By Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle, Jan. 24, 2014
“If you give people good coffee and good tunes, they will park and ride.” In 1992’s ode to progressive Seattle, Singles, that’s how transportation planner Steve Dunne sells the idea of commuter rail. Replace coffee with comfy seats, and tunes with free wi-fi, and that’s how Capital Metro hopes to sell its newest development, MetroRapid buses, to Austin’s ever-growing business commuter community.
This Sunday, Jan. 26, Cap Metro will launch its first MetroRapid service: the 801, an express route from Tech Ridge to Southpark Meadows, linking Lamar, Guadalupe, and South Congress. It’s one more component of Project Connect, the joint initiative between the city of Austin and Cap Metro to construct a genuine rapid mass transit system involving express buses, and light and commuter rail. The plan is to create a fast, clean, modern alternative for commuters – and in the process take some of the increasing strain off Austin’s overburdened roads. As the first local example of bus rapid transit (BRT), Cap Metro president and CEO Linda Watson called MetroRapid “somewhere between bus and rail. … It’s smart buses, operating on smart streets, stopping at smart stations.”
The plan is to get 21,000 boardings a day on MetroRapid within the first 24 months. It should be easy for those passengers to spot the new service. At 60 feet, the vehicles (transit staff try to avoid the word “buses” for them) are half again as long as the normal Cap Metro rolling stock. The other clue is that these are “articulated” buses; they look like two buses glued together, with an accordion in between. That means the back and front move independently, earning the nicknames “bendy buses,” “caterpillar buses,” and “Slinky buses.”
A common sight in many American cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, and Houston, they look cumbersome, but in the hands of an experienced driver they actually handle a little more easily than the regular 40-footers. Inside, the vehicles don’t look like the aging and crowded units they’re replacing; they’re airy and spacious, with taller ceilings, higher windows, more seat padding than regular buses, plus free wi-fi. There are also wider-than-standard doors, and more of them. Unlike regular Cap Metro buses, where passengers can only embark at the front, passengers will be able to get on and off through any door. That’s an important part of their design: With three doors, plus card readers and mobile phone scanners at the two rear doors, a MetroRapid bus can load and unload more quickly.
First of Many
That’s half of the equation. The other half is the stops – or, in MetroRapid lingo, “stations.” Spacious, shaded, off the sidewalk, and with digital displays giving real-time arrival information, they’re located at the biggest apartment complexes, or the biggest firms and office complexes. There will also be bus “priority lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca, and MetroRapid vehicles will communicate with lights at crossings to keep them green longer for bus passage. Combine everything, and Cap Metro hopes that a host of non-traditional bus riders will be coaxed to park and ride. Watson said, “Everything is geared to be rapid.”