by Ann Fowler
AUSTIN – For many local commuters, it’s a given that Oak Hill needs reliable bus service. With increasing congestion at the ‘Y,’ every rider on the bus means one less car on the road. But a dramatic increase in fares combined with decreasing service to local neighborhoods has driven some former riders back into their cars.
A new route, South Mopac Flyer, Route 111, has turned many Circle C commuters into bus riders. Riders on previously existing routes are disappointed that Capital Metro does not help grow ridership by marketing to existing routes.
Last year, a 31-day bus pass on the Flyers cost $30. Capital Metro decided to change the buses from “local” to “premium” with a significant increase for the monthly fare: to $49.50. It will go up another $12.50 a month next year.
Local complaints are many. Downtown stops have been changed or eliminated with almost no advance notice. Add to that the ping-pong location of the park and ride location back and forth across the ‘Y’ and you have commuters complaining over lack of consistency and communication from the transit agency.
Amy Peck, Communications Specialist with Capital Metro, says commuters need to let the transit agency know when things go awry.
Recent changes downtown include re-routing most buses to Lavaca and Guadalupe—complete with bus lanes designed to speed up transit. However, as buses follow one another down the special bus lanes, the slick new MetroRapid 801 bus ends up poking along as it follows local buses that stop much more frequently—making the commute not quite as fast as had been hoped.
Ying Hong used to be a fixture on the Oak Hill Flyer, but says she has not taken the bus often lately. To get to her workplace she needs to change buses, which takes up to two hours for a one-way commute. The increase in fare on a bus ride that takes twice as long as driving makes car and public transit cost about the same. Hong now fails to see any advantage to being an Oak Hill bus commuter.
Hong adds, “To be fair, the rate is not high compared with many other cities. But Austin is relatively small. The commute from Oak Hill to downtown, to most people, is about 12 to 15 miles. The bus is too slow to make it worth the $3.”
Xiaoyan (pronounced Cheyanne) Dai agrees. “The increasing cost from $30 to $50 is too much at one time. It does not make much sense at all. And it will be increased next year. It is not much difference for me to drive or to ride in terms of cost.”
Dai’s downtown stop was recently eliminated due to construction at the UT tennis courts. Commuters can disembark either three blocks earlier or three blocks later. Said Dai, “I do have problems with the elimination of the stop at Trinity and 18th.” She adds that her co-worker recently had knee surgery and finds the added three blocks difficult to maneuver.
Asks Sylvia Myler, “What has Capital Metro done for me besides raised my rates from $30 to $50? They moved the 171 Oak Hill Flyer afternoon pickup from 4th and Guadalupe to 6th and Guadalupe—although they call it 5th and Guadalupe, it is closer to 6th street.” Myler points out that the two bus stops on Guadalupe between 4th and 5th Streets have seating and plenty of shade while the stop for the Oak Hill flyer has neither.
However, those who use that stop were delighted this week to see Capital Metro moved the stop a half a block away—complete with bus bench and shade.
Still, Myler complains that the transit agency has recently switched the stop several times, making it stressful to catch her afternoon ride home. “Half of the time I’m running back and forth from 6th street to 4th street due to the construction and when calling Capital Metro I’m told I need to go back to 6th Street.”
Myler said, “One day there’s a temporary sign on Guadalupe between Second and Third streets which is closer for me to walk—it is also shaded. Then the next day the sign is gone so I have to run back to 6th Street waving the bus driver down. If it weren’t for my afternoon bus buddies, the driver would have missed me. This happened a couple of times.”
Janine Lyckman agrees that the disappearing “temporary” stops are confusing and frustrating. She said, “The changing of the pickup locations on Guadalupe has and continues to cause confusion when they close a stop without communicating it properly to their riders.”
The stop at San Antonio and Second Street—one of the last stops out of downtown—is closed due to construction. The stop serves Routes 3, 111 and 171. Commuters complain that, although the stop is no longer there, buses continue to zig-zag to the location instead of going directly down Guadalupe to Cesar Chavez.
Some Oak Hill commuters believe the direct route would be quicker, and might allow for a stop at 2nd Street, but Peck from Capital Metro disagrees. She said, “During the late afternoon/evening peak, traffic along Guadalupe can back up from Cesar Chavez to 4th Street. With Routes 3, 111 and 171, we take advantage of the turn movement in order to avoid sitting in stalled traffic, making it back to Oak Hill sooner.”
