Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Austin’s Rapid Bus Struggles After a Slow Start

The new line was marketed as a BRT system, but the MetroRapid buses still need tinkering to meet those requirements.


The new line was marketed as a BRT system, but the MetroRapid buses still need tinkering to meet those requirements.

Standing on Guadalupe Street in Austin facing the tower at the University of Texas, 26-year-old Emily Mandell waits at the bus stop with a scowl on her face. She’s not looking forward to this ride.

“It’s the same as sitting in traffic, but now you’re sitting in traffic stopping at a lot of places with a lot of other people,” Mandell says.

Along Guadalupe and Lavaca, two major north-south arteries through downtown Austin, long, bendy buses labeled “MetroRapid” have recently joined the chaos that is Austin traffic. The city of Austin’s transportation agency, Capital Metro, rolled out this new line in January* in an effort to get more people out of cars and using public transportation. But the rollout hasn’t gone as expected, calling into question how the agency will handle expanding transportation to meet the fast-growing city’s needs.

Now several months into the project, the line has made hardly a dent in Austin’s traffic problem. Board the fancy new buses at any given time of the day, and rows and rows of sparsely populated seats will likely wait for you.

Over the years, Austinites have voted down bond proposals for expensive light rail projects. So when Capital Metro received a federal grant to be funneled to a cheaper alternative, these new rapid buses seemed like the perfect solution.

The line is supposed to be what public transportation experts call Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. If implemented correctly, they work like an above-ground subway system. They can carry more passengers than traditional buses, stop less frequently, extend yellow lights and have dedicated priority lanes.

MetroRapid only partially meets these requirements, however. It runs along designated bus-only lanes for just part of the route, from MLK to Cesar Chavez (a bus-only lane it shares with other, non-rapid bus routes). For the rest of the route, the buses drive with mixed traffic. And Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s Vice President of Planning, says the agency is still working with the city to “optimize transit signal priority,” i.e. extending yellow lights, for rapid buses.

At any given time of day on the new MetroRapid bus line, rows and rows of sparsely populated seats fill the bus.


At any given time of day on the new MetroRapid bus line, rows and rows of sparsely populated seats fill the bus.

Critics say rolling out these new buses before the project is complete may be a mistake.

“The ridership is not where we want it to be yet, but it’s growing,” Hemingson says. “Every month since we’ve opened, the average daily ridership has increased.”

When MetroRapid opened, it essentially replaced two routes along the same stretch of road. The new rapid option costs more, with less frequent stops, and as a result ridership on the new route has been weak. Comparing average weekday ridership between those two routes and the MetroRapid route (and an additional feeder route) in the spring months between the years 2013 and 2014, ridership has actually fallen 11 percent.

Compare that with the rapid bus results in Eugene, Oregon which launched a BRT system called Emerald Express, EmX, in 2007. Ridership there increased by 50 percent within the first month.

Tom Schwetz, planning and development manager of EmX, says rolling out a complete rapid bus system at the beginning was one of the crucial factors in creating a successful system.

The day EmX was launched, priority lanes were built and designated to the line. And traffic lights were already coordinated with the new buses, Schwetz says.

Capital Metro plans to expand the service by adding another route connecting the shopping mall at The Domain and Westgate and moving traditional buses from the Congress corridor to join the MetroRapid line on the Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor. Hemingson says the service needs about two years to mature for a fair critique.

But Schwetz of EmX says one of the keys to quick success in Eugene was marketing to younger riders.

“Younger generations are not heading into cars like my generation did,” Schwetz says.

The American Public Transportation Association reports that nearly 70 percent of Millennials use multiple travel options more than several times a week. Many of them don’t even own a car.

Those are the same kinds of people who have flocked to Austin in recent years. Mandell, the bus rider at UT, moved to Austin only a couple of years ago. She says she misses the convenience of a well-oiled transportation system.

Transportation experts stress the importance of marketing to young people like 26-year-old Emily Mandell.


Transportation experts stress the importance of marketing to young people like 26-year-old Emily Mandell.

