Sharing the rail

The following article by Brooke Pimentel appeared in Southwest Cycling News (Vol. XXI, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2011, page 1), a publication of the Austin Cycling Association. It is reprinted here with permission from the writer and the publication.

Sharing the rail

By Brooke Pimentel

Brooke Pimentel ready to board at the Crestview Station. (photo by Cory Werner)

I remember when we found out bicycles were going to be allowed on MetroRail. My boyfriend and I anticipated the upcoming rail system with curiosity, but this news pushed curiosity into true excitement. Kudos, MetroRail, for embracing bicyclists from the beginning.

Before MetroRail began running, we often walked along the railroad tracks near our house. It was one of our long routes for walking the dogs late at night when there were no trains and our only company was the skunks. (Tip: There are a lot of skunks in the fields near Crestview Station. And skunk smell does not go away easily, my friends.) During our walks we talked about all the fun things we could do, bringing our bikes along on MetroRail and exploring parts of the city too far away for bicycle exploring before MetroRail. Anticipation was high.

Meanwhile, I changed jobs, and so my commute also changed — from two miles one way to six miles one way. Going from biking 16 or so miles each week to biking 48 miles was daunting. I’m a baker/pastry chef; working in a kitchen is manual labor, which adds more physical exertion to my day. But I love riding my bike to work, not to mention that trying to find parking downtown is akin to torture for me. I realized that MetroRail was a perfect solution; I’d take MetroRail one way and still be able to ride my bike one way without exhausting myself senseless. I was stoked. 

I have a folding bicycle, which is allowed on board a bus, according to Cap Metro. Still, I don’t want to bring it on a crowded bus. I’m sure I’d get a lot of dirty looks, or even possibly refused. But my 20-inch wheels won’t fit on the installed front bike racks. So I was mostly out of luck on using public transportation, until MetroRail began service. Now I can easily get from my house to downtown in less than 20 minutes. If there are already several bikes on the train, I can fold down my bike and slide it next to my feet.

From the get-go, it was obvious bicyclists were taking full advantage of MetroRail’s bike-friendly regulations. The first few times I rode MetroRail, all the passengers had bikes. Road, commuter, mountain, BMX, folding … we were all there. Since then, I have never ridden the train without at least one other bicyclist besides me — usually there are several of us. I wonder why bicyclists are so prevalent on the new train system. Is it because we’ve already embraced a car-less lifestyle? Is it because we’ve experienced established commuter trains in other cities, so we understand the potential? Maybe because bicyclists already take full advantage of Cap Metro’s bus system, so MetroRail is considered less a novelty than just a useful expansion of the current public transit system?

The last is true for Stuart, a fellow MetroRail rider with a bike outfitted for the practical needs of a bicycle commuter. He lives south of downtown and bikes to work in North Central Austin. That day he had an evening meeting downtown and didn’t have time to bike the entire distance, so he chose MetroRail to get downtown. He said he frequently rode the bus, but his route entails several bus changes and, of course, the bus is subject to the same traffic as everyone else on the road. MetroRail meant one on, one off, and less than 30 minutes travel time from the Kramer Station (near Braker Lane) to Fourth Street downtown during rush hour. I certainly understand that, since I can get from Crestview Station (at Airport and Lamar) to downtown in 20 minutes or less during heavy rush hour traffic.

Another rider, Christian, is a recent transplant from Portland. He moved to Austin last summer, just after MetroRail began service. He commented on how nice the trains are compared to other public transit trains he’s used. As someone who lived with an established public train system, he began using MetroRail immediately. He doesn’t own a car and uses only his bicycle and public transit for transportation. Which leads to his only frustration: MetroRail doesn’t extend to the airport. He makes a good point; MetroRail could reap the benefits of shuttling people out to the airport. It’s really win-win, since MetroRail could expand ridership and people like Christian wouldn’t have to pay a hefty fee to take a cab or shuttle service to the airport. We discussed the limitations on MetroRail due to its use of existing train tracks, but it’s a valid question whether or not it could expand to include airport service.

