March 28, 2005

Transportation microeconomics 101

I talk about this enough that it might should be its own category.

Problem: Bozoes in government, in the media and elsewhere think about transportation at only the highest level - where you're moving thousands of people around the city. This usually ends up producing plans which fail spectacularly at serving their intended constituents. Since this often boils down to money, I'll call this "transportation macroeconomics" even though most of the people who do it aren't thinking about economics. (Hint: they should be).

Solution: Transportation microeconomics. Whenever evaluating some transportation plan or change in economic conditions, take a couple of representative 'use-cases' and analyze the economics of their decision-making at their local (individual) level.

Example 1: Toll Roads. Local activist Roger Baker has been on my case on the austin-bikes email list for talking favorably about toll roads (as the least noxious of the two realistic possible outcomes - the other one being that all of those toll roads are built anyways, but as free roads). I'm going to be more favorable to him than he is to me, and construct an argument based on his stated motivations (he likes to accuse me of being a toll-loving road warrior). Roger's point is, basically, that the toll roads won't have enough traffic to pay off the bonds once the "oil peak" causes gasoline to get even more expensive than it is now. He's definitely one of the SOS-bloc (don't build these roads at all because they promote sprawl and hurt the aquifer) rather than the free-roads-bloc ("double taxation!") best exemplified by Brewster McCracken and Gerald Daugherty, who will end up getting central Austin to pay for these roads via property and sales tax kick-ins.

So, is Roger right? Would expensive gasoline lead to an exodus from the suburbs and a default on the bonds which back the toll roads? Or am I right - that the traffic which today would fill the toll roads in a second isn't going anywhere even as gasoline gets more expensive. Let's look at a use-case.

Joe Suburban drives his Suburban on a 30-mile round-trip every day from western Travis County to his job in one of the southern suburban office parks. He gets roughly 15 mpg on this commute and pays $2.00/gallon for gas today. By some calculations, which include depreciation, he pays a hefty price for his commute even today, but I categorically reject the idea that suburbanites will reduce the number of vehicles they own (barring catastrophically high gas prices), so depreciation should not honestly be part of the cost equation. Using my handy depreciation-free cost estimator, Joe's daily commute cost is $2.79 today (remember, no tolls yet). Is that enough to convince Joe to carpool? Not today it isn't. Is it enough to convince him to use transit? Even at the discounted rate, the bus trip from the park-and-ride at 290/71 costs him probably an hour extra time per day, and still a buck ($1.79 savings at the cost of an hour). This assumes he even HAS a transit option, of course. Most suburbanites don't.

Suppose gasoline DOUBLES in price - to $4.00 a gallon. Joe's daily commute cost (with new tolls of, let's say, $1.50/day) is now: $6.91/day. His "transit cost" is now $5.91 for an hour of time, assuming no rise in bus fares (unlikely). Still not very attractive, I hate to say.

All right, suppose gasoline TRIPLES in price - to $6.00 a gallon. Joe's cost is $9.58/day. Transit option would save $8.58 a day at the price of an hour. I hate to break it to you, but most suburbanites would still drive at this cost.

Bad news for Roger: $6.00/gallon gas is roughly equivalent to $160/barrel (working backwards from this logic which is admittedly crude). That's quite a bit further down the "oil peak" road than most people think we'll hit anytime 'soon'.

In other words, it will take such huge increases in the cost of gasoline to get suburbanites to stop driving to work alone that it's not even a factor for the foreseeable future. Even then, one would assume that rather than abandoning their stake in the 'burbs, some large percentage of suburban drivers would just get more fuel-efficient cars. At $6.00/gallon, driving a Toyota Prius, Joe Suburban's daily commute cost drops back to 2.48 without tolls and 3.98 with. Oops.

See my previous article on my 'week without a car' -- even for me, who is the only guy at my 60-person office who could possibly take the bus to work without transfers, it's not cost-and-time-effective to use transit until gasoline is really REALLY expensive. It costs me about 30 extra minutes per day and saves me pocket change.

