August 27, 2007

Prius FUD keeps rolling

I'll write up our Bad Capital Metro Flugtag Experience tomorrow I think. In the meantime, Newsweek joins the parade of Prius FUDders by allowing Honda to reiterate the common assertion that the Prius kicks all other hybrid vehicles' asses because it "looks different". Of course, that's a load of crap; the most iconic hybrid vehicle out there was the Honda Insight. Problem was that the Insight was a nearly useless car - underpowered, uncomfortable, 2 seats, no cargo space. And for all that, you got about 5 mpg more than the Prius, back when the Insight was still being sold.

The reason the Prius sells so much better than the Civic Hybrid is because it's a much better car. The Civic is smaller (different market segment, even), gets a bit less mileage, and has far less cargo space. (The Civic's back seat doesn't even fold down - because Honda stuck the battery there). In other words, Toyota learned from Honda, and developed a better hybrid system that was able to provide small-car Civic-like mileage for a car with more usable space than the Accord. They just out-engineered the Honda boys.

Yes, a few people at the margins bought it because it was more obvious. But the car is now outselling the majority of "regular" cars in this country - and it's not doing so because of the hybrid halo. It's doing so because it's a medium-sized car which gets fuel-sipper mileage and can carry a friggin' rain barrel with the hatch closed.

The Prius is our only car. The Civic Hybrid could never have managed to be. That's basically all you need to know.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Politics (Outside Austin)
Posted by m1ek at 04:31 PM | Comments (5)

August 23, 2007

How can you tell it's not going to be a real TOD?

Possibly in response to publicity about last week's cancellation of a project which tried to catch some of its buzz, the Leander TOD guys have gone on the offensive. But one particular comment is very telling, and shows why, well, it's not really a TOD:

Angela Hood, co-founder of Artefacts, says the development will also incorporate some mode of transportation that will get residents and pedestrians to and from the commuter rail line at the heart of the TOD.

Here's a hint: If it were truly a transit-oriented development, you wouldn't be even thinking about how the passengers would be getting to/from the rail line - they'd ALL be walking, because it would be so dang close. A project which requires shuttle-buses to distribute passengers from a rail hub is NOT A TRANSIT-ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT. It's just a higher-than-standard-suburban-density mixed-use project.

Read up more on transit-oriented development here, from VTPI, including these requirements (I've picked several critical ones which the Leander project will not satisfy):

  1. The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.
  2. A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs.
  3. Parking costs are “unbundled,” and full market rates are charged for all parking spaces. The exception may be validated parking for shoppers.
  4. Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
  5. Automobile level-of-service standards are met through congestion pricing measures, or disregarded entirely.

Remember: this train service is going to run once every 30 minutes during rush hour, and when it gets to the Austin end, passengers must transfer to a shuttle-bus to get to their final destination, be it UT, the Capitol, or even most of downtown. It will not run at all the rest of the day, except for one mid-day trip. No night-time service; no mid-afternoon service. Thus, you can't apply the more generous "high-quality frequently running rail service" metrics of the 10-minute walk.

So, if you want to call this Leander thing "new urbanist", go ahead. It looks pretty nice on that metric. If you want to call it "mixed-use", go ahead. I'm right there with you. But stop the charade that this is a transit-oriented development, because it's not remotely so.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , I Told You So , Urban Design
Posted by m1ek at 11:07 AM | Comments (4)

August 20, 2007

Ben Wear article on bike bridge misleads

Just sent to the Statesman in response to Ben Wear's article this morning

There are a few key facts that Ben Wear left out of his article on the South Mopac bicycle/pedestrian bridge which paint a very different picture:

1. There used to be a shoulder (available for use by commuting and recreational cyclists) on the Mopac bridge until a few years ago (when it was restriped to provide a longer exit lane). When the shoulder existed, it was frequently used.

2. The 15% figure cited by Wear is misleading - when you run the same comparison on total transportation funding in our area, about 1% (last time I ran the figures) went to bike/ped projects.

