Starting a new category - "This Week In The Chronicle" where I post a short response to a couple of articles matching my subject matter here. Subtitle for this category should be "In which M1EK performs the critical analysis that we used to rely on the Chronicle to do, instead of just fleshing out Capital Metro / city press releases".
Both about The Domain today, which is actually a pretty nice little project in the middle of suburban crap.
First, the main article which includes this:
Each TOD, inevitably, has separate demands, different problems, and a different mix between the core components. "No TOD has everything," said Lucy Galbraith, TOD manager for Capital Metro. "Some will primarily be employment centers, some retail or residential. Nobody ever gets everything in there – except maybe Downtown Manhattan."
So what do they have in common? "It's the three D's: density, diversity, design," explained Galbraith. Density isn't about buildings per acre but bodies. It means enough people to make the area feel like a community. There's a psychological factor, that a busy street is a comfortable street. "If you're the only person walking, it can be a little lonely," Galbraith said. "If there's 50 people walking, you feel fine." Similarly, diversity is supposed to reflect not just the usage but the culture of a TOD. "It's incomes, housing types, ethnicity, everything you can find," she added, "because the full range creates the kind of all-day use that makes it a healthy, lively place."
But the third and most critical component is design. Transit plans depend on road design, and a transit plan that hopes to balance public, private, and pedestrian traffic needs to get it right early on, because fixing a road is a lot harder than building it in the first place. According to Galbraith, for a really successful TOD, that means putting people-on-foot first. "There's many technical details, but basically you think about how you make life easy for the pedestrians, and then you fit in everything else."
And my response:
As I've said before, you never, ever, ever get TOD with anything but high-quality rail transit. Note: the rail transit has to be within walking distance of the TOD for this to work - a 'circulator' shuttle bus will absolutely NOT work. Also note, the same lady quoted here has previously attempted to claim that the Far West and Riverside student ghettoes are TOD.
Wishful thinking pushed by the Feds aside, the general opinion in the field is that obvious and frequent bus service is arguably an impediment to high-quality TOD, because it drives away the tenants most in demand (choice commuters). The only thing that appears to work is rail transit within walking distance, period.
Sub-article, on "Getting There":
One concept being considered is a circulator shuttle-bus service that will pick up train passengers and distribute them through the area. It will mean less of an overall dependence on the ubiquitous Cap Metro big bus, but it's not exactly virgin territory for the city's public-transport system. "Our range is a little longer than people perceive, because not everyone sees our express buses or our smaller special-transit service shuttles," said Lucy Galbraith, TOD manager for Cap Metro.
Even in true downtown areas, circulators are a huge disincentive to choice commuters. In an area like this, which is a pale shadow of downtown, they're going to be a killer. Imagine the use case here, from either central Austin or Leander:
|1||Drive||To park-and-ride||Not realistic to pick up circulator buses on residential end in Leander|
|2||Wait||For commuter rail train||Runs every 30 minutes during rush hour only for first N years, maybe as often as 15 minutes many years later|
|3||Train||To Kramer station||Station is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli|
|4||Bus||From Kramer station to Domain||Probably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic|
|5||Walk||From bus stop to destination||(short walk)|
|From Central Austin|
|1||Walk||To shuttle bus stop||No parking at the few stations closer in than Kramer, so only way there is bus|
|2||Wait||For shuttlebus||Moderate to long wait. (Timing only guaranteed on train end).|
|3||Bus||To station (one of three)||Slow, jerky, stuck-in-traffic ride|
|4||Wait||For commuter rail train||Runs every 30 minutes during rush hour only for first N years, maybe as often as 15 minutes many years later. Only one reverse commute per day initially.|
|5||Train||To Kramer station||Station is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli|
|6||Bus||From Kramer station to Domain||Probably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic|
|7||Walk||From bus stop to destination||(short walk)|
Now, compare to driving. Does either one of those trips look remotely attractive enough to get you out of your car? The whole point of transit-oriented development is that the trips to and from the development must be served as well or better by transit as they are by the automobile. Unless you're smoking a particularly potent brand of crack, commuter rail service plus shuttlebus to The Domain will never in a million years, even with gridlock, be better than just driving there.
