December 23, 2005

A musical note

For the crackplreaders (need a better name!) who were buggin' me about the lack of updates, note this is the THIRD THIRD THIRD! POST POST POST! OF THE DAY DAY DAY!

Don't know why, but this guy/band really stuck in my head - I got one of their songs in the giant SXSW 2005 torrent and was impressed enough to go grab the other three free tunes off their site. My in-laws gave me a Waterloo gift certificate for Xmas, so I can buy some music for the first time since, uh, last Xmas, but I don't think I can this there. Oh well.

Check it out. If your brane is wired anything like mine, you'll like it.

Also check out that torrent. A ton of songs which various bands thought was their best chance at making it - so 99% of them are very good to excellent.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Music
Posted by m1ek at 03:51 PM

Why Krusee Supported Rail, Part One

Round Rock doesn't pay Capital Metro taxes. They decided a long time ago that they didn't want to be part of the system. Great. I wish we Austinites could similarly exempt ourselves from paying taxes which build their roads for them, but here we are.

So where does Krusee and rail come into this, then?

CAMPO is about to approve using Federal money to build an "intermodal transit center" in downtown Round Rock, which will include a new bus line which connects to a Capital Metro Park-n-Ride in far North Austin.

Let me repeat again: Citizens of Austin subsidize bus rides on Capital Metro by paying a 1% sales tax. Citizens of Round Rock pay nothing to Capital Metro.

These park and rides (and the express buses which stop there) are fairly attractive today for a small subset of commuters who have to pay money to park at their office (mainly UT employees; a few folks downtown). So some people, even when not in the Cap Metro service area, drive to the park and ride and then hop the bus (paying the same low fare as an Austin resident would). Until recently, the main places this 'freeloading rider' problem occurred were Pflugerville (which voted themselves out of the system - Cap Metro responded by moving their park and ride what seemed like 500 feet further down the road towards Austin) and Cedar Park (who can freeload on either Leander or Austin).

Now we've just opened one of these at the far north fringe of the service area (near Howard Lane).

I have asked Cap Metro in the past (when I was on the UTC) whether they realized that building more park-and-rides at the far fringes of their service area would lead to this 'freeloading rider' problem; and they said, yes, it would, and no, they didn't intend to do anything about it.

So now, to add insult to injury, we're using area-wide tax revenue to build a project which will make it easier for Round Rock residents to ride Capital Metro, where they will be heavily subsidized (far more than Austin riders) by Austin taxpayers. This will further drive down Cap Metro's fairly abyssmal "farebox recovery ratio". And Cap Metro is enthusiastic about this.

Is Round Rock going to institute a 1% sales tax to pay for Capital Metro service? Hell no. They can't, even if they wanted to; they're maxed out. Is Cap Metro going to demand that passengers provide proof of residence inside the service area before getting the heavily discounted fare? Hell no. They won't, even if they wanted to.

But could Capital Metro build light rail for urban Austin where most of their tax revenue comes from? No, that was 'too expensive'. If you're appropriately slavish in your praise, Kaiser Krusee might deign to bless you with some streetcars which are stuck in traffic behind his constituents' cars. Just don't point out that by the time we've built a bunch of worthless commuter rail lines and a streetcar loop, we might as well have just built the 2000 light rail plan - it would have been no more expensive and far more effective.

Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?

More to come.

Choice is never bad

This is pretty much how I feel about what Microsoft's done to the computer software industry. Unfortunately, the site for which Julian writes pretty much takes Microsoft at their word and buys the "statists envious of successful corporation" version of the story.

It's even remarkably timely.

So please imagine a world in which:

  • Meaningful commercial operating system competition existed, thus pushing Windows to actually satisfy customer needs rather than those of its business partners'. IE, what we had from the 80s through the early 90s.
  • Non-trivial commercial office suite competition existed, meaning that Word, Excel, and the lot would have to be GOOD, not just good enough.
  • Commercial browser competition had existed for the last 5 years, meaning IE wouldn't have been able to take half a decade off after Netscape died.

