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August 17, 2011

Short Shot

I'm hosting a bunch of people from other companies at work, and about as busy as you'd expect at home with 2 little kids, a teenager working on college apps, and school about to start. Here's a quick surfacing and shot just because I got pissed off enough this morning to spend a minute.

As you may now, Cap Metro is cancelling most rail shuttles. Their mouthpiece JMVC and various hanger-on cheerleaders are claiming this is because "nobody needs them" (paraphrasing). Set the wayback machine to 2004-2008, when I was telling you that choice commuters would, mostly, not use a service that required them to transfer to shuttle buses. I've written so much about shuttle buses over the years that I should have made a category for it a long time ago, but here's a search that should get you started.

Anyways, I was attacked repeatedly and from multiple fronts for this claim that shuttlebuses would drive away most potential non-currently-bus-riding passengers and the ridership would mostly be limited to the (few) people within walking distance - it would never and could never be a light rail-like-line with light-rail-like ridership.

Fast forward again to 2011. The shuttles are, mostly, empty. Why? Because some of (the few) people within walking distance are using the Red Line, and people outside of walking distance are, mostly, not. Why not? Cap Metro won't tell you - but it's because I was right back then, and deserve a fucking apology now. Won't hold my breath.

And don't hold your breath for more blogging - I'm too busy to waste much time and energy on a populace, and especially, intelligentsia that seems hell-bent on making the same mistake over again - except, this time, JMVC and crew have convinced decision-makers not to listen to the guy who was right before. Notice this stupid rail debate last night - not invited; turned into another typical Cheerleaders Vs. Neanderthals useless exercise like the last 100 times.

Y'all are about to get precisely what you deserve.

June 06, 2011

A Stark Choice Begins Today

I'm swamped at my real job and preparing for a family visit so I can't give this the attention it deserves, but if you want a clear difference between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo, you could do a lot worse than this story about the Bradford-Nohra house in Hyde Park.

Continue reading "A Stark Choice Begins Today" »

May 13, 2011

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, 2011 Confirmation

Click for larger version.

Note for emphasis versus existing Route 101. As I said way back in 2005 and several other times since, Rapid Bus is just a way for Cap Metro to get the Feds to pay for new rolling stock - it provides practically zero time savings over existing limited-stop #101 service. It's not rapid; it's not anything like what light rail would have been. The cars of all the people stuck from the next light up will still be in your way even if you can hold the light directly in front of the bus green a bit longer.

Cap Metro is attempting to market their way around this by posting two much less relevant trips around the one that really matters - the vast majority of #101 ridership comes from the north, not the south, i.e. trip #1 is not that big a deal, and trip #3 is ESPECIALLY not a big deal as nearly zero people ride the length of the route - almost everybody gets off at downtown or UT in the morning, in other words. Trip #2 is the one that matters, and what you see here is that Cap Metro expects 0 time savings compared to the existing 101 bus.

Rapid [sic] Bus. Still sic, five years later. And remember, thanks to those who voted for the Red Line, this steaming pile of crap is all the best rail corridor in the city will ever have for transportation options.

May 12, 2011

twitlonger.crackplog

Following up on a short twitter conversation (not really; just more of the same from the usual suspects) last night. From folks who have been attending the JMVC school of leading questions, disappointingly. Here you go.

The city's urban rail plan will never be built out without some participation from Capital Metro, and by participation, I mean money. We need some of their local dollars to get this done, in other words. McCracken knew this back in 2008. Don't know why the city's pretending it's not true now, but you can see they don't really believe it, given the undertones in Ben Wear's latest Statesman article where the plan has basically retreated into a Red Line circulator (awesome - circulate the same 1500 boardings/day we have now - hooray - the same people who, remember, have turned up their noses at transfers so much that Capital Metro is cancelling almost all of their rail shuttles).

How much "urban rail" can you buy for $200 million ?

Not very much, according to City of Austin figures, and certainly not enough to make a success of what might be the area's sophomore foray into rail transit. With that and other considerations in mind, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and city transportation officials now say substantial federal transit funding almost surely will be needed for urban rail's first segment.

That would be a change from what city officials had said over the past couple of years: Austin would probably build a first piece of rail with roughly $200 million from voter-approved bonds and whatever else it could raise through other local means, and then use primarily federal funds years later for outlying sections of the proposed 16.5-mile , double-tracked system. But local money alone would pay for little more than a downtown circuit comparable to the Dillo bus lines that stopped running two years ago for lack of riders.

[...]

"Of course, it would be helpful if it went some place initially, but we may not have the money to do that," Leffingwell said. "That someplace may be where the Red Line is going right now."

So it's clear the city doesn't REALLY believe they have enough money to get this done. And if they think the Feds are going to kick in the rest, we are presented with the next problem: Capital Metro is also going to seek Federal funding to buy more cars and/or double-track more sections of the Red Line.

The chance the Feds would fund two major rail projects in an area with our characteristics (population, transit patronage, ridership potential)?

Zero.

So in direct response to this question from @jacedeloney:

@mdahmus @MPTMike @downtownatx Do you have information that shows that Urban Rail funding depends on current MetroRail dollars?

Yes. The fact is that the city doesn't have enough money; Capital Metro is the only other possible local source; and they're already spending more on the Red Line than originally planned (first, on higher operating subsidies, then on even higher operating costs to run all-day service; note that even this weekend's spectacular performance was still a net money-loser for the agency!). So some of their 'current' spending is absolutely essential. I don't know how far back we can pare the Red Line from what it is right now, but it clearly would have to be pared back some if CM was to contribute ANYTHING to urban rail.

So there you have it, tweeters. No, it's not 'data'. It's just the opinion of the only guy who was willing to go out on a limb way back in 2004 and has been right all along up to this point. Take it or leave it, but no more homework assignments, please.

May 05, 2011

My endorsements

In case anybody cares.

Chris Riley is still the best choice in Place One. I have been disappointed in Chris' unwillingness to push harder on many issues we share a similar position on but his votes are almost always what I would prefer for the urbanist/pro-transit agenda. (My disappointments also stem from him being unwilling to stop the Red Line from its inexorable process down the "kill the urban rail line in its cradle" track). His challengers are so unworthy of consideration that I don't even think it's worth discussing this race, and won't.

Randi Shade is the clear choice in Place 3, for a variety of reasons - she's fundamentally serious, as you can tell in her answers to Austinist questions (compare her one credible challenger here) and she's pro-density for the most part. I wrote this piece on the questionable way this race has been framed yesterday. Don't fall for the typical ANC tripe that they represent the average citizen. The average citizen is exactly who the landed gentry are keeping out of central Austin by fighting density.

I'd vote for anybody short of Jim Skaggs over Laura Morrison in Place 4. I've settled on K. Toby Ryan Hill largely because I suspect he has the best, although slim, chance. He's dead wrong on parking, though - but I'll yield on this issue to get the automatic ANC rubber-stamp off the Council if that's what it takes.

April 08, 2011

Dear Lee Leffingwell And Rob Spillar

In yesterday's Chron article, you appear to have the wrong idea of what those of us who demand reserved guideway are concerned about.

This (somebody 'messing up the track'):

is a minor concern. It happens rarely.

This:

is a major concern. It will happen every single day, and will make the train slower and less reliable than the existing city buses on Congress.

Any questions?

April 04, 2011

My First Comment On The Urban Rail Scoping Study

Just left at this address. No time for more on this yet. In short, Red River is a wash compared to Manor unless dedicated lane - both don't have a ton of traffic today but might down the road. Shared lane sucks whereever you run it, but it sucks more on Congress where traffic would already kill the thing if it existed today.

IF this thing gets dedicated lanes in the core, it can eventually grow into the kind of system we should have had in 2000 and 2004. But that's a big IF. Without dedicated lanes on Congress, this thing will be a ridership-losing disaster. You need to spend more time talking to folks who understand how to get drivers out of their cars, not new urbanists who gave up their cars a long time ago.

Thinking "because it's rail people will automatically ride" is what got the Red Line such a black-eye for rail in our region. Don't make the same stupid mistake yet again.

- Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission (2000-2005)
Only Pro-Rail Guy Who Was Right On The Red Line

April 01, 2011

Approximately 3100 words for today about TOD

I wish this were an April Fools' joke, but many folks, including city council members and Cap Metro board members, apparently believe the site drawn below with loving care in MSPaint is going to be a TOD when it's complete. The project page is here.

Click on each picture for a double-size version.

Continue reading "Approximately 3100 words for today about TOD" »

March 28, 2011

Demoralized

Sitting in a hotel room in ice-cold New Jersey on an awful business trip, and see this in a long thread of tweets:

Continue reading "Demoralized" »

March 21, 2011

A Really Crappy Chart For Your Monday

Since so many people either don't get why the Red Line continues to be a problem or are disingenuously pretending not to know, I'm starting a flowchart for you. Thank me later. Click on the image below to get the full (part 1 only) chart.

If you want more, let me know.

December 27, 2010

Austin environmentalists continue proud tradition of harming the environment

My most recent Austin Sierran arrived (guess what? M1EK is a life member!) and as I usually do, I read the minutes from the monthly meeting. In it, I learned that the board apparently opposes plans to build a bike/pedestrian bridge across Barton Creek (to fill a huge gap in the bicycle commuting infrastructure in that part of town - where the frontage roads end on either side of the creek). They oppose this bridge because the construction of the pilings would likely impact the creekfloor and a few other features - in a part of the watershed that's very close-in already (arguably not contributing to the springs at all) - a likely one-time disturbing-the-sediment impact akin to the kinds of floods we see ten times a year in a rainy year.

The geniuses behind this decision suggested more improvements to South Lamar, which is only a couple of miles, a couple of extra hills, and another freakin' expressway out of the way for cyclists trying to commute to the center-city from points far southwest and west. Yes, there are people who commute from this far out - not as many as we would like, of course, hence the issue.

Continue reading "Austin environmentalists continue proud tradition of harming the environment" »

December 10, 2010

3000 words on rail ridership

CM flacks like JMVC and board members like Mike Martinez are making statements that rail ridership has improved. Here's 3000 words to the contrary, fresh off Capital Metro's presses. First two pictures directly from them; third one directly from me.

Continue reading "3000 words on rail ridership" »

November 24, 2010

Chutzpah of the Year

In today's Chronicle, Lee Nichols writes an article about the lack of TOD on the Red Line in which Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro exec, says with a straight face:

Continue reading "Chutzpah of the Year" »

October 29, 2010

Why oppose the Red Line now?

A quick cut/paste job, maximizing the bang for the minimal buck. Enjoy.

In response to my jibe about the urban rail advocates cheering the Red Line, a well-meaning comment was placed asking why I care about what the Red Line did and is doing, given that everybody knows it's just a spur. Here's what I just posted in reply:

I will endeavor to be as brief as possible, but it's frustrating how often I hear talk about beating a dead horse and then hear comments that make it clear I haven't beaten it enough.

1. Although the part of the Red Line from Lamar to the CC was envisioned as an eventual spur in the 2000 line, and you and I and everybody with a brain knows it SHOULD be just a spur, Capital Metro does not agree - and is not treating it as such - and neither, now, is the city. Both Capital Metro and our city council members on the board are championing increased amounts of money spent on the Red Line as what they consider the backbone for rail service in the region. You're engaged in wishful thinking on this one.

2. There's only one strong backbone for rail possible in this city - and the Red Line is squatting on half of it. The city's plan isn't a backbone either - it envisions too low speeds; way too much shared guideway; and is unambitious even in the long-range about going far enough out to make much difference. The city's plan is worth supporting because it's better than nothing - but it will never be capable of being the backbone that the 2000 plan was (which is why it's important to point out what the Red Line lost us).

3. The Red Line isn't just a done deal either - it's getting bigger and worse. Our city council members on Capital Metro's board just approved the mid-day expansion in service which is going to increase the operating subsidy on this route from its already monstrously high $30+/ride - and this will result in more cuts to bus service that more Capital Metro taxpayers actually use in favor of serving a few more people from Round Rock and Cedar Park that don't actually pay taxes.

4. If we're going to get the city's urban rail plan done, if it can even get passed, we need some of Capital Metro's money to do it - and they're going down a path where they're spending all of it on the Red Line. (This is why it's important to point out what the Red Line is currently losing us).

5. Even Dave Dobbs finally figured it out - in the middle of this very long piece on Light Rail Now: http://www.lightrailnow.org/news/n_aus_2010-04a.htm

"• In terms of fulfilling the long-range hope of inner-city rail transit supporters that the rail project could eventually develop into a reincarnation of the 2000 LRT concept, this became increasingly less likely, as CMTA's management and rail planning team seemed more and more to perceive "urban commuter rail" and "Rapid Bus" as ends in themselves, while any plans for LRT to serve the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor and the Core Area receded further and further from consideration."

(Dave took me to lunch in 2004 to try to get me not to oppose the Red Line, by the way - it'll take him a while longer to admit that I was right - that this killed light rail here - but he's clearly moving in that direction).

October 27, 2010

Update on lack of updates

  • Very busy with new position at day job. Unlike most of the people who write or advocate on transportation, I have a non-transportation, non-government, job in the private sector; and it's now consuming all my possible time and then some. Turns out you get a lot more time to write in between builds than you do when writing planning documents. Who knew?
  • Not much to report on anyways. Ridership is back down, despite anectdotal reports to the contrary.
  • Despite that, we're going to start running even more trains to places almost nobody wants to go (shuttlebuses) - making the operating cost subsidy even more monstrously high; resulting in even more cuts to bus service that actual Capital Metro taxpayers actually use. Chris Riley and Mike Martinez have done absolutely nothing to get Capital Metro on the right track here. I am critically disappointed, especially in Chris.
  • My long-range plan is still what it was a month ago - move content to WordPress on my own domain to give my gracious host a long-deserved break; start building back story to refer to from new posts to make them easier to write (and the older ones easier to refer to without having to wade through current content which is no longer current).
  • In the meantime, it's difficult to get enthusiastic about crackplogging anyways - thanks to a couple of local sites which apparently think that even though people still call the damn thing light rail; people still think it can be expanded to serve the city's core; people still think it just needs better connections - that somehow I've been beating a dead horse. Or that Capital Metro would change their plans if I just eased up on them.
  • It doesn't help that local rail and downtown advocates keep sucking up to the people who got us into this mess. Every time I see one of these guys 'like' some irrelevant piece of news about the Red Line on facebook, l want to scream - you idiots; don't you realize that this thing is killing urban rail right this very minute? Where would you rather be able to take a train in ten years from your downtown condo - a cow pasture in Leander or the University of Texas? The middle of a huge parking lot a half-mile from Lakeline Mall or the Triangle? You can't have both; you'd better make up your damn mind.

So there's where we are. I recommend you pay attention to the twitter for short comments on whatever's going on in the meantime.


August 24, 2010

The Other Shoe Begins To Drop

A comment I just left at Capital MetroBlog's entry full of people insisting that the train is successful now or will succeed soon:

So it turns out Capital Metro isn’t going to wait any longer for us to “clap louder or Tinkerbell will die”; in the January service change, they will cancel many 984 and 986 bus runs in order to attempt to boost MetroRail ridership.

Some of those people currently riding those far superior express buses will switch; some will go back to driving.

The key here is that when you build a GOOD rail line, most people switch from redundant bus lines willingly – because the train is better than the bus. Only awful trains require you to force-march passengers away from what they choose to ride; and this only works for captive riders, and only for a while.

Once again, M1EK was right – and those of you defending Capital Metro were wrong.

Capital Metro is about to learn the difference between "captive rider" and "choice commuter" (and the rest of us are going to learn how many of each comprised the ridership of these express bus routes).

August 20, 2010

Whole shakers of salt

So yesterday, I saw a couple of self-congratulatory tweets about the upcoming service changes (on Sunday) which start the process of eliminating service to large parts of central west Austin. This was particularly interesting given that I had just added information to our rental property's MLS listing about "distance to MetroBus" (the #9, at least until Sunday, has a stop about 100 feet away). So here's what I tweeted in response:

(some short background on the taxes and Red Line issue here)

Shortly thereafter, it was retweeted by another user. Capital Metro PR guy JMVC responded (to that user, not me) that the service change resulted in increased service, and that "you should take what he says with a grain of salt". I had planned to just link to this tweet but since yesterday I've been blocked (JMVC has been non-public tweeting for a long time; although he certainly shares his opinions with most of the local decision-makers despite not being willing to be similarly available to the public). Here's the image:

So let's examine in detail. My tweet:

Continue reading "Whole shakers of salt" »

July 29, 2010

Will Kramer Save The Red Line?

The bus is outta control. So I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel, and now I'm driving the bus.

So. The Kramer shuttle. The next step from South Florida's playbook on how to rescue a commuter rail line that's foundering due to not going where anybody actually works. Is it gonna help?

Continue reading "Will Kramer Save The Red Line?" »

July 23, 2010

Will adding later morning runs help the Red Line?

We have now entered an exciting new phase of the Red Line Rescue Plan:

(thanks to reader @T_Starry for the posterized version).

I still have charts ready for a post about double-tracking, but that's a longer-term effort; in the meantime I'd better address this one.

Continue reading "Will adding later morning runs help the Red Line?" »

July 07, 2010

Today's news bits

I still have a post simmering about double-tracking the Red Line, and why it won't make much difference; but I may have to update it after this morning's news.

1. The freight train derailment. It's happened several times before in the recent past - the tracks are pretty crappy in that part of town and have not been replaced. So is this the fault of the Red Line? Not directly; no. The tracks were bad before the Red Line was a gleam in Mike Krusee's eye. HOWEVER: if we had built light rail in the 2000 plan (if Krusee hadn't forced it to the polls early); we'd have two brand-new, presumably better-engineered and more safe tracks through the whole corridor - so a derailment would have been less likely.

2. MOPAC managed lanes. I say the same thing now that I said THREE YEARS AGO: If the lanes don't have a dedicated exit or exits, and there's no indication TXDOT has changed their plans to add any, they will be completely useless - they will quickly degrade to the speed of the general purpose lanes as people in the managed lane struggle to merge back through 3 lanes of traffic to get off the highway.

June 29, 2010

Red Line May 2010 Ridership

Down, down, down.

According to Ben Wear (and confirmed today by Capital Metro); average weekday boardings for May 2010 were a whopping 779.

Don't buy the hype that this was purely due to school either - the two trips I took to the MLK station in early May while school was still in session had 2 people disembarking at 8:25 (train starting at Howard) and 15 people disembarking at 8:02 (train starting at Leander) - and these were the best times (not too early, not too late) - there were probably a total of no more than 30 riders disembarking at MLK in the morning put together. Overall ridership excluding UT is gradually dropping as well.

As for Capital Metro themselves - their response is to take the unused shuttlebuses from the downtown and MLK stations and repurpose them for the Kramer Station, hitting the Domain, IBM, and maybe NI and a couple other employers.

This is, of course, completely useless - nobody who isn't willing to ride the bus to those places today will be compelled to hop the train when it requires another bus ride at the end of the trip - for the same exact reason that relatively few UT people and almost zero downtown folks were willing to shuttle. Don't expect Capital Metro to admit this, of course; it'll be double-tracking that'll solve all our problems after this fails (post in the hopper for later this week).

May 25, 2010

April ridership data for Red Line

Thanks to Lee Nichols at the Chronicle, who suffered through the board meeting; we now know that the Red Line had 901 boardings per average weekday in April (something like 450 actual riders; slightly more if a few are taking the bus one way as has been anectdotally reported). Anybody wonder now why they switched, very quickly, to this form of reporting after the huge drop-off in the first week of paid service?

Continue reading "April ridership data for Red Line" »

May 07, 2010

Just what you needed: Some Crappy Video

I shot this while watching the 8:12 arrival of the Red Line downtown this morning (on my way to work). Excuse the quality; my standard for a phone is "does it make calls? is it free?".

I estimate 25-30 people got off the train here, which is a bit more than I expected given the MLK experience on Wednesday (same train; 15 people going to UT or Capitol). From this we can extrapolate that about 40-45 people get off at the two stops where you can get to actual workplaces on what I expect is the busiest trip of the morning (see end). Add in 5-15 more for all the other stops put together, and you get 45-60 people per day as a ceiling. (An aside: I overheard one passenger say "56 people" as she walked by; I don't know whether that was a coincidence or maybe an actual passenger count).

Let's be charitable and pretend that each and every one of the six morning trips carries that many people (even the ones starting up in Leander at 5:25 AM and 6:00 AM; even the one trip that starts at Howard and only had 2 people on it when I watched it arrive at MLK on Monday).


We've got a basic ceiling (charitable) estimate of 360 boardings in the morning by this method. IE, I would be greatly surprised if more than 720 boardings per day are now happening on weekdays on this line.

Meanwhile, Phoenix's light rail line, built like our 2000 line would have been (except with less speed in suburban areas), has now passed 45,000 boardings per day.

This isn't a ridership figure we can approach by running the Red Line more often and/or on two tracks. The reason Phoenix sees tens of thousands while we see hundreds is quite simply this: Phoenix made sure the train went where lots of people live and lots of people work (and even more go to school), rather than sticking a train on existing tracks that didn't go near anything worthwhile. Phoenix did what we would have done in 2001 if Mike Krusee hadn't forced us to the polls early, in other words; or what we should have come back to in 2004 instead of falling for commuter rail's promise of "almost as good and a lot cheaper".

This isn't something we can fix by extending the Red Line to 4th/Brazos. You're still stuck with a strategy that can never, ever, ever serve UT or the Capitol or the northern half of downtown (we will never run these DMU vehicles in front of UT or the Capitol - too stinky and too porky to make turns).

This is a dead end that we got because people trusted Capitol Metro rather than listening to those who have experience with another system just like this one.

(Why do I think this is likely the busiest trip of the morning? The trip after this one is the one that starts at Howard Lane and only had 2 people get off at MLK on Monday; the one after that doesn't get downtown until 8:56, meaning most passengers to both UT and downtown would arrive after 9:00; and the trip before this one starts in Leander at 6:35 AM; the two before that are even more pervese - 6:00 and 5:25 AM respectively).

May 06, 2010

Transit Field Trip: Back From Jury Duty

On Monday, I had jury duty, which allowed for me to watch a whopping two people get off the 8:25 AM train at MLK, and also ride the bus back home. But first, on the way there, my wife drove me down; and we observed full shuttles (the UT variety, not the Red Line rail shuttles) and expresses and normal city buses dropping tons of people off on Guadalupe at the front door of UT - this was important to verify just in case the low rail turnout was due to UT traffic being down thanks to exams or something.

I got let out of empanelling kind of late at about 1:00; walked quickly to Texadelphia and had a very good but surprisingly expensive lunch (low snack availability = big-time starving) and then walked over to Lavaca to find the first northbound stop.

1:52 PM: Picked up by the #5 bus heading northbound from 15th and Lavaca. Nice. Was about to call Cap Metro to decide whether to wait for the #5 or just get on the first #1 I saw (runs more often, but would have much longer walk to house). There were 7 people on this bus before I boarded; total count now 8.

Stopped for about a minute by the light at MLK. Rapid Bus (were we on it) would not have helped here; the red light was stale when we arrived. One person got off the bus at Guadalupe/20th; total count now 7.

BIG backup at 21st st. Took a while to clear out as the lights turned green many blocks ahead. Another place where Rapid Bus wouldn't have helped. Got hit by a fresh red at 21st right as we got there - Rapid Bus might actually have helped here (were I riding the #1 replacement, that is; rather than the #5). Lost about a minute here due to this.

1:58 PM: Bus arrives at ped crossing between 22nd and 23rd; 9 people got on, including a confused elderly passenger who held up the bus for about 2 minutes by asking the driver a bunch of questions. I presume Rapid Bus wouldn't put up with this but don't know for sure. Total count now 16.

Made all green lights with no stops all the way to Dean Keeton, then turned and made it through another couple greens to the red light at Speedway (stale; no help from Rapid Bus). Thanks, mid-day light traffic. At the big stop on the north side of campus right after this light, dropped off 2 and picked up 6; for total count of 20.

Picked up one more at San Jacinto/30th (unusual), total count now 21.

Dropped one off at 31st; and then no more drop-offs until I got off the bus at 35th/Speedway with a couple other passengers; leaving 17 people still on the bus heading north.

Conclusion for urbanites: All-in-all, a good local bus experience, except for the long delay with the passenger who didn't know where he wanted to go. Little delay due to traffic; bus well-used but nobody had to stand.

Special bonus for suburbanites: If you wanted to get a self-fulfilling prophecy and see this bus almost empty, you probably would have had to observe it north of the northern edges of Hyde Park or the Triangle area. Try Woodrow up around North Loop, or even Anderson near Northcross Mall.

May 05, 2010

Slightly Less Epic MetroFail

To be absolutely fair, I made one more trip by the MLK station, this morning, for a train that came all the way from Leander, since I figured out after looking at the schedule from Monday's visit that the train in question had only come in from as far as Howard Lane.

(An aside: Why use the MLK station? It serves UT and the Capitol; - i.e. 2 of the 3 major employment centers in the urban core; it's one of two stations with shuttles; and one of two stations with non-trivial arrivals in the morning - it's harder for me to stop by and watch the downtown arrivals although I'll try to do it one of these days).

This morning, the 8:02 AM arrival (southbound) at MLK disgorged 15 passengers, 2 of whom were riding bikes. 12 people (both bikes) got on the first shuttle to UT, capacity roughly 40. The second shuttle remained empty. 2 other passengers got on the first Capitol shuttle (capacity roughly 40, again). The second shuttle remained empty. One person actually walked off towards MLK (I have no idea where she was headed).

Get this out of the way first: This is a lot better than the whopping 2 people that got off the other train on Monday!

Let's assume that all the other morning arrivals at MLK had 15 passengers disembark (even that arrival that, on Monday, had only 2). There are 6 arrivals in the morning at MLK (several at ungodly early hours, meaning I'm likely being way too fair by assuming the 8:02 is typical instead of higher than average). That gives us 90 people going to UT and the Capitol on the train.

90 people. Per day. This is, by the way, far, far, far less than the number of people using express buses to get to UT every day (not sure about the Capitol).

180 boardings. Maximum.

Assume for every one of those there's a downtown passenger (likely not, but assume so. When I've watched downtown trains go by in the early afternoon whilst stopped on Red River at 4th, there's been less than 10 per train). That takes us up to 180 people; 360 boardings.

Don't believe that this is far less than predicted? Ask yourself this question:

If these 15 people on each train represent the service 'succeeding', or performing up to expectations, why did Capital Metro plan for 2 shuttlebuses EACH to UT and the Capitol (two of the obvious target markets for any transit service)?)

Giving Capital Metro the best possible benefit of the doubt - assuming they thought they needed two buses to each destination because there was a slight chance they'd have one more person than could fit on one shuttle - you've still got a projection of roughly 80 (1 shuttle to each place) versus an actual performance of 15.

Or, hell, just go back to boardings. We know the first week of pay service (with plenty of joyriders still extant) was averaging about 1000 boardings/day (half of early projections). Anectdotal reports indicate further declines since then - and the immediate switch away from weekly reporting of ridership is also suspicious, as is the decision to suddenly hold a special day of Saturday service and a Friday afternoon event. My very charitable math above gives us a ceiling of perhaps 500 boardings per day by now, absent joyriders (still happening sometimes). Is there anybody out there who seriously thinks Capital Metro decided to switch to monthly reporting after their first weekly paid-fare report was so bad just as a coincidence? They don't have the counts? Funny, they came up with the count real quick for Saturday's barn-burner!

My guess is that boardings have sunk well below 1000/day now - barring outliers. Who's willing to argue otherwise at this point? Let me know and I'll even give you full-post treatment.

May 03, 2010

Epic MetroFail

This morning since I had jury duty, which starts quite late compared with my normal workday, I was able to stop at the MLK station to meet a Red Line train after dropping off the boys at their schools.

The 8:25 train arrived on time. Two of the four shuttle-buses arrived at the same time; the other two arrived shortly thereafter.

There were TWO PEOPLE that got off this train. TWO.

One was a woman with a bike; the other a man in a suit. For these two people, four shuttlebuses were deployed. (I think the woman just rode off on her bike, but didn't get a good view as I was leaving).

Want to know why the train was so crowded on Saturday and so empty today? It's really quite simple; I've been talking about it for six years now:

Most people will ride a train if the station on the other end is within a short walk of their office. Most people will not ride that same exact train if you expect them to ride a bus to get to their office from the train station.

I just sent this to the busriders-austin list in response to a post from our old friend Lyndon Henry:

Continue reading "Epic MetroFail" »

April 30, 2010

Blast From The Past

From The Chronicle in 2000:

The prevailing wisdom has been that a project in Smart-Grown Austin, serving major trip generators like UT and the Capitol complex, supported by Cap Met's ample sales tax revenue, would be a slam dunk for a "highly recommended" rating. (Conversely, the original Red Line, which had far lower ridership and -- even though it was on existing rail right of way -- only marginally lower projected costs, was headed, Cap Met insiders say, for a "not recommended" kiss-of-death rating, which is why the transit authority switched tracks at the 11th hour.)

The differences between that "original Red Line" and the current Red Line that Krusee and Capital Metro forced on us in 2004 (now producing stunning ridership results for us) is that it would have had double tracks and electrification on its whole route (i.e., the Feds back in 2000 were telling Capital Metro that today's Red Line AFTER adding a second track and electric wires would STILL produce disappointing ridership and that they wanted no part of funding it).

Guess what Capital Metro's plans are to improve rail transit in Austin now?

April 27, 2010

1000 Words

April 13, 2010

Kill The Boulevard-less Bike Boulevard

Just fired this off to the UTC. All I can do given my commitments. Minor edits for grammar only.

Commissioners,

My name's Mike Dahmus, and I served on your commission from 2000-2005 (my only contemporary still with you would be Mr. Lockler). I'm writing today to urge you to reject the city staff proposal for the project formerly known as the Nueces Bike Boulevard.

While on the commission, I often served the role of an intermediary between bicyclists and motorists (and urban and suburban); since I was a frequent bicycle commuter but not car-free like some of my colleagues (I'd drive to work about half the time). Since then, a chronic illness has forced me to drive exclusively, but I still maintain an interest in bicycle facilities for the good of the city.

Along those lines, I hate to say it, but the city staff proposal for this 'downtown bike boulevard' is a complete waste of time. Worse, it will actively degrade conditions for cyclists on both these streets.

In a common error, the city has failed to consider the effect of their actions on the individuals using this corridor, and more importantly, on changes to their incentives and disincentives. Today, it's relatively painful for drivers to use Nueces (in particular) as a 'cut-through' or relief valve from congestion downtown, because of 4-way (and even some 2-way) stops. I know this because I drive through this part of downtown most days on my trip home from work.

While there's some wavering on this, it's pretty obvious that many stop signs will be removed (converted into traffic circles or traffic lights) in the city plan, as was the case in the LOBV plan - in order to attract bicyclists. So far, so good. But what happens to the incentives of motorists, if this change is made and nothing else is done?

Well, you replace those 4-way stops with lights and circles, and I (and thousands of others) will be thrilled to be able to drive on that street - to avoid backups on Lavaca from MLK and 15th, for instance. Without the originally proposed (at least by the LOBV) diverters and other disincentives, you're going to see an increase in motor vehicle use of these streets for cut-through (through, not local) traffic. Exactly the opposite of what you want in a 'bicycle boulevard'.

Please vote this thing dead. It's not only not ideal; it's worse than nothing - it promises to make things actually worse, not better, for cyclists in this corridor. (And on the subject of "any movement is progress", a recent post by yours truly: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000642.html )

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

April 05, 2010

Red Line Update

Last week's ridership reports are in, and they already fall within the range I predicted - even before the "settling down" period has really been reached.

What a difference $3 can make.

Specifically, the distinction between MetroRail's free first-week rides and the cost of a one-way ticket in the second week was ridership that fell from an average of almost 2,900 boardings a day to about 1,000 daily boardings when people had to pay. That's about half of what Capital Metro has projected ridership will average in the first year of the Red Line, and it equates to about 500 people using the commuter line to get to and from work.

In case anybody forgot, we've now given up this:

(30,000-46,000 boardings per day on a line which would have served the suburbs and Austin; which would have gone downtown and not just the Convention Center but to the parts where people actually work; which would have gone straight to UT and the Capitol rather than requiring a shuttle-bus; which would have served not only the joke TOD-in-name-only Crestview Station but also the much higher density residential development at the Triangle and in West Campus)

for this:

(commuter line which is already down to serving 500 people per day on a good day - even while joyriders are still trying the thing out).

You can't build the 2000 line now, ever; you simply can't get from the Red Line to rail that serves the urban core; it's NOT a first step; it's NOT a good start; it's a distraction that must be worked around while it sucks up nearly all the available local transit dollars. The only thing we can do now is what the city's trying to do - build something from another direction that might work half as well as the 2000 plan would have; and try to do it with half the funds (since the Red Line sucked up the light rail savings account and is now going to be costing us dearly in future operations and capital funding).

And the people who held their nose and voted 'yes' on the promise of light rail from Capital Metro to serve the urban core right after? Yeah, those are the same folks who are either completely quiet now or are waging a campaign of disparagement on yours truly from the shadows.

Good show, Austin. Good show.

March 30, 2010

Red Line Round Up

1. Boardings Monday were in the low 900s, roughly in the area I predicted when Roger Cauvin finally dragged one out of me. Still too early to judge much, though; the numbers could easily go either way depending on how many of Monday's riders were displaced joyriders from the free-ride stage (all else being equal, I'd expect paying ridership to drastically drop after the novelty wears off, then go back up a little bit as some more people experiment with it over time).

2. The 51st/Airport intersection is trending locally: KXAN, News 8, KVUE all reporting recently on the changes made so far and the continuing problems there. Gosh, it would be neat if somebody had warned everybody about this many months before the line opened. That would have been cool. Unfortunately only one media outlet even bothered to report on this before the line was about to open - the winners in this case are the fine folks at KUT who actually interviewed yours truly and some others on this subject months ago.

March 17, 2010

Ticketing isn't much better than just yelling

Heading out to Houston for the weekend. Yes, I'm gonna ride a real light rail train.

The Statesman and every other media outlet in town, it seems, have been played for suckers again by Capital Metro - as has the City of Austin, who apparently thinks the answer to the bad intersection at 51st/Airport is just giving out tickets. Not one outlet has responded with even an ounce of critical thinking to the contention that the intersection hasn't changed (I'd say running trains 10 times a day at 60 mph is a change from a 5 mph freight train once a week) or the idea that education can substitute for engineering.

Austin police, beginning with Monday's MetroRail startup and for the following two weeks, will be staking out a worrisome intersection on Airport Boulevard, where the track is just a few car lengths from a traffic light and cars often illegally stop on or near the railroad.

Despite new signal gate technology meant to clear waiting traffic near the tracks, Capital Metro officials are concerned that some drivers might flout posted signs and railroad signal lights and find themselves in the path of a fast-moving train.

Police officers, at Capital Metro's request, will be monitoring 51st Street near Airport Boulevard and will issue citations immediately to motorists who stop on the track or under the four crossing arms that Capital Metro has installed where the track crosses 51st Street.

My response in comments to the Statesman article:

I covered this intersection on my blog a long time ago and have spoken about it on KUT several times since. The idea that we can avoid problems here through education and ticketing is just ludicrous - it only takes one person who missed the media coverage out of the thousands of people driving through here to make it all for naught.

The intersection actively encourages drivers to stop on the tracks, albeit briefly, if they want to ever have a chance to make a light - and this isn't just one direction of travel; it's people trying to turn off Clarkson; people just trying to go across Airport to the east; and people trying to turn left onto Clarkson from the east.

But let's just yell and ticket. That'll work, right? As long as we can make sure that 100.0% of all drivers who ever go through here will comply.

The far better policy, of course, would be to fix the intersection, but it doesn't play into Capital Metro's narrative that this was a cheap and easy rail start on all existing tracks.

It only takes one driver not to get the message, or to try their luck to avoid getting stuck for three more red lights to cause a disaster here. Capital Metro needs to be held accountable for their failure to re-engineer this intersection - and nobody in the media appears willing to do anything but repeat their PR about how silly it is to stop on the tracks. Shameful.

March 12, 2010

Teaser graphic

In the "Why do I keep calling Tri-Rail a failure, and why do I keep saying the Red Line is going to match its record" department; this graphic below is from this spreadsheet, which is a work in progress on developing some metrics from the national transit database.

There are those who think that any rail is good rail; and there are those who think that any rail is bad rail. Then there are those like me who recognize that some rail systems do a much better job than others in a "new rail city" at delivering new riders - and it's frustrating how few seem to recognize intuitively the difference between a city like Houston, where the trains are packed and voters overwhelmingly approved a massive expansion as a result, and an area like South Florida, where after 20-25 years and a massive investment in double-tracking a very LONG route through a very heavily populated area, no community support for rail has developed despite a much more supportive population when the service started.

The metric I have here is basically "how much of the metro area did they get to ride the train, adjusted for mile of track". Here's why that's a good starting point: You should have the goal of maximizing return on your investment - your investment is basically miles of track; and your return is how many people ride - but to compare metro areas against each other, you should also consider how many people are IN that area to begin with (delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Portland is a far greater achievement than delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Manhattan).

Light rail systems are being used everywhere here except South Florida and Austin, obviously. (In both our cases, unlike the other cities here, commuter rail has effectively precluded light rail - and is being sold as a light rail analogue anyways).

After the break, the picture...

Continue reading "Teaser graphic" »

March 04, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Three

Today, thanks to skepticism from those who think my position solidified over six years on this subject is because of predetermined bias rather than actual study, I'll switch from my original plan of doing use cases by "estimated level of commute interest" and instead hit what I would guess are the two best possible cases for the Red Line.

Since shuttle-buses are obviously a problem, and since even in the commute to UT (you know, the obvious primary destination for people riding transit in our area, that unimportant little spot) from the furthest out station in Leander, the speed of the train can't make up for the time lost to the shuttle-bus, let's try to assemble one of the few commutes that might not require a shuttle-bus, although that's relatively hard to do.

Frost Tower is just on the edge of the 1/4 mile circle that most transit planners view as the maximum distance people will walk to work from a transit stop. It's also the ONLY major office building within what's commonly considered acceptable walking distance from the 'downtown station'. (Me, I might actually have to take the shuttle even on that trip some days due to my feet, so I'll plan that out too). Let's run there from both Leander (far out park-and-ride) and Crestview (supposed TOD which will supposedly provide the only real walk-up traffic for Austin).

This case also benefits the Red Line disproportionately because both the express bus route from Leander to downtown and the #101 limited first run past UT, and then past the Capitol, then through the rest of downtown; so we're at the very end of the slowest part of that route here. IE, we've picked the destination that makes the bus look its absolute worst.

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Three" »

March 02, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Two

Today's entry: Somebody who fell for the "TOD" hype and moved into Crestview Station so they could walk to the Red Line and take it to work at UT. Morning commute this time around; assume they want to get in comfortably before 9:00AM. Note that the Red Line shuttle drops off on San Jacinto; the two bus options here drop off on Guadalupe; the typical UT office is, if anything, closer to Guadalupe than San Jacinto.

Spoiler: Even the local bus beats the Red Line, because of the shuttle-bus trip. Yes, even though that local bus travels through half of the congestion on the Drag.

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Two" »

March 01, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part One

Using the new schedules on Capital Metro's spiffy new MetroRail site; this afternoon in the 5 minutes I could spend, we now know that, according to schedules, if you're leaving UT for Leander and want to take the first available trip after 5:00, the express bus that currently takes you 68 minutes is on tap to be replaced by a shuttle-bus plus Red Line option that will take you either 71 or 76 minutes, depending on if you feel like taking your chances on maybe not fitting on the second shuttle bus for the 5:40 trip heading up to Leander.

TripPickup at UTArrive MLK stationLeave MLK stationArrive Leander stationTotal travel time
#987 express bus5:04 PMN/AN/A6:12 PM68 minutes
Red Line with #465 shuttlebus (first one)5:16 PM5:28 PM5:40 PM6:32 PM76 minutes
Red Line with #465 shuttlebus (second one)5:21 PM5:33 PM5:40 PM6:32 PM71 minutes

I wonder if there was anyone who predicted way back when that the Red Line would be slower, thanks to its reliance on shuttle-buses, than existing express bus service? Nah. Couldn't be. Nobody could have predicted this debacle way back in, say, 2004.

July 15, 2004:

The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I've pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don't own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today's express bus lines.

More references:

February 03, 2010

Rapid Bus ain't BRT

A collection of comments made elsewhere.

First, on KUT today, you can hear yours truly with the following supporting arguments left out due to time, but brought over here from skyscraperpage:

1. Travel time savings quoted are versus the local (#1), not the existing express (#101). They're still only 20%; pretty lame.

2. The signal-holding doodad won't be much help in the most congested part of the corridor - anybody who spends any time between, say, south of 15th and 30th going northbound on an afternoon knows that the backup you're in is from the next 10 lights, not just the one in front of you that the bus could modify.

Things commonly considered part of BRT which are missing completely from this plan: reserved lanes, queue-jumping lanes, off-board payment. Were it not for the signal-holding doodad (which won't work anyways in most of this corridor), this would just be like normal bus service with new vehicles (they have articulated buses running normal and express routes in cities all over the country; the difference is that we apparently fooled the Feds into buying us new rolling stock on the justification this would be a BRT route instead of just a really marginal case of 'better bus').

Second, on Capital Metro's self-congratulatory post:

Very misleading. The 20% travel time reduction is compared to the existing LOCAL service (#1), not to the existing express service (#101).

Y'all may have fooled the Feds into buying you new rolling stock under the guise of BRT, but some of us aren't buying it. The signal-holding device won't be worth anything in the afternoon congestion on Guadalupe (it's not the light in front of the bus holding it up; it's the light six blocks down and the cars in front).

About all this service WILL do is finally put a nail in the coffin of rail on Guadalupe - where, in any sane city, rail would be delivered first, as it's where all the jobs and all the other activity centers are - not anywhere near the Red Line; not, even, over on San Jacinto.

Continue reading "Rapid Bus ain't BRT" »

January 28, 2010

Capital Metro flips city the bird

or, in short, Ben Wear was right.

I don't have time to do anything but excerpt and link; incredibly busy at work and elsewhere.

Full Statesman article and relevant quote:

The city is due the money, say the two people caught in the middle: Austin City Council Members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez , who also serve on the Capital Metro board — Martinez as chairman.

"Capital Metro's obligations to the city are legally enforceable," Riley said at an board meeting last week. "That does not mean, 'whenever we feel like we're flushed with money.' That language (in the agreement) does not mean we can pay whenever we want.

"You can dismiss this as coming from a city guy. But I believe Cap Metro would be in a weak position if it came to litigation."

Note this proves that CM was lying about their reserves, and their enablers who insisted they'd be paying the 1/4 cent money owe Ben Wear a big fat apology.

Earlier coverage:

January 18, 2010

No, I can't stop beating that horse

A lot of people wonder why I keep talking about the Red Line, seeing as how any month now it'll finally open - it can't actually be stopped at this point. The dead horse analogy is repeatedly invoked, sometimes by people on 'my' side; often by gladhanders like JMVC on the other side.

Continue reading "No, I can't stop beating that horse" »

December 18, 2009

History, Not Learning From

A couple weeks ago, I posted this "Quick Hit" about the fact that the Feds rated what is now the Red Line very poorly back in 1998-2000. To be more precise, they actually panned a doubletracked light-rail proposal on what is the current Red Line's route (i.e. running down the existing freight rail corridor rather than going down Lamar and Guadalupe as in what eventually became the 2000 proposal). This Red Line proposal was floating around for years as the primary rival to the Red/Green Line (that 2000 LRT route). To refresh your memory, from the old Chronicle article:

The prevailing wisdom has been that a project in Smart-Grown Austin, serving major trip generators like UT and the Capitol complex, supported by Cap Met's ample sales tax revenue, would be a slam dunk for a "highly recommended" rating. (Conversely, the original Red Line, which had far lower ridership and -- even though it was on existing rail right of way -- only marginally lower projected costs, was headed, Cap Met insiders say, for a "not recommended" kiss-of-death rating, which is why the transit authority switched tracks at the 11th hour.)

The "original Red Line" they're talking about is, to be clear, a proposal floated around 1998 which would have put down two new tracks and run light rail vehicles on the current Red Line. Note key phrase: far lower ridership.

Now, Jeff Wood picks up the history angle, pointing to his masters' thesis on the 2004 debacle. Note that even today Capital Metro's Doug Allen is claiming that the Red Line should have been done with two tracks from the getgo (although the quoted $300M would pretty much have to be two tracks with those stupid DMU cars, not electric trains), yet, once again, two brand new tracks in the Red Line right-of-way still doesn't go anywhere worth going. Nor would three, or four, or ten tracks. The problem isn't the number of tracks; the problem is where the tracks are.

As Jeff points out,

I don't think this should be hard for everyone to understand. 38,000 riders for LRT in 2000 versus 2,000 riders for Commuter rail in 2004. It's not rocket science. The politics was messy and Capital Metro allowed themselves to get pushed into it. This didn't start with the current contractor, this started back before 2000 with Krusee who was head of the House Transportation Committee.

As I've pointed out on what seems like a billion occasions, Mike Krusee is why this happened back then. Go read Jeff's article for independent confirmation, if for some reason you doubted me.

Again: 38,000 riders for the 2000 light rail plan, 2,000 riders for the 2004 commuter rail plan (with or without second track).

The Feds figured this out before 2000. For one brief moment, Capital Metro knew it too. Why are they being so obtuse now, and more importantly, why are our City Council members on their board allowing them to continue this delusionary path to spending hundreds of millions of dollars MORE on a line that will never be a functioning part of our transportation system? This is how Tri-Rail wasted almost two decades and a couple hundred million dollars in South Florida - adding a second track to the wrong line. Will our elected officials have the courage to make Capital Metro stop before we make the same mistake here?

November 18, 2009

Two quick hits

Check out me on KUT yesterday about the intersection problems along Airport and notice that I'm not alone in failing to buy Capital Metro's BS about it just being a simple education problem. Good job, Mose, getting some key points across from a variety of interviewees.

Also,

While searching for something else, I stumbled on this old Chronicle article with this money quote, which backs up what I was saying for a long time about the failure of Capital Metro to seek federal funds despite it being promised in the run-up to the 2004 commuter rail election:

Continue reading "Two quick hits" »

November 16, 2009

Why The Horse Isn't Dead

Extracted from a comments thread on facebook; name omitted to protect privacy in case they mind.

we can always count on our buddy Mike to leave no dead horse unbeaten! Certainly Urban Rail will be great (if we do it right) and we all need to support it, but calling the redline 'useless' is a bit much. Perhaps useless to you, Mike, but so are dozens of bus routes (and roads for that matter) you will never use - that doesn't make them useless to the folks who do (and will) use them.

And my response:

http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000573.html

(done with the old rail timetables, not the new presumably slower ones which aren't up yet).

The Red Line is 'useless' because for most people, it will be a slower commute than the existing express bus service. We spent a lot of capital dollars, in other words, to get lower quality service than what we already had. (And operating costs are likely to be close to express bus with the shuttle-bus costs added in).

And it is most definitely not a dead horse - because your agency continues to seek to spend additional scarce rail dollars on the Red Line (repeating Tri-Rail's mistake of trying to polish a you-know-what instead of building something more useful somewhere else) and on other similarly useless commuter rail lines - meaning those dollars obviously can't be spent on the CoA project.

So tell me, readers, is the argument of the CM guy compelling at all? Before the rebuttal? After? I really mean what I say here - the horse isn't dead, because it keeps getting fed. Those rail dollars (federal and local) could in fact be saved for the City of Austin's urban rail program - but once they're spent on commuter rail they're gone for good, and we aren't exactly swimming in other money to make up the difference. We need to stop further 'investments' in commuter rail, in other words, if the urban rail line is to have a decent shot at getting built in our lifetimes.

November 11, 2009

Board of Adjustment versus Urbanism

Short and not-so-sweet; still no time for this.

Those who didn't think it was a big deal when the ANC crowd were appointed en-masse to several critical boards and commissions should be ashamed of themselves.

Go to this video. If it doesn't advance automatically, go to C11.

