Capital Metro executed the momentous process of redesigning its bus network. The plan resulted in Capital Metro riders gaining access to extended routes, more direct routing and more frequent service. Dubbed the Cap Remap, the redesigned network launched in June 2018, and was born out of several different factors for Capital Metro’s service.
“We try to do a systematic and comprehensive look at our network every five to seven years. In part it was just time to do it and in part we, like many other transit agencies across the country, had declining ridership,” explained Todd Hemingson, vice president strategic planning & development, Capital Metro. “The third main reason was that we are one of the fasted growing cities in a metro area in the country and change was just happening so fast. We had concerns that our system and our network weren’t keeping up with what changing network commutes for the community.”
Capital Metro worked closely with the City of Austin Transportation Department during the planning process, allowing them to address the issues plaguing the city’s transportation problems.
“Our traffic congestion and traffic and mobility challenges were getting pretty extreme. In 2016, our policy makers coined it the ‘year of mobility.’ So, we really mobilized the transit work and the work was actually inspired by work in Seattle,” explained Annick Beaudet, assistant director for long-range planning City of Austin Transportation Department. “We were scouring the nation looking for practices and how can we really accelerate and move faster on transit improvement. When Cap Remap, the implementation portion of 2025 came around, we were already planning to take it to the next level and now the transit priority working group has become a transit enhancement program for the city.”
The idea of revamping a bus system on such a large scale can come across as intimidating. Hemingson says that Capital Metro approached the process evaluating which method of implementation would be the most successful.
“We had long discussions about the pros and cons about doing it incrementally or really trying to do the bulk of the changes in one big system restructure. We ultimately chose the latter because we felt like it was a better outcome overall. If we’re going to be disruptive to the community and to our riders it made sense to do it in a comprehensive change, because as we dug into it all the pieces kind of fit together like a spider web. If you tug at one piece in one section it really affected the whole network, so we really wanted to focus on the network and less on the individual routes,” said Hemingson. “That was a point that we made in our design efforts as well as communicating it to the public. We really tried to make it a useful network, meaning in part that you may need to make connections between routes as opposed to, in some cases, people who were able to just use one route in the past.”
The process of rolling out the route strengthened the partnership between the two agencies. Beaudet explains that the two agencies have continued to develop their partnership in the lead up the Cap Remap. Beaudet added that the City of Austin put a transit priority working group into place to analyze the project.
Once Cap Remap rolled out it offered increased service from six to 14 of the high-frequency routes, having buses arrive every 15 minutes. It was the most significant change that the agency has undergone. The number of local routes were local routes were tripled that operate every 15 minutes and that frequency to the weekends too .
Introducing the route to the public
“[Capital Metro’s] preliminary data shows that ridership is up, which was really exciting for the staff working in the transit program, I know from our end at the city that it is. The transit program allows the transit agency and the city to partner on operational changes and make them happen more exponentially and smoothly and I know that has to correlate to an uptick in ridership,” Beaudet explained. “I know when you look at the transit advocacy organizations that they are definitely aware that the city and the transit agency are working together, which is why they’re seeing more improvements.”
As many transit agencies know, even the best plan can be met with some criticism from its riders and the community.
“It’s easy and understandable for someone who just rides one route on a regular basis to wonder why in the world you would make it so they had to take two routes instead of one. There were some messaging challenges. I think our focus was on one of the key things that we tried to convey, that with our network, we’re also bringing frequent service, so we’re basically tripling the number of routes that run every 15 minutes or better,” said Hemingson. “Part of the rationale behind that was if we’re going to set up the system with a focus on the network, we need to minimize the delay when a connection is required.”
Hemingson explains that when doing early outreach to the public they heard a similar request from those who were surveyed.
“We really put emphasis on frequency and we messaged that, as one famous consultant says, frequency equals freedom. The idea being that you don’t have to schedule your life around the bus, you can now just use your app and find out exactly when it is coming or just walk out to the stop and know that in just a couple minutes your bus will show up,” Hemingson said.
Hemingson added, “The other important thing was that we really did a lot of early outreach with the public, riders and the broader community, in terms of what they wanted out of public transportation in the Austin metro area. Overwhelmingly, they said that frequency was the number one priority over better stops or better apps or any other number of attributes that we could improve upon.”
Successful implantation for the community
Since Cap Remap launched, Capital Metro has seen positive changes.
“The good news is that we basically reversed our declining ridership over the first six months. We had been seeing year over year decreases typically on a monthly basis. We were down two to six percent, which is not good. Now, over the first six months, we’ve been up 2.8 percent over the prior year, so rather than continued decreases we’re seeing increasing ridership,” explained Hemingson.
Capital Metro communicated with the City of Austin Transportation Department to work to create awareness within the community and planners as to how the changes would be implemented.
“They definitely were talking to us in their best practice of speed and reliability and really taking that focus and the time to educate our planners and engineers at the city of Austin on new approaches on transit services,” said Beaudet. “They brought in speakers through the local chapter of local urbanism and through other avenues to educate not only the city, but the public in this new direction that they wanted to take on 2024 and Cap Remap on speed and reliability. I think that they did a really good job on rolling that out and bringing us along on the concept.”
Hemingson says that Capital Metro has seen a mix in the feedback from customers.
“We’ve had a lot of people say that the frequency has been transformative and made it so much easier to use. We’ve had new customers try it because they heard about frequent service and that you can just walk out and catch a bus without scheduling your life around it. Then we’ve had some folks that honestly didn’t like the changes,” Hemingson said. “One of the things that we measured during the process was what percent of our riders would still be within a five- and 10-minute walk of service. We knew that 98 percent of customers were still within a five-minute walk. We felt that there was a very small percentage that was adversely impacted. There were certainly folks that were within the same walking distance, but it was not the same service that they were used to, and we know with human nature change is hard.”
A portion of the riders who experienced changes that they were less than happy with voiced their feelings directly to the agency.
“For some people initially they were very unhappy, we had people complaining at the board and then a few months later in some cases they came back and said ‘my early take was wrong, it’s actually working better for me now’. [It’s] rewarding when you hear those kinds of stories,” Hemingson said. “To be fair, there are still some people [who] are not happy with it.”
Looking towards the future
As a growing metropolitan city, Austin continues to develop and with it the transit system is furthering its development, as well. When looking towards new projects, the agency has identified what steps that they would take in the future, which they have learned from past experiences.
Hemingson explained that the Cap Remap project, like others, has brought light of practices for future projects. “I think from a transit planner perspective, we would have done things differently that would have upset more people, by listening to the community verses our data and what it tells us to do. There’s no perfect service change, but all in all, I think that we did really well.”
“The feedback has been positive on both data on ridership but as I work with the community on other transportation projects that have a heavy inclusion to high range planning, the community is definitely liking what they’re seeing,” said Beaudet.
With the positive feedback, Capital Metro has additional transit lines that it is looking to roll out over the next few years – making Austin an easier city to move through.