Austin’s land use ISN’T the problem behind Capital Metro’s poor ridership

I just sent the slideshare version (contains more slides) to all city council members. I’ve exported some to images for this blog post; but the slideshare may be a better viewing experience if your platform permits it.

Continue reading Austin’s land use ISN’T the problem behind Capital Metro’s poor ridership

A short addition to the Honesty Agenda

Honesty also requires that you be open and transparent – meaning that you must address legitimate criticism publically instead of ignoring it, attempting to delegitimize it, or only addressing it privately.

Saturday while at my son’s chess tournament and writing this article, I also stumbled across an old exchange (pre-election) between some folks in AURA (obviously not myself as I just found this discussion a couple of days ago) and one of the people in the Prop 1 campaign. The Prop 1 person indicated they “don’t do facebook battles” and wanted to set up a face to face meeting (this same person offered once to do the same thing with me).


This happened to me other times too. During the Prop 1 issue, I got 5 or 6 offers to meet privately – usually on twitter – from people who would not communicate on the issue publically. I took one person up on it (mine said they didn’t do ‘twitter battles’) and had a lunch at Zocalo, in which no minds were changed. I also saw no serious public response; not even once; to the legitimate concerns raised by myself and other members of AURA. Basically, these folks want to be able to say their piece, and then never answer for it – and they think that if they can only get you one-on-one, they’ll be able to convince you to change your mind1. It’s a fundamentally insulting, and, quite frankly, dishonest worldview – akin to believing that they are the rational adults and you are just a willful child; and if they can isolate you from your peer group, you will bend to their will. Or, another common belief is that people on our side could not possibly believe what we were saying – so maybe face to face we could be convinced to see reason. Perhaps, the goal was to claim to persuadable folks in the middle that “we tried to meet with them and discuss their concerns but they said no”, as if it’s reasonable to expect that a guy with a suburban office job and young kids can get downtown every day of the week for individual meetings.

It’s not only the hangers-on that did this. I’ve seen the same thing from actual Capital Metro employees. And it has to stop. To me, if it’s not said in public where everybody can see, it doesn’t count. And if you lack the courage of your convictions enough to answer your critics, that says that you are not truly being honest. And no, John Langmore, a broadside a day before the election repeating the same talking points you used the whole time does not count.

As it turns out, a local executive tried desperately to fix things at the last minute by getting Leffingwell, Spelman, and a few others together with representatives from AURA and OurRail in which the willful children were asked, finally, by the mediator, what it would take to get them to vote for the plan. The changes offered by the ‘adults’ were meaningless, of course, because even immediately before getting pantsed at the polls, the bubble they put themselves in prevented them from believing that the pro-transit criticism of the plan was legitimate.

And by then it was far too late – the plan could not be changed in any meaningful way; the failure by the self-proclaimed adults to listen to and/or publically address those many legitimate arguments had doomed the proposition to a significant defeat at the polls (which is, granted, better for transit than if the bad plan had actually passed, but nowhere near as good as if the bad plan had been scuttled before being placed on the ballot).

Austin deserves better. Demand better.

  1. I had a typo in here for a long time; thanks, actually, to JD Gins, for inadvertently pointing it out in March 2015 []

Honesty Agenda: First Case Study

Earlier entries in the series:

So there was a flurry of activity two weeks ago on the Capital Metro front, thanks to our friends at KUT. First, a story titled “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“, and then following the next day one titled “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Cap Metro Go From Here?“.

I found both efforts by Terrence Henry to be good, fair, articles overall (I was quoted for neither); and thought it would be a nice test-run of the (in progress) Honesty Agenda to evaluate the statements in these articles based on the “What is Honesty?” points.

First, from “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“:

 “There’s a few reasons to explain the dip we seem to be looking at in 2014,” saysChris Riley, Vice-Chair of Capital Metro’s board and former city council member. “First, continued reductions in UT ridership.” The University of Texas at Austin has cut funding in recent years for its share of the Capital Metro system, reducing shuttle service. “And partly because of changing transportation patterns among the students,” Riley adds. “You have more students living in West Campus today and not riding the bus.”

Next, Todd Hemingson:

“Of the overall percent in reduction [in 2014], what we found was the UT shuttle system accounted for a full 2 percent of that ridership decrease,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development with Capital Metro.

