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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.

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.

November 23, 2009

Red Line Death Watch Part 1

No, not like the GM Death Watch at my favorite car blog; this is a "how long before somebody's killed" series. Today, some pictures of the intersection I talked about on KUT last week.

First, the overheard. Imagine you're headed west on 51st across Airport because you just went to Home Depot and are headed back to Hyde Park or points south. (Hint: Red River starts just south of this image as a turn off of Clarkson; turning on Clarkson is thus by far the best way into or around Hyde Park by car).

Not a lot of room there to queue up for that left turn, huh. Let's zoom in with google's streetview:

Continue reading "Red Line Death Watch Part 1" »

October 13, 2009

Math with M1EK, Lesson 1

It's come up again, this time on the twitter. The old road-warrior chestnut argument that it doesn't matter if urbanites pay a much higher percentage of their driving costs than do suburbanites, because suburbanites drive more miles overall. This tactic is a favorite of the folks at various car blogs that M1EK frequents as well, and it's time it was taken out back and shot.

Let's use our favorite Houston road as an example, thanks to AC for maintaining the story.

For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

So this means that for every given dollar in road costs, the driver pays $0.16 in gasoline taxes while driving on that roadway. Got it. This also means that another $0.84 is subsidized. That subsidy can come from gas taxes assessed on other roads, many of those being arterial roadways inside the city of Houston that TXDOT doesn't actually have to pay to maintain; from 'local contributions' that TXDOT often requires for freeway construction - i.e. property and sales taxes; or various other sources - the key is that the remaining money required to build and maintain this roadway isn't gas taxes generated by this road itself. So far, so good.

So let's assume that yesterday, Mr. Suburban Road-Warrior dove SH99 long enough to assess $1.00 in road costs to TXDOT and paid $0.16 in gas taxes for the privilege. Got it. Here's what that looks like:

Continue reading "Math with M1EK, Lesson 1" »

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).

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!

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).

June 13, 2008

Transportation Microeconomics Bites Me In The Butt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

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.

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 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 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.

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.

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...

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?

April 25, 2006

Nice Going, You Consumer Reports Asshats

Stories like this one are becoming more prevalent, thanks to Consumer Reports' hatchet-job on hybrids and their failure to fully correct their inconsistencies1 and misrepresentations2. It's now conventional wisdom that people won't save much, even on a Prius, because of CR's baloney - comparing the Prius to the Corolla as if anybody who was interested in the much larger Prius will instead cram their family into the Corolla rather than seriously considering the Camry.

Even more irritating is the new conventional wisdom among idiot pundits that the Prius comparatively high sales is due to nothing more than the "halo effect", when the data clearly show that the Prius is, frankly, a far better _car_ than the other hybrid cars. The Civic Hybrid still won't even let you fold the seat down, for instance, and is a much smaller vehicle; and the Accord Hybrid doesn't deliver much in the way of fuel economy. (I expect the Camry Hybrid, on the other hand, to do very well; Toyota's hybrid system, again, is clearly technologically superior to that of Honda).

The truth is that you'll save a ton of money compared to the Camry, and a decent amount even compared to the Corolla if you buy and drive a Prius.

You've set us back years, guys. Nice work.

(1: In their own data, they show the Prius' depreciation as "much better than average" and the Corolla as merely "average", yet their hybrid economic comparison shows greater depreciation for the Prius. Additionally, they claim greater spending on maintenance for the Prius, which is, again, contradicted by their own data. In fact, maintenance spending on the Prius is likely to lower, if anything, due to less brake wear).

(2: They compare the Prius only to the Corolla, a comparison only valid if you would fit your family into the Corolla absent the Prius. In fact, many, possibly even most, Prius drivers compare to midsize cars like the Camry, since the Prius is actually between the two cars in size - closer to the Camry especially in rear-seat legroom).

April 10, 2006

Vote Tuesday Against Sal Costello's Suburban Army

Sal Costello continues to post a shrill screed or three almost every single day to Austin Bloggers trying to get people to vote against incumbents who approved some or all of various toll road plans around these parts. Most irritating of all is that the Austin Libertarians (whose politics would logically tend to support tolls, even on existing roads, if they were being remotely consistent about user fees) have signed on with this pantload, which shows that they're just a bunch of suburban Republicans who don't want to be identified with the religious right.

If you have any interest in making sure that suburbanites pay their fair share, though, you need to vote the exact opposite way from Sal's recommendations. These toll roads finally start to reverse the decades-long subsidization of neighborhoods like Circle C by central Austinites who have to contribute property and sales tax money to TXDOT to build 'free'ways. At the same time, TXDOT spends most of their money in the suburbs and hardly anything remotely close to central Austin since most major roads there aren't part of the state highway system.

Tolls in any form are good. Tolls which changed by the time of day would be even better. Tolls which were frequently changed to ensure free-flowing traffic would be best. But any tolls are better than going back to the bad old days where Sal's driving is subsidized by people in Hyde Park who might not even own a car.

The truly amazing thing is that he's managed to sucker environmentalists into opposing these toll roads. Rather than imposing tolls on roads to stop subsidizing sprawl over the aquifer, groups like SOS actually think they have the power to prevent those roads from being built at all, and have made common cause with folks who would expand 290 to 100 lanes before caring one whit about Barton Springs.

Just say no to Sal. Tolls are a responsible way to make sure the people causing the demand actually pay the price.

January 20, 2006

Our lunch, and parking

I'm still not over the current flare-up of my stupid arthritis (now six months and counting since I was able to do, essentially, anything) so even though Julio's is within a good walk, we drove to lunch. My wife wanted to pick up some vegetables at Fresh Plus too. Here's what we had to do:

  1. Drive by Julio's. All spaces taken. Oops.
  2. Drive by the lot at Fresh Plus. Note that it's 2/3 empty, unlike the other big lot in the area. Sign says you will be towed if you leave the premises. Oops.
  3. Drive by the other big lot. Full. (Not really allowed for Julio's either; probably towable).
  4. Park on street amidst many people doing the same.
  5. Walk past Fresh Plus and that other lot over to Julio's.
  6. Eat lunch
  7. Walk back to Fresh Plus and buy vegetables
  8. Walk past 2/3 empty lot back to car

The even-more-suburban version of this would have entailed us parking at a lot for Julio's, then having to move the car to the Fresh Plus lot, then driving home. Some folks would prefer that business customers don't park on the street even in Hyde Park so that's not that far off. In fact, a local small business opening was/is being held up over such concerns. (if you can't read the hyde park group and you're really interested in the details, email me).

This shopping center was used before by Karen McGraw as an example of a good solution to the parking-versus-neighborhood-streets 'problem' when another business on Guadalupe was trying to get a variance to open with far less than suburban-norm parking. Didn't seem that good to me - pretty damn inefficient to have 2/3 of Fresh Plus' lot sitting there empty (and the big lot shared by Hyde Park Bar & Grill and other businesses is often underutilized as well, although not today).

We're not that unusual - when people do drive to this commercial node (many walk or bike), it's quite often to hit several places at once. Most either do what we do and park on the street (thus pissing off the neighbors) or risk getting towed because they 'left the premises'.

Does this strike anybody else as good? What the hell's wrong with just abolishing these stupid parking requirements anyways - businesses that absolutely can't live without dedicated off-street parking would continue to build it; but we wouldn't be left with these wide expanses of mandated, but empty, parking. And if there was a huge demand for off-street parking, somebody could build (shudder) a pay lot instead of forcing businesses to subsidize drivers at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians.

Folks, if you want to live in a real city, you have to get to that place where you realize that forcing every business to have its own parking lot is just stupid, stupid, stupid. You end up with blight (like on Guadalupe) because you just can't pound that square suburban peg into the circular urban hole.

January 11, 2006

Red Light Cameras

Tried to post this as a comment to this entry at gritsforbreakfast but blogspot's comment server crashed. Reproducing here for posterity.

I agree completely with steamboat lion, and also find it very disingenuous to claim that all people who want red light cameras have a financial motivation. (I, obviously, don't, for instance).

Those who oppose red light cameras should be banging the drum to get more cops out on the street enforcing the law. How much effort have you put into this? I certainly doubt very much whether it's feasible - it appears too easy to contest these types of tickets in court by shady means, but I'd like to hear your suggestion as well, since the idea that because red light cameras are often abused that we should just continue to do what we do now - basically allow red-light running with no consequences - is ridiculously inappropriate.

December 13, 2005

TXDOT and the Outer Loop and Sticking It To The Hippies

One thing which has been a minor irritant to me for a long time is this:

If TXDOT truly abandoned plans for the "Outer Loop" around Austin (environmental and economic catastrophe for Austin proper that it would have clearly been), why have they retained the same route number for SH 45 "S" and SH 45 "N"?

It's an article of faith around these parts that the Outer Loop won't be built, yet nobody seems to point out that TXDOT keeps calling the roads which would have formed the northern and southern parts of this loop by the same number. Why does nobody but me find this fishy?

