Experts and city officials agree that greater access to and reliability on public transportation will not only relieve traffic congestion but also the financial pressure placed on households that depend on cars to commute.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, most Austinites are car-dependent. The latest data shows that 73.7 percent drive alone to work, 9.5 percent carpool and 4 percent use public transportation while 12.8 percent use alternative modes.
Transportation is the second-largest household expenditure behind housing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with car ownership being the most costly mode of transportation. The average annual cost to own a sedan is $8,558, according to a 2016 report from AAA.
“When you live in a city that has been designed around the car, you go buy a car and all the things that go into owning a car—insurance, maintenance, gasoline,” said Lonnie Stern, Capital Metro’s community involvement coordinator.
Several initiatives are underway to revamp the city’s public transit system and detach Austinites from their cars.
Moving people, not cars
Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said the city’s dependence on cars is unsustainable, and although mobility strategies were once based on moving more cars, the value has shifted to moving more people.
“I can’t build any more capacity—I can’t fit any more roads or ramps in downtown or other major activity centers,” Spillar said. “If Austin is going to continue to be successful, we have to think of other ways to get around.”
Public transportation is a key to that new strategy. Recently, Capital Metro passed its Connections 2025 plan, which aims to boost its bus ridership with the addition of new routes and frequency of existing ones.
Transit will be cut in other areas with low participation. However, some of the cut routes, such as the Route 21 bus through Exposition Boulevard, will be replaced with Mobility Innovation Zones, where Capital Metro will pilot new services such as carpool vans and shuttle services or encourage greater accessibility to ride-hailing services.
Capital Metro is also working with area transportation agencies on Project Connect, which aims to deliver a more robust regional transportation system that will move people in and out of Austin. The project remains in the early stages of public survey.
Educate and they will come
Stern said although the financial benefits of public transportation are clear, influencing change of habit is difficult, and reliance on a “build-it-and-they-will-come” philosophy will fail. He said grass-roots community outreach programs that educate residents on transit options are crucial to boosting ridership.
Transit Adventures, according to Stern, are among the most successful of these initiatives. Capital Metro employees meet with groups of residents or capitalize on large, traffic-drawing events, give out free transit passes and provide the comfort of a guide to lead them through what is often a first-time transit experience.
The Smart Trips Program, a partnership between the city and Capital Metro, targets areas with high access to transit but low reported use and acquaints residents with the options and benefits of taking public transit.
Capital Metro also utilizes MetroWorks, a program that discounts bulk transit pass purchases by employers to encourage their employees to ride, and Capital Metro’s other program, RideShare, leases out seven-passenger vehicles to promote carpools.
These initiatives have borne fruit, but Stern said they are not “all-or-nothing solutions.”
“If they commute five days a week, and decide to use transit on one of the days, that’s a 20 percent reduction in their contribution to the traffic,” Stern said. “If I can show people that it’s fun and not that hard, then they will be much more primed to use it on their own.”