City Pushes Mass Transit - Are the Options Up to Speed?

Austin has its share of upsides – mild winters, recreational and cultural opportunities, a growing restaurant scene, a relatively affordable cost of living – but ask people what our city's downside is and you’ll hear a common answer: traffic.

Topping list after list for most-clogged roadways, Austin’s traffic problem is becoming notorious as quickly as the city is growing. As the population has doubled over the past 20 years, the City of Austin and entities like Capital Metro are playing catch-up to figure out how to get people from one place to another using more options than just crowded highways and city streets, as well as how to cope with more growth in the future.

“We are seeing the increased need for high-capacity transit and have been working on that for the past year and a half – busses, rail, intercity rail, bus on rails – and how you make all those different transit elements work together,” said Karla Villalon, communications manager for the city's Department of Transportation.

Hop on.
Public transportation isn’t a new concept to Austin – in the first half of the 20th Century, streetcars brought people from Point A to Point B but were eventually abandoned for automobiles, their tracks being mostly paved over in the 1950s. There’s also been talk of light rail or some other new form of mass transit in Austin dating back to the 1980s (read a full history from The Overhead Wire here), including a light rail plan that was voted down by citizens in 2000 by a tiny margin. With population expected to double again over the next 20 years though, there is perhaps more pressure than ever to improve mobility options in Austin.

“The real goal of transit projects is to give people alternatives to getting where they need to go without being stuck in automobile traffic,” said Jace Deloney, a Web content manager at Downtown startup Invodo, who also serves on the City of Austin's Urban Transportation Commission and CapMetro's Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee. “Congestion is only a problem when cars stop people from getting to where they need to go.”

Improving What’s Here

A significant focus of CapMetro’s strategic plan has been to increase ridership through a variety of means, like providing better service in general and publishing more detailed and ubiquitous schedules. For example, CapMetro upgraded bus stop signage last year so people can access schedule information by telephone, via scanning QR codes with mobile devices, through a mobile site or by text message. The organization will also be rolling out a mobile payment and transit schedule app for smartphones in the fall that was piloted during the Formula 1 race in November. Even with these improvements, there is still a long way to go.

“The biggest challenge is getting people to try [public] transit for the first time, maybe for a special event or an entertainment outing,” said Dan Dawson, Capital Metro’s vice president of marketing and communications. “People who have a positive first experience on transit are much more likely to consider trying transit for everyday trips, like going to work or to school. As our downtown area continues to become denser, and traffic congestion throughout the city increases, people are more willing to give transit a try.”

The City of Austin is working to encourage and sponsor more alternatives to driving in Austin. For example, the City is funding CapMetro’s extended weekend hours for the MetroRail RedLine and has put in reverse-angle parking and bike lanes on South Congress to provide safer biking and sidewalk and crosswalk use, understanding that “traffic isn’t all about cars,” Villalon said.

Improving bike lanes and sidewalks are keys to encouraging mass transit use. CapMetro recently built the first of six MetroBike shelters near major transit stations, which allows commuters to leave their bicycles in a secure station during the workday, hoping to encourage people to bike to stops. The City and CapMetro are also working together to improve bus stops by adding sidewalk connections, curb cuts and concrete "landing pads" (protected waiting areas), improving the condition of the stops and helping 100 percent of them meet the highest level of accessibility outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, Dawson said.

Of course, improving sidewalks and bike lanes are important not just in making mass transit more accessible but also in encouraging walking and cycling as viable forms of transportation.

“The ability of bikers and walkers to get around town is directly tied to whether or not the infrastructure is there to support them,” Villalon said. “The City has been working aggressively on sidewalks and bike lanes because we recognize that lack of connectivity makes travel very difficult. Everyone needs a safe place to walk.”

Planning for the Future

Proper land use is a key component in encouraging not only walking but also transit use in Austin, Deloney said, explaining that part of the sprawl Austin has experienced around the city is a result of citizens' dependence on their automobiles – the ability of and dependency on driving from one place to another meant building homes, shopping and offices further apart over the last decades.

“By doing so, we have effectively added needless time and space between our jobs, houses and other places we're trying to get to,” he said. “The suburban pattern of development simply does not facilitate an efficient transit system. The density and lack of connectivity in these auto-oriented, suburban neighborhoods prohibit transit from reaching its full potential. If we really want transit to serve Austin's periphery, we need to encourage compact and connected places throughout our city.”