My guess: TXDOT is still keeping the flame of the "Outer Loop" lit against the hated hippies of Central Austin. I can't come up with any other logical reason why they wouldn't want to give the two roads different numbers. Any other ideas?

October 31, 2005

New link

Found this site while browsing technorati today; very car-centric but at least discusses the topic of intersection design (which obviously interests me as well). I've added to my links and made a bunch of comments, trying to represent other road users (i.e. pedestrians and cyclists). Check it out.

October 18, 2005

Finally somebody else gets it

I've been arguing for a long time that the "commuting calculators" pushed by cyclists to convince people to ride their bike to work are skewed, since they assume that you can effectively divide the total cost of owning a car by the number of days in a year, then get credit for each of those days you leave it in the garage.

Capital Metro's example, for instance, assumes depreciation as one of the costs you save. (To be fair, they have now allowed you to zero out this field, which is quite a concession for them). I'd argue it should be zero or at least very low, since most of the cost of depreciation is a function of time, not miles. I've previously argued that a more rational accounting of costs shows that it's unlikely that a large number of suburban commuters would begin using the bus to get to work due simply to the cost of gasoline (which is why we need a real urban rail system that provides a time incentive to use transit; not this Austin-screwing transit-killer foisted on us by Mike Krusse).

Now the Washington Post has done an analysis which, although it still includes depreciation, correctly mentions other fixed costs which don't go away. In DC, as it turns out, you might not save anything by leaving your car in your driveway. Whatever you think of the merits of subsidizing public transportation, surely even the most reactionary of road warriors would admit that something's wrong there.

What could be done to help fix this problem? One obvious answer is to pay for all of the costs of road use through the gasoline tax, instead of through a variety of non-user-fees as we do today (property and sales tax especially). The suburban regions of DC, like Texas, pay for a lot of their roads this way - meaning that you pay the same (hundreds to thousands of dollars a year) whether you drive 100, 10, or 0 miles a day. Anything which increases the variable cost of driving while leaving the fixed cost alone (or even decreasing it) can only help people make more efficient decisions about how to travel on each trip. Another obvious answer would be forcing insurance companies to deliver on mileage-based insurance (and, no, despite publicity, they really aren't doing this today - or I'd be jumping all over it).

October 05, 2005

Ben White and I-35

This somewhat annoyingly self-conscious piece reiterates frustration many people have with the pace of interchange construction here in Austin, yet, as usual, nobody mentions the real problem.

FRONTAGE ROADS SUCK

Without the frontage roads and ancillary suburban metastasis, this interchange could have been upgraded in many different ways which would have been far cheaper and far quicker than the 5-level spaghetti bowl we're ending up with here. Other states build freeways mostly without frontage roads, which also destroy the ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users to actually get anywhere.

The argument in Texas is usually that access to existing properties must be preserved - which flies in the face of reality considering that when most of these roads are upgraded to freeways (long before interchange debacles like this one), most of the strip malls don't exist. On the rare occasions when access to existing properties simply must be preserved, other states do so either by shorter sections of frontage roads (noncontinuous) or by perimeter roads (examples along US101 in Santa Clara spring to mind). Neither of those choices, of course, allows the guys who own the land next to the freeway to cash in quite as readily.

Ironically, most Texans, when asked, seem to prefer these stupid things. While I can understand the layperson not getting it, it's pretty hard to understand how responsible leaders in our area outside TXDOT's cronysphere continue to support them, given the repeated examples of intersections which completely fail at moving traffic due to the stripsprawl their frontage roads generated (Braker/183, for instance, or Parmer/Mopac).

(Note to self: remember to write item about frontage road highway design severing existing connections across US 183, esp. northwest Austin).

September 16, 2005

Claims about Spring don't Spring

I don't have time for a full write-up on my old neighborhood's irresponsible opposition to the Spring project but one thing I talked about with my coworker yesterday merits a quick jotting down so I don't forget.

The neighborhood (and my coworker) assert that you shouldn't build this project because it would make traffic much worse at the 5th/6th/Lamar intersection, which already fails during rush hour. This seems like a reasonable proposition, but I assert otherwise. Consider a simplified model of the Spring residents - there are two residents, both of whom work downtown. Wendy Walker and Dave Driver.

Dave Driver is going to get in his car and drive east. This won't make the intersections at Lamar any worse, since he's already east of Lamar. Oops. (Note: during my conversation with my cow orker, both of us forgot the fact that Spring is east, not west, of Lamar - if it makes this more worthwhile, you can pretend that we're now talking about the intersection of 5th and Guadalupe, or that Spring is west of Lamar for the hypothetical).

Wendy Walker is going to walk to her job downtown. This can't make things any worse either.

Now, consider what happens if the project isn't built. Wendy and Dave still have their downtown jobs, but now they must drive there. Both will now go through the intersection at 5th and Lamar in the mornings and through 6th and Lamar in the evenings. Oops.

Like most opposition to densification, OWANA settled on the traffic argument since it's an easy one to win, even if it lacks merit. In this case it's clear - many (possibly most) of the people moving into these downtown complexes aren't going to bother driving to work, and even if they do, they're either 'reverse commuting' (driving OUT of downtown in the morning, where there's plenty of spare capacity) or they can't be making things any worse, since otherwise they'd be driving downtown from further out.

August 01, 2005

Toll Roads Help Central Austin, Part IV

The city is talking about amending the agreements with TXDOT about right-of-way participation for some local highways which are now, obviously, being rebranded as toll roads. This applies only to US 183 (east of I-35), US 290W, and SH 71 (east of I-35).

Note carefully the following facts:

  1. The city of Austin was on the hook for tens of millions of dollars for these roads, if they were to be built as freeways. The chance that this money would be extracted from Austin is 100%.
  2. The money for these contributions from the city to the state was authorized by the City Council in past cost-sharing agreements with TXDOT, which would require that bonds be floated like these examples in which voters authorized the city to borrow money for other recent highways.
  3. That borrowed money must be repaid by taxpayers in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, and other sources of revenue (mainly utility kickbacks). There is no contribution from gas taxes to the City of Austin budget. None.

What this means, in effect, is that the people in Central Austin who are disproportionately taxed on their properties (due to higher land values, not necessarily higher incomes) are paying these bills, and those are the people who drive the LEAST. Residents of the more sprawling parts of Austin are somewhere in the middle (pay less than Central Austin, get some benefit), and the real winners are people living in Dripping Springs, Bastrop, etc who pay nearly nothing and get most of the benefit of these particular roadways.

Now that the roads are being re-floated as tollways, the city is free (pending this agreement) to use this money (again, property and sales tax and utility dollars, NOT gas taxes) within the city limits of Austin for the needs of actual Austin taxpayers. And the people who most benefit from the roadways will actually have to pay for them.

What a communist idea.

Summary: toll roads are a winner for residents of Austin.

July 21, 2005

The Buses Aren't Empty, You Idiots

The probably forthcoming Capital Metro strike and a poll on News 8 have provided an opportunity for suburbanites to again claim that "the buses are empty" while wailing about their unfair tax burden.

I've addressed this a couple of times. Here are the links. Please read and forward (especially Part One). Educate just ONE suburbanite, and the world will be a better place.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

July 01, 2005

Double Taxation Isn't Restricted To Roads

The anti-toll zealots, and in particular, Sal Costello like to whine and moan that tolling freeway expansions which are (mostly) paid for with gas tax money is "double taxation". Left to the reader is the obvious implication that "double taxation" is a bad thing, and is new.

As you might have guessed, I'm here to tell you otherwise. First, a simple example.

Last weekend I drove down to Zilker Park on Sunday morning to play volleyball. (For reasons of time, I wasn't able to bike, although I do that sometimes too). At the entrance to the loop which meanders through the river side of the park, there was a booth (A TOLLBOOTH!) set up, at which I paid 3 big bucks for the privilege of parking my car at the park.

BUT WAIT! Zilker Park was ALREADY PAID FOR by my property and sales tax dollars! How can this be? This is (organ music) DOUBLE TAXATION!

The fact is that suburbanites whining about toll roads have had it pretty good for a long time. They've had their road infrastructure subsidized by the center-city, they pay far less comparatively in property taxes, and they impose most of the negative externalities of driving on us center-city residents. Nobody in Circle C has to worry about an elevated freeway monster wrecking some of their neighbor's houses and ruining everybody else's outdoor activities.

Yes, they (but mostly us center-city folks) paid taxes to build these roads already. So toll roads, as designed in this case, are, in fact, (organ music) double taxation.

True libertarians (which many in this anti-toll coalition claim to be) would recognize toll roads as a baby step towards road pricing, which is the evil capitalist concept that the scarcity in road space ought to be managed by charging people to drive on it. These suburban republicans who like to call themselves libertarians instead advocate taxing everybody who drives (and a healthy chunk from those who don't drive too) to build a freeway where the cost of driving is low, but there's less incentive for each driver to explore alternate options to single-occupant commuting, so the road ends up crowded, just like, I don't know, every single highway we build.