And, no, open source can't save us, with the trivial exception of browsers (which just aren't all that complicated compared to the other things above). I've been using linux, on server and desktop, at my last three jobs. I even prefer it for work. That doesn't make it a competitor serious enough to do much good, even though Microsoft has to say it does so they look good for the media. (In 2005, I couldn't get sound working on a friggin' mass-market HP-Compaq box running Red Hat Linux (and later, same problem with Debian) - and I was far from the only one).

The third-grade libertarians out there replied at the time: "the market will save us" - pointing to the transition to the internet, which would supposedly make operating system monopolies a non-issue. Problem is - Microsoft knew that was a threat and fairly effectively (and obnoxiously) killed it.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin) , Technology
Posted by m1ek at 10:47 AM

December 13, 2005

People are spoiled

A lot of folks, including an attempted commenter from earlier today whose comment got rejected for some reason I have yet to determine, think I'm a liberal. Those folks is wrong most of the time.

For instance, this story bugs me, especially this part:

One 70-year-old Maine LIHEAP recipient, who asked not to be named, says that she gets through the winter by keeping her thermostat at 62 degrees.

I keep our thermostat at 60 at night; 65 during the day; and make sure to open blinds to get as much solar heating as possible when the sun is up. If I lived up north, I'd go colder. 62? Give me a break. How about putting on another sweater? For most of human history, people in cold climates would have thought 62 was heavenly warm.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 08:45 PM

TXDOT and the Outer Loop and Sticking It To The Hippies

One thing which has been a minor irritant to me for a long time is this:

If TXDOT truly abandoned plans for the "Outer Loop" around Austin (environmental and economic catastrophe for Austin proper that it would have clearly been), why have they retained the same route number for SH 45 "S" and SH 45 "N"?

It's an article of faith around these parts that the Outer Loop won't be built, yet nobody seems to point out that TXDOT keeps calling the roads which would have formed the northern and southern parts of this loop by the same number. Why does nobody but me find this fishy?

My guess: TXDOT is still keeping the flame of the "Outer Loop" lit against the hated hippies of Central Austin. I can't come up with any other logical reason why they wouldn't want to give the two roads different numbers. Any other ideas?

December 06, 2005

Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

This entry was posted in the following categories: I Told You So , Politics (Outside Austin) , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 04:13 PM | Comments (3)

Unintended Consequences of Irresponsible Zoning

I just posted this to the allandale yahoo group but it bears repeating to a more general audience.

--- In allandale@yahoogroups.com, "kayn7"  wrote:
>
> Some of the neighbors in HPWBANA tried the nice approach and working
> with them - the students were - to say the least - not responsive and
> some were abusive. The neighbors on Hartford call the police and
> Varisty Properties owners on a regular basis because of parking on
> lawns, loud late night parties, beer cans thrown in yards.

This entire process (and I live next door to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who occasionally cause similar problems) is an unintended consequence of something which your neighborhood and mine probably supports - that being restrictions on multifamily development.

Most of these kids (not all, but most) don't have any particular interest in living in a house instead of a condo or apartment - but the artificially low-density development around UT for decades has forced them to either live out in Far West or Riverside and take a slow poky shuttle to school, or get together with a bunch of buddies and rent a house (and be able to carpool to school or take a much quicker and shorter bus ride, or bike or walk). I'd probably pick the same thing if I were in their shoes - I've seen how long it takes to bus in from those areas; my next-door neighbors can walk the 10 blocks to campus in half the time it takes those other schlubs to bus there.

(I know from my experience in college that when the market provides enough near-campus apartments, far fewer kids end up in rental houses - this was at Penn State, in case anybody cares).

So you can thank the decades of foolhardy opposition to density (height restrictions and moronic suburban parking requirements) in West Campus for a lot of this. Unfortunately, the recent rezonings are too little too late for most of us - it will be another decade or two before the number of new apartments there can begin to stem the tide.

Summary: for decades, inner-city neighborhoods pushed the city to keep building heights low, require way too much parking, and otherwise restrict high-density development near UT despite the fact that students living in this area WALK to class. UT doesn't provide even half as many dorms as the students would seem to need; the near-campus market doesn't have enough tall buildings to make up the difference (not even as many as Penn State has, despite having an oversupply of dorms); so students end up in rental houses, even though they have no interest in yardwork and get hassled a lot more by the neighbors (like me) than they would in an apartment in West Campus. Be careful of what you ask for.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 02:49 PM

More on Yesterday's Whiff

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, by claiming that there was "no data about any of the options". This is true, if you restrict the question to "what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments". However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities - that being, do option 2 and do it now.

