Bus rapid transit: glamorous but ineffective

Drew Finke

Students who rely on the 1, 3 and 101 bus routes to get to and from campus will be able to take advantage of improved bus services in about two years’ time, according to an announcement made by Capital Metro earlier this month. During a press conference downtown, officials from Capital Metro and the Federal Department of Transportation announced funding for Metro’s long-awaited rapid bus system, which is intended to provide faster service along the city’s two most popular bus routes.

The transit agency has branded the service “MetroRapid,” but despite its name, the $47.6-million project is unlikely to yield much significant improvement in travel times according to the agency’s own projections. Students who use the existing 101 route, which will be replaced by MetroRapid service, will see no more than an 11-percent improvement on existing travel times and, in some cases, no improvement whatsoever.

Rapid bus systems have been used in cities worldwide, most famously in Curitiba, Brazil, where buses run in dedicated lanes physically separated from slower-moving automobile traffic. Systems like Curitiba’s provide faster service by separating buses form traffic and ensuring that higher-capacity buses don’t get bogged down among single-occupant cars and trucks during rush hour. The system proposed for Austin includes dedicated bus lanes only on portions of the routes that pass through downtown. Because of this, it is unlikely to provide the same level of service as that enjoyed by passengers in Brazil.

The new MetroRapid buses, which will be nearly twice as long as the buses the agency currently uses, will have capacity for 118 passengers per bus and are expected to carry more than 20,000 passengers per day between the two new lines. Despite the buses’ high capacity, most of the two routes will take place in lanes shared with private vehicles carrying two or fewer passengers per car. During rush hour, full buses will compete for space on the street with single-occupant cars. The stoplight prioritization technology meant to improve travel times will provide minimal utility in the gridlocked traffic that forms every weekday evening on Guadalupe and Lamar.

Much of the faster travel times trumpeted by Capital Metro are gained from marginal increases in boarding speed, and a reduced number of stops when compared to bus lines that already exist along the new service’s route. Bus stations that are elevated slightly above curb height will provide easier boarding, and passengers with prepaid fare cards, such as a university ID, will be allowed to enter at any of the bus’ three doorways, reducing crowding at the station and at the front of the bus.

These improvements will provide a more sophisticated and convenient transit experience that will no doubt be welcomed by existing bus riders at the University. Though any improvement to the city’s busiest bus routes is to be applauded, a more fundamental reconsideration of priorities along the city’s key transportation corridors will be necessary in order to accommodate population growth.

Increasing density in the city center, including the University area, will make single-occupant car trips impractical and unnecessary. Though Austin is not yet an easy place to get along without a car, an emphasis on high-capacity transportation systems could change this. Austin’s high 2.8-percent growth rate will necessarily transform the city, and as more people fight for space on city streets, it will be more efficient to give road space to a bus or train carrying more than 100 passengers than to an equivalent number of lower-capacity automobiles carrying significantly fewer people.

The generation of students currently in high school and college has proven reluctant to embrace a car-centric way of life, and are driving less and buying fewer cars than generations before them. Some analysts even suggest that the US is experiencing “peak car,” a phenomenon whereby car ownership and vehicle miles travel cease to grow. As the driving force behind this trend, students must insist that transportation authorities prioritize high-capacity public transit over low-capacity personal automobiles. Though MetroRapid will make riding the bus more glamorous, dedicated transit lanes along the majority of its route could provide improvements that would make a more meaningful difference in the schedules and lives of students who, by necessity or choice, rely on public transportation to get around the city.

Finke is an urban studies and architecture senior.