Hemingson and Riley say there were several other factors that led to last year’s drop in ridership: fare increases and restructuring as well as some extreme weather events. But even all those factors together don’t account for the entire drop. And when pushed a little further, Hemingson says the problem goes deeper.

“Really, any analysis of transit ridership begins and ends with how much service you provide,” Hemingson says. The actual number of hours of service Capital Metro provides per person in Austin is down, and so ridership is down as a result. “Unfortunately, the reality is we’re just not keeping up. Our service hour, as we call it, has been declining since 2004.”

Riley did not support his claim that UT’s ridership has dropped, and Henry has recently posted this tweet which indicates that the jury is still out on whether that is true. Additionally, Riley left out the fact that the Guadalupe/Lamar and Burnet corridors have seen large vertical-mixed-use developments opening up which should have resulted in increased ridership but have not done so. (I have my theory why this is the case, from “Rapid Bus Has Degraded Bus Service Overall“).

Rating: Technically true – possible but unsupported so far. The whole truth? NO. He did apparently at least mention ‘restructuring’ (see paraphrase in Hemingson’s section), but obviously did so as a second or third cause, which dramatically understates that it was the most significant, already observed and proven, ridership drop explanation shown to date – something that should have been the lead, not the footnote! Nothing but the truth? OK.  No obfuscation or disingenuousness here. Riley’s quote I’d rate as “sort of true”. Not the whole truth, but not laughably false.

This Riley section gets a C+.

And also, Capital Metro as an agency gets their first F of the year here for not publishing ridership data like good transit agencies do, so we could independently verify the claim. Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano shows an example from Phoenix here. I’ve referred to others in earlier posts in this series.

Hemingson, so far, comes off OK. He at least mentions that service hours are down (contrasting to John-Michael Vincent Cortez, who insisted throughout the Red Line debacle that it wasn’t happening and doubled down on the false claim as recently as Halloween). But weather? I call that an obfuscation. It may have dropped ridership a couple of days, but Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano’s recent series of charts shows that weather events are an excuse at best, not a cause. Hemingson so far: also truthy. Not the whole truth, and the twitterati largely laughs off his weather excuse for good reason.

Hemingson gets a B- here. Mostly true but the weather thing is ridiculous.

Now on to Jace Deloney, recently elevated to chair of the UTC:

But despite those reductions in service hours, ridership has increased during that time. Deloney with Urban Transportation Commission thinks that the 2014 drop was due to something more specific to that year.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the changes that took place in 2014. Lots of changes,” he says. “We had Metro Rapid launch, which caused a lot of issues for some people.”

Deloney is talking about a very well-documented cut to the city’s most popular bus route last year. When Capital Metro launched it’s first rapid bus line, the 801, it also cut the local bus service (the 1) along the same route in half. Up until then, the 1 was the most popular bus route in the city.

There is literally nothing bad you can say about this statement other than that it may be understating the problem. Notice he doesn’t shy away from reality here. He doesn’t put the #1 cause at #5. He doesn’t do what Hemingson does next, which is belittle the honest concerns of people who are trying to get places as mere preference. Jace is an excellent example of being honest about transit. Jace gets our first A of the season.


“One of the things we knew going in was that not everyone was going to like that,” Hemingson says. “And that’s what we saw, a drop in ridership in the corridor, that’s undeniable. But since we’ve launched MetroRapid, we’ve seen that trend in the right direction, which is positive.”

Aaand here we go. This is technically true, if you define “some people in North Austin had to change jobs or get cars” as merely “disliked the change”. It’s highly misleading; it’s obfuscating (the ‘trend in the right direction’ is that current ridership is almost back up to the level it was before the change was made, which is a very low standard given that population growth and development on the corridor should have resulted in large boosts in ridership). This statement is not the absolute worst I’ve seen, but is a good solid example of Capital Metro’s lack of honesty on transportation.

Hemingson gets a C- on that quote. Technically true but too much spin.

Next, back to Riley:

There are also several factors that are out of Capital Metro’s control. Land use and density, for starters. Much of the population growth in Austin is happening outside of the city itself, or along its periphery. That development typically consists of large lots with single family homes that are difficult to make work with transit.

“If we had a code that allowed for more development along our corridors, in places that are easier to serve with transit, then I think you’d see a healthier rise in our transit ridership,” Riley of the Capital Metro board says.

Riley’s worst quote. It’s true that development on the periphery stinks. But it’s also true that even good development there would not result in large transit ridership given office sprawl.

