February 27, 2006

Austin urbanist group

After discussions with a few like-minded folks, I've created a group on yahoo called austin_urbanists. Some of the readers of this crackplog might be interested in joining.

This entry was posted in the following categories: metablog
Posted by m1ek at 10:12 AM

February 24, 2006

The Drainage Emergency

Following up on yesterday's excitement where I got involved in the McMansion debate on an austin neighborhood planning email list, pointing out that the rationale used to justify adding MORE rather than LESS regulation of what people do with their property is shoddy,

and in which I accidentally mailed something to the whole list which I meant to send offline to one person in particular, for which I then had to apologize, to which I then received a snarky, obnoxious, rejoinder that I might want to read the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan (which I printed out and have had on hand for 3 or 4 years now, as I've done with all center-city neighborhood plans, since, heck, I was a committee chair on one back in the day),

to which I then wrote this mean, mean, mean retort...

Today, I call your attention to the Planning Commission recommendations for the issue. Note how few of the items listed have anything to do with drainage.

Here's a radical idea: If the problem being addressed here really is "drainage", i.e. storm sewers, and it MUST be, since the center-city neighborhood associations who pushed this through used the DRAINAGE EMERGENCY as the justification for their immediate moratorium, why not attack the actual problem? Here's a simple idea. (Using single-family here; multi-family fees would require another formula).

  1. "Normal" drainage fee on monthly utility statement = X (today's amount).
  2. Adjust for size of single-family lot. Larger lot = bigger fee.
  3. Adjust for amount of impervious cover, by percentage. More greenspace = smaller fee.
  4. Adjust for on-site detention such as rain barrels.

That's all it would take. Anybody who wanted to live in a McMansion would be faced with a higher drainage bill. Anybody who lives in an existing house which has similarly large impervious cover ALSO pays. Make these multipliers high enough that they generate enough money for the necessary drainage facilities, and you then have a way to harness the power of development to solve the actual problem.

I wonder how interested in this actual solution to the DRAINAGE!!!!!! EMERGENCY!!!!!! the center-city neighborhood associations will be. Any guesses?

I should probably start adding this disclaimer: M1EK hates McMansions more than you do. M1EK just doesn't like punishing property owners who don't want to build a McMansion but might want to build a bigger house. M1EK is especially pissed off by people who use bogus excuses to hide what they really want, which is to keep 'those people' out of 'their neighborhood'. M1EK is even more especially pissed off by neighborhood associations whose leaders bleat about keeping housing affordable, yet have resisted every multifamily development in and near their neighborhood for years..

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 08:04 AM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2006

Irresponsible Center-City Neighborhoods And Their Plans

Just posted to AustinNP, in response to a long-running thread originally about the McMansion ordinance.

Those neighborhood plans are very, very, very underwhelming. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan calls for barely more density than exists today, and the CANPAC 'trades' density which ALWAYS should have been allowed in West Campus for the right not to have any more multifamily or mixed-use development in most of the rest of the area.

When I chaired the transportation committee for the Old West Austin neighborhood plan, as long as we're trading bona-fides, we operated under the understanding that our responsibility was to tell the city where and how our neighborhood and surrounding area could accomodate additional density, both multifamily and mixed-use commercial, since the will of the city (including these neighborhoods) was to redirect development inwards (slowing suburban sprawl). The goal was _NOT_ to push it purely onto the fringe of our neighborhood so that apartments would only go up on the loud, busy, streets; or that it would become another neighborhood's problem. This is in direct contrast to the Hyde Park and especially CANPAC plans - where a responsible process would have resulted in much more density being called for on Guadalupe; somewhat more (as mixed-use or multifamily) on the interior streets of Speedway and Duval; loosening rather than tightening of secondary dwelling rules; etc.

So, if you ask me, do I respect the amount of time that you and the others spent making those neighborhood plans - yes, in a sense, I do, in the sense that I can respect how hard-working Karl Rove is, even though he works for my political enemies. You achieved your goals completely; but the outcome is not one I can respect.