When does transit make sense? When the time penalty is minimal and/or the cost savings are comparatively large. Two obvious (much shorter) use-cases:

1. If I worked downtown, I could take the #5 bus straight there at a time penalty of perhaps 5 minutes. This time penalty is so small as to be not worth counting, and I could actually get rid of a car, thus moving us into the realm of the traditional commute calculators - a huge economic win for the transit alternative. Unfortunately, the current economic regime penalizes businesses who locate downtown rather than in the 'burbs (far higher property taxes) even though they generate far less demand on city services.

2. Lucy Leander works at the University of Texas and has to pay roughly $5/day for parking. She lives close to a park-and-ride where she can pick up a good express bus to work which isn't much slower than her car would be. Here's her comparison. Even at $2/gallon, she saves $7.36 a day (without getting rid of a car) and only spends a few more minutes. Note that having to pay for parking makes this comparison far more favorable for transit.

So my lesson is: Major employers should be downtown (where transit can serve them), and parking shouldn't be free. Until either one of these is fixed, however, you're going to get nowhere with me by claiming that a plan is economically viable (or not) based on gasoline prices.

Unfortunately, current conventional wisdom is still that spreading jobs through the suburbs reduces average driving (absolutely false). The facts have an anti-suburban bias, I guess.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Driving in Austin , Funding of Transportation , I Told You So , Transit in Austin
Posted by m1ek at 09:59 AM | Comments (4)

March 23, 2005

I'm back

Was in Hawaii for 10 days; back now. I have a backlog of things to write, but for the time being, here's a link to Michael Bluejay's Shoal Creek page which has now been updated with new pictures.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , Personal , When Neighborhoods Go Bad , metablog
Posted by m1ek at 09:19 AM

March 09, 2005

RIP, Joseph Henry Dahmus

My grandfather passed away in his sleep on Monday afternoon. Since I spent my first 9 years in State College and was one of the oldest grandchildren, I got to spend a lot of time with those grandparents as a kid, and will miss him tremendously. Even today I find my outlook on things shaped by what I observed at their house as a kid - the model he set by living close to work and walking to his office every day (even when retired) is what I end up trying to achieve in my own life (well into his 80s he was in better shape than most people I know today). Read the obituary for more on this extraordinary man.

A picture including four generations (Grandpa, my dad, me, and Ethan) from this July can be found here

This entry was posted in the following categories: Personal
Posted by m1ek at 08:42 AM | Comments (5)

Shoal Creek Report #2

Well, I ended up driving down Shoal Creek last night on the way home from work (from 2222 to 41st St.) due to a traffic jam, ironically right after reading a thread on the Allandale neighborhood group in which residents are grumbling about the project now that they're seeing it 'in action'.

This trip confirmed some things that I saw before, and conflicted with some things that residents of the street have previously said.

  1. I saw more cars parked this time
  2. I saw one vehicle turn into the 'shared lane' and drive down it for at least a block before turning right off Shoal Creek
  3. The apparent space between the white line and the parked car looks much smaller when I'm driving than it does when I'm biking, and it didn't look big on my bike. Hopefully this will result in drivers being more patient when cyclists take the lane.
  4. I only passed one cyclist (going the opposite direction) during my drive. It's not surprising that most motorists thus think conflicts with cyclists and parked cars are rare -- for each motorist trip, there's a very low chance of conflict; but for each cyclist trip, there's a very high chance of conflict. (There's ten or twenty drivers for each cyclist at a bare minimum - even though this road has a lot of cyclists, there's still far more motorists).
  5. Most motorists I observed drifted over the white lines on turns. I don't know how to solve this.
This entry was posted in the following categories: Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , The Shoal Creek Debacle , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 08:35 AM

March 07, 2005

TOD isn't going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.

Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there's a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month - unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don't want any more density (and there's not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don't have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways -- because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn't belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.

So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects - TOD would have just been an added bonus there).

Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the 'business case' for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won't be much TOD at all when the thing's finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don't merit it, and don't give money to projects that do).

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 , Transit in Austin , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 12:07 PM

1997 Travis County Highway Bonds

(From Travis County's poorly maintained site):

  • $3.5 million for SH45 south right-of-way
  • $4 million for SH130 right-of-way

Other highlights in that election were:

  • $36 million for other road projects (none of which were inside Austin city limits; but paid for by all Travis County residents)
  • $1.6 million for MKT trail, which I don't recall ever seeing any action on
This entry was posted in the following categories: Funding of Transportation
Posted by m1ek at 08:12 AM

2001 Travis County highway bonds

(Source: Austin Chronicle)

2001 Travis County bond election items of transportation interest:

Highways:


  • $32.7 million for SH45 north and FM1826
  • $66.2 million for SH130

Other interest:


  • $57.4 million for other road projects (none within city of Austin; city of Austin taxpayers charged same rate as people in unincorporated Travis County)

This entry was posted in the following categories: Funding of Transportation
Posted by m1ek at 08:10 AM

2000 Austin Bond Election Language

CATRANSCO summary of this package; city language follows below.

This election set aside $90 million for contributions from Austin for state highway projects.

(I'm excerpting these and saving because I don't know how long the city will keep up these old pages).

The issuance of $150,000,000 tax-supported general obligation bonds to improve roadway intersections, acquire right-of-way, provide funds for highway and roadway construction, develop high occupancy vehicle lanes and related infrastructure, improve bicycle and pedestrian mobility infrastructure, construct related drainage facility improvements, and acquire land and other property interests for these projects; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay the bonds.

If approved, the $150 million would be spent in three major categories:

€ To help accelerate major highway projects inside the City that are built by the State.

€ Capacity improvements on City roadways, including expanded lanes, improved intersections, and High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.

€ Pedestrian and bikeway projects.

The currently anticipated amount to be spent in each category is:
€ $90 million for matching grants.
€ $40 million for capacity improvements.
€ $20 million for pedestrian, bikeway and sidewalk projects.

The Austin City Council also established criteria about the expenditure of the bonds, should they be approved:

Unless the road is authorized by an election of the City of Austin or another jurisdiction and the spending is approved by the Austin City Council, the bond proceeds will not be used to fund matches for road infrastructure of right-of-way through:

€ The Drinking Water Protection Zone.
€ A City of Austin preserve.
€ A City of Austin destination park

For each proposed use of bond proceeds for a road project, City staff must make a recommendation on the proposed use through an analysis of:

€ The tax equity and social equity implications for City of Austin residents.
€ Impact of the proposed project on the Drinking Water Protection Zone.
€ Impact of the proposed project on increased mobility, decreased congestion and air quality.
€ Any alternatives to the proposed project that provide the same or better congestion relief with improved air quality.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Funding of Transportation
Posted by m1ek at 08:08 AM

1998 Austin Bond Election Language

(Original city language below; I wasn't able to find a good summary anywhere).

There wasn't any apparent donation to TXDOT for highways in this package; but it does show how expensive it is to maintain the city's arterial network. Austin maintains a far higher percentage of its major arterial network than other localities in the area.

The issuance of $152,000,000 in tax supported General Obligation Bonds for improving traffic signal synchronization and control systems, acquiring and installing traffic signals, improving and reconstructing roads and streets, and constructing, reconstructing and improving drainage facilities related to roads and streets; and acquiring land and interests in land and property necessary to do so; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay the bonds.

Several key transportation projects make up Proposition One.

The City of Austin periodically has the opportunity to apply for Federal and/or State funding to implement projects such as new roadways, road expansions, sidewalks and bicycle facilities. Approving Proposition One will provide required matching funds as well as funding for City-sponsored projects to improve and install sidewalks and bicycle facilities. This category also includes rights-of-way funding for mandated projects, including U.S. 183/290.

