The city of Austin’s light rail has one of the lowest ridership numbers among large cities in Texas and the United States. As of February 2023, the single route system had only 22,800 passengers per month, significantly lower than metro areas with much smaller populations, such as Tuscon, Cincinnati, and Norfolk. Figuring out why there’s such low ridership is never an exact science, but there are several factors likely preventing Austin residents from using MetroRail on a regular basis.
One factor keeping people from using the Red Line is train frequency. Times between trains range from 25 minutes in the early morning and peak commute hours to more than 35 minutes on Saturdays. There is no service on Sunday; God is resting, and so must we. Compared to Portland, where light rail trains arrive every 15 minutes during peak hours, this frequency is impractical, especially for commuters or anyone who needs to be punctual. If you miss one train, you might wait longer than 30 minutes for another. In addition, the last train out of downtown Mondays through Thursdays departs at 7:21pm, so forget about using the rail on a weeknight out or if you have to work a few hours overtime.
The next issue that makes the Red Line an impractical option is the location of stations. The route meanders through random parts of the city and makes stops in sparsely developed areas with little surrounding housing or places people would want to visit. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of each station:
- Downtown – Adjacent to the convention center and hotels, this station could serve tourists and visitors but is quite far from the city’s most popular attractions and even further from residential areas. It does connect to the bus network, which may be helpful to some.
- Plaza Saltillo – This may be my favorite stop. It’s close to tons of great restaurants, medium-density housing, schools and parks. The station is integrated well with the surrounding area and isn’t marred by a giant parking lot. This is all thanks to a recent improvement project.
- MLK – This station might be useful if it was a mile west. Thankfully, a few apartments popped up after the stop was built, but there is little else appealing about the surrounding area. You’ll need to hoof it in the heat to get anywhere interesting.
- Highland – This station serves Austin Community College: Highland and a few apartments and fast food establishments. There is plenty of space for commercial development but it remains low to no-density for now.
- Crestview – This station is adjacent to some New Urbanist-type developments and some shops and restaurants. This is the last stop northbound that has more pros than cons in my opinion.
- Kramer – Possibly the worst station on the entire Red Line, this stop is located in an industrial area that feels deserted even in the middle of the day. Thankfully, there are plans to move the stop closer to Q2 Stadium, which can also serve The Domain, I guess.
- Howard – This stop is basically a park and ride. To access the apartments and shops on the other side of Mopac, passengers need to cross 9 lanes of traffic and pass through a homeless encampment. Based on my casual observations, a few dozen commuters use the station daily.
- Lakeline – The train at Lakeline station basically drops you off in the middle of the woods and expects you to walk at least a mile to get to the mall and big box stores to the west. Okay, maybe you can connect with the bus, which has a schedule that doesn’t coordinate at all with the train, so expect to wait 30 minutes or longer. It’s clearly intended only for park-and-ride commuters.
- Leander – To get an idea of how often this park and ride in the exurbs is used, look at a satellite image. You’re lucky to find more than a few vehicles on a weekday in a parking lot designed for hundreds of vehicles.
Another issue affecting ridership on the Red Line is price. A one-way trip is $3.50 and a round-trip is $7 whether you’re going from Leander to Downtown or Crestview to Highland. For longer trips, this isn’t a big deal, but it’s certainly a consideration for riders who just want to make a quick trip. For regular riders, a commuter pass costs nearly $1,200 a year, which while cheaper than a car, comes with much greater restrictions. Considering the number of people living within walking distance of Red Line stations, a commuter pass is not a viable alternative to car ownership for most Austin residents.
The problems facing MetroRail come from a lack of investment and shortcuts. Existing freight lines were used to create the meandering route through random spots around town, and stations were built in many empty areas to avoid eminent domain conflicts. In time, development around stations may increase and improve route viability, but several stops are merely park-in-rides where dense development is either impractical or impossible.
While the current state of MetroRail is bleak, the city recently approved a plan for a new light rail line with nearly 10 miles of new track and 15 stations, including one at Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Locations for the new stops look promising; although, the route fails to reach low-income areas that the project originally aimed to include. In addition, the $4.5 billion plan, called Project Connect, has shrunk by nearly half in just a few years.
Austin Transit Partnership claims that ridership on the light rail system will increase 10-fold by 2040. If this goal is reached, Austin rail travel will be on par with current ridership figures in Kansas City and Trenton. In the meantime, funding is only approved for phase one of the project, which doesn’t include an airport station, and the conservative state legislature continues doing everything it can to kill any hope of a vibrant light rail network in the capital.