What's here? Well, it's just ANC guys Bryan King and Jeff Jack pressuring a property owner on a downtown block to tear down a deck so he can add more off-street parking. Note that not a single time in this entire conversation does anybody, to be fair, including the applicant, even mention the fact that some people patronizing this small business or living in the apartment might not drive every single trip. Only once does anybody bring up the fact that ample on-street parking exists (of course, gasp!, people would have to pay!)

This is downtown, people. This isn't the suburbs. For those who think the government influence on development is mainly to force density, this ought to be (but probably isn't) a wake-up call: the primary influence of the government is to force car-dependent development patterns to continue even downtown.

And those who think the ANC crowd and their patron Laura Morrison are going to leave downtown alone and just focus on keeping the neighborhoods suburban should think again, too. Nowhere is safe from these people; right before this video I watched the Planning Commission fail to come to a recommendation on a hotel at 5th/Colorado because the ANC contingent wanted to force another couple hundred grand in concessions for affordable housing (used as a convenient crutch in this case; none of those people actually have any interest in affordable housing or they'd support more multi-family development in their neighborhoods).

Sickening. You were warned; but most of you didn't listen.

October 30, 2009

Cap Metro is lying to you - again.

Doug Allen's pants

This time in an attempt to make excuses for the Red Line being such an unmitigated failure of execution.

First off, News 8 is the second media outlet to be completely fooled by this talking point being spread around to many media outlets as a talking point lately. I am also even more disappointed to see Mike Martinez fall for this load of crap.

"Comparatively, we're pretty much like the rest of the country. It takes time to build a rail system, but once you get it going, what we've seen in other cities is that it tends to expand in much more rapid pace," Austin Mayor Pro Tem and Capital Metro Board Member Mike Martinez said.

Martinez along with other council members and Mayor Lee Leffingwell all recently returned from a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, where they were able to look at Phoenix's $1-billion, 20-mile rail line that took 10 years to build.

Phoenix's line is light rail, not commuter rail. It is considerably similar to our 2000 proposal, as well as what Dallas, Houston, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Seattle have built. And, hello? You can't start a successful rail system with an awful starter line.

This talking point was more directly fed to a disappointingly credulous Lee Nichols in last week's Chronicle:

The total duration, he said, should be from 7.5 to 10.5 years, significantly longer than the four years attempted with MetroRail.

This, folks, is a lie - other rail starts that are commuter rail, not light rail, have NOT taken ten years to get running. What does take 7.5-10 years? Real light rail starts, you know, the ones that unlike commuter rail, require streets to be dug up, utilities moved, streets rebuilt in new configurations with brand new rails in them, and caternary wires hung up the entire length of the route.

Continue reading "Cap Metro is lying to you - again." »

October 01, 2009

Don't Let The Door Hit You, Fred

One thing left out of many of the accounts of yesterday's fun time is that Capital Metro actually called the cops on the media before eventually relenting and allowing them to stay. Thanks to tweeting reporters Reagan Hackleman and Matt Flener for carrying the torch. Also, Lee Nichols' blog post yesterday had the most details early-on; nobody else mentioned Watson's implied pressure or got Jay Wyatt's attention, both kind of important.

Continue reading "Don't Let The Door Hit You, Fred" »

September 25, 2009

What I Would Have Said

on the Jeff Ward show yesterday had I not had to bail out while on hold. Short form because I'm writing this as I'm complaining about a bogus EZPass charge from last November that the lovely folks in New Jersey are just now trying to stick me with.

Dear Carole, a few points:

  1. Yes, the commuter rail line sucks. Where have you been?. Yes, they're projecting just 1000 riders per day.
  2. No, Rapid Bus isn't going to get 10,000 riders. They're going to get probably 90% of the current ridership of the #101, and perhaps 50% of the current ridership of the #1, with a few people from other buses in the same corridor. The number of people likely to ride Rapid Bus who aren't currently riding other buses in this corridor could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Why is Rapid Bus such a loser? Read the blog. Service that doesn't offer any real reliability or speed improvements over the existing #101 is logically not going to attract very many new riders.
  3. No, I don't believe you when you say you only care about the poor bus riders and then immediately switch gears and argue for cutting Capital Metro's tax rate. The way to help the transit dependent around here is to make sure middle-class people have some investment in the transit system - by building services that choice commuters will use. Otherwise, voters are prone to actually cut the tax support for the system - which in the long-run inevitably hurts those transit-dependent riders.
  4. Yes, Austin is plenty dense enough for rail. Austin has three very dense employment centers within close proximity of each other which could have been directly served by rail in the 2000 plan, on a line that travelled through dense residential areas and then out to suburban park-and-rides - a formula which has worked like magic everywhere it's been tried. The Feds, who tend to underestimate ridership, estimated we'd have between 37,000 and 46,000 riders on that line.Yes, this is worth it; most of these tens of thousands of riders are people who weren't previously riding the bus - and you could not have added freeway capacity for that many people for less money. To say nothing of the arterial roadways leading into downtown or the UT area, all of which are over capacity as well.

Dear Jeff, an additional two points:

  1. The Houston light rail line did, indeed, have quite a few accidents - right after it opened, several years ago. Since then, it's grown to be the second most heavily ridden light rail line in the country in proportion to miles covered (around 40,000 per day) - providing the momentum for a massive expansion of the system all over town, approved overwhelmingly by voters. It, in fact, likely returns a higher percentage of its tax dollar investment than do highway projects in that area (one of which was recently studied and found to return 16 cents in gas taxes for every dollar spent on that road).
  2. I'm not that hard to find. Seriously. Aren't you tired of hearing the same anti-tax anti-transit crap? How about talking to a guy who's strongly in favor of transit but still hates this commuter rail line? Wouldn't that be a neat change?

Dear Jeff's callers, an additional point:

  • The hoary old argument about buying each passenger a car (or in one case, running limos for them) ignores several realities: the roads are full; and the people who would be willing to take a train to save time aren't as willing to take a limo (or a bus) that's stuck in the same traffic their car would have been, See, it's a trade-off; you can get people to trade the convenience of having their own car for the day if you give them a faster and/or more reliable trip, but if you just give them the same trip, except even less reliable, they're not going to take it.

Dear people who supported the Red Line who fell for the "foot in the door" bullshit:

DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU DID? It's getting trivially easy for people to lump all rail projects, including the far more worthy CAMPO TWG plan, in with this 1,000 rider debacle - just as somebody predicted it would. People in Austin are getting the message "rail doesn't work" instead of the message "we need more and better rail". Too bad you didn't listen back in 2004.

OK THANKS BYE.

August 26, 2009

How can you tell whether Capital Metro's telling the truth?

Still short on time; won't address the "hour instead of 48-52 minutes" change except to note that it depends - some early timetables I used for graphs had travel times of 57 minutes from Northwest to downtown already, in other words. Instead, let's address the other big change.

From Ben Wear's article, note the following quotes:

Foregoing the Leander and Lakeline stops on some morning and afternoon trips, officials said, might be necessary partly to ensure that passengers from those two stops don't fill all the trains and preclude boardings at closer-in Austin stops.
Also Wednesday, Capital Metro officials also said they now plan to use only four of the six trains, which the agency purchased for about $6 million each, because the line has just four limited sections where there is dual track to allow northbound and southbound trains to pass one another.

"We've found that it could be operated best with four trains," spokesman Adam Shaivitz said, rather than the five that the agency had said previously would typically be in service. The other two would be held in reserve and used in case of breakdowns.

So, here's a little thought experiment. Suppose you honestly believe that demand for your new rail service is going to be really, really high - so high that, as they put it, full trains from further up the line will prevent people from even boarding closer in.

What do you do to solve this problem? Do you:

1. Run with the originally planned 5 trains (out of the 6 you 'leased')
2. Increase service to run with all 6 trains while you arrange for another couple to be built and shipped
3. Cut service to run with only 4 trains

Continue reading "How can you tell whether Capital Metro's telling the truth?" »

August 18, 2009

New link and upcoming story

1. Fare Enough, local blog by Larry Schooler, covering some Austin transit and has some experience with Tri-Rail. Welcome.

2. Cap Metro has come out with their service recommendations for 2020 and they're awful - just off the top of my head, running the #5 on San Jacinto because Guadalupe is "too congested" (hint: it's congested because that's where all the good stuff people actually want to go to is located); completely eliminating 3 superior express bus routes in favor of the objectively inferior Red Line + shuttle-bus solution, destroying the utility of the #21/#22 for the schoolkids; etc.

The usual narrative with light rail, which I find to be inaccurate, is that forcing bus riders to transfer to light rail is a degradation of their service. IE, people in Houston in the pocket of the anti-rail lobby stirred up bus riders with objectively false claims that their service would be degraded - when it would actually be improved (shorter ride in traffic on bus with new congestion-skipping ride on rail, no change to endpoint of service). The problem in our case isn't that we're making people transfer from bus to rail, it's actually that we're making people transfer from congestion-skipping rail to traffic-snarled bus at the work end of the trip, which as South Florida has conclusively shown with Tri-Rail, is the kiss of death among 'choice commuters'. People with real jobs don't want to have to worry about whether their shuttle bus back to the train station will make it or whether they'll have to wait a half-hour for the next train; they want to be walking from the train station to their office and back again, period.

More on this tomorrow I hope.

July 28, 2009

Updates

1. Like AC, I'm adding the new blog Keep Austin Wonky to my list. Welcome.

2. This article from AC is actually making me nauseous as I contemplate the damage that will be done to our city in the next few years. I will be writing more on this in a couple of days, but in the meantime, those of you at the Burnt Orange Report and Austin Chronicle who endorsed Morrison ought to be kicking yourselves in the ass. (Or let me do it for you). This is exactly what I and a few others predicted she would do, after all; she was never a candidate of balance as y'all convinced yourself she had become despite her history - she was always a NIMBY reactionary and had never tried all that hard to hide her stripes.

July 23, 2009

Red Line Myth #1: The 'downtown' station is within a short walk of your office

Was going to do a nice outline before I jumped in, but then I saw this really well-done brochure by Capital Metro on 'how to ride the train' which encourages this myth.

Red Line Myth #1: This 'urban rail' line will deliver you to within a quick, short, walk of your office building, like most other successful (light) rail lines have done.

Look at this picture, from page 5:

Looks like the train goes right in the middle of downtown, doesn't it? Looks like it's right on Congress Avenue south of the Capitol, where all those big office buildings are! Firmly rebutting everything I've been telling you about how you'll use commuter rail, if you do?

Continue reading "Red Line Myth #1: The 'downtown' station is within a short walk of your office" »

July 09, 2009

Updates

Yes, you haven't seen a crackplog in a long time. I did warn you, and since she came home almost a month ago, I have spent several fun overnights in the ER, and am barely sleeping (hint: preemie baby recovering from intestinal surgery is like normal newborn TO THE MAX!).

Today's Chronicle finally covers the live music issue, with a quote or two from your truly, thanks to Wells Dunbar. I think it lets Morrison off a little too easy - but is overall a good read. For another pointer, my pals at the Austinist gave me a nice "he told you so" shout-out.

For crackplog-lite, please check the twitter. I promise the crackploggin' will resume; but right now I'm just trying to get enough time to work.

June 17, 2009

Connecting some dots

1. Austin Neighborhoods Concil minutes, 10/22/2008:

Live Music Task Force – Saundra Kirk, draft recommendations to be discussed in a public forum on Wednesday, October 29, 7:30-9:30 pm, City Council Chambers. Report will be finalized at the task force's final meeting on November 10, presented to City Council November 20. Saundra Kirk and Scott Trainer noted that the sound control recommendations are inadequate. Jeff Jack moved and motion was seconded Motion 1 "Authorize the ANC executive committee to draft a letter of concern to the task force and City Council regarding the task force sound control recommendations." The motion passed without opposition. The task force's draft report is available on the City of Austin Web site under "Live Music Task Force."

2. Austin Neighborhoods Council minutes, 6/27/2007

Noise Solutions Committee Update (Scott Trainer) City formed a committee to identify improvements to enforcement that could be made under the current ordinance. 1. APD is retraining police and increasing the number of meters from 2 to 23. 2. The committee is focusing on the effect of outdoor music on residents and educating the city's Music Commission on the need for mitigation. 3. Fire Department is assisting in crowd control, and PACE (includes AFD, APD, TABC, code enforcement) is coordinating permitting and enforcement through Municipal Court. APD will be contacting NAs and giving presentations on changes

3. Past list of ANC presidents, excerpted:

Past ANC Presidents


2008 Danette Chimenti
South River City Citizens

2006 - 2007 Laura Morrison
OWANA

2004-2005 Susan Pascoe
WANG

2003 Bryan King
South Lamar NA

2001 - 2002 Jim Walker
Cherrywood NA

1999 - 2000 Will Boseman
NUNA

1997 - 1998 Jeff Jack
Zilker NA

4. From yesterday's entry, courtesy of Gary Etie: (and updated per his update):

In this video, City Council member Laura Morrison, who was instrumental in passing the Amendment that was specifically used against Shady Grove, points out that the problem was that "Shady Grove's Permit had expired". What Ms Morrison fails to point out is that the March 23rd expiration date was part of (see correction and update in latest post) problems that are now coming around are related to the specific details contained in Amendments that she ramrodded through on March 12th 2009, on the consent agenda (!), as an Emergency item (!), right before SxSW, when anyone involved in the music business was going to be too busy to rally opposition. I don't think the problem is going to go away, until Ms. Morrison either gets it, and stops carrying the ball for the voter block she wants to retain, or is removed from the process, through recall.. I think Ms. Morrison is that good, at manipulation of the planning process, and it's that serious, in determining the future of music, in Austin.

5. From the day before:

Jeff Jack, President of Zilker Neighborhood Association and member of Austin Neighborhood Council discussed some of the local clubs in his neighborhood. He supports a balance between music and livability. The City’s current sound ordinance is ineffective, especially with a growing downtown, making entertainment districts important. Also, defined hours of operation are essential and should be limited near residential areas. Venue owners need to agree to restrictive covenants. At 85 DB, the loudness of sound is detrimental to hearing. Austin Bergstrom Airport can not have residences within a certain distance because of associated noise. Enforcement is an issue, sometimes police do not respond to a complaint in a timely manner or after the police have left, the music is cranked back up. It would be ideal if music people served as their own monitors. He would like the Live Music Task Force to develop new rules and take into consideration tougher penalties and a special zoning classification for music.

June 16, 2009

Laura Morrison's innocent act

Laura Morrison's innocence defense regarding Shady Grove is all over the news - her staffer even tried damage control in a definitely unfriendly forum over the weekend as well.

It kind of falls apart when you find, as I did today, these two sources:

Citizine Mag "Keep Austin Quiet"

Gary Etie says that "Neighborhood Groups, Council Member Morrison, certain City of Austin attorneys, et al, brought over an existing 70 dB limit that was found in the Zoning section of the Code, Chapter 25-2, and brought that language over to the Outdoor Music Venue Permit Amendment that was passed just prior to SXSW, while everybody was too busy to do anything to stop them. An Outdoor Music Venue Permit is a separate 'Noise and Sound' permit, issued under the Noise and Sound Ordinance, and must be obtained in addition to the Building Permit that establishes Use as a Restaurant or Cocktail Lounge."

and AustinCityPermits.com blog: (and updated per Gary Etie's update):

In this video, City Council member Laura Morrison, who was instrumental in passing the Amendment that was specifically used against Shady Grove, points out that the problem was that "Shady Grove's Permit had expired". What Ms Morrison fails to point out is that the March 23rd expiration date was part of (see correction and update in latest post) problems that are now coming around are related to the specific details contained in Amendments that she ramrodded through on March 12th 2009, on the consent agenda (!), as an Emergency item (!), right before SxSW, when anyone involved in the music business was going to be too busy to rally opposition. I don't think the problem is going to go away, until Ms. Morrison either gets it, and stops carrying the ball for the voter block she wants to retain, or is removed from the process, through recall.. I think Ms. Morrison is that good, at manipulation of the planning process, and it's that serious, in determining the future of music, in Austin.

Apparently Jeff Jack is pulling the same "who, me?" act on ANCTALK. Others will have to fight that battle, as I left there a very long time ago.

Back to work...

June 12, 2009

Who's been complaining about the music?

Well, if the minutes of the task force I've been pointing to were buried too far, I've pulled them up here for your reading pleasure. No, this doesn't prove precisely who complained, but it is strong evidence exactly who was behind the push for the ordinance now being used against places like Freddie's Place and Shady Grove. Here's some things you might notice:

  • It's not downtown residents (although one sound engineer fell for it, as well as 90% of the public; note not one single complainant at the meeting was downtown
  • It's not new residents (note how many talk about how long they've lived here)
  • It's not Californians (see above)

Judge for yourself:

C. PUBLIC INPUT

Robert Corbin, a South Austin Resident reported that a couple months ago he started hearing music inside his house, and discovered it was coming from a club over two miles away. He contacted the police, after which the owner of the club made adjustments. This is a recurring situation with Threadgills, located one mile away. The City’s sound ordinance exists to favor music. He believes no one should have to listen to music that is not of their choice and he feels terrorized in his own home. Does not understand why thisproblem occurs with today’s available technology. He expressed concern over young people’s safety, specifically the potential for hearing loss in front of loud speakers.

Jeff Jack, President of Zilker Neighborhood Association and member of Austin Neighborhood Council discussed some of the local clubs in his neighborhood. He supports a balance between music and livability. The City’s current sound ordinance is ineffective, especially with a growing downtown, making entertainment districts important. Also, defined hours of operation are essential and should be limited near residential areas. Venue owners need to agree to restrictive covenants. At 85 DB, the loudness of sound is detrimental to hearing. Austin Bergstrom Airport can not have residences within a certain distance because of associated noise. Enforcement is an issue, sometimes police do not respond to a complaint in a timely manner or after the police have left, the music is cranked back up. It would be ideal if music people served as their own monitors. He would like the Live Music Task Force to develop new rules and take into consideration tougher penalties and a special zoning classification for music.

Tressie Damron, a resident of Castle Heights neighborhood has experienced problems with loud music. She would like more education and training at the police cadet level. Right now the solution for reducing the noise is complaint driven. Clubs need sound proofing and roof-top venues should not be allowed.

Gardner Sumner, a member of Zilker Neighborhood Executive Board, lives on Treadwell Street and complains that noise comes from all directions into the night. He requests to strengthen the noise ordinance, not weaken it. In addition, the ordinance is not effective if the police do not enforce it. He does not understand why sound amplification needs to be so powerful as to travels two miles away. It is not right for people to not be able to sleep in their homes at night.

Vicki Faust, a homeowner in Travis Heights lives behind Continental Club, near Guero’s restaurant. Lately, the noise has gotten louder. She spoke with Botticelli’s South Congress owners when the restaurant first opened and they were agreeable. She now fears the local noise will hurt her Bed & Breakfast business. The two most difficult things are parking and noise. She has no complaints about Continental Club; it’s the outside venues. She would like the Live Music Task Force to identify outdoor venues near residential areas and develop special considerations. The only options she currently has to deal with noise problems are to call the police or sue the venue owners.

Michael Lahrman, a band manager stated it disturbs him what other people refer to as noise, to him noise is traffic. People are taking advantage of their neighborhoods; they may not have professional sound or set-up. He thinks Threadgills is a wonderful venue with reasonable and tasteful music. Some restaurants play music at happy hour to draw crowds, but don’t have a sound person onsite. He would like to include buses or the interstate (if it’s over 85 DB) in the noise ordinance. The answer is not to have attendees wearing headphones at a concert. Unfortunate that people are having difficulty sleeping and that needs to be recognized, but we need to protect the people who are doing it right.

Member Saundra Kirk explained that noise is any unwanted sound and asked Michael Lahrman to clarify his statement on bringing the music industry down. He responded that downtown condos will continue to pose a problem with festivals and live music as the residents complain the noise is bothersome.

Gail Armstrong, a South Austin resident for the past 30 years stated the noise ordinance is a joke. She has never had a painter invade her home; it is only the musician, who enters her private residence to perform. The types of music coming into her house are neither the choice she prefers to hear nor when she wants to hear it. She believes this situation is not right and it happens on a daily basis.

Bill Neale, moved from Dallas to Austin in 1974 and currently live on Kinney Avenue in South Austin. He experiences a lot of problems trying to sleep because of non-permitted music, most recently with Enchanted Forest that has outside parties, which after the police leave, they turn the music back up. He has called the police to report a nearby Church. Music coming from South Austin Museum of Popular Culture and Austin Pizza can be heard in his living room. He believes the “Live Music Capital of the World” mentality attributes to the problem. There are different things that make this town great like bicycling and books, not just music. He expressed a concern for the impact of loud music on kids.

Jerry Jackson, resident of South Austin in the Circle C subdivision, used to do sound and productions on a professional basis. He suggested that one solution could be to require all outside venues to have on site sound engineer. The problem arises with how the equipment is set up. He calls the police all the time about neighbors having parties that are too loud. Venues and clubs are located throughout the neighborhoods and police have problems finding the source of the sound. It is not the loudness of the sound, but the articulation, which can be controlled or contained. 85 DB may seem loud, but every yard man is making the same loudness. Lowering music at a venue will affect the patrons and could reduce opportunities.

Teresa Ferguson, a Music Commissioner explained that venues are the incubators for Austin’s live music industry; part of the conversation is about defending musicians and preserving Austin’s culture. In regulating music in neighborhoods, it is difficult to differentiate between a downtown neighborhood and an entertainment district. She suggested examining the complaint driven solution. She asked if anyone has noticed improvement or difference since meters are now used by the police. She proposed having on City staff a sound engineer to approve buildings for live music as a beneficial service. If the DB is lowered, it will be overkill and should not be the first step. There needs to be better communication on best practices, residents talking with venues, enforcement and incentives for sound proofing.

Jeff Jack and the Austin Neighborhoods Council kill "Unplugged at the Grove"

for now at least. Now they get to fight through the variance process; as we all know, that's just a piece of cake, right?

From austin360:

For the first time in its 16-year existence, KGSR’s “Unplugged at the Grove” series at Shady Grove was shut down Thursday night after a noise complaint from a neighbor. Shady Grove owner Mike Young said the restaurant is in the process of applying for a variance that will allow a ceiling of 85 decibels. According to the current noise code, Shady Grove is classified as a restaurant that must comply at 75 decibels.

More at the link.

Remember, it's not condo-dwellers; and it's not people from California who did this. It's a bunch of single-family homeowners from Bouldin and Zilker, led by Jeff Jack, who have been complaining for more than a decade about supposed 'night clubs' on Barton Springs who got this ordinance passed through their tool Laura Morrison.

Earlier:

June 10, 2009

Rapid Bus update

So the latest map made me and some other folks I know have greater doubts that the service would operate on Guadalupe in front of UT (made it actually appear as if it was running on Lamar to MLK, and then coming up the hill to Guadalupe/Lavaca after that). Turns out I should have saved the image and then loaded up offline; as you'll see if you click on it below.

Capital Metro has finally confirmed that it's still Guadalupe, although they insist their map wasn't confusing. At all. Here it is; you be the judge - in retrospect you can sort of see the Lamar wiggle on the left; but on the other hand, why is the UT logo so far away from the supposed Guadalupe line; and what's the grey line in between? Why have a large jog at what's clearly MLK when really only the northbound traffic jogs at all there, and only one short block?

Here's what you get at first: (squishing particularly annoying; and, yeah, I'm using firefox):

The image below is in the size you would normally get if you "expand" at Capital Metro's site. Click through to the image you get if you save; at which point the squiggles become a bit more obvious. (Yes, Lamar on the west; probably Speedway on the right, although why have a grey line curving towards 38th at the end there?)

After Erica McEwen confirmed the routing, Ed Easton defended their map and insisted that anybody and everybody should have shown up to their 'workshops'. I replied as follows:

Ed, the tone of your comment is a bit off-putting. I have no interest in attending sessions which purport to be seeking public input but are really marketing efforts to put the stamp of public participation on top of an already-decided plan.

I got the Rapid Bus pitch in 2004 in private with three other UTC members before this plan was ever unveiled to the public, by the way, in case you folks forgot.

While I and others had already been operating under the continued assumption that the route would be on Guadalupe in front of UT, there were no materials from Capital Metro available on your website that directly answered that question; and the maps became actually less clear as they evolved, making us have some doubts. It's not that hard to publish the route in detail - and it's not that hard to directly answer very simple questions.

Even Jeff Wood, who is clearly a lot more loved over there than I am these days, doesn't buy the public participation myth - his comment from an earlier posting:

M1ek is right. It wasn't a citizens process. It was more like "we're going to do this and you're going to like it". I remember we had to pull teeth to even get a streetcar studied. This decision to do faux BRT makes me sad. As a former #1 rider I really really wanted to see real quality transit on Guadalupe in my lifetime. Looks like the best corridor for that will now be taken for bus repackaged transit.

Part of me kind of wishes they had changed to Lamar - it would prevent the destruction of possible rail transit on this corridor that McCracken and Leffingwell (I misattributed to Walker at the time, I think) argued against last time around and it would actually 'work' better on Lamar due to the longer distance between traffic lights, but on the other hand, a stop at MLK/Guadalupe wouldn't serve UT well at all. All moot now, I suppose.

June 03, 2009

The Lance Armstrong Stopway Strikes Again

Was going to start a new series today ("Myths of the Red Line"), but this was too perfect.

This morning, I dropped off my stepson at Austin HIgh for his last day of school this year. Pulled in at the PAC, which is the entrance closest to that underpass of Cesar Chavez. As I was leaving, I saw a cyclist on the Stopway; waiting for a spot to clear (lots of people turning into the same entrance I used). I stopped short of the crosswalk and motioned him on, trying to be nice, but after several moments of people coming around the corner and turning, he gave up and motioned me to go instead.

Yay, Stopway!

May 27, 2009

Bad service is hard to kill

While trying to find a new link (succeeded, finally) for this old entry since the old one aged off, I was reminded to post a different excerpt which is probably even more relevant now that Lyndon Henry is out there once again claiming we can turn the Red Line into light rail, somehow:

"Was this the best investment?" asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they'd waited a few years and bought the FEC."

[...]

The Tri-Rail system was never supposed to be this expensive. Because of its innocuous start as a temporary traffic-mitigation measure and because the project has been expanded in small increments, the kind of planning that generally precedes a billion-dollar public-works project never occurred. In the end, the stop-gap became part of the transportation landscape. "Once you start service, it's extremely hard to stop," Polzin says. "You've made the commitment and invested the capital."

Lyndon has made noises that we could still switch the Red Line over to electrified LRT and then run trains back on the 2000 route. He's either insane or lying; and the quotes above show you why: you can't get service like this stopped once you've spent 8 years telling people how great commuter rail is compared to LRT. Plus, of course, Capital Metro's public plans are all about improving the Red Line and adding the Green Line - with more and more diesel-smokin' trains that only take you to a shuttle-bus pickup; NOT about light rail. It's only McCracken and Wynn talking about urban rail (light rail), and although the plan pays lip service to Capital Metro, it's really going to be trying to build light rail despite Capital Metro.

Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs

One of the major selling points of rail service over bus service is that it reduces operating costs (at the expense of higher capital spending, although not as much of a difference as most people assume given how frequently buses must be replaced). Is this going to work out for the Red Line?

Here's a little table for you to consider:

ModePassenger loadDrivers per 100 passenger trips
Express bus402.5
Red Line (train)1500.67

Sounds pretty good, huh? Saved on quite a bit of labor there - as well as other costs that track with 'trips', like fuel! But wait a minute - how are the passengers getting from the train station to their office again?

Continue reading "Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs" »

May 19, 2009

M1EK vs. Revisionist History

From a Capital Metro employee in this thread:

The only other thing I'd like to add is that MetroRapid is a part of the All Systems Go plan, which thousands of citizens helped create.

Now, go back to this crackplog from May 2004. Note, this was long before the public was ever involved - at no point, never, was the public asked if they preferred Rapid Bus to light rail on Guadalupe. Not one single time. (The earliest I got wind of Rapid Bus was actually in January of 2004).

My work is never done.

As for light rail on Guadalupe, yes, it would have taken away a lane of traffic each way (even more in one difficult stretch). This is how you get rail to where it's needed, and precisely what every city that has succeeded with rail transit has done. That lane will carry a lot more people in a train than it ever will with cars or "Rapid" buses that are stuck in traffic the whole time. (No, once again, holding a single light green for a few more seconds doesn't do jack squat in the afternoon congestion on Guadalupe). The only thing that would make Rapid Bus really 'rapid' would be to take away a lane on Guadalupe each way, and then what you've got is service not quite as good as light rail with far higher operating costs. Yay.

My response:

Jamie, you are wrong; the 20% time difference is compared to the #1, not the #101. It is very very unlikely that signal priority will help much in the most congested part of the #1 route since congestion usually results from the next two or more intersections.

Misty, it is foolish to claim citizens chose Rapid Bus. Citizens were presented with Rapid Bus as the only option for Lamar/Guadalupe; the only 'choice' presented was 'where else would you like Rapid Bus?'

The fact is that in other cities, light rail would run on Guadalupe. It would already be running on Guadalupe by now had Krusee not pushed the election early in 2000.

May 14, 2009

CM being flexible with the truth again

Short post from the hospital while my wife naps.

In this thread, I just made the comment below, saved here for posterity in case it doesn't make it.

Fundamentally, quite a lot of the things that are supposedly being worked on now would have had to have been completed for an earlier launch, and obviously weren't. This calls into question the truthfulness of the agency on everything else, of course.

Brushing this off as "well, we held off on operator training because we'd have to do it all over again" is nonsense. You supposedly decided to stop the rollout very shortly before the actual date - so some of that training, for instance, would have had to be underway by that point were you telling the truth.

It should be obvious to anybody who isn't completely credulous that quite a lot of the things Capital Metro is working on now would have delayed the rollout of the line or been PR disasters (imagine cops having to direct traffic at all the road crossings for months, for instance), and that Veolia basically saved their asses by making those mistakes.

Lee Nichols at the Chronicle ought to be paying attention: if they're willing to pull such obvious BS on this stuff, why on earth are you trusting them on their financials?

May 08, 2009

Bad transit news

(see update at bottom as of 3:00)

(both reposted from the twitter during a short time window here in the hospital before I dive back into work):

In the "I can't believe they're really this stupid" department, Capital Metro's MetroRail has won a stewardship award from Envision Central Texas. Yes, really. The plan whose lies about seeking federal funding and other overruns have resulted in the funneling of Austin infrastructure dollars to Leander and Cedar Park. The plan that prevents light rail from being built; the one that has been delayed for many many moons due to incompetence and flat-out lies; the plan that provides jack squat to residents of Austin who pay essentially all the bills; THAT plan just won a stewardship award. Really? REALLY?

What's next; a posthumous humanitarian award for Stalin or Hitler?

Second, Rapid [sic] Bus has been awarded some Federal money - but not the 80% requested, meaning that the project is going to be much harder to kill but is going to cost even more in local dollars.

An awful day for transit all-around. If you still held out any hope for urban rail in Austin, today kills most of that hope. Envision Central Texas, you've just won the first ever group award here. Nice show, today's Worst People In Austin.

Some selected background reading for you from the archives:

Much much more, of course in the category archives, especially these two:

3:00 update: Got a message from somebody who was there that the Red Line was the only entrant (presumably in the category) which wasn't clear to me before (the ECT front page just lists 'finalists' with no information about categorization). Supposedly eyes were rolling in the audience. I think "no award" would have been the right choice, if there were no other entrants (also, surely dadnab could have been given an/another award in the category instead). The point here is that not only does the Red Line fail to move the ECT vision forward; it's actually preventing projects which could be moving said vision forward - for instance, if the Pfluger Bridge extension fails to get built because CM spent the money promised to the City of Austin on Red Line overruns/lies. You don't even have to go to hypothetical-but-now-precluded light rail to get there; just pay attention to what's going on right now.

We're still left with: (1), ECT thinks the Red Line somehow moves us forward; and (2) Rapid Bus is not only still going to happen, but require more local dollars - condemning the #1 urban rail corridor in this city to nothing more than useless bus service for essentially forever.

April 30, 2009

TWITC: Save Town Lake and Save Affordable Housing?

Lots of local political content in this week's issue, but in particular, two surprisingly good articles from Katherine Gregor.

First up, a good run-down of the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance notable for not giving Jeff Jack's crowd the uncritical reception which has been their unearned right in past pieces. It gives the minority report adequate shrift and lists the membership of the task force so people can see who was involved with this (guess what consituency is over-represented?). On this issue, also see Austin Contrarian's take for some good thoughts.

Second, this piece on affordable housing which at least makes the distinction between "single-family house" and "housing" which so many people fail to understand. My comment to that piece:

Once a city grows beyond a certain point, you have to be realistic that the core of the city probably isn't going to remain affordable, as long as you only define housing as single-family detached houses.

How many cities that aren't dying burgs or a sprawling hellholes have affordable single-family detached housing in their cores? I can't think of any; people grow up and realize that if you want to live central and don't have a lot of money, you live in a condo, a duplex, an apartment, a townhouse, a co-op, whatever.

At least Gregor pointed out condos here - that's a start. Mentioning that the McMansion Ordinance severely disincents existing and future duplexes and garage apartments would have been a welcome addition as well, though.

Good show, Chronicle. Also, folks should be sure to check out City Hall Hustle for Wells Dunbar's continuing series of in-depth interviews of mayoral candidates (well, he spends 10-20 minutes with them, which isn't THAT deep, but compared to the alternatives is practically BBC-like). Turns caricatures into characters.

April 28, 2009

CM reserves down to effectively nothing

Cross-posted from the twitter which is about all I have time for right now:

Was there any doubt? CM was being truthy about reserves/quarter-cent money: Statesman article ( also see: helpful chart ).

This happened, in short, because Capital Metro pursued a cheap rail plan that was so cheap the Feds didn't want any part of it (45M originally promised to voters from Feds now spent out of reserves) - then, a combination of typical overruns and not-so-typical incompetence (and a bit of overruns caused by under-engineering) led to even more spending out of reserves. When they say they have enough money to pay Austin the commitments they made in the past, they are lying. They clearly don't have the money; didn't back then; and Ben Wear deserves some apologies from some Capital Metro employees at this point.

April 14, 2009

Jeff Jack claims first music venue victim

Those of you who actually believed the nonsense about the live music task force regulations being the result of condo dwellers who didn't like loud music ought to think long and hard about the fact that the first apparent casualty of the ordinance isn't downtown; it's in the area covered by Jack's neighborhood associations, just like I told you.

Excerpt from the post:

On Saturday, April 10, 2009, an APD officer arrived at Freddie’s at 7:15 pm and told us that he was there to check our decibel readings. Our ambient sound level (with no music playing) was 67 db. Our sound level with the band playing ranged from 74 db to 80 db. The officer explained that the 1st time out (this time), he would issue a warning. The next time we would receive a citation which would result in a $500 fine. He stated that the 3rd time they come out, they would take someone to jail.

This was "the day the music died" at Freddie’s. We immediately stopped the band and have subsequently cancelled 83 bookings which were already on the cards for 2009. The 83 bookings represent over 200 Austin area musicians who no longer have a gig at Freddie’s.

Circle C in Hyde Park

So after reading a long set of complaints on the hydeparkaustin yahoo group(*) about the city not adequately enforcing code regarding to unrelated occupants in 'McMansions' in Hyde Park, I posted the following to their group, which was bland enough to make it through the moderator gauntlet:

I would suggest that if you want to be taken more seriously on this issue that you show the city where you WILL accept more housing units - such as the attempt by some on city council to make a 'deal' for VMU in place of McMansion development.

If, as has happened with Hyde Park and CANPAC, your VMU application was nothing but "no thanks" and, after the first shot was rejected, some desultory last-minute additions with plenty of conditions, don't expect to be taken seriously.

And I got the following, in my email, this morning:

Mike, no one takes you seriously. You don't speak for anyone but yourself and your constant criticisms of everyone who doesn't buy into your fake "new urbanism" has alienated all but a few weak minded individuals like yourself. Frankly, nobody wants you on the Hyde Park listserve. Get a life loser!

In case anybody was wondering how Hyde Park stands. I hope you guys don't blame me for your weak-mindedness!

(* - not technically my neighborhood but I'm one block away).

Update: Weak-minded commenter DSK unintentionally performs a great service. Sure, he gave away the method...

BUT BUT BUT! Now I know that there is a site called walterkoenig.com thanks to a surprisingly difficult effort to locate a picture of the method in question. I think we're all richer for the experience.

April 10, 2009

Chris Riley for City Council

As Chris at the Austin Contrarian has already pointed out, Chris Riley is the urban candidate. I'm not going to address that end of the equation, since the other Chris pretty much nailed my feelings on the matter.

I'm going to talk about transportation.

Today, I think it's fair to say that every city council member is a driver. While a few of them indicated they may ride bikes for fun, none of them regularly ride for transportation; and only one regularly walks for transportation (Mayor Wynn, about to leave). None of the rest appear to be Capital Metro users either. While they usually say things that support those modes of transportation, their actions quite often don't live up to their words. I don't think all or even most of this discrepancy is the result of anything other than a lack of working familiarity with the issues those modes of transportation face - in other words, they may want to do the right thing, but often don't know what that is in a way that might be obvious to those of us with more experience.

Chris Riley is a cyclist and a pedestrian and a transit user. He doesn't own a car now, but helped found Austin CarShare. He rides his bike everywhere, but isn't against motorists; he just wants to make sure that we make things easier for those who don't want to (or even more importantly can't) drive. He understands the role of transportation in supporting sustainable land use in a way that some current city council members might claim to do, but has a commitment to the issue which far surpasses what I've seen from those folks. He co-founded the Alliance for Public Transportation; a group which is trying to push the rail conversation in the right direction.

Unlike some past city council candidates who have identified with bicyclists, Chris is realistic - he does not seek to eliminate cars, or punish drivers. He wants to make things better by moves that I think most motorists are even willing to accept. He's a guy who's been working in the private sector, so can speak to issues that regular citizens face every day, but has dedicated countless hours to the public to try to make things better for everybody.

I am not exaggerating when I say that on the issue of transportation, Chris is the strongest candidate for any city office, including mayor, that I have seen in the 13 years I've lived here in Austin.

I trust Chris implicitly to do as much as is realistically possible to improve transportation in our city in a sustainable forward-looking direction. I urge every reader of this blog to vote early for Chris, and tell your friends to do the same.

Chris Riley is the transportation candidate.

(PS: My readers are invited to meet Chris next Sunday. I don't know if we'll be able to make it due to ongoing pregnancy concerns, but I hope to be there).

Also see: Burnt Orange Report.

April 06, 2009

My disingenuous sense is tingling

Allow me to present the SNAustin.org mayoral forum, with these humdingers:

1. This video shows you successful VMU projects and how nice their open spaces are and then says we need rules to make sure VMU developments provide enough open space. Wouldn't it be smarter to show some that didn't provide enough open space, if any such existed? Maybe they couldn't find any, because I can't think of any that do that bad a job.

Huh. So the VMU developers are already doing a good job providing a lot more public open space than, let's say, the typical residential or commercial areas in this part of town have done (where 'open space' is comprised of surface parking lots, driveways, swales, and huge front setbacks of St. Augustine grass - precisely none of it 'public'). Is it possible, just possible, that these folks aren't really "advocates for new urbanism", like the almost-all-the-same-folks-but-really-quite-different-no-trust-us RG4N? You know, the same folks who claimed to want a VMU development at Northcross but now say they're thrilled with a single-story Wal-Mart surrounded by acres of surface parking,

2. From this posting for the forum:

The neighborhoods - Allandale, Brentwood, Crestview, Highland, North Shoal Creek, and Wooten - have identified three priorities for discussion at the forum: code enforcement, minimum public open space in mixed use districts, and transportation policy with an emphasis on pedestrian, bicycle and transit connectivity.

Oh, so NOW they're concerned with "bicycle connectivity"?. That's swell. Allow me to suggest it's difficult to take you seriously given your failure to even address obliquely what happened the last time a clear and compelling interest in bicycle transportation conflicted with the desire of a few old coots to park their overflow cars on their side of the street. Resulting in some real cool "bicycle connectivity". As in, one of these days a bicyclist is going to end up connected with an automobile because you guys couldn't walk across the street to get to your fourth and fifth cars.

Or do your old pal M1EK a favor and just go ahead and ask them about Shoal Creek at the forum. That ought to be some fun.

Update: How could I have forgotten their other priority?

3. Code enforcement. Yes, now, only now, do these folks want to make the city respect the integrity of the city code. You know, the same code that clearly stated that Lincoln and Wal-Mart had the legal authority to build exactly what they wanted to build at Northcross? The code that so clearly stated those development rights that not one but two judges sent RG4N and ANA home crying with their tails between their legs? The code that was so obvious that the judge nearly made ANA pay Lincoln's legal bills when ANA foolishly tried to appeal? That code, the one you made the city waste a million or more dollars defending?

Oh yeah, that code. Well, now that Wal-Mart scaled back due to economics, I guess we can return to insisting that it must be defended at all costs, right?

April 01, 2009

Capital Metro is trying to mislead you

Had this article been dated today rather than yesterday, it would have made more sense. Alas, they're really serious: they're honestly making the point that it doesn't matter that they don't have any reserves left to pay back the City of Austin.

CM employees all over the place have been ticked at what they claim is unfair press coverage of this issue -- but as both myself and a colleague from UTC days of yore have concluded, they have yet to directly address the claims made in Ben Wear's article that launched all this kerfluffle. Nor should you ignore the fact that Mike Martinez, who even when I disagree with him is always on top of the ball, is still apparently pissed.

Well, here's some charts-and-graphs that might help put this into perspective.

Continue reading "Capital Metro is trying to mislead you" »

March 20, 2009

What's Up With Capital Metro?

Forestalling the yet-to-happen-but-eventually-inevitable question "what does this all mean":

0. (Update): About an hour after I wrote this post, I see that Veolia and Capital Metro are now in even more hot water and the party is canceled; rail service delayed until at least May 15. While Martinez' oversight now is welcome, it would have been nice for McCracken, Martinez, Leffingwell, and others to display that same interest back when CM was making decisions that depleted their reserves beyond their ability to fund commitments to the city of Austin (see #2).

Prompted by something DSK just reminded me of in IM, here's the text of a resolution I floated in May of 2004 on the UTC:

WHEREAS the City of Austin does not receive adequate mobility benefits from the currently proposed Long Range Transit Plan due to its reliance on "rapid bus" transit without separate right-of-way

and

WHEREAS a "rapid bus" line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor

and

WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin

and

WHEREAS the commuter rail plan proposed as the centerpiece of this plan delivers most of its benefits to residents of areas which are not within the Capital Metro service area while ignoring the urban core which provides most Capital Metro monies

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Urban Transportation Commission recommends that the City Council immediately reject Capital Metro's Long-Range Transit Plan and begin working towards a plan which:

A. delivers more reliable and high-performance transit into and through the urban core, including but not limited to the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and downtown
B. requires additional user fees from passengers using Capital Metro rail services who reside in areas which are not part of the Capital Metro service area
C. provides permanent infrastructure to provide impetus for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use redevelopment of the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor

IF CAPITAL METRO will not work with the City of Austin on all items above, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the UTC advises the City Council to begin preparations to withdraw from the Capital Metro service area and provide its own transit system in order to provide true mobility benefits to the taxpayers of Austin.

It died for lack of a second. Where would we be today if we had forced greater oversight on Capital Metro back then?

(now for the original post, all of 1.5 hours old by the time I wrote the above):

1. Capital Metro's training problems that have got them in hot water may or may not have something to do with the fact that Veolia (the agency they hired to run the trains) isn't StarTran. StarTran is where the union gets most of their members; and they don't like the increased use of Veolia for a variety of reasons. Keep your eye on this one.

2. The more recent debacle shows another way commuter rail screwed us: The plan was so bad; so unlikely to carry as many riders as even a half-assed light rail line; that Capital Metro reneged on their promises to seek Federal funding for half of the cost. This, combined with the fact that the cost predictably crept up some, is where most of our money went. The original cost of $90M would have originally taken $45M out of Capital Metro reserves; now with the running total somewhere around $120M depending on how you account for things, CM had to take an additional $75M out of reserves. See item #3.

Continue reading "What's Up With Capital Metro?" »

March 16, 2009

It's not the condo dwellers complaining about the music

Jeff Ward fell for it, big-time. So did 100% of his callers on Friday afternoon. You know what I'm talking about; the "OMG! All these people moving downtown are complaining about live music!" crap.

Folks, the people pushing for the extra restrictions on live music outdoors are NOT the people downtown. As reported elsewhere, they didn't even make up a significant part of the audience for the task force that came up with the new rules. Nor should one look at Lee Leffingwell, Laura Morrison, and Mike Martinez (the authors of the ordinance) and see some kind of rich downtown-dweller conspiracy - Morrison and increasingly Leffingwell are ANC tools first and foremost, and Martinez has been leaning that way occasionally as well (disappointing, given his usual sanity on the issue of development). If the downtown dwellers were really behind this effort, you'd be seeing this ordinance spearheaded by the like of McCracken and Wynn, wouldn't you think?

Here's one representative set of minutes from that task force. Notice complaints from Zilker, Castle Hill, and Travis Heights. Notice not one complaint from downtown.

As I've said in many a comment thread before, the primary force behind new and expanded limits on noise is the same group it's always been: old-school single-family homeowners in Zilker and Eastwoods/Hancock. Jeff Jack's crowd, in other words. These folks have been complaining about venues on Barton Springs and Congress and Red River ever since I've been here - for more than a decade; and there hasn't been any new group of downtown residents joining them; they're just using the supposed downtown residents as cover - most people living downtown view music as an amenity, not a problem.

Don't fall for it. Downtown condos aren't the enemy of live music; the ANC is.

March 13, 2009

Simplified headline

for my pal at the Statesman who wouldn't want to risk alienating the suburbanites:

"Capital Metro takes money from Austin; spends it on Leander, Cedar Park, and Round Rock".

And as a result, one of the things being considered is eliminating some express bus routes that actually work far better for Austin residents than will commuter rail. Of course, as the article points out, Austin gets screwed more than once here: we're also not going to have funding we counted on from Capital Metro for things like the Pfluger Bridge extension and various streetscape projects.

Again, compare/contrast to light rail a la 2000: light rail would have served the same batch of suburbanites at the same exact park-and-rides, but also provided service improvements for residents of Austin - including some of the densest parts of Austin - and it would have delivered those people directly to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown people actually go to - without transferring to a shuttlebus to do it. Note: implementing commuter rail service means we can never go back and do that light rail line - we have now precluded ourselves from ever serving Austin residents in a meaninfgul way with a starter line that would be a guaranteed ridership slam-dunk. The best we can do now is the half-assed 2008 CAMPO TWG rail proposal, currently languishing for lack of financing and political support - a plan which might get some trains running from Mueller to downtown in a decade; and maybe finally get trains running on Guadalupe by 2050 or so.

Still feel that supporting this commuter rail plan was the best way to get rail service to central Austin, those of you who held your nose and voted 'yes' in 2004?

March 05, 2009

Capital Metro express bus changes screw Austin in favor of Leander

Take a look at the following charts (done quickly; please forgive my lack of time on the business trip) showing some of the express bus routes proposed for elimination when commuter rail service begins:

The really fast express bus from Leander only runs obscenely early (6:00 - 6:30 AM). After that, you need to take the #987 (the one that runs down Mopac, 38th, Guadalupe), which, at least for the 'late' (7:30ish) trip, shows to be slower than commuter rail. So far so good. But what about the Lakeline Park-and-Ride, you know, the one that's "in Austin"?

Continue reading "Capital Metro express bus changes screw Austin in favor of Leander" »

The right way to do solar PV

Atlantic City shows off exactly what I was talking about.

We've got a big Convention Center (not as big as theirs, but pretty darn big). Why not put Austin Energy-owned solar panels on that roof (and a couple others of similar size) instead of on the ground in Webberville where the only thing they cool is the dirt?

March 04, 2009

Effort to game the numbers on Red Line begins

Slowly at first.

Latest proposals for route changes eliminate a bunch of trips on the #982; one of the northwest corridor express buses that covers much of the same ground as the Red Line will, except that the express bus takes passengers directly to their destinations without requiring a transfer to a shuttle-bus.

