Lonely Buses in the Lone Star Capital

AUSTIN, TX – It’s 7:29 a.m. and the Route 19 Metrobus is five minutes late.

“Just in time,” Capital Metro bus driver John Evans says to a passenger who sprinted to board the bus.

When the doors rotate closed, overcast light from the morning sunrise competes with the dim fluorescent bulbs inside the bus. The morning silence is only broken by the consistent hum and rattle of the bus as it careens toward the Northwest Hills of Austin.

“Greystone [Drive] is my favorite. It’s just beautiful,” Evans says. “You can see the deer in the morning across the way. Wouldn’t mind living along here some day.”

The Route 19 bus is one of 11 regular routes that boards only 1,000 passengers or less in a week, according to Capital Metro’s latest ridership survey data published in 2010. Busier routes carry anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 passengers per week.

Driving from the Northwest suburbs to downtown, the Route 19 also serves an area with some of the lowest ridership in Austin.

Evans, who has worked as a bus driver since moving from New Orleans 18 months ago, doesn’t know why people in the Northwest suburbs don’t ride the bus.

“Your guess is just as good as mine,” Evans says. “It could be connections. People just can’t get to their jobs where it’s not too far to walk.”

When asked if he rides the bus when not working, Evans hesitates before answering.

“No,” he says with a laugh.

On stops along Greystone Drive in the Northwest Hills there are high school marching bands practicing in parking lots and joggers climbing and descending hills on the rolling streets.

By 8 a.m. the bus has seven passengers.

After dropping her children at school, Holly Motley boards the bus with a smile. Even though Motley lives near East Austin, her children transferred schools to attend Murchison Middle School. Their transfer however, means that Motley commutes six hours each day to escort them to and from school.

Motley, who works as an artist, began taking the bus in 2004 when her license was taken away for not paying her car insurance.

“It takes an hour to do what I used to do in 15 minutes,” Motley says. “Time-wise it makes more sense to have a car, but I do what I have to do.”

Behind Motley sits Jimmy Davis, who commutes an hour and a half in the morning and two hours in the evening to get to his job at the Austin Lighthouse for the Blind in South Austin. Davis usually doesn’t ride the Route 19, but was forced to transfer after his regular bus broke down.

Davis, who is legally blind from his Glaucoma, has been riding the Metro bus since 1975. Since he is not able to drive, Davis depends on the bus to get him to and from work.

“I know how people feel when it comes to the agony of waiting on the bus for a long period of time,” Davis says as he faces the window.

The Route 19’s on-time departure is only 62% compared to an average 88% for all routes, according to a Capital Metro performance review. Capital Metro says these bus delays are most frequently caused by traffic congestion during peak hours.

At 8:57 a.m. sunlight beams through the morning clouds and casts dark shadows on the handful of passengers still on the bus. After departing the Northwest suburbs for its downtown commute, the Route 19 carries six passengers, with room to seat 28.

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