- MD

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 04:39 PM

February 21, 2006

SXSW torrent is up!

Batch one is up! Start your bittorrent now!

This entry was posted in the following categories: Music
Posted by m1ek at 11:07 AM

February 20, 2006

Shoal Creek Attractive Nuisance Boulevard

(just posted to the austin transportational cycling list)

As I've tried to point out before but obviously not succeeded, the danger for SCB is that it becomes an 'attractive nuisance' - i.e., if you stripe a 'bike lane' or a 'shoulder' or even a 'shared use area', you are making an implied recommendation that this is where cyclists should be riding. (Well-established in both legal and traffic engineering circles).

Thus, the facility to which you're 'attracting' the cyclists to had better meet some basic, bare minimum, safety guidelines such as AASHTO. As many have pointed out, AASHTO standards for bike lanes next to parking are still not great - a good chunk of the bike lane would be in the door space, but the Gandy design would have had all of the bike lane within the door zone, and the 'space' shrinking to perhaps a foot when being passed by a motorist while you yourself were passing a parked truck - i.e., you would get brushed even if the parked vehicle never opened its door. The 10-foot shared space has this same exact problem; the absence of the stripe separating 'bike lane' from 'parking lane' makes no difference.

I get the sense that many people still haven't looked at these pictures, which tell the story far better than my words possibly could.

Take a look. That's not "normal bike lane bad" where the door would extend part of the way into the bike lane when it's open. That's "guaranteed collision bad" where the cyclist fundamentally doesn't have enough space to travel even when the truck's door is closed.

Some people (who must not have looked at that picture) drastically underestimate how bad a facility this is - thinking that they (good rider) would just get into the travel lane to pass the parked car. This forgets that:

1. Most inexperienced riders don't know to do this, and will thus 'swerve' at the last moment, or maybe not even go out into the lane at all, and

2. Experienced riders will take the lane well in advance of the parked car, and will (in my, and Lane's experience at least) get honked at, or possibly someday worse.

A facility which encourages inexperienced cyclists to perform unsafe manuevers and which causes conflict with other road users when experienced cyclists do what they're supposed to do has no place on our roadways. It doesn't matter how the other roads in the city are designed - if this one fails some basic minimum safety standards, it's a horrible, horrible design and needs to be rethought. If this means removing SCB from the city's bicycle route system, so be it.

That's the bottom line here - the city is basically signing up for a huge potential liability lawsuit, and if it ever happens, I'll be glad to testify that they were warned early and often.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Bicycling in Austin , I Told You So , The Shoal Creek Debacle , Transportation , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 10:29 AM

Fungible doesn't mean you're off the hook

The economists who are gleeful over the Dilbert cartoon on Sunday are missing a very, very, very important point.

War trumps economics, and economics can prevent war. Sometimes that's a good thing (economics preventing war); sometimes not.

In this case, We're (in the US) supposedly prevented from dealing forcefully with the country which paid most of the money and sent most of the people on the planes which killed 3,000 of our own people on our own soil. Why? That country is essentially the only one today which could practically increase or decrease its oil production, and we, unlike the rest of the industrialized world, are critically dependent on not just oil, but CHEAP oil.

In other words, the French and Germans care less about the Saudi royal family being overthrown because they don't need cheap oil as badly as we do. They use oil, sure, but they've taxed it heavily (as a rational response to the costs of delivering it, the associated infrastructure such as roads, and negative externalities such as pollution). We, on the other hand, actually keep gasoline CHEAPER than it would be if we just required drivers to pay for all of the roads and such they use, without even accounting for pollution and other less easily quantifiable externalities.

As a result, we still haven't really struck back at the people who so badly need striking back upon because the ruling party is so critically dependent on the votes of people who 'need' to drive a truck 15,000 miles a year at 12 miles per gallon and were livid at $3/gallon gas, much less the $6 or $7 the Europeans pay.

FDR and Truman would have had the heads of anybody who suggested that we couldn't 'afford' to fight the Germans or Japanese. But, today, that's exactly what people say about the Saudis. We can't 'afford' to even SPEAK toughly with them, because, hey, the oil!