Also, later on in the same document:

Staff also recommends suspending specific trips on routes 984, 986, and 987 that are duplicative to MetroRail trips.

Let's emphasize that again:

Staff also recommends suspending specific trips on routes 984, 986, and 987 that are duplicative to MetroRail trips.

Any questions why they might be doing this?

Hint: the express buses take passengers straight to the front door of UT, and very close to the Capitol Complex; in neither case requiring a transfer.

These are the same express bus routes I've been telling you about for years - the ones that are, still, a better option for most passengers than the Red Line although if you get all the way to Leander, the rail option starts to compete - within the probable standard deviation. For passengers at the NW Park and Ride, though, the express bus is likely faster and will remain so for quite some time. Passengers at the Pavillion P&R don't even have an option; the Red Line doesn't 'serve' them. Of course, who cares about them? They're only actual residents of Austin who pay more than 90% of Capital Metro's bills; they aren't folks from Cedar Park who pay nothing for the system.

Short summary: Capital Metro is eliminating bus routes that currently serve most passengers better than the Red Line will in order to make the Red Line look a bit more 'success'ful than it otherwise would be.

Why I'm Hard on Mueller

and note, I'm far from the only one.

Also please excuse the brevity - I'm doing this from a Wendy's in Huntsville during a short lunch break.

Breathless media coverage from the Statesman makes you think that Mueller is the wildest dreams of urbanites and environmentalists and sustainable-liviing fans all come to life. Meanwhile, every time I raise some (informed, compared to most) criticism of Mueller, I get personal attacks in return. At times like this, I like to remind myself (and hopefully others) of the substantive, objective, reasons why Mueller presents us with problems.

Continue reading "Why I'm Hard on Mueller" »

March 02, 2009

Media completely fooled by Cap Metro PR; film at 11.

Ben Wear fell for it, big-time. Capital Metro ran trains from two stations between which essentially nobody will ever travel (no circulator buses up that far; nothing within walking distance), and completely failed to mention the shuttlebuses at all - despite the fact that they will be the most substantial disincentive for choice commuters to ride. He basically gave Cap Metro a nice commercial for the service based on a joke run up in the hinterlands (yes, if you happened to have an office at one of those park-and-rides, it'd be a pretty nice trip!) by failing to mention how people will actually use, or more importantly, try and stop using this service. This was a great move by Capital Metro - make people think that the entire trip is like this, and maybe they'll forget what they have to do when they get to their actual station long enough to sneak through some ill-advised throwing good-money-after-bad expansion schemes. It worked for Tri-Rail, after all - the agency got to live fat on double-tracking construction contracts for a decade after opening up, on the dubious contention that running trains every 20 rather than 40 minutes could somehow make up for the awful shuttle-bus rides (spoiler alert: it didn't).

His commenters were even worse - split right down the middle between anti-rail troglodytes ("it's subsidized!", as if Leander and especially Cedar Park car commuters aren't monstrously subsidized by Austin residents already); and the naive idiots who think it's light rail who don't realize that people who aren't willing to take the clean, fast, comfortable, non-stop express buses straight to their office today are probably not going to be thrilled when they get off the train and find themselves staring at a shuttlebus instead of their office building.

FAIL.

Now I get to go look to see how the Chronicle covered this. My guess? Chirpy naive "it'll just be expanded and improved" junior reporter type completely falls for it; same batch of idiot pro-and-cons completely missing the real point: rail is neither always good nor always bad. BAD rail is bad; and THIS line is awful - it not only will fail to give us momentum for more service; it ruins our chances at developing good urban rail here for a generation or more because it's now squatting, semi-permanently, right on top of most of the right-of-way that the only true slam-dunk light-rail line possibility this city ever had or ever will have (the 2000 route).

The 2008 CAMPO TWG proposal might be a hundred times better than the commuter rail line, but the 2000 LRT proposal (running trains on Guadalupe right to UT's front door, hitting the Triangle, and everything else) is a hundred times better than that. At some point, people are going to realize that rolling over for Mike Krusee was a huge mistake - we cannot and will not be able to recover from this impending debacle. You can't build a system with the wrong starter line, especially when it ruins the only true backbone you ever had.

February 27, 2009

Listen for M1EK

KUT just called and I recorded a few snippets with them about commuter rail (they're most interested in today's delay announcement for commuter rail which I mostly let CM off the hook for, but I did give a bunch of other background that they might or might not use). If anybody hears it, please let me know.

Background was a condensed version of the last 6 years of this crackplog (we're doing what Tri-Rail did; not what everybody that succeeded did; it's not light rail - it'll never get you to UT, etc).

February 25, 2009

Do people know they're going to have to ride shuttlebuses?

Commenter "breathesgelatin" pointed out 2 posts ago:


Mike, I have a great story for you. I went to the Crestview Station open house on Saturday. In front of me in line was a guy who asked the woman explaining the fare system the following question:

"I take the express bus in from Leander currently. It drops me off a block from my office. What bus will I need to take to get to my office now?"

The woman was completely unable to effectively explain the shuttle system, the fact that the shuttle system was different from normal bus routes, or the normal bus routes. She had clearly either not been trained, been poorly trained, or trained to cover up the idea that you need a transfer. It was really striking.

I don't think the guy was a plant; I think he was a genuine guy who wanted to use the train and was surprised it didn't actually take him to his office.

To natrius: I used to live sort of near the MLK station, on Manor. There are things you want to go to on Manor... but it is too long of a walk, to be honest. And... people are actually buying houses at Chestnut Commons?

I would rent at Crestview Station but it's probably going to be too expensive for me. Not that I would actually take the train anywhere though. I'd take the 1.

I am seriously wondering how long it will take everyone to realize that Mike has been right all along. So many are being duped by this "light rail" bullshit PR.

It's been my experience on the Capital MetroBlog that most commenters labor willfully or mistakenly under the misapprehension that they're going to walk to work from the train station. What have you all noticed with your peers, if any of them even talk about it?

Crestview Station and Commuter Rail

So Capital Metro's showing off stations. One of the ones they're most proud of is at the supposed TOD at Lamar/Airport called "Crestview Station". Let's imagine we're a new resident there and thinking about leaving the car at home to get to our job at the University of Texas.

Take a look at the following chart. Looks pretty good, don't it?

Local bus route was the #1 which seemed to get to 24th/Guadalupe as close as possible to 8:30. "Express bus" is the #101; same location and roughly same time. Pickup times at Crestview estimated to be 2 minutes from NLTC. Commuter rail travel time straight from Capital Metro's schedule to the "UT station" (MLK).

But wait. There's more.

Continue reading "Crestview Station and Commuter Rail" »

February 23, 2009

Red Line: Taxes versus benefits

The first in a new series by M1EK, inspired by various internet fun and maybe Dmitri Martin, except not so much funny as it is sad.

Cedar Park and Round Rock pay 0 to Capital Metro. "Other" includes some portions of unincorporated Travis County and a few small jurisdictions like Jonestown. 93% of CM's budget supposedly comes from the city of Austin (you lately more typically hear "over 90%").

Continue reading "Red Line: Taxes versus benefits" »

February 16, 2009

Time for the adults to slam on the brakes

So a bit more detail has surfaced, and it turns out that Capital Metro, according to the short description in the latest stimulus proposal from our local governments, is now asking for federal dollars to, hold on your hats:

triple-track the Red Line.

The theory, I guess, is to keep freight service in the middle, and run the DMU trains on the outside tracks.

Here's what I'm writing to City Council, as we speak:

Dear councilmembers:

Please exercise whatever authority you deem necessary to stop Capital Metro's insane attempt to use federal stimulus dollars to, as the poorly detailed proposal goes, "triple-track the Red Line". This is a disastrous attempt to throw good money after bad - the Red Line, even if it had ten tracks, will still never be able to deliver passengers directly to their final destinations, unlike good light rail starter lines in places like Dallas and Houston. This is, and will always be, a commuter rail line that requires people transfer to shuttlebuses, or in the distant future, another rail vehicle, to get to their offices or other destinations.

Investing money in this corridor and this technology is exactly the kind of foolish decision that Capital Metro should be stopped from making - just like how you stopped them from the initial attempt to run Rapid Bus down Guadalupe - another investment of many dollars with little prospective return.

Instead, I urge you to seek federal dollars for the CAMPO TWG urban rail plan - which, unlike Capital Metro's awful commuter line, can and will serve residents of the city of Austin by directly connecting major activity centers without ridership-killing transfers. It, unlike commuter rail, can eventually be expanded to more and better destinations and dense residential areas. It, unlike commuter rail, can and will generate transit-oriented development which pays the city back and then some for our investment.

In 2004, Capital Metro ignored the needs of their consituents and bought into a technology and route which is a dead-end that can never really be a competitive option for the business of Austin commuters. Even for residents of Leander, the Red Line (with shuttle transfer) is only competitive if we ignore the express buses that already exist today.

Please stop them before they do it again. We don't have enough rail dollars (local or federal) to build both this ghastly abomination and the urban rail core that can one day bring us what many other light-rail cities have succeeded with.

Sincerely,
Mike Dahmus
City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

February 12, 2009

M1EK versus solar

I don't have time for anything but a quick hit, so here you go:

As the Statesman indicates, some councilmembers, most notably Mike Martinez, are balking at the cost of the proposed gigantic solar photovoltaic plant out in the middle of nowhere.

This is a good objection. I commented to this effect at the austinist last week.

One of the primary benefits of solar PV is as a peak demand displacer/replacer. Why would you want that capacity at the other end of your distribution network from the actual customers, where you undergo all the normal distribution losses and don't get any ancillary benefits for the customer, like shade (cooler roof)?

If you want to invest a bunch of money in PV, and don't want it to be simply rebates for customer systems, then build an Austin Energy photovoltaic farm on top of a bunch of short, wide, buildings with air-conditioning needs. Like the Convention Center, or the millions of warehouses up off Metric, or Costco. AE still owns the energy, but it's being delivered to the grid far more efficiently than from the Webberville location.

(Also, an eastern location is kind of stupid as well - there's a non-trivial difference in hours of sunlight between west and east Austin).

In short, since unlike a coal or natural gas plant, you don't have to put it in the middle of nowhere, why on earth would you want to, and suffer the same drop-off in power due to transmission that they do? Why not take advantage of the few things solar PV is unquestionably better at - nobody minds it if there's solar panels on a roof nextdoor; and everybody loves some free shade.

If you wanted to build a solar plant in the middle of nowhere, given all the above, what should you do? Solar thermal - i.e. the mirrors that focus on a bunch of molten salt. Much more efficient than PV, and there are no ancillary benefits like shade that go to waste when you're out in the middle of nowhere.

January 25, 2009

What a shock

Courtesy of the Statesman: For Laura Morrison and Brian Rodgers, backroom deals are fine. The irony? This is a backroom deal to define exactly how much openness we'll require in the future.

Morrison said that, broadly speaking, she wanted to make the process more open and add opportunities for public input. But she declined last week in a phone interview to release the draft. The reason, she said, was because she and Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Randi Shade had to meet with more stakeholders before making it public, and that releasing it would give the public an inaccurate view of how it could eventually look.

Morrison had shared her draft with at least one member of the public, Brian Rodgers. That made the draft public, according to open-records attorney Joel White. He added that open-records laws require information requested to be disclosed as soon as possible, and that the 10-day response period is an “outer deadline.”

[...]

We’re still waiting, even though the city is required to release it as soon as possible and Morrison could do so by simply opening her inbox and hitting “send.”

Anybody who believed all that nonsense probably feels as foolish now as I may be feeling soon about the "Meeker = McCracken's tool" stuff. The entire momentum behind Morrison's campaign and behind Rodgers' initiative was to make sure only the right people got input because, technically, we ALL got public input when we elected our city councilpeople. Of course, people with real jobs can't be at city council during the day and people with family responsibilities can't spent their days, nights, and evenings as 'stakeholders', but, again, that's the way the 'granola mafia' likes it: government by those with the most time on their hands.

January 22, 2009

Gee, thanks

Austin Bike Blog author Elliott talks about a big meeting with a bunch of folks I usually like and then paraphrases in part 2 from his conversation with the guest of honor:

I also asked him what we could be doing to make Austin better for its citizens. He suggested dedicated bus lanes and bikeways on our busiest transit corridors would do a lot to get people out of their cars (We discuss the route of Capital Metro’s #1 bus which passes within walking distance of 40% of Austin’s employers.)

Gee, I wonder if there was anybody making the point, say, in 2003-2004, that passing this idiotic commuter rail plan dooms us to basically never getting reserved-guideway transit service on the #1 route along which essentially all the dense employment centers are located? How many of the notables at this meeting (*) spoke up then?

None. M1EK had to do it all his lonesome, even giving up his position on the UTC to do it while everybody else who knew this was the wrong plan shamelessly kept their mouth shut to preserve their access to decision-makers.

Thanks, guys. Thanks a hell of a lot.

(* - like most of these meetings, I, of course, since I have a real job in a real office, couldn't attend).

Our options going forward are extremely limited. We can't politically or even pragmatically justify taking lanes on Lamar and Guadalupe now, since we can't continue northwest with frequent-enough LRT service to get enough people on the trains to make up for the lost car/bus capacity. The CAMPO TWG plan is foundering, but may, twenty years from now, eventually lead to a conversation about rail on Guadalupe, where it belongs now, always has, and always will.

In the meantime, pay attention: those who advocate going along with suburban or other non-Austin interests in the hopes that they'll take care of us later have a long record of failure to overcome. Everybody knows the #1 corridor is where most transit activity is now and will be in the future. What are we doing about it? Jack Squat.

Update: Elliott's response was a flavor of the common "why are you such a downer?", to which I just let fly this analogy-ridden response:

Using my favorite roadtrip analogy:

1. You don’t get the car to New York by insisting that, although we’re heading west on I-10 and approaching the outskirts of El Paso, that everything’s fine and we’re on target for New York - although we may need to go even farther west to get there.

2. You also don’t get the car to New York by letting the guy who read the map wrong the first time continue to think that he read it correctly and should therefore continue to navigate. You give the map to the guy who said you’re supposed to be going northeast rather than west.

3. You also don’t get that car to your destination by downplaying how far off course you went, or you might end up out of gas before you even get back to square one (Austin).

4. Finally, you don’t get your goal by telling the people you’re meeting in New York that you’re still on schedule, even though you’re now, at best, going to be two days late.

(1 = more investment in the Red Line, 2 = not identifying that commuter rail is the problem rather than the solution, 3 = not identifying that commuter rail prevents the 2000 LRT plan from being built, 4 = downplaying obstacles to getting rail on Guadalupe in the real world now that it can’t continue northwest along 2000 alignment).

PS: Crappy formatting care of the fact that I still haven't bothered to learn CSS. You're lucky I didn't do all this with tables, so quit yer yappin'.

January 12, 2009

Tri-Rail, The Red Line, and "Is It TOD?"

This was originally going to be a comment in response to a comment Erica from Capital Metro made to Two Quick Hits. I've reproduced her comment in full here.

Four comments on your two quick hits!

1. I'm new to all of this, so fact check it, but I think Polikov's involvement dealt with the Crystal Falls development, which is not in the Leander TOD district and is not part of the TOD being developed around Capital Metro's Leander Station. Leander is not on hold or abandoned, it is on track. http://www.capmetroblog.blogspot.com

2. Crestview: the developers have told us that the presence of MetroRail there made the opportunity attractive and desirable...doesn't mean that it wouldn't have been developed on its own, without the rail line there, but maybe not as quickly.

3. Tri-Rail ridership has doubled since 2005. Last year ridership was over 4m, so the "nobody rides it" argument is wearing thin. Anyhow, one of our TOD staff tells me that Tri-Rail has 2 TOD projects underway: Deerfield Beach Station and Boca Raton Station.

4. Development takes time; Mueller planning started in 1997. Groundbreaking for the big box stuff on the frontage road happened in 2006, Dell & the first housing in 2007. It's a tad early to declare that the Red Line TOD is a failure.

Erica, I can't agree with any of those points. In order:

  1. Under no circumstance ought you declare this a TOD - not a single spade of dirt has been turned. A lesson which should have been learned from Tri-Rail, which declared a dozen or more TODs that never materialized.

    The Leander plans are rather underwhelming, too. A development that requires that its residents cross at an unprotected crosswalk across a busy highway to get to the transit service is NOT "oriented towards transit".

    Update: In comments on CM's blog entry about the TOD, it becomes clear that the blog author was throwing in the crosswalk as an afterthought; it doesn't appear to be related to this particular supposed TOD project at all. However, the thinking that a 'crosswalk' is somehow a bicycle/pedestrian feature which we ought to be impressed by is kind of illustrative here.

  2. Yes, Crestview would have developed just fine - the developers may have gotten a bit of a pass through the neighborhood gauntlet because of the transit, but that's exactly what I said.

  3. Tri-Rail: Yes, it doubled, when gas went to $4.00 a gallon. Your own ridership figures skyrocketed too. More trains are also running now. The TOD projects that are 'underway' are, uh, NOT. "Boca Raton station" is a strip mall of retail that fronts the major arterial roadway and a bunch of parking; the train station is off and to the back. I saw absolutely nothing in Deerfield to indicate that anything's being built.

  4. Mueller is a special case. The Triangle got done much more quickly; we'd see spades of dirt being turned by now on TODs on the Red Line if, indeed, it were capable of generating any TOD.

Some requirements to call something a TOD, from the VTPI; full list here:

  • 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.

  • 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."

  • Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.

  • Roadway space is allocated and traffic signals timed primarily for the convenience of walkers and cyclists.

Note that the Red Line, even if it operates every 15 minutes, is only part of their trip. The shuttle service on the downtown/UT end of the trip will never be fast, comfortable, or reliable. We can already tell, in other words, that the development in Leander won't be real TOD - it's already on track to fail at least four of the metrics even if they do everything right with their buildings.

Tri-Rail has been running for almost 20 years now. There's still precisely zero square feet of TOD. Not surprising when you read what you need to answer the question "Is it really TOD?". Light rail can do it. Heavy urban rail can do it. Commuter rail can't and never will. They may use TOD as an excuse to upzone to what the market was already clamoring for, as demonstrated by Crestview (vs. the Triangle), or they may actually be trying to get it done, but it ain't gonna happen - people aren't going to pay a financial premium to live next to a train that doesn't go anywhere worth going without transfers.

(In case you're wondering, the CAMPO TWG streetcar/light-rail plan could produce TOD, especially on East Riverside, by the way, because people would be able to board a train operating at high frequencies in reserved guideway that would go straight downtown, to the Capitol, or to UT, without requiring transfers. People will pay more than they would otherwise be willing to pay if they're provided with a reliable time-certain trip straight to work or school, i.e., that doesn't ask them to get off a train and onto a bus, or even off a train and onto another train)

January 08, 2009

Push the rail back on track

A letter I just wrote to the three councilmembers on the CAMPO TWG (I think Mike Martinez is among them, at least):

Councilmembers and Mayor,

After returning from a long vacation, I finally read the report from city staff to the CAMPO TWG about the rail proposal and am alarmed at some apparent backsliding on the issue of reserved guideway, and some indications that previous understanding of how important this would be has diminished. For instance, it now appears that the city will not seek reserved guideway on Congress in addition to the Manor segment.

Comments by city staff in this report make two seemingly contradictory claims:

1. That the downtown 'core' segment is critical, and must support frequent headways
2. That this same segment will be operating in 'circulator' mode (as opposed to some 'express' mode label for the Riverside segment), so reserved guideway is less important because stops will be more frequent.

Allow me to vigorously disagree. Reserved guideway is actually most critical on Congress. If you spend any significant time on buses running through downtown in this corridor (#1 or #5, say), you will see that simple signal pre-emption as proposed would be nearly useless during periods of heavy congestion - holding the light green doesn't help you when traffic is backed up from the next 5 intersections ahead. In other words, I would trade reserved guideway on Riverside for Congress in a heartbeat - the signal-holding device would actually do some good on Riverside.

This smacks a bit of the same kind of pennywise/poundfoolish thinking that brought us the impending underwhelming disaster of the Red Line (just because we own this track means we should keep the train running on it the whole way instead of running to where people actually want to go). While I understand the logic behind running in shared space on Manor, the bullet must be bit on Congress if this plan is to succeed (and it is nearly impossible to switch from shared-running to reserved-guideway later on, by the way).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

Page 14:

The Urban Rail project is proposed to include both independent rail right-of-way, and mixed flow operations. Streetcar vehicles would operate in mixed traffic (with automobiles) in areas where it is essentially serving as a circulator mode (collecting and distributing passengers frequently). In the northern part of the corridors (University of Texas and Manor Road corridor) there are limited locations where the system could operate in a dedicated right-of-way (see description of alignment in following section). In the Riverside Corridor, where street rights-of-way are typically wider, there is generally sufficient room to create a dedicated right-of-way by widening the overall street to the outside to provide new auto capacity and then converting inside lanes for transit use. In the central downtown and Capitol Complex, options exist for providing either a dedicated right-of-way or shared use track way. The preferred method for operation in these two latter districts requires detailed planning and engineering that will be completed during the early design phase of the program.

This, folks, is dangerous - it's basically hedging previous claims that the service would be mostly reserved guideway, and now, effectively, saying "well, we'll give it a shot". And "circulator mode" is the most important part of the route. The transit spine, if you will. You don't run your transit spine in "mixed flow".

Note that the report later says "Options are also being examined for providing dedicated running ways for
the rail along Congress Avenue and other Downtown streets." (page 45). However, the groundwork is clearly being laid for shared running on Congress, with the nonsense about "circulator mode" and other silliness in section 2D-2 (hint: the streetcar needs to be delivering people to work, not worrying about how they get to lunch; and if you give them a shared-lane running streetcar that's bogged down on Congress just like the buses are, you're not going to get many converts. City staff must have been instructed to come up with some real fancy footwork to explain how "time-certain" wasn't torpedoed by shared-lane operations here; I can't believe they really believe this stuff about how circling for parking at lunch makes shared-lane operations sufficiently time-certain).

Additional support for this position would be really helpful from my readers, assuming you agree.

Two quick hits

Still catching up at work, but there's two things I didn't want to forget to comment on.

First, before leaving for Florida, I went with the boys and my father-in-law to the Palmer center during one of the last evenings of their Xmas shopping event. Luckily, we planned on parking at One Texas Center and walking, because traffic was backed up all the way across the 1st street bridge for the Trail of Lights. Right in the middle of all those cars not moving, what could you see? The shuttlebuses that the city wanted everybody to ride.

Easy lesson for the day: If you want people to leave their cars in a remote lot and ride shuttlebuses, ensure that the shuttlebuses aren't stuck in traffic for an hour with the cars of everybody who didn't take your advice. It's amazing that in this day and age, people still don't get this - somehow we're supposed to enjoy being stuck in traffic more because we're on a jerky uncomfortable bus instead of in our own vehicle (which, although almost as annoying to be stuck in traffic in, at least allows for more comfort)? There's a trivially easy solution which requires only a small amount of political spine: make one lane of Barton Springs for shuttle-buses only. Cost? A few cops who had to be there anyways, and some orange cones. After all, you already closed Barton Springs down by the restaurants anyways, right?

Second item: There is still precisely zero square feet of evident transit-oriented development along Tri-Rail in South Florida (caveat: I only observed between the Fort Lauderdale airport and the Dreher Park Zoo, in West Palm Beach, but that's about 50 miles worth). The relevance, for those who may be coming to this late, is that Tri-Rail is almost exactly like what we're opening here in March: a commuter rail line which runs infrequently compared to light rail, and requires transfers to shuttle buses on the destination end of essentially all trips to get where you really want to go. Despite more than a decade now of effort to subsidize, encourage, rezone, whatever, there is no, zero, KAPUT TOD on the ground there, and none under construction, and every single prospective project along those lines floated mostly by governmental entities has failed. Every. Single. One.

And here in Austin? The supposed (mislabelled) TOD along Capital Metro's line falls exclusively into three categories: Abandoned/on hold (far suburban projects); TOD-as-excuse-for-sorely-needed-upzoning (Crestview Station); and way-too-low-density-to-be-called-TOD (Chestnut, for instance). In the second category, Crestview Station is no more dense (probably less when complete) than the Triangle, so clearly the rail transit available to Crestview has provided precisely zero additional support for density in the project (it could have been just as dense without the rail).

More later as I slowly get up to speed.

December 09, 2008

2047 words about the commuter rail station downtown

The first of a series of images I created on the plane to JFK on Sunday night:

Red dots are 10+ story office buildings, obtained from skyscraperpage. Click for larger image.

Continue reading "2047 words about the commuter rail station downtown" »

December 03, 2008

The downtown station, drawn optimistically

Erica from Capital Metro, in comments to this post, brings up the fact that the third image (originally from the city's old OnTrack newsletter, updated with green and yellow dots by yours truly), had an error in how the circles were drawn around prospective rail stations on the extension to Seaholm many people unsuccessfully lobbied for in 2004. The point of this image was to show the locations of the office buildings -- not the circles (although that is not inherently obvious if the image is viewed in isolation), and the error wasn't mine (somebody at the city drew a 1/4 mile diameter rather than radius) - but I've known about it for quite some time; using the image just to show the office locations since I have not yet created a new map with a better representation of offices. Typically when I discuss this issue on other forums, I prefer to use a google maps link like this one which shows a walk of 0.4 miles to 6th and Congress.

However, some folks at CM just produced the image below, which is about the best light you can put this 'downtown' station in, and which I will post even though it has its own problem: an attempt to fudge the issue by presenting both the legitimate 1/4 mile circle and a far less legitimate 1/2 mile catchment zone. Another discrepancy between the maps, not anybody's fault, is that in 2004, the station location was projected a half block or so farther east.

Please see comments after the image.

Important things to note here:

  • Most major office buildings are outside the 1/4 mile zone. Most are also inside the 1/2 mile range. However, using the same principle as above, note that, for instance, the second-newest big office building downtown is more than a half-mile from the train station. Essentially all major office buildings downtown, including this one, would have been within 1/4 mile of the 2000 light rail route, whether on Congress or Colorado or even Guadalupe/Lavaca.

  • The 1/2 mile radius is used as a fallback 'rule' to declare that you can attract a few more choice commuters to excellent high-frequency rail service than the 1/4 mile rule would suggest. The problem here, of course, is that the service we are providing is neither high-quality (doesn't go to UT or the Capitol or anywhere else worth going if your origin is 'downtown') nor high-frequency (runs only every 30 minutes and only during rush hours). In addition, the expanded catchment area is most suited to the residential end of the trip - i.e. you might walk farther from your home to pick up the train if it's really good - but surely not to take the train if the walk FROM the train station TO your office was extra-long - this is borne out by New York's transit agency's project to spend billions to bring the LIRR a bit closer to employment centers (see also: non-trivial unwillingness of choice commuters to tolerate transfers even from 'good rail' to 'good rail', even in Manhattan).

  • We don't have a large population of people who would be willing to walk 1/2 mile to work from the train station (and risk mistiming a 1/2 mile walk back to the train station in the afternoon only to maybe miss the once-every-half-hour train) who, and this is critically important here: aren't already riding the bus. The same people who would give the train such an incredible time investment are already going to be riding the buses from all over the city that head straight to their offices downtown. I speak from experience here: a long walk to pick up transit from the office isn't sustainable in the long-run even for transit-positive people like me. If I had to pay $10/day to park, I might think differently, but then I'd already be taking the bus, wouldn't I?

  • And, most importantly, if Capital Metro really believed that the average choice commuter would consider this train station to be within a quick, comfortable, walk of their office, they wouldn't be providing these three downtown shuttles, one of which runs right up Congress Avenue.

December 02, 2008

Hop on the Shuttle

I'm probably much more amused by myself than warranted. Judge for yourself:

Been itching to climb aboard a Capital Metro train? Understandable, given that we’ve been talking about light rail/commuter rail around Austin since the mid-1980s.

Well, that first chance will come next week when Capital Metro and the Downtown Austin Alliance host a “hop ‘n shop” at Brush Square. Up to now Capital Metro has allowed only the media and few selected others to take an up-close gander at the red-and-silver-and white train cars.

[...]

and my response:

There should really be a requirement that people spend 15 minutes sitting on board a stationary shuttle bus before disembarking and boarding the stationary train, shouldn’t there?

December 01, 2008

You forgot the air quotes

Some folks are getting excited about the "downtown" station being nearly complete on our asstastic commuter rail line. Maybe the pictures below will be of some help. Click on the pictures for explanations.

1. "Why is that bus labelled "DOWNTOWN" if this is the "downtown" station?

2. "What is that yellow line and why is it so far from all the big buildings?"

3. "Well, are there any office buildings within a short walk of the 'downtown' station"?

On my next business trip, probably next week, I'll try to take some time to get a better image of dots overlaid on a better map for "major downtown office buildings" built from actual data rather than from my own recollection. Expect it to look even less promising than that last image from 2004, though.

Bonus Update in case it's lost: a comment I just made in response to the typical CM talking point (in comments to their own article about the 'downtown' station) that this is just a 'start' for a multi-modal transportation system that will make choice commuters somehow enjoy changing vehicles three times on the way to work:

Unfortunately, that's a load of nonsense, Misty; there is no way this line can possibly serve as a first step anywhere worth going, because the vehicles (and technology) you chose is incompatible with truly urban rail - can't navigate corners sharply enough to ever go anywhere closer to where the actual commuting demand is.

To the readers, the best hope for urban rail in Texas is to get the CAMPO TWG plan passed before people realize how awful this commuter rail start is, because while it connects to commuter rail and has a suboptimal route itself, it at least serves a few good sources and destinations directly without requiring transfers.

It'll be decades, if ever, before we reach traffic levels which actually make transit trips with transfers anything but a poison pill for choice commuters. Any plan, like this commuter rail debacle, which relies on transfers for most of its ridership is thus doomed to failure.

Updated update

Nice photo from priller at the skyscraperpage forum. The pointy building in the distance is the closest offices of any signficance, and they're right past the edge of the normal quarter-mile rule for how long the average person would be willing to walk to work to take transit on a regular basis.

November 17, 2008

Don't Let The Door Hit You...

CNN's Campbell Brown's words ring true in relation to this pantload, whom the media never bothered to fact-check on anything:

Brown spoke of the "false equivalency" that's often practiced in journalism. "Our view is that when Candidate A says it's raining outside, and Candidate B says it's sunny, a journalist should be able to look outside and say, 'Well it's sunny, so one of these guys is wrong,'" she told Stewart.

Guess what? Sal Costello was wrong on almost everything he ever said. But you wouldn't know that for reading the Statesman, or the Chronicle, or even Burnt Orange Report - and the transportation discourse has suffered drastically for it. Instead of flat-out telling their readers that Costello's position wasn't true, they, at best, alluded to it indirectly, assuming people would get it. They didn't. As a result, people now honestly believe his bullshit about being double-taxed and the money supposedly diverted to 'toll roads' from 'free'ways.

In this whole process, one might assume the losers are suburban motorists. Not so; the losers are central city Austin residents, both drivers and non-drivers, who have to continue the unfair process of paying for suburban commuters' highways through both the gas tax subsidy and the property tax and sales tax subsidy. With toll roads, at least suburban commuters would have paid something closer to the cost of their choice to live out there. Now? Back to business-as-usual, meaning people who ride the bus in East Austin get to subsidize people driving in from Circle C. My environmentalist friends who think this means "no roads" are deluded - the phase II toll roads weren't highways to nowhere like Southwest Parkway; there already exists sufficient commuting demand and more than enough political support to make these roads happen, whether 'free' or tolled.

Anyways, to our erstwhile Circle C Crackpot: don't let the door hit you. And shame on you, reporters. It was raining the whole time, and you let people think there was an honest disagreement on the weather.

(The worst part? As I mentioned to a facebook friend, he actually made me feel a little bit sorry at one point for this guy. UNCLEAN).

November 05, 2008

Why we should subsidize more projects like The Domain

Quick reminder as I prepare to go on a business trip. The reason we need to subsidize projects like the Domain, and especially Mueller, is that existing crappy strip malls actually cost us (the city) more money than they make but thanks to our suburban zoning code, they are the only thing that can be built without special subsidy or regulatory relief.

Read that again. You heard me right - Brian Rodgers' strip malls are already getting subsidized via the tax code and already get regulatory preference in the zoning code. We tax by land and improvement value rather than assessing based on the costs generated by retail - and strip retail is the worst on this scale, since, for one simple example, if you want to visit a half-dozen different stores on Anderson Lane, you may have to move the car 6 times(!). That's not good for Austin, and it shouldn't be subsidized - but if we can't change the tax/regulatory code, and the neighborhoods won't let us do that, then at least we can attempt to level the playing field by subsidizing their more sustainable competition.

I'll try to fill this argument in with some backing data when I get more time, but I thought it important to say this right after the election, since he and SDS are making noise about how close they got. The only reason it was that close is because most people have no idea how much of the status quo isn't natural or 'choice'; but actually the result of public policy that has favored suburban crap like strip malls for decades.

It makes it even harder when a project like Mueller faces so much opposition from nearby neighborhoods that affordability has to be 'bought down' rather than provided through more reasonable density entitlements (subsidizing affordable housing is less efficient than getting the ridiculously low-density zoning out of the way and letting the market provide more supply, but local neighborhoods hate that, so we had to settle for this far-inferior option). No, Virginia, Mueller isn't going to be high-density, not even close - the area around the Town Center, if it's ever built, will approach but not exceed the density of the Triangle - i.e. moderate density mid-rises.

Update: Austin Contrarian argues that retail subsidies are bad but leaves a "design subsidy" hole large enough to admit both the Domain and Mueller, arguably. I'd have no problem dressing my position up in a similar fashion except that I suspect this is too nuanced for the average "corporations bad!" voter to accept.

PS: I believe on this issue that I'm now More Contrarian Than The Austin Contrarian. Woo?

November 04, 2008

BRT (or Rapid Bus) is NOT a stepping stone towards light rail

As part of an excellent series of takedowns of BRT, the San Francisco Bike Blog has written an excellent rebuttal to the frequent claims that BRT or Rapid Bus plans can function as stepping stones towards light rail. One relevant excerpt relating to a transitway in Ottawa that was designed to be convertible to LRT::

The study concludes that with limited financial resources, it is better to invest in new rapid transit corridors than to replace an existing one. It is not considered cost-effective to convert the Transitway to LRT at this time.

Please check out the rest. There's a lot more good stuff in the other links from Jeff's collection as well, including impacts on the urban environment from smelly, noisy, uncomfortable buses versus electric trains.

In our case, our potential investments in our completely useless Rapid Bus plan are completely nonportable to light rail (the stations are on the wrong side, for instance). Ironically, as the linked story points out, every improvement that could be made to make Rapid Bus more like Bus Rapid Transit would make it less likely we'd ever see light rail on the #1 corridor.

October 27, 2008

Why the new library is in the wrong place

Since this has come up again recently, I thought I'd put together a better background piece than this old one. I've co-opted an image from one of the proposals for the new central library for this and added some lines. The thick green line is the major transit corridor of Congress Avenue. The thinner cyan lines are substantial transit corridors on Guadalupe/Lavaca and 5th/6th that carry at least a handful of bus routes (basically, the 5th/6th corridor carries the Dillo, the #21/#22 that circulates all over central and east Austin, the #4, and a flyer; the Guadalupe/Lavaca corridor carries all the 183 express buses and a couple of flyers, and Colorado carries a few mainline routes). This image does the best job so far of showing the problem with the new library's location - the secondary transit corridors are now several blocks away, and the one that carries 90% of the bus routes in the city is arguably too far away to walk, at least for those not in good physical condition (it'd be a bit far for me at this point).

No, there aren't many buses on Cesar Chavez, especially not over by the new library location - it's pretty much just the #3, which runs through north central and south Austin.

And, no, for the fifteenth time, there aren't going to be a lot of shifts in transit routes to come over to the new library. See the body of water to the south? See the lack of bridges farther west than the Guadalupe/Lavaca couplet? Get it?

So what about streetcar, if it ever happens? Problem is that the streetcar line is equivalent to one bus route - the light blue lines on this map are corridors which carry several bus routes that go several different places. If you happen to be among the small part of residential Austin initially served by the streetcar proposal, great, but otherwise you're looking at a two-leg transit ride to get to the library at best. The yellow line shows the streetcar proposal, if it ever happens, and if it ever makes it across Shoal Creek, the latter question being far more doubtful than the former.

October 24, 2008

RG4TD?

I urge you to vote against Prop II for all the reasons elucidated in many other forums. But I find it interesting that some people who believed so strongly in the RG4N case have come down on (what I think is) the right side this time. Let's play a little game. See if you can identify which group is which; one being RG4N and the other being "Stop Domain Subsidies". Prize? Acclamation!

Group AGroup B
Co-opting supposed grass roots to fight against decision of city council they didn't like Co-opting supposed grass roots to fight against decision of city council they didn't like
Angry that city hired outside legal counsel to advise and defend previous city actions / ordinances Angry that city hired outside legal counsel to advise and defend previous city actions / ordinances
Defending traditional strip retail against a marginally better project Defending traditional strip retail against a marginally better project
Painting themselves as the 'citizens' in a 'citizens versus corporations' battle Painting themselves as the 'citizens' in a 'citizens versus corporations' battle
Asserting that city staff is somehow bought off or otherwise subrogated because they published professional opinion which hurt Group A's case Asserting that city staff is somehow bought off or otherwise subrogated because they published professional opinion which hurt Group B's case
Blithely asserting that the city staff and outside lawyers are wrong, while the citizen group with no actual experience in land use or law must be right Blithely asserting that the city staff and outside lawyers are wrong, while the citizen group with no actual experience in land use or law must be right
Pushing for change that, if they won, would get city sued, and beaten Pushing for change that, if they won, would get city sued, and beaten
Claiming to be progressive, yet primary obvious goal is to prevent change Claiming to be progressive, yet primary obvious goal is to prevent change

I'm sure there's more, but with this many key differences, I'm sure somebody can pick out which group is Responsible Growth for Northcross and which one is Stop Domain Subsidies. Good luck!

By the way, kudos to the Chronicle for posting their endorsement background. It's actually good stuff - I wish we had more dialogues of that quality.

October 02, 2008

Your dose of humor for the day

Or, "M1EK is a downtown-hating car-loving sprawlmonger. Wait, what?"

Because I pointed out that most people won't walk 7 blocks each way from a transit stop to get to their office, among other things, a commenter at the Statesman thinks I'm one of those folks who:

drive[s] around the parking lot at HEB for hours trying to find a good close-in spot. Maybe take a handicap spot if it’s REAL HOT…

and:

Your about to tell me that no one is going to move into those condos and they built too many. Maybe you should do a little looking into that statement before you bore us with it. Every condo built so far has been sold an there’s a waiting list big enough to fill 85% of the ones not done yet. I know because I looked into it, because obviously. I don’t mind walking around downtown.

Go there for the full experience. Anybody who knows me will have diet coke coke shooting out their nose. (Although, for one thing, I can go straight to the handicapped space at HEB, thanks, for the same reason I don't ride my bike anymore).

Good lord. This is almost, but not quite, as funny as the Tahoe-haver label I got from another cyclist back in the day. Yee-haw!

September 26, 2008

That didn't take long

Capital Metro has now gone to moderation on comments at their blog, after posting this followup to yesterday's trial balloon on the "it's light rail because we say so" front. (Update: Erica says in comments here that they went to moderation because of a nasty personal attack - I have no reason to believe otherwise; they have posted everything I've written, so far).

Here's what I commented to that post:

LRT was actually projected to have ridership in the mid 30s with the minimal operable segment (in 2007); and that was before some major developments have come online (like the Triangle).

Adam, 2000 per day is pathetic. So is the RiverLine's 9000 per day. And the RiverLine was only able to operate that 'well' with those DMUs because they condemned a bunch of corners in downtown Camden in order to run directly to their CBD rather than to one far edge, then relying on shuttle buses for the "last mile".

We don't have the 'luxury' of a downtown so blighted that it's no big deal to take corners of blocks here and there to run a porky DMU instead of a true light rail vehicle - which is why our commuter rail line is such a dead end - it can never and will never go to UT, the Capitol, and most of downtown.

Update: They're really getting desperate over there. Follow the link, and here's my comment for posterity:

Essentially nobody else other than the agencies in question would consider New Jersey's service to be "light rail" either. So that's not really going to convince anybody. They called it "light rail" for the same reason Lyndon Henry's been doing it - to try to capitalize on the favorable brand image of LRT with people who have had good experiences on true light rail in other cities.

If you were going to bold something, how about this paragraph:


In the meantime, the best strategy for any transit agency interested in developing a shared-use project is to follow FRA’s policy advice and meet with FRA as soon as possible. Ideally, this should be done during the project definition phase and no later than the beginning of preliminary engineering. Transit agencies should recognize the FRA’s broad regulatory authority over shared-use rail transit projects and focus more on obtaining a jurisdictional determination that is compatible with their project mission. The critical shared-use issue for transit agencies to be concerned with is not the FRA’s regulatory authority over shared-use operations. It is the FRA’s jurisdictional determination process and how it relates to defining your project as light rail or commuter rail.

September 24, 2008

No, Capital Metro, it's NOT light rail

You might have wondered why I haven't written about the efforts by Capital Metro to claim their commuter rail service is "light rail" now that the FRA is giving them much more trouble than anticipated with their regulatory oversight. The answer is that I've been slammed by the worst bout of Austin allergies yet, and have had to marshal my diminished concentration on the day job. Important excerpts, since the Statesman' news site will probably age this off before too long:

After all, supporters of the plan said, it won't be powered with electricity, like most light-rail systems, but rather with diesel engines like commuter rail. It will originate 32 miles away in the suburbs and haul in commuters. The stops would generally be far apart, especially those first few out northwest. This is not light rail, they said. I eventually bought into all this, becoming a bit of a prig about correcting people who called it light rail.

[...]

Turns out that dubbing it commuter rail meant, at least to Uncle Sam and in conjunction with the freight hauled on the same track, that regulation of the line falls under the auspices of the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration. And that first agency's rules for running a passenger train on a line that also has freight trains — albeit at different times of the day or night under Capital Metro's plan — have much tougher standards for the track control system and the construction of the cars. Capital Metro has been trying for more than two years to get the railroad agency to say yes to its plan, a final nod it has yet to secure.

Earlier this year, Capital Metro tried to change referees, petitioning to have the transit administration take over and waive certain requirements. In pursuit of that effort, Capital Metro chief Fred Gilliam wrote a letter May 22 to James Simpson, administrator of the transit agency.

"Our MetroRail project is clearly an urban rapid transit or light rail system," he wrote. It was "initially" referred to as urban commuter rail, he said, "to avoid confusion with an earlier proposal that involved electric vehicles." You know how confused voters can get

I've been too overwhelmed with that allergy attack to focus enough to write a good piece, but I couldn't wait any longer, especially after they posted this on their blog. Here's my response in their comment section:

This is a misleading article. Nearly nothing in traditional light rail lines would apply to starting DMU service on an existing freight line, and to say that 8 of the 9 stations are within Austin is also incredibly misleading as the two northernmost, the ones that actually have parking, are right on the edge of the city limits and expected to serve primarily non-residents. The remaining "Austin" stations are largely for drop-offs only, and have hardly any residential development within walking distance.

This is a sharp contrast to the 2000 light rail route - which served the same suburban constituencies but also served central Austin.

There's really nothing urban OR light about this line. It's standard commuter rail - buy trains and stick them on freight tracks. Period. Just because the FRA gives you trouble is no reason to join Lyndon Henry's brigade of serial misinformation artists.

In a second comment, I add:

The other key difference, of course, is that a "light railway" could easily be brought straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown - like that 2000 route does. Our commuter rail vehicles will never be able to do any of those things - they are designed to run on freight railways and cannot make turns that would be necessary to run on anything like a normal light rail route through a true urban area. As a result, essentially every single passenger that rides this thing will be forced to transfer to a shuttle-bus at the work end of their trip. You can't get any farther away from the idea of light rail than that.

By the crappy arguments promoted by agents of misinformation like the aforementioned Lyndon Henry, if we bought a DMU and ran it in between freight traffic on the UP line that runs down Mopac, that would, too, magically turn into a "light railway". Of course that's complete and utter bullshit - everybody knows what 'light rail' is - it's rail and vehicles that can be run through cities without having to demolish a bunch of buildings to make turns, and that doesn't have to maintain compatibility with freight traffic.

You can expect more from me when I feel better - I need to focus my periods of concentration on my real job in the meantime, but don't buy this nonsense - it's NOT light rail - it's a standard, stupid, shuttle-bus-dependent commuter rail service, even if they do what they're claiming they might and add a bunch more stations because it will never be capable of running to UT, the Capitol, or even turning downtown to make it to Seaholm. It's still fundamentally a freight rail line, and the trains we bought are designed to run on freight railways with long turns.

And, my email to our city council:

Please be aware that the decision by Capital Metro to attempt to rebrand (at this late date) their commuter rail service as "light rail" in a desperate attempt to avoid FRA oversight is not supportable by the facts. By their flimsy arguments, if we somehow got Amtrak to increase frequency a bit on the UP line, it would magically turn into a "light railway".

What we're building is standard-issue commuter rail (service started on the cheap that only runs on existing freight tracks - and uses vehicles incapable of navigating the turns it would have to take in central Austin to get anywhere worth going without transferring to shuttle buses).

I hope those of you who are board members will disabuse Capital Metro of the notion that simply calling it "light rail" makes it so. It's still an awful commuter rail service that barely serves Austin at all and can never take passengers to any major destinations without a ridership-killing transfer at the work end of their journey. The city of Austin would be best served by continuing down the path undertaken by the CAMPO TWG which is an actual urban rail system that can and will serve Austin residents in a way commuter rail can never do.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus

September 19, 2008

TWITC: Here we go again

Thanks to the precedent set by the Shoal Creek debacle, yet another neighborhood has agitated for, and won, parking in bike lanes. From the Chronicle's piece:

The stated policy of the city's bicycle program is to implement no-parking zones for bike lanes when streets are scheduled for maintenance and restriping – which is now the case between Westover and Windsor roads on Exposition. City staff's recommendation, however, includes allowing parking in bike lanes overnight beginning at 7pm on certain segments, at all times except two three-hour commuting windows on others, and on Sundays on one stretch to accommodate church parking.

At least they expressed the view of the Leage of Bicycling Voters pretty well:

On Tuesday, LOBV President Rob D'Amico said, "The idea of a bike lane is to promote safe bicycle travel at all times ... especially at night when riding is most dangerous."

That is the only sensible view, people. We don't park cars in (normal) traffic lanes (streets with on-street parking have either marked parking or unmarked lanes - the latter being the case on residential streets where most parking occurs). We shouldn't park cars in bike lanes either. And as Rob D'Amico points out, nighttime is the time you need the bike lanes the most.

Exposition isn't a residential street. It's an arterial roadway - the road all those people go to from the residential streets (and collectors). Even though it has some residences on it, "residential street" has a very distinct meaning here, and Exposition is not one but TWO classifications higher on the food chain. If visitors to these churches or to the residences on Exposition are having trouble finding enough parking, there are options available a short walk away which don't require that we risk cyclists' lives.

I don't envy city staff - who knows what the right thing is to do and yet has to defend this ridiculous policy decision anyways. Place your blame squarely at the foot of city council members who would rather pander to the selfish interests of neighborhood reactionaries than take a stand for public safety (or, even, a stand for parking - marked on-street parking spaces on Exposition without bike lanes would at least be a consistent and reasonable traffic marking).

September 17, 2008

Getting to the ACM on transit

Here's some examples to back up the previous post about the ACM. I'm picking major intersections near some neighborhoods in the news the last couple of years. I am granting the Mueller Town Center a stop at Aldrich and Airport - which isn't really IN the Town Center, but as close as you can get today (and, I believe, the closest you'll get in the future except perhaps on the streetcar). Using times of 11:00 AM arrivals on a weekday.

Note: I had to use Capital Metro's Trip Planner instead of Google - since the Google planner defaults to "closest time" rather than "minimize transfers" or "minimize walking". This actually didn't make any difference for trips to Mueller, but it did lead CM to propose trips with transfers to downtown which arrived 5 minutes closer to the desired time than a much shorter non-stop would do (most parents would choose the non-stop that arrived at 11:05 over the longer trip-with-transfers that arrived at 11:00 on the dot). The irritating thing about CM's planner is that each and every time, you have to say "yes, I meant Congress, not South Congress" - it still won't let you say "North Congress" to avoid this. Guh.

