Rapid Bus has degraded bus service overall

This VMU on Lamar at North Loop (google maps link; as of 9/5/2014 the streetview picture is from construction) is open now. I like it. It has a bus stop right in front of it! Streetscape is good. There’s actually a new Taco Cabana across North Loop from it, unfortunately with a drive-thru, where the pretty image to the right has a grassy field1. The property to the south of the Taco Cabana appears ripe for redevelopment soon as another VMU; I’d be surprised not to see it go that way within a couple of years.


Let’s imagine the resident of one of these new apartments wants to take the bus to Wheatsville Co-Op, an urban grocer located at about 31st and Guadalupe. Lots of people used to ride the bus to Wheatsville last I checked.

For background, the VMU ordinance was enacted as a quid-pro-quo for the McMansion ordinance – the logic was that we would build tall apartments (for Austin, anyways) over walkable retail on corridors where transit frequencies and usefulness was high. Lamar/Guadalupe definitely fit that bill, at least originally.

Before the implementation of “Rapid Bus”, the #1 ran about every 13 minutes during peak periods on this route. Google maps says that the bus portion of this trip takes 8 minutes on the #1. Note that Google doesn’t even consider the 801 a viable option for this trip, unlike Capital Metro themselves. We’ll get to that in a minute.

We can use the same “show up and go” calculations from this post to come up with this graph. Short summary: If transit service is to be truly useful as a replacement for the car, it needs to be frequent enough that you don’t bother to check a schedule; you just show up at the stop and a bus comes pretty soon (and by the way this was one of the big marketing points for the #801; so this isn’t just a condition I’m placing on them to be mean). Note that the walking time on either end for the #1 trip is essentially zero – there are bus stops for the #1 (but not the #801) directly in front of the VMU building and the grocer.

Originally, when frequency was every 13 minutes, a trip to the grocery store would involve a 0 minute walk, an average 6.5 minute wait (half of frequency), and a 8 minute trip on the bus, for an expected trip time of 14.5 minutes. Not bad.

However, in the world we live in now, Capital Metro has cut half of the #1s and imposed instead the #801 in place of the #101, stealing the local frequency for the express. How does that service work for our apartment resident?

Same calculations as above – we end up with an expected wait of 13 minutes (it runs every 26 minutes during peak)2. Total trip time is now 21 minutes, if you can get a seat on this bus, which has been a problem ever since the 801 change happened.

But surely the 801 made up for this drop in service, right?

Again, Google won’t even give this as a trip; but Capital Metro’s trip planner does.


Huh. Cap Metro expects the user of this ‘service’ to walk about a half mile north to the “Brentwood Station”, wait (12 minute frequencies during peak), ride the bus to the “Hyde Park Station” (7 minutes), then walk about a half mile south to Wheatsville. Hey Google, how long will those walks take? Google says 8 minutes each, roughly.

So let’s graph those new trips, shall we?


The results show that, and all of this is compared to the conditions before the #801 started (“old #1” in the graph), a resident of this apartment building can now either pay the same amount of money for a much less frequent service (#1) that will now take about 50% longer to get where they want to go, or they can pay double the price for a reasonably frequent service (#801) that will take more than twice as long to go where they want to go. People boarding a bus at this stop and travelling to Wheatsville have seen a significant degradation in quality of bus service.

What’s the conclusion? Well, even if you are foolish enough to think a 26 minute frequency local service still qualifies as “show up and go”, the residents of this VMU and many others in the area are unquestionably much worse off after the implementation of MetroRapid. And what’s worse – the developments resulting from the VMU ordinance were sold to surrounding neighborhoods as less of an impact on their daily lives because we all assumed many of its residents would ride the bus.

Still true? Doubt it.

More to come.

  1. Chris Bradford bait 

  2. most people would not consider this “frequent” and thus probably wouldn’t even consider the ‘show up and go’ approach, but let’s keep going 

23 Replies to “Rapid Bus has degraded bus service overall”

      1. That’s true, but Natural Grocers is not exactly a full-service grocer for most people (well, Wheatsville isn’t either but it’s a lot closer). I could live with Wheatsville, probably not with NG.

  1. I live in Wells Branch and take the 801 everyday from Tech Ridge to Dean Keeton. In principle I am one of the few that would have benefited from the Metro Rapid service as both ends of my route are on a Metro Rapid stop. However, the average travel time on the current 801 (42 min) is now about the same as the old 1L (43 min). The old 101 used to have a travel time of 38 min (from West Mall). Basically bus service, even for the ideal rider of Metro Rapid like me, has basically remained the same. I can imagine it is noticeably worse for riders closer to the core and those that use non-Metro Rapid stops.