In WWII, we put up posters reminding people that they were sacrificing cheap oil for a bigger cause. War, in other words, trumped economics, as it should have. Now, of course, we can't, because even the Democrats are in the thrall of suburban sprawl, and the Republicans are much worse. Even when 3,000 of our own civilians died on our own soil. It'll be hard to change this even when cheap oil is no longer possible, but Scott Adams is making it even harder by making those who care about the issue seem like fools.

It makes me sick that we still haven't done squat to the Saudis after all this time, but it makes me even sicker that Scott Adams has fallen in with such loathsome, cowardly people. Shameful, Scott. Shameful.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin) , Republicans Hate The Environment
Posted by m1ek at 07:59 AM | Comments (17)

February 17, 2006

Fifty-Fifty Journalistic Balance Sucks

Whether it's in science (usually global warming or evolution) or local politics, journalists addicted to "he-said she-said" should turn in their press pass. If that's all we needed, simple links to a couple of ideological websites would suffice.

With global warming, you effectively have an overwhelming scientific consensus and a couple of skeptics - bought and paid for by oil companies (and, of course, a college dropout Bush appointee trying to censor one of this country's most experienced climatologists). The media usually covers this as "he-said, she-said", which is OK when there truly IS no consensus, but we passed that point ten years ago.

In the Shoal Creek debacle instance, the Chronicle didn't bother to tell you that the TTI, hired by the City Council in an obvious attempt to provide at least some political cover for choosing "Option 3", reported back to them that the peer cities fairly unanimously recommended "Option 2", and that all of them recommended very strongly against "Option 3". Paraphrased, the response was, essentially, "why don't you idiots just restrict parking on one side of the street?".

Did the Chronicle mention this, either at the time or now that the council subcommittee ignored everybody who knows diddly-squat about traffic safety and ordered Option 3? Of course not. It's "car-free bike lane guys say X. On the other hand, neighborhood people say Y". No mention of which position might be more credible. No mention of the fact that the experts the city hired to consult were firmly on one of the two sides.

Fifty-fifty balance sucks. A chimp could collate two press releases together and turn them into an article. Chronicle, have another banana.

February 12, 2006

Houston outlaws density better than Austin does

A pseudonymous trogolyde in this well-commented thread on Metroblogging Austin has just invoked the second component the "Austin no-growther duo", the first being "It's all the Californian's fault".

M1EK if you are so in love with density. And the idea of quaint neighborhoods with small houses is too much to take move the fuck out of Austin. Move to fucking Houston. Developers have less restrictions. You can tear down houses and build condos and no bats an eye.

The charm, it just oozes off the screen.

It's probably a good time to repoint readers to this article on Houston in which the author alleges a similar, perhaps even greater, interference by the government there in the processes which would otherwise create density, despite the oft-celebrated lack of zoning. One example, in case you don't want to wade through the PDF,

Until 1998, [FN37] Houston's city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached [FN38] single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. [FN39] And until 1998, [FN40] Houston's government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, [FN41] by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. [FN42] As Siegan admits, this law "tend(ed) to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses" [FN43] and thus effectively meant that townhouses "cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups." [FN44] Houston's townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, [FN45] were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, [FN46] 560 square feet in Phoenix, [FN47] and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada. [FN48] Houston's anti-townhouse policy, combined with its minimum lot size requirement for detached houses, effectively meant that almost all single-family development in Houston had to be on a lot of at least 5000 square feet [FN49] (which means that single-family areas in Houston could have no more than 8.7 houses per acre).

There's a lot more. Again, I highly recommend you read this if you've ever heard that "Houston has no zoning".

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , I Told You So , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 10:53 AM

February 09, 2006

The thing people aren't getting about the library

With the call to build it somewhere pretty or where they can build it bigger is:

The people who most need and use the library currently are quite likely to get there on the bus. Yes, the bus you think nobody uses; although if you stand outside the current library and look at those buses go by, you'll quickly be disabused of that particular brand of suburban idiocy.

