May 4, 2018
After a key bus stop was removed due to construction, two major UT shuttles now serve a fraction of their usual ridership.
In October 2015, the University of Texas at Austin began construction to convert Speedway, which passes through the middle of campus, into a pedestrian-only street. As a result, Capital Metro removed the bus stops on 21st Street near Speedway and rerouted the bus routes that used those stops, including the 663-Lake Austin route and the 640-Forty Acres and 642-West Campus circulators that circle the campus. Now, both the Forty Acres and West Campus routes travel down San Jacinto Boulevard and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard in order to avoid 21st Street.
According to Capital Metro’s latest ridership history report, which includes the number of average riders per day by route from spring 2012 to spring 2017, ridership dropped dramatically for the Forty Acres and West Campus routes around the same time as the beginning of construction on Speedway. Average ridership per day in the fall of 2015 was 3,558 for the Forty Acres route, but for spring 2016 that numbers dropped to 2,850, and by spring 2017, the Forty Acres route served less than half that. Compared to the spring of 2015 before construction began on Speedway, ridership dropped by 66 percent for the Forty Acres route and 59 percent for the West Campus route in spring 2017. According to Capital Metro principal planner Lawrence Deeter, the construction on Speedway and the resulting detour most likely caused this decrease in ridership.
“UT ridership has actually been pulling our ridership numbers (for the entire system) down,” Deeter said. “We’ve lost 3,000 customers a day on one route, and that’s significant, that adds up. A lot of our routes don’t carry anywhere near that, so that’s like losing total entire routes.”
With Jester Dormitory, Gregory Gym and the Perry-Castañeda Library nearby, the stops at Speedway & 21st Street were a convenient location for many students.
When UT management information systems senior Frederico Evangelista was running late or didn’t feel like walking to class, he used to ride the West Campus bus to campus from his apartment on Leon Street and would get off at the stop at Speedway & 21st Street. One day, he got on the bus and noticed that it wasn’t traveling its usual route.
“I took it one day, and it started taking this crazy looping route … and I realized that probably wasn’t going to go down there anymore,” he said.
When he saw the new bollards blocking 21st Street, he realized that the bus would probably no longer stop in front of the Perry-Castañeda Library and stopped riding that bus.
“It’s such a central hub, because (Gregory Gym) is there, as a business student, the McCombs (School of Business) is right there, and the (Perry-Castañeda Library) is right there, so that’s a really big hot spot for people to get dropped off, and that bus would always be packed,” Evangelista said. “But ever since then, I haven’t even thought about riding the bus. I just think that’s such a critical route, it takes you to such an important spot and so many people used to take it.”
UT Parking & Transportation Services assistant director Blanca Gamez said the Speedway & 21st stop was a big stop for the UT shuttles, and Deeter said that detouring from and eventually closing that stop contributed to the initial decrease in ridership.
“Unfortunately, ridership has continued to go down, so it appears that not serving that one stop has been more of an issue than we thought it would be,” Deeter said.
Although ridership for the Forty Acres and West Campus routes decreased, ridership for the Lake Austin route has remained stable since 2012, even though it also lost the Speedway & 21st stop. Deeter said this is because the Lake Austin route connects the campus and UT’s married graduate student apartments, where the population is mostly UT graduate students and usually stays the same.
“The West Campus and Forty Acres are widely used by the entire university community because they’re almost like campus loops, so the 663 served a very distinct population versus the other two,” Gamez said.
Deeter said Capital Metro permanently changed the routes once buses could no longer cross Speedway. Gamez said the reason the shuttles could no longer drive across Speedway is that the pavers on the new pedestrian street wouldn’t be able to support the weight of the buses. She added that since the intersection of Speedway & 21st Street used to balance a mixture of pedestrians, bicycles, cars and shuttle buses, closing that section of 21st Street to cars and buses would increase the safety of pedestrians.
Deeter said that, before the permanent rerouting, the Forty Acres route took a circuitous detour through campus, causing the buses to run late as the campus got crowded.
“(The buses) would come one right after another, and then another bus wouldn’t come by for 10 or 12 minutes, which when you’re talking a route like the Forty Acres, you can actually walk pretty far in 12 minutes,” he said. “If it’s not coming at the six or seven minutes that it’s supposed to come at, people will start walking.”
Other factors could also contribute to the decline in UT shuttle ridership: according to Deeter, the current cohort of college students are more willing to walk, bike, skateboard and, most recently, ride scooters across campus. Although this is still just a hypothesis, Deeter added that Capital Metro is looking at how to research these student transportation trends.
“I think the millennial generation has been much more likely to be willing to engage in active transportation (such as walking and biking),” he said. “A lot of the students these days don’t have their driver’s license when they come to campus, so they’ve gotten much more used to walking and using their bike to get around.”
Deeter said whether or not a route under construction or on detour has changes in ridership can depend on how willing people are to walk to the detoured bus stop.
“Especially when you’re in a central area and a highly walkable area where people do have alternatives, you will see the change in ridership, especially for a route as small as route 640,” he said. “But some of our other bigger, longer-term detours, we don’t see as much ridership impact because people need to get to the bus, so they walk the longer distance or they get to the bus somehow.”