Deloney said he’d like to see more development along mass transit corridors already heavily in use, like Lamar, Congress and Guadalupe. This is also a goal of CapMetro, which works to sway development and construction policy in this direction, so far influencing more than $95 million in new development around stations, with another $125 million in various stages of planning. This is also in line with the denser development goals in the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan for Austin’s future growth. 

“We’re making it easier to access transit by foot, by bike, and through transit-oriented development around our stops and stations,” Dawson said. “Transit-oriented development is centered around transit and encourages people to walk, bike and ride transit instead of relying on a car.”

One plan underway for two of Austin’s most traveled corridors is MetroRapid, a new bus project that will provide higher speed transit along Lamar and Congress, scheduled to launch in the summer of 2014. The high-capacity buses will run on clean diesel, feature expanded headroom and will have technology to prolong a green light if a bus is running behind schedule.

The bottom line is providing people with options, Villalon said, “If you provide those options, most people will choose transit or walking or biking rather than sitting in traffic in their cars.”

CapMetro and the City of Austin are also working on expanding the MetroRail. Although Villalon said officials envision a regionally connected rail system down the line, they have to start somewhere, and that will be to connect Austin’s busiest locations together – Downtown, the Capitol, the University of Texas and the Mueller development. The first phase of putting rail on the tracks will be to solicit community feedback in the spring on topics like stop locations and frequency, Villalon said. Next, the focus will be on getting advanced funding.

“This sort of thing takes years, not months, to get accomplished, so we’re looking at a couple of years before we take it to the voters for a funding vote and then after that we’ll take it to the federal [government] to hopefully get a matching amount,” she added. “In the meantime, we’re looking at design and engineering and environmental impact.”

What About the 'Burbs?

Part of Austin’s traffic problem comes not from the city itself but from commuters in outlying suburbs. CapMetro and the City of Austin have also been working with Lone Star Rail on Project Connect, which envisions a fully connected, seamless regional travel experience to those who live and work in Austin.

“Our congestion problems are regional, and we need to think about regional solutions,” Dawson said. “We already know that people will ride transit when it’s convenient, direct and reliable. MetroRail is a good example. As our community continues to grow rapidly, we need to provide more connections and more choices to keep pace. We need to shift our focus from moving cars to moving people.”

Like any large city, the idea is for Austin to have a variety of options, and those options will still, of course, include autos. This fall, funds were approved in a bond election to make improvements to IH-35, and this year an express lane will be added to MoPac from Lady Bird Lake to Parmer Lane as part of a $200 million improvement project to the expressway. With the new lane, expected to open this spring, single drivers will pay a toll to bypass traffic; public buses will travel the lane for free. 

“We find that there’s no one solution for travel needs,” Villalon said. “We’re looking at how to maximize the capacity of what we have. There are a lot of road projects going on around our region today and for those areas that it makes sense, that’s the approach. In other regions, where there is more density and mass transit can be more effective, that’s the approach.”

Is It All Enough?

Some question whether these efforts are enough, based on the City’s hesitancy to take away parking and traffic lanes from cars and create more “dedicated right of ways” that help speed mass transit traffic.

“We simply cannot break through our city's many congestion choke points unless we have a way to bypass automobile traffic,” Deloney said. “Many studies have shown the importance of dedicated right of way on the reliability of certain transit technologies. This right of way issue will have a huge impact on the CapMetro MetroRapid project's success.”

Limiting parking or moving it to more of a market-based approach could also encourage more people to find alternative ways to get to destination areas like Downtown and South Congress. For example, in 2011, the City of Austin expanded parking meter hours to nights and weekends downtown. “The effect is that [people] have to pay after hours and might choose not to park downtown and take the bus or rail instead,” Villalon said. “It’s providing an incentive to take alternative travel.”

In the end, it becomes a story of the chicken and the egg – what comes first, passengers, cyclists and walkers demanding services, or services that create passengers, cyclists and walkers? Villalon said with a population as booming as Austin’s, people are ready for public transportation.

“As the city grows, more people come from different cities with strong transit systems that work and are asking why we don’t have that here,” she said. “There are a lot of people willing to take the transit as soon as it’s here."

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