You can't have TOD without good T
So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let's see how attractive the "T" component of the "TOD" will be for Crestview Station, the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don't achieve the true benefits of TOD.
First, let's consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She's able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that's not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.
But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked "UT". Well, she's rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:
The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. "What a pain in the ass," thinks Paula, "if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn't I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in
2006 2007 2008 2010, I'll just take the Rapid Bus there".
On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. "What happens," Paula wondered, "if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it's stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening"
Paula ain't gonna ride this thing again, folks.
Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I'll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:
"Wow," said Steve, "I didn't believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do."
What's Steve's better option?
Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn't it?
Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. "Wow," he thought, "this is a lot more comfortable than the bus - and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there's nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?"
"I got off the train," Larry explained later, "and there was a shuttle bus there that said 'downtown', but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that's what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better - a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I'll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn't there a better way to do this?"
The common thread in all three of these "direct" pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it's pretty darn clear that most "choice commuters" (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn't require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and "transit-adjacent development", and pay particular attention to this item:
Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we're likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren't going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.