The current library works well because it's on one of the two most heavily bus-travelled corridors downtown (Guadalupe). A location on Cesar Chavez too far from Congress, on the other hand, won't be an easy trip for many of the current patrons.

Look at the map (zoom in on the lower-right inset). Notice how many buses go right next to the thing. Most of the rest of the buses are three blocks away on Congress. So, a huge chunk of routes don't require any walk at all, and most of the rest require a 3-block walk at most.

Now, consider the proposed new site at what's now the water treatment plant. Going by current routes, two come fairly close, but the big conglomeration coming down Guadalupe/Lavaca will be about two blocks away; and the Congress routes about five blocks away.

This doesn't sound like much to walk, and it wouldn't be for most of us. However, as somebody who hasn't been able to walk well for quite a while now and used to serve on a commission where we were often taking up issues important to those who are mobility-impaired, I have more appreciation than most for what a pain in the ass this is going to be. Oh, and don't forget, unlike most of the people involved with this decision, I've been to this library many times - and I can tell you that at any given time, a huge number, possibly even the majority of the patrons arrived on the bus, and a large fraction of those are either elderly or in wheelchairs or both. For THOSE people, two more blocks is a lot to ask.

Don't move somewhere which makes the library less accessible to those who need it most just for the sake of being pretty. Please say no to moving the central library off the main bus lines.

Update: Several commenters have commented along these lines (paraphrased, with my response):

"Isn't commuter rail going to a transit hub at Seaholm anyways?" - please do yourself a favor and read this category archive and start with this post, OK? Short summary: It ain't going to Seaholm for decades, if then. And Seaholm is still a couple-blocks'-walk from this site.

The buses will just be moved to go by the library - this isn't going to happen either, folks. Long-haul bus routes don't make two-block jogs just for the hell of it (people already complain about how supposedly indirect these things are). Each one of those bus routes might deliver a dozen passengers a day to the existing library - enough to make it a valuable part of the demand for the current route, but not enough to justify hauling a long, heavy, bus around a bunch of tight corners.

February 08, 2006

"Stick the renters in high-rises"

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was "none, never".

Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old "none, never", but still has some problems. I call it "stick 'em in high-rises downtown", and it goes something like this:

"Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses - instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don't they?"

Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood's yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument - namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.

Here's what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I've paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

("Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses")

I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn't necessarily cut it.

There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).

("The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem" - part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)

With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It's
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?

("Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I'm OK with that", implication being that this satisfies the 'problem').

This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best

For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can't do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can't walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that's
where I'd be. We don't have them, not because there's no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.

To say that there's no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.

If I forget, I'm counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Economics , I Told You So , PS: I am not a crackpot , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 05:51 PM | Comments (5)

February 06, 2006

M1EK is mean sometimes

Finishing the trifecta of transit crackplogging for the day, I sent the note below to the Austin streetcars yahoo group after hearing a report on the "Future Connections" workshop held on Saturday. These folks are people I normally agree with wholeheartedly, and they doubtlessly think they're helping to make something good out of something bad. Kind of sad that they can be suborned by the chance to play with trinkets and maps. But then again, I like maps too. And, hey, free lunch.

All that stuff made writing this email to the group kind of difficult. But it's what I do. Mark Yznaga already wrote back and was kinda pissed that I characterized the attitudes of the participants, but I already pretty much know how Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs and especially Jim Skaggs are playing it, so it's unlikely I got too many other folks wrong. With that in mind, I might be adding more here if he responds with contradictory details.

As usual, I guess it falls to me to be the voice of realism here.

Folks, getting you to spend your time drawing lines and pushing
plastic tokens around a map is exactly what Capital Metro wants you to
do instead of asking them why a particular route and mode might
attract somebody out of their car. Think USE CASES.



Whether this circulator is a shuttle bus on rubber tires or a dillo on
streetcar rails, it's still stuck behind all the cars in the same
lane, since Capital Metro has already ruled out a reserved guideway
for these circulator(s). Requiring a transfer to a reserved guideway
circulator would be a disincentive for many riders, but transferring
to a circulator which is going to be slow, jerky, and unreliable is
even worse.