What could have been done differently? The 2000 light-rail proposal would have knocked off items 2 through 4 from the Central Austin use case above; and light rail could eventually have been routed directly into The Domain (someday removing the other shuttlebus trips from both cases). The DMUs being used on this commuter rail, on the other hand, will never be able to be run in the street, even up there, because they can't make anything but the widest of turns. Once again we see that the decision to implement commuter rail instead of light rail not only buys Austin absolutely nothing now, it prevents us from doing anything better in the future.
Dear Friends at Capital Metro:
Hey, the last few rides, taking my 3-year-old to the UT lab school and back, have been swell. Good work. So I saw your fare increase went over like a lead balloon. Well, I just filled out your survey. Here's my additional comments:
Here's what those fares might look like (this is just a wide estimate, though). Let's assume that we have developed a smart-card for residents of the service area which can be used even for the walk-up case - this is simple and is done in many other jurisdictions to identify people who qualify for reduced fares (such as senior citizens).
|Ride type||Current fare||Target FRR for residents||Resident fare||Non-resident fare|
|Standard one-way bus fare||$0.50||25%||$1.00||$3.00|
|Express bus one-way fare||$1.00||25%||$2.00||$6.00|
|Commuter rail one-way fare||N/A||40%||$4.00||$8.00|
(similar relative discounts as today for students, seniors, and day/monthly passes. Assumption is that average cost of a one-way city bus ride, all costs included, is $4.00; $8.00 for express; $10.00 for commuter rail with shuttle bus; $20.00 for STS).
The conclusion is that if we're going to raise our farebox recovery ratio but simultaneously not drive away choice commuters (who are the voters we need to keep on board), we need to do something to capture the free-rider revenue, or lower the free-rider cost. Systems like New York's can handle this by heavily discounting monthly passes and having relatively steep one-way fares; we're not to that point yet here.
I'll expect my consultants' fee any day now.
I hope the game ends up like this:
(image from Autumn Thunder, ironically, a Michigan blog, created in their AppyState aftermath).
If it doesn't, expect me to be even more bilious for the next year. Oh, yes, it's possible.
Quick hit, found from Jeff's excellent "City Transit Advocates" aggregator:
This recently released national study confirms that even in states with more progressive transportation policies than we have in Texas, motorists do not pay the full cost of providing them with roads and ancillary services. Not even close. (I've seen the New Jersey study before and have used it many times; but nobody bothered to go to that level of detail for the nation as a whole).
And in Texas, it's a lot worse - we don't allow state gas taxes to be spent on major roadways outside the state highway system (which screws cities like Austin in favor of suburbs like Round Rock); and we even require 'donations' from city and county general funds to get state and federal 'free'ways built. If the subsidy recovery would be 20-70 cents/gallon nationally, it'd easily be over a buck here.
Wanted to point readers to a discussion between Austin Contrarian and myself about fixed versus variable costs of driving, and how best to account the fixed costs. One thing many commute calculators get just absolutely and stupidly wrong is the idea that depreciation is a factor of miles driven (it's actually far more a factor of age - miles a distant second). For instance, this is a comparison I ran for one of the early comment's on AC's post: a 1998 Honda Civic LX, automatic, all other values default. All values as "private party" and "excellent condition".
(KBB said 86,000 would be "typical", but actually seems a bit low to me).
A 1998 Civic would be either 9 or 10 years old today, depending. The added depreciation due to driving normally versus the little-old-lady case is no more than $100 per year ($8.25 per month). The depreciation due to age swamps this figure by a factor of 10 or more. This stands to reason - would you really pay a ton of money for a 9-year-old Civic just because it wasn't driven very much? Of course not.
What does this mean? Ignore the commute calculators which include depreciation, insurance, and registration, unless you're one of the vanishingly rare few people who can completely get rid of a vehicle. Instead, use one of the calculators which only includes truly variable costs, like mine (originally written for bike commutes, but can be used to compare the cost for transit commutes just as easily - just zero out the cost of bike tubes and tires and put bus fare in "extra costs"). For instance, at gas prices of $3.00, and with $80 tires (about what our last set cost, each), you end up with these values for some of my old commutes (assuming I got to use our Prius instead of what I actually drove back then, which only got 38 mpg):
|Home to 183/Braker (Netbotz)||$1.31||$1.00 / $2.00 (regular / express)|
|Home to downtown (free parking)||$0.46||$1.00|
|Home to downtown ($8 parking)||$8.46||$1.00|
Now, if AC's parking cost was unbundled - charged per-day, his commute would actually come out cheaper on the bus by a fair margin, as indicated above. He indicated a monthly cost of $100, and I'm just guessing that $8 might be the price on the spot market, but that means that if he drives even about half the time, it'd be smarter to pay for the parking pass and then drive every day.
