June 13, 2008

Transportation Microeconomics Bites Me In The Butt

So you may have heard me talk about the new suburban office. For a while, we were trying to keep making a go of it with just one car - my wife driving me in most days and picking me up sometimes; other times me taking that hour and 45 minute trip home with a long walk, 2 buses, and a transfer involved. I tried to work from home as much as possible - but the demands to be in the office were too great; and we couldn't sustain the drop-offs and the long bus trips.

Well, we relented. Just in time; I got my wife to agree on a color and we now own a second Prius - this one obtained right as the waiting list shot up from zero to many months (ours was ordered; but there was no wait beyond that so it took about 2 weeks - arriving right as the house exploded so ironically I ended up working exlusively from home for a few weeks longer anyways). Do not argue with the M1EK on the futurism/economics predictions is the lesson you should be taking away from this.

So that's the intro. Here's the microeconomics lesson.

Assuming $4 gas, the trip to work in the car costs $1.56 according to my handy depreciation-free commute calculator. The morning drive takes 20 minutes. The afternoon drive more like 30.

The transit trip costs $1 (although soon to go up to at least $1.50). That means I save $0.56, at least before the fare increase, right? Not much, but every bit helps, right?

Well, the transit trip takes an hour and a half in the morning; an hour and 45 minutes in the afternoon; and I can't afford that much extra time anyways, but even if I could, it would be placing an effective value of 23.1 cents per hour on my time, which seems a bit, uh, low.

So it's gonna take a lot more than $4/gallon gas, sad to say. You might be seeing some marginal increases in ridership around here, but only in areas where transit service is very good and where people should have been considering taking the bus all along. And there's no prospect for improvement - the reason bus service is so bad out here is because Rollingwood and Westlake don't want to pay Capital Metro taxes, although they sure as heck enjoy taking my urban gas tax dollars to build them some nice roads to drive on. In the long-term Cap Metro plan, there may be a bus route on 360 which would at least lessen the 30 minute walk/wait involved, but that could be a decade or more - by then we'll probably be getting chauffered through the blasted alkali flats in monkey-driven jet boats. Not gonna help me.

Also, those who think telecommuting and staggered work schedules are more important than pushing for higher-quality transit and urban density can bite it, hard. If even people in my business often get pressure to come into the physical office, there's no way the typical workaday joe is going to be able to pull it off in large enough numbers to make any difference.

Capital Metro is blogging

They've just started up an effort called Capital MetroBlog. Expect to see me there from time to time -we'll see how transparent they intend to be if/when they start talking about commuter rail.

June 10, 2008

Laura Morrison's McMansion

In the past, you've seen me point out the hypocrisy of two or three folks heavily involved in the McMansion Task Force for living in homes which violated the expressed spirit, if not technically the letter, of the ordinance. The spirit being "out-of-scale houses (McGraw) and/or homes which 'tower over the backyards of their neighbors' (Maxwell)".

Somehow, I missed this.

Laura Morrison chaired this task force - and lives in a home which, according to TravisCAD, is worth $1.4 million and has 8,537 square feet. Pretty big, but I had previously assumed it fit well within the 0.4 FAR required by McMansion. Yes, this is a big old historic house, but that's not the metric of the ordinance (it doesn't say "big houses are OK if they are stunners", after all). Also pretty expensive for somebody whose negative campaign ads try to paint Galindo as the rich candidate.

A few days ago, though, I was alerted by a reader that Morrison's lot is actually too small -- but she's not subject to the ordinance anyways, because according to said reader, her lot is zoned MF-4 (the McMansion ordinance only applies to single-family zoning). A little history here: the Old West Austin neighborhood plan (which I worked on in a transportation capacity) allowed landowners to choose to downzone their lots from multi-family (most of the area was zoned that way after WWII even though existing uses were houses) to single-family (SF-3) if the property was still being used that way. Apparently Morrison passed on this opportunity (many others took it up; I remember seeing dozens of zoning cases come up before City Council on the matter).

So let's check it out. Unfortunately, TravisCAD doesn't have the lot size, but Zillow does.

Home size: 8537 square feet
Lot size: 20,305 square feet
FAR (before loopholes): 0.42

Caveats: I do not know if Morrison is using the property in ways which would be comforming with SF-3, but I found it very interesting that her ads are attacking Galindo for building duplexes which actually comply with her ordinance yet the home she herself lives in would be non-compliant in a similar scenario, or require loopholes to comply. It's often referred to as a "converted four-plex", and the owners' address is "Apt 9", which may suggest continuing multi-family use, which would also be evidence of hypocrisy given her stand against any and all multi-family development in the area except for a few cases where that plan mentioned above quite effectively tied her hands. Either way, Morrison clearly broke the spirit of her own ordinance and her own activism against multi-family housing, and anyways when you write the ordinance, as she did, it's really easy to make sure your own property is just barely compliant. You notice that you're right over the edge; so you exempt attached carports, for instance, which, oops, you just happen to have!

Again, I can't believe I missed her the first time around - her hypocrisy on this ordinance is more odious than that of McGraw and Maxwell combined. I apologize for my lack of diligence on this matter.

(Hey, BATPAC: yes, your latest cowardly anonymous attack on me did indeed motivate me to finally take the time to write this! Good show! And I feel very confident that my readers find your accusation that I "like Republicans" to be one of the funniest things they've read in quite some time!)

