More than Four

Yesterday, Mayor Adler invited me to discuss transportation with the new Austin City Council. I encouraged Council to pursue policies that would increase Austin’s transit mode share from our current 4%.  Increasing the use of public transportation would help ameliorate the pain Austinites endure from traffic congestion, as well as support affordability by reducing household transportation expenses.


We can do better

Austin’s transit mode share is stuck at roughly 4%; it was 4.2% in the 2012 American Community Survey and 4.5% in the 2000 census. We’ve gone over a decade without making significant improvements in the share of Austinites using transit. To show that ‘more than four’ is indeed possible, I referenced (Southern, sprawling, similarly low-density) Atlanta which has a transit mode share that exceeds 10%.

In present-day Central Texas, over 91% of CapMetro trips are on bus.  For the remainder of this decade, increasing transit mode share will ultimately depend on getting more people to use the bus. Given limited resources, it makes sense to focus on making bus spending more productive.  ‘More than four’ requires CapMetro and the City to optimize their policies to increase the productivity of bus spending.

Bus Story

As part of the presentation to Council, I quickly went over the last two decades of key bus data trends in Austin. I’ve written about the details and source data for these trends in previous entries.


After gains in ridership between 1995 and 2000, there’s 15 years of stagnation where we have hovered at around 35 million bus trips per year. In the last year we’ve even experienced declines in bus riders.  Real spending on buses is increasing throughout this period until the launch of the highly-subsidized Red Line substantially impacts CapMetro’s budget in 2010.


However, the purchasing power of the aforementioned spending growth is reduced by increases in the the cost per bus service hour between 1999 into 2006.  The reduction in total services hours from the more expensive cost structure correlates with the stagnation in ridership.


Where does responsibility lie for improving the productivity of the service hours we can buy? Research (PDF) by UCLA’s Brian Taylor et al. indicates that about 26% of the per capita transit ridership variance across communities can be explained by two choices made within transit agencies. Low fares and frequent service boosted ridership when controlling for other factors. So that leaves the other 74% to account for.  The point I made to Council is that two of the most important factors external to transit management are within their control: land use and support for car-free/car-lite households.


My goal was for them to see a mode shift to transit as their responsibility instead of something they completely delegate to CapMetro.  Providing transit-supportive density where productive bus frequency is already viable (or near-viability) should be a priority for their land use.

I argued that even though the overall Austin and Central Texas story is one of growth, the core where there’s already the residential and employment density for bus productivity has pretty much had a static addressable transit rider market.  Many of the census tracts in the core actually lost population as households without children replaced those raising children.  The trend we actually need to see to support bus productivity is increases in working-age adults throughout the core, but even more aggressively so in parcels within walking distance of existing bus routes.

There are a variety of policies that can support ‘more than four’.  Individual land use decisions should support bus productivity, but it’s also important to revamp the land development code to encourage more ‘missing middle’ (e.g. row houses) and imperceptible increases in density (e.g. ‘granny flats’).

Council can also support bus productivity by allocating street/road right-of-way towards buses (and bikes).  A ‘ParkingNEXT’ effort that re-calibrates our parking policies by examining our use of residential parking permits and bolstering the use of parking & transportation management districts would help.

Council can also use it’s capital project spending to support car-independence, which in turn increases bus ridership.  Embracing ‘going big’ on bike and sidewalk improvement plans that are coordinated with support for bus frequency are the obvious starting point. Many of the Council members are interested in using city funds to support housing construction; ensuring that those funds are placed in community development initiatives that are aligned with transit is necessary for true affordability.

Finally, Council must be mindful of its appointments (especially to land use commissions) and how it staffs the many ‘studies’ undertaken by the different agencies to ensure that competing stakeholder priorities (e.g. roads, more commuter rail) don’t undermine a focus on wisely using scare resources to boost bus ridership.

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