How can we fix this? If more of the costs of driving were borne directly by drivers, at the time they drove (or at least paid for gas), it wouldn't be so artificially cheap. For instance, when I drive downtown, I'm using roadways which were paid for out of property and sales taxes - not the gas tax. If we were to pay for all major roadways out of the gas tax, well, first, Round Rock would start to have to finally pay something approaching the cost of their infrastructure without free-riding on Austin, and second, at the extra buck a gallon I figure it would take, the math would shift a bit. It'd shift more if we could get auto insurance priced by the mile (although you keep hearing about it, it's never been an option for me or anybody I know personally). And, of course, if we paid for the costs of our Iraq adventure by gas taxes instead of through income taxes, the story would be even more different. But in the meantime, it rarely makes sense on purely economic grounds to ride the bus, even at our currently way-too-low fares so we're going to have to keep working on the other reasons. Like reliability. Light rail, dependable in time and at least competitive with the car, on which you could comfortably work or read, would be an easy winner. City buses - well, I salute AC and Tim for being able to work and/or read on the jerky city buses, but I was never able to, and I doubt most people would consider it acceptable even if saving a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, of course, our brand-new commuter rail line is going to inflict two of those jerky bus rides on every single rail passenger every single day. Oops.
Most coverage of Round Rock's attempt to set up their own bus which drops off at a Capital Metro stop is positive. But here's the kicker that nobody's talking about: Every Round Rock resident (or Round Rock worker) who rides this thing is getting a huge subsidy from Austin residents, because Round Rock doesn't pay Capital Metro sales taxes. Each one of those riders from Round Rock is paying 50 cents or a buck to ride the bus, and then Austin taxpayers are kicking in another buck or two. Round Rock taxpayers are kicking in only for the Tech Ridge to Round Rock portion.
The only fair thing to do here would be to charge Round Rock residents more to ride the Capital Metro bus but don't expect CM to ever do this - they'd get spanked so quickly by the Austin-bashing state legislator that their heads would spin.
Look for more of this type of problem, for instance if/when Cedar Park starts a bus shuttle to the Lakeline commuter rail stop. In more progressive states, the free-rider (parasite) problem would be solved by not giving Cedar Park, Round Rock, Pflugerville, etc. the choice about whether to participate in a regional transit agency. Not so in Texas; once again, cities just have to grin and bear it as the suburbs suck out even more money.
If you're seeing a lot of people with whom I normally agree pushing streetcars very hard, and you might be wondering why I keep naysaying them, here's a handy guide. Consider this list of pros and cons for two transit modes I talk about a lot: the city bus and light rail. And remember the target is daily commuters, not tourists - otherwise, we're not really doing anything to improve mobility.
City buses are, well, normal buses. They're what we run today.
LRT, or "light rail" runs in the street where it needs to, but in a reserved guideway (has its own lane and some control over traffic signals) and runs in off-street right-of-way elsewhere. We almost passed this in 2000 and could easily have done so in 2004. In Austin, it would have run right down the middle of two-way streets such as Guadalupe and Congress - in its own lane, so in most cases, traffic congestion could not slow it down.
Now, for comparison, look at how streetcar stacks up, including all pros and cons from light rail and bus above. Note for the record that our streetcar proposal does not include any segments of reserved guideway, nor can it ever be converted into reserved guideway.
Pros from buses:
Pros from LRT:
Cons from buses:
Cons from LRT:
The summary here: streetcars have almost none of the positives that light rail has but city buses lack; and it shares almost all of the liabilities of BOTH modes. It's almost expensive to build as true light rail; but it's also more expensive to run, and very unreliable, like city buses. Even in Portland (Home Of The Streetcar!), people who look at it dispassionately come to the conclusion that it's usually juat a glamorous (for now) immobile bus.
But M1EK, you ask, what about all the people who won't ride the bus today? Won't they flock to streetcars because of their image? Capital Metro's consultant certainly thought so.