Just as in Zilker Park - if parking were free, every single space would be full, and the ring road would be a nonstop parade of cars futilely seeking space. At $3/car, however, there's at least a small incentive for those whose utility is marginal to seek other solutions to the problem. (I might ride my bike; two of my friends might carpool; a third person might take the bus; somebody else might use the park during the week instead of the weekend; etc.)

So in summary: suburban Republicans like Sal Costello prefer the Soviet economic model - very low prices (subsidies from entire society), scarcity "managed" via long lines.

I hope this helped you understand the concept of double taxation and why we should all be against it.

Your pal,
Mike Dahmus Age 33

June 22, 2005

Toll Roads Help Central Austin

Sal Costello is pissed that TXDOT has bribed the City of Austin with rebates on previously spent right-of-way money if they agree not to oppose these roads' tolling.

As I've noted in draft form (I now hopefully have the motivation to go back and finish those posts - as I do, see the bottom of this post for links), huge chunks of bond money approved between 1997 and 2000 by City of Austin and Travis County voters were designated for "local participation" in projects like SH130, SH45, Loop1, US183, SH71, and US290 freeway and tollway extensions and expansions. This "local participation" boiled down to (in most cases) 10% of right-of-way costs + utility relocation. Doesn't sound like much, but it added up to tens of millions of dollars each time.

What's the rub? The city and county don't get any money from gasoline taxes. These bonds will be repaid using city and county funds, which effectively means property and sales taxes (or in the city's case, utility slush funds paid back by electric customers).

Note: You pay this bill no matter how much or how little you drive; no matter how efficient or inefficient your car; no matter whether you take the bus, ride your bike, or walk.

And guess who pays the most, proportionally, in property taxes? Here's a hint: My small lot in central Austin is valued far higher than the comparatively vast Steiner Ranch lot of one of my cow orkers; more than the huge lot of one of my friends on "The Mountain"; heck, more than Sal Costello's lot in Circle C. Most of the costs associated with city and county spending are related more to the size of the area covered rather than population density, by the way. And Sal's getting far more lane-miles and far wider streets for his $0.50 than I am for my $1.35.

Accepting this rebate from TXDOT helps Central Austin. Of course, it requires Sal and his Circle C buddies to start paying more of their fair share instead of being subsidized by the central city (we'll still subsidize you with our gasoline taxes when we do drive, but the property and sales tax subsidization will drop dramatically). So you can understand why the southwest and northwest Austinites are so ticked off, even if they hide behind the baloney claims of "double taxation" (I paid to park at Zilker Park last weekend; was I "double taxed"?)

Responsible City Council members should ignore this caterwauling and do what's best for the fiscal interest of the city - which means tolling roads used disproportionately by people who either don't pay any city taxes (because they live outside city limits) or pay relatively little. If you want less sprawl and a healthy center city, please make your voice heard.

Past highway spending in bond elections (added as I finish them over the day):

June 16, 2005

On office locations

I've been working out in the suburbs ever since I moved to Austin in 1996. There just aren't many high-tech companies who have had the guts to disregard their CEO's wishes and move downtown, where many of the younger workers would prefer to work (at least that was the case at my last job).

First office was in far north Austin at IBM, from 1996 through 1998, and during that time I bought and moved into a condo in Clarksville.

Second company was S3 where I had four different offices in three and a half years (five if you count the twelve months or so I worked at home in the condo between offices #3 and #4).

Then, I worked at two far western offices at the last company.

I currently work at 183/Braker, which, for the suburbs, is about as good as it gets - I can and did take the express bus to work to assist on my bike commute from time to time. But it still couldn't beat walking a block to the #5 and busing 10 minutes downtown. I could only bike to work once a week at best because of the time it took, but if my office were downtown, I could easily do it 5 days a week.

So when the economy picked up, I started asking recruiters who contacted me where the companies were located (thinking I wouldn't bother talking to somebody in the 'burbs but might at least listen for a downtown position). I usually got the answer quickly; but one guy really didn't want to say, and then claimed that this spot was "central". Give me a break. When I explained that "central" meant "could hop a bus or ride my bike every day rather than once a week", he said they'd pay for a bus pass (closest stop is miles away) and provide free parking(!) FREE PARKING IN THE SUBURBS! YEE-HAW! WHAT AN UNUSUAL PERK!

As it turns out, I'm now leaving the current job because a combination of a benefits change that hit us really hard and a property-tax mortgage-company screwup made it impossible to afford to stay, which stinks, since I really like the work and the people. The new job will mean a commute out to my desk in my garage (which I had to air-condition in order to work all that overtime which ate up at least 6 hours a day every weekend day from Memorial Day to mid-August). It was mildly humorous when I asked my normal question, and they responded "you'd have to work at home", and I got to reassure them that it was a plus for me, not a minus. And as it turns out, the new people seem cool, and the work seems like it will be interesting too. But this is the first time I've ever quit a job I liked, which is a weird feeling.

Anyways, this all came up again today because a couple of threads today regarding Microsoft have mentioned the difficulty in getting people to move to Redmond. One of the threads thinks that people just don't want to move to the northwest, which I don't believe, but the second one gets it right - you can't expect your twentysomething ideal hires to want to work in the suburbs as much as the fiftysomething CEOs.

This is applicable to me since I've been through the early stages of the interview process with Microsoft at least three times now, but haven't yet found a group which wouldn't require physical office presence in Redmond. And even if we could manage the blended family issues and move to the Seattle area (where my stepson was born and my wife and his father lived for ten years), you'd have to double my salary to get me to live in Redmond or any other such car-requiring soul-destroying suburban wasteland (and living in Seattle and commuting to Redmond would be like what I just got out of in Austin, except five times worse).

Unfortunately, as Joel on Software pointed out and I mentioned with regard to AMD, the wishes of the employees mean absolutely nothing; almost all corporate moves are to make the office closer to the CEO's home.

(The rank-and-file workers at the last job, who were disproportionately the bright twentysomethings over whom all tech companies seem to want to fight, disproportionately live in the central city, like I do, but as far as I know only two have found jobs downtown - although another one has started a company on South Congress - on the other hand, the workers at the job I'm leaving are mostly family guys who moved here from RTP, where there is no 'center city' to be had, so there's no demand there).

So my new commute is twenty steps out to the garage. Now I have two things to try to figure out:

1. How to work exercise into the daily routine without a bike commute (although I wasn't doing it much lately anyways, I had planned to ramp back up since school's now out for the summer). Maybe walking on my hands to the garage will do it...

and

2. How to write about Shoal Creek Boulevard when I won't need to use it for my commute. Actually, that seems like a benefit rather than a drawback...

May 10, 2005

In case anybody was wondering...

Lomax' comments about Austin not building any roads during the 1980s and 1990s are, in fact, a load of crap. That didn't stop the media from playing them without even bothering to check up on the details, of course. Austin, in fact, built a ton of freeway miles in the 1980s and 1990s - they were overwhelmed by a growth in average miles driven per capita, which was the predictable result of opening up miles and miles of farmland to low-density suburban sprawl. Although a few ill-advised city-destroying freeways were rejected by Austin in the 1960s and 1970s, it's doubtful TXDOT would have had the money or the will to build any more than what eventually got built anyways. Most of the cancellations occurred long before the 1980s; Koenig Lane was the only one to survive even on plans in the modern era which isn't now essentially built or getting built.

The 183 corridor, from I-35 west to Spicewood Springs, was upgraded to freeway in the 1980s and 1990s. So was Ben White Boulevard (290/71) from Congress to past Mopac. Mopac was extended several times during this period as well.

Full coverage at Jeb Boyt's site, and I agree with Keath that the TTI's motivation is to spin things to support big transportation projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor.

April 21, 2005

You'd better be hedging

Some fairly respectable analysts are beginning to join "kooks" like Kunstler, although in a far less inflammatory way, in predicting that high oil prices are not only here to stay, but likely to get quite higher. The latest "Occasional Report" from CIBC World Markets lays out the case. Older "Occasional Reports" are also highly recommended, as they seem to cut through a lot of baloney and show how and where higher energy costs will hurt (without going flat-out lunatic like the idiots who think every N% increase in gas prices means an N% increase n the price of everything delivered by truck, for instance).

I've been hedging higher energy prices for a long time now - we paid a hefty premium for our house in central Austin, and part of the reason was that we could, much more easily than your average suburbanite anyways, drastically reduce our driving and/or switch to jobs better served by public transportation. (my current office is served about as well as any out here in the 'burbs, which is to say that I can take the bus each day by spending only about 40 extra minutes - as sad as that is, it makes me the winner here by far). We also bought a Prius in February of 2004 (after waiting five months) - again, a hedge; if we do end up having to drive a lot, at least it won't kill us. Well, as it turns out, we're only driving about 10,000 miles a year combined anyways, but every little bit helps.

The only problem is that hedges like this are largely a loss-amelioration strategy - they don't gain us anything unless inflation makes wages go up. The same group above thinks it won't this time, unlike in the 1970s, so the best we're really able to do is attempt to be a bit less screwed than the average suburbanite will be.