“You don’t have to think about it,” Mandell says. “You just sit there for however long, you zone out, do whatever, and then 30 minutes later you’re where you need to be.”

Hemingson says there’s only so much Capital Metro can do to persuade people to use the service. He says the sprawling nature of Texas’ cities makes public transportation difficult to sell.

But there’s another Texas city that has tried to defy those limitations, Dallas. Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has had success in implementing its services, says Morgan Lyons, a DART representative. Annual ridership on their light rail system increased over 30 percent from 2011 to 2013.

“If I can give you a trip similar to [a car ride], or maybe it’s a little bit longer but it’s time where you can be efficient — where you can text safely, legally, you can check email, you can read — then I think people will look at that,” Lyons says.

In order to get those people interested, he says it’ll take Austin a bit of planning. In Dallas, DART created an intricate web of transportation modes which Lyons says serve different areas throughout the city. Regular buses connect with the city’s light rail line, and residents often ride their bikes to these stops where lines of locker-style bike racks wait for them. Lyons says that as rapid bus service gains more popularity, DART representatives are considering adding the service to their system as well.

Mandell, the millennial waiting for her bus in Austin, says she wants something similar to DART’s urban rail here.

She’ll likely have to wait for a long time. A bond package to partially fund light rail in Austin will likely go before voters in November, which has faced opposition from transit advocates for not serving a dense enough area or replacing enough car traffic.

City officials believe the federal government would cover half of the estimated $1.4 billion cost of the line. Austin would cover the other half, with property tax increases as a result. And even if such a plan passes, it’s not likely the city will have urban rail up and running until the year 2021.

*Clarification: This article has been amended to note that Capital Metro launched the MetroRapid bus service on January 26, 2014, not February 2014 and to include more context about a decline in ridership along the Lamar corridor. 


  • Michael Chaney

    Nothing in this article addresses the hours which the buses run. I don’t understand why CapMetro refuses to run these buses (and MetroRail) during the times rider WANT to ride them, evenings, late night and weekends. Maybe if they ran the transit system during the hours people want to ride for pleasure, rather than just catering to commuters, those riders might choose to ride at other times given then choice.

    • These buses run all day, including late into the night, and on weekends. Your information is incorrect. The reason they have reduced ridership overall is that people already had an express option (101) along with a local option (1), and the change to 801 was just to run a few more expresses at the expense of locals, while making the fare structure (passes, i.e.) incompatible. Turns out most people wanted the locals and didn’t want to switch.

  • This plan was oversold to the public as a “game-changer” by Capital Metro and their shills, but what it really was was a service degradation compared to pre-existing 1/101 service. Yours truly warned about this for years. The lack of ridership boost was easily predictable, but really, again, only yours truly predicted it, and as usual, everybody else listened to the gladhanding coming from Capital Metro.

    Maybe at some point things should change with that, huh? How many times do these guys have to misrepresent things to you before you develop some skepticism and seek out people who have been right in the past?

  • Mark

    I don’t understand the criticisms or the expectations. They clearly wanted to attract new riders. The bus costs more, has completely separate bus stops than the regular routes, and has a dedicated lane through downtown making it faster than driving through downtown traffic. They succeeded in those goals (at the expense of the poor who often can’t even get onto the old route due to overcrowding).

    I see the MetroRapid full during rush hour almost every day. It’s standing room only. Now they’re saying it’s not meeting their goals? That means they expect people to be riding the Rapid to places other than work. They attracted people with cars to a more expensive bus. It’s unrealistic to think they’d be riding that bus at night and in the middle of the day. And it’s unrealistic to think the normal bus riders would be able to switch to this more expensive bus.

    BTW it runs past midnight, it’s just not as frequent at night. I think it’s been a success. I like the Rapid though I think removing a bus from the most crowded line when they started it was a mistake.

    • Mark, it did not attract any new riders. Overall ridership has gone down compared to the previous numbers of the 1/101 (in other words, fewer people; substantially fewer; are riding the 1/801 than used to ride the 1/101).

      And I have NEVER seen a Rapid Bus SRO.