Remember: Only one metro area has tried to build their transit system
around a rail project like this one, rather than doing what we
attempted to do in 2000. And it's viewed as a failure, not as the
success that Minneapolis, Dallas, Portland, etc. have.




I urge you to be less credulous in the future. You could probably have
been more productive by skipping out and coming over to my son's 2nd
birthday party over at Shipe Park (held at the same time) to help us
blow up balloons.

Doesn't anybody feel foolish becoming Capital Metro's "useful idiot"?

Sorry to be so harsh, but seriously. Come on.

Mike Dahmus

This entry was posted in the following categories: Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want
Posted by m1ek at 10:38 AM

The 2000 light rail route through the center-city

Since I keep referencing this, it needed its own post; so the two relevant pictures wouldn't be buried under 6 showing the commuter rail route. The blue line was drawn by me, and represents the 2000 light rail route (best guess at the time). The red line is the 2004 commuter rail track.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want
Posted by m1ek at 10:01 AM

The Capital Metro Finances

Ben Wear finally checked in this morning about the "commuter rail finances causing pressure for cost reductions causing union strife issue" which I covered here, although I disagree completely with his conclusion that light rail would have left us in the same mess.

  1. The commuter rail plan would NOT have received any substantial Federal funding. Wear glosses over this for more commentary about how difficult the New Starts process is. Rail lines with such paltry projected ridership have not done well at the FTA in recent years.
  2. The light rail plan, on the other hand, would easily have received the 50% Federal funding. We already know the Feds rated it highly even though they weren't allowed to include the impact of TOD and other future development such as the Triangle (which is now, in 2006, online).
  3. The commuter rail plan was sold to the voters of Austin on the premise that it was so cheap (with the Federal money that Capital Metro is now NOT seeking) that it would not necessitate touching the 1/4 cent "rebate" or the Build Greater Austin funds.
  4. The light rail plan counted on using both. Wear glosses over this to some degree, but at least mentions it.
  5. The operating costs of commuter rail are likely to be high - Wear mentions this, but doesn't mention why they're disproportionately high compared to light rail - again, it runs back to low ridership. Operating cost per passenger, in fact, is likely to be much higher with commuter rail than with light rail. The physical cost of moving each train is quite likely to be higher with diesel than it was with electricity, and many of the ancillary operating costs such as maintenance actually rise at a lower rate than the number of vehicles do thanks to economies of scale. Then, when you divide that cost by a much smaller number of commuter rail passengers, you're in bad news city. It's going to be a feeding frenzy for the local suburban Republicans masquerading as libertarians when the "we're paying a $15 subsidy for each rail passenger's daily ride" stories start coming out.

Summarizing: the 2000 light rail plan would have gotten a bunch of money from the Feds, would have had access to the 1/4 cent 'rebate' and Build Greater Austin funds, would have had greater income from fares, would have had proportionally lower operating costs, and would have opened up more TOD income than will this commuter rail plan. Since it would have gone "right down the gut", i.e., right next to all the neighborhoods which actually want to use transit, and directly in front of UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown where people actually work, it would have become the success story that we've seen in Minneapolis, Portland, Dallas, etc. IE: a credible alternative which encourages even those who drive to work every day to support future expansions and even (shudder!) tax increases.

Instead, based on what we have now, it's unlikely that, if it's ever built out, the complete commuter rail + streetcars plan being pushed today will end up being any cheaper anyways, which really puts the lie to the idea that cost was the reason for picking it. It was about screwing the center-city in favor of Krusee's suburbanites all along. If you are one of the few who ride it, this is how you're gonna get to work. And our "success story" that we're attempting to emulate is South Florida: Shuttle buses for those who were going to take the bus anyways, and branded as a big fat failure by everybody else.

February 03, 2006

How Overtaxed Are You, Really?

Note: This article refers to federal tax only. If you want to mix it up about local or state taxes, be my guest, but if you're a suburbanite, you're not gonna win this one, trust me.