This hedging logic (whether you believe in local kook Roger Baker's Kunstler-like rants or not) should also apply to public infrastructure spending. I happen to believe that building the toll roads is a way to do this - the 'hedge' being that since the roads are going to be built either way (an assertion the environmentalists disgree with), it's better to have them paid back with tolls rather than with property and gas taxes (even if the tolls come up short, the impact on central-city residents is still less than with the typical free highway payment mechanism - remember, you still pay gas taxes while driving around central Austin, but none of that money goes to those roads - in fact, urban areas all over the country are screwed by the gas tax's bias towards suburban and particularly exurban areas). In other words, paying for the new toll roads with gas taxes simply makes things better for people at the far edges of Leander, and far worse for people living in Central Austin.

A better hedge, of course, would be a gradual overall increase in gasoline taxes with a mandatory minimum payback for major urban areas similar to what the Feds do with 'donor states'. But with the average suburbanite convinced that they're undertaxed rather than subsidized, it's simply never going to happen. Toll roads are, in this sense, the best hedge we can manage at this point in time.

For those interested - ways to hedge on energy costs which are easier if you live in an urban neighborhood than out in one of the soulless sprawlburbs:

  • I can bike to work (up to 5 days a week) - right now I average once a week; mainly due to scheduling difficulties, but we could change this if we had to.
  • I can take the bus to work - at a 40 minute or so penalty per day (which as mentioned above puts me ahead of pretty much anybody else here)
  • I can get a job downtown (easier said than done) and reduce the transit penalty to near-zero
  • We're within a (long) walk of 5 grocery stores - right now this means we have a very short drive; we only occasionally walk, but at least we CAN walk if it becomes expensive enough to drive
  • We can walk to a battery of other shopping and dining choices (we do this quite frequently now)
  • In an era of higher fuel prices, the places we shop are going to be less impacted than the strip-mall businesses, due to efficiencies of scale (cheaper to deliver to 5 grocery stores that are very close together than 5 that are very far apart)
  • Our house is small - less air conditioning and heating costs
  • Our house is old enough that it was designed before air conditioning - meaning we have enough windows for good ventilation most of the year

For these hedge privileges, however, we pay through the nose:

  • The house price is far higher, per square foot, than in the 'burbs -- this is not purely because of location, but also because post-WWII zoning laws have artificially restricted the supply of walkable urban neighborhoods. Most of the homes on our street are illegal under current zoning code for various bogus reasons.
  • Our city, county, and schools tax mainly through property taxes, which are a double whammy - not only are we appraised proportionally higher, but the property tax itself is often used in ways which subsidize suburban development - providing city services is far more expensive per acre in Anderson Mill than it is in Central Austin, but the Central Austinites pay orders of magnitude more property taxes.
  • Those property (and also sales) taxes are often grabbed by the state and spent in ways which not only subsidize the suburbs, but hurt central cities - things like requiring local 'donations' in order to expand freeways. (The 1998 and 2000 bond elections floated tens of millions of dollars in bonds which were used to pay for right-of-way and other costs for roads like the far north extension of Mopac, SH45, SH130, etc - none of which provide any use for central Austin at all, yet central Austin is where most of that tax money comes from - and when a project IS proposed which affects central Austin, it ends up being a destructive force like the ridiculous proposal by TXDOT to double-deck Mopac).

March 28, 2005

Transportation microeconomics 101

I talk about this enough that it might should be its own category.

Problem: Bozoes in government, in the media and elsewhere think about transportation at only the highest level - where you're moving thousands of people around the city. This usually ends up producing plans which fail spectacularly at serving their intended constituents. Since this often boils down to money, I'll call this "transportation macroeconomics" even though most of the people who do it aren't thinking about economics. (Hint: they should be).

Solution: Transportation microeconomics. Whenever evaluating some transportation plan or change in economic conditions, take a couple of representative 'use-cases' and analyze the economics of their decision-making at their local (individual) level.

Example 1: Toll Roads. Local activist Roger Baker has been on my case on the austin-bikes email list for talking favorably about toll roads (as the least noxious of the two realistic possible outcomes - the other one being that all of those toll roads are built anyways, but as free roads). I'm going to be more favorable to him than he is to me, and construct an argument based on his stated motivations (he likes to accuse me of being a toll-loving road warrior). Roger's point is, basically, that the toll roads won't have enough traffic to pay off the bonds once the "oil peak" causes gasoline to get even more expensive than it is now. He's definitely one of the SOS-bloc (don't build these roads at all because they promote sprawl and hurt the aquifer) rather than the free-roads-bloc ("double taxation!") best exemplified by Brewster McCracken and Gerald Daugherty, who will end up getting central Austin to pay for these roads via property and sales tax kick-ins.

So, is Roger right? Would expensive gasoline lead to an exodus from the suburbs and a default on the bonds which back the toll roads? Or am I right - that the traffic which today would fill the toll roads in a second isn't going anywhere even as gasoline gets more expensive. Let's look at a use-case.

Joe Suburban drives his Suburban on a 30-mile round-trip every day from western Travis County to his job in one of the southern suburban office parks. He gets roughly 15 mpg on this commute and pays $2.00/gallon for gas today. By some calculations, which include depreciation, he pays a hefty price for his commute even today, but I categorically reject the idea that suburbanites will reduce the number of vehicles they own (barring catastrophically high gas prices), so depreciation should not honestly be part of the cost equation. Using my handy depreciation-free cost estimator, Joe's daily commute cost is $2.79 today (remember, no tolls yet). Is that enough to convince Joe to carpool? Not today it isn't. Is it enough to convince him to use transit? Even at the discounted rate, the bus trip from the park-and-ride at 290/71 costs him probably an hour extra time per day, and still a buck ($1.79 savings at the cost of an hour). This assumes he even HAS a transit option, of course. Most suburbanites don't.

Suppose gasoline DOUBLES in price - to $4.00 a gallon. Joe's daily commute cost (with new tolls of, let's say, $1.50/day) is now: $6.91/day. His "transit cost" is now $5.91 for an hour of time, assuming no rise in bus fares (unlikely). Still not very attractive, I hate to say.

All right, suppose gasoline TRIPLES in price - to $6.00 a gallon. Joe's cost is $9.58/day. Transit option would save $8.58 a day at the price of an hour. I hate to break it to you, but most suburbanites would still drive at this cost.

Bad news for Roger: $6.00/gallon gas is roughly equivalent to $160/barrel (working backwards from this logic which is admittedly crude). That's quite a bit further down the "oil peak" road than most people think we'll hit anytime 'soon'.

In other words, it will take such huge increases in the cost of gasoline to get suburbanites to stop driving to work alone that it's not even a factor for the foreseeable future. Even then, one would assume that rather than abandoning their stake in the 'burbs, some large percentage of suburban drivers would just get more fuel-efficient cars. At $6.00/gallon, driving a Toyota Prius, Joe Suburban's daily commute cost drops back to 2.48 without tolls and 3.98 with. Oops.

See my previous article on my 'week without a car' -- even for me, who is the only guy at my 60-person office who could possibly take the bus to work without transfers, it's not cost-and-time-effective to use transit until gasoline is really REALLY expensive. It costs me about 30 extra minutes per day and saves me pocket change.

When does transit make sense? When the time penalty is minimal and/or the cost savings are comparatively large. Two obvious (much shorter) use-cases:

1. If I worked downtown, I could take the #5 bus straight there at a time penalty of perhaps 5 minutes. This time penalty is so small as to be not worth counting, and I could actually get rid of a car, thus moving us into the realm of the traditional commute calculators - a huge economic win for the transit alternative. Unfortunately, the current economic regime penalizes businesses who locate downtown rather than in the 'burbs (far higher property taxes) even though they generate far less demand on city services.

2. Lucy Leander works at the University of Texas and has to pay roughly $5/day for parking. She lives close to a park-and-ride where she can pick up a good express bus to work which isn't much slower than her car would be. Here's her comparison. Even at $2/gallon, she saves $7.36 a day (without getting rid of a car) and only spends a few more minutes. Note that having to pay for parking makes this comparison far more favorable for transit.

So my lesson is: Major employers should be downtown (where transit can serve them), and parking shouldn't be free. Until either one of these is fixed, however, you're going to get nowhere with me by claiming that a plan is economically viable (or not) based on gasoline prices.

Unfortunately, current conventional wisdom is still that spreading jobs through the suburbs reduces average driving (absolutely false). The facts have an anti-suburban bias, I guess.

March 04, 2005

Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

Excerpted from a discussion on the austin-bikes email list, where one of my self-appointed burdens is to be the voice of reason towards those who live in the center-city echo chamber (where everybody bikes; where nobody wants sprawling highways; etc).