3. Urban residents, even those who don't drive, are subsidizing suburban commuters through the toll-road 'donations' he mentioned (remember; the city has to repay those bonds from sources like sales and property taxes; not the gas tax) and in many other ways. When you add up the flows of dollars, it would take a couple of bridges like this every single year just to begin to make up for the money flowing out of Austin towards the suburbs, from drivers and non-drivers alike. Perhaps THAT would be a better focus for an article in the future. I'd be happy to help.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

I spoke on this exact same 15% issue a few years ago on KLBJ's morning news show but it keeps popping up as if we're in a bad game of Whack-A-Mole. In this case, the 15% applies only to city funding, and includes pedestrian infrastructure which was never built back when saner cities would have done it (i.e. when the road was constructed in the first place). When I ran the numbers a few years ago, bike/ped funding for the whole area ended up at something like 1%.

August 14, 2007

First of many "TOD"'s collapses

(TOD = "transit-oriented development", which some people think can provide additional passengers for our commuter rail line).

Update: The author of the ABJ piece assures me in comments that this wasn't "the" TOD project (not within the city limits) and claims that it had more to do with the housing market in general. This will teach me to link to articles for which I can't read the full text. However, commenters and other media have indicated that this was being characterized as "a TOD" (I actually finally posted this after receiving 3 different tips from readers), and my language, while imprecise, was referring to "the first failure among the group of self-proclaimed TODs", not "the first project declared to be a TOD has now failed". Keep this one as a "maybe". Certainly many people defending the commuter rail line have promised that it will provide stimulus for denser mixed-use development in that part of town - so the "weakening housing market" is in and of itself no defense here.

Original post follows:

Repeating the experience in South Florida with another stupid commuter rail line that requires shuttle-bus transfers, the first proposed TOD (really, not, just a slightly more dense suburban tract housing project) has collapsed in Leander. Expect more of these, although I expect Crestview Station and the Chestnut project will go ahead, since sufficient demand with or without rail already exists in those areas to fill the units allowed by the slight loosening of the way-too-strict zoning there. As Christof said, the most attractive place to add more density is where density already exists - don't forget, too, that true TOD requires high-quality transit, not just anything slapped on a rail that runs to a station out in the middle of nowhere.

Does TOD ever work in cities without Manhattan-like density? YES!. It works great on light rail lines which have demonstrated good ridership among choice commuters. That requires rail lines which deliver most people directly to their destination (within a moderate walking distance). Like what Dallas did; what Portland did; what Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Denver, and even Houston did. Like what we almost did in 2000; and could have fought for in 2004 instead of rolling over for Mike Krusee. But it's never, ever, happened on a commuter rail line with performance as poor as ours. Not even once.

August 07, 2007

8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines

I am stuck on the porch of the condo with a purloined and slow internet connection, killing time while waiting for an install to complete for work, and for the flooring guys to show up (stuck in traffic in Georgetown). Here's a short item I meant to link to much earlier:

Christof Speiler in Houston wrote a good article called 8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines which was then followed up in an article on a LA portal. I highly recommend reading those links, and then thinking about Austin's line. Note how LA and Houston went back and forth about the difference between light rail and commuter rail - near the end a couple of folks point out that despite their differences, it is important to compare their ridership and cost because some stupid cities are pushing commuter rail lines in place of light rail alternatives, and that even in Manhattan, where parking costs far more than here, most commuter rail riders are disembarking at stations from which they walk to work, inducing the state to push for another LIRR stop on the east side because transfers are driving away many potential passengers. Now let's grade Austin:

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.

Austin's commuter rail line fails very badly on this metric. The existing 98x series express buses that run from the same far away park-and-rides will still beat the commuter rail + shuttle commute, even in heavier traffic than we have today, and there's the long-term prospect of managed lanes on Mopac (if not done with the current stupid design) and on 183, which can bring the bus back ahead even when (not if) traffic gets much worse. And when traffic gets worse close-in, the shuttle buses will suffer (no reserved guideway, essentially forever, for the "connections" to UT and the Capitol and most of downtown).

2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.

Austin's line passes this metric. Not much you can say here - the rail line is unused, and highway capacity is indeed scarce.

3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.

(meaning, serves reverse commuters, people running midday errands, etc.). Austin's rail line fails this metric badly. Only one mid-day trip, and no nighttime service at all.

4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.