Just submitted my federal income tax return. My marginal rate is 25%, and of course we all pay social security + medicare of around 8%. So, if I were one of the 'wingers at my last jorb, I'd be bitching about the feds taking a third of my income.

Yes, really. That's the way they operate. They willfully conflate marginal tax rate with effective tax rate (i.e., ignoring the fact that the first N dollars of their income are taxed at a far lower rate than the last M); AND they ignore the effect of all their various and sundry deductions. Here's a handy calculator showing both rates.

What's worse are the ones who are in the next marginal tax bracket, and then get to claim that THEIR overall tax rate is (28 + 8) = 36%.

Luckily, thanks to TurboTax, I also get an "effective tax rate" number. It's 8.27% this year. (Add social security + medicare, and you get up to about 16.25%).

And I guarantee you that most of those whining 'wingers are in the same boat as me - big mortgages, big property tax bills, multiple dependents, etc. Oh, except for the ones in that 28% marginal bracket. Don't forget that the social security tax ENDS at about $90,000 - so the income over that is NOT subject to the social security part (6.2%) and thus the marginal rate is much lower. So it's actually fairly likely that some of those people in that bracket pay a LOWER effective tax rate than some of the 25%ers.

16.25% (8.25% income tax) just doesn't sound like overtaxed enough to justify cutting taxes more, now, does it? So they complain about a 33% overall burden, and meantime, we continue to move further and further away from a progressive tax system in reality.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie's site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!


I've spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing's for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does - or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like "all of Seattle" only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).

There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists - in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal 'justifies bike lanes' levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn't read his closely enough:


Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn't there in your comment. I'm way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it's obvious upon further reading that you weren't saying Austin's level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren't needed is too small. Couldn't agree more.

Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

February 02, 2006

Even The Ideal Health Insurance Is NOT Like Car Insurance

Continuing my oddball string of non-transportation rants, there's an analogy which has been bugging me for a while now, and I just finally figured out why it's so crappy.

There's a lot of folks out there who argue that old-style health insurance really isn't 'insurance' because it pays first-dollar stuff (i.e. you get coinsured on essentially everything after you meet a small annual deductible). Car insurance and home insurance, these people say, don't pay for oil-changes and gutter-cleaning. They only cover catastrophic conditions. Fair enough. (Google on "health insurance" and "oil changes" to see how widespread this meme has become).

But then you take a look at their proposed solution - HSA's (paired with high deductible plans). You have to meet a large annual deductible, and then most stuff is covered. Sounds like a better match, right?

Except for this little problem: in both car and home insurance, the deductible is per-event, not per-year. By that metric, traditional insurance actually maps better to car and home insurance!. Hint: the 'copay' is sort-of a per-event deductible. If you visit the doctor and it costs a hundred bucks, and your copay is $20, then your insurance covers $80 (although unlike car and home insurance, it probably doesn't cover 100% of that $80). Likewise, if my roof needs a $2000 repair, and my deductible is $1000, you could call that my co-pay.

Maybe a table is a better way to present this. I'm using what I remember of my old PPO, my current HSA, and my automobile insurance as examples here.

PlanPer-event deductibleAnnual deductibleCoinsurance after reached
HSA / high-deductible planNONE$4000Almost 100%

Clearly the high-deductible plan isn't any more like "insurance" if you define it as "how homes and autos are covered", despite the rhetoric you hear. A PPO isn't perfect either, due to coinsurance rarely being 100%, but one could imagine a similar auto/home policy being floated and still being called "insurance". On the other hand, I have yet to see an automobile insurance company ever offer a policy where you had to meet an "annual deductible" in addition to a "per-event deductible".

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 03:49 PM | Comments (8)

More on HSA's

from that liberal rag "The Economist", an article on our health care dilemna, including this tidbit on why HSA's won't do squat to control costs:

To an administration that believes the answer to every problem is lower taxes, the appeal of these ideas is obvious. Many health experts, however, are deeply sceptical, both about whether the shift to higher-deductible plans will actually reduce health-care inflation and, even if it does, whether the government should encourage this trend with more tax cuts.