I also had to limit walk to 1/2 mile to avoid some ridiculous options like dropping off at Hancock Center. No parent with child, not even ME, is going to walk that far to go to the ACM. Sorry.

Those who will blithely reply that buses will be rerouted to run past or through Mueller should please reconsider. The major bus routes in this city have run on essentially their current paths for decades now - none of the major N/S routes are going to move miles out of their way to run down Airport Boulevard. The most likely transit improvements as Mueller builds out are the streetcar (just improves access to downtown and the UT area, which already have a direct bus to/from Mueller) and improved frequency on the routes that currently serve Mueller - like the #350; meaning you'll still see options like the ones Capital Metro gives you below, just more often.

Remember, the point of this exercise is to think about whether this is a good long-term move for the ACM. If you are confident that gas will be cheap 10 years from now, then this is clearly a good move, except for those who don't own cars, but if you think gas might be 8 or 10 bucks a gallon by then, maybe it's worthwhile to think about how realistic it will be to get there by other means, wouldn't you say?

Additional suggestions welcome.

1. From Burnet/Koenig:

To downtown:Direct, 32 minutes on the #3; 39 minutes on the #5
To Mueller:49-73 minutes, with 2 of the 3 transferring at Northcross; the other up on St. Johns

Continue reading "Getting to the ACM on transit" »

September 15, 2008

The Austin Suburban Childrens' Museum

The Childrens' Museum, of which we are members, announced today that they plan to move to Mueller after previously pulling out of a plan to occupy part of the ground floor of one of the major downtown high-rises now under construction (which would have, like Mueller, given them a lot more room to work with). Many people wondered why they pulled out of what seemed like a sweetheart deal back then - and now we know: they intended to move out of downtown all along.

Obviously, I believe this is a horrible move. Today, it's a lot easier to drive to Mueller than it is to drive downtown, and most families drive (even we usually do, although I have gone with my 4-year-old on the bus once or twice). But this isn't a move for today - it's a move for ten years from now; and ten years from now, Mueller will be, at best, a medium-density node of homes and a few shops with mediocre transit access; and downtown will still have everything it does today PLUS a ton more homes and retail (far more than Mueller adds), and vastly superior transit access. Additionally, if you think ten years from now the average family will still be driving everywhere, you are far more optimistic about fuel prices than the facts on the ground would seem to warrant.

The other main benefit of having the museum downtown is that it can be one among many attractions that can form a nice day-trip, even if you live out in the suburbs and even if you drive. In Mueller? It'll be an easy drive - and given what they've built so far, there will probably be plenty of surface parking. But even if the streetcar line comes together and doesn't suck, Mueller will still have relatively poor transit access compared to downtown (except from downtown itself) - and once you get there, there will be exactly one thing to do before you go home. In other words, everybody can get to the current location downtown and almost all of them can get there on one bus ride. Getting to Mueller, even ten years from now, is going to require two or three rides for most people (unless you live downtown!).

As with the library and with the courthouse, there will doubtlessly be plenty of apologists who claim that Capital Metro will be serving the new location with some bus routes - and that buses can always be moved. Newsflash: major long-haul bus routes aren't moved miles out of the way for one new attraction in a medium-density area. Ten years from now, Mueller will have basically the same transit it does today - more frequent, likely; but no major new routes, except the aforementioned streetcar (maybe).

Folks, there's a reason that everything tended to be located downtown back when driving was an expensive privilege afforded mainly to the rich: it simply works better to group major destinations together so they can be served by transit. Decentralizing at this point in history when the affordability of driving appears to be heading back that direction is just incomprehensibly stupid - yet that's exactly what the ACM is doing here.

At the same time our own city shows signs of thinking ten years down the road (or re-learning lessons from a hundred years ago), the ACM is thinking ten or twenty years in the past. The new location will be a nice amenity for the many families that have moved into Mueller, but it might as well be Round Rock for the rest of the city.

Update: Other coverage of note at the muellercommunity.com forums where you can probably watch me get slammed mercilessly, and at skyscraperpage.com for a more downtown-friendly view.

September 11, 2008

TWITC: They get to the Convention Center. Then what?

As usual, the Chronicle's coverage of commuter rail, this time the Elgin branch, basically ignores(*) the most pressing issue of all, which is NOT "how will people get to the train station in Elgin" or "are there enough people out there". It's "do they work at the Convention Center, and if not, how will they get to their offices?

The residential end (Elgin or Leander) of these trips is obvious. People will drive to the train stations, which will have lots of parking. (The Leander station already does, as does the "Austin" station which will really be serving mostly Cedar Park, who of course don't even pay Capital Metro taxes). (All the supposed transit-oriented development along the first line is really just transit-adjacent-development taking advantage of political cover to get the density that should already have been granted for locations that close into the city, of course - Leander's TOD, by the way, is on hold due to bankruptcy proceedings for one of the developers and was never anything more than a joke as far as I'm concerned.)

So what about the office end of the trip? Are people going to walk to their office from the train station? NO. This is obvious for UT and the Capitol, but there are some naive folks who think that since they currently walk a long distance to ride a train, that everybody will. Not gonna happen here.

The key here, folks, is that these commuter rail lines are targetting "choice commuters" - and in the actual case of Leander and Elgin, they're way down on the skeptic end of the "choice commuter" spectrum. What "choice commuter" means is that they have cars, and are using them right now - so they will have to be convinced to CHOOSE transit. In Leander's case, excellent express bus service already exists which will take passengers straight to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown in which office workers actually work - nice, comfortable, touring buses with internet connections; we're not talking normal city buses here. In Elgin's case, not as much. And what this also means is that they're precisely the people who will NOT be willing to walk 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the train station to their office - these are exactly the people for whom the 1/4 mile rule was devised. People who are so in love with taking public transportation that they will take extra-long walks to do so are already riding the express bus, in other words.

So how, Chronicle writers, are the passengers on these 2 commuter rail lines going to get to work? Shuttlebuses. Yes, the same people who (in Leander's case at least) can't be convinced to take relatively luxurious express buses straight to their office today are somehow going to be convinced they enjoy getting on and off much more spartan, jerky, shuttlebuses each and every day to get from the train station to their final destination.

While the 2008 TWG proposal may improve things slightly, it's still going to be a transfer, and, repeat with me: choice commuters hate transfers - you're asking them to give up a 1-seat ride (their car) for a 3-seat ride (car, train, bus/streetcar). Even if the last 2 seats are reserved-guideway, you're going to turn off a huge proportion of your potential audience with that transfer - it happens even in Manhattan, where an investment of over six billion dollars is being made to move the LIRR just a bit farther into the core to allow more LIRR passengers to walk to work instead of having to transfer. They're not doing this just to make things nicer for existing riders, people; the Bush administration doesn't play that game - they're doing it based on recovering a bunch of choice commuters who are now driving. And, people, we're not Manhattan, nor will we ever be - we will never have parking so expensive or traffic so difficult that many people will be willing to take the extra transfer if they can just drive.

Christof in Houston put this best quite a while back, emphasis mine::

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.

Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

What's the solution? Tear up commuter rail, right now, and go back to the 2000 light rail plan, which served all the same suburban northwest commuters in precisely the same locations as does commuter rail, but also hit the major residential density in Austin itself, and went straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown. Until then, the best we can do is try to support the salvage effort in that 2008 CAMPO TWG plan which makes noise about distributing commuter rail passengers but unlike Capital Metro's stupid proposal, can also serve as a modest start to an urban rail system that actually serves Austin residents without relying on the commuter rail line itself. And, of course, the 2000 and 2008 rail plans would actually serve more of the transit-positive population of the city that would be willing to take a longer walk just to ride transit, but that's just a bonus.

* - there is brief mention of the TWG proposal in the final paragraph along with a mention that it will enable the commuter rail line to "really work" - I don't believe this qualifies as serious consideration given the points above - the work end of the trip is by far the most important aspect of any rail start, and even reserved guideway streetcar won't save commuter rail thanks to the fact that it's, repeat along with me: still a transfer. If brand-new rail lines are to succeed in cities with mostly choice commuters, they have to serve a large proportion of their ridership with a one-seat ride; transfers can build ridership from there; but any city which is trying to start from nothing while relying 100% on transfers is dooming themselves to failure (see Tri-Rail, South Florida).

September 05, 2008

Austin Contrarian on Austin Rail

Since I'm stuck driving 200 miles a day in the desert here in Yuma with no internet access except at hotel at evening, please go over to Austin Contrarian's take on Austin rail - to which I've commented a few times already.

August 27, 2008

A tale of the edges of two campuses

Sorry for the long break. I've been on business trips to Jebusland for 3 of the last 7 weeks, and had a vacation in the middle, and very busy even when here. Although I'm still busy, I at least have a minute (not enough time to grab any good pictures; since my google-fu was too weak to get something quickly).

I took the family on a short vacation to visit family in State College, home of Penn State (where I went to school and spent the first 9 years of my life - my grandmother still lives in the same neighborhood as the Paternos). On this trip, since my wife is still recovering from Achilles surgery, we didn't spend much time walking through campus as we normally would - we instead spent our time driving around the edges of campus. This was an interesting contrast for me, since I spend quite a bit of time driving around the edge of another major university's campus right here in Austin. Let's compare.

Penn State:

There's a signed and marked bike route which starts on the north end of campus (which is bounded by the old residential neighborhood in which my grandmother lives). This bike route says "Campus and Downtown". It was added shortly before my college years but has been improved since then on each end and consists mainly of off-street paths (sharrows on the street in the neighborhood north of campus, although done poorly). Automobile traffic can still enter the campus from the north in several places, but is then shunted off to the corners - you can no longer go completely through campus from north to south by automobile. Pedestrian accomodations on this side of campus haven't changed for decades - a pleasant cool walk under tons and tons of trees.

On the south side of campus is the downtown area - the area most analogous to The Drag; fronting College Avenue, part of a one-way couplet which carries State Route 26 through the area (other half is two blocks away, called Beaver Avenue). College Avenue has two through lanes of traffic. Shops line the road at a pleasingly short pedestrian-oriented setback, except for a few places (one a church, one a surface parking lot). Pedestrians, counting both sides of the street, get a bit more space than do cars - and cars have to stop almost every block at a traffic light. The speed limit here is 25; you can rarely go that fast. There is plenty of on-street parking. Again, there's places where cars can penetrate campus a bit, but they can't go through campus this direction. Bicycle access from the south comes from a major bike route (with bike lanes that end short of campus) on Garner St. - which then allows bicyclists to continue while motorists have to exit by turning a corner towards the stadium. Two images of the corner of Allen and College from different angles:

College and Allen; shot by ehpien on flickr

From WikiMedia commons

East and west at Penn State aren't as important - the west side fronts US 322 Business (and a major automobile access point was closed; a classroom building now spans the whole old highway!). The east side is primarily for access to sports facilities and the agricultural areas. Ped access from the west is mediocre unless you feel like going through that classroom building, but not very important if you don't since there's not much other reason to be over there. Access from the east is the main future area for improvement - although it's still of a caliber that we would kill for here in Austin; with 2-lane roadways and 30-35 mph speed limits; traffic signals everywhere pedestrians go in reasonable numbers; etc.

Penn State and the town of State College have made it inviting to walk to and through campus, and have made it at pleasant as possible to bike there. Some students still drive, of course, but most cars are warehoused most of the time.

UTier2-West

On UT's west side, Guadalupe is a wide choking monstrosity (4 car lanes with 2 bike lanes - one of which functions pretty well and the other of which was a good attempt that fails in practice due to bad driver behavior). On-street parking exists but is rather difficult to use for its intended purpose; but the merchants will still defend it tooth and nail. Despite having even more students living across this road that need to walk to UT than the analogous group at Penn State, there are fewer pedestrian crossings and they are far less attractive; and there is no bicycle access from the west that indicates any desire at all to promoting this mode of transportation. Although you can't completely get through campus from west to east, you can get a lot farther in than you can at Penn State, and the pedestrian environment suffers for it. The city won't put any more traffic signals on Guadalupe even though there's thousands of pedestrians; and the built environment on Guadalupe is ghastly, with far too much surface parking and far too little in the way of street trees. This shot is about as good as it gets on Guadalupe:

taken by kerri on picasa

On the east side of campus, there's I-35. You'd think this would be much worse than the Guadalupe side for everybody, but at least bicyclists can use Manor Road, which is pretty civilized (better than anything on the west side). Pedestrians are pretty much screwed - noisy, stinky, and hot is no way to walk through life, son.

UT's north side is similarly ghastly. A road clearly designed for high-speed motor vehicle traffic and then gruesomely underposted at 30 mph; way too wide and lots of surface parking. For pedestrians, this edge of campus sucks - for cyclists, it's OK to penetrate, but then UT destroyed through access for cyclists by turning Speedway into UT's underwhelming idea of a pedestrian mall (hint: this is what one really looks like). I could write a whole post on that (and may someday), but the short version is that years ago, UT came to our commission (UTC) with a master plan that crowed about how much they were promoting cycling, yet the only actual change from current conditions was destroying the only good cycling route to and through campus. Yeah, they put up showers and lockers - but that's not going to help if the route TO the showers and lockers is awful enough, and it is. You'll get a lot of cyclists at almost any university just because a lot of students won't have cars and because parking isn't free and plentiful, but if you really want to take it to the next level, I'm pretty confident that eliminating your one good bike route isn't the way to go about it.

Since I went to Penn State (1989-1992), access for pedestrians and bicyclists has actually gradually improved, even though it already was much better than UT, and the campus has become more and more livable. More people walk and bike; fewer people drive; and it's a more enjoyable place than it was before. Since I moved to Austin (1996), the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists travelling to and through UT has actually gotten worse - they're still coasting on the fact that a lot of the area was developed before everybody had a car. Almost every decision they have made since then has been hostile to bicyclists and at least indifferent to pedestrians. As a result, a much larger proportion of students in the area have cars that they use much more often. (Just comparing near-campus-but-off-campus residents here). The recent long-overdue developments in West Campus are a start, but the built environment on the edge of campus has to dramatically change for UT to be anything more than laughable compared to other major college campuses' interfaces with business districts.

Bonus coverage: The area I was staying in in Huntsville, AL is right next to the 'campus' for Alabama-Huntsville. The least said about that, the better - the area in general is like US 183 before the freeway upgrades, except even uglier (if that's possible); and their campus has literally nowhere to walk to - my guess is that every student there has a car, even though the place is clearly not a commuter school.

August 06, 2008

In print again

Good Life magazine interviewed me (one of several) for a big piece on development and transportation, and we got a nice picture on Loop 360 last month. Now, it's finally out, and they mispelled my last name. Every single time. Argh. The content was well-done, though; one of the better representations of an interview I've had (except for the part about the new office being too far to bike; I'm not biking any more due to health reasons; this is actually a wonderful bike commute).

July 31, 2008

BRT is a fraud (so is Rapid Bus)

A quick hit from Orphan Road in Seattle; excerpts:

BRT is neither cheaper nor faster to build. No matter what you might say about a mixed system or buses needed as feeders or matching the traffic requirements with the market, at the end of the day, BRT is most likely to be a fraud.

I'll let other people be "reasonable" and concede that, if you grant a lot of things that never will happen, BRT "might" work. When I look around at all these existing BRT implementations and find delay, financial ruin, and angry riders, I've had enough. BRT is a fraud.

Also of note from the BRT example city of Curitiba are these scalability problems courtesy of The Overhead Wire:

During peak hours, buses on the main routes are already arriving at almost 30-second intervals; any more buses, and they would back up. While acknowledging his iconoclasm in questioning the sufficiency of Curitiba’s trademark bus network, Schmidt nevertheless says a light-rail system is needed to complement it.

All of this (and more) applies to Rapid Bus. The investment is high - and the payoff is nearly zero; you're still stuck with an awful vehicle that can't get through traffic congestion like light rail does all over the country. No wonder the highway guys push for BRT (and its dumber sibling, Rapid Bus) so much - it's not a threat to them. The Feds are pushing it now because the Bush guys have finally wrecked the FTA - but that doesn't make it a good idea; it makes it something to pretend to consider until saner hands take the till.

Capital Metro needs to cut this out right now and put this money into something that works - like the light rail proposal which, unlike Rapid Bus, is at least something that has worked in other cities and can insulate us from diesel costs in the future.

July 28, 2008

The trouble with Manor to Mueller

This is going to be a bit disjoint - I'm typing this at 6:25 at a Pizza Hut in Huntsville, AL (no buffet; waiting for my personal pan pizza; do they still do this?) after having gotten up at 4AM to fly to Nashville and then drive 2 hours down here, then working all day with the other companies on a project for my day job.

After the original unveiling of the streetcar plan promised complete dedicated guideway, ROMA has begun the inevitable backing away process - now saying that dedicated guideway is unlikely on Manor and Congress. Neither one makes sense, but ROMA is likely a believer in the "magic streetcar fairy dust" (note to readers: remind me to write an article on this phenomenon; in short: the theory that streetcars are so great that people won't mind being stuck in traffic). Let's look at Manor in particular.

At the original public unveiling of the plan, yours truly stood up and asked why Manor couldn't be singletracked instead of condemning right-of-way to build dedicated doubletrack. An anonymous jackass on the skyscraperpage forum (who I believe to be either Lyndon Henry or Dave Dobbs) scoffed at the idea, but it's time to consider it again, since ROMA has apparently decided that expanding the right-of-way of Manor is now off the table.

The problem: Manor doesn't have enough width for a car lane each way and one "train lane" each way. (Current configuration is 2 bike lanes, 2 through lanes, and a center-turn lane). There's ALMOST enough width to run reserved-guideway rail and keep one through lane each way if you lose the bike lanes, but not quite. The old configuration of Manor prior to the installation of bike lanes was 4 through lanes, but they were probably too narrow to support car next to train operation (at least, that's what I'm assuming).

ROMA's solution: Run the streetcar in with regular traffic. Sounds fine, right? There's not much traffic on Manor today by any reasonable standard.

Why ROMA's solution stinks: If there's going to be enough traffic headed downtown to fill streetcars in 5 years when a lot more people live at Mueller, there's also going to be a lot more people driving on Manor (which is the smartest driving route to UT, and probably right up there for the Capitol and downtown). So the conditions today that make it look like cars would never slow down the train (much) are misleading - most of the cars that will be there in 5 years aren't there now.

M1EK's solution: Single-track reserved guideway. This stretch is very short (took about two minutes to drive down in the cab on the way to the airport at 4:45 this morning). Initial frequency is set for "every 10 minutes". You ought to be able to keep this as single-track and maintain that schedule with no problems - but if that's too close for comfort, bulb out at a station right in the middle - voila, two shorter single-track segments, and you only need to condemn a sliver of land around that station rather than along the whole stretch.

Why M1EK's solution stinks: Trains will still compete with each other; schedules will suffer.

Why ROMA's solution stinks more: Trains will lose a lot more schedule time stuck behind cars than they will waiting for an oncoming train to clear the single-track section, on average.

Why magical streetcar fairy dust partisans will still dislike M1EK's solution: "You can't expand your solution into dedicated double-track". One track right in the middle of what used to be the center turn lane is right in the middle of where two tracks would need to be - you can't reuse that track.

Why it's not any worse than ROMA's solution on that metric: The rails on which the shared-lane streetcar will run are also going to be in the wrong place - you can't magically change those into reserved guideway either (unless you completely close Manor off to cars). In fact, M1EK's solution allows for a more incremental approach - where you can gradually acquire more right-of-way and shift the double-to-single-track transitions further out away from the station(s).

Does anybody else ever do this? Yes, Baltimore had single-track on their light rail line for quite a while (maybe still do; I haven't kept up to speed on their system).

Congress Avenue is a much easier case, by the way; it's largely an aesthetic objection (reserved guideway should run in the middle of the street, but some people with absolutely no grounding in history are upset about the caternary wires in front of the view of the Capitol - forgetting that for 50 years or more, that's exactly what we had).

July 25, 2008

Yes, that was me you heard this morning

on 590 KLBJ. A fortuitous series of coincidences - I was unable to sleep this morning so was heading in very early; in the car; listening to the morning show and I called in, and actually got the screener right away - and they held me for a full segment at about 7:20. The format is difficult - I think I hit all the major points but of course didn't make too much headway with those guys, but would be interested to hear from anybody who was listening.

Points I hit:

  • More commuter (heavy) rail service isn't helpful (response to Ed); can't get close enough to walk to where you want to go, and no, people won't transfer to buses from trains if they won't take much better express buses straight to their destination today.
  • This system will likely have its own lane on much of its route - meaning it won't be 'competing' with cars in the sense most people understand it.
  • Taxes: Yes, there will likely be some tax-increment-financing (one of the more likely financing buckets floated by Councilmember McCracken). No, it's not reasonable to complain that this only benefits central Austin - first, it benefits commuter rail passengers, and second, central Austin generates most of Capital Metro's tax revenues.
  • A couple trains can carry as many people as a traffic lane on one of these streets can carry in a whole hour. So if you run more than a couple per hour, you're increasing commuting capacity into downtown.
  • I'd prefer the 2000 light rail plan, which is basically what everybody else did that has succeeded.

Chime in if you were up early enough to hear, please. I'm always nervous that I talk too fast / stutter in events like this.

July 24, 2008

The lane is as important as the route

I often make fun of commuter rail for not going where it needs to go - but in this case I'm kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. Here's a comment/letter I just sent the Chronicle in response to coverage of a recent UT meeting about streetcar:

It would be really swell if every time this issue came up, people writing articles would be really clear about what's being proposed by various folks, especially on the issue of dedicated runningway (shared lane vs. reserved lane).

For instance, a streetcar on Speedway sounds a lot better to me too; and Guadalupe sounds better still, since Guadalupe is where all the current and most of the future residential density and other activity is. But are Black and Gadbois and whomever else suggesting reserved lanes on their routes (as in 2000's light rail plan on Guadalupe), or that it would be sharing a lane with buses/cars (as in Cap Metro's original, execrable, Future Connections proposal on San Jacinto)? This makes a HUGE difference - a streetcar without its own lane is actually even WORSE than a bus in speed and reliability - and is thus a complete waste of time and money.

While we probably can't now justify taking a lane on Guadalupe without the suburban ridership the 2000 route would have brought in, at least the McCracken/Wynn TWG proposal (streetcar running in dedicated lanes, albeit on San Jacinto) is capable of being expanded that direction later on; while commuter rail is a complete dead-end.

The problem here is that a streetcar on the "right route" (Guadalupe) that doesn't have its own lane will be even worse than the existing bus service there. Commuter rail has its own lane, in a sense, but doesn't go anywhere you actually want to go - and your transfer is going to be to a crappy shuttle-bus stuck in traffic (without its own lane). I guess I slot San Jacinto somewhere in the middle between the poles of "where most people want to go" (Guadalupe) and "nobody wants to go" (Airport Blvd). But the biggest difference is that streetcar that runs on San Jacinto in its own lane might someday be able to be branched over to Guadalupe while commuter rail can never be brought anywhere you actually want to go.

July 15, 2008

Rapid Bus Still Ain't Rapid

A quick hit, since I'm about to go to bed early with a raging ear infection while on a business trip to scenic Huntsville, AL. This is a comment I just posted on Cap Metro's blog in response to the announcement that they're shooting again for "rapid" bus on the only good rail corridor in the city.

Rapid Bus continues to be a complete waste of time and money - our council members were right to put the kibosh on it the last time through. Investing this much money on a half-baked solution for the most important transit corridor in Austin is stupid, especially since this particular solution won't actually work here (too many times the traffic backup goes far beyond the light immediately in front of the bus in question).

In other cities, and in a smarter Austin, we'd be seeing packed light rail trains run down Lamar and Guadalupe by now. There is no way rapid bus can provide enough mobility benefits here to be worth a tenth the investment you're going to dump into this dead-end technology; and I hope our council members cut this program off again.

It's time to demand that the residents of Austin, who provide almost all of Capital Metro's funds, get some rail transit rather than spending our money providing train service to suburbs like Cedar Park that don't even pay Capital Metro taxes. Rapid bus is an insult to the taxpayers of Austin, and it's not going to be rapid.

I urge each and every of the ten readers of this crackplog to write to your city council members and ask them to stop Capital Metro from spending money on this ridiculous project - if CM feels like spending some money serving Austin for a change, there are far better projects on which to do it.

June 13, 2008

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.

May 29, 2008

Jaywalking crackdown is stupid

Quick commentary since I'm still drowning with all the recent troubles.

This is stupid. Most jaywalking occurs in high-pedestrian-traffic areas where crossings aren't sufficiently present (like South Congress or west 6th) or where pedestrian traffic is just overwhelming compared to car traffic (like South Congress or 6th anywhere downtown). However, most of the injuries and deaths occur in other places so the enforcement here isn't doing anything other than PR for the department among motorists. Strictly bush-league nonsense.

The only burgs that have the right to prosecute jaywalking to this degree, in M1EK's informed opinion, are those like New York, where you don't have to go many blocks to get to a crosswalk.

How do we fix this? The City Council has to direct transportation staff to create additional protected crossings on Congress and 6th and a few other spots. My first attempt on the UTC to do something, way back in 2001, was to get more traffic signals put up on blocks downtown which had 2-way or 4-way stops on the theory that we know the pedestrian traffic is there; the streets are in a grid pattern anyways; and it's probably more efficient to just have lights on every block instead of a gap of 2 or 3 blocks on W 6th which forced many N/S motorists to abandon the most direct routes and head over to Guadalupe/Lavaca, for instance. Made precisely zero headway, since absent official direction at the council level, they aren't going to put up signals that don't meet warrants - and the pedestrian warrant in Texas is just about impossible to meet.

But if there's enough jaywalkers to make it worth the cops' time; it's now worth the council's time to add some legal places to cross.

Austin Contrarian has covered this issue (insufficient crossings) in the past in more detail. Please check it out.

April 23, 2008

Last Best Chance For Urban Rail In Austin Is Here

I swear there's no conspiracy regarding the lateness of this posting - my gracious host happened to perform an apache upgrade which messed with Movable Type. Here's what I wrote this morning, Made With Notepad!

At 4:30 PM yesterday, I left my lovely suburban office and walked through lovely suburban Westlake to the awful bus stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle. After broiling in the hot sun for a few minutes, I decided to walk up to the next stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle; where there was also no shade. This did not bode well; but things got better.

The bus arrived on time (5:08ish) and was thankfully very well air conditioned. I read a book until I was dropped off quite a long walk from Texas Center (I should have taken the earlier stop). Went inside; saw Jonathan Horak and Kedron Touvell; introduced myself to both (how creepy is it that I knew what they looked like even though we'd never met; but they didn't recognize me? Pretty creepy, I think). Just on time.

Will Wynn gave a speech which emphasized how much he wants rail downtown. He got in the weeds a bit, first talking about how we were growing faster than everybody else in the world, then talking about how this decade's growth is actually slower than all previous decades back to the 1880s (huh?), but then eventually came back on track and handed the reins over to Brewster McCracken.

McCracken introduced ROMA; ROMA gave a nice presentation which I'll summarize in bullet points below. No surprises, really, if you read Ben Wear or the print article beforehand. My quick comments in italics. I will go into more depth on many of these in the upcoming several weeks.

  • Terminology: The system is going to be called "ultra-light rail". ROMA mentions that streetcars usually run in shared lanes (where I got the sinking feeling ROMA believes a bit much in the magic fairy dust theory of streetcars).
  • Technology: As mentioned, most likely streetcar vehicles. Possibility of more of a standard light rail vehicle if a decision point goes a certain way (see: Routes: doubling-back-to-the-east).
  • Runningway: Usually the center of the street; almost always dedicated lanes. This is a big win over Capital Metro's previous plans, and everybody who cares about rail transit should be grateful that McCracken and Wynn understand how critical this is to success.
  • Routes: Defined as three or four subroutes even though the service may not operate that way. They didn't actually say "downtown to" on all of these; some were Seaholm or something else; but realistically they'd all converge on Congress.
    1. Downtown to airport: Using Congress, East Riverside; reserved guideway (dedicated lanes, center of road). Alternative presented is a very unlikely extension of commuter rail to the airport. I'm very pleased we didn't try to run on the right side of Riverside. Big win here for business travellers to the airport, and we can pull in a lot of residential out there to hopefully fill trains.
    2. Downtown to Mueller: using Congress (possibility of San Jac or Brazos as fallback), 9th/10th/11th transition to San Jacinto, north to/through UT, Dean Keeton/Manor out to Mueller. Slight possibility of still going out there via MLK. It's not Guadalupe, and we probably won't get reserved guideway through UT without a lot of arm-twisting, but I think Guadalupe's a lost cause for right now. With this technology and route, though, we can eventually get there; whereas commuter rail is a complete dead end. The Manor vs. MLK issue is, I feel, largely settled for Manor unless UT makes going through campus prohibitively difficult - the only pro to MLK is the commuter rail TOD, which I obviously don't believe in anyways; and cons are many - have to deal with TXDOT; don't get even the half-assed acccess to UT that San Jac provides; etc.
    3. Downtown to Long Center and Zilker area: less likely at first, using West Riverside past Lamar, cutting over to Toomey after that. Alternative using Barton Springs would get you all the way to Zilker but no reserved lanes. I think these are unlikely to make it for the first cut anyways but it would be nice to be able to tell tourists they could take the train to Barton Springs Pool, wouldn't it?
  • Financing - ROMA didn't talk about this but McCracken did - combination of TIFs and some other mechanisms (including requiring that some portion of Cap Metro's budget be under the control of the city or CAMPO for capital spending, which I heartily endorse
  • Future - wide arrows going north and south. Again, this system can be expanded - although it'll never become anything as good as 2000's LRT line; it at least can grow into something better - whereas commuter rail is a dead end.
  • Bone-throwing - Elgin commuter rail spur thrown in to try to get some suburban votes (even though we really ought to be doing better for the urban folks who provide most of Capital Metro's funds and essentially all of their support; we apparently still need to pander to the burbs - disappointing).

That's all for right now. Expect expanded analysis of all of the above coming soon. But here's the kicker:

You MUST support this plan if you ever want any urban rail in Austin. Unlike how 2004's commuter rail election was incorrectly framed, this truly is our last best chance for rail so although I obviously would prefer rail running up Guadalupe, I'm going to be supporting this plan whole-heartedly and urge every reader of this post to do the same.

Humorous snippets: I introduced myself to Ben Wear, and even though he wrote an article with my name in it a year or two ago, and I've emailed back/forth with him 5 or 6 times, I don't think he had any idea who the hell I was. Also, Jeff Jack (future Worst Person In Austin nominee? told me I should cut out the blogging until I know what I'm talking about.

April 06, 2008

The Buses Aren't Empty, Part VIII

Dear libertarian ideologues: If you mainly see buses on the ends of their routes in the godforsaken burbs, and they're NOT empty, Capital Metro would be doing something wrong. Morons.

The right place to measure ridership is along the whole route - but if you have to pick just one spot, pick somewhere in the middle and you will invariably find a very different story than the typical suburban idiot narrative of "the buses are always empty". Try standing-room-only, at least in the morning rush. (I took the 2-bus trip to my awful new office twice in a row in late March and on both mornings, I had to stand on the #5; I never wrote up the TFT because I was too busy, but maybe I ought to).

And, dear disabled friends, media coverage of our very low FRR ratio thanks in large part to your gold-plated taxi-limo service is eventually going to kill the rest of the system - which will also kill your golden goose. Think long and hard about what you do next.

Also, dear bus-riding friends, if you keep opposing modest, long-overdue fare increases, sooner or later the majority of voters (who, sad to say, don't ride the bus) will cut the sales tax support, one way or another. You may think people like you are the majority - but there's 5 people who drive and never take the bus, not even once a year, for every one of you. Seriously.

April 04, 2008

My bad neighborhood's sour grapes about VMU

My neighborhood's latest newsletter contains some thrilling sour grapes about VMU:

In June 2007, at the request of the City without any help the City staff, NUNA and the rest of the Neighborhood Planning area (CANPAC, the official planning team for the whole area) which includes Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest Caswell Heights, and UAP (University Area Partners) submitted the mandated application for VMU (Vertical Mixed Use). Vertical Mixed Use is applied to commercial zoning (CS) only; it must have a commercial and residential component on the ground floor and subsequent floors, respectively. Vertical MIxed Use does NOT affect height or height limits imposed on a neighborhood/area. VMU was based on the UNO overlay in the West Campus area, except it seems to be a watered down version of this overlay. In a sense, our planning area, CANPAC, was ahead of the “curve” here. VMU is something which not all areas of the City had, so this concept/zoning tool was intended to be applied widespread. The VMU ordinance was conceived by Council Member Brewster McCracken.


The determining factor for VMU was the location of properties primarily along major, transportation corridors. VMU is a fine concept which would help eliminate urban sprawl and make neighborhoods more “user friendly” with amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance of a neighborhood. VMU combines two uses on a property- retail or office usually on the ground floor and a residential component on the other floors. There are other benefits for VMU such as a percentage of affordable housing units, a reduction in parking requirements, setbacks, FAR and site area requirements. In NUNA, Guadalupe Street was the only major transportation corridor (determined by bus routes).


The NUNA Planning Team, which is separate from the officially recognized planning team for our area, CANPAC, carefully reviewed the maps and properties foisted on us by the City for VMU consideration. Then, the CANPAC Planning Team held many subcommittee meetings and submitted a completed application for the whole planning area to the City by the mandatory, designated deadline in June 2007.


Fortunately, NUNA has an NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation Combining District) which is a zoning ordinance that has more flexible tools for redevelopment and is more compatible to this older (unofficially historic) area of town. The other benefit of the NCCD, in the particular case concerning VMU, is that the zoning tools in an NCCD (which are more detailed than an regular neighborhood plan) trump any VMU. NUNA’s NCCD will protect the careful planning we did during the neighborhood planning process in 2004. Nonetheless, we were required by the City to submit a VMU application.


The question arose within our planning area (CANPAC) and also with Hyde Park, our adjoining neighbor, which also has an NCCD, how does one determine fairly what might constitute VMU? The NUNA Planning Team along with the Heritage Neighborhood, our neighbor across Guadalupe, figured out that no property which abuts a residential use (single family or multifamily) would be considered from VMU. Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU. We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.


NUNA already had on the ground ( already built) some VMU projects. For example, the “controversial” Villas of Guadalupe have a commercial component- Blockbuster Video on the ground floor, and then have a residential component on the other floors. The Venue at 2815 Guadalupe has a similar makeup with commercial uses on the bottom floor and residential suites/condos above. The best part about the Venue is the underground parking arrangement which includes a parking spot per bed- more parking than the City requirement!


NUNA was requested by the City to file an application to opt in or out properties primarily along Guadalupe Street for VMU status which could also grant additional dimensional standards, reduction in parking requirements, and additional ground floor uses in office districts. NUNA opted in properties from 27th to the north side of 30th Street along the east side of Guadalupe since these properties for the most part were built as “VMU” - a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential component on the upper floors, but we did not opt for the additional bonuses such as reduction in parking requirements, etc. for any properties. Our application will be considered in a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission February 12 along with the other neighborhoods in CANPAC (Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest, Caswell Heights, and UAP-University Area Partners). There will be no staff recommendation for this application.


In accordance with Hyde Park, another NCCD, we decided that we would prefer to consider individual, commercial project proposals on a case by case basis. In short, NUNA has given nothing away to the City in our application for VMU; we would like first to evaluate each project to see if it is compliant and compatible with our NCCD regulations.

Here's the response I sent to the neighborhood list; which is currently stuck in moderation:

I see in the most recent newsletter a fair amount of sour grapes about VMU which may lead people to become misinformed. For instance:

"Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU."

The entire point of VMU is to put density where the highest frequency transit service already exists, so that it might attract residents without cars; households with fewer cars than typical; shoppers who take the bus; etc.

"We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application."

The purpose of "opt-out" and "opt-in" is being misrepresented here as well. The operating assumption was that because you folks got McMansion, which will result in less density on the interior (fewer housing units, since it so severely penalizes duplexes and garage apartments), that you would support more density on the transit corridors. This wasn't you being FORCED to accept this density - it was part of the bargain you accepted in return for lowering density on the interior, and now you (and Hyde Park) are trying to back out of your end of the deal.

There is no transit corridor in the city more heavily used than Guadalupe on the edge of our neighborhood. There is no place in the city better suited for VMU than this one. It's irresponsible to continue to pretend that the city's asking for something unreasonable here, since you got what you wanted on McMansion.

And, by the way, there was a guy here on this list telling you that the VMU application you were submitting was a big mistake quite some time ago. Ahem.

- MD

And my follow-up:

Argh. As is often the case, I see when reading my own post that I left out something important; I said that the point of opt-in and opt-out was either missed or misrepresented, but I never said what the point was supposed to be.

Opt-out was supposed to be for extraordinary circumstances that the neighborhood was aware of that the city might not be - not generalized "opt out everywhere because we think we've already done enough". For one instance, a difficult alley access (like behind Chango's) might be something that would justify an opt-out.

If you opt out more than a few properties, you're doing it wrong.

Opt-in was supposed to be for additional properties outside the main corridor - NOT for "here's the only places we'll let you do VMU". IE, my old neighborhood of OWANA might decide to opt-in for VMU on West Lynn at 12th, even though it's not a major transit corridor (the bus only runs once an hour there).

If you think "opt-in" is for the few places you pick to allow VMU on the major transit corridor, you're doing it wrong.

Regards,
MD

April 03, 2008

Shared-Lane Streetcar Still Sucks

Remember, this is Capital Metro's bright idea for delivering rail service to "central Austin", and by "central Austin", they mean "the employment destinations commuter rail stops too far away from to serve". The people who actually LIVE in central Austin continue to get nothing but the back of Mike Krusee's hand, of course.

This would be a good time for you to write your state rep and ask them to support the CAMPO TWG if and only if their rail proposal includes substantial portions of reserved guideway since Capital Metro will never do this; the CAMPO group is our only hope of doing it halfway right.

From Seattle, just yesterday:


The red South Lake Union streetcar has been taken out of service after a midday fender bender.

The train hit a parked pickup that protruded into the streetcar's path, near Terry Avenue North and Harrison Street, said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. No one was hurt.

The streetcar's left bumper is dented near the driver's seat on one end, and a white scrape runs about six feet down the side. The right-rear corner of the pickup was damaged.

For now, only the purple streetcar is serving the 1.3-mile route, instead of the usual two trains. Crews were doing routine maintenance on the orange train and are trying to put it into service this afternoon, Sheridan said.

Streetcars have been in three minor collisions since the line opened in mid-December.

Note that this is quite different from the Houston scenario with their light-rail teething pains - there's no technological solution which will allow this service to continue on this corridor (Houston basically solved their idiot driver problem with a combination of traffic signal changes and gates). Can't put a gate between a shared traffic lane and on-street parking.

From Seattle Transit Blog, in response, some quotes:

This is now the third accident in the short 4 months the line has been open. This clearly shows that the future additions to the line need to be away from traffic preferably in its own lane with space to clear all objects. That last part is most important. I don't get how people still park their vehicles incorrectly, however, clearly there needs to be better information out about this. I have had to get off twice due to illegal parkers and the streetcar not being able to get around it. Perhaps banning parking on the line? That would eliminate that problem.
When we have a desperate need in Seattle for real mass transit, and for fast and reliable service, it's depressing to see the city promoting streetcar service that is even slower than buses. Transit can be an amenity, but it will be a more effective amenity if it also provides a transportation function. We can't afford to put all of our money into making yuppies feel more cosmopolitan, and making their condos more upscale. If we're going to put money into rail, please put it into something fast in a reserved right of way, not into an inflexible and slow amenity that serves only a secondary transportation purpose.
Rather than banning parking along the line to accommodate a poor choice in transit options, how about ditching the streetcar and just using busses -- a transit solution which can, AMAZINGLY, maneuver around a parked car.
For whatever it is worth I agree with Quasimodal... We've been kinda bad a picking the right transportation technology to fit the application. We use buses where we should be using light rail (or real-BRT) and street cars where we should be using buses.

March 28, 2008

The shuttle buses are particularly cutting-edge

Thanks, Shilli, for making me take the last few minutes of my work day on this!

BAD KXAN, BAD!! Particularly disappointing given you got it right in 2004 when nobody else on TV did.

Austin's commuter rail has attracted attention from other major cities because of budget. Other rail systems can run about $100 million a mile. Capital Metro's rail system runs for about $4 million a mile.

Yeah, because we're not building any new track, geniuses.

"The kind of DMU units that the agency here is using are becoming basically the product of choice for this kind of application," said Marvin Snow of Bay Area Rail Transit.

Yes, for shitty rail service which has to run on existing tracks and operate with time-separation from freight use and that will never be able to run where it needs to go, DMU fits the bill! - BART is indeed thinking about DMU, on some existing tracks, by the way. They, unlike us, would be able to transfer from the DMU to a good rail system for the final leg - i.e. DMUBart running up/down the east bay to RegularBart running into San Francisco.

And the headline, saved for last:

Other cities say Austin commuter rail is cutting edge

The inside of the vehicles are, sure. The service? NOT SO MUCH. Tri-Rail showed in 1989 that shuttle buses aren't cutting edge.

Shuttle buses. Capital Metro's idea of "cutting-edge".

Working on brevity

From a comment I just made to this poll on News 8:

This isn't light rail. Light rail would have worked (projected 43,000 riders per day) since it would have gone directly to UT, the capitol, and the part of downtown where people actually work.

This commuter rail line, on the other hand, requires that people who won't ride the bus today will suddenly fall in love with buses when you stick the word "shuttle" in front of them.

Pretty short. Does it hit the important notes? I did leave out the ridership estimate of 1000-1500 for the new service (2000 maximum capacity).

THANKS, KRUSEE!

March 19, 2008

Commuter Rail Use Case #2: Leander

Continuing yesterday's post, here are a couple of use-cases from Leander; the endpoint of the line. Since the train trip would be the longest here, one might expect the train to do well - let's see.

Each table below is again based on a commute leaving the origin point at roughly 7:30 AM (for bus scheduling). I'm still taking Capital Metro at their word that the average shuttle bus trip length will be 10 minutes even though I suspect it will be worse. It certainly won't be reliable - but the train schedules will. In each table, a row just indicates a step (a travel or wait step).

Train times taken from page 4 of the PDF. Note that I now include a drive to the park-and-ride. The last example, folks, was supposed to be the "let's pretend we believe that Crestview Station will really be a TOD that people will really walk to the train station from". Updated walk time for UT for car case to 10-15 minutes based on input from Kedron et al. Note I'm assuming faculty/staff here, not students.

Leander to UT

StepDriveExpress Bus (#983)Rail
132-60 minutesDrive to park/ride (5-15 minutes)2Drive to park/ride (5-15 minutes)2
2Walk 10-15 minutes to office3Wait for bus (10 minutes)2Wait for train (10 minutes)2
3 Bus: 45-80 minutes5Train: 48 minutes
4 Walk 0-5 minutes to officeTransfer to shuttle bus (5-10 minutes)4
5  Bus: 10 minutes5
6  Walk 0-10 minutes to office1
TOTALS
Total Time42-75 minutes60-100 minutes78-103 minutes

Notes from superscripts above:

  1. Offices are more likely closer to the Guadalupe end than the San Jacinto end of campus, but that still presents a range of walking times.
  2. For the train you'll really want to be out there 10 minutes early (penalty for missing is a 30-minute wait), and 10 minutes for the bus (unlike the Crestivew case, these buses don't run very often), and the bus is less reliable to boot, but I'm including "late time" in the bus range for the actual trip.
  3. The walk from parking around UT to office is going to vary widely, but almost nobody gets to park right next to their office, whereas some people get dropped off by the bus essentially that close.
  4. A load of passengers headed to UT will actually require more than one bus to service. In other words, if we assume that the train has 300 passengers, and a third are going to UT, those 100 passengers are going to require several shuttle buses - and loading even one bus from zero to full is going to take a few minutes. Of course, if relatively few people ride the train, the bus loading would be quicker.
  5. The shuttle bus is going to drop off on mostly San Jacinto, so no need for a range here. The express bus varies widely (from personal experience) - so big range here. These express buses actually will run ahead of schedule if traffic permits - the 40 minutes is my estimate of a "quick" run based on driving time of 32 minutes uncongested. On my old reverse commute on a similar route (but only to Pavilion P&R), in no-traffic conditions, the bus took about 20 minutes compared to 15 for my car. Note that in uncongested conditions, the bus will actually get you there faster than the train leg alone - that's because the bus goes straight to UT; while the train goes quite a bit farther east, and the bus actually has a higher average speed in uncongested conditions than the train will (since the express bus goes on 183 and Mopac for miles and miles with no stops).

Conclusions for trip to UT:

  1. Like yesterday, if the destination was really anywhere near the "UT station" out east on MLK, the rail trip would be a slam-dunk winner, even with its low frequency. Even with the 10 minute wait on the front-end, it's competitive with the car and would destroy the bus. (A guaranteed 58 minutes versus a car trip which ranges from a bit better to a lot worse). Remember this when we talk again about light rail. Too bad we're not trying to build offices around that station - only residential TAD.
  2. A multi-door vehicle will be essential for loading/unloading. But even with two doors, it's going to take a few minutes to fill the seats. And the claim that the bus will always be there waiting for the train is not likely to be true based on experience with Tri-Rail in South Florida.
  3. A transfer to a streetcar would improve this only slightly. If running on reserved-guideway for most of its route, it would be more likely to be there on time, and the trip to UT would be a bit more reliable (although I'm being charitable right now and just accepting "10 minutes" for shuttle-bus anyways), but on the other hand, a streetcar that carries 1.5 to 2 busloads of people is going to take longer to load too. There's a reason transit people talk about the "transfer penalty", folks.
  4. Remember, the shuttle bus is dropping people off on San Jacinto, not Guadalupe. Go to UT sometime and see how many offices are along SJ sometime. Big mistake - but the administrators who run UT are apparently more interested in providing another spur to eventual rejuvenation of that side of campus than they are at actually serving their staff's needs.
  5. If I were in their shoes, I'd be taking the #983 already, but would actually try the train when it opens Unless you had to pay a ton for parking, though, practically zero drivers would likely not give up the drive for this train trip. If you valued being able to read/work instead of drive to this extent, in other words, you'd already be taking the express bus.
  6. Effect of future congestion increases? Much bigger than in the Crestview case. A much larger portion of the rail/shuttle trip is on the train itself - and the drive to the park-and-ride probably doesn't change; so the train ends up inching closer to the car as congestion increases - but only until we put an HOT lane on US183 and Mopac, assuming they don't do the stupid current design which wouldn't actually work. Again, though, it becomes clear that it will take unrealistically large time savings on the one leg to begin to make up for the fact that you don't get taken anywhere useful on it.

Downtown will have similar enough results that I'm not going to cut/paste for now, unless somebody really wants to see it.

Next: Mueller!

March 18, 2008

How much time are you going to save on commuter rail: part one

Capital Metro has put up a new presentation on rail-bus connectivity which also includes schedule times for the train service. Now we can see how much of an advantage this service will provide its potential passengers. Step one is "Crestview Station", a supposed but not really TOD which is located within walking distance of a train station.

Each table below is based on a commute leaving the origin point at roughly 7:30 AM (for bus scheduling). I'm taking Capital Metro at their word that the average shuttle bus trip length will be 10 minutes even though I suspect it will be worse. It certainly won't be reliable - but the train schedules will. In each table, a row just indicates a step (a travel or wait step). Updated walk time for car case based on input from Kedron et al. Note I'm assuming faculty/staff, not students.

Train times taken from page 4 of the PDF.