June 05, 2008

Why progressives, transit-supporters, environmentalists, and urbanites need to vote for Galindo

I'm way late on this and way short of time - so this is necessarily brief.

The Austinist covered this race in more depth and asked smarter questions than did anybody else (thanks, Shilli). Here's Cid Galindo's answers. Laura Morrison gave answers to their questions which sound sustainable, too but here's why Galindo ought to be your choice if you care at all about sustainability and affordability (not to mention environmentalism and transit):

1. Laura Morrison has opposed essentially all density anywhere in the city. Cid Galindo supports urban development which is not only sustainable for its residents, but will lower tax bills for everyone else in the long-run. The few projects Morrison lists as not opposing were cases where her hands were tied by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan (which I worked on), which called for mid-rise mixed-use development along those corridors (before the VMU ordinance existed). This plan was written before she obtained a position of power in the NA; and had been enacted by the City Council before she had a chance to do anything about it. She can't claim credit for these, because she couldn't have stopped them if she had tried. She did, however, try to stop Spring, 7Rio, and supposedly was even responsible for the suburban front design of the Whole Foods, burning all the hard-earned political capital of OWANA in the process. The City Council now, in my observation, rightly views my old neighborhood association as a no-to-everything joke that can be safely ignored.

2. Laura Morrison was the leader of the task force that developed the McMansion Ordinance. This ordinance's primary effect is to discourage secondary dwelling units like garage apartments and duplexes - the only true affordable housing left in central Austin. Although the Planning Commission acted on input from me and others to try to remedy this effect, the City Council was fooled by Morrison's group into ignoring the thoughtful Planning Commission recommendation. Galindo, according to press from the other side, voted against the McMansion Ordinance - which is absolutely the right position on this matter if you care at all about density and urbanism.

3. Laura Morrison is supported financially (maximum donations) by Jim Skaggs. Yes, that Jim Skaggs - he and his wife have donated the max to both Morrison and BATPAC (which in turn supports Morrison). Her base of support among the old ANC crowd is full of folks who claim to be pro-transit, but if you scratch them a bit, you find a lot of Skaggs poking through. People who will tell you they want improved bus service before building rail, which, of course, is the same thing as letting Skaggs take half of Capital Metro's budget for more freeways, since the buses are already being run as well as they can given current roadway design and population density. These folks don't care, of course; they don't bike or walk or use transit - they drive. Galindo's positions on transportation aren't much better defined than are Morrison's, but density supports rail in a virtuous circle, unlike the negative feedback loop the Skaggs/Morrison crowd prefers with lower density and highways.

4. Those policies will encourage more sprawl over the aquifer than the current state of affairs; while Galindo has a reasonable plan to lessen already-allowed development there (transferring development rights to new 'town centers' that can use the height and density in a sustainable fashion).

That ought to be enough - but keep in mind when you hear negatives about Galindo that many of the same things apply equally to Morrison. For instance, it's hard to think of a more traditionally Republican stance than her take on density and transportation - which is, of course, why people like Skaggs like her. And it's hard to credit attacks on Galindo for supposed family wealth when she hasn't had to hold a real job in quite some time despite living in a huge house on a big lot in Old West Austin.

Vote Galindo in the runoff. Tell your friends. It's critically important.

June 04, 2008

Genius, as it happens

[08:53] mdahmus: Can I misinterpret that as "the company urgently needs you to check out the hydrology at Schlitterbahn tout suite"? Because man, is it hot, and man, do I need a vacay.
[08:54] <unidentified cow orker>: it's hitting the 100s there isn't it?
[08:55] mdahmus: did the last few days, maybe not today (a refreshingly cool 98)
[08:55] <unidentified cow orker>: got up to 90 here yesterday, high 80s to 90 for the next few days before the next front comes in
[08:55] mdahmus: I'm hoping this means june/july turn wet - there's only so much hotter it can get before thunderstorms start happening, right?
[08:55] <unidentified cow orker>: I am very much looking forward to swimming and getting out in my kayak
[08:55] <unidentified cow orker>: yes. I believe thundstorms will break out in iraq any day now, in fact
[08:55] mdahmus: they'll appreciate that. awesome.
[08:56] <unidentified cow orker>: maybe we should deploy space heaters out in Iraq and then it will rain and everyone will be happy
[08:56] mdahmus: I like the way you think, mister.
[08:56] mdahmus: Perhaps we could send over our mothballed fleet of SUVs to warm up the local microclimate with their exhaust. Everybody wins!
[08:57] <unidentified cow orker>: good idea, I like the way YOU think
[08:57] mdahmus: How many mothballed SUVs would it take to build a mile of rail, I wonder?
[08:57] mdahmus: OR OR OR!
[08:57] mdahmus: SUVs linked together = new train!
[08:58] mdahmus: (could even still run on rubber tires; MY NEW BRT TREATMENT NOT FOR STEALING!)
[08:58] <unidentified cow orker>: just put those rail wheelsets on the bottom, like rail maintenance pickups have
[08:58] <unidentified cow orker>: speaking of building rails, I saw some article this weekend about the rail companies begging for federal money to expand rail capacity, more double tracking, etc
[08:59] <unidentified cow orker> good news: rail execs predict lots of growth.
bad news: they are going to try to make us all pay for capacity while they reap the profits

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