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Think Like A Passenger

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, frankly, just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who's bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they're accepting input from the community - I'll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.

As usual, what's missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?

Take as a given that we're talking about 'choice commuters' - i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don't take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).

See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.

See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.

There's about one place where the "why is this better than a bus" question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It's not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out - so you're left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again - people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it's still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.

Think about it this way: We've got a passenger. His name's Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn't he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can't shift to another street when there's an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn't going to work - he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it - and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?

Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session - in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle's perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between "good rail" and "bad rail". At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play - but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I've got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than "rail bad" or "rail good" to "this rail bad BECAUSE".

The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it's going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he's doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , I Told You So , Texas Republicans Hate Cities , Transit in Austin , Transportation , Urban Design , Use Cases


If I see one more article in the Chronicle implying that old fashioned in-traffic streetcars will work because Austin once had them before long ago, I am going to scream.
It would take gas at something like $20 a gallon before people put up with the personal and capital costs of in-traffic streetcars.
If the MBTA, in Boston with so many car-less people and the MBTA tax levy, can't even manage to justify reopening the Arborway, there's no way CapMetro, in Austin, is ever going to operate a traditional streetcar in the black.

I tend to agree with most of your arguments on these points -- should there be a word for people like me, maybe bileheads? -- but just to keep things interesting I'll play devil's advocate here.

Is it possible that a streetcar to Mueller could be successful not because it saves individual riders time or money, but just because it's cool?

Austin has other programs that get significant opt-in from people who want to be good citizens. I'm thinking, for example, of curbside pay-as-you-throw recycling and Austin Energy's renewable energy plans. These programs are sold through slightly exaggerated appeals to only-in-Austin boosterism and consumer pocketbooks. They don't save most individual participants any money (how many families recycle enough to downsize their trash cans?) but they pay off in warm fuzzies.

So: might a significant number of people in the Mueller neighborhood actually ride the streetcar out of civic pride? Even people who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus?


Thanks for the informed comment. (Had to rescue it from the junk bin due to a malconfigured regular expression I'm trying to use to keep out all the "Good site! Thanks!" commenters; argh).

The 'cool factor' is worth something; but again, I expect that most of the people who are willing to suffer a time penalty to take transit are already doing so. I guess this is the difference between daily commuter and fun traveller (i.e. tourist or bar-hopper or restaurant-goer); I could certainly see the latter group taking streetcar more than bus, but really not the former.