I've just started riding the bus to work. I'm not trying to save the environment or anything. My car's in the shop, and I'm too cheap to spring for a rental.
The truth is, though, that I also like to ride the bus.
When I was a grad student a few years ago, I lived in an apartment near MoPac and Ben White. My wife and I both commuted. She got to drive the '98 Civic and I got stuck with the '92 Cherokee with something like 200,000 miles on it. One very hot May, the air conditioner went out in the Cherokee. I noticed then something that I really had not thought about before: If you park your car in the Austin sun, you cannot drive without air conditioner. It's not that it's too hot while you are driving -- once you get going, you can crank down the window to catch the breeze. The problem is that if you park out in the sun, as we had to, you can't get in the car to begin with; there's just no way to cool the interior down from 130 degrees.
So I started riding the #16 bus. It was a long ride, about an hour to downtown. But it was a relaxing ride. The bus was never crowded. It cut through a bunch of nice little neighborhoods. I could just look out the window and zone out, or I could read a book or newspaper. I kind of enjoyed it, and the extra time was not a big issue.
We bought a new car that summer, though, and I started driving again, since by driving I could cut a 60 minute ride down to 20 minutes. I haven't ridden the bus since, at least until recently.
I take the #3 now, which stops on South Lamar right outside my neighborhood and drops me off three blocks from my office downtown. Once I'm on the bus, the travel time is virtually the same as driving. The bus makes a lot of stops, but when I'm driving in rush hour traffic, I have to make a lot of stops anyway. The bus takes maybe an extra 5-10 minutes.
It takes extra time, about 8-10 minutes, to walk to the bus stop from my house. But that doesn't really bother me in the morning, when it's pleasant. It's not as pleasant in the afternoon, but the fact that I'm going home takes the edge off.
I definitely prefer riding to driving. I've always hated fighting my way through traffic to downtown when I'm still half asleep. All I have to do on the bus is stare out the window.
The bus is insanely cheap: $10/month for all the rides you want. By comparison, I pay $100/month for parking at the office, $80/month or so for gas driving back and forth from the office, and another $40-$50/month for maintenance, taxes and insurance. The car's paid for, but I "pay" at least another $200/month to cover the depreciation attributable to my commute. When I add it all up, I figure I could take a $10 cab ride each way every day and come out basically even. The bus is a real bargain.
Here are the two things, though, that really, really bug me about riding the bus.
First is the discontinuity in travel time. If I'm driving and leave my house at 8:20 a.m., the odds are that I'll get to work just a minute or two later than if I had left at 8:19 a.m. I might hit an extra red light, but the difference in arrival time usually will be negligible. That's not true with the bus. If I walk out the door at 8:20, I might miss a bus that I could have caught if I had left at 8:19. As a result, I won't get to work one minute later; I will get to work 20 minutes later. Nothing irritates me more than seeing my bus rumble past the bus stop when I'm just a 100 yards away.
Second, I hate an uncertain wait. When I get to the bus stop, I never know whether the next bus is 2 minutes away or 20 minutes away (unless I happen to see another one go by right before I get to the stop). I don't mind the walk, and I sort of enjoy the ride. But I hate not knowing how long the wait will be.
As I was waiting for the bus this morning, I was daydreaming about possible solutions. The most obvious to me would be to track each bus using GPS and display the positions in real time on a map. Riders could check their bus's location on the internet before leaving home, and time it so they got to the stop just before the bus. No more "just missing" the bus or sitting on the bench staring at your feet for 20 minutes.
It turns out that this solution is so obvious that some other cities are already doing it.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm pretty sure that I would give up commuting by car permanently if I knew exactly where my bus was before I left my house each morning.
If CapMetro got, say, 25% of its revenue from fares rather than 8%, would we see more technological innovation?