The mode preference problem for buses versus rail is vastly misunderstood. It's not that people always prefer rail over bus even if they're exactly the same in all other respects, it's that rail service in the past was always at least a little bit better than bus service on several of the critical metrics listed above. Even traditional streetcars held up as examples have some pros which the "streetcar vulgaris" we're thinking about building here won't - dedicated right-of-way in segments, for instance, or other enhancements. Streetcar seems to attract more people than buses because the rail service is usually far superior to the bus service it is being compared to. That's not going to be the case here in Austin - all we're doing is nailing the shitty buses onto rails, with all their old liabilities and some exciting new liabilities and, thus, streetcar isn't going to buy us anything worth paying for.
No, there's no magical streetcar fairy dust. Sorry, guys; even people who try it out of curiousity will figure out pretty quickly it's actually slower than the Dillo used to be (combining speed and reliability).
Also, while I'm at it: another nugget from Appendix A, just confirming something I've been saying for a really long time, but which still hasn't made any traction with the naive fools who think we can expand commuter rail into the center city:
(Note: Capital Metro is currently implementing Capital MetroRail using Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) type vehicles on its existing railroad right-of-way from Austin to Leander. Although in the future transit system it may be desirable to extend this technology into the circulator corridor to gain certain operational efficiencies, this technology is not envisioned as a viable alternative to the bus and streetcar technologies identified for further study. This is primarily because of the mobility limitations of the DMU technology. DMU technology is therefore not included as one of the potential technologies carried forward into the analysis of alternatives.)
(Yes, this ends up rehashing about 75% of the last post; but this one, I hope, does so more coherently).
Since many people still think that if you build streetcar, they will come; here's a set of use case-like tables which I hope will explain what the actual difference is between streetcars and buses. The first case is for "why can't we just fix commuter rail by building a streetcar line to which they can transfer?". The second case is for "won't streetcar get more residents of central Austin to take transit to work?".
Some shorthand below explained up here:
"Stuck in traffic": Does the vehicle have its own lane, or is it sharing a lane with cars? This affects speed and reliability.
"Detourable": If there's a traffic accident in the shared lane, can the vehicle in question change lanes to get around it? This is a drastic impact on reliability.
"Fast/slow": Is the vehicle capable of accelerating/decelerating quickly? Speed, obviously.
|Mode||Stuck in traffic?||Detourable?||Fast/slow?|
|Circulators as applied to commuter rail service|
|Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)|
Notice anything? Whether you're using the vehicle as a circulator or as your primary form of transit, it performs exactly the same. I know this seems obvious, but I still get people thinking that there's some magic fairy dust that will make streetcars turn into good transit service for the people who actually wanted it, in both 2000 and 2004. No, credulous fellow residents of Central Austin, streetcar doesn't bringing anything more to the table than bus does - arguably LESS, for daily commuters. Note the "Detourable" column. Yes, I've had times on the bus when I've benefitted from this capability. They won't detour just to get around heavy traffic, but they darn sure will to get around an accident.
So what are some of the other benefits of streetcar not mentioned here? It provides a perception of permanence that bus service does not. This is worth something if you're trying to stimulate development somewhere - but downtown Austin doesn't need the help. It also provides a minor benefit for tourists - making it more obvious that transit exists, and making it more attractive (people from out of town are unlikely to want to ride the bus given the stigma of bus service in many other cities).
The only advantage streetcar has is for tourists - which is why, IF we build this thing, it should only be funded out of hotel/rental car taxes. Even if it ran through the dense residential parts of Austin, it would provide precisely nothing of benefit to those residents, who, by the way, pay almost all of Capital Metro's bills.
I've been meaning to post on this for quite some time (an Outlook reminder pops up every day) but was putting it off because I had intended on gathering together quotes from before the election, after, and whatnot; showing the slip from 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to 2010. But the hell with it; Capital Metro's even showing it in powerpoint presentations now, so here you go:
The only service being provided to central Austin in any way, shape, or form; the execrable Rapid Bus, is now scheduled for 2010. This service, as useless as it will be, was the only bone thrown to Central Austin for their votes (and, don't forget, the vast majority of Capital Metro's tax revenue). The sterling work of the boot-licking sycophants in the ostensibly pro-transit community has done absolutely nothing but further enable Capital Metro to screw the people who want, and pay for, transit. Good show, folks.
("study" downtown circulator, by the way, means "try to convince the city and UT to pay for it"; and so far, the city has admirably been asking questions like "why is a stuck-in-traffic streetcar better than a stuck-in-traffic bus?").
Last Saturday, I went down to FlugTag with my 3 and 13-year-olds. I wrote down the next few buses on the #5 and #7; we picked the #5; and walked out to the stop. Three UT students were already there - also going to the FlugTag. Got to the stop at about 5:25 for the bus that should have been there at 5:32.
