Super quick thoughts on Austin Metro Rapid bus: Day 1, Ride 1

It’s important to note that Metro Rapid has serious shortcomings. However, today was the grand roll-out of the first leg of Cap Metro’s much ballyhooed Metro Rapid service. Below are my notes from the trip from Crestview to Downtown. This isn’t a review of the whole system, which has its own bigger issues, just quick & dirty thoughts I had on a quick trip downtown.

Austin Metro Rapid 801 bus

Austin Metro Rapid 801 bus

Southbound 801. Depart Crestview Station.

One woman at the stop was excited for Metro Rapid. Another rider at the stop was curious, but pretty indifferent. The 801 said arrival in 4 minutes on the board, and it was close. Maybe a minute or two over, because it said “Arriving” when we could see the bus at the light at Anderson & Lamar. I also wish Cap Metro would drop the dumbshit “Thank you for choosing Cap Metro” and “If you see something, say something” crawls on the schedule boards. Just give the schedule and important announcements.

I bought my Day Pass with the new iPhone app. Buying tickets was straight forward, albeit limited, because you can only buy passes. You purchase, then activate. It gives you a warning that if you activate now, you have to use it in 20 minutes. That’s a helpful warning for those with itchy activation fingers.

Bus arrives, I go to the third door and hop on. Had my app ready with QR code, held it under the scanner and it gave a beep. I chose my seat. I noticed passengers down line that tried to hold the phone up facing the scanning device. It has a sign, but this is all new to everyone. A man and two young teens, seemed to have a little confusion on using two passes for two riders, and not getting them mixed up, but they eventually figured it out.

Hyde Park Station

The busiest station I saw. 801 picked up 6-8 riders here. Probably half used the app.

What about the red light doohickey?

One of the most touted features of Metro Rapid is that the buses have the ability to hold a green light a few extra seconds. On a light Sunday morning before noon, this wasn’t a rigorous test, but it shows a perception problem for Cap Metro. Namely, people aren’t paying enough attention. They hear that Metro Rapid can catch all the green lights (which isn’t the case), so each successive light could build frustration. You could say this isn’t fair to Cap Metro, since they can only hold a green, they can’t magically change all the lights whenever, but Cap Metro set this expectation. And that was dumb.

Here’s the red lights I caught between Crestview Station and Republic Square Park (9 stops)

  1. Lamar & Guadalupe at the Triangle
  2. Guadalupe at 45th
  3. Guadalupe at 27th
  4. Guadalupe at MLK — Edit: Jace Deloney pointed out that signal prioritization isn’t used on the route between Cesar Chavez and MLK, so as not to disrupt east-west traffic flow.

On the northbound trip from Lavaca at 8th (8 stops), we caught red lights at:

  1. Lavaca at 11th, which I saw change to yellow. I don’t know if the driver forgot about the button, or we were too far away. — Edit: as pointed out above, this light doesn’t have signal prioritization
  2. Lavaca at MLK
  3. Guadalupe at 30th, and there was no car in front of us. Again, not sure if the button was used.
  4. Guadalupe at 45th (again)

Northbound 801 from Lavaca at 8th to Crestview Station

The driver didn’t open the back two sets of doors. I walk back up to the front door, he lets me in. I show him the app, because the instructions say the driver has to see the color change to show it charged. He said I have to use the scanners at the back two doors to use the app. I politely told him they never opened, he apologized, and I clicked my pass to red and took a seat just ahead of the accordion.

I knew where I was getting off, but I wanted to glance at the map. The only map was in the very front and the very back, which I couldn’t see from the middle 80% of the bus. This was also a problem southbound. Riders were getting up to go look at the map, because they aren’t accessible.

When looking for the system map, it occurred to me that the ads/promos/maps were only on one side of the bus. If you were sitting on the right side, there was nothing to to reference. If you were on the left, you had some idea of where important information was.

Austin Metro Rapid bus wayfinding signs

Austin Metro Rapid bus wayfinding signs

Austin Metro Rapid bus poor accessibility

Austin Metro Rapid bus’ lack of wayfinding on half the bus means poor accessibility. Also note the stop button on the post.

Metro Rapid’s “Premium Level of Service”

Cap Metro is quick to counter any criticism of Metro Rapid with pleas to a Premium Level of Service. That’s mainly to justify the 50% cost increase over local bus service, but it’s trotted out whenever they need an out. In no particular order:

  • The buses are big. Noticeably bigger inside than a normal bus. They also feel wider, but I’m not sure if they are or not. And my Google is broken.
Inside the 801 Metro Rapid Bus

Inside the 801 Metro Rapid Bus

  • Three doors is nice. You can hop on at the back while the lady in camo Crocs and rainbow socks fumbles with her coin purse.
  • The stop request buttons aren’t as noticeable or accessible as a typical bus There are red STOP buttons on some of the metal poles (see the photo of missing wayfinding signs above), and some on the wall behind seats. There isn’t a cord you yank from anywhere on the bus. On my southbound trip, I had to change seats to be next to a stop button. How this will work if they get crowded, I don’t know.
  • The dedicated bus lanes downtown are a good start. They were clear — except we got stuck behind a bike approaching Wooldridge Square. This is an observation, and not anti-bike at all. In fact, it becomes even more important for the city to keep bike lanes adequate and clear, so people on bikes don’t have to move over into the bus lane.
  • Wifi works. I just ran a couple speed tests is all. I didn’t hit any annoying splash screens or anything.
Wifi on Metro Rapid, test 1

Wifi on Metro Rapid, test 1

 

Wifi on Metro Rapid, test 2

Wifi on Metro Rapid, test 2

 

  • The new Cap Metro app is worthless. Fumbling with a Google Map in a frame is pointless. “Find Stops Near Me” missed stops I knew existed. This is a whole separate post, but it really wasn’t good at anything other than ticketing, which was easy enough.
  • Travel time from Lavaca at 10th to Crestview Station at Lamar & Justin was 19:30. Not bad, but it was a Sunday. Weekdays will be interesting to see. The 1 would take 30-35 minutes to cover the same ground with all the local stops.
  • On a significant safety note, when I was waiting for the walk sign at Lamar and Airport, I saw the 801 waiting for the red light to change. It was behind 2-3 cars, and its back end was completely over the rail tracks. I don’t know if the driver got caught by the red, and if you know that intersection, you know it happens, but on a weekday when there are Metro Rail trains running — or a Sunday freight train — that could be a devastating accident.

My big fear: Even more segregation in Austin

This was a short trip on a not-at-all-busy Sunday, which was also the first day of service for the 801. However, I noticed a stark lack of diversity on Metro Rapid buses. I deeply hope that Metro Rapid’s “Premium Level of Service” doesn’t create a bus service for people who don’t want to be near “bus people” or people who don’t live and work with them: namely, people of color and people of poverty. Unfortunately, and I hope to write a post on this soon, Cap Metro’s packaging of services isn’t doing much to calm those fears. Austin is already segregated; we don’t need public transit services digging trenches even deeper.