How can we maximize transit ridership and decrease reliance on cars?

Effective community-based planning is an essential first step to increasing transit ridership and reducing Austin’s reliance on motor vehicles. The focus should begin with the transit sheds already in place or

those that have potential in the near term to produce adequate transit ridership numbers. Examples include the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, as well as developing routes such as a recently discussed Rundberg/Dove Springs line, which offers the potential to address job access and equity for high-needs areas.

To be successful, transit planning must:

  • Integrate the community into the visioning and planning process with authentic input from all stakeholders. A major failure of the most recent light rail election was the planners’ rejection of community input and lack of focus on serving the people that live here now, which undoubtedly contributed to its defeat at the polls.
  • Produce actionable programs to address potential displacement of low-income and working families as nearby property values do increase stimulated by transit. This effort is doubly critical as low-income residents are far more likely to depend on transit, as opposed to their wealthier counterparts who generally have access to personal vehicles or ride-hailing services. Clearly, we will not increase ridership by wholesale displacements of the most frequent transit.
  • Mitigate disruption especially to local businesses along construction routes. We must set as a priority the health and stability of our local businesses that can be vulnerable during major construction projects. At times businesses may oppose transit, particularly rail, due to concerns about decreased access and financial losses during construction. A clear plan to mitigate construction-related disruptions is essential to gaining business support for proposed transit.

Beyond planning, a key element in increasing ridership will be the implementation of transit lanes on corridors where possible, and the city should partner with Cap Metro to plan for more of these. As long as a personal car or ride-hailing vehicle can get you to your destination as or more quickly, there is little incentive to take public transit. But if you’re stuck in rush hour traffic and see a Cap Metro bus zooming by you in its own dedicated lane, you may be more likely to choose transit for your next trip.

Finally, the city and Cap Metro should partner on a campaign targeted to residents near transit corridors to get them out of their cars, including ride-hailing services, and onto transit. While ride-hailing services have been lauded as a convenience by many, they are, in fact, putting more personal vehicles on the road and providing a disincentive for Austin’s new largely well-off corridor dwellers to use public transit (a study by the Boston-based Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that 42 percent of trips taken via ride-hailing services in Boston would have been taken on public transit had ride-hailing not been available and that most people use ride-hailing end-to-end, rather than mixing it with other modes of transportation). Austin is now prohibited by state law from enacting reasonable local measures to reduce the number of ride-hailing vehicles as New York recently did. However, a campaign targeted to residents on major transit corridors might effectively combine humor, guilt and environmental awareness to get folks out of their cars and onto public transit more often. Transit must be seen as the hipper, more environmentally aware way to get around – if you care about our planet, you’ll walk the walk and ride the ride, with improved health as a side benefit.