Last month, voters in Austin, the liberal bastion of Texas, rejected a light rail plan that took years to develop. So what’s next for transit in one of the fastest-growing cities in the country?
After the failure of the rail plan — a flawed proposal that would have cost more per passenger to operate than the buses that it would have replaced — it’s clear that Austin must learn to walk before it can run.
For too long, our leadership’s obsession with rail as a symbol of a “world-class city” has stood in the way of addressing Austin’s real transit needs. That’s why our incoming city leaders should think twice before rushing into another rail proposal.
Rather, it’s time to start focusing on the things that actually matter to current and potential transit riders. We can quickly improve transit service in Austin if we focus on increasing the frequency, speed and reliability of the city’s existing bus network. By doing so, we’ll be able to maximize the number of people who have a competitive alternative to the automobile.
My vision for improving transit service in Austin isn't easy, sexy or even all that innovative. It won’t provide many ribbon-cutting photo ops for politicians. It will, however, give Austinities more freedom and access to their city.
So what specifically can be done to increase the frequency, speed and reliability of Austin’s bus network? Here are a few ideas:
- Expanding dedicated transit lanes — bus-only lanes that help transit vehicles bypass automobile congestion — is essential to making the city’s bus network faster and more reliable. Downtown transit lanes have been successful, but the real value of such lanes will be at our city’s most congested choke points, like the South First Street Bridge and the stretch of Guadalupe Street that runs near the University of Texas at Austin. We must prioritize people-moving capacity over automobile capacity, and this infrastructure will help provide incentives for people to take transit.
- Capital Metro, Austin’s transit agency, should move forward in launching another MetroRapid line, the city’s new express bus service that runs every 12 to 15 minutes during rush hour. Cap Metro has floated a third MetroRapid corridor connecting East Riverside Drive, south of downtown, to the fast-growing Mueller development, north of downtown, along a route that, coincidentally, resembles that of the failed rail plan. By launching a third high-frequency MetroRapid line, Austin will move a step closer to having a transit network that frees riders from having to live their lives according to a route schedule.
- In the long term, Cap Metro may need to re-evaluate how it approaches system planning altogether. Houston’s transit agency, for instance, recently moved ahead with the first large-scale redesign of the city’s bus network in decades. By focusing on high-ridership areas, cutting duplicative service and simplifying the bus network, the plan could substantially increase transit frequency and access to most destinations at no extra cost. Given Austin’s rapid growth over the past few decades, we’d be wise to follow Houston’s lead.
- In the transit world, people are the ultimate currency. Until Austin gets serious about addressing its land use problems, the cards will be forever stacked against Cap Metro. Density near transit stops is key to transit agencies’ ability to deliver high-quality service, but due to current regulations, many Austinites who want to live near transit can’t afford to do so. We can address this by allowing Austin’s new land development code to encourage more affordable, transit-supportive places through a more compact and connected development plan. Allowing the construction of more duplexes, townhomes, secondary units and mixed-use apartments would give Austin residents more access to transit.
- We also shouldn’t forget that we start and end every transit trip as pedestrians. An easy way to increase transit access in Austin is to improve the pedestrian infrastructure that connects neighborhoods to our city’s transit corridors. The high return on investment of pedestrian infrastructure justifies the cost.
Although Austin prides itself on being different, our mobility and transit problems are a lot like those of other Texas cities. We need to adopt transit policies that have proved successful in other cities in Texas and across the nation. Let’s learn from those places and work together on moving Austin forward.