Austin's line fails this metric badly. No, the stuff being considered up in Leander isn't going to make it a "city"; what they're claiming as TOD is really just slightly more dense suburban sprawl (zoning restrictions slightly loosened, using commuter rail as an excuse). The design is standard suburbia - you will not see people from Austin riding the line up to Leander and then walking to anything worth going to.

5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.

Fails. Badly. How many more times can we look at South Florida's example (and other cities') before we realize that people who aren't willing to ride very nice buses today (98x express buses) aren't going to be thrilled about two shuttle bus rides through stop-and-go city traffic every single day?

6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.

Passes. Obviously. This line doesn't serve close-in residents at all - but you can have Wifi for that hour-plus train ride from Leander to the station way out in East Austin. Of course, they have Wifi now on the express bus too.

7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.

Passes, marginally. Circulators will run from stations, but connections will be poor compared to the 2000 light rail line. This is Christof throwing a bone to the transit-dependent - if you're going to run this thing and make it unattractive to choice commuters, you'd better at least have connections to local buses for the people who couldn't afford to drive anyways. But that's just catering to the people who have no choice but to accept multiple-transfer bus service today - you're not making a dent in the number of people driving.

8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Fails. Miserably. Capital Metro and their toadying sycophants already tried to push the lie that this line serves Central Austin. It doesn't. Virtually nobody will be able to walk to stations, unlike the 2000 light rail proposal, which served all the same suburban park-and-rides, and additionally had stations within walking distance of dense residential areas and all of the major central employment destinations.

Looks like our score is a 2.5 out of 8. Christof, is that enough to be highly successful? I doubt it.

PS: Even though it's one of the hottest days so far in a cool summer, I'm still comfortable working out here. Amazing how I can feel way too hot when the A/C in my garage office has it at 78, but out here with 94 and a breeze and something to look at, I feel fine. Now if I had only brought a cushion for my butt...

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 , Transportation
Posted by m1ek at 05:24 PM | Comments (3)

August 03, 2007

TFT Honolulu: Part Two - Current Conditions

Well, I'm all the way up to part 2 out of 3 on the May 2007 Hawaii trip, and I still need to backtrack and talk about Newark in June and State College in July. Argh. Here goes.

Background: O'ahu is the only island with any real transit service (up to the standards of a medium-sized mainland city, that is; the Neighbor Islands have some desultory bus service). Inside Honolulu, buses run all the time - you see them more often than in most big mainland cities. The system in Honolulu has for a long time been a vast network somewhat centered on Ala Moana Mall - a huge mall with a couple of large bus areas. Waiting outside in Honolulu is no big deal, so that's what they do. In Waikiki, where we spent almost all our time, the buses all run down the central two-way road (Kuhio) rather than the one-way couplet of Kalakaua and Ala Wai. The system is called TheBus which I find irritating.

The population on O'ahu outside Honolulu uses the buses a bit but the primary ridership is in Honolulu (and commuters to same). There's a huge proportion of the population that is transit-dependent; and I'll further divide that market segment (for the first time here, although I've been thinking about it for a long time) into two subgroups: the voluntarily transit-dependent (could afford to own a car but choose not to because the bus system is good enough) and the involuntarily (don't own and can't afford a car). Of course, choice commuters exist here too.

The transit-dependent are a larger proportion in Honolulu than in most cities on the mainland (save New York) because parking is difficult and expensive, wages aren't that high, and the weather is very favorable for waiting for a bus or walking to/from the stop. Not too difficult to figure. Buses don't get much priority boost except on the long Kapolei-to-Honolulu route, in which buses get a bit of a leg up by using the HOV "zipper lane". In the city, there's one bus boulevard (Hotel Street) in the small "downtown" Honolulu, but I have no experience there.

Bus fares are startlingly high. Subsidies are quite low - and you'd figure in an island where they have to simultaneously worry about earthquakes and running out of room, they'd want to subsidize people to leave their cars at home - but the farebox recovery ratio is very high (over 30 percent, which is quite high for a bus-only system). The system is recovering slowly from a strike a few years ago which induced a large number of the voluntarily transit-dependent (mentioned above) to get cars or find other ways to get to work. One-way adult fares are $2.00; anybody between toddler and adult is $1.00 each way. There are no short-term passes (shortest is a 4-day pass which isn't that good of a deal anyways). Monthly passes seem more moderate compared to mainland prices.

