Archive | June 2014

MetroRapid: The Good, The Bad & The Bumpy

Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT for short) has grown in popularity over the last decade, touted by planners as the perfect precursor to rail. It’s relatively cheap, features flexible routes, holds more passengers per vehicle than traditional buses, and welcomes those passengers through any of its doorways, thus speeding boarding times. Capital Metro promised to do the same with its recently-opened MetroRapid, which will include two lines when fully completed this summer. Sadly, early reports have many wondering whether CapMetro is living up to its promises for MetroRapid, especially considering transit advocates have pointed out that MetroRapid doesn’t actually qualify as BRT.

I had my first opportunity to ride MetroRapid a week ago and, at a friend’s request, I’ll share my thoughts on the experience (or you can scroll down for the summary). First, I’ll explain the circumstances that brought me on board:

I took my wife’s car to get the interior cleaned out, and discovered that the detailing place was within walking distance of Route 801’s Koenig station. So, before my trip I downloaded CapMetro’s mobile app and while walking to the bus stop I set up my credit card to buy my first fare—a premium day pass at $3.00. I took the bus downtown, hoping to get in a workout and spend some time at the library during my three-hour wait. As it turned out, the library was closed for Memorial Day weekend, but that’s another matter.

Arriving at Koenig station, I immediately made two observations. For starters, calling it a station is generous. I’ve stood at regular bus stops in other cities that provided more shelter than these. Secondly, the Koenig station location is strangely remote. Just behind the southbound station is a large water reservoir, hidden by a fence. If the goal is to guide development around transit, it’s not gonna happen at this location without major changes. So unless you work for Texas DPS—or happen to need that cat smell blasted out of your car’s interior—the Koenig station doesn’t appear to work well.

Koenig Station

Image: Notice the lack of development around Koenig’s southbound station. A large water reservoir is cited just beyond the fence.

One interesting opportunity the trip gave me was to compare the timing of MetroRapid to CapMetro’s local bus, Route 1. The local bus arrived at the adjacent Koenig stop roughly three or four minutes prior to MetroRapid. Yet, it was not until MetroRapid reached downtown that we caught up to the local bus, despite its many more stops along the way.

Now for the experience itself:

Thankfully, boarding MetroRapid itself was uneventful. The QR code scanner worked as designed on each bus I rode, although getting the QR code to appear on the app was not as intuitive as it should be. Once I took my seat, however, I forgot why I paid for a “premium” pass at all. Aside from its accordion-like center, MetroRapid feels like any other bus. At its best it rides like a boat on choppy waters, and at its worst I wonder if my kidneys will survive without permanent damage.

Driving through UT’s campus along Guadalupe felt especially jerky, thanks to all the stops and starts you would expect driving in an urban area. But wait…shouldn’t there have been signal priority? Nowhere along this route did we breeze through signaled intersections, whether near Triangle, UT, or downtown.

What about lane priority? MetroRapid has access to a ‘bus only’ lane downtown—precisely where the road is so wide that cars won’t miss losing the lane. Well, that is, if the cars notice they aren’t allowed in that lane. Construction happened to be going on through a good chunk of this area on Guadalupe anyway, removing the priority lane from use during my inbound trip. In fact, one station was blocked completely, requiring the bus driver to announce that stop was closed. At least that’s what I think he said…the man sounded like he was chewing a whole pack of Bubblicious, so it’s hard to know for sure.

So, here’s the summary:

PROS

  • Ability to pay for ticket in advance
  • Board bus from any of three doors
  • Seats more passengers than a standard bus
  • Know when next two buses are arriving
  • Stations have button-activated announcement of upcoming buses
  • Full-day pass is affordable and works on both MetroRapid and local buses

CONS

  • Still feels like a bus
  • Bus still waits for passengers paying fare with cash before departing
  • Bikes must go on front rack, requiring the bus to wait
  • Service is too infrequent
  • Still stops at most traffic lights
  • Shares a lane with unpredictable traffic for most of route
  • Flawed station design: Difficult to read screen when standing at stop; Station area map hidden behind station; Provides little shelter from sun or rain; No recycling bins available (one of the stops had no trash can either)

WAYS TO IMPROVE

  • Full lane dedication throughout the corridor
  • Ensure signal priority throughout the corridor
  • Eliminate on-bus payment to speed boarding
  • Increase frequency during peak periods to 10 minutes or less
  • Allow bikes on the bus to speed boarding
  • Redesign stations with better shelter from weather
  • Relocate remote stations (like Koenig) to areas with substantial development and potential for increased density
  • Minimize overlap of MetroRapid with local buses to prevent “bus bunching” at shared stops
  • Refine app to allow one-tap access to your virtual ticket