The last paragraph of my response is the most relevant piece, and the one that the person I was responding to and many other wishful thinkers just don't get. I, thanks to moving here with suburbanites, and working with exclusively suburbanites, have learned the following painful truths:

  • There are more suburbanites around here than urbanites. A LOT more. And the most recent election, they finally WON a seat in our city council (McCracken over Clarke) DESPITE much higher turnout in the center-city.
  • Outside Austin, there are no urbanites. CAMPO is now 2/3 suburban, for instance.
  • Suburbanites cannot conceive of any lifestyle other than the suburban one. Really. I get blank stares when I tell them I rode the bus to work today, or when I say I walked to the store.
  • The sheer population and geographical coverage of suburban neighborhoods means that even if gas gets really expensive, they're still going to be living there. Resistance to their redevelopment in ways which aren't so car-dependent and the cost of such modifications means we're stuck with what we have now for at least a few more decades. Yes, even at $5.00/gallon.

Here's the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:

> On Mar 4, 2005, at 9:34 AM, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
> Roger Baker wrote:
>
> McCracken is the immediate hero here, but he likely wouldn't
> have done it without Sal Costello, SOSA, and all the
> independent grassroots organizing.
>
> On CAMPO, McCracken's resolution got defeated about 2 to 1,
> with Gerald Daugherty on the bad side, along with CAMPO
> Director Aulick. TxDOT's Bob Daigh deserves a special bad
> actor award for expressing his opinion just before the CAMPO
> vote, with no reasons given, that any independent study of the
> CAMPO plan would be likely to threaten TxDOT funding for our
> area. -- Roger
>
>
> Just like the transit people in Austin with Mike Krusee, you've
> been completely snookered if you think these people are your friends.
> The goal of McCracken et al is NOT to stop building these roads;
> it is to build these roads quickly as FREE HIGHWAYS.
> In other words, McCracken and Costello ___ARE___ THE ROAD LOBBY!
> Keep that in mind, folks. Slusher and Bill Bunch don't want the
> roads at all, but pretty much everybody else who voted against the
> toll plan wants to build them as free roads.
> And these highways built free is a far worse prospect for Austin
> and especially central Austin than if they're built as toll roads,
> in every possible respect.
> - MD
>
>
> All that is easy for Mike to say but, as usual, lacks any factual basis or
> documentation. Furthermore, he does not appear to read what I have previously
> documented.

As for factual basis or documentation, it should be obvious to anybody with the awareness of a three-year-old that McCracken's playing to his suburban constituents who WANT THESE ROADS, AND WANT THEM TO BE FREE, rather than Slusher's environmentalist constituents, who don't want the roads at all.

As for reading what you've previously documented; oh, if only it were true. If only I hadn't wasted a good month of my life reading your repeated screeds about the oil peak which have almost convinced me to go out and buy an SUV just to spite you.

POLITICAL REALITY MATTERS. The suburban voters who won McCracken his seat over Margot Clarke WANT THESE HIGHWAYS TO BE BUILT. AND THEY DON'T WANT THEM BUILT AS TOLL ROADS BECAUSE THEY'LL HAVE TO PAY (MORE) OF THE BILL IF THEY DO.

Here's what's going to happen if Roger's ilk convinces the environmental bloc to continue their unholy alliance with the suburban road warriors like McCracken and Daugherty:

1. We tell TXDOT we don't want toll roads.
2. TXDOT says we need to kick in a bunch more money to get them built free.
3. We float another huge local bond package to do it (just like we did for local 'contributions' for SH 45, SH 130, and US 183A).
4. The roads get built, as free highways.
5. Those bonds are paid back by property and sales taxes, which disproportionately hit central Austinites, and especially penalize people who don't or only infrequently drive.

Here's what's going to happen if the toll roads get built, as toll roads:

1. TXDOT builds them.
2. The current demand for the roadway is large enough to fill the coffers enough to keep the enterprise going without the bonds defaulting.
3. (Even if #2 doesn't happen, we're at worst no worse off than above; with the added bonus that suburbanites still get to finally pay user fees for their trips on the roads).

Here's what's going to happen in Roger Fantasyland:

1. McCracken, Gerald Daugherty, et al have a Come To Jesus moment and decide that we Really Don't Need Any More Highways In The 'Burbs.

Now, be honest. Which one of the three scenarios above do you find least likely?

YES, EVEN IF GAS TRIPLES IN PRICE, SUBURBANITES WILL STILL DRIVE. THE OIL PEAK IN THIS SENSE DOESN'T ****MATTER****. The people out there in Circle C aren't going anywhere in the short term, and it'll be decades before their neighborhoods are redeveloped in a less car-dependent fashion, assuming we can afford to.

- MD

Blame TXDOT

Today's Statesman is full of people whining that "city planners" didn't get Ben White / I-35 right.

For those who still don't get it: NOBODY AT THE CITY OF AUSTIN GETS ONE LICK OF LOUSY INPUT INTO THE DESIGN OF AN INTERCHANGE BETWEEN TWO STATE HIGHWAYS. If the road has a big route number on it (like "2222", "71", "290", "I-35", "US-183"), the city doesn't control the road, and TXDOT doesn't ask for the city's opinion on things.

The sum total of the involvement of the City is to screw with signal timings at intersections with traffic lights, in a few cases. And in most of those cases, the bad design decisions made independently by TXDOT mean that all the signal timing changes in the world won't help.

To whit:

Today I biked to work. (Well, I biked to the bus to work; I'll be biking all the way home). I forgot to pack my lunch. I had a bunch of leftover change in my bike bag, so I walked along this route to the local McDonald's to get a cheap greasy lunch.

I noticed a pretty long backup, as always, at the Braker intersection. Today, I ended up passing the same stopped cars a couple of times; so I started paying attention. Guess what? I was able to beat a car in the right lane ON FOOT from my office to the other side of the Braker intersection. This wasn't a twenty-foot trek either. According to Yahoo, this is a quarter-mile jaunt.

Why is this intersection so bad? Why is Ben White's rebuild so painful? Two words: frontage roads. When TXDOT 'builds' a freeway, they're actually (9 times out of 10) turning an existing arterial roadway (with driveways, strip malls, etc) into a freeway by using the original roadspace for the new main lanes and then widening into property on the sides to build "frontage roads" (one-way streets which the main lanes exit to and enter from).

So what are the problems with frontage roads?

  1. They generate their own traffic - cities (who had to give up a ton of land, and in most cases even PAY for the pleasure) aren't going to restrict future development along these streets, especially since TXDOT sells them on the idea that they should keep doing so.
  2. They cause poor intersection design. Most intersection with frontage roads must operate with four independent cycles - meaning that the people arriving from each of 4 directions are given exclusive use of the intersection on their green light. (The "intersection" in this case extends to both frontage roads). Two major two-way arterials which intersect, on the other hand, operate with two cycles (one for each road) with minor additional cycles for left turns.
  3. They preclude better interchanges down the road - unless it's to another freeway. In other states, the intersection at Braker would have long since been upgraded with more space, possibly changed to a SPUI (single-point urban interchange which reduces traffic signal cycles to essentially 3), or possibly improved with a ramp modification, or even adding one or two flyovers... but not here. Here, we're stuck the way we are. On Ben White, you can build a direct connector ramp (flyover) since there's another freeway on the other side. On Braker, building a flyover would mean bulldozing everything on one corner of the intersection that located there because of the frontage road.
  4. They actively exclude cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. Typically fewer crossings are built or preserved on highways with frontage roads (example: US 183 between Spicewood Springs and 620). This is a minor irritant to motorists but completely screws other users of the roadway, since it's not practical for them to walk a mile down the road, cross at the only remaining crossing for a mile either way (Anderson Mill), and walk back.

What should TXDOT have done in these cases?

Simple: either toughen up and just admit that we can't preserve property access on what's supposed to be a limited-access highway, or do what they do in other states - build perimeter roads (that maintain property access from the city streets, not directly from the highway) rather than frontage roads. This would run counter to the ethos that highway construction and expansion exists to promote retail traffic, which is why it'll never happen in this state, but that's what it would take.

March 03, 2005

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid

Earlier this week, Capital Metro included a flyer in copies of the local newspaper which touted Rapid Bus down Lamar/Guadalupe, opening late 2006 or early 2007.

Coincidentally, Wednesday night I had to drop my wife off and pick her up at an appointment which allowed me to travel down Guadalupe from 30th to 6th streets at the extreme tail end of rush hour (6:40 PM). I paid special attention to the ability of cars and buses to navigate through this congested corridor.

First: a short re-hash of what Rapid Bus is:

  • Rapid Bus is not "bus rapid transit". "bus rapid transit" or BRT in short picks from a set of items off a menu which will supposedly improve the speed, reliability, and attractiveness of bus transit. The hopes are that it will bring bus transit up to the level of a good urban rail line. In practice (in the United States), this has been far from the case - mainly due to the reluctance to set aside dedicated right-of-way for the bus vehicle, which results in poor speed and reliability compared to rail (and poor relative performance compared to the private automobile). Even when bus lanes are created, the fact that they are typically in-street makes them worthless in practice since cars just use them anyways.
  • Capital Metro is certainly moving towards BRT with this line, but even they admit that it's not good enough to call it BRT yet. (That's even with the slip-shod definition of BRT which allows for it to be declared even with only a few improvements over normal bus service).
  • In fact, both the existing express buses (which travel down US 183, Mopac, and I-35) and limited buses (which run down normal corridors with fewer stops) already implement some features of BRT. (fewer stops and improved vehicles).

So what characteristics of BRT is Capital Metro including in the design of this new service to make it "Rapid"?

  • Signal prioritization - i.e. the ability to hold traffic signals green for a few seconds as the bus approaches
  • Off-bus fare payment
  • Longer (probably articulated) buses
  • Fewer stops

That's pretty much it. Items that might help make the service more like a light rail line which are not being included:

  • Dedicated right-of-way
  • Full control over traffic signals - i.e. lights turn green when the vehicle approaches
  • Electic power (overhead "caternary" wires or in-street power)

So how does "Rapid Bus" look to improve service along Lamar/Guadalupe? Like I said, I drove the most congested part of the route just yesterday, and it doesn't look good.

  • The ability to hold the next light green for 5 or 10 seconds isn't going to help during rush hour at all! At almost every single intersection with a traffic light, I waited through at least one green cycle before being able to proceed, since traffic was always backed up from further down the road. And this was at 6:40 PM! That means that while the bus can hold the signal at 27th green for a while longer, it doesn't matter because the backup from 26th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 21st, and MLK is preventing the bus from moving anyways.
  • Off-bus payment is going to be irrelevant. Now that Capital Metro is using SmartCards for everything short of single-fare rides, very few people are having to take more than a second to pay when they get on the bus (this is from my own bus rides on the 983 and 3 lately). Basically, paying is no longer slowing the boarding process.
  • Fewer stops is already possible with the #101. This bus is still woefully slow and woefully unreliable compared to the private automobile, to say nothing of quality rail service (which could in fact beat the automobile on both counts).
  • The ride is going to be uncomfortable. The pavement along Guadalupe simply can't stand the beating it gets from heavy vehicles like buses and trucks - and this is not going to change anytime soon. Rather than running down the middle of the street on rails (as light-rail would have done), the Rapid Bus vehicle will run in the right lane of the street on the same pavement abused by trucks and other buses. There is no evidence that the city is willing to pay the far higher bills required to keep this pavement in smooth-enough condition to provide a decent comfortable bus ride.

In review: The commuter rail line is being built on a corridor where only a handful of Austin residents can walk to stations, and only a small percentage of Austin residents can drive to a station. The primary beneficiaries, assuming shuttle buses don't just kill the whole thing, are residents of Leander (who at least pay Capital Metro taxes) and Cedar Park (who don't). On the other hand, the thousands of people in central Austin who could walk to stations along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are being presented with a rank steaming turd which barely improves service over the existing #101 bus.

(publically opposing this Mike-Krusee-designed Austin-screwing debacle is the basic reason I was booted from the UTC, for those arriving late).

So, shut up and take it, Austin. Rapid Bus is all you're getting, and you'd better ride it, or you'll be experiencing the fun that Honolulu is currently going through with their own BRT debacle. Big ugly long buses that aren't attracting any new riders don't do transit users any favors.

References:

February 24, 2005

Cars' FRR is often zero

Say you're riding the #3 bus up Burnet Road. You pay 50 cents to get on the bus. That's your "fare". As it turns out, if you consider all the money taken in and all the money spent out by Capital Metro, and divide the difference equally per trip, it actually costs the taxpayers a couple of bucks for your ride. (The #3 bus, because ridership is high, ends up subsidizing some other routes, but we're taking a simplistic view here). Your "farebox recovery ratio" is something like 20%.

Now say you're driving your Ford Explorer down Lamar Blvd. As I've been recently discussing in the transportation funding topic, no gas tax money is spent on roads like this in Austin (basically major roads that don't have a route shield on them).

Your "fare" for this trip is thus $0.00 (the road doesn't have tollbooths, of course). In other words, the only cost you pay directly at the time ("user fee") is the gas tax, but as noted, neither this road nor other major roads of this type in the city of Austin can be funded by gas tax dollars.

The cost of providing you with your rejuvenated driving surface was substantially more than zero (12.6 million dollars, including utility work), and all that cost was most recently paid by city of Austin taxpayers via property and sales taxes (bond election in '98). And don't fool yourself - most of the cost for projects like this isn't for pedestrians, cyclists, or bus riders. We'd have a much smaller and much cheaper transportation network if nobody drove -- the fact is that most of the money we spend on roads like this is directly attributable to people driving their cars, alone.

Your FRR on this trip is 0%. That's right, a big fat zero. The only time Capital Metro gets this bad is on Ozone Action Days. So, libertarians, perhaps you shouldn't throw stones from your suburban glass houses.

What about highways, you ask? Well, it's true the majority of funds required to build state highways do, in fact, come from the gas tax. There are other, less direct, costs of these roadways which are borne by society at large, but even when considering just direct construction and maintenance cost, you still don't get off claiming that you're paying the bills. A substantial portion (largest line-items, as a matter of fact) of both the 1998 and 2000 bond elections for Austin and Travis County's 2000 package were to pay "local contributions" towards right-of-way for new and expanded state highways. IE: even on a brand-new highway theoretically built with gas taxes, the property-owners and goods-buyers are still subsidizing you, whether they drive a lot, a little, or not at all.

Capital Metro, Empty Buses, and Farebox Recovery Ratio

The local asshats are at it again, slamming Capital Metro for supposedly running empty buses.

See here and here and here for reasons why suburbanites always think buses are empty (they're wrong - most Capital Metro buses are carrying a substantial number of passengers).

As regards farebox recovery (in short, the amount of cost covered by passenger fare), the asshats are 'right' - Capital Metro's number is low. As I used to keep telling them when they'd come for their quarterly report to our commission, if you run programs like the free rides on Ozone Action Days and the free rides for UT students at night (E-bus) and don't account for them separately, you leave yourself open for getting hammered on an extremely low farebox recovery ratio. And by "account for them separately" I don't mean "after the local libertarians get the media to claim you're wasting your money"; I mean "go as far as transferring 10% of your funds to the Clean Air Force and them have them contract with you for the Ozone Action Day rides just like you do with UT for the UT Shuttle".

Of course they didn't listen. Capital Metro operates in the same center-city echo-chamber that most of the bicycle advocates I work with live in. My role on the UTC, while it lasted, was largely an effort to smash out of that box and get them to realize that there's a world out there past the intersection of 183 and Mopac, and it's got more voters in it every day.

By the way, the "farebox recovery ratio" for the private automobile is about as low as Capital Metro's artificially low number given above. As the last few days have hopefully shown, especially as you get close to the center-city, most major roads aren't paid for out of the gas tax (or tolls) - they're paid for with bonds which have to be floated every few years by the city and county and are repaid with property and sales taxes. Ironically, much of the strongest opposition to the local toll road plan comes from the same group hammering Capital Metro here. Guess what, folks? A toll paid when you drive on a particular road brings you UP to the level that the transit passenger is ALREADY AT. Gas taxes don't even come close to paying your bills.

February 22, 2005

The "Exit Test": Suburb vs. City: Major Roads, from I-35

The "Exit Test":

Another way to show the discrepancy in road funding in our area is to look at freeway intersections. (In this case, our definition of "major road" is a road which is mentioned in a marked exit from the freeway - in some places due to the frontage-road-centric design of highways here, multiple major roads have the same exit).

Using a current list of exits, let's look at Round Rock through Austin. To make things even more fair for the suburbanites, and not coincidentally to make it simpler for my transcription, I'm only going to use the part of Austin north of the upper/lower-deck split (which leaves out the densest part of Austin where 100% of the exits are for locally-funded roadways).

Round Rock:


  • Exit 256: FM 1431 (state-system)
  • Exit 254: Business Route IH-35 (state-system) and FM 3406 (state-system)
  • Exit 253A: "frontage road"
  • Exit 253: US 79 (state-system)
  • Exit 252B: RM 620 (state-system)
  • Exit 252A: McNeil Rd (local-system: Round Rock)
  • Exit 251: Business Route IH-35 (state-system)
  • Exit 250: FM 1325 (state-system)

Out of 7 exits with a road mentioned, only one is for a roadway which is locally funded; while 6 are for state-funded roadways.

Now, the exits between Round Rock and the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 248: Grand Avenue Parkway (local-system: Travis County and Pflugerville)
  • Exit 247: FM 1825 (state-system)

Finally, the exits which are for roads which cross I-35 within the city limits of Austin:

  • Exit 246: Dessau Rd and Howard Lane (both local-system: Travis County and Austin)
  • Exit 245: FM 734 Parmer Lane (state-system) and Yager Lane (local-system: mostly Austin)
  • Exit 243: Braker Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 241: Rutherford Lane (local-system: Austin) and Rundberg Lane (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 240AB: US 183 (state-system)
  • Exit 239: St Johns Ave (local-system: Austin)
  • Exit 238B: US 290 (state-system), FM 2222 (state-system)
  • Exit 238: 51st St. and others: all local-system
  • Exit 237: Airport Blvd (local-system west of I-35, state-system east of I-35 as Loop 111) and 38½ Street (local-system)

Out of 9 exits listed here, 8 are for roadways which are locally funded, and 4 are for roadways which receive state funding. (Obviously some exits are for both).

A reminder again: I used the part of Austin which has the MOST state-funded roadways in it (since I stopped short of the upper/lower-deck split two miles north of downtown where the arterials come fast and furious and NONE of them get state funding).

Resources used in this article:

The "HEB test"

What is the "HEB test"?

In central Austin, most people drive (or even, gasp, WALK!) from their home to the closest major grocery store (i.e. non-convenience store) without driving one inch on a roadway which is part of the state highway system because most major roads in central Austin are city-funded streets - not so in Round Rock or other bedrom communities; the vast majority there would not only choose to but MUST head out to FM 620 or 1825 or 685 or even I-35 to shop for anything of consequence.

For instance, from my house north of UT, these major grocery stores are the ones we shop at more than once a year. We drive to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM without using any part of the state highway system (yes, we shop at all of these, in order of frequency). (We sometimes walk to a couple of these, and have biked to one):

  • Central Market (38th/Lamar)
  • HEB at Hancock Center
  • Randall's on 35th
  • Whole Foods (6th/Lamar)
  • Fresh Plus on Duval/43rd
  • Randall's at Exposition across from Casis
  • Randall's at Exposition/Lake Austin
  • Wheatsville Co-op (Guadalupe/30th)

Try the same test sometime in your neighborhood. When applied over a set of neighborhoods in a geographic area, I think the "HEB test" is a good indicator of how much (or how little) of your major street network is funded by the state. (Remember! Roads which don't have a route shield on them, like FM 1325 or US 183, are not parts of the state highway system, and thus are ineligible for all state gas tax money and most federal gas tax money!)

This test is a useful proxy for the claim (made by me and others knowledgeable about urban planning) that gasoline taxes effectively subsidize the suburbs - the typical dweller of the suburbs spends a much higher percentage of his "drive" on roads which actually get money back from the gas tax than does the corresponding center-city resident.

Many More Major Roads In The Suburbs DO Get Gas Tax Money

Same exercise as the last entry of this type. I couldn't get the scale exactly right - this section of Round Rock / Pflugerville is actually quite a bit larger than the corresponding section of Central Austin. (There's a "zoomed in" PDF of central Austin which I used for the original source - if I zoom in with a similar scale to this section of Round Rock, the lines are so thick as to be unusable).

Arterials which are part of the state highway system and thus get gas tax money:

  • IH-35
  • Parmer Lane (FM 734)
  • RM 620
  • SH 45
  • FM 1825
  • US 79
  • FM 1431 (olive green in far upper left corner)
  • FM 685 (north-south road colored olive green lower right corner)

(I can't list all the roads on here that aren't part of the state highway system because I don't know many of their names - some of them don't even currently exist - they are planned to be built sometime in the future by Round Rock and Williamson County).

Note that a much higher proportion of major roads in the southern Round Rock area are maintained by the state. In fact, it is unlikely that a resident of a neighborhood in this area will be able to pass the "HEB test".


February 16, 2005

Most Major Roads In Cities Don't Get Any Gas Tax

This entry is going to serve as background for a future entry about the gasoline tax, new proposed "miles driven tax", and tolls. It will probably be of little interest in isolation, so you might want to wait for the commentary later.


This map (click for larger version) is from a map of central Austin from the 2025 CAMPO plan. Every road which is colored something other than black is classified as an arterial (major roadway). Note that the axis of Austin's grid is off - north-south in these comments refer to the roads that go diagonally off to the northeast.




The following arterial roadways on the image are part of the state highway system, and thus, eligible for gasoline tax money from the state:


  • Mopac Expressway (north-south thick green line on left)
  • I-35 (north-south thick red line on right - leaves screen)
  • FM 2222 / Koenig Lane (east-west road at north end of image which starts as purple on the west end and switches to blue at Mopac)
  • FM 2244 (small segment in extreme lower left of image colored olive green)

The following arterial roadways on this image are not part of the state highway system and have typically not received any gas tax money, either state or federal, for construction or maintenance:


North-south roads, roughly from left to right:


  • Westlake Drive (pinkish road near Lake Austin on far left)
  • Redbud Trail (small segment of pink crossing Lake Austin)
  • Exposition Blvd (pink and purple road west of Mopac)
  • Burnet Road (blue road starting at 45th St and heading north - at US 183 it turns into FM 1325 which is part of the state system
  • Lamar Blvd (blue then purple then blue then olive green covering entire map segment)
  • Guadalupe St. (purple then blue then purple then joining Lamar Blvd north of 45th St)
  • Lavaca St. (forms one-way couplet with Guadalupe downtown)
  • Congress Ave. (brown street in downtown grid)
  • Colorado St., Brazos St. (two purple streets in downtown grid not otherwise mentioned)
  • Red River St. (purple street just west of I-35)
  • Chicon St. (I think) - pink north-south street on extreme lower right

East-West Streets, roughly from top to bottom

  • Justin Lane (I think) - purple/pink at very top, ending at Lamar
  • Hancock / North Loop - purple road starting at Mopac and heading east
  • 45th St. - purple road starting at Mopac, changing to blue between Lamar and Guadalupe, then back to purple
  • 35th / 38th St. - starts as purple west of Mopac, changes to blue east of Mopac and then pink
  • Dean Keeton / 26th St - starts as blue/purple then changes to green, crosses I-35 and turns blue.
  • Windsor / 24th St - starts as purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and ends at Guadalupe
  • MLK / 19th St - starts as pink at Lamar, changes to purple and crosses I-35
  • Enfield / 15th St - starts as pink at Lake Austin, changes to purple at Exposition, crosses Mopac and turns into 15th St.
  • 12th St. - starts at Lamar as purple then changes to blue, ends at Capitol, restarts after Capitol as blue, crosses I-35 and heads northwest as purple.
  • 11th St. - starts as purple at Guadalupe, heads east to I-35, turns pink after I-35.
  • Downtown grid: 8th, 7th Sts
  • Lake Austin Blvd - from Enfield Road at lake, turns into 5th and 6th sts.
  • 5th and 6th sts from Mopac to I-35
  • Cesar Chavez / 1st St from Mopac to I-35 (just north of Town Lake)
  • Barton Springs Road (small segment of blue in extreme lower left)


Keep in mind that, by terms laid out in the Constitution of the State of Texas, none of the roadways in the much larger list can receive state gas tax money. And in practice, none of them really receive federal gas tax money either, since the practice at CAMPO (the local board that disburses federal gas tax money returned to the state under various programs)is to disburse pretty much all of the available roadway funds to state highway projects.

In other words, when you drive on Lamar Blvd in central Austin, you're paying gasoline tax to the state, but the city (who has to pay to rebuild the roadway when necessary, as just occurred over the last 2 years) doesn't see one penny of that money. When you see construction on 38th St, the city is paying those bills with your property and sales taxes, not with the gas tax you incur while driving.

(corrected MLK / FM 969 on 2/23 - FM 969 does not start until Airport Blvd, which is off the map)

December 10, 2004

Observations from a car-less week

So I've spent all week without the car - on Monday, I biked to work (my stepson and I rode our bikes west to Casis, and then I rode all the way in to work - and boy was it tiring; I'm very out of shape); so out-of-shape that I ended up taking the bus home. Then, Tuesday, the car wouldn't start. Since then, we've learned that the alternator broke and supercharged the (nearly dead) battery and nearly done blowed it up. The garage still hasn't figured out how to make it work, so I've been busing it ever since (including today).

Big deal, huh? Well, son, I work in northwest Austin in the software bidness. (My last job had two offices; both about 5 miles west of 360 on 2244 and 2222 respectively; this one is at least in the 183 corridor).

This is my second long stretch in Austin without a car - I went for two weeks without my old convertible at my last job and had to bike in 8 days in a row (a much more difficult bike commute than I have now, but I was in better shape then too) - the bus is not an option in that part of town - closest bus stop to the office was more than five miles away. The office at my current job is far more favorable for bus use - I can use either the express buses or the #3, both of which I board at 38th and Medical Parkway. The express bus drops me off 5 minutes (by foot) to the north of my office and the #3 drops me off 5 minutes south - when I'm early to the bus stop I'll often take a #3 which takes longer but arrives slightly earlier, for instance.

Most days this week, I took the "express" bus (983 or 983 depending on which way). The trip into work consists of a 15-minute walk to the bus stop (except for the day my wife dropped me off on her way to Casis); a 20-minute bus ride; and the 5-minute walk to work. Not too bad compared to a 15-minute drive -- basically the walk makes it worthwhile. The problem is the trip home - the bus takes considerably longer due to Mopac traffic, and is even less reliable than the car (and of course in the car you can escape Mopac at a couple of places and try to make up some time).

Anyways, the work commute: not bad. Could I do this every day? Yes. I'd use the bike more (if nothing more than to get home quicker from the bus stop). I'd have to get better rain gear (I got rained on the most the day I biked, ironically).