    Also, has anyone noticed that the frequency of the 801 has been degraded slightly recently? It used to run every 12 min in the during the day but now it runs every 13 min.

      1. It seems to me that the 801 is noticeably slower than the 101 in the section between North Lamar Transit Center and Braker Lane, at least northbound during the early evening. I’m currently averaging 25 min of travel time from North Lamar Station to Tech Ridge. The 101 did that leg in 20 min. I have a feeling the 275 is actually faster than the 801 there.

        1. That is the fare box cost but not the real cost. Transit agencies measure cost of bus routes based on an hour cost of running time, cost of running bus by the hour. It is likely this is compared to the fare box revenue thus the difference between providing transit service to what people actually pay is what the transit agency pays to subsidize the cost of the service.
          At one time the best bus route in Houston had a 100% subsidy i.e. a $1 ticket actual cost for providing the service was $2. Also Houston METRO had a policy to discontinue a bus route where the subsidy was over $7 for a $1 ticket. Interesting that at that time the subsidy for providing park and ride (if not mistaken) was $15 per trip. Houston METRO at that particular meeting did not provide the subsidy of light rail but my guess is that it is over $20 per trip. Side note – last time I checked Capital METRO subsidy of the red line rail was $18 per ticket but it is listed at $3.50 thus subsidy and fare cost = $21.50 (and I believe the best part of the red line it is its low cost when compared to other systems).

          1. Well, you specifically asked about “price of ticket”.

            I don’t have it in front of me but the operating subsidy for METRO rail in Houston is quite low – lower, in fact, than the buses it replaced (which is why myself and my colleagues advocate similar service here). IIRC it’s less than a few dollars per ride.

            It’s also not typical to declare the figure as you have in yoru example as a “100% subsidy”. In your example, the typical way to refer to it would be a 50% fare recovery ratio (which is VERY good by national standards and far better than even some fairly conservative analogies for car usage).

            The Red Line, on the other hand, is a disaster. No light rail line in the country has operating subsidies quite that high if I remember correctly. Typical light rail (rather than commuter rail) operating subsidies on good systems meet or exceed bus subsidies (as in lower than), which is why it’s a good reason to do it where it makes sense.

          2. I am very interested in finding out that number on light rail subsidies. The numbers I quote are from a presentation given to the chamber of commerce transportation committee by either the VP or CEO of Houston METRO (my memory is short) prior to the bond vote. I searched many times for light rail subsidies but yet to find that number 🙂

            Yes, I did the 100% on purpose, checking if you would bring it up to my attention.

            Room for conversation – I find many positives about the Red Line. Conceptually it has merit. Note that the Red Line technically is not light rail or not in my book. Denton has implemented a new rail system that uses the same DMU technology, virtually similar vehicles/systems. It is very hard for me to accept that a DMU system is more expensive than a light rail system with catenaries.

            But there are some folks in Austin very familiar with technologies. You probably know them 🙂

          3. Gonzalo, it was one of the AURA guys who found it before our last election, but it’s consistent with other things from other cities – Minneapolis, for instance, sees better subsidies on their light rail line than on similar buses. It’s all about ridership versus fixed operating costs like drivers, fuel, etc. (“fixed operating” as in “per vehicle per run, not ‘per passenger'”).

            DMUs are very very inefficient in a number of ways. The Red Line carries 2000 boardings/day, about 1/20th as much as the 2000 light rail plan would have. I know it’s not techncially light rail, but it didn’t stop Capital Metro from calling it light rail or urban rail whenever it meant they could get by with lesser regulations or make it sound more attractive. And it DID preclude our best light rail option, and it HAS led to extremely significant cuts in bus operations (which had far lower operating subsidies).

          4. How did get off into the rail track? 🙂 It is a topic I try to avoid LOL

            Best to follow the feds in how they evaluate rail systems for funding.

            Yep, I avoid rail talk because the politics and poor understanding… 🙂 then we end up in conversations that lead to nowhere…
            heavy rail – lone star rail in DFW, uses diesel trains. i like it. i wish i would know the capital cost and O&M costs
            light rail – DART, Houston Metro $120 million per mile or so, cost of north side addition
            DMU – latest one is denton $9 million per mile
            modern trolley – have not kept up but maybe 1/2 cost of light rail or less

            We should not mix between them – costs, type of service, etc are very different as you indicated.

