CapMetro will now offer free rides to Austin's cooling centers through the end of September
Capital Metro is now giving free rides to cooling centers to anyone experiencing homelessness through Sept. 30.
The move comes after weeks of pushback from advocates who argued the transit authority’s policy was inconsistent amid record-breaking heat.
Initially, CapMetro used a 105-degree threshold to trigger its policy requiring bus drivers to give free rides. Advocates said that was too high a bar. The transit operator then dropped its threshold to 103 degrees, the temperature at which local officials issue heat advisories. Then on Thursday, it said it would offer free rides to cooling centers regardless of the temperature.
Paulette Soltani, director of organizing for the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, has been advocating for free fares for all riders during the heat wave. She said the jumbled messaging led to confusion among homeless Austinites looking to cool off as temperatures hovered in the triple digits over the last few weeks.
"It's a promising step, but obviously, so many people have been burnt by so many systems across Austin — CapMetro included," she said. "People just really want to have the confidence that CapMetro is going to fully enforce this new policy, and that no questions are going to be asked of riders who are getting on and stating they're going to a cooling center."
Gardner Tabon, executive vice president and chief safety officer for CapMetro, said he met with advocates and Austinites experiencing homelessness ahead of the decision this week.
"They shared their stories, and we heard them loudly and clearly. So, for what we can do for them, we wanted to ... at the very least get you to cooling centers," he said. "That is why we made the decision. We want to be a good partner with not just those advocating for [people experiencing homelessness], but for the community itself."
Soltani welcomed the decision, but said some folks might not trust rides will be free because of the confusion surrounding the policy.
“I had printed out a letter that CapMetro sent … to us announcing this, and people said they were going to fold that up and carry it in their wallets because that way they could show bus drivers if they were being challenged about the rule," she said. "That's the level of [a] lack of confidence that people have in the system, that they need a flyer to be able to show a bus driver.”
Tabon said he is confident drivers will honor the policy, and that conversations over how to best serve Austinites experiencing homelessness — and all transit riders — are ongoing.
"Capital Metro is very sincere and being very intentional about doing the right thing, and we want to serve our community. That's what we're here for, right?" he said. "Our core purpose is to provide transit services."