The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I'm remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) - there's really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds - it's a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn't provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I'm unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only - the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven't been studied isn't particularly accurate - they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It's true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities - frankly because nobody cared - the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn't particularly important - whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn't very relevant.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycle Commuting , Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , The Shoal Creek Debacle , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 08:08 AM

December 05, 2005

Council Whiffs Again On Shoal Creek

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a "let's get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests" mode which, in case anybody's forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.

This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:

1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).

2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as "Option 2").

But instead, it sure as heck looks like they're ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this - they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.

The worst part is Brewster's gang of "stakeholders" which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn't represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.

This is so depressing...

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycle Commuting , Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , The Shoal Creek Debacle , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 04:18 PM

December 02, 2005

Why The Drag Sucks

This was going to be a comment at infobong to his entry about another local business biting it on the Drag, but I realized it was getting way too long and probably way too wonkish for that venue.

It's a simple but sadly misunderstood formula:

# of potential customers in area has been going up (more students; more residents).

Amount of retail space has been staying the same (stupidly limited by zoning regulations which effectively prevented any redevelopment along the drag which has way too much single-story car-oriented retail and even surface parking.

Result? Higher demand (from customers); stagnant supply; more demand (from businesses) for static space = higher rents = more national chains

Solution? No parking requirements and very very very generous height limits along the Drag. But even the recent West Campus rezoning didn't go far enough down that path - there's still way too much emphasis on parking minimums. Properties right along Guadalupe as far north as 38th and possibly 45th should have NO required parking, in my opinion. If you think this gives them too much of a leg up (even given the much higher rent they'll pay than their suburban competitors), consider having them pay an "in-lieu parking fee" dedicated to mass transit and pedestrian improvements along the corridor.

That's another piece of the formula of course, which ends up leading to a few big tenants being healthy because they can lock up access to a lot or a garage; while the little individual (usually local) tenants blight out - like what's happening up on Guadalupe between 29th and 45th. Properties can't redevelop because change of use between one type of commercial business and another make the grandfathered variance go away, which means they're suddenly subject to suburban-style parking requirements.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Economics , Transit in Austin , Urban Design , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues) , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 01:50 PM | Comments (1)

Don't Celebrate Bums

Yet more proof from yet another city that panhandlers aren't the ones who need the help, yet it's like pulling teeth around here to get an ordinance that the cops can enforce against the bums that infest the Drag and downtown Austin. The homeless that deserve help are, for the most part, getting it from charities. These bums on street corners, on the other hand, just don't want to work.

The same type of expose ran on one of the stations in Miami about fifteen years ago with similar results - except even more appalling; they GAVE food to one of the "Will Work For Food" guys, and he threw it away. Then they came back and gave him money and watched where he went - which, of course, was the liquor store.

I remember one time when I was walking down 6th Street from my condo to a show and was accosted by a bum for money. I ignored him; and he started following me and yelling at me. At that time, even I was rethinking my decision to be on the sidewalk at night instead of in my car, and those who know me know that doesn't happen easily.

One of the biggest obstacles to restoring downtown Austin into a place where people want to live, work, and play is these obnoxious bums. I can't believe that any executive thinking of moving a company's offices downtown is going to enjoy running the gauntlet of beggars that render certain corridors stinky and barely navigable. This hurts our city's economy as companies stay away from the center-city, where the infrastructure to support them already exists, and stay out in the burbs or leave Austin's city limits entirely. A weak economy means less money available for the groups that really DO help the homeless.

There's nothing noble about begging; and those who try the hardest to help the homeless actually discourage the public from donating at streetcorners; but this doesn't stop professional protestors like Richard Troxell. I don't know how this can be solved until people who want to help the homeless can stand up and distinguish between those who want help, and those who just want a hand-out.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Politics (Outside Austin) , Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues)
Posted by m1ek at 09:42 AM | Comments (2)