Street improvements that may be funded with approval of Proposition One include, but are not limited to: Loyola Lane from Johnny Morris Road to Decker Lane; Dittmar Road from South First Street to Manchaca Road; Manchaca Road from Matthews Lane to William Cannon Drive; Rutherford Lane from Interstate 35 to Cameron Road; South Congress Avenue; Barton Springs Road; and Dorsett Road. This proposition also would provide funding for the Great Streets program. This program includes projects to enhance the use and appearance of Austin's streets and sidewalks, including landscaping, irrigation, pedestrian and other mobility improvements.

Additionally, funding is proposed to upgrade and enhance intersections by adding right turn lanes, left turn lanes or through lanes; adding sidewalks and/or bicycle lanes where appropriate; and generally improving traffic flow in the travel corridor as part of Transportation System Management.

Traffic signal system enhancement and the installation of new signals also would be funded through approval of Proposition One.

Finally, Proposition One would provide for a number of street reconstruction projects which may include, but are not limited to: Woodhollow Drive from Far West Boulevard to Spicewood Springs Road; 34th Street from Guadalupe Street to Funston Street; Enfield Road from MoPac Boulevard to Exposition Boulevard; Convict Hill Road from Kandy Drive to Wagon Train Road; and Cesar Chavez Street from IH-35 to Pleasant Valley Road. Some industrial-area streets that would be targeted for reconstruction include: Todd Lane from Burleson Road to St. Elmo Road East; St. Elmo Road from IH-35 to Nuckols Crossing; St. Elmo Road East from IH-35 to Congress Avenue South; Terry-O Lane from St. Elmo Road East (S) to St. Elmo Road East (N); Freidrich Lane from St. Elmo Road to Teri Road; Industrial Boulevard from St. Elmo Road East to Congress Avenue; roads throughout the Central Business District; and other roads citywide.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Funding of Transportation
Posted by m1ek at 08:07 AM

These things are connected

It's not a coincidence that now that small cars are rated on how they stand up to crashes with SUVs, that gas is headed up for good, but nobody in the suburbs will understand why this is so, and why it's really going to hurt this country's economic competitiveness.

Meanwhile, Western Europe waits patiently for their turn...

March 04, 2005

Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

Excerpted from a discussion on the austin-bikes email list, where one of my self-appointed burdens is to be the voice of reason towards those who live in the center-city echo chamber (where everybody bikes; where nobody wants sprawling highways; etc).

The last paragraph of my response is the most relevant piece, and the one that the person I was responding to and many other wishful thinkers just don't get. I, thanks to moving here with suburbanites, and working with exclusively suburbanites, have learned the following painful truths:

  • There are more suburbanites around here than urbanites. A LOT more. And the most recent election, they finally WON a seat in our city council (McCracken over Clarke) DESPITE much higher turnout in the center-city.
  • Outside Austin, there are no urbanites. CAMPO is now 2/3 suburban, for instance.
  • Suburbanites cannot conceive of any lifestyle other than the suburban one. Really. I get blank stares when I tell them I rode the bus to work today, or when I say I walked to the store.
  • The sheer population and geographical coverage of suburban neighborhoods means that even if gas gets really expensive, they're still going to be living there. Resistance to their redevelopment in ways which aren't so car-dependent and the cost of such modifications means we're stuck with what we have now for at least a few more decades. Yes, even at $5.00/gallon.

Here's the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:

> On Mar 4, 2005, at 9:34 AM, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
> Roger Baker wrote:
>
> McCracken is the immediate hero here, but he likely wouldn't
> have done it without Sal Costello, SOSA, and all the
> independent grassroots organizing.
>
> On CAMPO, McCracken's resolution got defeated about 2 to 1,
> with Gerald Daugherty on the bad side, along with CAMPO
> Director Aulick. TxDOT's Bob Daigh deserves a special bad
> actor award for expressing his opinion just before the CAMPO
> vote, with no reasons given, that any independent study of the
> CAMPO plan would be likely to threaten TxDOT funding for our
> area. -- Roger
>
>
> Just like the transit people in Austin with Mike Krusee, you've
> been completely snookered if you think these people are your friends.
> The goal of McCracken et al is NOT to stop building these roads;
> it is to build these roads quickly as FREE HIGHWAYS.
> In other words, McCracken and Costello ___ARE___ THE ROAD LOBBY!
> Keep that in mind, folks. Slusher and Bill Bunch don't want the
> roads at all, but pretty much everybody else who voted against the
> toll plan wants to build them as free roads.
> And these highways built free is a far worse prospect for Austin
> and especially central Austin than if they're built as toll roads,
> in every possible respect.
> - MD
>
>
> All that is easy for Mike to say but, as usual, lacks any factual basis or
> documentation. Furthermore, he does not appear to read what I have previously
> documented.

As for factual basis or documentation, it should be obvious to anybody with the awareness of a three-year-old that McCracken's playing to his suburban constituents who WANT THESE ROADS, AND WANT THEM TO BE FREE, rather than Slusher's environmentalist constituents, who don't want the roads at all.

As for reading what you've previously documented; oh, if only it were true. If only I hadn't wasted a good month of my life reading your repeated screeds about the oil peak which have almost convinced me to go out and buy an SUV just to spite you.

POLITICAL REALITY MATTERS. The suburban voters who won McCracken his seat over Margot Clarke WANT THESE HIGHWAYS TO BE BUILT. AND THEY DON'T WANT THEM BUILT AS TOLL ROADS BECAUSE THEY'LL HAVE TO PAY (MORE) OF THE BILL IF THEY DO.

Here's what's going to happen if Roger's ilk convinces the environmental bloc to continue their unholy alliance with the suburban road warriors like McCracken and Daugherty:

1. We tell TXDOT we don't want toll roads.
2. TXDOT says we need to kick in a bunch more money to get them built free.
3. We float another huge local bond package to do it (just like we did for local 'contributions' for SH 45, SH 130, and US 183A).
4. The roads get built, as free highways.
5. Those bonds are paid back by property and sales taxes, which disproportionately hit central Austinites, and especially penalize people who don't or only infrequently drive.

Here's what's going to happen if the toll roads get built, as toll roads:

1. TXDOT builds them.
2. The current demand for the roadway is large enough to fill the coffers enough to keep the enterprise going without the bonds defaulting.
3. (Even if #2 doesn't happen, we're at worst no worse off than above; with the added bonus that suburbanites still get to finally pay user fees for their trips on the roads).

Here's what's going to happen in Roger Fantasyland:

1. McCracken, Gerald Daugherty, et al have a Come To Jesus moment and decide that we Really Don't Need Any More Highways In The 'Burbs.

Now, be honest. Which one of the three scenarios above do you find least likely?

YES, EVEN IF GAS TRIPLES IN PRICE, SUBURBANITES WILL STILL DRIVE. THE OIL PEAK IN THIS SENSE DOESN'T ****MATTER****. The people out there in Circle C aren't going anywhere in the short term, and it'll be decades before their neighborhoods are redeveloped in a less car-dependent fashion, assuming we can afford to.

- MD

Blame TXDOT

Today's Statesman is full of people whining that "city planners" didn't get Ben White / I-35 right.

For those who still don't get it: NOBODY AT THE CITY OF AUSTIN GETS ONE LICK OF LOUSY INPUT INTO THE DESIGN OF AN INTERCHANGE BETWEEN TWO STATE HIGHWAYS. If the road has a big route number on it (like "2222", "71", "290", "I-35", "US-183"), the city doesn't control the road, and TXDOT doesn't ask for the city's opinion on things.

The sum total of the involvement of the City is to screw with signal timings at intersections with traffic lights, in a few cases. And in most of those cases, the bad design decisions made independently by TXDOT mean that all the signal timing changes in the world won't help.