Note that the buses were running on the Saturday schedule - which means that instead of running every 18-19 minutes, it runs every 38 minutes. IE, probably half as many buses as usual. I think the #7 was roughly the same.
We waited. And waited. Saw 2 buses go by northbound. By 6:00 or so, after I had called Cap Metro twice and been assured that the bus was only 5 minutes delayed, the 3 students walked to Guadalupe to catch the #1. Since my arthritis was already going to make this a risky endeavor, we stayed put. Called Cap Metro again, and was told this time that the 5:32 bus had already gone by - a lie. I let the agent have it; telling her that the #5 might have detoured down Guadalupe to make up some time but he damn well didn't go by us. She told me the next bus would be by in about ten minutes (about ten minutes later than schedule). I figured we'd give it that ten minutes and then give up.
Five minutes later, a #5 bus comes by, and as I'm paying for myself and the boys, the driver is asking us to hurry, as he's already 45 minutes late. A-ha! While the driver lied (apparently) to the dispatcher about where he was, at least he continued to run the correct route. We got basically the last 3 seats on the bus and settled in. As we headed farther south, the bus filled up more and more - by the time we reached Dean Keeton and Speedway, every seat and every standing position was full; and the driver started telling people at stops that he couldn't take any more people.
Between there and the southern end of UT, we probably skipped another 30 people. The bus was full of brand-new UT students - I had to give a lot of directions - who were new in town and trying out Capital Metro for the first time.
Downtown was a madhouse - as expected - very slow on Congress. Our original plan was to hop off at Cesar Chavez and walk - but at 5th (right in front of Eckerd's), the driver announced that there was a #30 a block behind him that would get us as close as possible to the event. So we, and 25 others, hopped off and then back on the #30, only to be stuck when a police car pulled right in front of us, stopped, and the officers went into the Eckerd's and left their car right in front of us - forcing our bus driver to try to change lanes in the middle of gridlock. That took another 10 minutes (just to get around the cop car). Thanks, APD!.
By the time the #30 bus reached Cesar Chavez, we all gave up and got off the bus.
FlugTag was amazingly crowded, and I'm glad we went, but then I had to acquire ice cream I had promised the 3-year-old, and through a comedy of bad decisions ended up walking all the way to the convenience store near Peter Pan. Observed dozens of people waiting at every bus stop heading away from downtown (for the #10, for instance).
After the ice cream mission was completed, we walked out to Lamar intent on catching the #3. A dozen people there, too. Crap. Called Cap Metro and the next bus wasn't scheduled for another 40 minutes! Decided to just walk the north side of the lake back to Congress, where at least I could choose between the first #1, #3, #5, or #7 to show up. Once we managed to struggle to the stop there, I was about dead (and am lucky I didn't end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like the last time I pushed it and walked this much) and only had to wait about 15 minutes for a #7 (even passed up a #1 in the meantime).
So, what did Capital Metro do wrong? Well, they had no control over the traffic. There's nothing they could have done about the hour it took to get from my bus stop at 35th and Speedway to Cesar Chavez/Congress. Of course, light rail a la 2000 would have worked great, but commuter rail wouldn't have worked at all - because people would have had to take shuttle buses through that same traffic.
But one obvious thing Capital Metro could have done was simply run a bunch of these routes on their weekday schedules. This would have meant that the dozens of people futilely waiting at bus stops, many of whom were obviously trying Capital Metro for the first time ever, might have had a better impression. I'll bet, however, that with the hour-long waits for buses in evidence, that Capital Metro gained exactly zero future customers, and probably even lost some who were previously willing to ride. Don't tell me that's too difficult - they have no trouble when they want to reduce frequency (run a Sunday schedule on a mid-week holiday, for instance).
People who are stuck on a bus that's stuck in traffic aren't going to blame the bus. Well, most of them, anyways. But people who are stuck waiting an hour for a bus only to be told that there's no room to ride? They're damn well going to blame the bus, and they damn well should. And meanwhile, Capital Metro is pushing a long overdue fare increase at precisely the worst possible time - making it trivially easy for the "bus riders union" to claim that they're subsidizing commuter rail for Leanderites. Does it get any dumber?
And, moral of the story? Ride your bike. If I could still ride, I would have ridden down with the boys, and it would have been a piece of cake.