All Grown Up: Looking Back on Capital Metro’s First 30 Years

When Capital Metro launched in 1985, Austin was a small Sunbelt city with some transit service, albeit nowhere near the networks in older cities. We were embarking on a new experiment, and there were lots of questions around transit’s role in Austin with the creation of Capital Metro. So UT hosted a conference of international experts to help Austin evolve, and the conference generated a book titled “Transit, Land Use, and Urban Form.” The primary question was “how can Austin use new transit development as a positive force in shaping the city and the region?”Screen shot 2015-08-28 at 5.12.41 PM

Here’s a glimpse of the Austin that Capital Metro was born into: “A noteworthy trend is that mid-sized cities are making or seriously considering a commitment to public transit,” the book’s introduction notes. “These actions fly in the face of both current trends in cities and their decision-making behavior. Residential density has decreased in most American cities. In Austin, it ranges from approximately 10 houses per acre in inner neighborhoods to four in new subdivision development.”

To put that in perspective, Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department today uses a neighborhood with eight housing units per acre as an example of a low-density area. Today’s high-density neighborhoods – where transit works best – may have 40+ units per acre.

There was also the question of public attitudes toward transit. The book quotes one Austinite who said “us Texans, we have wheels welded to our boots.”

As Capital Metro looks back this year over its 30-year time in Austin, it’s interesting to compare the question at its start with the questions facing the agency now.

“Will people ride it?” was a big question in 1985. Clearly, the answer has been yes. Despite being a Sunbelt city that may never be compact the way older, coastal cities are, Austin has embraced Capital Metro – the agency has delivered more than 837 million total rides since beginning operations. With Express Buses to farther-out suburban areas and more frequent city routes, the agency has been able to reach riders in myriad Austin neighborhoods. Two Rapid bus routes that launched in 2014 offered riders a way to move around Austin’s busiest corridors on a more streamlined service. And the development is absolutely booming on either side of these streets, making it even more difficult to stick to the old “you can drive alone” transportation solutions.

Looking to the future, Capital Metro is adjusting as more students move to West Campus developments, which means fewer students who need to ride transit, and is also addressing the needs of commuters. To help make buses more accessible to more people, Capital Metro launched a High-Frequency route network recently, which on weekdays has buses arriving every 15 minutes from 7am to 7pm on five of its busiest routes.

Another major part of Capital Metro’s history has been the Red Line, a commuter rail that runs from Leander into downtown Austin. With state and federal funding, Capital Metro will soon add new trains, tracks, and signaling to increase frequency and double capacity on the line. A new, expanded downtown station is also in the works.

Capital Metro has also been working with non-transit partners to help riders make the “last mile” connection between a bus or rail stop and their final destination. They have partnered with Car2Go and Austin B-Cycle to have stations and parking spots near transit stops. And the agency has also introduced bike shelters so that cyclists can securely leave a bike at several MetroRail stations or other major transit centers, and pick it up when they return.

Now Capital Metro is beginning to develop a new 10-Year Service Plan, which can be an opportunity to completely rethink routes and frequencies.

There have already been several organizations weighing in with different visions of the future – and thus different answers – when it comes to what questions Capital Metro should ask as it looks ahead to its next 10, or even next 30, years, from RECA to COST. We look forward to seeing that future take shape.

Here’s a timeline of Austin’s earliest transit, as well as Capital Metro’s early activity:

1875: Austin introduces the first public transportation vehicle: mule-drawn streetcars on steel tracks

1891: Electric street cars replace mule-drawn cars

1928: Austin introduces its first motor driven coaches

1940: Austin converts all streetcars to motor coaches

1973: City of Austin becomes responsible for all bus service, calling it the Austin Transit System

1976: City of Austin establishes special transit service program for citizens with disabilities

January 19, 1985: Capital Metro begins when voters in Austin and the surrounding area approve the agency’s creation; the voters agreed that the communities would support the agency with the proceeds from a one percent sales tax

1985: Capital Metro assumes management of City of Austin rideshare programs with the acquisition of five vans

July 1985: Establishes the Mobility Impaired Services Advisory Committee (MISAC), a 29-member advisory group consisting of cross-disability representation that reports directly to the board of directors

July 1, 1985: Begins operation of first fleet of 20 new Gillig Phantom 40-foot Transit Coaches

August 1985: Capital Metro awards first, third-party vanpool service referral agreement

1985: Acquires freight rail line, which will be used to carry passengers on a new commuter rail

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