For many years, the rickety brown and green ‘Dillo buses were a familiar sight around downtown Austin. A circulator shuttle operated on our central streets in the 1970s even before the formation of Capital Metro, Austin’s modern-day public transit agency, but the service wasn’t fully expanded and dubbed the “Armadillo Express” until 1984.
These trolley car-lookalikes shuttled tourists, commuters and office workers along an extensive system of loop lines in and around downtown, traveling to West Campus, South Congress, Sixth Street, Pleasant Valley, and all points in between.
But in 2009, as Cap Metro felt the squeeze of the recession, the Dillo came to an end — it seems running free trolleys wasn’t high on the list of the city’s transportation priorities. To its credit, the agency first tried cutting back service from five to just two routes — one running up and down Congress Avenue, and another along Sixth Street — and also started charging a 50-cent fare. A few months later, Cap Metro axed the service entirely, stating that the Dillo’s special buses were expensive to run but ultimately carried very few riders.
Some Austinites hold fond memories of Dillo joyrides; a recent Austin Monitor article referred to the defunct transit service as “beloved.” But in hindsight, the Dillo’s track record was mixed. Its ridership had always been modest, even when the buses were free, and almost everyone I asked about the Dillos on Twitter could only recall their back-breaking wooden seats. Riders who sounded off on Cap Metro’s blog after the Dillo’s mothballing said the service was mismanaged, and that it should have been tweaked with more convenient routes instead of being killed off entirely.
Could we bring the Dillo back from the dead? It’s been nearly a decade since the shuttles last hit Austin streets, and a lot has changed in town since then. Let’s take a look at a few arguments for its resurrection.
Downtown circulators — the technical term for services like the Dillo — are common in big cities. Like the Dillos, they usually have free or reduced fares, and a schedule so frequent that you don’t need to wait long for one to arrive — the Dillo’s five-minute headway time was one of its major selling points.
These services are usually partnerships between a city, its transit authority, and a business association or business improvement district of some kind. For visitors and tourists, circulators provide a convenient way to access attractions and destinations in a city’s central business district, and riders who choose this form of transit avoid the hassles of parking and the expenses of hailing a rideshare or checking out a bike or scooter. In Texas, you’ll find examples of downtown circulators in El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston.
Circulators tend to operate with buses, but they don’t have to be smoggy and outdated like the gaudy Mister Rogers wannabes that made up the Dillo fleet. They can use comfortable, modern vehicles, like Houston’s Greenlink circulator which runs on compressed natural gas. Other cities have opted to install permanent tracks and run streetcars that serve the same purpose.
Downtown Austin’s landscape has changed considerably since the Dillos stopped running in 2009. The creation of the Seaholm district, the opening of the new Central Library, Republic Square’s renovation, and a crop of new residential towers all translate to more housing, people, and economic activity downtown than ever before — meaning there’s increased demand for reliable central transit.
Speaking of transit, Cap Metro says it’s getting serious about fixing Austin’s traffic. The plan? Building a complete system of rapid transit lines that would connect Austin together with speed and efficiency. These lines, and the rapid buses and trains that follow them, would radiate out from the downtown core, extending to Austin’s furthest neighborhoods — and yes, that includes the airport.
How this system will fit within downtown, however, is less clear. Cap Metro hasn’t yet decided which streets — Guadalupe/Lavaca, Congress, Sixth, Seventh or Trinity/Red River — the new transit lines will run on, or which transit technology — light rail, bus rapid transit, or some innovative new system — will actually be used for each line. But regardless of the precise details, the agency is certain that we’ll also need new downtown circulator lines, which might stretch between South Congress Avenue and the University of Texas. In other words, as part of the construction of this multi-billion dollar transit system, Cap Metro wants to build something that sounds awfully like what the Dillos once were.
And what for? It’s likely that each transit line will only serve one part of downtown. We can see an example of this today—MetroRapid runs up the west side of downtown along Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets, while the MetroRail Red Line serves the east side around the Convention Center. If your train or bus drops you off on the wrong side of downtown, there’s a good chance you’ll face a long, inconvenient walk to your final destination, but a downtown circulator could take you that very last mile.
These “next-gen Dillos” would look nothing like the Dillos of yesteryear. Cap Metro is currently studying the use of sleek, modern streetcars and buses, and such vehicles could be augmented with battery propulsion, driverless operation or dedicated lanes to cut through downtown traffic:
To Austin’s credit, being one of the first cities Waymo tested its self-driving cars in has rightly earned us the title of the “Kitty Hawk” of autonomous vehicles — but unfortunately for us consumers, it’ll be quite some time before driverless cars are ready for mainstream adoption. Programming a self-driving car to handle every weather condition, traffic pattern and city street is difficult, and it will take many years for software and automobile engineers to get everything just right.
It’s a different story with public transit. Buses follow predetermined routes, so it’s far easier to build a practical autonomous bus than a comparable autonomous car. This means we can expect mass transit to be one of the first successful applications of autonomous vehicle technology — and for Austin, in fact, autonomous transit is just around the corner.
This fall, Capital Metro plans to introduce a new downtown circulator that will use experimental autonomous buses carrying up to 15 people each. The buses will have no steering wheels or pedals, but an attendant will ride along to insure safe operation and assist passengers with disabilities. So far, there’s been no word on the exact routes, schedules or even the name of the new service, but it’s shaping up to be a sort of Dillo revival, albeit with a decidedly 21st-century twist:
When the Dillos still ran, they definitely had some flaws — old, uncomfortable buses and routes that could have used some tweaks, to name a few — but even so, some Austinites still fondly remember the Dillos as a convenient and affordable way to get around.
Times have changed, from the rise (and fall, and rise) of Uber, to the proliferation of dockless bikes and scooters, but the case for the Dillo has never been stronger. Our skyline never stops growing, Cap Metro has big new transit projects in the works, and we’re locked into a furious race to develop autonomous vehicles. Today, Austin remains the only big Texas city without a downtown circulator — seriously, are we going to let El Paso and Fort Worth beat us on this?
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