By Ann Fowler
Just days after ten bus passengers were left without seats for their morning commute to downtown Austin, Capital Metro officials investigated and rectified the situation.
Erica McKewen of Cap Metro told the Gazette that the agency had initially decided to pair up the 7 a.m. #171 (Oak Hill Flyer) with a trip on route #17 starting January 15. The second route required a smaller bus, so the agency switched from a 40-foot bus that seats 40 to a 35-foot bus with seating for 28.
Cap Metro officials had used year-old data to determine that the smaller bus was adequate for the 7 a.m. Oak Hill trip. What the planners had not realized was that the larger bus was often full – or nearly so. The buses used the week of January 16 were not large enough to provide seats for many of the commuters.
Some passengers felt that if a 40-foot bus can maneuver Silvermine Drive in the Scenic Brook neighborhood, it should be able to maneuver any street in Austin. But McKewen responded: “The turning radius for some of the turns on the 17 are just not feasible in a 40-footer, without changes to the road striping and other city-controlled factors. The experience level of the driver can’t correct for that.”
Cap Metro Planner Lawrence Deeter spent the early morning hours of Thursday, January 19, monitoring the Oak Hill buses. He followed the bus from the Park and Ride at 7 a.m., and observed five people standing on the bus as it left its last stop at Old Fredericksburg Road.
Riders from the Scenic Brook and Westcreek neighborhoods — the first and last to embark — wondered why the planner failed to board the bus to talk to them. Responded McKewen: “Lawrence went to the Park and Ride to evaluate ridership so we could correct the problem. He spoke to numerous folks at the Park and Ride, and I’m sure he would have enjoyed talking to the neighborhood folks, too, but his purpose was first and foremost to count riders on this occasion.”
On Friday, the larger 40-foot bus was back for 7 a.m. service. Passengers cheered as the last passengers on the route boarded and were able to find seats for the first time that week. Said McKewen: “We’ve made a change that allows the 7 a.m. trip to be covered by a 40-foot bus for the rest of the service period. I hope ridership on the Oak Hill Flyer continues to grow.”
Riders understood Cap Metro’s attempt for efficiency in pairing up the two routes, but were concerned for the safety of those having to stand for the 20-minute ride on Mopac.
Said Tom Thayer, who catches the bus in the Scenic Brook area, “Pairing up routes for efficiency makes sense, but I would hope they would get good ridership counts before downsizing the bus. There are some 171 runs for which a smaller bus would work just fine, but the 7 a.m. one is usually pretty full — particularly when UT is in session.”
Thayer added: “It is nice that they sent someone out and changed course. I guess that means that ridership on that route is up compared to a year ago — and it will likely go up more if what I am hearing about gas prices is true.”
Some riders expressed added concern that every morning seemed to bring a new driver. In past years the same driver was assigned to a route for about six months. New drivers who are unfamiliar with a route can miss stops in Scenic Brook or bypass the Old Fredericksburg stop.
McKewen said three drivers share the 7 a.m. route, with one driver taking the Monday through Wednesday shift, a different driver takes Thursday and another Friday. She said, “The assignments for the various work schedules for our drivers change each service period. When our schedulers are planning for the service change, they start with a clean slate, and begin to build schedules that take into consideration the available manpower, the number of hours of service we will provide, and other operational factors and the requirements of the bargaining contract. Having multiple drivers for the same trip each week is not an uncommon occurrence—it’s replicated on many routes throughout the system.”
Inexplicably, the smaller bus appeared for the 7 a.m. riders on January 25. The morning’s rain brought out fewer passengers, though, so all riders were able to find seats.
McKewen said, “It is our desire and goal that every Oak Hill rider has a seat. It’s great news that it appears the ridership for the Oak Hill Flyer has increased, at least on that trip—perhaps there are a few more UT riders this semester.”
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