Getting around Austin

by Laura Roberts on January 12, 2010

Public transportation in Austin is kind of a mixed bag, as I’ve discovered from riding some of their buses. While it’s certainly affordable, with prices per ride currently set at a mere 75 cents (though rates are being hiked up 25 cents to $1/ride as of January 18) and free rides for all students (with valid school ID), service can occasionally be a spotty, particularly when heading north or south to some of the “outlying” areas—like where I happen to live.

"Fancy new STOP button on Capitol Metro bus" by Flickr user mlovitt

"Fancy new STOP button on Capitol Metro bus" by Flickr user mlovitt

Still, having come from Montreal—where fares seemed to go up every other month, and the last price-per-ride I paid with the STM was a whopping $2.75—Austin’s service is amazing. Express buses are great for avoiding the headaches of commuting by car during the week, offering convenient rush-hour service straight to the downtown core from either north or south of the city. Additionally, all express buses offer riders free wifi! I’ve been able to post Twitter updates, check my email, and find out when my favorite bands will be in town all thanks to CapMetro‘s wifi, accessible on my iPod Touch. It’s definitely nice to be able to stay in touch with the worldwide web, even when you haven’t got a cell phone to surf on.

The only downside is that without the express bus service (which, btw, currently costs $1.50 per ride and is going up to $2.50) that takes me straight from the steps of my northern apartment to the front door of my downtown job, it’s a bit harder to get around the city. Instead of a 20-minute ride, I’m instead stuck with hopping from one local bus to another and an hour-long commute. Since there’s no subway in Austin, things can quickly become complicated as you navigate the system of express vs. local vs. limited/flyer vs. special vs. crosstown vs. feeder buses. Which ones go where? How do you know which ones will go where you want to go?

Working on Sundays, I wasn’t initially aware that my express bus route didn’t run on the weekends, so I was afraid I’d be stuck with an insane cab bill home and back that would negate any money I actually made that day. Luckily, however, there’s a Google trip planner available online, offering exact directions from one address to another and preventing newcomers from getting totally lost. The planner lets you choose which times of day and days of the week you want to travel, and then plots out the best way to get wherever you want to go, kind of like GPS for public transit. Sweet!

Screenshot of CapMetro's trip planner

Screenshot of CapMetro's trip planner

Another interesting feature of the CapMetro trip planner is the fact that you can have it also plot nearby bike routes. If you’ve got a bike you’d like to ride around the city, this will give you some suggested routes and help keep you off main thoroughfares like Guadalupe (where there are bike lanes that seem to drop out intermittently, leaving bikers competing with cars for space.)

CapMetro has also been planning a passenger rail connection for Leander from downtown for quite some time, with area residents still wondering what the hold-up is all about. The train is supposed to use existing freight tracks, so it will only run during the day on weekdays in order to avoid freight trains. Last we heard (as of December 9, 2009, via Statesman columnist Ben Wear), the contract with its original service provider, Veolia, was terminated, new contractor Herzog was taking over, and trains still weren’t running except in “test” mode. When will passengers actually be able to grab a train to work? That’s perhaps the biggest mystery of 2010.

All in all, I’d give CapMetro a passing grade, though I could certainly stand having express buses that run on the weekends to take me downtown and back. Given the fact that Texas is a bit backward when it comes to public transit, since Texans love their oil and their cars, it’s definitely harder to get around the city via bus than it ought to be, but for those looking to take the stress out of their commutes, it’s definitely worth it to invest in a bus pass ($36 for 31 days of unlimited service).


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