Crestview Station to UT

StepDriveLocal Bus (#1)Express Bus (#101)Rail
115-25 minutesWait for bus (10 minutes)2Wait for bus (10 minutes)2Wait for train (10 minutes)2
2Walk 10-15 minutes to office3Bus: 19 minutes5Bus: 12 minutes5Train: 10 minutes
3 Walk 0-5 minutes to officeWalk 0-5 minutes to officeTransfer to shuttle bus (5-10 minutes)4
4   Bus: 10 minutes5
5   Walk 0-10 minutes to office1
TOTALS
Total Time25-40 minutes29-34 minutes22-27 minutes35-50 minutes

Notes from superscripts above:

  1. Offices are more likely closer to the Guadalupe end than the San Jacinto end of campus, but that still presents a range of walking times.
  2. For the train you'll really want to be out there 10 minutes early (penalty for missing is a 30-minute wait), and 5 minutes for the bus (less penalty for missing), but the bus is less reliable, so I give both 10 minutes of "waiting time" for the bus running late.
  3. The walk from parking around UT to office is going to vary widely, but almost nobody gets to park right next to their office, whereas some people get dropped off by the bus essentially that close.
  4. A load of passengers headed to UT will actually require more than one bus to service. In other words, if we assume that the train has 300 passengers, and a third are going to UT, those 100 passengers are going to require several shuttle buses - and loading even one bus from zero to full is going to take a few minutes. Of course, if relatively few people ride the train, the bus loading would be quicker.
  5. Taking CM's word on the bus schedules here. There is going to be some unreliability built into here, but since I took their word on the shuttle bus time, I did it here too to be fair (similar traffic interference in both cases). Not as bad as the downtown case below - since I'm assuming a dropoff at 24th/Guadalupe for the local/express bus cases, there's only about a half-mile of truly congested conditions to worry about. The shuttle bus is going to drop off on mostly San Jacinto, so no need for a range here.

Conclusions for trip to UT:

  1. If the destination was really anywhere near the "UT station" out east on MLK, the rail trip would be a slam-dunk winner, even with its low frequency. Even with the 10 minute wait on the front-end, it's competitive with the car and would destroy the bus. Remember this when we talk again about light rail. Too bad we're not trying to build offices around that station - only residential TAD.
  2. A multi-door vehicle will be essential for loading/unloading. But even with two doors, it's going to take a few minutes to fill the seats. And the claim that the bus will always be there waiting for the train is not likely to be true based on experience with Tri-Rail in South Florida.
  3. A transfer to a streetcar would improve this only slightly. If running on reserved-guideway for most of its route, it would be more likely to be there on time, and the trip to UT would be a bit more reliable (although I'm being charitable right now and just accepting "10 minutes" for shuttle-bus anyways), but on the other hand, a streetcar that carries 1.5 to 2 busloads of people is going to take longer to load too. There's a reason transit people talk about the "transfer penalty", folks.
  4. Remember, the shuttle bus is dropping people off on San Jacinto, not Guadalupe. Go to UT sometime and see how many offices are along SJ sometime. Big mistake - but the administrators who run UT are apparently more interested in providing another spur to eventual rejuvenation of that side of campus than they are at actually serving their staff's needs.
  5. If I were in their shoes, I'd be taking the #101 already, and would continue to do so after the train opens.

Crestview Station to 6th/Congress

StepDriveLocal Bus (#1)Express Bus (#101)Rail/BusRail/Walk
120-30 minutesWait for bus (10 minutes)2Wait for bus (10 minutes)2Wait for train (10 minutes)2Wait for train (10 minutes)2
2Walk 0-10 minutes to office3Bus: 25-45 minutes5Bus: 20-35 minutes5Train: 18 minutesTrain: 18 minutes
3 Walk 0-5 minutes to officeWalk 0-5 minutes to officeTransfer to shuttle bus (5-10 minutes)4Walk 10-20 minutes to office6
4   Bus: 5-20 minutes1 
5   Walk 0-5 minutes to office 
TOTALS
Total Time20-40 minutes40-45 minutes33-38 minutes38-63 minutes38-48 minutes

Notes from superscripts above:

  1. Shuttle bus is likely to be much less reliable on the two routes being proposed for "downtown" than for the UT area based on traffic conditions. I've abandoned CM's 10 minute estimate in favor of a range here - 5 minutes for places close to the Convention Center on a good day; 20 minutes for the far reaches on a bad day.
  2. For the train you'll really want to be out there 10 minutes early (penalty for missing is a 30-minute wait), and 5 minutes for the bus (less penalty for missing), but the bus is less reliable, so I give both 10 minutes of "waiting time" for the bus running late.
  3. People driving downtown often have parking in their exact building (0 minute walk); but many have to park a block or more away - up to a 10-minute walk.
  4. Still going to be a bus loading wait here - varying depending on actual number of people using this service.
  5. NOT taking CM's word on the bus schedules here. Lots of unreliability when you have to go all the way past UT and then through half of downtown. I've taken their schedule times of 30 and 23 minutes respectively as about 1/4 through the range, because if buses get too far ahead of schedule, they'll actually slow down and/or stop in certain places to avoid missing pickups.
  6. The walk time here is to 6th/Congress, per my own estimate. Note that hardly anybody works anywhere near the Convention Center.

Conclusions for downtown trip:

  1. Again, the shuttle is the killer. Streetcar wouldn't help a whole lot on the loading front; but would be dramatically better on the travel-reliability front, if we get reserved guideway (would make a bigger difference downtown than on the route to UT).
  2. Note that if you were lucky enough to work at the Convention Center, your trip time would range from 28-38 minutes. In that imaginary scenario, I ride the train. Too bad we don't have much developeable land around the Convention Center for future office use. Again, this is the fatal flaw in deciding to run the train service where the tracks happen to be rather than where people actually need to go - and in this case, we can't fix it with office TOD because most of the land around the CC station is already developed - the Convention Center itself, recent hotels, etc..
  3. I'm staying on the #101, again.

One more question some are likely to ask: will worsening traffic make commuter rail more competitive on this trip? Answer: not likely. If bus travel times increased by 10 minutes in the downtown case, for instance, the shuttle bus trip is likely to increase too (5 more minutes, say) -- meaning that the two modes' total travel time really just continues to overlap, and on the low end of the rail/shuttle range to boot. Again, fatal flaw time: if you're trying to sell people on a transit trip with reliable time characteristics, you can't run a shuttle bus for the last half of the trip!

Next: Leander.

March 12, 2008

City wastes millions of dollars...

on TOD planning. I was reminded about this by the Chronicle article, but meant to write this post this morning after watching the Planning Commission cover the TOD station plans for the MLK and Saltillo stations.

Here's how TOD (transit-oriented development) works in the real world:

You start with a rail line that goes to places a lot of people work (drops them off within walking distance of their office). You notice that the rail line is doing pretty well, but could do even better if more people lived right next to the stations instead of having to be driven to stations or transfer from buses. You loosen zoning restrictions around those stations allowing for high-density development (and maybe lease some land owned by the transit agency to developers too).

Here's how it's working in Austin:

The city is spending millions of dollars on consultants (and in-house employee time) on plans to avoid stepping on any neighborhood toes to allow for marginal increases in density around train stations for a commuter rail line which is only going to run twice an hour during rush hour, once in the middle of the day, and not at all at night. If you're dumb enough to move into one of these apartments expecting to take the train to work and the low frequency doesn't bother you, you face a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus ride twice a day from the train station at the Convention Center or on far east MLK to your office.

Will it 'work'? Sure... but only because current zoning is far too low-density in these areas. You could change the zoning without the train station and see exactly the same development occur - because this train service is so awful it's not going to result in any more than a trivial few taking transit instead of driving or taking existing buses to their jobs.

If only there were some other alternative. Something that has worked in cities like Dallas, Houston, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, etc. Something, I dunno, lighter, that could actually, you know, go where lots of people actually need to go.

So what could work with this awful crappy commuter rail line we're stuck with now, you ask? Precious little. If we could somehow convince a mega-employer like IBM to totally redesign their suburban-style office campus around the train station (which is going to be a long walk from their closest building as it stands today), and replicate that on each of the suburban stops, and add a bunch of offices at places like Crestview and the TODs being studied here, then maybe. But that'd be 180 degrees opposite from what the city is futilely trying to do today - in other words, the problem isn't that people don't live close enough to train stations, although they don't; the worse problem is that nobody WORKS near a train station. Because the thing about people with real jobs is: if they're not willing to take a one-leg bus trip straight to their office today, there's no way in hell you're going to get them to take a shuttle-bus trip from the train station to their office.

I need to get that last sentence made into a big rubber stamp. Or tattoo it on the inside of some peoples' eyelids.

January 30, 2008

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

This is a letter I just sent to most of the City Council. I'll try to link a few things from here, but no extra analysis - I'm really too busy at the office to be spending time on this, even.

Councilmember McCracken and others,

I wanted to register my opposition to the ludicrous and irresponsible plans submitted by these two neighborhood associations in my area to completely opt out of the VMU ordinance on highly questionable grounds (claiming to have already implemented zoning accomplishing some of the same things while rejecting the rest based on parking and other typical excuses). There is no more critical corridor in our city for VMU than this part of Guadalupe.

My family and I walked up to the Triangle for a restaurant opening a week or two ago, and the streetscape along Guadalupe is just awful. This is the kind of thing that Karen McGraw's reactionaries are trying to preserve - oil change lots, gas stations, and barely used falling down storefronts which can't be made economical when they are forced to adhere to suburban parking requirements. (The only healthy business along this strip was Vino Vino, which as you may recall, she tried to force to build a bunch more parking too).

The claim that this represents the will of the neighborhoods is questionable. If you read the backup material, you'll see the same exact people who spent months and months building the McMansion Ordinance were the 'voters' on this plan - this isn't the kind of issue you're going to be able to get the rank and file of the neighborhood interested in, as you might have already figured. (But in the case of Vino Vino, you can argue that the true silent majority in Hyde Park made their feelings well known - the population in general is clearly not as reactionary about density as is their leadership).

You already gave these people way too much with McMansion - and the understood quid pro quo was that they'd have to accept additional housing units along transit corridors - and there's no better transit corridor in central Austin than this one. Parking is thus no excuse. If you don't force VMU here, you might as well throw in the towel everywhere.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

January 15, 2008

TFT: Suburban wasteland

As alluded to at the end of this crackplog, my company just opened a physical office in a truly awful part of the suburban wasteland. Today was the test case for "how bad is the trip home on the bus", after getting rides to/from work with my wife and a travelling coworker all of last week (not so bad in the morning; but awful in the afternoon, especially for my wife, who had to invest 30-40 minutes getting to the office to pick me up to then spend 30-40 minutes going home). Ironically, this would be a great bike commute, if I could still ride my bike any non-trivial amount.

I'm still not sure how often I'm going to need to come in, but there's a sliding scale here - at some point it'd require us to get a second car, which I don't want to do for many reasons, not least among them financial (we couldn't have taken our trip to Hawaii if we'd had a second car payment, after all). There's a certain number of days per month on which we could tolerate a both-ways drive (very little); a larger number where we could tolerate a drop-off in the morning and a bus ride home (determining that right now); a larger number which might be achievable on something like a scooter, if I can get past some emotional barriers; and anything else requires that second car. At which point I also have to consider other options, because if I have to lay out the money and time for two cars, might as well look for somewhere that can make up the gap (or maybe downtown, or at least in a less awful suburban part of Austin where you can actually take the bus).

I am writing this on the bus - filling in links later. It's a crackplivebusblog!

Google transit called this trip a 10-minute walk, a 26-minute bus ride, a transfer, and another 20ish minute ride from there, the last leg being one on which I can take about six different routes home, so no worries there. I was highly dubious of google's estimation of the walk, having ridden this route many times on my bike, back when I still could, so I gave myself 25 minutes to walk and 5 minutes to wait (buses can and sometimes do arrive early).

Update on the next day: Now google is accurately saying 19 minutes for the walk. Huh.

Walking trip: Got to the elevator at 4:03 (after having to run back in and use office phone to call home, since cell phone battery had died). Started on the long, not so scenic, walk through suburban Westlake. Guh. No sidewalks, of course, on Allen (behind the Westlake High tennis courts and other fields). Pretty decent sidewalks after that on Pinnacle, which I took the rest of the way down. Walked past some middle schoolers who will doubtlessly be telling their friends they saw a Real Adult Walking - must have been a bum or a predator. Got to the bus stop at 4:20. Whoops - although google was way too optimistic, I was a bit on the pessimistic side. Would budget 20 minutes for the walk next time, if it happens, plus the 5 minute wait.

First bus leg:

  1. 8 people were on the #30 bus as it pulled up (exactly on time at 4:33). I made 9.

  2. 5 more people got on at Walsh Tarlton and Bee Caves. Total on bus counting me now 14.

  3. 1 more guy got on in the weird office park at the end of Bee Caves. 15 people on the bus now. Bus goes through a road at this complex and then turns up Spyglass to make a short loop in the wrong direction, at least for me.

  4. 1 more got on somewhere along Spyglass at one of the apartment complexes. 16 people now!

  5. #17 got on at Spyglass / Barton Skyway.

  6. At Spyglass, near north intersection with Mopac, one got on and one got off. Still 17.

  7. Turned back onto southbound Mopac at 4:44. Guess that loop was worth it after all. Stopped for a couple minutes at the Bee Caves light, and then another 3 got on! We're essentially at standing room now - one standing, although there are a couple of seats left. 20 passengers.

  8. At 4:48, we turn into a bus bay to pick up a guy with a bike. That makes 21 passengers.

  9. We cruise through Zilker Park without stopping and arrive at Robert E Lee at 4:51. Not a good day to be hitting the park anyways - but someday remind me to write a crackplog about how the city needs to jack up the parking prices there in the summer quite a bit higher. Still 21 passengers. A Barton Hills bus (#29) turns off Lee with about ten people on board that I can see (maybe more).

  10. Amazingly, they're still working on that Villas of Lost Canyon project. We arrive at the backup for the Lamar light at 4:53 and almost hit a bicyclist stopped in the right lane for no apparent reason. We're back in civilization, as I see real adult people with apparent jobs walking about like actual pedestrians. Hooray! Stuck for a bit behind our friends on the #29 as they load a bike. Boo. Driver may not make my promised 4:59 drop-off if he keeps this up.

  11. 4:54: Somebody finally pulls the chain to be let off in front of the Armstrong Music School. Down to a mere 20. The bus is practically empty! The suburbanites are right!

  12. 4:55: Lady gets off at the corner of S 1st. Down to 19 people! I think I see a tumbleweed.

  13. 4:58: D'oh. Somebody signals they need off just past Riverside. Going to be hard to make my best transfer at this rate. Time to hibernate the laptop now, though; the rest of first leg is from memory. About 10 people got off at that stop! Holy cow. Down to 7 passengers now. All of those passengers walked over to S Congress to hop on one of the many buses that pick up on the other corner, by the way.

Transcribed later on from here on out.

The wait: Had my bus been just a minute earlier, I could have immediately jumped on the 4:59 #7 bus which was a few minutes late. Rats. As it turns out, my #5 bus was quite a bit more late.

Second bus leg (transcribed today from yellow legal pad - since the ride was way too jerky and crowded to crack open the laptop):

  1. 5:10: Bus arrives; I board. About 15 people on the bus.
  2. 5:11: 14 people still on at 7th/Congress.
  3. 5:13: 3 more get on at 9th/Congress.
  4. 5:14: One got off at 10th/Congress
  5. 5:16: 3 got on as we turned in front of the Capitol at the bus stop that our asshat governor is forcing to move. There were about 30 people there at that time. Up to here, 'rapid bus' on this corridor would have saved about 30 seconds of the 4 minutes it took to traverse Congress which is actually a bit better than I would have guessed. Not that the #5 would get that treatment anyways, but it was something to look at while we were stuck in traffic with the #1/#101, which would be the rapid service. Streetcar would have been no better than the bus I was on in this part of the route - but at least no worse.
  6. Note for comparison's sake that light rail on this route ala 2000 would have probably taken about 2 minutes. About two stops; no being stuck behind cars or other buses. Moving on...
  7. 5:17: Lavaca at 12th and 13th, one got on at each. Ride is getting even jerkier and crappier. Good thing I didn't take out the laptop.
  8. 5:18: One more gets on at 16th.
  9. 5:18-5:24: We're stuck in a very long backup from the light at MLK/Lavaca. This is where LRT would really have helped. As it turns out, streetcar would have been even worse because we saved a minute or two at the end by prematurely jumping into the center lane (bypassing a stop on the right where nobody was waiting). The streetcar, stuck on the tracks in the road, can't make that decision. This helped a bit because the primary backup from this light was traffic heading to I-35 - the tailback in the right lane was about a block longer than the one in the center lane and moving much more slowly too.
  10. 5:24: Driver guns it to try to make up some time, as by this point we're really really late. Note: this is why people who say you shouldn't have rail until you can run the buses on time are idiots - the driver did everything in his power, but all the cars and a few other buses made it impossible for him to meet his schedule.
  11. 5:26: We slowly approach light at 21st/Guadalupe, having been stuck through several light cycles. Now we see why "Rapid Bus" won't work at all - and the same thing would apply to "Rapid Streetcar". The entire corridor is congested - we can rarely make the first green light we see all the way past UT, and quite often don't even make the second one. At this point, a whole ton of people get on, and the bus is now standing room only, with 3 people standing and every seat full.
  12. 5:29: Stuck short of 24th. Once again, rapid bus shows its uselessness - as we could have held that light green till the cows came home, but the traffic from 26th through 29th would have still stopped us dead. At this point we're probably more than 10 minutes behind schedule.
  13. 5:32: Finally made it to near the Dean Keeton / Guadalupe intersection; finally about to leave the "rapid bus" route (and also the light rail route). Note that light rail as planned in 2000 would have breezed through this stuff - making a couple of stops, but never getting stuck in traffic. The driver really goes fast on Dean Keeton - feels like 45, although it's very hard to tell.
  14. 5:34: We pull over near the ped bridge over Dean Keeton and pick up a few more people. About 5 people standing now.
  15. 5:36: Finally on the way home. No more delays/obstructions.
  16. 5:38: Three people, including yours truly, disembark. Some of the remaining standees find seats. Bus has improved to only 9 minutes late, thanks to some speeding and 'flexibility'.

Things learned:

  • Don't trust the pedestrian part of google transit's directions. I kind of suspected this before, but they clearly assume you can take a bees'-line. It would be a much better idea if they were to assume you had to take the same route as your car - they'd be erring in the conservative direction if at all - which is definitely the better way to err when walking to a bus stop!

  • They might be able to run the #30 a bit more often, if this is any indication. At least a bit more frequent during rush hours, as the people on the bus were (mostly) clearly headed home from work.

  • As another commenter alluded to on his blog, this is the kind of thing Ben Wear should be doing from time to time.

  • Rapid Bus is shelved, of course but today's experience yet again confirms how useless it would be. Likewise, streetcar on this corridor in a shared lane would be an absolute disaster - even worse than the bus. Broken record time: Light rail as conceived in 2000 would have greatly helped this corridor - giving people a transit alternative which would be superior to the private automobile and FAR superior to slow, unreliable, jerky buses or streetcars.

January 12, 2008

Chronicle comment of the month

From "Dataholic" on this story. I still owe you guys at least one more installment of "What RG4N cost the city" which will be focused on lost opportunities to do the site better, but in the meantime, please read this:

Two judges have ruled that the City followed its own laws when it came to approving the Lincoln site plan. When there are laws, all sides have to abide by them, including Lincoln, including the City, including the neighborhoods. If the City capitulated to RG4N's demands, it would be breaking its own laws, thus opening itself to being sued by Lincoln (and losing since the laws were followed --per 2 judges). This would be even costlier for the City (all of us), and would achieve nothing (in terms of getting rid of Wal-Mart). Even RG4N founders stated, very early on, that no public process was required to build a supercenter on that site.

Regardless of what you think of Wal-Mart, regardless of how much more preferable a different (or no) development might be, Lincoln owns the property and Lincoln followed the law.

If the laws need changing, then change them -- but RG4N demanding the City break its own laws is divisive, expensive, and only a ploy to further the political careers of its leaders at the expense of the neighborhoods.

I couldn't put that any better myself. And, no, I don't post under anybody other than "m1ek". RG4N needs to man up and admit they lost this, big-time, and the Chronicle needs to stop carrying their water just because they happen to be highly connected. Enough is enough. You're making a mockery of yourselves and you're hurting the city.

January 10, 2008

Downtown Austin Plan gets transportation completely wrong

Coverage by the Chronicle and Austinist, but I'll focus on two very narrow areas here where they are dead wrong. Note: I don't have the time to spend all day Saturday at the Convention Center to tell these guys stuff they already know deep-down, thanks.

The long PDF is here. Here's the two things I'm going to address (I agree with most, but not all, of the remainder of the thing, but nothing else is as remarkably wrong as these):

#1: Two-way streets are NOT better for pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing you have to do to throw out this ridiculous piece of conventional wisdom that we need to convert all our one-ways to two-ways is imagine being a driver who is sitting waiting to make a left turn from a 2-way 4-lane undivided roadway downtown into a driveway or cross street. Hey, there's a little break in traffic!, you think, GUN IT!. How's that going to work out for the pedestrian crossing on the flashing Walk signal? You know, the one you couldn't see until a split second before you hit him, because your view was obstructed by the oncoming traffic before the gap?

With one-way streets, you always get one cycle where pedestrians have a fully protected (solid-white walk signal) crossing (bar left-turn-on-red; which requires enough motorist vigilance to be very safe for pedestrians anyways). Crossing one-way streets as a pedestrian is comparatively much safer and much saner and much more pleasant than crossing a similarly sized two-way street.

The primary reason this 2-way nonsense keeps coming up is because people compare a narrow 2-lane 2-way street like 2nd street to a wide 1-way street with 4 or 5 lanes; and, of course, because they're completely car-centric to boot. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world have tons of one-way streets. Throw out this piece of 'wisdom' that 2-way is better; it's just not true.

(I plan on eventually writing a backgrounder on this one - suffice to say for now that you need to know that the primary motivating force behind this stuff are urban-but-suburban-minded business owners who want you to see their shop no matter which direction you're driving; not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in).

#2: The streetcar line proposed by Capital Metro will provide more people-moving capacity downtown - ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Compare/contrast with light rail, which certainly would have; and McCracken/Wynn's rail proposal, which COULD, but if and only if they get significant chunks of reserved guideway and don't follow Cap Metro's stupid up-the-rear-end-of-UT-and-out-Manor-Road route. The existing AND FUTURE density in central Austin is on Guadalupe, not on San Jacinto and Manor Road (neighborhood plans out there don't allow for enough future density to make running them a streetcar remotely worth the cost; and Guadalupe already has significant enough density to justify it).

If the streetcar runs in shared traffic, as it will according to Capital Metro's proposal, it will not be able to attract many more people than do the buses that currently run around downtown. This is important, because building new transit that doesn't actually get USED more doesn't actually help with the person-moving capacity of the corridor.

In addition, the streetcar line as proposed by Capital Metro will not be a significantly better way to distribute commuter rail passengers than will the buses that will do it on day one. Read my recent comments about streetcar versus bus for starters - Capital Metro's proposal runs entirely in 'shared lanes', meaning that the streetcars will be even slower and even less reliable than the buses these commuters won't set foot on today. So it's not going to be the 'dessert' which makes more people want to eat the 'meal'. Once again, no improvement in people-moving capacity.

These use cases basically show you what a passenger on the commuter rail line will face. Imagine that the last segment is on a streetcar, stuck in traffic behind their coworkers' cars, instead of on a bus. Does it make much difference?

I have a strong suspicion that the people working on the downtown plan know all of this, by the way, but there is a political risk to being too much against Capital Metro's transit plan and the 2-way-street conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, it would have been very helpful for some caveats to be included at a bare minimum, like they did with the commuter rail line itself (their quote below).

In its first phase, the Leander-to- Austin Commuter Rail Line will terminate in the extreme east/southeast quadrant of Downtown, at Brush Square. This peripheral location is not ideal, being about a 30-minute walk to the Capitol Complex, 10 minutes to Sixth and Congress (2.5 MPH) and 15 minutes to City Hall (2.5 MPH). While transfers to waiting buses are planned from the MLK Rail Station to UT and to the Capitol, as well as from Brush Square to Downtown destinations, it is unclear how desirable these bus transfers will be to the transit user.

Note the skillful caveats here. This particular page is well-done - it addresses the problem, while still being optimistic enough to satisfy people who think we can actually get more things done through consensus rather than forceful advocacy of our needs.

The rule of thumb for transit users is roughly a 5-minute walk, by the way, in case you were still wondering why I keep talking about what a disaster this thing is going to be. Light rail would have run to within a 5-minute walk of essentially all the major employment destinations in central Austin.

January 04, 2008

Why transit service doesn't work on frontage roads

This has come up frequently in the past in regards to the idiocy of claiming that major retail belongs out on the frontage road (where I have claimed in the past that it's impossible to practically provide good transit service). Here's a much better version than my previous one, and as a bonus, MS Paint was still tangentially involved!

(For non-Texas readers who may have wandered in from Jeff's excellent transit portal, almost all limited-access highways in this state are built from pre-existing major arterial roadways - where property access is maintained via the construction of new "frontage roads" which unlike perimeter roads often used for that purpose in other states, also serve as on-and-off-ramps. The incredibly wide road footprint that results makes it far more expensive to build new or maintain existing crossings over or under the highway).

Both images from google transit; click through for full details. This is basically the "how do I get from the drop-off for the express bus at the park-and-ride on the west side of the road to the entrance to all the office parks on the east side of the road". Note that the address for the park-and-ride you sometimes get (12400 Research) doesn't match the actual location, which is on Pavilion Boulevard back towards Jollyville.

First, the transit directions, which look pretty good at first:

Then, the driving directions, which look like this:

Huh. Wait a minute. If I can just jump across the road, why do the driving directions have me go down a mile and back? Let's look at the satellite image:


Oh. Now I see. Note that the bus stop images you see on the other side of the road are for a poorly performing cross-town route which suffers from the same basic problem - if you need to leave an office on that side of the street and go southbound on 183 back home, you get to walk to the next crossing - which on a normal street wouldn't be that big of a deal, but crossings of frontage roads are few and far between. Farther to the northwest, crossings are even less frequent - you face a walk of close to 3 miles in spots to make this trip across the freeway. Taking that cross-town route would be even worse than taking the express plus the incredibly long walk, because it would require a long slow trip down the frontage road and then a transfer to a second bus, and because the service on the frontage road is inevitably low-demand, it doesn't run very often either.

Keep in mind that this is just to cross the freeway. If you work at the Riata office park, you then face another walk of a half-mile or so inside the complex. I used to do this commute on my bike, with bus boost in the morning at times and am very familiar with the area - ironically, proximity to the Pavilion transit center was supposedly touted as a positive for this development when it was originally proposed. I was always pretty sure Pavilion used to connect with what is now called Riata Trace Parkway when 183 was just a six-lane divided arterial but have never been able to find a clear enough old satellite image to confirm, but our Tennessee correspondent has already confirmed in comments that it did cross.

For reference, my last job before this one was also on US 183, but between Balcones Woods and Braker Lane, which was much more accessible by transit - and yes, I did sometimes take the bus even on days where I wasn't biking. I tried the bus commute once to Riata and never did it again - that walk, in addition to being far too long even for a nice comfortable express bus, is just dreadful, even compared to conditions down by Braker.

And, yes, there's a personal reason this is coming up now too. All I can say now is dammit, dammit.

January 01, 2008

Why Streetcars Suck: Simple Example

Very quick hit today; not even any links, although I may fill them in later if I get a minute.

My family took the #5 down to Town Lake yesterday for the First Night festivities (the parade was outstanding - best one I've ever seen). One simple thing we experienced shows why streetcars in shared lanes are completely useless.

We're travelling southbound in the right lane of Congress (where shared-lane low-budget streetcar would inevitably operate as well). Oops, a car has stopped and is unloading a bunch of stuff with their flashers on. The bus driver quickly changes to the center lane to get around them and then moves back right.

A block later, somebody starts to pull out of one of the angle-parking spaces and stops. I was never able to figure out why - they may have been spooked by traffic. Again, the bus driver changes lanes and moves around the obstruction.

Anybody see the problem with shared-lane streetcar yet?

You get enough little blockages like that and the performance and reliability of the streetcar gets so bad that even the mystical streetcar fairy dust that supposedly makes commuters forget how to read their watch won't help.

True light rail, with reserved guideway ("running in its own lane") is a slam-dunk win for Austin. But shared-lane streetcar is a complete waste of time that actually performs worse for passengers than does the city bus that most of them won't even take today.

Unfortunately, I have my suspicions that the Wynn/McCracken rail plan will end up having to rely on mixed-traffic streetcar service for a good chunk of its proposed route (and that's only one of the two impending problems; the other being that the route absolutely must go up Congress and then Guadalupe, rather than over the east side of UT and then out to Mueller as in the useless Capital Metro proposal). So, once again, we're scrod by our pal Mike Krusee - because of his push in 2000 to destroy Capital Metro, and then his push in 2004 to force commuter rail instead of light rail, urban Austin will probably end up with no rail at all, or, at best, rail which is actually less useful than city buses.

December 31, 2007

Keep Domain Subsidies

Whenever I hear this guy talk about how bad the Domain is, I wonder which ones of the strip centers filled with locally-owned businesses he owns. Because I haven't seen one strip mall with local businesses in it that isn't a pedestrian-hostile disaster.

Sign me up for MORE DOMAIN SUBSIDIES if it means that we encourage pedestrian use, even if it's only inside the project. Too many of these awful strip malls inhabited by the local businesses who are fighting this fight are like the ones on Anderson Lane where even a confirmed car-hater like me is tempted to start the car and move it farther down the road rather than walk a quarter-mile. It's just that awful.

When locally owned businesses do things that hurt us, they don't deserve a pass. When Terra Toys reacts to higher rent by leaving a good urban environment and moving somewhere where nobody will walk to, and very few will walk around in, why on earth am I supposed to support them against Wal-Mart or the Domain, when those guys are at least trying to make things a little better?

Also, for extra credit, remember City Comforts' primary rule of urbanism: it starts with the location of the parking lot.

versus

Any questions?

December 24, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part two

Another casualty of Responsible Growth For Northcross' year-long tantrum has been the truth. Yes, you heard me. People all over the city now believe varying combinations of the following absolutely incorrect, but truthy, narratives.

  1. "Anderson Lane is some kind of pedestrian utopia which Wal-Mart will make worse". This just came up yesterday, which is why it's at the top of my list. BAD FORM, TERRA TOYS. You know damn well that your location on South Congress was ped-friendly, but your strip mall on Anderson Lane? Even a standard-model suburban Wal-Mart would be no worse for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users than the awful strip malls lining both sides of Burnet Road and Anderson Lane.
  2. "Northcross Mall is in the middle of a neighborhood!" - talk about defining down to irrelevance. Notice from the map at the link that neighborhoods are actually buffered from Northcross by those aforementioned awful strip malls in most directions. The Wal-Mart in my hometown (Boca Raton, FL) directly abuts single-family homes, for comparison's sake. Which leads us into:
  3. "Big boxes belong on frontage roads!" This one had some legs - even our city council fell for it. Sadly, xenophobia in Texas prevents people from seeing how ridiculous this is - in other states, frontage roads don't exist, but it's also not true to then fall back to "well, they must be right next to the highway exits, then". I spent an hour of my life I'll never get back proving otherwise to some willfully deluded souls in Allandale, but again, refer to the two Wal-Marts closest to Boca Raton - neither one of which is remotely near a highway off-ramp (Delray Beach example); and the one in State College, PA; on a road very very similar to Burnet Road (four lane with center-turn lane; quite far from off-ramp of the real highway). And they SHOULDN'T be on frontage roads, either - you're dooming their workers and customers to perpetual car-dependence if you put them out there where they don't belong.
  4. "All we were doing was trying to get a public process, man!" (read with Tommy Chong voice for extra effect). The whole point of the zoning code is to establish a set of permissible actions which don't have to go through the public process - and don't forget the cry of this same bunch whenever a developer requests upzoning or a variance: "you knew what the zoning was when you bought the property". Well, Lincoln knew what the zoning was when they bought the property, and it unquestionably allowed for exactly this kind of development. Nobody in these neighborhoods cared to do anything about it for years and years when Wal-Mart wasn't the prospective tenant, of course. Which leads us to:
  5. "We just wanted urban VMU development!" - if you bought this, you're dumber than a bag full of hammers. The motivating force behind RG4N was primarily the anti-density brigade - the people who opposed VMU everywhere else in Allandale when asked nicely; the people who fought apartments for years and years and years; the people who pushed McMansion so hard. So now we're to believe that, just coincidentally, they changed their stripes and are now urbanists precisely at the time Wal-Mart came knocking? If so, they'd know that new urbanists would welcome big boxes - as long as they're built pedestrian-friendly - no matter HOW big. Like Harrod's in London or Macy's in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Granted, Wal-Mart doesn't have their cachet, but neither does Allandale.
  6. The city council wanted Wal-Mart all along. Uh, NO. City council members were trying desperately to find an angle to give you (RG4N) what you wanted - and ran straight into the brick wall of fact: the development had to be allowed, period.

That's an incomplete list. Suggestions welcome, and I'll update in later postings.

Your pal,
M1EK

December 22, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part one

Now that RG4N has struck out, it's time to assess the damage. RG4N is interpreting the judge's decision not to comment on three of their four complaints as evidence that they were valid which is spectacularly delusional. Good show, folks. Thanks to the Chronicle for, even now, supporting RG4N's desperate attempt to spin this as something other than a complete truth-slap. Hint: it's not "curious" she didn't address the "other claims"; it was predicted by a real lawyer quite some time ago.

I'm going to cover this in two or more parts; today's is just a conservative estimate of the direct and immediate costs and what we might have otherwise done with that time and money.

The city's legal costs are oft-quoted at $424,000. This is at least the contract with Casey Dobson. I'm going to be extremely conservative and round up the city's direct costs to $600,000, including other legal costs, the time and money spent responding repeatedly to RG4N's complaints (and to city council members who were desperately trying to find an angle to work).

Other direct and short-term costs I could have considered, but didn't:

Lost sales taxes: I'll be completely conservative and assume that every single dollar of sales tax we don't get from six months or so of delayed opening would have just been shifted from other Wal-Marts or other stores in the city. I don't believe this to be the case; if it were that simple, Wal-Mart wouldn't be so eager to build the store. More likely would be a shifting of the natural coverage area of each store - with stores on the edge of Austin becoming less crowded and hence more attractive to shoppers further out, but this is hypothetical and impossible to measure. Easier to believe but still harder to measure would be the lost tax revenue from other businesses in the center which don't have easily subsitutable competition - for instance, a delay in the move of the ice rink.

Lost property taxes - despite what you hear from RG4N trolls on the Chronicle's blog, there is a property tax impact to this development - the land value may increase, or it may not, but I guarantee the structure value will increase dramatically - and the city gets to tax that building value (as does the school district, county, etc.). Impossible to estimate now precisely what that will be, but common sense would tell you that it will be substantial enough to consider as a major benefit of the redevelopment given that the structure value of the existing ghost-mall is measured at just south of 16 million.

Lost bus fares: I'm 1000% positive that the opening of this store will result in a major bump in ridership to and through the Northcross transfer center, which gives Capital Metro more fare revenue with zero extra cost (since they probably wouldn't increase service until the buses were overflowing, given their past history). But again, hypothetical and impossible to estimate.

So let's leave the direct and short-term cost at a mere $600,000 (the cost to the taxpayers; RG4N and the careening-towards-bankruptcy Allandale Neighborhood Association have their own set of costs, of course).

What could we have done with that money? Well, me, I'm a transportation guy. So I'll give you two simple transportation options, and another one dear to my heart. Y'all are welcome to chime in as well.

12,000 linear feet of sidewalk at $50/linear foot. (Estimate obtained from a wide range of sources on the web; corrections welcome). That's two and a quarter miles of sidewalk, folks, enough to cover a big chunk of the sidewalk gap in the densest parts of Central Austin (where the pedestrians actually are).

Restriping Shoal Creek Boulevard into the safe, sane design that every other city would have done - and in fact, recommended to us. Just read those archives. And the same people who cost us the $600K this time are the ones who cost us the million on SCB in the first place, don't forget. Parking on both sides instead of just one was just that much more important than cyclist safety.

Operate a branch library for a year. Every time we go through a hiccup in the budget, we have to close libraries or delay their opening. I can't get a breakdown precisely from the city budget after ten minutes of scrutiny, but I'm betting one of the branches could run for a year on that much money (operating expenses).

So there's three. Anybody else have any suggestions? Of course, none of these were as important as catering to the tantrum of a bunch of people who just really really really REALLY don't like Wal-Mart, and want us to engage the Care Bear Stare against the legal system.

Next up: the indirect and long-term costs (such as foregone opportunities to improve the site plan with the supercenter intact).

December 06, 2007

TWITC: Krusee's change of heart

A fairly good article this time about Krusee seeing the light on new urbanism and stepping down. I'm honestly not sure how much I believe, which is a huge step up for me on this guy, actually. Here's some interesting quotes:

"It's an article of faith for Democrats that the sales tax is regressive. The gas tax is much, much more regressive. The gas tax is, literally, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class – to the upper-middle class."

That's not some blogging transit activist or Green Partier speaking on the inequitable burdens of highway costs. It's District 52 state Rep. Mike Krusee, who's currently best known – for better and worse – as the legislative face of Texas toll roads.

Gosh, I wonder if anybody else has been talking about that for years now. Couldn't be, huh? I presume the "transit blogger" might be me, given that every other blogger in the universe has swallowed Costello's tripe "TOLLS BAD. HURRRR."

As for the rail issue:

There are those who say his successful advocacy of suburban commuter rail instead of the light-rail lines initially proposed clumsily destroyed the possibility of effective Downtown mass transit for another decade – and that instead, we'll be trying to retrofit a system conceived for the very suburban sprawl it's supposed to replace. But as Mike Clark-Madison wrote here, about a year after Krusee was having his New Urbanism epiphany, "It's also pretty obvious that the only way Austin will ever have rail transit is if we start with a commuter system serving western suburbanites" ("Austin @ Large," April 9, 2004).

It's too late, Mike. The first quote is right - we're screwed; but Michael King is as wrong now as Mike Clark-Madison was then; there is literally no way to start with this commuter rail line and end up with a system which both suburbanites and urbanites can ride and get some benefit from. Even a transfer from "good rail" to "good rail" (both running in their own right-of-way) is enough to turn off essentially all suburban commuters not currently taking the bus, unless we reach Manhattan levels of density and parking costs (which we never will). And that presumes that we're somehow able to surpass tremendous obstacles and get a light rail stub built down Lamar and Guadalupe, which I doubt very much that we can (now that we wasted all our money on "urban" commuter rail that serves the suburbs poorly and the urban area not at all).

My comments posted there (some repetition of the above):

I can't believe Krusee gets it about inner-city drivers. That makes precisely ONE politician that does.

Of course, that doesn't make the gas tax regressive by itself - it's the fact that we pay for so many of our roads (even parts of our state highways) with even more regressive taxes (property and sales) which do the trick.

As for the rail thing - Krusee has destroyed it here, forever. You can't start with commuter rail and end up with something good - suburban passengers won't transfer from one train to another train (even if by some miracle we GOT a second train running down Guadalupe in its own lane) to get to work until we're reaching Manhattan levels of density. He doomed us to the point where we have to abandon transit to the suburbs, even though we spent all of our money building it. Good show.

November 29, 2007

TWITC: Sad confirmation on local retailers and parking

This story is kind of sad, but also a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. I've expressed in other forums (comments, mostly) that local businesses around here have sadly not been prepared to adapt to a more urban environment - ref among others the locally-owned businesses around Northcross in pedestrian-hostile parking-loving strip centers protesting against a slightly-more-urban and slightly-less-hostile-to-pedestrians Northcross redesign, and don't forget Karen McGraw's shenanigans in Hyde Park. And now, from 2nd street:

Speaking confidentially, other tenants are concerned that there's no interest in keeping them in business and that the lack of parking in the area makes life as a retailer virtually impossible.

(Of course, an anonymous commenter has already said that they think shopowners/employees were hogging the few curbside spaces that existed - hard to verify, but wouldn't surprise me). The idea that you can't have retail without free nearby parking is a suburban mindset - which is the most clear indication that these people weren't prepared for urban retail.

Here's a clue: Don't move downtown if you can't figure out a way to attract customers who arrive by any means other than the private automobile parked right in front of your store. Sadly, there are a lot of national retailers who DO know how to do this - and we're probably better off with a pedestrian-oriented national business than a local business that doesn't know how to play in an urban center. That's going to result in a lot of backlash from the paleoliberals, and I won't be thrilled either, but I don't see any other way forward.

This might get worse before it gets better - transit ACCESS downtown is good, but competitiveness is poor, unless you have to pay to park. People who have free parking at their offices in the suburbs aren't going to enjoy paying to park to shop - so again, these businesses need to not rely on that type of customer to survive, but the other type of customer - the local (urban) resident - may not exist in large enough numbers (yet) to make up for a retailer that doesn't have a lot of experience marketing to those urbanites.

November 26, 2007

Good News, Bad News

"CAMPO wresting rail planning from Capital Metro" is the headline. Sounds good to me - Wynn and Watson in charge means smarter rail than Capital Metro's stupid useless stuck-in-traffic streetcar plan. Right?

But who else is going to be in charge here? Let's see:

The 14-member group will be led by Austin Mayor Will Wynn and will include among others McCracken, Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson (who had a whole lot to do with creating the group after Wynn called for something similar last month), Williamson County state Rep. Mike Krusee, Travis County Commissioner and Capital Metro critic emeritus Gerald Daugherty, and representatives of the University of Texas and road and rail advocacy groups.

Yes, that's the same Mike Krusee that got us into this mess in the first place - the asshat who screwed Austin out of a good starter rail line like Houston and Dallas and everybody else built. That Mike Krusee. The guy who derailed efforts to build good rail for Austin so his constituents (most of whom don't even pay Capital Metro taxes) could get more transit investments than the residents of central Austin who pay most of the bills.

Shit. We're screwed.

Note that even if Krusee wasn't involved, the implementation of commuter rail has now precluded anything like 2000's light rail line from being built and that's about the only light rail line worth trying around here. In other words, the damage has already been done - we can't recover the 2000 route now. But still - having him (and even Daugherty) involved is the death knell for even a mediocre effort at urban transit - as neither one is likely to support investing enough money in reserved guideway transit in the city core. To them, every dollar spent on the dirty hippies in Central Austin is a wasted dollar that should instead be spent ferrying some SUV-driving soccer mom from one strip mall to another.

If Krusee had just kept his mouth shut in 2000, we'd have had a light rail election in May of 2001, and it likely would have passed. By now, you'd be seeing trains running in their own lane down Guadalupe right in front of UT, and down Congress Avenue right in front of all those big office buildings. Instead, we're seeing test runs of a useless commuter line running out by Airport Boulevard that nobody will actually ride. That's what he got us last time. Imagine what he can do for an encore!

November 23, 2007

The legal system should not be subject to the Care Bear Stare

As DSK notes, this isn't incredibly clear on first reading, so here's a new lead-in:

I forgot to crackplog about this when it happened: a "remodel" of a property with a duplex on it on 34th was the subject of a lawsuit filed by some of the leadership of my neighborhood association which went down in flames, since the property owner clearly satisfied the legal requirements in the zoning code (although those requirements were indeed very vague and very generous). News 8 has given the complaining neighbor some pity press (was in first link but not obvious), and I was reminded to talk about it. Here we go!

This new kind of awful seems to be cropping up a lot lately - the tendency for people who ought to know better to insist that the legal system is broken if it doesn't give them outcomes they like - in other words, since we care enough to shine our rainbows on the problem (Julian Sanchez), that ought to be enough to solve it. But the legal system doesn't operate in the world of democracy; it operates in the world where the law means something, and in this case, my idiot neighbors wasted a bunch of money on a lawsuit that was clearly doomed to failure.

In other words, even though I, personally, think that these new duplexes are actually a lot nicer for the neighborhood than the old ones (described by a more moderate person than I as "red shacks from Somalia"), and that my neighbors are just plain bad people for wanting to keep out slightly-more-affordable housing than the single-family-classic-mansions that infest that side of Speedway (34th being the dividing line on that side between historically rich mansion stuff and more modest development), it's irrelevant: in this case, the law is clear, and what's more, was clear before they bothered to file the suit. If some neighbor was building a garage apartment on a 6000 square foot lot, an action which is consistent with my preferences but against the city code since our neighborhood plan prohibits it, I'd likewise think anybody who filed a suit to do it was stupid. Still left undetermined is how much of this frivolous lawsuit's cost my neighborhood association will ultimately bear - since the leadership is overwhelmingly from that side of Speedway and on the wrong side of so many other development issues, I expect them to eventually donate some funds. Ha ha, DSK, I never joined, so it won't be my money, at least!

Are you listening, Chronicle?

November 15, 2007

TWITC: RG4N are our heroes!

Michael King writes that we should support RG4N even though their case is utterly without merit as even their news staff is beginning to discover, months too late. Here's a comment I just placed there:

Michael, this is ridiculous. Zoning means something - in this case, it means that Lincoln bought the property knowing what they should be allowed to develop (and what they should not be allowed to develop). If they were up there asking for variances or even a change in zoning, RG4N and the rest of you guys would have a point, but they're not, and you don't.

When it comes to cases where developers seek upzoning, many of these same people are very quick to tell you that the prospective developer should have known what they were getting when they bought the tract. Interesting how this doesn't apply here. Also interesting how none of the RG4N homeowners are volunteering to let Lincoln have veto power over their own development projects within current zoning. Democracy for me, not thee.

As for the comparison to the Triangle - the bulk of RG4N's supporters are using the group as 'useful idiots' here - they have shown through their actions on other projects (including very recently) that they have no interest at all in dense urban development - they want to preserve low-density stuff they already have.

A critical eye once in a while, even at your fellow travellers, would seem to me to be a basic responsibility for a journalist.

One point I should have added but forgot: this lawsuit, in which the city has to defend its legal responsibility to approve site plans that comply with city code, is costing Austin taxpayers a half-million or so at last count. Still think RG4N is so noble?

A second point I just remembered: the Triangle development was such a big fight because the state (leasing the land to the developer) is exempt from Austin zoning codes.

November 14, 2007

RG4N drainage argument: ridiculous

As reported at the Chronicle's blog:

The argument made by Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) this morning is that the city's approval of Lincoln Property's site plan violated the note, which mandates that "Rainfall runoff shall be held to the amount existing at undeveloped status by use of ponding or other approved methods." The city – with testimony from city engineers Benny Ho and Jose Guerrero – countered that "undeveloped status" means status at the time the application is filed, not a reversion to the status of when the property was a green pasture. Attorney Casey Dobson, representing the city, said "To use a legal term, that [would be] silly." Guerrero further testified that the law only requires that a project not make flooding worse, and that Lincoln's site plan will actually reduce impervious cover and presumable send less floodwater off-site.

In other words, the Wal-Mart plan is demonstrably better for drainage than current conditions but RG4N claims code should be interpreted as if a project must (not just can, but MUST) be rejected by city staff if it adds more runoff than the completely undeveloped state would have. Also keep in mind that the RG4N 'vision' would also be an improvement over current conditions, but most definitely not over the undeveloped prairie that was there seventy years ago.

If you ever needed proof that RG4N's legal strategy was the old "throw excrement on the wall and see what sticks" method, here it is. And if there were any justice in the world, the judge would call RG4N forward and issue this speech.

As my cow orker DSK pointed out a moment ago, though, it would almost be worth yielding on this point if the judge put similar conditions on the homeowners of Allandale and Crestview.

November 12, 2007

Rail update

I'm now upgrading my position to cautious pessimism (from complete horror) after a nice exchange of email with Councilmember McCracken. As I said in my initial post a week or two ago, the early media coverage made it sound like the project would just be an extension of Capital Metro's awful circulator route (which avoids most places people want to go, and services, albeit poorly, commuter rail passengers to the exclusion of the central Austinites for whom it was originally promised).

McCracken wrote back late last week, saying he had missed the email originally. Since my email only talked about reserved guideway, that's all he addressed at first - and he indicated he'd be pushing strongly for reserved guideway whereever possible, agreeing with my opinion that Capital Metro is underplaying the liabilities of running in shared lanes. So far so good. I wrote him back asking about my route questions raised by my second run through the media coverage, and he also indicated he favors a Guadalupe route up to the Triangle, pointing out that the #1/#101 are the most ridden buses we've got, proving a strong demand for transit in the corridor even today, even with bad bus service as the only option.