Tourist usage is moderate - the system is used heavily by hotel workers, but you will see plenty of people who are obviously non-local getting on and off the bus in Waikiki. This crowd is heavily weighted towards the hotels on Kuhio and on the Ala Wai side - the people in the most expensive rooms on the Kalakaua side probably don't even know the bus exists. But there's far more young people staying along Kuhio anyways in the moderately priced stuff, and the books they read (like Lonely Planet) highly recommend the bus, and we saw plenty of that sort as well as a few retirees.

Now for our direct experience, first the two trips to Hanauma Bay:

The whole family took the #22 bus twice to Hanauma Bay, which is a really delightful place to snorkel, especially when you can get to the outer reef (we couldn't on either time this trip due to high waves). Calm enough for very poor swimmers to get to see a lot of pretty fish; still interesting enough for the moderately adventurous; and very easy to get in. This is the beach where Elvis lived in "Blue Hawaii", by the way; and I've been here about 15 times going back to my first visit as a middle-schooler.

Although the drive to Hanauma Bay is fine, and the views are nice, parking is a problem - the lot is fairly small compared to peak demand, and on a previous visit we actually were turned away once (this happens fairly often but we've been lucky overall). Parking fees, stupidly enough, are only like a buck. Somebody failed basic economics. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out the bus - especially since the travel guides recommend it, and we were trying to save money by not having a mostly unused rental car all week.

We left our timeshare and walked out to Kuhio and waited. Actually, I had observed several buses running the route bunched together right before we got down there on one of our two trips (can't remember which one), which is understandable given traffic conditions on this route. The buses theoretically run every 20 minutes or so, but due to bunching we ended up waiting much longer one of the two times. Boarding the bus was fine but SLOW - they still use an old transfer scheme like Capital Metro did until a year or so ago (slips of paper), and feeding in dollar bills for us (5 bucks; Ethan was free) took quite a while. On the first trip, we were headed out in what was supposed to be early but ended up mid-afternoon (more like 2:30 as it turned out), and on the second trip we headed out right after lunch.

The route took us past Diamond Head and provided opportunities for a lot of nice views there on a road I actually haven't driven before. Both times, the bus was very full - at times, every seat was full (perhaps 30 seats) and up to 10 were standing. People constantly got on and off the bus - apparently some folks use this same route to travel to/from Diamond Head to hike, although you have a much longer walk to the ostensible beginning of the hike from the bus stop than from the car parking. Also noticed many middle-school age kids using the bus to get from school to various spots along the Kalaniole - some to go home, others obviously to bodysurf (headed past us to Sandy's Beach). A handful of tourists like us were obviously headed to Hanauma Bay on both occasions. The bus rejoined my normal driving route near the Kahala Mall and then I got to enjoy the views like I hadn't since my one bike trip there (before the arthritis many years ago) since usually I'm driving in traffic with enough lights that I can't look at the ocean as much as I'd like.

The dropoff/pickup location at Hanauma Bay is awful. It's a much longer walk to the entrance - and I feel every inch of it on my bad feet while also carrying our heavy snorkel bag.

Compared to driving: The total trip time was about 50 minutes, compared to maybe 35 in the car (but add in 20-40 minutes for the wait for the bus, and add in 10-15 minutes for what it would have taken me to get the car out of the garage and come back to the timeshare for a more accurate comparison). The cost of the individual trip was competitive - figure $3.25/gallon gas and a 12 mile trip = $1.95 each way, $1 to park for a total of $4.90, compared to $10 for bus fare. But since we were "voluntarily transit-dependent", we didn't have to worry about being turned away, and for the whole trip we saved about $250 on rental car costs ($300ish for a weekly rental car + $10/day to park it, compared to two daily rentals we did do at about $60 each). That made going without a rental car a great decision for the week we spent in Waikiki, but as mentioned in part one, I wish I had rented one for the couple of days we spent on the Leeward side (about the same price as using the car service!)

