Public Transit: Comparing Austin to Pittsburgh

Maybe I’ll make a little series out of this, comparing the City of Bridges to the City of Live Music. Or this may be the last post in this vein, we’ll see. For clarification, the public transit system in Austin is called Capital Metro and the one in Pittsburgh is the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Yesterday we took a few buses and while I wouldn’t call myself a Capital Metro-nado, we traveled far and had what I surmised was a pretty typical experience.

First, I should mention that yesterday wasn’t the first time I’ve tried taking a bus. Last week I tried getting a bus 15 miles south of Austin’s downtown, and was unable. While looking for something to do with the family for a Halloween extravaganza, I tried getting directions to the local zoo — 12 miles west of downtown — again, to no avail. So that’s the major, and thus far only real, downside to the transit system here: you can’t get very far.

However, buses abound within the city. We can catch three different buses from the front drive of the RV park in which we’re staying, and probably another 10 buses from within two blocks. The website is very easy to use — unlike Pittsburgh’s — and the bus drivers are very knowledgeable about where they’re going. I’ve often asked Pittsburgh bus drivers questions like “Are you going out as far as 5500 Penn?” and they’ll in turn ask me about what cross street I’m looking for or where I’m trying to get to, not being sure of the addresses of their own routes.

Our first bus was exactly on time, and that’s key: Austin’s in-bus method of letting you know which stop you’re approaching greatly relies on the time. Pittsburgh’s method of displaying the name of the stop you’re approaching on an electronic sign near the front of the bus is incredibly handy and hands down the most effective way of getting people to where they’re going, but it has one major downfall so great as to prevent it from being very useful at all: it’s unreliable. Sometimes the signs haven’t even been installed on a bus (the older white and red buses, for example), aren’t working on the buses they’ve been installed on, or worst of all, are inaccurate, making you think you’re on 5th & Penn when you’re actually somewhere out in Mt. Oliver (well, that may be stretching it a little bit). I found Austin’s system of showing you the time in conjunction with displaying street names to be very reliable.

The driver did tell us, however, that due to Austin’s relentless pursuit of having parades or football games or festivals at every given opportunity, it was a regular occurrence to have to take detours on the bus, sometimes significantly altering the route. This can obviously be a problem because of the nature of bus riders: they’re trying to get to a specific place that this particular bus goes to. Change where the bus is going and potentially you change the desire for someone to ride the bus. All I can say in defense of this predicament is that due to face that the reason the bus is being detoured is because the city is busy celebrating again is basically just tribute to the general nature of Austin: if you’re not going to a party on a Saturday, shouldn’t you be? Or where is it that you have to be that’s so important you can’t take a little detour around a parade?

So all in all, the city of Austin’s buses are precisely adequate for what city buses should be: they don’t take you clear out to Timbuktu, but if you’re trying to get around in the city itself, they’re top notch. Aside from making it easy to find a bus to get where you’re going, their website is filled with pages outlining their plans for light rail expansion as well as complete street actions they’ve already undertaken and are planning for in future: trails alongside their light rails. And best of all, their fares are ridiculously cheap.

$0.75 buys you a single ride.
$1.50 buys you an entire day pass.
$18 buys you a whole month of riding the bus.

For the purposes of making this comparison more official, and to simultaneously show off my table coding skills, let’s make ourselves a little chart:

City Pittsburgh Austin
Single Pass $2 $0.75
Transfer $0.50 n/a
Day Pass n/a
Monthly $75 $18
Annual Costs $825 – $900* $216

* Port Authority of Allegheny County offers an Annual Pass for $825, if you can afford to buy an annual pass vs. paying for a monthly pass 12 times / year.

Up Next: Bicycling: Comparing Pittsburgh to Austin