  • dfoster

    The author needs to get her facts straight. Austin voters never said no to a BOND election for rail. Cap Metro voters narrowly voted down a light proposal in 2000 but this would not have requred the sale of any bonds. And this is the only rail referendum that has lost. Commuter rail passed in 2004, and the election to establish Cap Metro way back in the 1980s might also be considered a pro-rail election, since we all thought it would lead to rail service soon.

  • OpedFun

    Cap Metro reduced the number of routes that the more affordable MetroBus served to try and get more income from the MetroRail. MetroRail needs to stop more in order to be more accessible, and it shouldn’t cost anymore than the MetroBus.

  • ohnonononono

    The reason this bus hasn’t done well compared to the routes it replaced is that it provides less service than the routes it replaced. It’s pretty simple.

  • larryxo

    Every time I see one of those laminated notices at a bus stop, I know service is about to be degraded again. Thank you for getting past the CapMetro hype to actually look at this disaster in the making. Metrorapid is an I’ll conceived and poorly executed failure. Efforts to herd riders into these rolling behemoths by restricting options has resulted n flat or declining ridership in a city with explosive population growth and in the process CapMetro has actually accomplished the uncanny feat of making public transit more expensive than driving for a lot of commuters. The notion that adding service to the Domain is gong to boost ridership is laughable and symptomatic of how out of touch CapMetrs leadership is.

    CapMetro is clearly attempting to transform a service b let inner city transit system into a suburban commuter conduit. This magnitude of failure needs to be addressed not with tweaks or adjustments but by epruning from the top.

  • Novacek

    ” Comparing average weekday ridership between those two routes and the MetroRapid route in the spring months between the years 2013 and 2014, ridership has actually fallen 11 percent.”
    What is the source for this comparison? Why is this comparison ignoring the ridership of the 275 (which was part of the replacement for those routes)?

    • See the Chronicle story today. The 275 ridership is included in the figure which amounts to an 11% drop.

      • Novacek

        And what’s the change in ridership of the 201 (which was explicitly expected to pick up riders from the change)? http://www.capmetro.org/metrorapid-what.aspx What’s the change in ridership on all the other routes which overlay the 1?

        • How about first: “I was wrong”. Then we can talk about whether those other routes are significant enough to consider.

          • Novacek

            My statement was wrong, based on the original erroneous article (which explicitly stated that it was the comparison against the metrorapid route singular, not the metrorapid and 275) that was down 11%.

          • Our other conversation included me suggesting that if the 275 were a significant contributor to explaining the ridership drop after the change and were left out, Cap Metro would logically say so. That reasoning still stands with the 201.

            At this point you should perhaps just abandon the idea that the ridership drop was “within the margin of error” and accept the fact that it was significant.

            What I’m seeing here is that you continue to give Capital Metro every benefit of the doubt possible, and never do the same to their critics, even when their critics are the ones who are correct.

          • Novacek

            I’m still waiting for my question to be answered as to what the source of the comparison is? Is it CapMetro adding up the numbers (and only these numbers) and reporting 11 %, or is it the reporter picking these numbers from a table of all routes performance?

            Also, these numbers conflate two different issues: the introduction of the Metrorapid and the 50% fare increase on all express routes (which would have included the 101 if it still existed). We don’t have the ridership numbers of 1L/1M/More expensive 101.

          • I still see you trying to bend over backwards to give Capital Metro the benefit of the doubt. Do they not have their own media people?

            The 101 may or may not have gone up in fares had it continued as it was before. The introduction of Rapid was a huge part of the justification for the fare structure change itself, so we have to take that into account. There’s no logical reason for it to actually have different fares, of course; other transit systems don’t do this nonsense.

  • jaywiziiii

    Great article!!

  • Erica Springer

    This was completely predictable by anyone who actually rides the buses regularly. The new stops are inconvenient and often have less shade. So what if it gets me there ten minutes faster? If I have to walk ten more minutes to get to the bus what’s the point.

  • XenobitPendragon

    Wow, M1Ek’s a dick.

    So it’s clearly not as successful. I hear a bunch of naysaying. I don’t hear a lot of thoughts on how to help the situation.

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