Lyckman also wonders what she is getting for Capital Metro’s increased fare. She said, “My concerns are they have increased our rates, however we have not and continue to not see any changes or benefits to our commute. The premium service is not consistent as advertised to include Wi-Fi—our 3:40 pm bus does not regularly have the Wi-Fi capabilities or comfortable seating as our morning route offers.”
Lyckman added, “The communication to the drivers is still sparse if any at all, not updating their trip sheets about detours and alternate pick up locations.”
Another daily commuter complained that she has had to stand at the front of the bus on multiple occasions to direct the driver so that her stop is not missed. This rider said the bus drivers do not have instructions to take the U.S. 290 West frontage road to drop off passengers near Old Fredericksburg Road—although it is the designated route for some of the buses.
Peck said, “A number of new operators have recently undergone training. All operators are required to learn all routes before leaving training. In addition, during the first few days of the new service, our training staff was available to offer assistance and answer questions. If our customers encounter an example of a bus operator not knowing where to go, we encourage them to notify us immediately at 512-474-1200 and provide the details of what happened so we can provide additional training to the operator.”
Such training was needed recently for a morning driver who stopped the bus on Cesar Chavez for what he considered a timed stop. After several minutes, passengers protested about the delay, pointing out there are no timed stops downtown on the morning commute. When the bus finally continued, it was too late for passengers who needed to make connections to other buses.
Said Peck, “This is not a timed stop that needs to be adhered to. It has been standard practice for several years, and noted in all public literature and driver instructions that, ‘after departing Oak Hill Park & Ride, make best time.’ We can look into a customer’s experience if we have additional details like the date, trip time, description of the operator, etc.”
The Oak Hill Park and Ride facility has been temporarily moved from William Cannon and U.S. 290 West to the ACC Pinnacle campus during construction of the continuous flow intersection. Many, but not all, of the Flyers detour up William Cannon to Escarpment to Convict Hill, adding five minutes or so to the commute. Some buses go directly up U.S. 290 West to the ACC entrance at Convict Hill.
Explains Peck, “Our 40-foot buses, used by the Flyer routes, have a difficult time turning into Pinnacle, especially during the later afternoon/evening when students and staff are exiting. Route 333 operates with a smaller bus and does not experience the same issues when making the turn. We are working closely with the site superintendent and will return to regular operation when work in this section allows us to do so.”
The time added to the detour has been an issue for those needing to transfer to the 333. Some of the Flyer drivers will stop along Escarpment to allow passengers to disembark, others will not. Peck said, “We typically allow passengers to disembark for local stop routes. Flyers, however, determine this on a case-by-case basis; safety and a variety of other things are considered.”
The inconsistency of whether stops are recognized on detours has been problematic for some Oak Hill commuters, as it can mean an added 30-minute wait if a transfer is missed.
According to Capital Metro, the Park and Ride facility will move back to its location at William Cannon and U.S. 290 West once construction of the continuous flow intersection is complete. That is good news to some, but not for others.
Said Lyckman, “I love our ACC Park and Ride and do not look forward to being moved back to William Cannon and 290. With the riders I have spoken with, all enjoy our ACC Park and Ride as it provides a safe location, conveniently located to allow safe departure from the Park and Ride with the traffic lights at U.S. 290 West and enough room to handle the 150 plus cars that park there every day.”
Keeping 150 cars out of the congested intersection at the ‘Y’ is a good thing—but it leaves no convenient accommodations for those who live north of the ‘Y’ —like Jane Osterhout, who told the Gazette, “I no longer take the bus to work because the bus stop at ACC is very inconvenient for me. I believe that many of the riders who get on at ACC live in Dripping Springs, so I don’t think they pay taxes to Capital Metro. I live in Austin and pay Capital Metro taxes. If the City of Austin wants to reduce traffic on the major highways and Capital Metro wants to increase ridership, they need to provide Park and Ride locations convenient to Austin residents.”
Several Westcreek neighborhood transit riders now drive to work. The four morning stops were slashed to two, leaving some to drive to the Park and Ride to catch the bus at more convenient times. But then the facility moved 10 minutes south, taking away any semblance of convenience.
Most local commuters agree Oak Hill needs mass transit, but they need reliable mass transit, and say that they hope Capital Metro is listening.
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