To whit:

Today I biked to work. (Well, I biked to the bus to work; I'll be biking all the way home). I forgot to pack my lunch. I had a bunch of leftover change in my bike bag, so I walked along this route to the local McDonald's to get a cheap greasy lunch.

I noticed a pretty long backup, as always, at the Braker intersection. Today, I ended up passing the same stopped cars a couple of times; so I started paying attention. Guess what? I was able to beat a car in the right lane ON FOOT from my office to the other side of the Braker intersection. This wasn't a twenty-foot trek either. According to Yahoo, this is a quarter-mile jaunt.

Why is this intersection so bad? Why is Ben White's rebuild so painful? Two words: frontage roads. When TXDOT 'builds' a freeway, they're actually (9 times out of 10) turning an existing arterial roadway (with driveways, strip malls, etc) into a freeway by using the original roadspace for the new main lanes and then widening into property on the sides to build "frontage roads" (one-way streets which the main lanes exit to and enter from).

So what are the problems with frontage roads?

  1. They generate their own traffic - cities (who had to give up a ton of land, and in most cases even PAY for the pleasure) aren't going to restrict future development along these streets, especially since TXDOT sells them on the idea that they should keep doing so.
  2. They cause poor intersection design. Most intersection with frontage roads must operate with four independent cycles - meaning that the people arriving from each of 4 directions are given exclusive use of the intersection on their green light. (The "intersection" in this case extends to both frontage roads). Two major two-way arterials which intersect, on the other hand, operate with two cycles (one for each road) with minor additional cycles for left turns.
  3. They preclude better interchanges down the road - unless it's to another freeway. In other states, the intersection at Braker would have long since been upgraded with more space, possibly changed to a SPUI (single-point urban interchange which reduces traffic signal cycles to essentially 3), or possibly improved with a ramp modification, or even adding one or two flyovers... but not here. Here, we're stuck the way we are. On Ben White, you can build a direct connector ramp (flyover) since there's another freeway on the other side. On Braker, building a flyover would mean bulldozing everything on one corner of the intersection that located there because of the frontage road.
  4. They actively exclude cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. Typically fewer crossings are built or preserved on highways with frontage roads (example: US 183 between Spicewood Springs and 620). This is a minor irritant to motorists but completely screws other users of the roadway, since it's not practical for them to walk a mile down the road, cross at the only remaining crossing for a mile either way (Anderson Mill), and walk back.

What should TXDOT have done in these cases?

Simple: either toughen up and just admit that we can't preserve property access on what's supposed to be a limited-access highway, or do what they do in other states - build perimeter roads (that maintain property access from the city streets, not directly from the highway) rather than frontage roads. This would run counter to the ethos that highway construction and expansion exists to promote retail traffic, which is why it'll never happen in this state, but that's what it would take.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Driving in Austin , Funding of Transportation , Texas Republicans Hate Cities
Posted by m1ek at 12:38 PM | Comments (3)

March 03, 2005

What Rapid Bus Looks Like In Practice

While researching the last entry, I discovered a site which is a fairly harsh critic of Boston's transit agency, and this gem of an update on their "Silver Line" BRT project (which restored transit service on a corridor which had elevated rail years before).

I urge anybody interested in transit to read this, especially if you're tempted to believe that Rapid Bus is going to be a big improvement over current bus service.

(also added them to my links).

This entry was posted in the following categories: Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want
Posted by m1ek at 02:09 PM | Comments (1)

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid

Earlier this week, Capital Metro included a flyer in copies of the local newspaper which touted Rapid Bus down Lamar/Guadalupe, opening late 2006 or early 2007.

Coincidentally, Wednesday night I had to drop my wife off and pick her up at an appointment which allowed me to travel down Guadalupe from 30th to 6th streets at the extreme tail end of rush hour (6:40 PM). I paid special attention to the ability of cars and buses to navigate through this congested corridor.