There’s another group of people beside bicyclists who regularly ride the rails: the mobility-impaired. This presents a potential for conflict since both bicyclists and mobility-impaired riders share the same space on the train. I chatted with a fellow in a wheelchair (unfortunately I didn’t get his name) who has lived in Austin for more than 35 years and has used public transit the entire time. He relayed an upsetting encounter with a bicyclist to me.

For those who’ve never ridden the train: The train cars have glass partitions between the entry/exit areas and the bicycle/mobility impaired areas. These glass partitions unfortunately create a bottleneck at that point. For someone in a wheelchair, it can be difficult to turn around and maneuver in the area even without other people or bicycles present. One side of the train has two hooks for hanging bicycles vertically and several fold- down seats (the back wheel of the bicycle fits in a slot built into the underside of the seat). The opposite side is the same except for no bicycle hooks. Both sides have placards indicating mobility-impaired preferred seating. According to MetroRail, a maximum of four bicycles are allowed per train car. Two can be hung, and the other two can be securely parked on the opposite side or held so as not to impede traffic flow. Mobility-impaired riders or senior citizens have first priority over bicycles for these areas.

When the wheelchair occupant boarded the train, he was the only rider. He positioned his wheelchair in the designated area on one side, which happened to be the side with the bicycle hooks. At the next stop, a bicyclist boarded and became agitated when he saw where the wheelchair was positioned, loudly shouting, “You’re on the WRONG side! You’re supposed to be on THAT side!” He then made a big show of parking his bike on the other side and sitting down to hold it. The wheelchair user offered to move to the opposite side, but the bicyclist refused and continued to make angry comments the entire ride to downtown. I was shocked and appalled to hear this story, and assured him that most bicyclists wouldn’t act in such a reprehensible manner. Shame on you, mister, for embarrassing Austin bicyclists. We’re all in this together, so let’s be friendly and share the rail.

Plan to arrive a few minutes early to purchase a ticket and be prepared to board when the train arrives. (photo by Cory Werner)

MetroRail is slated to expand services starting Jan. 18. This includes expanded midday service and an increase in reverse trips during peak times. Capital Metro is also implementing a new fare structure beginning Jan. 16 that will reduce the current prices. MetroRail operates on a zone system. There are two zones, with a boundary between the Howard and Kramer stations. If you don’t cross the boundary, the new single ride cost will be $1 (tickets are valid for a two hour window). If you cross the boundary, the new cost will be $2.75. Various passes can also be purchased that will reduce the per trip fare. For more information, you can visit www.capmetro.org.

In my personal experience, MetroRail is very reliable. I’ve only encountered two times when the train didn’t run. Neither one was MetroRail’s fault: the first involved a freight train on an adjacent track that had a wheel ‘walk off’, but transportation rules required all tracks to be shut down until it was resolved. The MetroRail connector buses stepped up and took all the waiting passengers to our locations within minutes. The second was when Austin received torrential rains from a Gulf hurricane, which resulted in the tracks being underwater in several places. The scrolling information boards and accompanying verbal announcements were already communicating the shutdown (as were general radio announcements) when I arrived at the station, allowing me to make alternate plans quickly.

MetroRail offers a huge opportunity for bicyclists to supplement their riding with public transportation that is easy and inexpensive. Some words of advice from my experience on MetroRail:

1. Get there a little early, especially if you need to purchase a ticket. The trains stop and go pretty quickly, so you need to be ready to board.

2. Be ready to hang up your bicycle. Remove any loose items from the bicycle so you can quickly position it on the train.

3. Ditto for getting off. The boarding process is fast, so be ready to grab your bike and get off quickly.

4. Bikes aren’t supposed to be in the aisle between the seats. MetroRail is giving bicyclists props by being pro-bicycle from the start; let’s not blow it by refusing to be courteous. Technically they can refuse to allow more than four bikes per car (For reference: Christian told me there are sometimes 8-10 bikes per car on his morning commute).

5. It’s true no one is regularly checking tickets on the train. Be honest. Pay for your ride. And don’t forget: they have security cameras.

6. Last, but not least, ride friendly. Share the Rail.

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