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Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid

Capital Metro is trying to get you excited about Rapid Bus, since if you’re an Central Austinite, you’re not getting rail.

Earlier this week, Capital Metro included a flyer in copies of the local newspaper which touted Rapid Bus down Lamar/Guadalupe, opening late 2006 or early 2007.
Coincidentally, Wednesday night I had to drop my wife off and pick her up at an appointment which allowed me to travel down Guadalupe from 30th to 6th streets at the extreme tail end of rush hour (6:40 PM). I paid special attention to the ability of cars and buses to navigate through this congested corridor.

First: a short re-hash of what Rapid Bus is:

  • Rapid Bus is not “bus rapid transit”. “bus rapid transit” or BRT in short picks from a set of items off a menu which will supposedly improve the speed, reliability, and attractiveness of bus transit. The hopes are that it will bring bus transit up to the level of a good urban rail line. In practice (in the United States), this has been far from the case – mainly due to the reluctance to set aside dedicated right-of-way for the bus vehicle, which results in poor speed and reliability compared to rail (and poor relative performance compared to the private automobile). Even when bus lanes are created, the fact that they are typically in-street makes them worthless in practice since cars just use them anyways.
  • Capital Metro is certainly moving towards BRT with this line, but even they admit that it’s not good enough to call it BRT yet. (That’s even with the slip-shod definition of BRT which allows for it to be declared even with only a few improvements over normal bus service).
  • In fact, both the existing express buses (which travel down US 183, Mopac, and I-35) and limited buses (which run down normal corridors with fewer stops) already implement some features of BRT. (fewer stops and improved vehicles).

So what characteristics of BRT is Capital Metro including in the design of this new service to make it “Rapid”?

  • Signal prioritization – i.e. the ability to hold traffic signals green for a few seconds as the bus approaches
  • Off-bus fare payment
  • Longer (probably articulated) buses
  • Fewer stops

That’s pretty much it. Items that might help make the service more like a light rail line which are not being included:

  • Dedicated right-of-way
  • Full control over traffic signals – i.e. lights turn green when the vehicle approaches
  • Electic power (overhead “caternary” wires or in-street power)

So how does “Rapid Bus” look to improve service along Lamar/Guadalupe? Like I said, I drove the most congested part of the route just yesterday, and it doesn’t look good.

  • The ability to hold the next light green for 5 or 10 seconds isn’t going to help during rush hour at all! At almost every single intersection with a traffic light, I waited through at least one green cycle before being able to proceed, since traffic was always backed up from further down the road. And this was at 6:40 PM! That means that while the bus can hold the signal at 27th green for a while longer, it doesn’t matter because the backup from 26th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 21st, and MLK is preventing the bus from moving anyways.
  • Off-bus payment is going to be irrelevant. Now that Capital Metro is using SmartCards for everything short of single-fare rides, very few people are having to take more than a second to pay when they get on the bus (this is from my own bus rides on the 983 and 3 lately). Basically, paying is no longer slowing the boarding process.
  • Fewer stops is already possible with the #101. This bus is still woefully slow and woefully unreliable compared to the private automobile, to say nothing of quality rail service (which could in fact beat the automobile on both counts).
  • The ride is going to be uncomfortable. The pavement along Guadalupe simply can’t stand the beating it gets from heavy vehicles like buses and trucks – and this is not going to change anytime soon. Rather than running down the middle of the street on rails (as light-rail would have done), the Rapid Bus vehicle will run in the right lane of the street on the same pavement abused by trucks and other buses. There is no evidence that the city is willing to pay the far higher bills required to keep this pavement in smooth-enough condition to provide a decent comfortable bus ride.

In review: The commuter rail line is being built on a corridor where only a handful of Austin residents can walk to stations, and only a small percentage of Austin residents can drive to a station. The primary beneficiaries, assuming shuttle buses don’t just kill the whole thing, are residents of Leander (who at least pay Capital Metro taxes) and Cedar Park (who don’t). On the other hand, the thousands of people in central Austin who could walk to stations along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are being presented with a rank steaming turd which barely improves service over the existing #101 bus.
(publically opposing this Mike-Krusee-designed Austin-screwing debacle is the basic reason I was booted from the UTC, for those arriving late).

So, shut up and take it, Austin. Rapid Bus is all you’re getting, and you’d better ride it, or you’ll be experiencing the fun that Honolulu is currently going through with their own BRT debacle. Big ugly long buses that aren’t attracting any new riders don’t do transit users any favors.