Sounds good, right? Well, to be realistic, it was going to be hard to get reserved guideway on Guadalupe past UT even with true light rail and with the Feds paying half to 80% of the bill. If we're funding most to all of this system ourselves, as I suspect we are, I think it will be difficult to get an exclusive lane near UT, which, unfortunately, is the place where it would be most needed. Also, the talk about running in reserved guideway alongside Riverside seems unworkable - I paid close attention during Friday's transit field trip, and didn't see enough space to get this done, unless there's something else I'm missing, like narrowing existing lanes.

So, mark me as guardedly pessimistic. I'll be rooting that McCracken can pull this off - I have not heard similarly educated stuff from any other council member, so he's the only hope here. I think Wynn believes in the streetcar fairy dust (the idea that streetcar running in shared lane will attract a lot more daily commuters than bus). Keep your eye on the ball.

Council announcements

Not sure if it's a typo, but Robin Cravey, who I could support with reservations (given Zilker activities), and Laura Morrison, who I absolutely could not, given her destruction of the political capital of OWANA that the previous leadership worked so hard to build, and of course, years of ANC shenanigans culminating in the McMansion and VMU opt-out spasm, have apparently both just announced for Place 4, and are both using Threadgills for their petition kickoffs, albeit on adjoining days.

Please, every reader of this blog, if it turns out they're running against each other, remember: we can't afford to have a neighborhood-pandering obstructionist sitting at the Council.

I don't have a site for Morrison's campaign (email didn't have a link), but oddly enough, the current ANC president (Danette Chimenti, who like Morrison is a McMansion activist with a big honkin' expensive house) used these words to endorse her:

Laura did so much for ANC in her two years as President; by reaching out to neighborhoods and leaders all over Austin, and providing unifying, informed leadership she is responsible for ANC achieving the high level of respectability and credibility it has today.

which is amazing, given the ANC's recent record of striking out on essentially everything except McMansion and CWS. The current city council, at least, clearly has far less respect for the ANC than they did even a couple of years ago. I don't know if Chimenti actually expects us to believe this, but it's laughable.

November 09, 2007

TFT: Southeast Austin

Councilmember McCracken wrote back to my email referenced in the last post and said some things which made me more optimistic again, which I will cover in my next crackplog, but probably not until Monday. In the meantime, here's something I wrote up today on the #27 bus (transit field trip time!)

Short one today - my company was having a rare physical meeting at Ventana del Soul, a non-profit with some meeting rooms. (Well, actually, only three of the five locals, and one non-local; most of the company is still in Virginia). Took the #7 down in order to leave the car with my wife. Google Transit trip indicates 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by car in traffic (highly optimistic; more like 30).

I waited about ten minutes for the #7 at or about 8:30 AM; just missed one apparently. When my bus arrived, every seat was full, and there were 10-15 people standing. We picked up one more person before entering the UT area, in which the bus rapidly disgorged - I was able to get a seat when we crossed Dean Keaton, and by the time we hit MLK, nobody was standing and about half the seats were full. Continued on through downtown, people getting on and off (more on than off), and then as the #27 down Riverside through near-in southeast Austin. A few more people got on, but the bus was never completely full; when I disembarked at my stop, there were about 15-20 riders remaining.

So, summary, from 37th to UT, every seat full; 10-15 straphangers. Dropped off about 2/3 of those people at UT, but more got on downtown, and through Riverside about 3/4 of seats were full.

On the way home, I waited about three minutes for the #27 at Burton and Riverside while I was talking with a billing rep at a medical office. The bus actually came while I was still on the phone - and I accidentally tried to board with a soda (oops). Almost every seat was full - I estimate 20 to 25 passengers; but several got off at the next stop and I was able to move to the back next to the window. Picked up a lot more people along East Riverside. Summary: From my stop on Oltorf to downtown, average 3/4 to all seats full; dropped off about half downtown; then about half full to my stop at 33rd.

Hard to believe, but this bus was actually more full than most of my rides on the #3 back when I reverse-commuted in the mornings once or twice a week to Netbotz.

October 25, 2007

Early reaction to Mayor Wynn's rail proposal

Doing this really fast since I'm working outside and almost out of power, but wanted to get this out today.

5:45 Update: I got suckered, folks. I wanted to believe this was different, but after re-reading the Chronicle and Statesman coverage, it's clear that this is nothing more than Capital Metro's circulator route with the spur to the Triangle built in the first phase - meaning it doesn't go down Guadalupe where all the people are and where they all work, it doesn't go by West Campus, where all of the future non-downtown density is apparently headed, and it doesn't go by Hyde Park or North University, where all the people who wanted rail in the first place actually are. Instead, it runs through the part of east Austin already 'served' by commuter rail and which is violently opposed to more density - and to Mueller, whose modest density is already assured, with or without streetcar, and "to the Triangle", although anybody who would take this from the Triangle to downtown is a certifiable moron, since it would be several miles out of their way through Mueller and East Austin rather than straight down Guadalupe. Fuck. See, shilli? Even M1EK can be naively optimistic.

4:45 Update: God, I hope I'm wrong, but after reading some additional laughably wrong coverage ("commuter rail election" from fox7, for instance), I'm getting the feeling that the route "to the Triangle" might actually just be completing the upper part of the question-mark from the circulator study's route, meaning it would run out to Mueller, then up to 51st, then back across I-35 to the Triangle that way, meaning we miss the best part of UT, West Campus, Hyde Park, etc. If that's the case, ignore everything good I wrote below and go back to the "oh, my god, this will suck goat ass" position.

Now, back to the original 4:15 reaction:

First, thank god he's finally doing SOMETHING. It would have helped more if he had done it in 2004, of course.

Second, there's more questions than answers here, and very little I can say definitively. Neither Wynn nor McCracken or their aides e-mailed me back (in McCracken's case, I didn't expect anything since he was reportedly pissed at my past interference with one of his attempts at pandering, and Wynn's might just be too busy or might likewise hate me, but it's hard to wait any longer).

Third, the emphasis on "doing it ourselves, since Capital Metro wants to let Mike Krusee screw us" SURE SOUNDS FAMILIAR, IF ONLY FOUR YEARS TOO LATE. Still, better late than never.

I will try to follow up on some new terms and questions in this post tomorrow, such as "Rapid Streetcar" and exploring the 2000 LRT route to the airport.

Coverage round-up:

  • Austinist (mostly good)
  • Austin Chronicle (not much here due to their publishing schedule)
  • Statesman - the most stuff, but come on, guys, I don't want to hear from Daugherty. Also, guys, it's not going to be DMUs from the commuter rail line, they can't turn corners tightly enough to be used in-town.
  • News 8 Austin - as I exclaimed to DSK, I don't know whether to applaud or boo the language involving light rail and resurrection. But they did mention that this is completely separate from commuter rail - far more accurate than I expect from these guys. Dammit, if I had any confidence in their description of this as basically "let's do 2000 now", I'd be tapdancing all over the backyard right now (from where I'm composing this). Look at the 2000 picture they dug out of the archives, which would be running by now if Mike Krusee hadn't kicked Austin in the balls, although probably down the middle of Guadalupe rather than on the edge as this early mockup showed.


What do we know so far? Very little. Some kind of rail being proposed for generally the part of town that needs it (nobody wants to be on Airport Boulevard). Connecting to, but not running on, commuter rail. Some indications that McCracken and Wynn are thinking about some reserved guideway rather than just going along with the magical streetcar fairydust approach that thinks running in shared traffic doesn't suck.

Vehicle/Technology: Streetcar or light rail. Sigh. Much confusion and conflation here, from News 8 probably not being able to tell the difference to Gerald Daugherty wanting to tar light rail with the same brush as streetcar to the councilmembers just not being able to commit. Statesman mentions DMU, but there's no way. These things are way too porky - the only way one even ran through the city in New Jersey on the other commuter line Lyndon Henry and his band of serial confusimicators like to call light rail was to cut corners through city blocks (workable in New Jersey since their downtowns, uh, don't have anything going on, to be charitable.

Route: They're talking about Triangle to UT to Capitol to downtown to the airport. This probably means the 2000 LRT route, which probably means no reserved guideway since it was a tough sell even with long and frequently running LRT vehicles. We're not going to be able to afford to give up 2 of 4 lanes on Guadalupe for vehicles the size of streetcars. Could be on Congress in the downtown stretch, in which you could bet against reserved guideway, or on one of the parallel streets, in which reserved guideway (or maybe just shared with buses) might be feasible. On Riverside, some talk of running off the side of the road so as to not take up lanes. As weird as this sounds, this is the best piece of news out of the plan, because it means that McCracken and Wynn at least understand that running streetcar purely in shared traffic lanes is a complete waste of money. Unfortunately, the one street they talk about doing this on is the one street where it's not really needed. Baby steps. My desperate hope is that this talk means they're comparing Riverside to other streets where they'd have to give up car lanes, not that they mean that they'd run in a shared lane on the other streets. Going to the airport is a new touch (was in eventual expansion plans in 2000).

Funding: Talking about using city money. Interesting wrinkle is using airport money for part of this. Federal funding mentioned, but I find it unlikely in the near term (give the Democrats a few years to reverse the past 8 years of disaster at the FTA, first). This line hits all the urban parts of town but doesn't grab the suburban park-and-rides. The Feds loved the 2000 plan because it hit both. They would have hated the 2004 commuter plan for skipping one, and they'd probably hate the 2008 plan for skipping the other one, unless this is substantially cheaper than I expect it to be. ("Rapid Streetcar" possible way around this?)

Operations: Getting Capital Metro out of the way for construction and funding: a good idea. Getting them involved in operations? A bad idea. We can't afford to subsidize suburbanites any more with this thing - if anything we should be treating this as an opportunity to build and operate our own rail system and grab back 1 of the 3 quarter-cents we give to Capital Metro in the process. 1/2 a cent is enough for bus needs, and Leander ought to be funding commuter rail themselves (maybe Cedar Park and Mike Krusee can kick in for the free-riders).

Conclusions: None, really. If they just try to build stuck-in-traffic streetcar, well, it'll be better than what Capital Metro wanted to build, since it'll run on the end of UT actually worth going to, and will run up past Hyde Park and the Triangle, and a few travellers to the airport will find it nominally more attractive than the #100. So, worst-case build scenario, we're better off than Cap Metro's awful circulator. Best-case? Probably some variant of light rail or "Rapid Streetcar". I can't see any possibility for reserved guideway where it would be needed the most - on Guadalupe between MLK and 29th - but if there's reserved guideway downtown, it'd be a lot better than what we could otherwise expect. Still, compared to 2000's light rail, this won't be worth much, but it's better than nothing. Stay tuned.

October 24, 2007

Gluten-free eating in Austin

Having gotten to eat many of her desserts thanks to the brother-in-law privilege, I can vouch for her delicious recipes and now she's on the front of the Life section of the Statesman in a big article on gluten-free cooking and eating in Austin. Congrats, Karen.

Commuter rail train arrives; raises M1EK's blood pressure

Since the delivery of the new rail cars have spurred a few "god dammit it's NOT LIGHT RAIL" responses from me, and since I typed something like the following up for Ben Wear's blog and am not sure it went through, here's a quick refresher on three major problems with this commuter rail line:

1. It does not primarily serve Austin residents. Leander residents deserve some service, because they pay some Capital Metro taxes, but the second best-served population for this line is actually Cedar Park, who pays absolutely nothing (it's considerably more feasible for the average Cedar Park resident to just drive down the road a bit to the NW Austin Park-and-ride and ride the train than it is for 90% of Austin residents to ride this train at all). Most of the Austin stations don't have parking, but are also not located in areas where a non-trivial number of people could walk to the stations (unlike the 2000 light rail line, which ran within walking distance of a few of the densest neighborhoods in the city).

2. It relies on shuttle buses for passenger distribution. No, you won't be walking to work, not even if you work downtown, unless you're even more of a stubborn cuss than M1EK is. The rule of thumb for transit agencies is 1/4 mile, that being, if their office is within a quarter-mile of the train station, most people would be willing to walk. The Convention Center station is a bit more than a quarter-mile from the closest major office building and more like 1/2 to 3/4 mile away from most downtown offices. And UT and the Capitol are much farther away than that from their purported station. Why is this a problem? Since anybody who wants to ride this thing is going to have to take shuttle buses, we're relying on the theory that people who aren't willing to ride the excellent express buses straight to their offices at UT, the Capitol, or downtown will somehow become major fans of buses when they are forced to transfer to one at the train station.

3. Yes, you have to builld one line in order to build a system - but in this case, the line we're building prevents us from ever building a good system. lt precludes the only realistically feasible light rail line from being built, and even if it didn't, the political blowback from "let's ride and then decide" would knock us dead once it becomes clear that Ben Wear and I were telling the truth when we said Capital Metro is only planning for something like 1500 riders per day. And no, Virginia, streetcar won't help one bit - it's still a daily transfer from a good mode - reserved-guideway fast rail transit - to a bad mode - stuck-in-traffic slow rail transit which is no better than stuck-in-traffic slow shuttlebus.

Think this is just a broken-record? When the initial impulse of writers who generally have clues is still to call this light rail and when people get unreasonably optimistic without thinking about where the stations actually are, my work continues to be necessary. Sorry, folks.

October 19, 2007

Why don't progressives get it about panhandling?

From two comments I just made on this posting at Burnt Orange Report:

1. The people who really need (and want) help are getting it, perhaps less than we would like, but not at street corners. The guys at street corners are what we used to call 'bums' - if you actually offer to give them work or food, they will inevitably decline; and if you give them money, you can win on 10-1 odds that their next stop is the liquor store.

2. If you want an economically healthy city, you absolutely cannot tolerate normal citizens being harassed by panhandlers. And a healthy city helps the people who really need the help a lot more than the donut-hole-wasteland that results from an unhealthy city. Try convincing a fence-sitting business' CEO to move downtown when his employees and clients have to dodge panhandlers.

This marriage of self-identified progressives and bums has got to stop. It tempts guys like me to vote Republican.

By healthy city, I mean that if businesses move to Round Rock because Austin is the panhandler-ridden cesspool that some of you seem to prefer, the city of Austin has fewer tax funds to spend on helping the people who really want and need the help. And I guarantee you Round Rock isn't going to pick up the slack.

This kind of wooly-headed thinking by self-identified progressives has bothered me ever since I saw the first (but not the last, by far) local TV expose of what panhandlers really do with your donations of money (or in some cases food) and what they do when you offer them work. Folks, the people who need your help are in shelters and soup kitchens. The guys on the corner are hustlers who can simply make a better living by fleecing unsuspecting drivers than by honestly working.

It's as if these people can't possibly conceive that guys holding up signs at street corners could possibly be dishonest. GMAFB - if Congress can get lied to in order to drag us into an ill-advised war of choice, as I'm sure all of these folks believe (as I do!), then you really think a bum on the corner won't lie to you too, to get some beer without having to work?

There are lots of reasons to vote against Jennifer Kim. But this one is just stupid - Kim is, whether for purposes of getting elected or actually being responsible, doing the right thing this time.

October 16, 2007

Clue: "On a bus route" is not remotely the same as "downtown near dozens of bus routes".

The Statesman reports that the ACLU and LULAC have complained about the location of the new municipal court. They're exactly right. The idea that Capital Metro is going to move any non-trivial bus routes is, as it was with the new library location, wishful thinking from suburban drivers who have no idea how much transit agencies rightfully loathe the idea of introducing a little jog into any long and heavily used bus route.

A bus line runs next to the St. Johns site, and the city will work with Capital Metro if other routes need to be added, McDonald said.

Sure, they will. They'll ask Capital Metro, and Capital Metro will dutifully say "we'll look into it", and then they'll do nothing, because diverting one of the useful north/south routes all the way over to I-35 would lose a big chunk of their existing riders, and starting a new route just for the court would be a disaster.

MJ Kellogg also covered this at Metroblogging Austin a few days back. Sorry I missed linking from here.

I'm especially disappointed in councilmember Cole - I would expect her to know better than to claim that being next to a couple of the crosstown bus routes (which are execrable - slow and low-frequency) on St. John's is enough to get the transit-dependent to court. We're talking multiple transfers to get there for most people - while the downtown location requires only one bus ride for a large number of the transit-dependent, and is served with high frequency.

Existing location here, thanks to Google transit. Click on the little bus icons to see what routes are within a few blocks of the court. Hint: low numbers mean frequent service. Now try the new location. Click on the little buses. Notice how all the route are in the 300 range? That means they run infrequently, and don't go downtown.

Ben Wear is now blogging

Short Cuts is Ben Wear's new blog at the Statesman. I'm trying to present the progressive and/or educated viewpoint in comments, but there's also a fairly high population of car-only Neanderthals. And Sal Costello, which is, of course, worse. Please go on by and check it out.

October 11, 2007

TWITC: Save Town Lake Kills Town Lake Trail

Of course, the Chronicle plays this up as a win for the lake:

This would have allowed them to move their secondary setback line from the river forward 50 ft, and 130ft on East Bouldin Creek, pushing their proposed developments at 222 and 300 East Riverside much closer to the waterfront.

Once again, we see the writers at the Chronicle pretty much taking the ANC line hook, line, and sinker - without any qualification whatsoever. And:

it seems likely that CWS will withdraw to lick their wounds and come up with another plan.

but here's the money quotes, courtesy of the ABJ:

If the variance request remains denied, CWS plans to build two highrises -- one 200 feet, the other 120 feet -- and redevelop dozens of apartments that sit as close as 20 feet from the lake shore to sell them as townhomes. Those apartments pre-date the 200-foot rule.

So, who are you going to trust? The developer? The ANC? Well, I'd say at a bare minimum, a journalist ought to at least report what the developer says they're going to do. The ABJ did, but not the Chronicle.

My prediction: While there's a distant possibility CWS would re-re-negotiate, the most likely scenario now is that there's two rather than three towers on the site, and that the existing buildings right next to the water get rebuilt and sold as townhomes/condos. Remember - after the sales happen, any donation of parkland (even a foot next to the water) would require a vote of that condo association. Key here: there's nothing non-trivial left to negotiate. CWS was denied just about the smallest variance that was worth anything; there's nowhere to retreat to from here. And the rich folks in Travis Heights (using the rest of you as dupes) won the battle they really cared about: keeping their property values high and their views unobstructed.

Anyways, this is what you get by standing up behind the ANC and Laura Morrison, folks. Hope you enjoy jogging on the Riverside sidewalk.

Several commissioners referred to the vote as a lose-lose situation because CWS will still rebuild close to the lakeshore and the public will lose an extension of the hike-and-bike trail.

And, Planning Commission, shame on you. Going on the record as saying this is a lose-lose situation but then voting unanimously for the ANC position? WTF?

Additional coverage:

From that Austinist piece, in comments, "Scooby" says:

I see that the Austin Chronicle is a "Waterfall Sponsor" ($2,500 donated). I wonder if that includes the in-kind donation of slanted "news" coverage?

October 02, 2007

More North Loop shenanigans

Last night's vote went 79-78 against the variance request. Now, Clay at ILoveNorthLoop has gone off the deep end. Others have noticed his deleting of most pro-variance comments which he still claims were all from non-residents of the area. Here's one of those supposed out-of-state or bicycle-activist "non-resident" comments which he deleted (which I saved yesterday when I saw it):

I don’t understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howard’s. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is “don’t bother talking to us”. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

Sure sounds like an out-of-state bicycle activist rant to me. What, with the having gone to the meeting and casting of the vote. Amazing they were able to do that despite not being a resident, huh?

And in the meantime, he's gone exactly where you would expect; telling me to "Have fun pimping for Endeavor". Yeah, right after I get done pimping for Wal-Mart. And Lincoln Properties. And don't forget CWS. And, of course, CJB Partners. And don't forget all that pimpin' I do for the toll roads. Let me tell you, pimpin' ain't easy. What is it about these Neanderthals anyways that makes them think that any time anybody ever supports any change of any kind, they must be paid off? I certainly don't think everybody in RG4N is taking money from Target, for instance.

If, as it seems likely, the Northfield Neighborhood Association would not be happy with the implicit endorsement of this site's one-sided position despite the 79-78 vote, they should probably say so at this point, since Clay's got the public spotlight and is making it look like the neighborhood was strongly against the variance, thanks to deleting comments he just doesn't feel like posting. Just a little friendly advice.

October 01, 2007

Shenanigans in North Loop

(Background: Endeavor is proposing a vertical mixed-use project on the old Howard Nursery tract, frontage on Koenig Lane - i.e. FM2222, a major arterial roadway. Current zoning would allow strip retail with nothing more than administrative approval. Endeavor's proposal appears quite nice and is even supported by some folks in this neighborhood, but a group of single-family-uber-alles reactionaries has popped up and is trying to stir up opposition to the project).

The author of ILoveNorthLoop has characterized the comments below as "rants" in supporting his decision not to accept comments. (He previously was a bit more civil in email - claiming that he only wanted comments from 'stakeholders' -- although that requirement is listed nowhere on the site nor anywhere the site has been publicized). Anyways, you make the call. Follow the links to get to the articles; my comments in blockquote:

In reference to this post about a 'better location' for this type of project a bit further down the street:

The problem with this retort is that it pretends that we have the authority to take that “better-suited” parcel from its current owners and somehow deliver it to Endeavor for development. We don’t; we have to live in a world where the best choice if we were playing SimCity isn’t always available.

And in reference to this one called "Tell Us What You Think":

Anything that increases housing supply in an area well-served by bicycle routes and bus routes is a positive thing for our city. The fact that Endeavor also wants to make this VMU makes it even more of a win, because it potentially provides services which might induce more of you in the single-family homes to walk to shop/eat/whatever.

The idea that without Endeavor, you’re somehow going to end up with a paradise of small local shops with no homes there is just ludicrous. The next best use of the property would be as strip retail - which generates more, and more annoying, traffic than an apartment-plus-retail development would, without providing the pedestrian amenities.

Luckily, I now see that some people in the neighborhood have commented in a similar vein - so my earlier fear that this would be RG4N part deux, as austinpoliticalreport hoped appears to be overblown. As my former colleague Patrick Goetz tried to tell me, there are some responsible folks up there after all. Those responsible folks had better keep cracking, though, since the Chronicle will probably be jumping all over this in minutes to tell us how noble these neighbors are being in keeping that tract safe for future strip-mall development (one-story retail/fast food outlets surrounded by acres of parking lot).

Update:

The vote was 79-78 to oppose the variance. Note the following comment on ILoveNorthLoop from the celebratory post:

I don’t understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howard’s. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is “don’t bother talking to us”. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

The NA president himself indicated that some people want Endeavor to come back and talk some more, but I doubt very much whether anything good will result - since this promise they supposedly made to not pursue the project if the NA opposed the variance would likely come into play. Keep your eyes open.

Updated update: As DSK points out in comments, the comment quoted above has now been removed by the ILoveNorthLoop guy, despite his claim to only be removing comments from non-'stakeholders' (the comment is clearly from somebody in the neighborhood). One wonders why he just didn't make the site subject to manual moderation if he only wanted positive comments to stay.

September 27, 2007

TWITC: The Domain and The Bus

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.

Response:

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:








#Segment typeDestinationNotes
From Leander
1DriveTo park-and-rideNot realistic to pick up circulator buses on residential end in Leander
2WaitFor commuter rail trainRuns every 30 minutes during rush hour only for first N years, maybe as often as 15 minutes many years later
3TrainTo Kramer stationStation is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli
4BusFrom Kramer station to DomainProbably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic
5WalkFrom bus stop to destination(short walk)
From Central Austin
1WalkTo shuttle bus stopNo parking at the few stations closer in than Kramer, so only way there is bus
2WaitFor shuttlebusModerate to long wait. (Timing only guaranteed on train end).
3BusTo station (one of three)Slow, jerky, stuck-in-traffic ride
4WaitFor commuter rail trainRuns 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.
5TrainTo Kramer stationStation is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli
6BusFrom Kramer station to DomainProbably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic
7WalkFrom 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.

September 24, 2007

It IS time to raise fares, BUT

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:

  1. This fare increase is long overdue, especially for the door-to-door special transit stuff. Yes, I so went there. It costs like 60 cents to provide a ride which actually costs the taxpayers something like 20 or 30 bucks. But even the normal fares are too low (and, no, almost nobody rides the bus to save money on an individual trip - because the economics of that don't make sense, even when the bus ride is free).
  2. It's typical stupid PR by Capital Metro to be pushing this fare increase at precisely the time when it's most easy for the bus riders to complain about subsidizing suburban commuter rail passengers. Of course, I don't think there will be many of them, but it's still an incredibly dumb bit of timing.
  3. No, eliminating free transfers and Ozone Action Day free rides doesn't count as raising fares. Cut it out. Presumably, you had to take a round-trip, so even with that free transfer slip, you used to pay a buck, and you're paying a buck now; it's just costing CM a bit less in driver time.

M1EK's recommendations:

  1. The aforementioned STS hike (yes, disabled people should get more of a break than regular bus riders. If we expect a 25% farebox recovery on able-bodied people, then let's shoot for 10% for the disabled. Something has got to be done here, though - serving the disabled is not Capital Metro's only mission).
  2. STOP THE FREE RIDER PROBLEM. Even today, with nothing but express buses to serve them, many residents of Pflugerville and Cedar Park, who don't pay any Capital Metro taxes, get to ride the bus for the same price as the Austin and Leander residents who DO pay those taxes. My solution? Walk-up fares go up dramatically (to about 80% of estimated full cost - remainder covered by Federal subsidy). Residents of the service area can buy discounted single or multiple rides by showing proof of residency in the service area. You guys actually encouraged this by moving the old Pflugerville express bus stop to just inside the CM service area right next to where it used to be - CUT THIS SHIT OUT. We don't owe Pflugerville anything but contempt for refusing to fund transportation solutions. Likewise with this stupid Round Rock idea.
  3. Since you guys think this shitty commuter rail service is going to be a magical gold unicorn which poops out fairy rainbows, PROVE IT by charging double the express bus fare. This will take the wind out of the sails of the bus riders complaining that poor eastsiders will be subsidizing rich suburbanites.

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 typeCurrent fareTarget FRR for residentsResident fareNon-resident fare
Standard one-way bus fare$0.5025%$1.00$3.00
STS ride$0.6010%$2.00$15.00
Express bus one-way fare$1.0025%$2.00$6.00
Commuter rail one-way fareN/A40%$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.

Your pal,
M1EK

September 20, 2007

Austin drivers don't come close to paying their own way

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.

September 12, 2007

Round Rock screws Austin again

Quick hit:

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.

September 11, 2007

Why streetcars suck

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.

Pros:


  1. Low capital costs (very little facility investment; moderate vehicle investment)
  2. Slightly flexible (vastly oversold by Skaggs' band of Neanderthals; but at least it can change lanes to get around an accident and can be detoured around a festival).

Cons:

  1. Slow - even on the open road (no traffic), will always be a bit slower than an econobox. And in stop/go traffic, poor acceleration is magnified.
  2. Very unreliable - traffic is a big problem; and unlike in your car, you can't go over one block if you feel like it (this is where the libertarian anti-transit trolls go so far off reality by claiming "flexibility").
  3. High operating costs - relatively few passengers per driver, even on articulated buses.

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.

Pros:

  1. Reasonably fast - in similar conditions can accelerate or decelerate almost as well as a private automobile.
  2. Very Reliable - more so, even, than the private automobile. Blows buses out of the water. This is a very key metric - people will accept a slghtly slower AVERAGE commute if the worst-case is basically the same as the average.
  3. Low operating costs - very many passengers per driver, and electric drive is much cheaper than diesel.

Cons:

  1. High capital costs - requires infrastructure such as rails, electric wires, and expensive vehicles.

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:

  1. Low capital costs - Nope. Has almost all of the capital costs of light rail. Slightly cheaper vehicles, but you still need electrical wires and rails.
  2. Slightly flexible - Nope. Unlike that city bus, it can't even change lanes to get around a double-parked, stalled, or wrecked car. (Irrelevant for LRT since it has its own lane).

Pros from LRT:

  1. Fast - accelerates pretty well.
  2. Reliable - Nope. Just as unreliable as the city bus, if not worse (due to the flexibility liability).
  3. Low operating costs - Partial. Not much better than bus in passengers-per-driver; but electric drive still provides some cost savings.

Cons from buses:

  1. Slow - Win. Yes, streetcar can accelerate a bit better than buses, thanks, DSK. I submit this makes very little difference given:
  2. Very unreliable - Loss. As indicated above, streetcar is likely to be even less reliable than city bus on the same route.
  3. High operating costs - Partial. As indicated in pros section, somewhere in the middle.

Cons from LRT:

  1. High capital costs - Yup, as indicated above, streetcar's capital costs are practically as high as 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).

September 07, 2007

Difference between streetcar and bus

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.

ModeStuck in traffic?Detourable?Fast/slow?
Circulators as applied to commuter rail service
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow
Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow

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.

September 04, 2007

Rapid Bus slips to 2010

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?").

September 03, 2007

Capital Metro misses huge opportunity

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.

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.

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...

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.

August 01, 2007

Better than I could put it

Absent other options (and local bus is not an option) they will drive. That’s where rail comes in. We can build it, as some have suggested, in places where people don’t want to live right now in hopes that people will want to live there. Or we can build it where people already are, and where more people are coming, to take some of that load. We’ve learned from Main that people will ride rail if it goes where they want to go. We’ve also learned that dense development is most likely to occur in places that are already dense. Rail isn’t causing density — the density is coming anyway. Rail, done right, is a way to deal with the traffic that density brings.

Focus on this sentence:

We’ve also learned that dense development is most likely to occur in places that are already dense.

What parts of Austin are already dense? Why, the parts served by 2000's light rail proposal, and skipped by commuter rail (and streetcar). And, no, sorry, TOD won't make much of a difference.

We ignore lessons from other cities at our own peril.

July 20, 2007

Why I do it

This subject keeps coming up; and although I've explained it in bits and pieces in many crackplogs here, as well as in other forums, I've never put it all in one place before. But I'm also short on time, so I'll reuse most of a post I made today to the excellent SkyScraperPage forums and just expand a bit.

The immediate relevance is a somewhat petulant response from Michael King to my letter to the editor in the Chronicle next week. I suppose this means I'll be published, at least. The money quote:

we don't find it particularly useful to hold our breaths on transit questions until we turn blue (or bile green), nor particularly helpful to respond to every interim proposal with cheerless variations on "it's pointless and it won't work."

So, here it is: why it's important to keep bringing up that this thing won't work and WHY it won't work, and what WOULD have worked instead:

South Florida built almost exactly what we're going to build: a commuter rail line on existing tracks which is too far away from destinations people actually want to go to - so they have to transfer to shuttle buses for the final leg of their journey to work in the morning (and back from work in the evening). It has proved a miserable failure at attracting so-called "choice commuters", i.e., those who own a car but are considering leaving it at home today to take the train to work.

Here's how the experience has gone in the area:

  1. Start with a largely transit-friendly population (retirees from New York, for instance)

  2. In the mid-to-late 1980s, commuter rail gets built (requiring shuttle transfers).

  3. Everybody who says anything says "this is going to work; rail ALWAYS works!"

  4. Nobody but the transit-dependent rides it. ("we tried it and it didn't work").

  5. Ten years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here".

  6. In the meantime, a huge amount of money is spent double-tracking the corridor and increasing service; but still, essentially nobody who can choose to drive will ride the thing, because the three-seat ride (car, train, shuttle-bus) makes it so uncompetitive. (Remember that, like our rail line, it doesn't run through any dense residential areas where people might be tempted to walk to the station - all passengers arrive either by car or by bus).

  7. Fifteen years later, when people still don't ride, somebody reads about TOD and thinks "maybe that will help". Millions are spent trying to encourage developers to build residential density around the train stations to no avail (a bit unlike Austin in that here, all we need to do is allow more density and it will crop up by itself due to pent-up demand for living in that part of town). Nothing comes of this - because people don't want to pay extra to live next to a train station where they can hop a train to... a shuttle-bus.

  8. Twenty years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here" is still the primary response - but finally some people are starting to say "well, we built the wrong thing last time".

If there had been more people pointing out before, during, and after the system opened that a rail line which didn't go where the people wanted to go would be a failure, it might not have taken twenty years just to restart the rail conversation there.

I don't want it to take twenty years to restart the conversation here in Austin.

Don't believe it will happen? Remember: the pro-commuter-rail forces, before the election, were saying let's ride and then decide. People in South Florida rode. They decided. It didn't work. It has taken twenty years to even start seriously talking about building rail in the right places (along the FEC corridor, or light-rail in Fort Lauderdale). We can't afford twenty years here.

July 19, 2007

PS: Still not a crackpot

Posted to comments and as letter-to-editor in their new interface, but who knows if this new technology will work, so it's reposted here for your pleasure. The 2nd Hawaii report coming as soon as work calms down a bit.

Commuters will only switch to transit if they are delivered to their final destination – within a couple of blocks. Failing to provide that "last mile" transport can doom an entire regional rail system. If far-flung suburbanites hate the bus, and their offices are too far to walk from the last rail or rapid-bus stop, then they'll just keep driving, however long their commutes.

The part which was left out, in what's becoming a disturbing trend of analysis-free journalism at the Chronicle, is that choice commuters will also NOT accept transfers as part of their daily commute, unless we're talking about the Manhattan end of the scale where the transit alternative has the benefit of competing against 50-dollar parking.

Transfers from commuter rail to streetcar will not be any more attractive to daily commuters than transfers from commuter rail to shuttlebus - and choice commuters, as shown in South Florida with Tri-Rail, simply will not do the latter. Once you ride every day, the fact that the streetcar isn't any faster or more reliable than the bus was becomes very obvious.

It's time to remind people yet again: we did NOT decide to build what worked in Dallas, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake, Houston, and Minneapolis (light rail, or, what we would have built in 2000 and should have tried again in 2004). What we're building instead was what failed in South Florida - a transit alternative which is utterly non-competitive with the car and will continue to serve only the transit-dependent at an incredibly high cost, while derailing transit momentum for decades.

Mike Dahmus

Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

July 13, 2007

Panderama: Jennifer Kim

While I was up in Newark at a class for work, Jennifer Kim wrote a letter to the Statesman which is just plain awful. Since AC has promised (although not yet delivered, ahem!) a fisking of the Northcross lawsuit, it falls to me to perform this one; hat tip to DSK for the link.

I am deeply troubled by the outcome of the site plan approval for Northcross Mall. It's wrong and embarrassing when residents believe they must protect the community by suing the city.

Me fail English? That's unpossible! Seriously - what is she troubled by? The outcome of the approval? The approval itself? Doesn't really matter - the process followed the rule of law. As I've said many times, the city is not allowed to, nor should they seek to, deny approval for a project based on dislike of the particular tenant involved.

I have worked with Responsible Growth 4 Northcross to prevent this. Ideas ranged from a public-private partnership to build a community center or other public facility, to limiting the operating hours of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. However, we failed to gain the support of the City Council.

That's because RG4N staked out a position very early on that the presence of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter was non-negotiable. Hint: you don't negotiate with people who have said that your presence is unacceptable.

The area is full of pedestrian-oriented businesses and family-friendly neighborhoods.

Sure it is. Why, just look at this satellite photo of Anderson Lane. Looks like new urban nirvana to me! Ignore the fact that every strip mall has a parking lot in front. Ignore the fact that the sidewalks are out in broiling heat, far away from the buildings. Ignore the first rule of urbanism. They must be pedestrian-oriented, because, well, because I say so! And when my cow orkers and I ate at various places in the area the last 2 weeks, boy, were they impressed at the pedestrian orientation near Star of India!

And what's more family-friendly than the 2nd least dense neighborhood in the city which is also one of the slowest growing, thanks to deed restrictions and super-low-density zoning which have made the area attractive primarily to empty-nesters? Even the folks at Allandale Reporter were basically forced to admit that, and I quote, it's one of the least dense, slowest growing neighborhoods in Austin. Hey, remember those wacky kids at RG4N who claimed a VMU project would be feasible in this spot? Remember how wacky M1EK pointed out the extremely low density of the residential catchment area? Those were they days, huh?

Don't forget the family-friendliness of pressuring weak-willed panderers on the City Council to allow cars to park in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd, the most important bicycle commuting route in the city - both for long distance work commuters and for kids going to Northwest Park. What's more family-friendly than making an 8-year-old swerve around parked pickup trucks four or five times before getting to the park?

It's clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic, so I sought evidence that the city could use to reject the site plan.

That's charming! Most of us would actually look for evidence first before declaring that it was clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic for a parcel zoned as a shopping mall.

I asked city staff to rerun the traffic impact analysis submitted by Lincoln Properties using the higher traffic numbers listed in a 2006 ITE Journal article on "big-box" stores, but I was told the staff lacked the software. The city asked Lincoln Properties to run the numbers, but it did not respond.

Hm. I wonder why they wouldn't respond. Maybe it's because they know they have the rule of law on their side?

I applaud the efforts of Responsible Growth and local neighborhood associations, and I support their vision. I hope this wonderful community involvement we have seen will triumph in the end.

So far, this wonderful community involvement has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the city to defend the rule of law against rule-by-mob. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to the overthrow of one neighborhood association's leadership in favor of a new group which has demonstrated their commitment to RG4N's purported VMU goals by opposing VMU anywhere but at Northcross itself. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to an increased likelihood that Northcross will end up like the Intel Shell, and that some local businesses counting on this project will go bankrupt.

So far, this wonderful letter has made me reconsider my position that Brewster was the worst panderer currently on the City Council.

June 21, 2007

Chronicle continues to fail us

I'll get back to the Hawaii field trip reports when I get a bit more time, I promise; but in the meantime:

Katherine Gregor at the Chronicle has published yet another in what must be about a half-dozen articles by now promoting TOD on the commuter rail line. As I noted in comments, it's now 2007 (3 years after the election; 1 year before service supposedly starts), and yet nobody at the Chronicle has ever bothered to analyze the service from the perspective of a prospective passenger.

As I noted in my previous crackplog You Can't Have TOD WIthout Good T, the experience around the country is very consistent: if you expect people to pay more (relatively) to live in higher density development outside downtown, you'd better be sure that their transit alternative is a very good one.

So how about it? How have we done here? Well, each resident of these "TOD"s faces two shuttle bus rides (one each way, which will basically turn off all commuters who actually own cars), and an infrequently-running rail service (runs every half-hour during rush hours and only once in the middle of the day). Sound like good T to you? And as I've mentioned, well, about a billion times, it is impossible to morph this commuter rail line into something like 2000's light rail proposal to eliminate that shuttle bus ride to UT, the Capitol, and the part of downtown where people actually work in offices.

Anyways, this is the kind of analysis the Chronicle ought to be doing. But, instead, the recent pattern has been basically fleshing out press releases with some fluffy and modest prose which tries desperately to avoid coming to any conclusions at all - unless, of course, they happen to be conclusions supported by the ANC (or the so-called "granola mafia").

So what the hell is up at the Chronicle? I honestly didn't think I'd be pining for the days of Mike Clark-Madison, who I thought was irrationally pro-neighborhood at the time, but honestly, he's Woodward and/or Bernstein compared to the current crop. It's a sad day when you actually get better analysis of local politics from the Statesman, but that day is just about here.

June 02, 2007

Bus headways aren't Austin's problem

(posted to a local neighborhood list in response to a portion of a long letter from an Eastwoods resident complaining about densification)

The position that transit use would skyrocket if we just reduced headways on our existing bus system seems logical but is, in fact, not likely to be the case given experience in other cities and a bit of common sense.

Those who can get and keep a job largely have the ability to check timetables and use their watch - and this gets even easier with new tools like Google's - and most of the close-in neighborhoods have bus service with far better headways than the alleged 30-minutes-or-worse in Barbara's note. For instance, from my house on 35th, I can choose the #5 or the #7 - combined maximum wait during the day approximately 15 minutes; meaning if I decide on a whim to leave the house right now, I can look at the schedule to figure out which one to walk to knowing that it won't be longer than 15 minutes.

However, even if headways really were much worse in central Austin, it still wouldn't matter (much) - peoples' daily commute decision centers more around speed and reliability than on headways. For instance, headways on express subway service in Queens are sometimes long, but people take them anyways (over the local, the bus, and especially their car) because the subway simply works so much better. In our case, running buses more often would do nothing to the speed or reliability gap compared to the private automobile and could even make it worse (due to bunching, buses interfering with other buses, etc.).

The only technology which can compete well enough with cars on those two metrics (the only two that really matter, since our downtown parking isn't currently and probably will never be expensive enough to be a major factor) is reserved-guideway transit. This excludes streetcar, but includes light rail (as proposed in 2000) and commuter rail (if it actually went anywhere near major employment destinations, which it does not).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
(Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005)

May 10, 2007

Brewster, you're wrong

“I don’t believe this is the right land use for this location. This is not about an anti Wal-Mart thing. It’s about whether a store that produces this much traffic belongs on a four-lane Anderson Lane as opposed to on a highway. But we have been told consistently two things. One is that we do not have the power to take down or disapprove this site plan and the second is that if we try to do it we’re on our own in a subsequent lawsuit.”—Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Most Wal-Marts outside Texas are on major arterial roadways(*). Some are 6 lanes, some are 4 lanes. Many, such as the one closest to my parents' house in South Florida, are miles away from the nearest 'highway'(**). Only in Texas do we stupidly build major retail and employment destinations on frontage roads, which act as barriers to travel for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. Pay special attention to the impossibility of providing cost-effective high-quality transit service on frontage roads. Pushing Wal-Marts back out to frontage roads is a step backwards, not forwards.

(* - Try Wal-Mart's store-finder on a zip code for a major metropolitan area outside Texas. Plug addresses into Google Maps. I guarantee you will see that, outside Texas, nearly zero Wal-Marts can be directly accessed from a frontage road -- and most are accessed directly from roads very similar to Burnet Rd. and Anderson Lane. Example here. Be careful to plug all the addresses into Google Maps - many roads with "Hwy" in the name are in fact just major arterials - with frequent traffic lights, cross streets, etc. For instance, the Wal-Mart in Delray Beach, when accessed from the closest 'highway', requires a drive of about 2 miles on one major arterial roadway, then a turn onto a second major arterial roadway, then a short drive, and then another turn into the store lot.)

(** - 'highway' is a definition not frequently used by transportation planners. The common usage here in Texas would be either freeways - with or without frontage roads - or rural routes with limited cross traffic - neither one of which obviously includes Burnet Rd or Anderson Lane, although Burnet at one point in history was a 'highway'. In my case, I prefer to use the limitation of access as the qualifier - since the roads here in Austin which people want to keep the big boxes out on are essentially all limited-access roadways with frontage roads).

You can also use this "plug the address into Google Maps" process to disprove the fallacy that a Wal-Mart at Northcross would be particularly close to single-family residences. For instance, consider this one in West Boca Raton. (Yes, "Hwy" in the name, but look at the satellite image and you see it's a major arterial roadway - lots of cross streets and traffic lights).

April 23, 2007

Only One Question Matters on Mopac Managed Lanes

Ben Wear did a great job covering all the other issues but somehow still neglected to discuss the performance implications (for the managed lane itself) of the fact that drivers must slow down to a crawl in order to merge back through 3 lanes of regular traffic to get to their off-ramp. (I'm a supporter of managed lanes in principle, but like with commuter rail, believe that Something I Like But Done Completely Wrong is actually more likely to hurt my cause than not doing it at all).

That's the only question that matters: how much will traffic in the managed lane have to slow down when I have to stop to wedge my way in the inside general-purpose lane?

I'm beginning to think most transportation issues boil down to one question like this. For instance, for commuter rail it's why do you think the same people who avoid buses like the plague today, even the good ones like the 183-corridor express buses, are going to be willing to take a shuttle bus to work every day from the train station in East Austin?

For Rapid Bus, it'll be if this is so wonderful for Central Austin, why has it been pushed back from an originally planned opening date of 2006, then to 2007, then to 2008, and now to 2010?

April 10, 2007

Don't get excited about Mopac changes...

I'm still not sure if it's willful ignorance or childish spite (because their grand plan to do the huge rebuild was rejected), but TXDOT still isn't answering the most important question of all with the managed lane proposal for Mopac, which is:

Since the managed lanes do not have dedicated on/off ramps,
when the 3 regular lanes are stop-and-go, how is a car or bus in the managed lane going to manage to get over to its exit without having to also come to a stop, and thus make all the other cars or buses in the managed lane have to stop too?

Note that I'm the only guy even talking about this; the local media, unfortunately reduced to just rephrasing press releases, just reports this as "hey, a new lane in the middle, hooray!" without bothering to think about how it will actually work.

April 09, 2007

Why can't MetroRail be extended to Seaholm?

Just thought I'd better write this down since I composed it twice only to lose most of it due to a stupid typepad/austinist interaction. Guys? Don't use AJAX where input can be lost, OK?

In the annals of Transit Stupidity, this will be one of the top entries. Read on.

MetroRail can't feasibly be extended to Seaholm because it would have to run on 4th street all the way to the creek, and then get a brand new, very expensive, diagonal (long) bridge to transition to the 3rd street alignment the Seaholm project roughly abuts. (See image, source city's OnTrack newsletter; click if it appears cut off). The DMUs we picked are too heavy and clunky to corner in the intersections available before that - so despite the fact that 3rd was the preferred rail corridor, we're stuck with tearing up a ton of 4th street to do this project or just cutting through the middle of a downtown block - not gonna happen. (Go to page 3 of that PDF). Combine that with the fact that the Feds would be extremely unlikely to kick in one lousy penny due to low ridership and low cost/benefit rating for service like this, and it's not going to happen. Note that Capital Metro didn't get any federal funding for the commuter rail starter line, fairly obviously because of extremely low ridership projections.

Note that all of the "Seaholm and rail" planning from the people who actually have any say on this issue has to do with a streetcar connection to UP at the Seaholm site, NOT any extension of the starter line west to there.

And, even if by some miracle we did get commuter rail to Seaholm, it couldn't continue up or down that Union Pacific line, because the DMU is not, by rule, allowed to run with freight rail. Cap Metro solved this by getting a "temporal separation" agreement ratified which promises that freight will only run in the wee hours of the morning, but UP would never agree to this. So, ironically, this DMU that we picked because it's supposed to be so much cheaper than real light rail is too heavy to run where we need it to run in the street, but too light to run on existing rail which might be better suited for transit-oriented development opportunities than our starter line is.

Who screwed up here? Well, of course, Capital Metro did, if you assume that they cared about rail transit (I don't think they do; I think their post-Karen-Rae leadership wanted to prove, with Mike Krusee's assistance, that "rail doesn't work"). But the more correct answer is: the credulous center-city pro-rail-transit people who assumed that we could 'fix' the plan by adding things to it later despite commentary all along from yours truly that it wasn't going to be possible.

Addendum: I finally found the full Seaholm station report. According to them, the DMU Capital Metro is using for the starter service has a turning radius of 300', which is way too high, but even at the more often heard 135' or so, it will, as I expected, never be able to turn a corner in the street (see city's OnTrack newsletter link above for more on that). The east-to-south curve being preserved only supports a turning radius of 100' - meaning these DMUs will never be able to cross the river from here to South Austin. If we somehow convinced UP to abandon freight operations on this line, there is no physical obstacle to DMUs continuing west and then north up the Mopac line, but again, for all the practical reasons detailed above and then some, this will never happen.

April 04, 2007

You can't have TOD without good T

Don't gimme no crappy transit, fool!

So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let's see how attractive the "T" component of the "TOD" will be for Crestview Station, the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don't achieve the true benefits of TOD.

First, let's consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She's able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that's not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.

But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked "UT". Well, she's rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:

The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. "What a pain in the ass," thinks Paula, "if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn't I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in 2006 2007 2008 2010, I'll just take the Rapid Bus there".

On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. "What happens," Paula wondered, "if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it's stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening"

Paula ain't gonna ride this thing again, folks.

Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I'll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:

"Wow," said Steve, "I didn't believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do."

What's Steve's better option?

Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn't it?

Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. "Wow," he thought, "this is a lot more comfortable than the bus - and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there's nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?"

"I got off the train," Larry explained later, "and there was a shuttle bus there that said 'downtown', but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that's what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better - a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I'll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn't there a better way to do this?"

The common thread in all three of these "direct" pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it's pretty darn clear that most "choice commuters" (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn't require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and "transit-adjacent development", and pay particular attention to this item:

Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.

Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we're likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren't going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.

April 02, 2007

Alliance for Public Transportation is a joke

Hey guys? Here's what a grass-roots pro-transit organization ought to look like: the CTC in Houston, which actually does more than just saying "please do exactly what Capital Metro and CAMPO want, as fast as possible". IE, they analyze route proposals and try to figure out which ones are likely to work and which ones are not. They also don't buy into the nonsense that stuck-in-traffic city buses will ever work for choice commuters and that circulators are somehow exempt from choice commuters' distaste for transfers.

Yes, like yours truly, they actually hold the radical position that while rail transit is great in general, it IS possible to build rail transit that choice commuters won't ride so you'd better think carefully about where you decide to run it rather than just assuming that rail anywhere works as well as rail in the perfect place.

I highly recommend following some of those CTC stories to their forums in which it becomes even more clear what APT ought to be doing for Austin - instead of asking us all to support exactly what Round Rock legislator Mike Krusee wants Capital Metro to do with their tax money (92% from Austin, 0% from Round Rock), we ought to be asking ourselves whether what they want to do will actually work, and not from the anti-all-rail Neanderthal perspective either.

Grow up, APT. We need people who really want rail transit to succeed to challenge this garbage. If Capital Metro ever needed boot-licking sycophants, it needed them before the 2000 election; certainly not now.

March 29, 2007

Our circulators won't work either

From Christof in Houston:

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.

Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

Note that, as Christof further backed up in the forum, Denver's circulator is far superior to the one we'll be delivering here in Austin - it actually has some reserved right-of-way (which even our future maybe streetcar line won't have). In Austin, just about every daily commuter on the commuter rail line will have to transfer to a shuttle bus to get to their office. Not a shuttle bus which has some segments of reserved right-of-way, like in Denver, but a shuttle bus which is stuck in the same traffic the train was supposed to bypass.

That's why Tri-Rail in South Florida failed. Some credulous fools here think we're radically different from everybody else - but if we were so different in the "people with real jobs dislike uncomfortable, jerky, slow bus rides" department, we wouldn't need to build rail in the first place.

March 28, 2007

Circulators don't work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday's post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn't likely to succeed in garnering so-called "choice commuters" (those who you're trying to attract away from their cars).

Unfortunately, it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail's abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don't go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.

So, care to guess how you're going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?

March 27, 2007

The Great Interconnections Lie

The North Burnet/Gateway presentation, which, frankly, looks very very appealing in the alternate universe where we had the guts to stand up to Mike Krusee and develop light rail, continues the rationalization of poor transit service by calling it "interconnected", which is a euphemism for "you're going to have a lot of transfers". Specifically, a resident of this area trying to go downtown would need to first board a circulator (probably a bus) to get to the commuter rail station between Metric and Burnet, then wait for the train, then ride the train to MLK or the Convention Center, then switch to another circulator (probably again a bus) to get to UT, the Capitol, or the parts of downtown where people actually work.

And yet nobody sees this as a problem.

Today, all you have to do is spend some time outside the transfer centers at Northcross or Highland Mall, and it becomes abundantly clear that the only people who use bus service that requires a transfer are the utterly transit-dependent (not the choice commuters we're supposed to be serving). So we're going to build a rail spine for our transit network that requires at least one transfer to bus for anybody to use.

And yet nobody sees this as a problem.

Light rail, as promised here in 2000 and delivered everywhere else in the meantime, on the other hand, is designed to serve as a one-seat ride for the majority of riders (two seats for suburban users of park-and-rides). Let's compare and contrast again:

Suburban users:

Light Rail a la 2000Commuter Rail With Interconnections(tm)
1Drive to park-and-rideDrive to park-and-ride
2Wait for train (every 10 mins rush hour; every 20-30 otherwise)Wait for train (every 30 mins rush hour; no service otherwise)
3Ride train to stationRide train to station
4Walk to officeWait for circulator (probably bus)
5 Ride bus (stuck in traffic)
6 Walk to office

And now, for this "second downtown", we're being sold on the idea that "interconnected transit" with "circulators" is the way to go, meaning that the commuter in the right column will actually be adding another bus ride at the beginning of their trip.

Folks, even in Manhattan, routes that require transfers see a substantial drop in ridership, yet somehow we think that our comparatively low-density city is going to do better? Even when our transfer is to a jerky, slow, stuck-in-traffic bus? And now these idiots working on the Burnet plan think a bus ride on the OTHER END is actually a POSITIVE?

(No, streetcars won't help; they're still stuck in traffic behind everybody else's car).

Somebody other than me's got to start talking about this stuff so it's not such a surprise in 2008 when nobody rides the thing. Please, for the love of god, somebody speak up. Ben Wear? Wells Dunbar? John Kelso? Somebody hep me!

And, no, this is not a problem we can fix with better circulators. Remember, the Manhattan transfer commuters go from one reserved-guideway rail vehicle to another reserved-guideway rail vehicle, and yet it still cuts their ridership by a substantial percentage. And that's in a town where you have to lay something like 50 bucks a day just to park that car.

Start here to learn about all the places New Yorkers are still trying to eliminate transfers.

February 26, 2007

Brewster et al, I Told You So

Especially Brewster, but also some others are finally, now that it's long too late, beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to give Capital Metro $160 million / year when they turn around and spend all the rail money on a plan which screws Central Austin and provide useless Rapid Bus service as the "thanks for 92% of our tax revenue" gift. Kudos to Kimberly for coverage of this issue.

Let's set the wayback machine to May of 2004. I wrote a post on that day referring to a resolution I floated; the text is below. While Brewster from all accounts thinks I'm a troll, the irony of seeing him come pretty darn close to my 2004 position is just really really delicious. Of course, I'd trade it in a second for some actual movement on this issue.

WHEREAS the City of Austin does not receive adequate mobility benefits from the currently proposed Long Range Transit Plan due to its reliance on "rapid bus" transit without separate right-of-way

and

WHEREAS a "rapid bus" line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor

and

WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin

and

WHEREAS the commuter rail plan proposed as the centerpiece of this plan delivers most of its benefits to residents of areas which are not within the Capital Metro service area while ignoring the urban core which provides most Capital Metro monies

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Urban Transportation Commission recommends that the City Council immediately reject Capital Metro's Long-Range Transit Plan and begin working towards a plan which:

A. delivers more reliable and high-performance transit into and through the urban core, including but not limited to the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and downtown
B. requires additional user fees from passengers using Capital Metro rail services who reside in areas which are not part of the Capital Metro service area
C. provides permanent infrastructure to provide impetus for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use redevelopment of the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor

IF CAPITAL METRO will not work with the City of Austin on all items above, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the UTC advises the City Council to begin preparations to withdraw from the Capital Metro service area and provide its own transit system in order to provide true mobility benefits to the taxpayers of Austin.

It died for lack of a second. Since then, two fellow commissioners expressed their regret at their decision to not at least second the motion so we could have gone on the record, after seeing how the plan unfolded pretty much as I predicted way back then.

February 21, 2007

Managed lanes on Mopac: gridlock

Just sent to Council as a followup to yesterday's crackplog

Your Name: Mike Dahmus Your e-mail address: mdahmus@io.com Subject: Managed lanes implementation on Mopac Comments: Dear Mayor and Council Members:

While I support managed lanes in general, the implementation being discussed for Mopac will be a disaster, and is not worthy of our support. Any facility in which express traffic must then cut across general-purpose traffic in order to exit will surely devolve into gridlock - if traffic in the three general-purpose lanes is bad enough to make people want to pay to drive in the inside lane, it will also be bad enough to make it difficult to quickly cut through those same three lanes to get off the highway. Which means that vehicle slows down, and eventually stops, as it tries to get over; which means through traffic in the 'managed lane' must also slow or stop.

This is a really dumb idea. Managed lanes without separate exits are worse than nothing at all. Please don't continue to let TXDOT get away with this foolish and naive design, paid for with the gas tax money collected from our urban drivers.

(An aside: for the money spent on this facility, we could make a down payment on a real urban rail system - i.e. true light rail running in reserved-guideway, say from downtown up to the Triangle or so).

February 20, 2007

Managed Lanes: Good Theory; Will Suck Here

A short entry; and I won't inflict a drawing on you, so please use the power of your mind to visualize.

CAMPO has already tentatively allocated $110 million for "managed lanes" (one in each direction) on Mopac from Parmer to Town Lake and is now explaining the plan. These will, apparently, boil down to a new inside lane in each direction, with possibly flimsy barriers between them and the general-purpose lanes, similar to what you see on the northbound frontage road just north of Bee Caves Road. General-purpose lanes will have to be narrowed a bit, and some shoulder will be lost (especially the inside shoulder - which will be effectively gone).

I'm generally a moderate supporter of HOV lanes, and a stronger supporter of managed lanes. Tolling road capacity anywhere is a good move away from our current system in which urban drivers and especially non-drivers subsidize SUV-driving suburban soccer moms. Ironically, the more red-meat conservative you are around these parts, the more you apparently pine for the old Soviet method of market-clearing, at least as it applies to road capacity.

And, one of the best reasons to support HOV or managed lanes is the boost in performance and reliability it can give bus transit, which needs all the help it can get.

HOWEVER, the system considered here will do nothing to improve the performance of transit, for this reason:

To exit Mopac, the bus (or car that paid a toll) must travel through three lanes of general-purpose traffic in order to get to the exit lane.

If that traffic is backed up enough to make you want to use the toll facility, it will also be backed up enough that it will be impossible to quickly cut through to get to your exit. Much of the time savings in the managed lane will be lost at entry and exit.

This is the same problem other half-assed HOV facilities have around the country - in places like South Florida (no barrier; hard to enforce; and mostly useless during extremely high traffic periods except if you're going all the way through where the traffic is). Likewise, this facility won't help the commuter going to UT, or downtown; the only group it could really help dramatically would be people going from north suburb to south suburb.

IE, we're going to spend city drivers' gas tax money to even more excessively subsidize the suburban commuter - but just in case we might accidentally benefit the city; we're going to do it in such a way that it only helps those who don't live OR work in the center-city.

STUPID.

By the way, $110 million would pay for the entire commuter rail line (which won't do anything good for Austin), OR, it could be used as a down payment on a rail transit system which will work, i.e., build a leg of real non-streetcar light-rail from downtown up to the Triangle.

February 12, 2007

Weekend Northcross Wal-Mart Roundup

A few things about Wal-Mart:

DSK took pictures of the people ringing Northcross, and actually asked the people at the bus stop what they thought.

A RG4N supporter took pictures all the way around.

Austin Contrarian just posted a great summary of the neighborhoods around the site. Note that I've discussed previously, to the derision of some, that it would be nice for a big box to be located somewhere where lower-income workers could practically travel via the bus. Here's the map linking all of this together - several bus routes accessible to those denser, lower-income neighborhoods, go straight to Northcross.

Note the other major transfer center at a mall in Austin - Highland Mall - which, not being a dead husk like Northcross, has high levels of both transfer traffic _and_ local (destined for the area in and around the mall) traffic. For the record, I'd be thrilled if a Wal-Mart like the one proposed here would take over some of the acres of awful strip-mall-and-surface-parking-lot area around Highland.

As I've said in some comment threads, besides downtown itself, Northcross (and Highland) are the two spots in our area which have the best transit access, bar none. Trish has disingenuously highjacked that into pedantry about the fact that the transfer center isn't in the Wal-Mart parking lot and so can't count as a bonus to the plan; but it's still true: if you're going to put a large retail center ANYWHERE, these two spots are exactly the right place to do it.

Finally, in an incredibly obnoxious and hypocritical attack-comment, Trish did bring up a point I hadn't even noticed before: in my entry detailing how the Wal-Mart site isn't in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I erred by saying that you had to go all the way to Mopac to the west before you hit residential use. I was thinking along Austin's tilted axis when I made this comment - i.e. the area roughly between Anderson and Foster is almost completely commercial (with one apartment complex I can think of) - but that's actually a diagonal line. Straight west DOES, in fact, penetrate single-family use in Allandale. Mea culpa. I also used "residential" in the same way the neighborhoods do - to mean "only single-family residential", and I should have been more explicit, but it's disingenuous to complain too much about this when the neighborhoods in the area have been so vehemently against multi-family development for so long.

Finally, wrapping up the wrap-up, a lot of arguments have centered around a practice I'm going to refer to in shorthand as "defining down into meaningless". For instance, arguing over whether Wal-Mart would be "in the middle of a residential neighborhood" can degenerate into defining how far away the building has to be from the first house before it qualifies, OR you can argue in good faith by taking a look at some other major retail destinations in the area and seeing how close _they_ are. Basically, if Highland Mall, Barton Creek Square, 6th/Lamar, etc. are closer (in several cases MUCH closer) to residential uses than is Northcross, you can't honestly continue this claim about "in the middle" unless you admit that your definition is so generous it catches almost everybody else too. That's simply not arguing in good-faith.

Same with transit access. Read this blog for even a few minutes and you discover I'm one of Capital Metro's harshest critics from an under-delivery of transit perspective. But that doesn't change the fact that if you call transit access to Northcross "bad", you've redefined "bad" so it includes effectively everywhere except downtown. Not good-faith argument, either. To be fair (and notice the RG4N folks, and Trish, never do this), this applies to a replacement development there as well, except that the RG4N folks obviously hope for retail that attracts higher-income clientele than the Wal-Mart. It'd still help the workers either way; just like how good transit service between UT and the Arboretum results in a few college-age kids getting off the bus up there to go work retail every morning.

Wrapping up the wrap-up of the wrap-up: Northcross is a great place to take the bus to, for both choice commuters and the transit-dependent. It's not any closer to residential development than most major retail centers in our area and is actually farther away from houses than most (Lakeline Mall being the one main exception). The demonstrators this weekend are slapping each other on the back, but none of them bothered to talk to the people waiting for the bus at the transfer center. Hmmm. Wonder why.

February 09, 2007

Uh, thanks, but no

RG4N's blog roundup of reaction to their plan is finally up: relevant excerpt:

we turn to M1EK, who takes issue with Councilmember Kim's comments about the inappropriateness of placing super-duper-centers in urban neighborhoods.

Clueflash: Allandale, Crestview, Wooten, and North Shoal Creek are NOT URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS. Urban neighborhoods address the street with porches and front doors, not garages. Urban neighborhoods prioritize walking over driving - and have sidewalks to prove it. Urban neighborhoods would prioritize bicycle travel over the ability to warehouse cars on not just one but both sides of a major street.

Folks, just because you're closer to downtown than Circle C is doesn't make you "urban". Urban is a style of development (and living); not a mere geographic indicator. When I sit here in my garage office typing this entry, I see more people walking on the sidewalk in front of my house than I do cars driving down my street - THAT'S URBAN. I see our one car (for a family of four) parked beside the house on a driveway rather than in front, because our house addresses the street with a porch and front door rather than with a garage. THAT'S URBAN.

Urban neighborhoods have a mix of densities (even if it's all residential, although it's better if it's not) - on the very same street in an URBAN neighborhood, you'll see apartments, single-family houses, granny flats, etc. In Allandale and Crestview, you see big apartment complexes on the edges, and nothing but large-lot single-family on the interior. That's not urban; it's just older suburban.

1960s suburban sprawl? Not urban. Not gonna be. Sorry.

February 05, 2007

Commuter rail ridership projection: pathetic

Ben Wear notes that Capital Metro is now projecting 1,000 riders per day on the commuter rail line for the approximately $100 million investment. Yes, you heard right. ONE THOUSAND RIDERS PER DAY.

Let's compare to two recent light-rail starts.

Minneapolis (opened late 2004): Ridership in 2005 grew to 25,000 per day on a 12-mile line that cost roughly $700 million and runs in a combination of in-street and separate right-of-way.

Houston: 40,000 per day on a fairly short and completely in-street runningway. That's just to answer the "but but but Minneapolis isn't in Texas!" cries some trogolodytes were beginning to choke on after the first example.

So let's take the Minneapolis example. 25 times as many riders; 7.5 times as much cost. Sounds like a damn good deal to me - and we could have built that here very easily... a slightly scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan would have cost about that much, and would have delivered at least that many riders. Remember that the next time somebody tries to convince you that this awful commuter rail plan is just light rail done cheaper and smarter.

The key in both Minneapolis and Houston is actually NOT that they run their trains more often; it's that once a rider gets off the train, they can take a short walk to their office rather than having to hop a shuttle bus. Again, we could have had that here if we hadn't have rolled over for Mike Krusee.

In other words, Capital Metro didn't mess up by ordering too few cars for the amazing ridership they could get for this line; they apparently read the writing on the wall from Tri-Rail's experience and figured out they're not going to get many long-term choice commuters on this thing after the first batch tries the shuttle bus experience on for size so they'd better not buy too many rail cars.

And, no, upgrading the shuttle buses to streetcars won't help since they're still a transfer to a slow stuck-in-traffic vehicle, and it can't be improved over time into something that works as well as light rail, but it sure as hell will bring the total cost of our worthless Austin-screwing transit-killing debacle up to something approaching Minneapolis' successful light rail line.

In summary:

commuter rail: costs very little; does jack squat1

1: Looking for a better quick slogan here that also includes the fact that commuter rail not only doesn't move rail transit forward, it actually moves us in the wrong direction since it precludes the later addition of light rail in the 2000 alignment. Suggestions?

February 01, 2007

Dear Jennifer Kim

I understand your retreat into pandering given the difficulties you're currently facing, and I even sympathize a bit, but let's be clear: big retail and employment destinations do NOT NOT NOT NOT belong on frontage roads.

Here's why.

This talking point works well with people who drive everywhere - like most folks in Allandale. It doesn't work so well with people who actually have some experience with alternate modes of transportation, like yours truly. I used to occasionally ride the bus in the morning and get off at the stop on one side of 183 between Oak Knoll and Duval and have to go to exactly the other side - and the presence of frontage roads (destroyed an old road which used to cross) made a 2-minute walk into a 10-minute bike ride (30-minute walk). No wonder nobody else does it.

January 29, 2007

Nobody talks about Austin rail like this...

Well, except for me, that is.

From Christof's excellent site in Houston,
this is the kind of discussion we needed to have here in 2000 and again in 2004. Of course, I believe we were about to have this kind of planning in late 2000 for a May or November 2001 election, until Mike Krusee forced Capital Metro to hold the election in November of 2000, before they were remotely prepared to do so. In 2004, nobody bothered to look at the line's routing and figure out whether it served the needs of choice commuters (people who aren't willing to ride the bus today). Again, except for me. So here's a recap, with a new exciing picture at the end.

Note the references to 1/4 mile being the typical capture area for a rail stop (despite what you hear from people who think the typical commuter will walk the 1/2 mile or more from the Convention Center stop to their downtown office building).

Here's a similar image I'm working on for Austin. I'm no photoshop wiz, obviously, but this might be the best I can make this look, so here you go. The original image comes from "Mopacs", a poster to the Skyscraper Forum. I've drawn in the 2004 commuter rail route in yellow (just barely penetrates the picture on the lower right); the 2000 light rail route in green; and the maybe-never streetcar route in red. Note that the streetcar doesn't have reserved-guideway, as I've noted before, so it's really not going to help much in getting choice commuters to ride.

Click for full image if you don't see the yellow route!

The big building you see just north of the yellow line is the Hilton Hotel (not a major destination for choice commuters; anectdotal evidence suggests that a large percentage of workers there actually take the bus to work today).

Note that the walking distance from the yellow stop to the corner of 7th/Congress (rough center of the office buildings on Congress) is a half-mile, give or take which, as I've pointed out before to the derision of people who don't study transportation, is about twice what the average person will walk to a train station if they have to do it every day. Capital Metro knows this, of course, which is why their shuttles are planned for not only UT and the Capitol, but also for downtown; their only error is in repeating the Tri-Rail debacle by forgetting that choice commuters don't like riding the bus.

Also note in the upper reaches of the image, the other two critical employment centers downtown - the Capitol Complex and UT. Notice how the green line (2000 light rail) goes right next to them as well. What you don't see is further up to the north, the green line continues up the only high-density residential corridor in our city - that being Guadalupe Blvd., so in addition to being able to walk to their office _from_ the train station, a lot of prospective riders would have been able to walk to the train station from their homes.

That's what Mike Krusee took away from Austin, folks. And it ain't coming back once commuter rail opens; there's no way to operate anything like the 2000 light rail proposal cooperatively with this worthless commuter rail crock.

Update: Here's the other aerial photos from "Mopacs". Worth a look.

January 25, 2007

Ironystorm 2007

Inspired by DSK's posting of his wife's snapshots, I present: the most ironic picture of IceStorm 2007. Click for bigger.

Yes, them icicles was over a foot long. And yes, they formed on my icicle lights.

January 23, 2007

SH45 and SH130 were ALWAYS in the plan

Contrary to what Sal Costello's band of merry anti-tollers alleges, SH45 and SH130, as tollways, were always supposed to get money from the 2000-2001 city and county bond packages. I remember; I was arguing against it at the time (not on this crackplog; it didn't exist yet; but still).

Shame on KXAN for just reporting this as fact. Mayor Watson didn't "re-allocate" any money towards these toll roads; before the election, the city was advertising that these two tollways (and a third, Loop 1 North) were in fact the primary expected recipients of the right-of-way purchase money. While Austin didn't promise exactly which road projects would receive funding, it was crystal clear at the time that a good chunk of right-of-way purchases were going to go to these tollways.

Costello appears to be hanging his hat on the weak argument that the city bond language didn't SPECIFICALLY say that any money would go to "tollways" or "toll roads". But neither did the city bond language say "freeways" or "free roads"; it said that a large chunk of the transportation bond would go to right-of-way contibutions for state highways, which it did. And the city didn't mislead anybody into thinking these would be for non-toll-roads; again, backup materials before the election clearly indicated that they intended to spend these funds on SH130, etc.

The city, unlike the county, chose to group all transportation bonds together as a tactical move to try to get them passed, rather than risk environmentalists voting against the highways chunk and motorists voting against the bikeways/pedestrian chunk. That's the only reason they didn't have separate SH45 and SH130 items.

January 09, 2007

McDorms happened because idiots restricted apartments

Austin Contrarian makes a good point about student rentals which further supports the contention that it's better for surrounding neighbors if students rent individually rather than sharing a big house. My argument (re-expressed through comment to his post) was based on landlord's disincentive to penalize tenants in a big house versus in a fourplex or apartment/condo building; his adds a point I've not discussed before - the "party house" factor.

Yes, all college towns have students sharing houses, but we've got a lot more than you would expect, given the size of our city, health of our central-city residential economy, etc. We have so many (disproportionate for a 'college in healthy big city') bad student rental houses because people like my neighborhood association fought true multi-family development even on Guadalupe for decades - meaning that students who want to live near campus get artificially incented to live together in houses. Many of the students sharing these houses, in other words, would have been just as happy (or more so) in an apartment - where you can count on more amenities and less hassle - but have been forced to choose between jamming into a house or moving to Far West or Riverside.

I've addressed this before:

The McMansion ordinance further exacerbates the problem. The "highest use" for small single-family houses in my area particularly has now shifted much farther towards student rental and much farther away from "sell to a family that wants to live central" since the expandability of these properties has taken a drastic hit. The too-little too-late West Campus upzoning isn't going to help now that we've thrown another obstacle in the way of families wealthy enough to buy entry on a small lot property but not wealthy enough to live on the bigger lots that the Karen McGraws and Mary Gay Maxwells can afford (or were able to buy back when they were merely expensive, not astronomical). In other words, despite what you heard about the ordinance protecting families, actual central Austin owner-occupant families like me and my neighbor are just getting screwing out of a future in Central Austin - when my neighbor goes, and he's currently looking, he'll be renting to students).

December 21, 2006

Response to McCracken

Brewster McCracken posted a response (seemingly authentic) to this austinist thread, attempting to rebut many of my points about Northcross and Wal-Mart. Here's what I said in response.

Brewster,

Obviously I disagree with much of what you posted. I'll just pick the one I know the most about, though; this peculiar idea that it's better to put large retail destinations on "highways" rather than at the intersection of two city arterial roadways, next to a major transit center. Only in Texas (where frontage roads are viewed as the normal state of affairs rather than an occasional last-ditch tool to provide access when all else fails) would we even be having this conversation; note that the new Wal-Mart in Atlanta being compared to this one is _NOT_, I repeat, _NOT_ "on the highway".

I refer readers again to my (artlessly drawn but hopefully at least readable) diagram linked to if you click on "M1EK" at the end of this posting. It's simply impossible to deliver high-quality transit service on highway frontage roads -- but it's very easy to do so on arterial roadways. All you need to do is take a look at those #3 buses going up and down Burnet Road vs. the #383 buses going up and down Research Blvd. if you don't believe me - both are operating in relatively the same density development; but one is a success and one is a failure.

Frontage roads also destroy the ability to travel by foot (for nearby pedestrians) and severely hamper travel by bicycle; but in this case, transit is probably the most important mode to worry about. Remember, though, that when dealing with frontage road development, we also have to somehow convince TXDOT to build sidewalks along the frontage road in the best-case scenario (and, of course, they've designed some 'highways' in ways that make even the provision of such sidewalks by the City of Austin impossible - US 183 near Braker Lane, for instance; in this photo-essay: http://www.io.com/~mdahmus/183sidewalks/183sidewalks.html

Pushing all our big boxes (and other employers/destinations) to frontage roads simply means the people travelling there can't do so by any means other than the private automobile. This doesn't hurt high-tech office workers on US 183 as much as it does the potential employees of Wal-Mart, of course.

As for the remaining points - I'm happy the neighborhoods have learned to not make the strategic error that NUNA did vis-a-vis The Villas On Guadalupe. That's a far cry from evidence that they now support urban mixed-use development "like the Triangle". A Triangle-style development, expanded to cover the footprint of Northcross Mall, would be bringing in not only roughly the same amount of retail as this proposal, but thousands of units of multi-family; and the nearby neighborhoods have opposed previous efforts to increase multi-family in the area quite recently (hotel conversion at south edge of property).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus (M1EK's Bake-Sale of Bile)
Urban Transportation Commission 2001-2005

December 18, 2006

Things I hate about Wal-Mart

Since some people probably think I like them, it's worth expanding on a comment I made in response to Austin Contrarian on this posting. Bear in mind that my poltical/economic bent is that, when operating in a reasonably (lightly) regulated environment where externalities are properly assessed, free enterprise generally provides for a more positive outcome than government intervention would do. That being said:

What did AC get wrong? Wal-Mart are definitely bad guys. They have done very little good, and most of the good they did do was way back in the mists of time when Sam Walton was pretty new to the job. Since being an early (good) competitor in some areas that badly needed a kick in the pants, they've devolved into a lean mean destroying machine - wiping out small town after small town after small town. (On my summer trip up to the UP of Michigan, a shiny new Wal-Mart was in the process of decimating a pretty nice old downtown - yes, they've still got places they haven't killed yet). You can make money and be a bad guy - the market often isn't the perfect frictionless machine that libertarian ideologues believe it is.

They're bad because they build suburban crap even in the middle of urban areas. No, making the store 2 stories with a parking garage isn't urban. Building to the street, not to your parking lot, is what makes a store urban. Unfortunately, many people on the other side of this argument have a similar misunderstanding of the issue. Target gets it, but unfortunately, appear to not have been interested in this location. (Not that I blame them; the added expense of a truly urban store isn't justified by the surrounding low-density residential; they'd never make their money back). Costco is nicer to their workers and sells better quality stuff, but they've never expressed any interest in changing from their own awful suburban store format.

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size in an adversarial (monopsonial) relationship with their suppliers that has bankrupted some and seriously hurt many -- companies which were providing at least medium-quality goods have either been destroyed or been forcibly shifted into selling junk because of what Wal-Mart did. (And don't tell me they chose to sell to Wal-Mart; in vast parts of the country that's not a 'choice').

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size to eliminate competitors who were providing necessary goods and services, but doing it in a way which required substantially less public investment (an old downtown area doesn't cost the town in question much if anything; but the new one-story strip with huge parking lot on the edge of town costs them a bundle). They're also pretty crappy to their workers, but I don't necessarily buy the workers' welfare arguments in rural areas, since the small-town employers weren't paying for good heath insurance either, but there are certainly parts of the country where they can lead such a race to the bottom. But these poor areas have to pay for a lot of road upgrades, police patrols, and utility costs which would not be necessary if the downtown stores had won out. Wal-Mart doesn't contribute jack-squat to make up for these public costs.

So why am I not afraid of them doing the same in Austin?

Unlike Microsoft, the area in which Wal-Mart enjoys monopoly profits (rural retailing) is merely garden-variety lucrative, not Scrooge-McDuckesque-roll-in-the-money-while-wearing-a-monocle insanely lucrative. There aren't enough excess profits there to provide enough money to destroy Target and Costco (both Significantly Less Evil) in suburban and urban areas. Believe me; if there was, they'd have done it by now.

So here, at least, Wal-Mart must compete on its own merits - not like how Microsoft destroyed OS/2 and Netscape, but more like how Apple ended up as the primary name in MP3 players. They might still successfully win the urban retail market, but they're going to have to do it the right way.

So, it's worthwhile to despise what Wal-Mart does. It's good to point out that they're doing bad things. But don't be afraid that they can do the same thing in an area Austin's size that they've done to little 5,000 person towns, because they won't. Not because they wouldn't if they could, but because they simply don't have the excess money it would take.

All we'll do if we successfully keep Wal-Mart out of this location is forego a bunch of tax dollars for the benefit of a bunch of badly-behaved neighborhoods which have, I think, already been pandered to enough for one lifetime. Nobody better wants to move in, and the neighbors are being disingenuous by claiming now to have gotten the New Urbanist religion. Even if they had, though, this isn't a very good site for urban infill - it's still too far away from the parts of town people want to live close to.

So remember: Wal-Mart is bad. But that doesn't make keeping them out of this empty mall the best thing for Austin.

December 15, 2006

Wal-Mart at Northcross: Relevant pictures

From SGML2, a pictorial tour of the environs. Go check out for the full set; he's got a lot more than this one.

Northcross is NOT "in a residential neighborhood"

One of the most odious talking points being thrown around with some effectiveness by "Responsible Growth For Northcross is the supposed fact that the development is in the middle of a neighborhood", in a residential neighborhood, etc.

It's also a load of crap.

Northcross Mall is surrounded by retail and hotel use on all sides. In several directions, you have to go a very long way before you hit what most people would consider "a neighborhood". Even in the closest direction, it's not very close.

Update: February 12, 2007: In the paragraphs below, I'm referring to the tilted axis of Austin's major roadways. If you fly directly west as the compass points, you do hit single-family residential use before you get all the way to Mopac. You can see this from the picture, of course, but some folks thought this was misleading, and I honestly forgot the difference, so keep this in mind.

To the north, you have a very wide swath of strip retail on both sides of Anderson Lane before you hit any residential development. To the east, you have a strip of retail on both sides of Burnet Road before you hit any residential development. To the west, you have to pass Mopac before you find any residential development. Only to the south is anything remotely close, and it's still not very close - you have strip retail and hotel use, and then a school property, before you come to any residential use.

If Northcross Mall is "in the middle of a neighborhood", in other words, so is Highland Mall and Barton Creek Square Mall and even Capital Plaza. To say nothing of the Whole Foods complex at 6th/Lamar which is certainly a lot closer to houses and apartments than is the Wal-Mart location. Should we disallow big boxes at these locations too? Because, after all, they're "in the middle of neighborhoods" as much as Northcross is.

This talking point is very effective, judging on how often it's being spewed on austinist and the Austin Chronicle. But it's a flat-out misrepresentation. Northcross Mall is NOT "in the middle of a neighborhood.

December 14, 2006

Why frontage roads are bad for transit

Here's two frankly awful drawings I just threw together in the five minutes I could spare. Better versions are gratefully appreciated if anybody's got some. I'm just an awful awful artist, but this satisfies a promise I made a few crackplogs back.

This first image is roughly what you face when you need to get to the destinations on Riata Trace Parkway on US 183 in northwest Austin. Imagine you're coming from the left - your bus runs down the frontage road on the opposite of the highway, and you get off the bus. (This stop in this picture actually represents the Pavillion Park and Ride - i.e., this is what really happens up here - no, the good buses don't stop at Duval either). Even though your destination is directly across US 183 from your stop, you need to walk the better part of a mile down to Duval Road, turn around, and walk the same distance back up the other side. (This is even more odious since there used to be a city street crossing US 183 here before the road was upgraded to a freeway).

For those who think this is an unlikely example, this situation is exactly what I faced when trying to take transit back home from an office I had (at Riata) a few years back. In my case, I was using the #982 bus as a boost for a bike commute, so at least I was only riding my bike this far out of the way - a walk like that would have been out of the question for a daily commute. Had I been trying to take transit both ways and intended to walk, in other words, you could have added about a half-hour walk each way just to get to/from my office from the bus stop, even though it was right across the freeway - and again, would have been a simple 2 minute walk before the freeway's frontage roads severed this crossing.

The second image represents the area around Northcross, on which runs a bus which I have also used frequently (the #3). Note that all you need to do here is, worst case, walk across the street (since you'll always have a stop at a light), and walk a few blocks from the light to your destination on the other side - a matter of a couple hundred feet at most.

It's not an accident that the routes which travel on city streets like the second picture above are feasible for people walking to work, while the routes which travel on frontage roads like the first one are only feasible for unidirectional suburban park-and-ride users (who drive to the park and ride and take the bus downtown). But somehow, people over and over again think that we need to keep building these stupid frontage roads AND keep putting our major retail and office destinations on them. Frontage roads kill the ability to travel by everything except the private automobile. They destroy existing street networks - so even if your city, like Austin, tries hard to maintain alternate routes, they're still drastically affected by this abyssmal roadway design.

Why I'm Rooting For Wal-Mart

extracted from a thread on austinist, with links for some background:



I hate Wal-Mart too, and wish somebody else wanted to move in. They don't.

But I hate these neighborhoods even more. They:

1. Ruined the city's most important route for commuting bicyclists, costing the entire city a million bucks in the bargain). Their reward for screwing all of us? Brand new sidewalks at another couple hundred grand.

2. The <jerks> in Crestview voted against light rail in 2000 - screwing the whole city. Now the (much <less useful>) 2004 commuter rail line _still_ goes through their backyards, but the rest of the city gets nothing for it.

3. They're misleading you when they imply they want nice high-density urban development in Northcross. All efforts to do the same in the past at this and other nearby locations have been opposed by these same neighborhood organizations. Anyways, there isn't sufficient residential density to support good urban retail here - so nobody's going to come in and do it even if you ask really nicely. This Wal-Mart plan is actually about as high-quality a project as you could possibly expect in the middle of such low-quality car-dependent low-density 1950s-style sprawl.

These neighborhoods have been pandered to enough already. Unfortunately, thanks to term-limiting, the irresponsible council-members who are signing us up for a lawsuit that, once again, the ENTIRE CITY WILL HAVE TO PAY FOR, won't even be in office when the northcross hits the fan.

I forgot to mention the continuing bogus freeway argument. Go read that one too; it's far better for all concerned that we stop putting major retail destinations on frontage roads, so please shut up about how the other big stores are on highways.

I really do hate Wal-Mart for many reasons. But the fact is that even the crappy normal Wal-Mart design is better than what's currently there - and there's zero chance of something better coming along without drastic changes to the surrounding areas which I can guarantee the nearby neighbors will not support. The taxpayers of Austin have spent a million bucks or more just in the last few years pandering to these people; it's time to put something in this place that will generate some property and sales tax revenue to start paying us back.

December 07, 2006

A Modest Proposal For Northcross

WHEREAS there exists today drastically insufficient residential density in the neighborhoods around Northcross Mall to support medium-density higher-quality retail, and

WHEREAS the neighborhoods surrounding the project insist that they are now supportive of urban infill, despite having opposed every such project in and around them for decades

WHEREAS the Shoal Creek Boulevard debacle allowed the near-Northcross neighborhoods to suck more than a million dollars from the city coffers to destroy a vital artery for transportational bicyclists, and as a reward, get new sidewalks afterwards

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED BY M1EK that Shoal Creek Boulevard be reconfigured in its existing 40 foot wide footprint as follows:

One ten-foot southbound lane; 20 feet of median space; one ten-foot northbound lane. In the 20 foot median, some very skinny but very tall apartment buildings shall be built, in order to provide the additional residential density that the neighbors claim they support, therefore providing enough nearby residents to justify a higher grade of commercial development at Northcross than low-density Wal-Mart-style retail, and as a side-effect, slowing traffic substantially along Shoal Creek Boulevard.

December 05, 2006

Rapid bus (and streetcar) aren't interim steps

It's worth crackplogging this briefly since I was reminded by a discussion on one of the blogs in my list that I hadn't written anything on Cap Metro in a month or so, and I've been meaning to do this for quite a while anyways, expanding on a quick hit I did a while back:

Some folks think we can view either/both of Rapid Bus and streetcars as a "placeholder for light rail", or a "step towards urban rail", or what have you, implying that the investment we make in those technologies is in fact a down payment on a real urban transit system. In fact, though, neither one can be evolved into reserved-guideway transit which is what it would take to get the gains seen in Dallas, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. Reserved-guideway transit, for those not familiar with the term, is any facility where the transit vehicle doesn't need to share space with, be stuck behind, or otherwise compete with other vehicles (usually cars, but could be regular buses too). Obviously this makes a big difference if you're trying to make up the currently huge speed and reliability gap in Austin between transit and the automobile.

Note that unlike my former colleague Patrick Goetz from the UTC, I view reserved-guideway transit as sufficient to garner significant numbers of choice commuters (those who drive to work today) - as it has worked in Dallas, Portland, Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, etc. Reserved-guideway doesn't mean grade-separated; grade-separated is elevated or subsurface rail, or if you're feeling generous, completely separate surface rail like Austin's commuter rail route (few crossings, and those completely controlled by physical means, not just traffic control devices). Light rail and BRT both accept less separation in return for the huge economic savings resulting from not having to build elevated or underground facilities, and in practice, almost all of the benefit of true grade-separation is achieved on good reserved-guideway designs.

I don't even have to write a long list of reasons, when just the first will suffice - although there are others. Here it is:

You don't run reserved guideway transit in the right lane.

That's really all you need to know to understand this issue. You can't eliminate right turns on any roadway in this country - it just doesn't work. People are used to restrictions on left turns, sure. But no right turns? No way. It's far too ingrained in our driving culture that we pull over to the right to turn, let people out, find parking, etc. (The British probably have a similar constraint against reserved guideways on the left, come to think).

So what's the problem? Both the streetcar system and the rapid bus starter line will be running in the right lane. (The 2000 light rail plan would have run down the middle of the road, at least on the two-way streets like Lamar and Guadalupe). So all the investment in rail (streetcar) and stations (rapid bus) needs to be completely dug up and rebuilt if either one was to be transitioned into any form of reserved-guideway transit, either light rail or bus rapid transit.

That means that building streetcar and rapid bus is actually a step FARTHER AWAY FROM URBAN RAIL, not a step towards it.

And no, a right lane shared by transit and "right turns only" isn't a solution to this problem either. (It's what Honolulu briefly tried to float with their ghastly failure of an experiment with BRT). Trucks pull over to the right to load and unload; so do normal buses; and cars turning right can stop your transit vehicle just as dead in its tracks as a car waiting to go through an intersection can.

December 04, 2006

Wal-Marts on freeways: bad idea

I've been participating in comment threads on austinist and metroblogging Austin on this issue in general and probably ought to write a full crackplog on the whole thing - but for now, just the traffic point:

The latest reason opponents of the Northcross Wal-Mart are attaching desperately to is the fact that Wal-Mart's proposed new location is not directly on a freeway, unlike the two other projects of larger size in our area. From a transportation perspective, this is exactly the wrong reason to oppose Wal-Mart; it's far better for the city for major destinations like Wal-Mart to be on city arterials rather than on frontage roads. In cities in states which don't have this obsession with highways as economic development tools for politically connected landowners, frontage roads typically aren't part of the project, because frontage roads end up generating their own traffic - so every big box retail site is located on arterial roadways, not freeways. Somehow, Brewster, these towns continue to thrive.

In short: it's impossible to deliver good transit service on frontage roads. I'll talk more about WHY this is in a future crackplog; but for now, just take it as a given. The service along US 183 in Northwest Austin is very very bad -- were it not for the useful nearby 2-way Jollyville Road, it'd be even worse. Long, long, long walks for transit patrons to businesses on the other side of the freeway. The workers at this proposed new Wal-Mart on the other hand can walk there quickly from the Northcross transfer center which attracts a dozen or more bus routes from all over the city, no matter from which direction they arrived.

There are lots of defensible reasons to oppose Wal-Mart; just like there were defensible reasons to push the McMansion Ordinance. Like then, latching on to something you think will be effective but you know is dishonest is a bad move in the long-run.

November 20, 2006

When will I learn?

Despite past experience, I've once again gotten suckered into arguing with a sub-group of zealot mostly counter-culture exclusive-cyclists at Michael Bluejay's list that cyclists do, in fact, disobey traffic signals much more often than do motorists, a position which is commonly understood by the 99.5% of the population that is not clinically insane.

I was somewhat enheartened (?) to see that there are guys like me all over the country as well as in other countries making this same case: running red lights and stop signs hurts the cause of transportation bicyclists.

Want to maintain the reasonable right to ride without a bicycle helmet? Want to get bicycle facilities? Want to be taken seriously when you try to get the cops to enforce the laws against bad motorists? BEHAVE LIKE A GROWN-UP FIRST.

PS: Every time this comes up on Michael's e-mail list, I'm alone out there fighting the good fight. This has allowed the conventional wisdom among these folks to be: "car drivers run red lights more than bicyclists do; and you're making up all this stuff about how drivers see so many cyclists breaking the law that it causes them to lose respect for cycling as transportation". If you're reading this, and you're on that list, and you don't chime in, you're part of the problem.

November 13, 2006

Streetcar isn't a step in the right direction

A quick hit; just posted to the austin streetcars mailing list in response to my old buddy Lyndon Henry, who defended streetcar investment against somebody complaining about low-frequency east-west downtown bus service on the weekend. I meant several months ago to address this "streetcar is a step towards light rail" issue - it still deserves its own post, but here's a start.

On 10:28 PM 11/12/2006 -0600, Nawdry wrote:

There are plenty of advantages that streetcars can have over buses,

exactly zero of which would help any of the issues (original complainaint) raised. The streetcar service proposed by Capital Metro truly is "bus on rails" - it has zero feet of reserved guideway; zero instances of signal prioritization; will be slow and take many stops. None of the advantages remaining which one could fairly assign to streetcars help local riders in the slightest - they just help tourists and businesses that cater to the same (the rails in the street making it more obvious that transit service exists and in which direction it goes).

It will not improve circulation from commuter rail one lousy iota. In fact, the initial shuttle buses will likely perform better than this streetcar, given Cap Metro's intention to have the streetcar line make many many stops (the early shuttles will likely not do this until they reach the area of their destination - i.e. they won't be stopping along Manor).

Nor can streetcar be upgraded to higher-quality reserved-guideway service once installed. No transit agency would dream of attempting to run reserved-guideway transit in the RIGHT lane - but that's exactly where the streetcar is getting put.

You and yours sold the Austin area a pig in a poke that can never and will never turn into the light rail we should have built all along. I remain ready to point this out whenever necessary.

Your pal,
M1EK


Note that I absolutely reject this bogus "run buses more often and see what happens before investing in rail" argument in general but in this particular case, the rail investment really isn't any better than the existing buses, so it actually does hold.

So, as a review: streetcars were originally sold two ways: first, as as a replacement for the rail service that Central Austin is not getting from commuter rail, and second as a good distributor/circulator for the commuter rail line passengers themselves, since commuter rail goes nowhere near the primary work destinations in the center-city. How's that working out? First, streetcars aren't going through Central Austin at all, and second, they aren't going to be an attractive transfer for commuter rail passengers. Yeehaw.

November 08, 2006

Statesman clueless about urban development

Shilli knocks it out of the park: urban is more than a different coating to the building; and it's more than the number of floors. This Wal-Mart will still be car-friendly and pedestrian-and-transit-hostile; and should be opposed on those grounds alone. As I commented in an earlier item there, I also doubt Wal-Mart's urban bona-fides compared to Target, who seems to actually walk the walk on this stuff.

Not surprisingly, the Statesman credulously swallowed the misrepresentation of this project as both urban (see above) and central-city (Anderson Lane may be geographically central by some standards, but the area itself isn't "city"). Also not surprisingly, the typical whines about local businesses have come up - precisely the wrong reason to oppose this Wal-Mart. Let me state this succinctly:

A big box store which engages the street rather than a parking lot, and prioritizes pedestrian arrival over automobile convenience is much better for us in the long-run than a half-dozen 'local businesses' in pedestrian-hostile strip malls. Strip mall patrons come and go; but the physical buildings (and parking lots) don't. If Wal-Mart did what Shawn suggests and plunked down an urban building right on the corner of Anderson and Burnet (right next to a bunch of bus stops), I'd be supporting them whole-heartedly.

Remember: urban and suburban are styles of development, not just designations for geographic areas. You can have a suburban development right in the middle of downtown, and you can have an urban development in the middle of a ton of sprawl.

November 02, 2006

Red light cameras: Unjustified hate

Huevos Rancheros hates 'em. As for me, I don't mind them. If we lived in some kind of utopia where cops actually enforce laws (say, going after property thieves, pulling over people who ran red lights, etc.) instead of sitting on the side of the road waiting for cars to break drastically underposted speed limits (Spicewood Springs Road between Mopac and Mesa, I'm looking your way), I might be more upset; but as it stands, I'm with Jennifer Kim: this is really the only practical way to get people to stop running red lights. What follows started as a comment to his blog; which grew way too large, so I've posted it here instead.

You're [HR] just as guilty as Martinez at making broad-stroke conclusions without any backing evidence. Two simple examples:

People don't run red lights on purpose, they tend to do it by accident, and cameras won't help that.

I don't buy that without a citation. It looks to me like most red-light runners are of the "run the orange" variety where they speed UP in order to avoid having to wait through another cycle.

But the city isn't looking at increasing yellow light times. Why? Because it would decrease camera revenue.

This would be a poltiically foolish move. Increasing yellow light times more likely means fewer cars make it through each cycle (some people stop earlier as they continue to do what they were taught to do in driving school; the people who ran the red light now just run the yellow; the people waiting on the other side continue to wait). What do you suppose the public would do upon hearing that the city was about to lessen the thoroughput of major intersections in the city?

One can easily fashion red-light camera laws which don't provide the perverse revenue incentives for the contractor (your only strong point) - and one can just as easily find perverse law enforcement incentives in speed limit laws, yet nobody serious argues for their complete elimination.

Besides, every single argument you make applies equally to simply stationing cops in unmarked cars at these same intersections. Could lead to an increase in rear-end collisions. Check. Provides incentive to mess with yellow-light timing. Check. Etc.

Now, if I could only get somebody to make sure they also caught cyclists blowing through red lights...

Update which came to mind while I was talking to a skeptical compadre: How about this compromise, by the way: increase the yellow light time, and stick the red light camera on there? I'd be willing to pay the thoroughput penalty as long as it was publically understood that it was part of this compromise to avoid the supposed bad financial incentives for the contractor / city. Of course, that would never work; the suburbanites and road warriors would resume their ignorant claims about traffic lights being out-of-sequence about fifteen seconds later...

October 29, 2006

The Affordable Housing Bond Is Stupid

We just passed an ordinance which will lead to garage apartments and duplexes being torn down throughout the central city at the behest of the same bad neighborhood interests which prevented multifamily development in the urban core for so long, and now we're supposed to kick in more money out of our property taxes for affordable housing? And that will, of course, come out of the same property taxes that are making it unaffordable for homeowners to stay in their homes?

How about, instead, we allow that family in East Austin to build a garage apartment to help pay the property tax bill (and in the process help out a tenant - those garage apartments are a lot cheaper to live in than the MF-3 megacomplexes). How about, instead, we allow families to stay in the urban core by expanding their homes under the old rules - meaning that a family of 5 need not spend $600K for one of the few homes allowed to be big enough for a family that size under the new regime.

How about we don't blow up the village to save it?

Apart from a pleasant surprise on Austinist and the Austin Republicans, nobody apparently has the guts to make a counter-argument on any of these bonds. That's really sad; even if you think they're no-brainers, somebody ought to be making the devil's advocate case (other than me!).

October 20, 2006

We Don't Need A New Library (Yet)

I go to the downtown library every couple of weeks for books for myself and my toddler. It's directly on some main-line bus routes; and no more than 2-3 blocks away from the remainder (filled green dot in image that follows). At certain times of the day, most patrons arrive via transit - and many of those are clearly mobility-impaired. The space is underutilized, despite what you hear - there's apparent office space on upper floors; and the shelves on the ground floor are of a substandard height (the tops well below my eye level, and I'm not a tall man). There's plenty of room for more books - if we got better shelves and made better use of the upper floors.


The new proposed location is in a backwater corner of downtown where the closest major bus routes would be 2-3 blocks away (big red dot off the edge of the picture here); and the remaining major routes would be 4-5 blocks away. The library campaigners claim otherwise, but remember: anybody who refers today to "light rail" obviously doesn't know what they're talking about. The commuter rail line ends a mile east of here; and the proposed streetcar (still a couple of blocks away) is just a gleam in peoples' eye. All of this seems like a small difference until you try to navigate the extra difference in a wheelchair (or as me, on a day when my arthritis is particularly bad). Then, you get it: drop me off right in front, please.

Yes, the new building would be pretty. Yes, the current building is a particularly ugly example of Soviet-inspired 1960s/1970s architecture. I'm positive the new location would have more parking, too; but the purpose of the main central library ought to be to serve folks in the following order of preference: the transit-dependent, downtown workers and residents, and only then suburban drivers. The branches are available for those who find having to pay to park (or park a couple of blocks away) too inconvenient. Quite simply: this is a case of people who occasionally want to use the library remaking it nicer for themselves while forgetting about those who need the library.

I'm with my former colleague Carl: some of these bonds are clearly just too much - we're borrowing for non-necessities which are going to dig us into an operations/maintenance hole later on. Unless somebody at the library can make a compelling case which doesn't rely on the obvious falsehood that they're out of space for books, I'd urge you to vote no on this particular bond (#6). Buy some better shelves; move some people's offices to other buildings; and if in a few more years, we're back where we are today, then plan a new building in the current location.

October 19, 2006

Truly iconic businesses will find a new lease

Another quick hit:

As a refreshing change, News 8 found somebody besides Las Manitas to use as the poster-child for the local nascent effort to protect 'iconic businesses'.

Tambaleo might be great but it's only been there because the definitely great Electric Lounge went away (where I was introduced to my favorite band). Who knows what the next great club might be - we might never find out if we obstruct downtown development that can provide additional spaces for and customers for those future 'icons'.

Anyways, a truly iconic business would just go get a new lease (or buy their building). Las Manitas is the worst offender here - they own a building next door to where they are right now; they're being offered a sweetheart deal in finding a new place if they don't want to move into that spot; but they're still complaining. It's as if the landlord has no rights whatsoever here, which is just abhorrent to me.

In 99% of local development politics, I think we'd be well-served to follow the rule "do whatever Dave Sullivan recommends". But not here; it will be too difficult to decide which local businesses are icons and which aren't; and the first one to get rejected will sue the city and win. At least Dave, to his credit, isn't proposing the kind of heavy-handed tactics that the City Council recently put into play against Marriott - he's instead calling for a mix of incentives to encourage preservation of such businesses.

The new "helmet study" is a joke

Another quick hit:

So Elizabeth Christian has gone berserk defending her husband's new proposal for a study of cyclists who end up at the hospital with injuries (correlating to helmet use). This is exactly how the original Thompson/Rivera study went wrong. Short summary:

  1. Voluntary helmet-wearers and non-wearers are quite different groups, as it turns out. The helmeted cyclists were more likely to be yuppie recreational riders (like Ms. Christian's husband) while the un-helmeted cyclists were more likely to be poor and/or just trying to get around (in which case a helmet is enough of a pain in the ass that most rational people leave it at home).
  2. Later analyses of the Seattle study showed that in addition to behavioral and locational differences, helmet-wearers were also far more likely to go to the hospital for a given injury than non-wearers (probably due to the above socioeconomic differences).
  3. This means that the doctor in the emergency room is only going to see a non-helmeted cyclist when the injury was very serious; but he in fact sees the helmeted cyclist for minor injuries.
  4. Surprise! Helmet use seems to correlate with less severe injuries!
  5. As it turned out, though, you were also able to use the same data from this study to 'prove' that wearing a bicycle helmet reduced your likelihood of getting a leg injury by a similarly high percentage. Again, the guys with broken legs went to the hospital no matter what; but the non-helmeted guys with cuts and bruises just went home and sprayed Bactine while the helmet-wearers were more likely to go to the hospital; and the helmet-wearers were more likely to be leisurely riding through a park and suffer their falls in the grass rather than be hit by a motor vehicle on the roadway.

This is a clear study error. The "control" group in this case-control study is not similar enough to the "case" group to make these conclusions. Statistics 101; and don't believe the typical bullshit response about lies, liars, and statistics - this example is pretty damn clear-cut. The study was flawed; and this new study will be equally flawed.

Of course, the Chronicle didn't bother going into this level of detail, despite the fact that I'm sitting right here, and am no stranger to those guys. It's as if they're not even interested in trying anything more strenuous than reporting on press releases these days...

More on the Thompson/Rivera study from a slightly different angle.

October 08, 2006

Rapid Bus in LA ain't rapid either

Check out this tale of woe, which is pretty much what I'd expect out of Capital Metro's MetroRapid service here in Austin in a couple of years. Any transit service without reserved guideway is doomed to these kinds of performance and reliability problems - holding a light green for a few seconds doesn't come close to cutting the mustard.

Remember that this 'rapid' bus service is all the urban core of Austin is ever going to get from Capital Metro, thanks to the decision of other pro-light-rail folks to sign on to ASG.

September 27, 2006

Rail transit dies in Austin, thanks to one final cut

Here's what I sent to the Alliance for Public Transportation, upon seeing their official launch and noting that their platform is basically "push for Capital Metro's full plan, quicker", despite alleging to be an "Independent Voice for Transportation". Note that this will probably signify a great reduction in posts from here on out - as there's really nothing more to say; the remaining pro-rail forces which could have fought for rail for central Austin have instead fully backed Krusee's plan. There's nobody left.

This means that rail down Guadalupe is dead. This means that Hyde Park, West Campus, and the Triangle will never have light rail. This means that central Austinites who pay most of Capital Metro's bills will never, ever, get served with rail transit. This means that even downtown Austin, the University, and the Capitol will never get anything better than a slow, stuck-in-traffic, shared-lane streetcar which doesn't work any better than a bus.

Here's my note. I've already gotten a short, snarky, response from Glenn Gadbois which basically said "We'll accept this as an announcement that you won't be joining". IE: they aren't interested in fighting for real light rail at all.

I see the site is finally unveiled. It's worth noting that there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Austin commuters are going to be significantly more willing than those in other new rail start cities to accept a transfer as part of their daily commute - which means that nothing short of reserved-guideway, one-seat, transit will be enough to attract a significant number of choice commuters.


IE: transfer to "urban core circulator" is going to be completely useless -
it's no better than transferring to a shuttle bus, as people will very
quickly figure out, since the streetcar will likewise be stuck in traffic
(no reserved guideway); and in no city in this country has a new rail start
which relies on shuttle distribution been anything other than a huge
disappointment.


You can't fix this plan with enhanced circulators. (Even a
reserved-guideway circulator, such as true light rail running through
downtown, would be a significant disincentive to ridership - areas where
rail transit is just beginning can't afford to make the trip any more
difficult than absolutely necessary - reports from New York or Chicago or
San Francisco are thus irrelevant here).


We're not using Minneapolis or Portland or St. Louis or Denver or Salt Lake
or Dallas as our model. They all built light rail on reserved guideway
which went directly to major employment centers without requiring transfers
to shuttle buses - and all have succeeded. (Most did what we would have
done with the 2000 plan: use some existing right-of-way, and transition to
the street where necessary to get directly where they needed to go).


We're instead doing what South Florida did with Tri-Rail, which is:
implement rail service on the cheapest, most available, existing track; and
hope people will be willing to ride shuttle buses the last mile or two to
their office every single day through congested traffic. It failed, despite
the shuttles being there to "whisk passengers to their final destination".


Pushing further for this plan only takes us further out on a limb which is
guaranteed to break. If we ever want real rail for central Austin, the only
path forward is to point out that this plan is not going to work and cannot
be made to work; and that we need reserved-guideway rail transit running
through the urban core NOW.

September 24, 2006

The McMansion Ordinance Doesn't Hurt 9300 Square Foot Lots, You Idiots

Today's article in the Statesman is making me breathe fire. Of course this couple can build a big house - they have a 9300 square foot lot! That's a very large lot for Central Austin. And, of course, they're a family of 3.

Try running the same calculation on a more-typical lot of 7000 square feet, or on my lot of 6000 square feet. The impact of this ordinance is that families like mine (4) and my next-door neighbor (5) must choose between a normal second-story on the same footprint as the existing small house, and a garage apartment (which they already have; and I'd someday like to have). It's going to drive families out of the urban core neighborhoods; exactly the opposite of what we should be encouraging.

AustinContrarian is posting an excellent series about this ordinance. He's up to Reason 7 to hate the McMansion Ordinance as of today. Highly recommended.

September 20, 2006

Somebody Finally Gets It

Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100,000 question about Rapid Bus, namely, "why are we spending all this money for something that's not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won't generate any transit-oriented development", and what's more, they're apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it's already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don't think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built -- as I've commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don't, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).

September 13, 2006

M1EK's Way Forward

This comes up from time to time, usually in other forums where people aren't familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:

Why don't you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?

Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.

Then there's the shorten rail transit's dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I'm sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it's what I've done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren't helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.

During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other 'positive' plans, which I'll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks - the reason the '00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar - folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we'd be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we're not, but it doesn't matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can't turn streetcar into light rail later on - light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can't run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the '00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously - having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible - the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all - Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders - telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn't go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won't help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion - use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that's not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.

Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

September 12, 2006

Build Greater Austin and Capital Metro

A quick hit - since I missed this story due to scaling back to weekend-only service, I never got to comment on this piece:

So the budget released last Monday for the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, eliminated the $6.6 million Austin portion (and a tiny amount that would have gone to Leander).

Left undisturbed, at the request of Capital Metro board member Fred Harless, was $1.1 million for the suburban communities in Capital Metro's service area that won't have rail stops.

Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim has been agitating for Capital Metro to keep giving Austin $2.4 million of the $6.6 million. The city says it's been falling behind on routine street maintenance and Kim's request would fill that gap.

Councilmember Kim is exactly right, albeit for the wrong reasons. If it's justifiable to leave the suburban money in there, Austin should keep a big chunk of its money too, since this commuter rail project barely serves Austin at all compared to Leander. It doesn't go anywhere near central Austin residential areas, nor to UT, the Capitol, or downtown, so the only practical beneficiaries of this line are Leander residents who don't mind riding shuttle buses.

In short, the people who pay Capital Metro's bills (i.e. central Austinites) aren't getting rail stations - and, therefore, should probably be keeping this BGA money; or at least, most of it. And thanks to the fact that Austin gets screwed by having to maintain a much, much larger percentage of major roads than do our suburban friends, we already have less money to spare on things like sidewalks, which is why the BGA money was so darn useful.

I'll try to get around to writing a new, updated, version of "M1EK'S SUPER-POSITIVE HAPPY FUN PLAN" in response to comments on the last posting sometime this week.

September 07, 2006

Chronicle remains credulous

In today's story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, not once, in the entire story, was this fact mentioned:

The three biggest "nodes", now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it'll be as slow as the bus is today, and that's the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as "Rapid" though they may be).

Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

September 02, 2006

"Please do what we want, or we'll ask nicely again!"

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro's long-range plans while never asking "hey, shouldn't we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin"?

There's a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.

People will get co-opted by this group, just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, and as a result, there's no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.

If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he'll end this now by using this group's forum to push for what Austin needs - but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn't be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do! Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I'd also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”. This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

September 01, 2006

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro's frustration echoes with me, obviously. I've long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the "good guys" are serious about gathering public input, and the "bad guys" are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don't matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.

Take Capital Metro's worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically "where should we put an extra station or two on this line we've already settled on", and "hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?". Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.

But please remember: Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan isn't the result of community input, folks. It's a result of Mike Krusee's command.

On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform's roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they'll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say "this is what we need to do; now, I'm willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:...". Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They've completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.

If I could say anything to folks like that, it's this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn't negotiate with them. He didn't gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn't even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

August 23, 2006

Think Like A Passenger

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, frankly, just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who's bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they're accepting input from the community - I'll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.

As usual, what's missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?

Take as a given that we're talking about 'choice commuters' - i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don't take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).

See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.

See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.

There's about one place where the "why is this better than a bus" question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It's not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out - so you're left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again - people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it's still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.

Think about it this way: We've got a passenger. His name's Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn't he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can't shift to another street when there's an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn't going to work - he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it - and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?

Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session - in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle's perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between "good rail" and "bad rail". At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play - but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I've got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than "rail bad" or "rail good" to "this rail bad BECAUSE".

The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it's going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he's doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

MetroRapid: Part One

Since many others are doing a fine job showing how stupid the idea of an adult bicycle helmet law is, I'm catching up on stuff I was supposed to crackplog about a LOOONG time ago.

Here's the first of a series about Rapid Bus, now officially branded MetroRapid, which, don't forget, is the sum total of the transit improvements on tap for the urban core of Austin thanks to the bait-and-switch commuter-rail electioneering. You aren't getting rail; you're getting a bus that looks like a train. But does it perform like a train? In each one of these articles, I'll be looking at another "rapid bus" or "bus rapid transit" city and how the mode actually performs, and compare to Austin's proposal.

Let's start with a note that my intrepid cow orker forwarded me some months ago from New Jersey: Bus Rapid Transit - Not For New Jersey. I'll provide some excerpts, since the whole thing is fairly long.

Study after study has now clearly confirmed what NJ-ARP repeatedly has reported for more than a decade - busways do not attract large ridership, cost more to construct and operate and, where they do operate, have not produced the financial results their promoters have promised. It's a lose-lose-lose situation.

In our case, we're not actually constructing a busway; so the "costs more to construct" is not applicable to Austin. However, the "do not attract large ridership" will certainly bite us here.

Statistics show that busways attract only 33 percent of projected ridership, but rail lines exceed initial estimates by 22 percent. Notwithstanding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in concert with the highway and motor bus industry, has continued to advocate for BRT. In order to justify continued expansion of BRT, supporters have used rail planning models to predict bus patronage. Even though busway supporters have sponsored trips to places such as Curitiba, Brazil, to view what in their minds is a successful application of BRT technology, nowhere in North America has this mode of public transport attracted such rail passenger boardings.

Curitiba is really starting to become like the infamous (and discredited) 85% head-injury-reduction-for-bicycle-helmets study. It's trotted out every single time some transit agency is pressured by the Feds into building BRT (or Rapid Bus) instead of rail - and every single time it's not even remotely applicable to the United States' population. Curitiba is a poor city full of people who are, at best, marginally capable of affording automobiles. It doesn't take much at all to get them to use public transportation - most don't have a choice, and the remainder are poor enough that even relatively small cost savings are worth large investments in extra commuting time. All their "bus rapid transit system" really had to do was be a smidge faster than regular buses to be a huge success there.

The same, of course, is not true in the US (or Austin in particular). Remember this post in which I estimate that a potential transit user in the suburbs might save a couple of bucks at the cost of an hour or two of time. Not compelling in the least, even if the extra time investment drops by 20% or so.

When one considers that light rail cars have a 40-year life compared with 15 years for buses, LRT is much less costly as well as more attractive and safer.

Hey! Good news for Austin! We'll only be stuck with these awful articulated buses for 15 years, and then we can get rid of the "but we invested all that money in those fancy buses" argument.

A study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed that light rail vehicle was 15.5 percent less costly to operate than bus, all other factors being equal. Low floor light rail cars have a larger capacity than low floor buses of comparable length. The average capacity of a 40-foot low floor bus is only 37 seated passengers due to space that is taken up by the wheel wells which intrude on interior space that otherwise could be used for fare paying riders. While an articulated two-section low floor bus contains more seats, it will still have less capacity than a low floor light rail car. Unlike BRT, a light rail line can increase line capacity by adding more cars to a train, resulting in an increase in operator productivity. The only way to increase the capacity of BRT is to add more buses, each of which will require another driver resulting in higher operating costs.

Well, Capital Metro is so flush with money that higher operating costs won't matter at all, right?

Please check out the whole article. BRT and its stunted sibling "Rapid Bus" are nothing more than stalking horses, pushed by the Feds to avoid having to make investments in rail transit. After all, you can convert a busway back into a car lane. Don't be fooled - folks pushing Rapid Bus aren't friends of public transit.

Next time: Boston!

August 21, 2006

Superman crashing weddings?

So I was at my cousin's wedding on Saturday down on Oltorf and as we pulled in, there was this guy in a full Superman costume waiting for the bus. (This could launch about a million jokes). According to rumor, this guy's been crashing events - he was supposedly praying in the church before we got there. I was completely embarassed as I had to tell out-of-town relatives that I had no idea about this dude, but hey, do you want to hear about Leslie? So much for my image as The Guy To Ask About Weird Austin Stuff.

So, my two readers, what gives with this new eccentric dude? I needs to know so I can rectify my ignorance.

August 17, 2006

Letter to City Council

Just sent a moment ago. Links added for reference.

Dear mayor and council members:

My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 to 2005, and still write on the subject of transportation from time to time. Until a medical condition forced me to stop, I was a frequent bicycle commuter (but, unlike some others you probably hear from, also continued to own and drive a car as well).

I can't emphasize enough the points previously made by Jen Duthie from UT that this ordinance may seem like much ado about nothing if you're used to thinking about bicycling as simply a sporting activity - like the ride Bruce Todd was on when he hurt himself. If you're going out to ride for fun, a helmet doesn't make a lot of difference - you'll probably still ride, and even if forcing a helmet makes you delay your ride until a cooler day, for instance, the overall public health is not significantly harmed.

But for transportation bicyclists, mandating a helmet be used for what is essentially a safer activity overall than driving is a critical error - many marginal cyclists will simply stop riding their bikes and return to their cars. You certainly see this effect at play among children - hardly any of whom ride their bikes to school any more, partly because of the inconvenience and discomfort of the helmet, but also due to their parents belief that cycling must be a very dangerous activity if it requires a helmet.

Every adult cyclist you convince not to ride is one more driver. Every driver is that much more traffic and pollution; making Austin less healthy not only for themselves but for the rest of us as well.

Since the evidence in the real world has shown that there has been no actual benefit from dramatic increases in helmet usage in this and other countries, there ought to be no justification whatsoever for a mandatory helmet law (or even, I'd argue, excessive promotion of helmets compared to more effective measures such as traffic enforcement and education).

Please take this in mind when voting. No serious transportation cyclist (i.e. one who actually uses their bike to get around) has signed on to this effort as far as I'm aware.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

August 04, 2006

The street is not the property of adjacent landowners.

Warning! High degrees of bile contained within! The excellent weather and low-stress environment up here in the UP of Michigan have somehow had the exact opposite effect as you might have predicted on my reaction to some more typical neighborhood association nonsense back home.

Here's the story: Some puff media are covering and some less puffy blogs are mocking the protests about the sidewalk-coverin' parking-reducin' patio on South Congress. Here's M1EK's position for you, short and bileful:

TRUDY'S SHOULDN'T HAVE TO BUILD MORE PARKING. Requiring suburban amounts of parking for this restaurant in a thriving urban area merely ensures that development will remain suburban in scope and blighted in quality. This is a city. Grow up, idiots.

COVERING UP THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCK. Don't expect my sympathy when you cover up the damn sidewalk, you Trudy's buttheads.

MAKING FUN OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T WANT TO STEP OFF THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCKIER SUCK. It's easy for you or me to hop off a curb for a while. Now imagine you're in a wheelchair, or walking with a cane, you smug jackasses. Real cities have sidewalks. EVERYWHERE. (Note: The smug jackasses are sort of implied here; nothing in the non-puffy blog was all that smug about this; but I've seen this sentiment displayed in other circumstances. This city is way too mellow about protecting pedestrian infrastructure).

BITCHING ABOUT NOT BEING ABLE TO PARK IN "YOUR SPACE" IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE = TEH SUCKIEST SUCK OF ALL TEH SUCKS. Again, you don't own the space in front of your house, you reactionist retards. YOU DON'T OWN THE STREET IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE. (* - RPPP notwithstanding).

I'm thinking of getting those points printed on a big sign (with protruding asterisk for maximum pointiness) and then smacking the neighborhood association jerks over the head with it. Who's with me?

(Yes, the link is to the newer, and much more acceptable, Parking Benefit District; I can't find a general site for the RPPP, so sue me).

July 31, 2006

Buses Alone Can Never Get It Done

In response to one of the most common anti-rail arguments out there, paraphrased: "Why don't you get more people to ride buses and then come back and ask us to build rail", I posted the following to a yahoo group concerning the Mueller redevelopment, and it bears archiving here.

Buses cannot and will never be faster or more reliable than the private automobile, unless a vast network of bus-only lanes is built. Until that glorious day, anybody who argues that we need improve the bus system before building rail is either foolish or hiding a desire to avoid investment in transit altogether.

In other words, the bus system is, in fact, being run about as well as
it could be run, given the political and financial constraints under
which Capital Metro must labor. You could run buses every single
minute down every street in Austin and not pick up many more
passengers than ride today - essentially all of the people who are
willing to suffer the significant time, reliability, and comfort
penalty inherent in mixed-traffic bus service are already doing so.

That being said, these streetcars aren't the magic bullet which can
get people out of their automobiles either. They're still stuck in
traffic, slow, and unreliable; just like the Dillos they will
presumably model after.

Only reserved-guideway transit can really beat the private automobile
in cities where parking isn't that expensive and is widely available,
like ours. Too bad so many center-city folks, including so many
Mueller backers, fell for the con job of Krusee's commuter-rail plan,
which has in fact not only failed to deliver light rail to the urban
core, it actually precludes it from being delivered anytime in the
foreseeable future.

July 20, 2006

Why The Bile

From this thread full of optimistic talk from happy-fun-land about how We Can Still Make This Thing Work, I attempt to crush the dreams and hopes of the new generation by writing the following.


The solution is to keep reminding people that there is such a thing as "bad rail", and this thing is it. Seriously, there's no way to re-route it now; they've chosen a technology which is effectively incompatible with running down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress in the 2000 alignment. (And, by the way, it's also somewhat incompatible with street-running even across town on 4th street, due to vehicle height, unless you don't want any stations between the Convention Center and Seaholm). IE, even if Capital Metro turns over the agency to me at this point, the only solution is to completely stop working on the commuter rail line and completely change gears to the original light rail route; there's no way to extend commuter rail where it actually needs to go which is remotely feasible economically, politically, or even technologically.

The reason I keep harping on this is that LONG BEFORE the election, when there was still a chance to persuade Capital Metro to change their mind (or force them to), people like you and the other naive cheerleaders here said "well, they'll just build that thing and then we'll get light rail in the urban core later". The numerous technical, financial, and political reasons why that was never actually going to happen were viewed as just downer-talk from pessimist-land.

Switch gears to South Florida. Some people pointed out early on that requiring choice commuters to use shuttle buses wasn't going to fly. They were ignored, in favor of the great spirit of optimism. Surely, they said, we can improve the line later on, if those negative nellies actually have a point. Two decades later, and hundreds of millions of dollars of irrelevant double-tracking later, people are finally beginning to get it: the line can't be fixed; the fundamental problem is the location of the line itself; the only solution is to pick up and move to the FEC corridor (another existing rail line which runs right through all the major downtowns of the region).

Now, switch gears back to Austin. Same thing is about to happen. Not much chance of stopping them now, but at least all you cheerleaders ought to rejoin reality-land: Capital Metro is trying to convince you that Rapid Bus is really just as good as light rail would have been. Why do you think they're doing that? Could it be that old crotchedy M1EK was actually right, and that holding our noses and supporting commuter rail doomed us? No, must be something else. Keep cheering, folks! Sooner or later, something good's bound to happen!

And for those who think it couldn't possibly be this bad - I refer you to yesterday's post: there's really only one question you need to ask Capital Metro.

July 19, 2006

Where does the commuter rail line end downtown?

On this forum, some folks are naively optimistic about how close the commuter rail line comes to major employment centers downtown (one even argued, although was corrected, that people would walk the 2+ miles from the MLK station to UT every day!). I dug up the picture below, and added in a legend and drew in the route of the 2004 commuter rail line as well as the 2000 light rail line. I'm not enough of a photoshop wizard to remove the other three "possible station locations" - this image was originally from a city of Austin newsletter about possibly extending the commuter rail line west to Seaholm.

Note that the typical 1/4 mile catchment area around the station at Red River and 4th Street doesn't go anywhere near any big office buildings - the only big buildings it captures are some hotels - whose employees aren't the "choice commuters" a new rail start should be going after anyways. A quarter-mile radius is typically used as an estimate of the maximum amount of distance that the typical daily commuter would be willing to walk from the train station to their office - any more than this, and they won't take the transit trip (or, as Capital Metro would hope, contrary to all of the evidence from Tri-Rail in South Florida, they'll be excited to be "whisked to their destination on shuttle buses").

Also note that the Capitol and UT are much, much, much farther from any stations for the commuter rail line - this image only shows the southern half of downtown. Not even the most optimistic people are thinking anybody would walk to work at UT or the Capitol from this thing.

I've also put green dots on the biggest buildings in this area from emporis.com's list of Austin high-rises (top 20 only), and yellow dots on other future big buildings / employment centers in the area (mostly residential high-rises under construction). Note the complete lack of any current or proposed big buildings anywhere near this commuter rail stop.

July 18, 2006

Tidbits from Cap Metro's PR explosion

Capital Metro has completely redone their web site for the All Systems Go project, and it looks pretty darn nice. Here are some relevant tidbits:

1: The MetroRail page: "Regular and special shuttle buses will whisk you to your final destination.".

Yup, those shuttle buses will whisk you through traffic downtown, just like the Dillos do today. Anybody who rides those things feel "whisked"? The requirement that essentially all riders must transfer to shuttle buses to get to work is why Tri-Rail failed miserably in South Florida. Every successful rail start in the last 20 years has followed the same pattern (including DART in Dallas and MetroRail in Houston): the train goes where the people want to go. People with jobs don't mess around with shuttle buses. They just don't.

2. The MetroRapid page (formerly called "Rapid Bus"): "As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded Rapid bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, “that bus looks like a train.”"

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be thinking to myself: a train wouldn't be stuck in traffic behind all these damn cars and buses. Holding a green light at one intersection doesn't help clear the clogs from the next ten intersections ahead of you. (Anybody who doubts this is welcome to view Guadalupe near UT during rush-hour). The only way to turn a bus, even if it looks like a train, into something approaching light rail is to give it its own lane, which they are not doing with MetroRapid.

3. The Circulator System page - they're hyping streetcar, but as noted before: it's going to be shuttle buses, for a long time; and streetcar only happens if they can con UT and/or the city into paying a good chunk of the bill.

Streetcars are a nice thing to have in the long-run for a variety of reasons, but they don't do one damn thing to improve speed or reliability of the 'circulator'.

In summary: Nothing's changed; the folks in central Austin who pay most of the bills are still getting screwed by Capital Metro. Any questions?

Local puff media fails again

Apart from KUT, nobody bothered to get a remotely critical reading on Capital Metro's latest PR blitz other than Jim Skaggs' Neanderthal Act. And even KUT let Cap Metro off the hook, as it turns out. (Note that the Cap Metro flack responding to my comment that the shuttle bus or eventual streetcar would not be reliable or fast since it's sharing a lane with cars said that the commuter rail train would take the same amount of time every day - which is true - good dodge, CM flack; I salute you).

There's really only one question you need ask Capital Metro:

How are passengers on the train going to get from the train station to their office in the morning, and how are they going to get back to the train station in the evening?

The rail line doesn't even go close enough to downtown offices for people to walk; and there's zero chance anybody's going to walk the mile or two to UT or the Capitol. So, again, why is nobody asking Capital Metro how they're going to get to work in more detail?

July 16, 2006

Local neighborhoods not obstructionist enough, says ANC

Just posted to ANCTalk: a position paper on the Concordia redevelopment, which is in my neck of the woods. (I can tell you that as somebody close enough to hear I-35 during the winter months, I'd sure appreciate some big buildings, even if there's nothing there I'd ever want to go to, which is hard to believe).

Read especially the final couple of paragraphs. The responsible (only somewhat obstructionist) position of Hancock and Eastwoods is being assailed by the ANC - so now, not even restricting the project to the merely moderate levels of density supported by nearby neighborhoods is good enough for these people. In the past, the most egregious behavior by the ANC was limited to exploiting nearby (but not containing) neighborhood associations in cases like the Spring building (downtown neighborhood association was enthusiastically supporting it; so the ANC hung their hats on the disapproval of OWANA next door).

Mayor Will Wynn and City Council Members

The ANC executive committee at our July 12th meeting asked me to convey to
you the following with regard to the proposed redevelopment of Concordia
University.

The proposed redevelopment of the Concordia site presents the city with both
opportunities and challenges. The redevelopment of such a large area close
to downtown will provide an excellent opportunity for in-fill. At the same
time it poses a real challenge to ensure that scale of the development is
appropriate, the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods is protected and
that the neighborhood planning process is respected.

The surrounding neighborhoods most impacted, Hancock and Eastwoods, have
indicated their support for the concept of mixed use for the site. Despite
what has been reported, however, they do not support the developer's initial
proposal. While there has been some discussion of the proposal, neither
neighborhood has taken a position on it. They have committed to working
with the developer and are developing negotiating teams for this purpose.
They have contacted the other surrounding neighborhoods and CANPAC to engage
them in the process. ANC supports this approach and urges the Council to
grant these neighborhoods' request for an experienced city planner to assist
them in this effort.

The neighborhoods have made it clear that the major issues that such a
planning approach should address are density, height and traffic impact.
ANC believes that the resolution of these issues should be the starting
point for any design and not an afterthought. Further, a comprehensive
traffic analysis of this area, including the St. David's PUD, is essential
to establish the appropriate density for this development as was done for
the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment plan.

ANC also urges the City Council to respect the many years of effort these
neighborhoods have invested in their neighborhood plan. While this project
is asking for PUD zoning, it should not be treated any differently than any
project proposed in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan. Any change
to the Future Land Use Map or the current Civic zoning should go through the
regular neighborhood plan amendment process. Filing for a PUD should not
exempt a project from the standard neighborhood plan amendment process.

While we support the adjacent neighborhoods' role in defining what is
appropriate for this site we are also concerned about the precedent this
project will set for the surrounding areas and for future development in
East Austin along IH 35. We sincerely appreciate recent statements by
members of the City Council on limiting high rise construction to downtown
and in TOD's. We hope that sensitivity is also extended to the Concordia
Redevelopment plan.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Susan Pascoe

Immediate past president of ANC for

Laura Morrison, ANC President

July 10, 2006

Refresher on TOD and commuter rail

Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the 'downtown circulator', respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.

With that in mind, it's worth reiterating the answer to the question:

When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?

Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.

Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro's system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a "light railway" doesn't make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.

Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building "transit villages" around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn't go anywhere interesting on the "urban end" without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.

You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can't be stuck behind other peoples' cars. You don't get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).

The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that's not the fatal flaw - the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.

A large part of the 2000 line's residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers - until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.

As for UT - I hope they're not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee's bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT's main campus didn't make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn't help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form - it just tears up one of UT's streets for a transit mode which won't be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT's employees aren't going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus - it's still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.

(1: It's OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility - i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible - the bus driver can't decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).

July 03, 2006

A complete misunderstanding of economics

So this guy has demanded that I post some kind of authoritative manifesto defending 'supply-side real-estate' and has banned me from commenting further because I dared make the assertion that adding a bunch of units to the luxury apartment market does, in fact, have an eventual impact on the moderately-priced apartment market. (To be extra conservative here, a typical comment by me is this:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Can somebody explain to me what, exactly, makes comments like that so reprehensible that they justify a chest-thump like his last paragraph? It's basic economics. If you add additional supply in any segment of a market with vast participation, eventually it affects the supply/demand balance in other segments, too.

Let me repeat for emphasis:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Paging through his voluminous response, I suppose you could best sum up his retort as "the markets are segmented, and thus adding additional supply to the luxury segment can't possibly affect the supply/demand balance for the moderate segment". He then uses a Ferarri/Camry example.

Well, his first assertion is true - the markets are 'segmented', but individual complexes can, and do, migrate from luxury to moderate segments. (Barring new construction and population growth, this is usually a function of time - for instance, the Penthouse1 and Westgate buildings near the Capitol were doubtlessly considered luxury units when built - but today are fairly cheap compared to the new lofts going up farther south). Data on those and other downtown properties can be found from downtownaustin.com. This also explains why the car analogy doesn't hold water - cars don't last long enough for entire models of cars to migrate like that. (If cars lasted 50 years, let's say, then a bunch of 50-year-old Ferraris might, in fact, be competing with brand-new Eclipses. And changes to the current production run which drastically increased new Ferrari output would lead to some people moving up from slightly less prestigious sports cars to that Ferrari, of course).

The impact of the new construction is that the migration of buildings from the "expensive" to "moderate" category will happen quicker. The 10-year-old properties can't obtain the rents they otherwise would have if a bunch of brand-new buildings are built in the surrounding blocks.

I'm not going to bother spending any time defending basic supply and demand to this person by siphoning the internet for studies on real estate. Others are more than welcome.

1: Relatives by marriage have purchased several units in this building over the last couple of years - for a pittance compared to what it would cost to buy a new loft.

Addendum: I went back to his previous entry and discovered why he's so pissed: a comment of his went to moderation and/or rejected. Dude. I didn't even see your comment; I don't force moderation on anybody - all I do is use the built-in automated Movable Type stuff based on words it thinks might be spam and some other metrics (probably number of URLs or whatnot). Try again; email me; whatever; but take off the tinfoil hat.

Addendum Deux: Wikipedia has a good overview of the differences between the real estate market and the market for, say, cars. Models for real estate economics must take into account the fact that the good being purchased is immovable (unless you live in West Virginia) and highly durable (this varies, of course).

June 29, 2006

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here's a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.

Next week:

ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they're all wet.

June 24, 2006

Surprise! Students want to live near UT!

This is from a thread on the Austin Neighborhoods Council yahoo group. None of the people who post there are remotely likely to be convinced, but some of the people who read (including, I assume, staff members for city council) are still not entirely lost causes. Reposted here for posterity as well.

Block-quoted items are from the person I was responding to.

Mike's complaint that neighborhoods are reluctant to allow SF to MF zoning changes is completely irrelevant.

No, I'm sorry, but it's perfectly relevant. The market tried to provide multifamily housing near UT for decades, and people like the ANC got in the way. Students still want to live close to UT; so (more) of them move into houses than otherwise would have. Some who would have lived in apartments instead live in rental houses. This should not be difficult to believe - all you have to do is put yourself in their shoes. Pick between riding the shuttle bus from Far West every day or cramming into a house and riding your bike to campus. I know which one I'd pick.

I understand why these students want to live in a house. Houses are fun. You can't throw keggers in the back yard of an apartment. You can't set up a pool table a juke box and a wet bar in the garage of an apartment.

On the other hand, most new apartment buildings have party rooms and pools; and are unlikely to have people living next door who call the cops on you every time you make noise after 10:30 (see below). You don't have to worry about the trash; you're less likely to have maintenance problems; parking is a simpler issue; etc.

Only one of us is making an extraordinary claim here. Clearly if there wasn't pent-up demand for multifamily development in this area, the recent relaxation of absurd height restrictions near UT wouldn't have resulted in an explosion of new projects, right?

No matter how many apartments we build near campus (and we are building a LOT right now),

Now, after 20 years of building essentially nothing. It's going to take a long time to catch up.

there will always be people who want the party "frat house" atmosphere you can't get in a dorm or an apartment.

Yes. There will always be SOME people who want this. But a few such houses in each neighborhood would certainly be better than 2 out of every 3 houses, wouldn't it? At Penn State (where I did my undergrad years), there were a ton of apartments near campus - far more than UT, compared to the number of students who couldn't fit in dorms, and the result was that far fewer houses near campus turned into rental properties.

But that party "frat house" atmosphere really sucks for people living next door trying to raise children and wanting to enjoy luxuries of home-ownership such as being able to pull out of their own driveway whenever they want or walk down the street without fearing for their safety.

I live next door to a duplex which until this summer had UT Wranglers in the front _and_ the back. I have a 2-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepson. I've called the cops enough that they now have become fairly quiet neighbors. I can tell you from observation that the situation wasn't ideal for either one of us - they certainly didn't enjoy dealing with the police or their landlord after some of those parties.

As for the parking issue - that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Think for a moment how you can ethically support the proposition that people in one given house have a right to on-street parking, but people in another house on the same street don't.

(That's the end of the posting. It's amazing to me how quickly people of this particular ideological bent will immediately assume that anybody arguing against their position must not have a family (or, even more common, be a developer. For the record, again, I'm trying to raise a family in the urban core; and I'm not a developer).

June 21, 2006

Water and micro vs. macro economics

As usual, local leaders (most of whom hail from the environmental side of the divide) want to do something good, but come up with a stupid way to do it.

New rules could force homeowners to make plumbing improvements like removing wasteful showerheads and fixing leaking faucets or sprinklers. It may also include rules requiring watering of lawns and landscapes once every five days.

The City Council appears ready to impose a set of rules which attempt to solve this problem from the top down, via a sort of macroeconomic (for lack of a better word) approach. It will likely work, for given values of 'work' - I'm sure they can reduce water consumption to a certain degree with these measures, but it will likely be an inefficient effort which requires additional spending on inspection and enforcement which could be better spent elsewhere.

A far better approach would be a more graduated and progressive water charge - today, you pay a tiny amount per gallon for the first N gallons, and a higher (but still very very cheap) amount per gallon for the remaining gallons you use, where N is an amount which appears to be designed to handle a small family's typical water usage if they don't water a lawn. Adding more gradiations to this scale and more drastically accelerating the water cost as you go up would be the smartest way to internalize the incentives you want people to have to conserve water, without the need for a big bureaucracy at the city. (Yes, rain barrels should still be subsidized - there are drainage benefits to them which far exceed the tiny water supply benefits). Some people would xeriscape; others would take more showers instead of baths; others would wash dishes differently. You don't really care HOW they do it; the only interest of the city is in delaying the need to obtain more water supply. The additional cost to the city of this solution is basically zero.

This particular approach, which I dub "marketatarian", uses the power of the market to solve a readily identifiable problem involving what's commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons, but doesn't wallow in the mire of hard-core libertarian nonsense (whose practitioners would go on and on about how the market would solve the water supply issue if we just let it do so, but would then call the pricing strategy above an example of socialist statism run amok). The Sierra Clubbers, on the other hand, typically have such a deep-seated mistrust of capitalism (thanks to those self-identified libertarians, among others) that they can't even wrap their heads around the simple fact that the market is a really really really good tool to solve problems, as long as you supply the right rules inside which it must operate. In this case, the only rules are "less water supply" and "progressive pricing so we don't completely cut off poor peoples' basic water needs".

By the way, the lack of support from the city for people who want to install "grey water" irrigation systems is another big part of the problem here. Now that we have a small child in the house who likes baths and I spend a couple nights a week soaking my aching legs in hot water, we send a ton of water down the drain which could just as easily be dumped in the yard.

This starts a new category I'm working on - titled "subsidies to suburban sprawl". This water billing scheme is one of many such 'user fees' which total up to massive undercharging of suburbanites for the costs they generate compared to urban dwellers. More to come - next up: garbage collection.

Also found another new Austin blog which seems right up my alley: New Urban Prospect.

June 19, 2006

Hyde Park Honors A McMansion

From David Whitworth: a home on the Hyde Park Homes Tour which apparently would not be allowed under the McMansion regulations. As I've posted before, don't forget that one of the leaders of the Task Force lives in nearly 3600 square feet right in the middle of a bunch of approximately 1000 square foot bungalows.

Bicycle Helmets Don't Work

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

Since the mandatory bicycle helmet law is rearing its ugly head here in Austin again thanks to the efforts of former mayor Bruce Todd, the following analysis of actual real-world results of increased bicycle helmet use in other countries is particularly relevant now.

The New York Times covered this for the USA in 2001. In short: Bicycle helmet usage went way up, but head injuries and fatalities didn't go down. This matches the observations in Australia, the UK, and many other countries.

Ride with a helmet if you want. But don't get smug about those who don't - they're NOT "organ donors", they're NOT stupid, and they're NOT irresponsible. THEY'RE actually the smart ones, given the apparent lack of benefit to wearing bicycle helmets.

And, please, stop the bullshit analogies with regards to seat belts. Nobody ever stopped driving because of seat belts, and even if they did, why would we care? Bicycle helmets are hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenient - and results in country after country show that many people simply stop cycling when their use is mandated. You don't have to carry your seat-belt around with you when you park your car; your car likely has air-conditioning; you're not actually exercising when you drive; seat belts are built in to the car; etc. Oh, and don't forget: seat belts, unlike bike helmets, actually WORK. The analogy couldn't be any worse if they tried.

If it's so damn obvious that people with "something up there to protect" would naturally choose to wear bike helmets, then why is it also not obvious that the same people would do so when driving their car? You get the same impact protection; but you're not sweating and you have an easy place to stow the helmet when you're done (inside the car itself).

Wikipedia has outstanding, heavily footnoted, coverage of bicycle helmets, if you don't like the "cyclehelmets.org" people.

June 15, 2006

Double taxation on city streets

For the anti-toll whiners patriots, and even those who use it to try to get more hits, here's a story for you.

There's this guy. His name is Joe Urbanite. He owns a car, which he drives sometimes. He used to walk and bike a lot, but now due to medical problems, can't bike at all and can only rarely walk. When he drives his car, he usually goes a mile or two to the grocery store on Red River, or downtown via Guadalupe for a show to the main library, or up Speedway to the pool at Shipe Park, or across town on 38th/35th Street to get to his inlaws' house. Joe's wife also uses the car a lot to go to the frou-frou grocery stores like Whole Foods (Lamar, 6th) and Central Market (38th). Joe might also use the car later today to go to the hardware store (29th near Guadalupe) to get some wiring supplies. Even when Joe's going far enough where Mopac or I-35 might be an option, he usually tends to stay away from those highways because he's found out it's a bit quicker to stick to surface streets than going through those awful frontage road traffic signals.

Those roads range from very big to merely minor arterials; but we're not talking about residential streets here. All those roads were paid for out of Joe Urbanite's property and sales taxes (usually but not always in the form of bonds). And remember, Joe lives in a property which is valued very high per acre compared to Bob Suburbanite, so he's paying proportionally more in property taxes.

Joe Urbanite goes up Guadalupe to the gas station to fill 'er up. He notices that the state of Texas has assessed a "gasoline tax" on his fuel. Wow! Neat! Does this money go to pay for the roads Joe used? If so, man, that's an awesome user fee; barely even a tax at all.

But no. The gas tax in the state of Texas is constitutionally prohibited from being spent on anything but state highways and schools. That means that if it doesn't have one of them nifty route shields with a number on it, it ain't getting squat. What about the federal gas tax? In theory, it could be spent on roads outside the state highway system, but it rarely is - most of that money gets dumped right back into big highway projects.

In summary: Joe pays the entire cost to build and maintain the roads he uses out of sales and property taxes. (Compared to Bob Suburbanite, far fewer roads in his area get any state gas tax money). Joe also pays as much in gasoline taxes per-gallon as does Bob Suburbanite, but that gas tax really only goes to build roads for Bob.

So tell me, anti-toll whiners patriots: how, exactly, is Joe Urbanite not double-taxed? And how is this example not much worse than toll roads?

June 09, 2006

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Council last night passed the McMansion Ordinance with 0.4 FAR applying to everything (totally rejecting the Planning Commission's efforts), and while they were at it, removed the "quick review commission" which could have provided a cheap(er) quick(er) path for obvious variance cases like mine. This means my next door neighbor wouldn't be allowed to build a second floor to expand his 1010 square foot house (family of 5).

Let's review: The unmitigated evil of this task force, and yes, I'm going to name names now, includes these sterling folks:

- Karen McGraw, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (link is to one of three properties at same address for her and husband): Has worked for years to stifle multifamily development in this area - leading to unintended consequences such as superduplexes and "McDorms". Lives in a property with 3500 square feet of developed space, including a garage apartment, surrounded by properties which are more like 1100 square feet. Incompatible size and bulk, anybody?

- Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association: Likewise has worked to obstruct multifamily development for years - and then has the gall to simultaneously complain about students renting houses in our area. Lives in a 2-story house which 'towers over the backyards of its neighbors'.

Chris Allen - lone person on the task force from the neighborhood side who understands anything about development - misled people for weeks and weeks into thinking the ordinance would have no effect on cases like mine, then switched tactics late in the game and started smugly telling people that I should just build "habitable attic space" or a basement, and, if that might be a wee bit too expensive or impractical, just go to the "quick review commission". Nothing to worry about, right? Except that the "quick review commission" just evaporated. Say hello once again to our old friend, the neighborhood-pandering kilodollars-wasting Board Of Adjustment!

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell me that I can't have a garage apartment and a second floor? (Neither of which would, unlike Maxwell's, 'tower over my neighbor's yard'?)

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell my next door neighbors that they can't have a second floor unless they tear down their existing garage apartment?

Tell me again why these people, who were wrong about opposing multifamily development, should be allowed to do even more to attempt to obstruct the market's desire to provide additional housing supply in the central city? (By further disincenting duplex and garage apartment development - both of which are much more affordable than single family homes, even tiny ones).

I'm disgusted. It's 9:00 AM, and I need a beer.

Contest Idea: If/When my next door neighbors move out after they find out they can't build their second floor, and we're left as the only family among about six houses full of students (thanks to the fine work of Ms. McGraw and Ms. Maxwell), what should I do about it? Most entertaining suggestion wins a prize.

June 08, 2006

Update on McMansion Ordinance

Tonight the City Council considers it. I spoke before the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (very late) and was covered by Fox 7 (including screen time I missed seeing, although my cow orker says I did pretty well) and the Statesman. Oddly, KVUE spent the most time with me but didn't even run a story on the meeting (admittedly it went so late everybody had to cover it on Thursday instead of Wednesday). Maybe once they figured out I was 'the crackpot' they abandoned the story.

The Chronicle's fluff coverage of this issue makes me sad. I alerted them to this impending fight a couple of weeks ago, but all they've done is this analysis-free notice-like blurb.

Planning Commission gave a thoughtfully skeptical endorsement - raising the FAR for lots with duplexes or garage apartments to 0.5 (which completely lets us of the hook and is a great help to our neighbors, as well as reducing MOST of the city-wide affordable housing disincentives in the original ordinance).

It's being fought vigorously by the Task Force, who, frankly, doesn't like secondary housing units in general (as well as multifamily development in the urban core. And McDorms. And superduplexes. Keep pluggin' them loopholes!).

Meanwhile, the one city council member who bothered to respond to me is apparently using boilerplate about how this ordinance is a supposed "compromise". (Not the PC version, but the original 0.4 FAR version). How, exactly, is this a compromise? I give up the right to develop my property and in return I get to live among people who already developed their property in the way I'm now not allowed to do?

The rhetorical gymnastics people will go through to avoid simply opposing bad neighborhood actors are just amazing.

No further crackplogging for a while - parents are in town.

June 06, 2006

Letter to council member - and "compromise"

One of the city council members wrote me back with a comment that they appreciated my letter but were going to vote for the ordinance on first reading anyways since it was a 'compromise'. I just sent the note below in response, but wanted to expand on the 'compromise' notion too.

A 'compromise' in this case would mean that I'd be giving up the right to develop some of my property, and in return, my neighbors would be giving up some of the right to develop their property, which would presumab