First: a short re-hash of what Rapid Bus is:

  • Rapid Bus is not "bus rapid transit". "bus rapid transit" or BRT in short picks from a set of items off a menu which will supposedly improve the speed, reliability, and attractiveness of bus transit. The hopes are that it will bring bus transit up to the level of a good urban rail line. In practice (in the United States), this has been far from the case - mainly due to the reluctance to set aside dedicated right-of-way for the bus vehicle, which results in poor speed and reliability compared to rail (and poor relative performance compared to the private automobile). Even when bus lanes are created, the fact that they are typically in-street makes them worthless in practice since cars just use them anyways.
  • Capital Metro is certainly moving towards BRT with this line, but even they admit that it's not good enough to call it BRT yet. (That's even with the slip-shod definition of BRT which allows for it to be declared even with only a few improvements over normal bus service).
  • In fact, both the existing express buses (which travel down US 183, Mopac, and I-35) and limited buses (which run down normal corridors with fewer stops) already implement some features of BRT. (fewer stops and improved vehicles).

So what characteristics of BRT is Capital Metro including in the design of this new service to make it "Rapid"?

  • Signal prioritization - i.e. the ability to hold traffic signals green for a few seconds as the bus approaches
  • Off-bus fare payment
  • Longer (probably articulated) buses
  • Fewer stops

That's pretty much it. Items that might help make the service more like a light rail line which are not being included:

  • Dedicated right-of-way
  • Full control over traffic signals - i.e. lights turn green when the vehicle approaches
  • Electic power (overhead "caternary" wires or in-street power)

So how does "Rapid Bus" look to improve service along Lamar/Guadalupe? Like I said, I drove the most congested part of the route just yesterday, and it doesn't look good.

  • The ability to hold the next light green for 5 or 10 seconds isn't going to help during rush hour at all! At almost every single intersection with a traffic light, I waited through at least one green cycle before being able to proceed, since traffic was always backed up from further down the road. And this was at 6:40 PM! That means that while the bus can hold the signal at 27th green for a while longer, it doesn't matter because the backup from 26th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 21st, and MLK is preventing the bus from moving anyways.
  • Off-bus payment is going to be irrelevant. Now that Capital Metro is using SmartCards for everything short of single-fare rides, very few people are having to take more than a second to pay when they get on the bus (this is from my own bus rides on the 983 and 3 lately). Basically, paying is no longer slowing the boarding process.
  • Fewer stops is already possible with the #101. This bus is still woefully slow and woefully unreliable compared to the private automobile, to say nothing of quality rail service (which could in fact beat the automobile on both counts).
  • The ride is going to be uncomfortable. The pavement along Guadalupe simply can't stand the beating it gets from heavy vehicles like buses and trucks - and this is not going to change anytime soon. Rather than running down the middle of the street on rails (as light-rail would have done), the Rapid Bus vehicle will run in the right lane of the street on the same pavement abused by trucks and other buses. There is no evidence that the city is willing to pay the far higher bills required to keep this pavement in smooth-enough condition to provide a decent comfortable bus ride.

In review: The commuter rail line is being built on a corridor where only a handful of Austin residents can walk to stations, and only a small percentage of Austin residents can drive to a station. The primary beneficiaries, assuming shuttle buses don't just kill the whole thing, are residents of Leander (who at least pay Capital Metro taxes) and Cedar Park (who don't). On the other hand, the thousands of people in central Austin who could walk to stations along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are being presented with a rank steaming turd which barely improves service over the existing #101 bus.

(publically opposing this Mike-Krusee-designed Austin-screwing debacle is the basic reason I was booted from the UTC, for those arriving late).

So, shut up and take it, Austin. Rapid Bus is all you're getting, and you'd better ride it, or you'll be experiencing the fun that Honolulu is currently going through with their own BRT debacle. Big ugly long buses that aren't attracting any new riders don't do transit users any favors.

References:

March 01, 2005

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I'm going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the "shared lane" whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists ("conflict" in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass - although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started - post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that's it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it's striped now. When you're turning onto Shoal Creek, it's not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don't know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , The Shoal Creek Debacle , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 09:14 AM | Comments (3)