Last week, Capital Metro approved its Connections 2025 draft network plan, which will guide a reimagining of Austin’s public transit system over the next several years. For much of Austin, there’s a lot to like in the new transit plan. It promises a grid-like network of fast and frequent bus routes that will enable seamless, convenient travel anywhere around Austin, not just downtown — seven days a week.
But one feature of the Connections 2025 plan raises my eyebrows. Capital Metro plans to shift buses and resources to provide better service on transit-friendly corridors, but the trade-off is the loss of coverage in outlying neighborhoods that are difficult to access. To fill in the gaps, Connections 2025 proposes replacing traditional bus routes with lower-cost alternatives in “mobility innovation zones,” such as flexible bus routes, car and bicycle sharing and subsidized ride-sharing.
The trouble is that public transit is a lifeline for the people who live in these communities. If we’re getting rid of their buses, we have to be careful that whatever replaces them won’t leave residents stranded.
Flexible bus routes, which deviate on request to make pickups and drop-offs, may sound like a more convenient way to serve passengers. But mass transit is called “mass” for a reason — it’s supposed to serve lots of people, reliably and consistently. Instead of counting on buses to show up at predictable times, travelers on flexible routes must reserve their trips hours in advance.
When METRO in Houston unveiled its redesigned transit network in 2014, it also proposed flexible bus routes to serve low-ridership neighborhoods. The flex service drew harsh criticism from the very communities it was set to serve, and METRO quietly scrapped the idea. If transit-dependent Austinites raise similar concerns — as some Exposition residents already have — it would be unjust to deny them access to dependable bus service and condemn their lifestyles to immobility.
Capital Metro has also suggested bicycle and car sharing programs as solutions to connect people in innovation zones, anchored by “mobility hubs” where transit, taxi, private shuttle and other modes of transportation would converge. But not all transit riders, particularly the most economically disadvantaged, can afford or make use of hip, affluent transportation options like B-Cycle or Car2Go; not everyone can ride a bicycle, and not everyone has a driver’s license. Replacing public bus service with these “alternatives” would only isolate the people that depend on it the most.
It would be especially reckless to replace transit with ride-sharing. Many claim it is pointless to run heavy transit buses when everyone could get around with Uber and Lyft. But ride-sharing alone cannot serve the transit dependent. Unlike buses, private automobiles do not have spaces for wheelchairs. And ride-sharing services require smartphones and Internet subscriptions, luxuries that many who depend on transit do not have.
Connections 2025’s innovation zones may be the key to designing a more efficient transit system, but we have to recognize that such innovation does not always benefit everyone. For the poor, elderly, and those with disabilities, the loss of bus service may not be “innovation” but rather isolation. An inclusive and diverse Austin starts with an inclusive transportation system. The innovation zones could work, but Capital Metro should tread lightly. We may discover that, for all the attention given to the rise of the sharing economy, sometimes the old ways work better.
Young is a computer science junior from Bakersfield, California.