Carless and Hopeful: Public Transportation in Austin

I sold my car a month ago.  I sold it for a variety of reasons,  not the least of which being that I feel pretty comfortable with public transportation. Even though I’ve had a car since I was 16 years old, I’m an Atlanta transplant, and Atlanta has a successful rail system and a pretty expansive bus system (called MARTA) that compliments the rail stops nicely – so many people who do have vehicles still use public transportation fairly regularly.  When I made the decision to go carless, I knew Austin’s public transportation system was not perfect, but I also know that the more people who use it, the more quickly and comprehensively the necessary growth will occur. Since the rail isn’t fully functional yet, I’ve been using only the Dillo and the buses (and my walkin’ shoes!).  My experience thus far can be summed up in two words: Walking and Waiting.

Walking (and the Dillo). I’m lucky. I live and work in downtown Austin, so for most of my day to day needs, such as groceries and drug store items, I’ll simply walk to the downtown Austin CVS on 6th and Congress or take the Dillo to Whole Foods on Lamar. Since I can do this once every couple of days, I don’t have to buy too much at one time and my purchases aren’t too much to carry. I’m very lucky that I a) don’t have to buy for a large family, b) live and work in downtown Austin and I have some options that are fairly convenient to me.  Lots of people outside of the urban Austin core do not have the Dillo and often do not have many (if any) neighborhood services close by. Walking is great for me, but only because I can schedule my errands to where I don’t have to be in too much of a time crunch and to where it’s acceptable if I get a little sweaty and less presentable.  For those who don’t have nearby living/working situations, and have to arrive at work in heels with the expectation of looking clean and fresh, and with the expectation of being on time….well, walking may not always be an attractive option.  That’s where our bus system should come in.

Waiting. I like the actual busses themselves. They are clean, air-conditioned, and many have wi-fi available.  The problems I’ve experienced come more from time considerations and the bus-stops.  Although I find the stop locations fairly acceptable in terms of getting to the places I need to go (at least in Central/East Austin), the unfortunate reality is that they only come around each stop about once an hour (Atlanta is on a 15-20 minute schedule. Although I realize Atlanta is a much larger city, I just have to point this out because it seems to make all the difference in the world).  And since the schedules aren’t exact with the actual bus arrivals, it’s very easy to miss your scheduled bus and be forced to wait an additional hour to ride.  And God help you if you have to transfer buses, because for every transfer, your travel time and your chances of missing your scheduled bus seem to multiply exponentionally. And while I recognize that the bus-stops need to be sleek and discreet in terms of their look and feel in order to blend in with their surroundings, I think EVERY bus stop should have at least one covered bench.  Standing in the heat of the day (or the rain or any other inclement weather) for an hour or MORE waiting for your bus is NO FUN and certainly would deter those who have other options at their disposable.

I can’t wait until the rail is up and running, because I know the public transportation options will increase dramatically, even with the comparatively limited route the rail will travel.  I don’t think rail is going to eliminate the need for a strong bus system in Austin, however, and the reality is that the only way we’re going to see improvement and progress is to increase ridership so that officials know that this really is an important issue for each and every demographic in the city. And public transit is important to everyone, at least that’s what everybody keeps saying. I hear a lot of urbanites talking the talk, but I don’t see many of them walking the walk (or riding the bus).

Buy a bus pass, ride the Dillo.

-Amber Gugino

About amber gugino

Amber Gugino loves living downtown and has been an active board member of the The Shore Condo Owners Association, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and member of the Junior League of Austin. She adores her dog, Blog, and she learns something new about downtown Austin every day.

Comments

  1. Rob, your post is interesting, but out of context, because where you live can influence views on the utility of cars. What part of Austin do you live?

  2. Yeah, Rob, while I think people are being very naive about the Red Line, don’t oversell the ‘freedom’ of the 1-car-per-driver American lifestyle. I was a hell of a lot happier with the extra money when we only needed 1 car (we went to Hawaii 2 of our 3 1-car years, by the way; every time I look at the 2nd car now I see the beach I missed out on last year).

  3. Obviously our culture has been built around cars. It may seem weird to not own a car, but it’s hardly impractical. It’s simply the results of enculturation.

    I’ve switched to being a one car family. I really enjoy having an extra $500 in my pocket each month. If we both need to go some where one of us takes the bus, takes a taxi, or rents a car. Even a very long taxi ride is much cheaper than gas and a car payment.

    Public transit for me is either:

    1) A pleasant way to get somewhere without dealing with the hassles of traffic and parking (see ACLfest, Trail of Lights, etc.)
    2) A way to translate my commute into productive time. Even though my commute was 15 minutes longer by bus (when I could commute by bus), I much preferred it because I could get work done on the bus, or read a book. Commuting in a car even if it is faster, seems like a bigger waste of time for me because you can’t get anything done.*

    * I realize some people listen to books on tape during their commute, but that doesn’t have the relaxation factor for me.

  4. Thank you Amber. Your post has done more to dissuade me from riding the city bus than has all of the riff-raff I see waiting (and waiting, and waiting apparently) at the bus stops as I roll past in my cold and on-time POV.

    I think not owning a car (when you can afford to own one, but simply choose not to), especially here in Texas, is just…well…weird.

    It’s such a needlessly limiting lifestyle. But if not having the freedom to come and go wherever (and that includes beyond the reach of public transportation) and whenever you want or need to…if that makes you feel better, then by all means…please.

    • Two words: “Austin CarShare” (www.austincarshare.org)

      In those rare instances where the bus won’t do, the CarShare will take care of it. Not owning a vehicle is not a “weird” concept at all.

  5. Re-reading, not as clear as I would like.

    Successful plan: Build urban rail that goes fast in the suburbs and transitions to the street in the core, going straight ‘up the gut’: Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake, Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, (soon) Seattle, etc.

    Failure plan: Run trains on existing largely unmodified track to stations outside the core destination areas; require shuttlebuses to distribute passengers (if they didn’t mind the bus, there’s already good bus service from those very same park-and-rides): first shown by Tri-Rail in South Florida; about to be tried here on the Red Line.

  6. Paul, yes, Austin isn’t Chicago, which is why the requirement to transfer is a killer here but not necessarily there (in cities like Chicago and New York, it turns off a large minority of commuters, but there’s still substantial enough numbers remaining to make the service worthwhile; in a city where driving and parking is still as easy as it is _here_, the people who can afford to drive but don’t mind transfers are vanishingly small in number).

    Since the urban rail renaissance kicked off by Portland, cities that lacked passenger rail service that then have tried to start with commuter rail rather than urban rail (light rail like Dallas and Houston and Portland and Denver and Salt Lake and Minneapolis) have universally failed to generate any ridership or additional momentum for urban rail later on, especially when the commuter service doesn’t even truly penetrate downtown (as ours doesn’t).

    And, once again, the one truly great urban rail line here (the 2000 LRT route which follows the basic outline of all those successful light rail cities) is precluded by the implementation of the Red Line, so even if going back later on and building urban rail was an option, the best option is now gone – we’re left with a very distant second-best choice of the CAMPO TWG plan, which has severe flaws compared to most successful light rail starts. Try the blog sometime; please. I’ve only been covering this for 5 years now.

  7. I call BS.. The starter line is just that.. A start. It doesn’t reach enough of the city’s commuters yet, but you need to start somewhere. It is needed.

    In Chicago, where I’m from, I would always take a commuter line into downtown for work or whatnot. There were many of them to choose from. It was *always* packed to the gills. (No, this isn’t Chicago, but again, you’ve got to start somewhere.) Then, to get to my final destination, I would hop on the El Train (in the city train), take a bus, or walk to where I wanted to go. That system works just fine.

    And as Jude mentions. The buses need to run more often. I live downtown and currently take the bus to work. If I ever miss it, it is *really* damn annoying that I have to wait 40 minutes until the next one comes. In a city with a good bus system or local downtown train system, you don’t check the freaking schedule, you just go to the stop knowing that another bus/train will be there in no time.