Return trip: We waited with a large group each time at the inconveniently far out bus stop, where Ethan amused himself by chasing chickens. Don't know how close to schedule the bus was; we didn't care much at this point. Ride back was nice - again, standing room only at certain times.

I also hopped the bus once by myself on a trip back from the rental car dropoff (on the Sunday when we switched from the timeshare to the Hilton) and helped a couple figure out which bus would take them to the airport (they were Australian; most Americans, even those who took the bus while here, would know it'd be better to take a cab to the airport when you have to deal with luggage). Unventful for the most part, and at the Hilton it's obvious that nobody there takes the bus - the stop is outside the property and a bit of a hike. The Hilton seems like a spot where people who don't know what they're doing end up spending $20/day warehousing rental cars, frankly. Like is often the case when I'm returning to my house from downtown, I had a choice of four or five bus routes - whichever one came first, in other words; I think the one I took was the #8.

Finally, we all took a tour bus to the Polynesian Cultural Center one day, which was a nice trip - but not transit per se. The place was a lot less hokey than I anticipated - I actually recommend giving this a try, although bring a hat - it's very hot out there.

Summary recommendations: If you go to Honolulu once, rent a car. You'll want it to do the North Shore, Pearl Harbor, and a few other things you should do at least once. But if you've already been to those places, try getting by without it if you can - you'll be surprised at how much money you save, not to mention time (parking a car in Honolulu takes quite a bit of time as well as money - and rental car agencies are even slower there than on the mainland). On our trip, we rented a car for 2 out of the 11 days - I just walked to one of the four or five options in Waikiki, got a car, and went back to the timeshare to load up the family (Lanikai Beach, where we got married and where we spent parts of both of those two days, is unfortunately not feasible to reach on the bus - although you can circle the island on one route if you're sufficiently adventurous, it doesn't go back down towards Lanikai; the only way to get there is two transfers, the second one of which runs very infrequently).

Whenever I get to it, look for the final part: Future plans for transit on O'ahu.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Transit Field Trips
Posted by m1ek at 05:48 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2007

Letter of the Year

From the online Chronicle letters; don't know if they'll have the guts to publish it given their overwhelming tilt towards Karen McGraw's ANC "granola mafia":

Just caught your piece [“Naked City,” News] in the July 27 issue about our [Vino Vino] off-site parking hearing before the Planning Commission on Tuesday, July 24, and the opposition to our proposal by Karen McGraw. It's good to see the Chronicle taking a peek, if even an ever-so-lightly colored one, at this little turf war going on right here in bucolic Hyde Park (you could have given us a ring, you know). As you correctly point out, parking in Hyde Park and along the run of Guadalupe in question (from 40th to 43rd) is extremely tight. That's why we, along with our landlord, Thad Avery, have looked into every possibility to lighten our parking load along this slowly revitalizing stretch of Guadalupe. Ms. McGraw has led a "spirited" opposition to our attempts to find a solution. In spite of overwhelming approval by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association back in February and last Tuesday's unanimous approval by the Planning Commission, we still await the green light to do our thing. We've been at this process, grinding it out, for two years now, and this is a wee bit frustrating. As to the concern Ms. McGraw expressed for her parking lot, we have no intention of letting any of our customers use her lot. Ain't gonna happen. No matter what she may say. About half of our customers are Hyde Park residents who have walked from their nearby homes, and this is part of the charm of being here in the first place. However, we are happy that some of the lunch customers of the deli located in Ms. McGraw's building use our lot to park their cars.

But that's a whole other story. In fact, there is so much more to the story. Anyway, thanks for all the coverage of all things Austin.

Sincerely,

Jerry Reid

Manager, etc.

Vino Vino

p.s. As for the mass-demolishing-of-homes-on-Avenue A-scenario Ms. McGraw fears, got a clue as to how much those houses go for these days? That would be one friggin' expensive parking lot! Oh, and the bus? Yep, we rented a bus for our supporters. With more than 30 folks turning up to show their support, it was the least we could do. We had room for Ms. McGraw and her two supporters. They should have come along.

Update: Here's the link to the letter in case anybody wants to comment. I highly encourage it.

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad
Posted by m1ek at 11:04 AM | Comments (2)

August 01, 2007