            The “urban rail” name must be a local Austin creation 🙂 never heard it before until Austin.

            I am a traffic/transportation engineer. I have worked in the design of the light rail between mockingbird and garland DART. It was a superb experience because I worked with experts who designed systems all over the world. Also did some design for one of the light rail lines in Houston. When folks in Houston said their starter line was the same as Dallas I knew better. A developer in Houston told me why the red line route was picked and it made the most sense; whoever came up with the concept was/is brilliant.

            The first time I heard about rail in the L/G corridor I thought it was insane but it is not so much so. It will be interesting to see what AURA and others develop. There are lots of smart young minds in the mix. I will hold that against them LOL.

            Wrote a little something that you might enjoy reading. It is one of them silly things that people say that sound like it makes sense but then we wonder…

  2. So how would this change if we put Light Rail down Guadalupe/Lamar? Do you think rail would have closer stops? Do you think we would still run buses at the same frequency as the legacy bus lines even after installing light rail?

  3. The MetroRapid project was completed on time and under budget. In response to complaints, CapMetro recently presented a proposal to the FTA to build a few more stops (including one at Wheatsville) and buy additional buses with leftover funding. The FTA approved this. However, the FTA has not yet determined a policy on whether leftover money from several of their projects can be spent. So, now we wait for the feds to come up with a policy.

    Although the service may improve if a few more stops/buses are added, I still say that the MetroRapid project either makes the bus service worse or more expensive for riders.

  4. You haven’t responded to my earlier comment. As I understand it, you advocate putting rail down this corridor. Do you think rail would have more frequent stops? Do you think it would run more frequent service? Do you think they would still run legacy bus routes chasing trains down the same streets? Do you only support grade separated rail down this corridor?

    As I understand it, your argument against MetroRapid and Project Connect is that only G/L aligned rail can reduce operating expenses. This may or may not be true. But in this post you are arguing that service was degraded for some users on some routes. You have cherry picked a route that everyone agrees the service is worse. But can you please explain why rail would be better? If operating expenses on one route were increased, surely CapMetro would spread that cost across the entire service area.

    Please explain how rail service on this corridor would differ from MetroRapid?

    1. Sorry, I missed this the first time.

      The key is that light rail would have its own lane and signal priority (not the nonsense MetroRapid has now which nobody can say is actually being used). Thus in the colored graphs above, the green portion would be shorter than it is for the 801.

      If your point is that it wouldn’t shorten enough to make up for the walk, you’re probably right. But it’d be a little closer overall than the 801 is today, and a better riding experience (more reliable) that would eat into a little more of the gap compared to local service. Also likely more frequent if our estimates of ridership for this corridor are correct – I’d envision Houston-like frequency of every 6 minutes during peak hours.

      1. LOL got to love the challenge on the rational.
        Hind side 20/20 but perhaps L/G route not a good corridor for “BRT.” Light rail presents other challenges.
        Check with DART and Houston METRO for updates but… it used to be…
        DART was planning to have priority on the Pacific Av. route but I don’t think it ever worked.
        Houston rail give priority to rail but increases delay to crossing streets by an all red phase. Plus Houston METRO has taken over the management of traffic signals along corridor.
        Riding behind 801 and I noticed it is not currently getting priority.
        Replacing a low cost system with higher cost system without increasing operation funding has had a detrimental impact in other transit systems, i.e. transit agencies have decreased bus service to subsidize light rail service.
        It would be interesting to know the cost per boarding on the regular before bus routes vs. current BRT routes.
        Regardless, improving service along heavy traveled corridors should be the objective which I think M1EK argues, successful routes provide better services.
        By the way, check before and after user experience for Houston red line. I think people would take one bus trip to connect downtown and take a second bus trip to reach destination. After red line the same trip required bus-train-bus vs. bus-bus. It increased time of users and transfer. Although a much nicer ride in light rail the average travel time for red line (last time i checked) was less than 20 mph.
        etc etc etc.
        And as a bicyclists I recommend not to place bicycle routes to go parallel to rail tracks and at crossings for the tracks and bike path to be at 90 degrees due to safety. Houston Main Street where there is only one car lane next to dedicated light rail lane I would recommend not to allow bicyclists in the car lane, been there done that – cyclists 14 mph is low and backs up traffic which makes for very dangerous conditions for cyclists because drivers get very annoyed. 🙂

Leave a Reply