SXSW showcases Cap Metro reliability issues around Austin

Heading into SXSW 2014, Capital Metro had three big features to show off: a more mature MetroRail; the Official Cap Metro app with mobile ticketing; and the new MetroRapid service.

I used Cap Metro for Thursday and Friday of the music week, and it was a terribly disappointing show for people using Austin’s transit services. I expected delays and hiccups. An event of this size and duration is going to throw a wrench in things; however, the duration should give you time to react, adjust and reallocate to handle the demands on the system.

Packed Metro Rail trains leave Austinites behind at SXSW

Metro Rail will post record numbers of passengers, but that’s only part of the story. In fact, trains were so overloaded coming from the suburbs of Lakeline and Leander, that you couldn’t board mid-day trains at Crestview. They were all full. Another person I talked to tried to board at Howard. Couldn’t do it.

Not only that, but there were accounts of Cap Metro representatives telling people waiting for the train that late night northbound trains wouldn’t stop until Lakeline and Leander. Turns out, that wasn’t true, but they were telling this discourage riders trying to get home in the city, some of whom had been waiting on the platform, some for hours.

Or, some people paid for tickets, but couldn’t get on the train:

Not to mention, that even with generous 30 minute headways, Metro Rail was never on time:

I fully expect Cap Metro to sound the trumpets at all their amazing ridership numbers, but this was a terrible experience for riders in the city. Metro Rail wasn’t an option.

The Cap Metro App is worthless

I wanted the Official Cap Metro app to be a winner. I don’t ride transit every day, but I like the flexibility of being able to buy tickets or a pass when I want, board my bus or train and not have to fuss with singles or coins or a pass I left in my jacket or whatever. Unfortunately, since the app just serves up Google Maps and the website — not even optimized for mobile, and totally unusable when data networks are bogged down at SXSW — the only useful feature was the mobile ticketing.

During SXSW, however, the mobile ticketing function totally shit the bed. Or maybe it shit the bed a while ago, and Cap Metro has just been rolling around in it.

Since the MetroRail was full, I am fortunate enough to walk 50 yards to a MetroRapid stop. I had already purchased the Commuter Pass, so according to the Cap Metro website, I should be able to use the Premium-level MetroRapid.

Cap Metro says a Commuter Day pass works on Metro Rapid, but the app doesn't work

Cap Metro says a Commuter Day pass works on Metro Rapid, but the app doesn’t work

Invalid Ticket. I scanned the QR code again. Invalid Ticket. Third time? Invalid ticket. I thought maybe I had made a mistake, and quickly purchased a Premium Day Pass. Invalid Ticket. Invalid Ticket.

I gave up and took my seat. My wife had the exact same problem. On Friday, the train was full again. When I went to the MetroRapid stop, I tried the Premium Pass from the day before. It worked on the first scan.

On Friday, a group of four guys got on the bus around UT. The first one actually had the scan work, and surprisedly gasped, “Holy shit, it worked!” to his friends. Of the four, three worked, and one was still S.O.L.

MetroRapid “Real Time” arrival data is bullshit

From Cap Metro’s MetroRapid page:

Digital signage at every MetroRapid station takes the guesswork out of traveling, showing you the exact wait time until your ride arrives.

This isn’t true. I can give you a swing of a few minutes, especially during heavy capacity of SXSW. The problem is, “real time arrival data” either is or it isn’t. On Friday, we arrived at the northbound stop at 4th & Lavaca. The sign said the next bus was in 32 minutes. It showed up 5 minutes later. That’s a pleasant surprise, but not within the margin of error.

In those 5 short minutes, two women hailed a cab, and another group walked to a stop for the 1 bus — and they watched the Metro Rapid pass them a few minutes later.

Dan Keshet, who writes Austin On Your Feet, encountered a sign that said 22 minutes, but the MetroRapid passed him on foot three minutes later. I absolutely agree with him that no information is better than bad information. Unfortunately, the signage is one of the few perks Cap Metro can point to that differentiates MetroRapid, a “Premium” service from local bus service. They need to get this working.

The only reason I stayed at that stop was because the Transit app said the next bus was coming in 7 minutes. I figured it was worth a shot. Cap Metro’s own “real time” data isn’t as reliable as a 3rd party app. Plus, Cap Metro refuses to publish schedules for MetroRapid:

Cap Metro refuses to publish MetroRapid schedules. Wonder why it's late?

Cap Metro refuses to publish MetroRapid schedules. Wonder why it’s late?

And the scanner didn’t work again. At least I had receipts if I needed them.

Cap Metro forsakes its biggest fish — The Choice Rider

Cap Metro seems to be upping their marketing & promo game, but they are missing the point. The best marketing you can have is a great product. All the commercials and billboards and on-board signage in the world isn’t going to make your transit system reliable. And if you can’t give people reliable service — they will drive, and it will take you a long time to get them back. No one wants to pay to be stranded.

Cap Metro probably broke records for riders during SXSW 2014. But they also broke records for Austin farepayers stuck trying to find another way home from across town when cabs are few & far between.

This is a major problem, because Cap Metro keeps insisting on making big plays for “choice riders”. MetroRail is commuter rail for choice riders. MetroRapid is a fancier bus they try to sell as urban rail, so that choice riders won’t have to sit next to [Mad Libs unsavory adjectives] bus people. The tourists will ride again, in a year. The much sought-after local choice riders screwed with unreliable service and a broken app won’t ride again for some time.