What’s undeniable is that the VMU ordinance was specifically designed to encourage dense, walkable, midrise development along our best transit corridors on the theory that there would be self-selection going on for people who wanted to ride the good transit that was on those corridors; that development is actually happening as envisioned (N Lamar/S Lamar/Burnet), but the local bus service that would best support those new residents was cut drastically (in half for the 1, not quite as bad for the 3, but the 3’s frequency wasn’t as high to begin with). You now get a local once every half hour during peak on the #1 route and about every 40 minutes on the #3 route. That’s not development-supporting levels of transit.

Note that the benefit provided by Rapid Bus (801/803 which are basically just express service like the old 101 was) over local service diminishes the closer you get to the core; and once you’re about halfway in, the extra time spent walking will overwhelm the time savings the actual bus ride gives you (almost entirely due to fewer stops). This should have led to a transit plan where local frequencies were high and express service was gradually improved; that’s not what we did – we made the locals infrequent and the express relatively frequent, which again, is useless to residents of the VMUs that are about halfway out from the core.

Riley’s statement here is obfuscating and disingenuous, and does not tell the whole truth. We’ve added enough development along Lamar and Burnet to generate significant new ridership on transit, but the transit service those corridors have now is significantly, objectively, worse than it was before, especially in the sections a few miles from the core where most of the development is happening. In other words, the 803 makes things better compared to the 3 (even with the extra walk) once you’re past 183 on Burnet or near Ben White on Lamar, but all the new development is happening much closer in – near 2222 on Burnet or around the Alamo on S Lamar, or around North Loop on N Lamar. All of those places are seeing equal to much worse transit service now. Capital Metro punished its best potential future customers. That’s the real development-related reason we’re seeing ridership drop and not rebound.

Riley gets a D- on that quote.

Now on to “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Capital Metro Go From Here?“, the immediate follow-up.

“I think we are on the cusp of making a significant step in the right direction,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development at Capital Metro. The agency has laid out several goals for the years ahead, and one of them is adding frequency to some of the city’s most popular bus routes.

“What we have is a proposal to take five of the busiest routes in the system and upgrade those so they operate every 15 minutes or better, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., every single weekday.” It’s called a Frequent Service Network, Hemingson says. The initial routes being proposed for higher frequency are the 7, 20, 300, 325, and 331.

Hemingson left out the elephant in the room. The route which, even after being crippled by having its frequency cut in half and being paired with an incompatible express, still has the top ridership in the system.



Let’s take a closer look at the left side of that graph.


F for truth. Leaving out the most important fact of all gets you an immediate F. No way back from that.

Back to Jace Deloney:

“It makes no sense that they’re talking about the frequent service in 2015 while they took away that frequency on the highest ridership route,” says Jace Deloney, Chair of the Urban Transportation Commission, which advises the city on transit issues.

Deloney is talking about Route 1, which runs along the main arteries of the city: North Lamar, Guadalupe and South Congress. Capital Metro says they will not restore Route 1 frequency to where it was before the launch of the rapid bus service along the same route, even though the rapid bus costs 40 percent more, and the stops are much farther apart in many areas.

“They’re going to have to look into restoring the Route 1 frequency,” Deloney says, “or else we’re going to be hurting our best corridor going forward.”

A+ for truth. No arguments here.

That’s about it, apart from some minor quotes that aren’t controversial about real-time information being useful (but what’s more useful is frequent service so you don’t have to check).

Oh, and overall? Terrence Henry and KUT gets a solid B+, which is about the highest grade I’ll give the media in the last couple of years. It would have been nice to make Hemingson get on the record about why the #1’s frequency can’t be restored, and why we should consider Metro Rapid to be part of the new frequency network when its fares are not compatible – you can’t buy a day pass on one of the new frequent locals and transfer to the 801 or 803, so they aren’t part of the same network, man.

Note a pattern here. The Capital Metro planner gets very low grades; the Capital Metro board member gets medium to low grades. The real citizen gets high grades. KUT scores well overall compared to other, much more credulous, local media. The agency itself doesn’t provide the transparency that would actually help; just the transparency that makes them look good to state lawmakers.

When I go back and analyze Project Connect, this pattern will keep coming up again and again.

Austin deserves better.

Citations to other sites referenced above and some other suggested reading from other Austin bloggers: