Is MetroRapid signal priority a myth?

StateImpact Texas reported this morning that despite CapMetro cheerleading & billboard campaign, MetroRapid suffered an 11% drop in ridership over last year’s buses on the same route. That’s very disappointing, considering CapMetro CEO Linda Watson described MetroRapid as “somewhere between bus and rail. … It’s smart buses, operating on smart streets, stopping at smart stations,” to the Austin Chronicle in January.

Is the MetroRapid “smart bus” claim bullshit?

One big boast of the MetroRapid 801 rollout was that the buses were equipped with “signal prioritization technology”, which is supposed to hold a green light long enough for a bus behind schedule to make up time. I wish I had a photo of the billboards around town that claim that MetroRail doesn’t catch red lights — because that’s not the case. In fact, there isn’t much evidence that “signal prioritization” does anything, at least not anything that helps you get where you are going faster.

Does CapMetro have data on Signal Priority effectiveness?

First off, signal priority doesn’t hold lights downtown, from the lake to MLK. You catch those red lights. Next, signal prioritization only kicks when a MetroRapid bus is running behind schedule. That might sound reasonable, but MetroRapid doesn’t have a schedule. CapMetro has refused to publish a schedule for MetroRapid, insisting that you just show up look at the sign.

If CapMetro has information on how they determine “behind schedule”, I’m all ears. There’s no way they aren’t tracking that; otherwise, how do you evaluate drivers & service? See how the excuses start piling up? I’ve never noticed that MetroRapid catches more greens that a typical drive, and other riders have similar skepticism:

But there’s a quote in the StateImpact story that seems suspcious (emphasis added):

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s Vice President of Planning, says the agency is still working with the city to “optimize transit signal priority,” i.e. extending yellow lights, for rapid buses.

This sounds to me like it’s not working. Which means that Ms. Watson’s claim of smart buses (aren’t working) on smart streets (sitting in traffic), stopping at smart stations (buses don’t always stop; arrival times can be unreliable) is just more marketing rather than service. MetroRapid isn’t some half-step between bus & rail — it’s a half-step between driving yourself and riding the bus.

Emily Mandell summed this up quite nicely with the first quote in the piece:

“It’s the same as sitting in traffic, but now you’re sitting in traffic stopping at a lot of places with a lot of other people” 

Add in the fact that MetroRapid costs more than local buses — a boneheaded move that results in a rider not knowing if the next bus will cost $1.00 or $1.50 — and it’s no surprise MetroRapid is a big bendy dud.

Update: June 8, 2014
Chris Lazaro from Saving Cities has written about his first MetroRapid experience, and he caught his share of red lights, too. It’s a good write-up.