    We need street cars or light rail downtown to complement the commuter rail lines (hopefully, more get added soon). Personally, for the local downtown travel, I’d like to see a grid of street cars.. They should run in 10-15 minute intervals. (no need to worry about the damn schedule) Have them run up and down the Lamar, Guadalupe/Lavaca/S. First, Congress, maybe Red River corridoors. Then have east west routes running across the Oltorf, Barton Springs/Riverside, maybe Ceasar Chavez, 5th/6th street corridoor, 11th/15th, MLK, and maybe 35th and 45th street corridors.. Or something similar. Extend as necessary. And east of I-35. With that, you’d be able to go *anywhere* very easily. And you would see some dense growth. Everybody would want to live within “The Grid”.

  8. Yeah, I wish my bus actually went on Sunday. We always come up with great family events downtown to go to and then remember the bus doesn’t run.
    We definitely need more frequency. I think more frequency and higher gas prices would mean far more riders than a train ever could.

  9. avatar Peter Smith says:

    Bus transportation is beneath human dignity, and should not be tolerated. I don’t blame people for not taking the bus — I don’t, either. Walk, bike, rail, ferry, etc. — those are all respectable ways to travel. Comfortable. Clean. Timely.

    There are things that can be done to make bus travel less horrific, but I’d rather see it phased out completely in favor of dignified forms of transit.

    • While I completely disagree with you that bus travel is “beneath human dignity” – your point is well taken in that I’d love to be without automobiles/busses as much as possible over the long-term, too. I don’t think that’s realistic today or anytime real soon, though – so in the meantime, let’s improve what we got and make it work for more people so people can reliably and comfortably begin to be amenable to the concept of using mass transit instead of personal vehicles in general. I don’t believe boycotting or degrading the system is the right move at this time – it’s an existing (i.e. – won’t take years to permit and build like new rails) system that needs attention so it can be more user-friendly to more people, which will help mold people’s opinions about mass transit overall, allowing Austin to, over time as better public transit systems are created and built, phase out the less efficient modes of mass transit in favor of what you refer to as more “dignified” forms.

      I think Jude’s point about improving retail mix/neighborhood services’ proximity to residences (a town-center model) would be an avenue to help phase busses out in general, as well, but that will take time and a major attitude adjustment from many Austin residents.

      • Amber, if I thought that there was even a small chance that the starter line could be part of a system that actually worked, I wouldn’t have spent the last 5 years talking about the contrary position. Have you ever read my blog? Far from being a ‘start’, the Red Line actually prevents us from ever building the one really good urban rail line possible in this city – the kind of line that cities succeed with.

        One of my colleagues on the UTC at the time put it quite well: the wrong “starter” line can end up being a “finisher”, as it was in South Florida with Tri-Rail (a line with similar severe flaws in understanding how few choice commuters are willing to tolerate shuttlebuses every day).

  10. The other side of the transportation coin is improving the retail mix within close proximity of dense residential neighborhoods, like downtown Austin.

    When will the commercial brokers step up and entice a Super Target to absorb 50k+ square feet of Congress Avenue real estate?

  11. Where do you think you’re going to be able to go on the Red Line anyways? Reverse commute support (i.e. starting from downtown) is highly limited, and the stations farther out don’t have shuttle service (a couple of them have local bus service with long headways).

    For instance, a trip to the Domain “on the Red Line” would involve a walk of around a mile from the station out on Kramer – and that’s not a nice walk like you get downtown, either – it’s a joyless trudge through ditches and a few sidewalks with no shade and lots and lots of high-speed traffic wondering what you’re doing out there. Or, maybe, waiting half an hour for a bus that’ll then take 10 minutes to drop you off on Braker, another uncomfortable 10-15 minute walk from the actual destination.

    This isn’t light rail, like Dallas and Houston got; this is commuter rail, and will always be commuter rail even when it runs more often. Keep that in mind, please.

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