The logic of consumer-driven health care assumes that unnecessary doctor visits and procedures lie at the heart of America's health-care inflation. And it assumes that individual patients can become discerning consumers of health care. Both are questionable. Most American health-care spending is on people with chronic diseases, such as diabetics, whose health care costs many thousands of dollars a year, easily exceeding even high deductibles.

Instead, critics worry that greater cost-consciousness will deter people, particularly poor people, from essential preventive medical care, a trend that could even raise long-term costs. A classic study by the Rand Corporation in the 1970s showed that higher cost-sharing reduced both necessary and unnecessary medical spending in about equal proportion.

In other words, somebody who already has diabetes isn't going to save you any money when you stick him on an HSA, but somebody who might GET diabetes without preventative care will be even less likely to get that care, since now he's got to pay for 100% of the cost himself.

This backs up what I said yesterday - that the people who think HSAs will make people spend less on health care are fooling themselves. People who can get HSAs are primarily the employed, and those with a fair amount of money. None of those people are likely to go get unnecessary medical treatments - most of the money we spend in this country is on heroic interventions and on inefficient health care provided to the poor at emergency rooms. We clearly aren't going to stop spending so much on the elderly, and they clearly still have plenty of time to sit in doctors' offices anyways. The poor who clog up emergency rooms either aren't going to be able to get insurance at all (just like today), or won't be able to afford to contribute anything into the attached HSA anyways. No change, except that the wealthy employed get a bigger tax break.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 11:02 AM

February 01, 2006

HSA's are another giveaway to the wealthy

I've been on an HSA for about six months now (only choice at current job). Ironically, the primary reason I had to leave the last job, which I liked a lot, was a benefits cut that hit our family very hard, with no accompanying increase in salary. They (previous company) left us with choosing between a "high" plan which was ALMOST as good as the previous-years' plan, except a couple hundred bucks more a month; a "medium" plan for a few bucks more in which all copays were nontrivially hiked and coinsurance cut; and a "low" plan which was basically a HSA, too.

The HSA works pretty much like an FSA (which we were already using), except a bigger pain in the butt, since the years' money isn't all available on day one, like in an FSA. (In fact, I 'bounced' payments-by-mail twice because I mailed in the bill response without double-checking to see how much had flowed in, each time with a delightful $20 charge tacked on). You also get to enjoy looking like a deadbeat to doctors' offices as you quite frequently fall into the "31-60 days overdue" bill categories since they first have to file with insurance, then insurance tells them what they're supposed to charge you, and then you get sent a bill. The tax savings are no greater than with an FSA, which is to say that they depend on your marginal tax rate, which for most of the people who were having trouble with health care before isn't likely to be high enough to be worth the difficulty of setting aside this money in the first place.

Now, for us, it still makes sense (even though unlike most people on HSA's, we actually hit our deductible last year; i.e., we actually use health care). And it makes a hell of a lot of sense for a high-earning person that doesn't use health care. But it doesn't do squat to help out people who are unable to afford insurance today - the benefits disproportionately accrue to those with the highest marginal tax rates, not the poor. The poor, sadly, probably remain better off going to the emergency room than using this thing.

Even libertarians who have been exposed to single-payer or socialized medicine seem to finally get it, as I got it a few years ago. Medicine is not a case where the market works like it does in computers or groceries or whatever else; nor will it ever be. It's more like providing a police force and firefighters.

And no, switching to an HSA has not given us any incentive to reduce our usage of medical care at all, because, like pretty much everybody who works for a living, I only go to the doctor when I need to because it's such a pain in the ass. The theory that we can save money on healthcare with this "ownership society" crap rests on the questionable premise that most money is being spent by people who can use HSAs, when, in fact, most money is spent on the elderly, the premature, and other heroic interventions.

This is really becoming an issue in which the center is ready to move, and only the far, far, far right balks. There's just no sensible reason not to pick the best socialized system (appears to be France or maybe Germany) and just get it over with.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Economics , Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 01:59 PM | Comments (2)