decisions in Austin, as in most similar cities, result in 98-99% of all daily passenger miles being traveled on roads and roads have received low funding priority in Austin for many years, as population has skyrocketed.

Austin’s allocation of transportation and transit funding, from all sources, requires a comprehensive review, evaluation and overhaul in order to meet citizens’ mobility and quality-of-life needs now and in the future. This process must be conducted by experienced, capable people and void of the ideological, political and biased motivations and decisions of the past.

Austin citizens should not support major transportation bond proposals without total transparency as to the detailed improvements projected for such bonds. At this point, the city has not released data which projects the improvements to be expected by committing to the proposed $720 million bond proposal for the November 2016 election.

Please see our later post with more details regarding declining transit in the four largest Texas cities.
Wear: Pondering Cap Metro’s ridership plunge
By Ben Wear – American-Statesman Staff, Posted: 12:00 a.m. Sunday, July 3, 2016

Capital Metro is hemorrhaging bus riders.

Average daily ridership has fallen more than 20 percent in the past four years, from almost 130,000 boardings a day in 2012 to about 102,000 a day this spring. And that most recent figure was down 4.2 percent from the previous spring, meaning the bleeding has not slowed down.

And lest anyone think that all those former bus riders have moved to MetroRail, the agency’s commuter line to Leander, it is generating about 650 more rides a day now than in 2012. That covers about 2 percent of the loss in bus boardings.

The obvious questions: Why the plunge, and what is Cap Metro trying to do about it? The “why” part, naturally, has a lot of tentacles.

At a Cap Metro board meeting last week, the popular theory was that, in effect, the agency’s customers have been moving away. This is the so-called suburbanization of poverty argument, the idea that as Austin housing has become more expensive — rents and home prices in gentrifying areas — people who might have used the bus rather than a car are instead now living in Pflugerville or Hutto or Bastrop.

And demographic data from the U.S. Census, as the Statesman has reported, have shown decreasing poverty levels in Austin and increasing poverty levels in some of the city’s suburbs.

One problem with this theory: If you move out into Sprawlville, almost by definition that means you already had a car, or have to get one now. So there’s a bit of a logic problem there.

Nonetheless, Capital Metro has been engaged over the past year or two in trying to chase at least some of those riders. The agency has a service area of cities and other jurisdictions that voted years ago to join the Cap Metro fold and therefore impose a 1 percent sales tax that goes directly to the transit agency’s coffers.

A town that is not a member of Cap Metro — such as Round Rock, Pflugerville, Hutto, Buda, Kyle or Cedar Park — is not eligible for bus or rail service. But Cap Metro can reach separate agreements with such cities in which some of the federal money now going to the agency would instead go directly to those cities for transit needs. Then, if elected officials in those areas agree to throw in more of their tax dollars, Cap Metro could extend some bus service to them.

The agency and several cities are planning for such service, said Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development. However, Hemingson said, “in the big scheme of things, it’s a very small ridership contribution.”
No, that 28,000 loss of boardings has to do with far more than people moving.

More competition

First of all, the University of Texas shuttle system has lost 17,000 daily boardings, half of it ridership in those four years.

UT pays Cap Metro about $6.4 million a year to provide the rides, and that figure has not grown nearly enough over the past decade to keep up with inflation of the agency’s cost of running the buses. The result is that Cap Metro has been trimming the service — five routes have been eliminated since 2012, and others have had route or frequency changes.

Beyond that, West Campus has gone vertical and dense with high-rise residential buildings catering to students, putting more and more of them within walking distance of class.

But Cap Metro has been hit with other external forces and suffered at least one significant self-inflicted wound.

With gas prices at 10-year lows, particularly taking into account inflation, taking the car has become an ever more painless option. People who rushed to Cap Metro’s web page and then bus stops during 2008’s summer of $4-a-gallon gas now have returned to their cars. And with unemployment hovering around 3 percent locally, more people can afford to get a car in the first place. Fare hikes in 2014 and 2015 didn’t help, but the decline has continued into 2016.

And now there is an explosion of transportation options, particularly for the younger and often financially comfortable people moving into the core of the city. While some of them might have taken the bus in the past, since June of 2014 they have been able to use ride-hailing services, such as Uber or Lyft — or any of the replacement companies that have popped up after those industry leaders chose to leave in May. Car2go short-term rental cars are more prevalent now, as are B-cycle stations.

How much effect have any of those had, individually? Hemingson can’t say.

Fewer routes, fewer riders

Then there’s the rapid bus problem. Capital Metro in the spring of 2012 was getting more than 17,000 boardings a day from its three routes plying the North Lamar Boulevard/South Congress Avenue corridor running up the spine of the city. In January 2014, the agency canceled two of those routes and added the No. 801, a somewhat faster and somewhat more expensive alternative on roughly the same route.

It hasn’t gone well.

As of this spring, the old No. 1 slower service had 5,733 boardings a day. The No. 801 was 5,676, for a combined 11,409 boardings a day, down a third over four years. The cheaper service comes by less often, and the more expensive service has fewer stops. That is a bad combo.

The other rapid bus corridor, with the old No. 3 and the No. 803 rapid bus, has seen an extra 2,000 boardings a day because there is actually more service now. But taken together, the two corridors are off 4,000 rides daily.

One thing that has worked is a move a year ago to more frequent service on five other routes. Those routes have seen an 1,800-boardings-a-day increase in the past year, perhaps offering a road map for future changes.

The agency is paying attention to all this, Hemingson said, and has consultants working on a plan — a transfusion, if you will. We’ll see if the doctoring works.

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