Bus City Blues

CapMetro bus ridership has remained stagnant for over 15 years even as Austin experienced substantial population growth and bus spending significantly increased. Land use reform by the City and a service strategy shift at CapMetro can end the ridership stagnation era.

ridership-pop-index

The visualizations that follow are based on information provided by CapMetro to the National Transit Database, as well as demographic information released by Ryan Robinson, the City’s Demographer. In addition, historical gasoline prices are based on data maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  This Excel file (XLSX) contains all of the data discussed below (and additional tables and visualizations).

Ridership is not moving

CapMetro is overwhelmingly a bus agency, as this table from the 2015 adopted budget demonstrates.

cmta-ridership-by-mode-15

Since 1999, CapMetro’s overall bus ridership has been stuck around 35 million passenger trips, plus or minus a few million. And as the table above highlights, CapMetro is expecting an additional dip in the short-term.

ridership-13

During the last 15 years – the ridership stagnation era – Austin’s population grew from 629,769 to 842,750.  The visualization below indexes the growth of Austin population and bus ridership to their 1991 levels (the oldest data point available in the NTD).  The trend comparison clarifies the decoupling of ridership growth from population increases around 1999-2000.

ridership-pop-index

Since 1991, dollars have gushed into bus operations as a result of the sales taxes generated in Austin and the other communities in CapMetro’s service area.  Obviously, the region’s economic growth provided CapMetro with significant increases in funding for operations.

ridership-spending-index

The above visualization indexes the real dollar value (in January 2015 CPI) of CapMetro spending on bus operations as reported to NTD.  In 1991, nominal spending on bus operations was $31,662,293. The real dollar value of that based on January 2015 CPI was $55,052,721. By 2013, the nominal dollar value of spending was up to $119,596,466 ($121,546,863 real).

In 1991, there were 26,746,105 bus trips. By 2013, a total of 34,735,484 bus trips (regular bus, MetroRapid, Express, UT shuttles) were reported to NTD. As the trend lines in the above chart highlight, since around 1999-2000 boosts in spending on bus operations no longer reliably translate into ridership growth.

It’s not gas prices

The cost of gasoline is a powerful economic lever that serves as a push and pull on bus ridership. Some might argue that CapMetro’s inability to boost ridership is the result of cheap gas.  However, the ‘gas price explanation’ actually reveals that if anything, gas prices probably boosted boardings during the ridership stagnation era since real gas prices went on an upward swing around 1999.

gas-prices

However, the theoretical ridership boost from the increase in gas prices was probably offset somewhat by increases in fuel economy.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s authoritative reference, fuel economy improved noticeably in new vehicles starting around the 2005 model year (MY).

fuel-economy-trends

Efficient vehicles take some of the financial sting of high gas prices away, but it takes time for consumers to replace their cars and trucks.  Therefore, while it’s reasonable to expect improved fuel economy to undermine some of the support for bus ridership that higher gas prices provided, the technology enhancements arrive too late in the chronology (and are not sizable enough) to explain the erosion of population growth and additional spending as bus ridership drivers.

Shifting policy through accountability

One possible explanation for ridership stagnation is land use.  By design, Austin’s growth pattern is sprawl. This growth policy prevents new pockets of transit-supportive density from developing.  Paradoxically, CapMetro’s coffers are flush as a result of the quick growth that sprawl enables but there are precious few places where productive bus service can be provided.

atx_pop_change_2010

CapMetro’s own strategic mistakes have turned the tough hand dealt by the City’s sprawl policy into a losing one. A few examples:

  • The Red Line’s launch bumped down the bus service share of operational dollars. Since the Red Line moves a lot less riders per dollar than bus, this negatively impacts ridership.
  • CapMetro prioritizes fare increases in pursuit of an abstract notion of a ‘good’ farebox recovery rate even though they hurt ridership.  This month’s rate increase is part of the reason the official short-term ridership estimates expect declines in bus trips.
  • There’s an emerging approach to creating a ‘frequency network’ that appears to simply be a marketing ploy to brand plain-vanilla increases in service hours as some kind of aggressive effort to transform service.
  • CapMetro’s leaders conform to existing sprawl policy. For example, when determining how to develop their property at Plaza Saltillo, they skipped the densest proposals and did not provide an aggressive density floor when requesting proposals.

Ultimately, the strategic focus and supporting policies necessary to achieve ridership gains are not a mystery.  Given the simmering inconvenience of car-dependence as a mobility solution in Austin – not to mention the hunger for greater affordability – CapMetro has a clear opportunity to gain market share for transit.  The first step in transforming the strategic focus of the agency is to actually hold the leader of CapMetro accountable for at least keeping (and hopefully winning) customers.

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