But am I saving money on the work commute right now? Not unless we completely get rid of that car. The fare for the express bus is $1.00 each way ($0.50 for the slower #3 bus which I could also take). Half-price ticket booklets bring it down to $1.00 round-trip. This calculator shows how much this daily trip really costs in my car, once you dispense with the fiction that you should amortize fixed costs like insurance and maintenance over each trip. Even with half-price tickets, I save a whopping eight cents a day.

Now, what about getting rid of the car entirely? Now we're talking, especially since the cost of repairs (so far) are almost what I consider this car worth in total. Well, experience from this week shows that we're almost, but not quite, ready to be a one-car household.

Work commute: See above. No problem, basically; I could do it.

School trips: Every other week, my stepson lives at our house, and has to be taken to school in the morning. I could bike more often with him, but not every day (we can't even do two consecutive days now since my wife picks him up in a car which can't take his bike home). Next year? Probably stops being an impediment as he moves on to middle school at either O'Henry or Kealing, both of which lie on the combined 21/22 bus route (which he'll be taking anyways even if we remain a 2-car family). I f we had planned ahead a little more, he could probably be doing this now (the bus runs right by Casis too), but I plan on riding with him at least a few times first, and haven't done it yet.

After-work appointments: This was the big problem. My wife has a weekly meeting at 5:30 on Wednesdays, for which I have to be home at 5:10 to watch the baby. There's no way to do this feasibly taking the bus - I'd have to stop my workday at about 4:00, which is simply not going to happen in my line of work. Also, we both have a weekly meeting on Thursdays at 5:10 - same problem. This week, I went home at lunch on Wednesday and worked at home -- this works for occasional emergencies, but not as a regular thing. On Thursday, she had to get the babysitter earlier than usual and come pick me up. Also not going to work as a regular thing.

We've failed on the Thursday meeting in the sense that we acquired a regular engagement which I can't get to on the bus. I could theoretically bike there in about 20 minutes -- but this is not the type of thing I can do all sweaty. I don't know if anything other than opting out could fix Wednesday.

So we're repairing the car this time, and I'll continue to wish I didn't have to. We're looking at at least $500 in repairs (on a car I figure is worth $500-$1000), about $400/year in insurance, about $200/year in various other fixed costs. All for two lousy meetings a week.

That's what you get when you have a half-assed transit system -- people who in other cities could live with just one car (and wouldn't mind doing so) can't even do it. Unfortunately, nothing but massive densification of the urban core could solve this problem for us, and even then, Capital Metro hoodwinked enough people with the commuter rail debacle such that the urban core of Austin won't have competitive transit service for essentially ever. C'est la car.

11:00 update: Now the engine computer needs to be replaced. Bare minimum, if we do it through the shop and use refurb parts: another $500 for a total of $1000. Argh. My wife is checking now to find out how much we're already on the hook for if we bail, and then I get to go price cheap used cars. Hooray for economic disaster! Man, I hate cars.

September 15, 2004

Anti-toll people are communists

I find it hilarious that so many suburban conservatives are up in arms over the toll plan. These are the same people who attack all sorts of supposed creeping socialism and proclaim that the market should solve all of these problems - and yet when it comes to a problem that actually affects them, all of the sudden they go weak on the orthodoxy. Of particular note are their vehement attacks on mass transit - which, unlike roads, requires a direct user payment at time of service (no, folks, gas taxes don't count - the analogue here is tolls).


The fact is that "free" roads (no, folks, gas taxes don't pay anywhere near the full bills) share more with communism than with capitalism. The trick here is to remember how the two systems handle "scarcity" (demand exceeding supply).


If the demand for a good, let's say, TVs, exceeds its supply, the "solution" in the Soviet Union was a combination of rationing and simple long lines. People in Soviet Russia might have haid to pay very little for TVs, but they were quite often unavailable and when they were available, they had to wait a long time to get them. In other words, the way that supply and demand are balanced in a command economy like the one the Soviets had is by making people stand in very long lines.


In a capitalist economy, however, if the demand for a good outstrips its supply, the market solves this problem by raising the price of the good until supply matches demand (usually by demand dropping; sometimes by supply increasing as additional production becomes more profitable). The trick here is that the capitalist solution (higher prices) is unquestionably more efficient in the long-run since it allows people to make rational decisions based on cost. (Maybe they buy a cheaper kind of TV; maybe they use their old TVs longer; whatever).

Note that both of these equations hold even if 1/4 of the cost of producing TVs is borne by the government through taxes, even when they're specific taxes on people who watch TV. This means that the double-taxation argument is not welcome here, in other words.

Now, apply this to road space, which is a "good" provided in this area for which demand drastically exceeds supply at certain times of day.

In Communist Texas, everybody pays for highways in one way or another. Some of the funding comes from the gas tax (which you pay even if you're driving on a big city street like Braker Lane which doesn't get any money from this tax - I'll start indignantly calling this Triple Taxation someday). Some more funding comes from property and sales taxes (much more than people think). None of it comes from tolls.

How is the demand-supply imbalance handled in Communist Texas? By long lines (congestion).

How is it handled with the new toll plan? By requiring people to pay if they want to use facilities for which demand exceeds supply. While there are no initial plans to change the amount of the toll by the time of day, that could be done fairly easily (it's already done on a couple of HOT facilities in other parts of the country). This also means that there's at least a small economic benefit to carpooling (finally).

What this also means is that instead of letting people be stuck in line on existing "free" highways until we gather the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to double and triple-deck everything so we can temporarily handle the demand for free roadway space, it would be a lot more efficient (again, from the capitalist perspective) to price even existing roadway space. And don't cry double-taxation to me as I fail to get a dime back on my property or sales taxes being used for roadway and highway construction and maintenance on the days I ride my bike or walk.

So it ought to be very clear by now that if you support the current "free" highway regime over the far more capitalist "toll" highway plan, you have more in common with Communists than you do with free-marketers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and well in modern suburbia.

July 22, 2004

Jeff Ward, Fred (Gilliam?) and Commuter Rail

Yesterday's Jeff Ward show which I caught about an hour of was a predictable frenzy of transit-bashing, with a cameo by Fred, a Capital Metro board member who I assume is Fred Gilliam.

Some easy softballs to whack which were pitched by both sides on that show:

1. (from a caller) "The 986 express bus already takes about 50 minutes to get downtown, so why would we need a rail line?". Answer: First of all, it takes a lot longer than 50 to get from Leander to downtown even in non-rush-times. The route the caller mentioned only runs at 6, 6:20, and 6:30 AM, by the way. According to the 986 schedule, in those severely off-peak times it takes 62 minutes to reach downtown.

A more representative line, the 987, which doesn't hit the inner park-and-rides either, takes 75 minutes to reach downtown (Guadalupe and 8th). The 983, which is the only route which has a departure time from Leander after 7:20ish, takes 85 minutes to reach downtown.

2. (from Fred): (paraphrased): "Well, Jeff, you're a genius for noting that people won't walk 5 miles from the drop-off at the Convention Center to get to their job at the Capitol or UT, so we've designed this great distributor service which will run at very high frequencies and take you straight there". This "high-frequency distributor" exists today; it's called The Dillo, and it's dog-slow.

From experience with other areas which have tried the approach of building a rail line where it happens to be convenient to lay tracks (or use existing tracks) and then distributing via shuttle buses, most people won't be willing to take this transfer. In Tuesday's posting I noted that the city is as skeptical as I am of Capital Metro's idea that this won't drastically hurt ridership.

For comparison, the 2000 light rail plan would have taken passengers from the same park-and-rides up in Leander and NW Austin, but it would have dropped UT passengers off at Guadalupe (without a transfer). It would have dropped state passengers off within a block of the Capitol (without a transfer). And it would have dropped downtown office workers off within a block of Congress Avnue (without a transfer).

This plan is nothing more than Capital Metro's attempt to build what they think Mike Krusee will let them get away with. It serves only far suburban passengers, and it serves them poorly.

3. (from Jeff and others): (paraphrased): "people won't leave their cars behind for transit, or they'd be doing it now". Baloney. Cities which develop rail systems which are competitive (not even faster, just close) on time with the automobile and are reliable (same time every day) always siphon away a lot of car drivers. This has been the experience in Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, etc. Rail does things that buses can't, namely, get out of traffic, and provide a comfortable ride. None of those cities were experiencing any success with getting people out of their cars with their bus systems (which were more extensive than ours), but all of them are now (with rail) delivering people to their jobs via transit who actually had the choice of driving and chose not to.

The problem is that this rail plan won't do it. Capital Metro, again, is building what Mike Krusee will let them build rather than building what needs to be built.

July 13, 2004

Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I'm not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn't like), but about something which is increasingly common these days - that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It's In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).

And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don't even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn't even remotely related to the facility you're on (drive on I-35 and you're funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don't own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the "show me the business plan for transit" theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don't use, you don't pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn't believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I've met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that's obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don't drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the 'burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don't like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he'll have to think of the cost of his choice.

I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don't talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn't. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don't care. From an efficiency perspective - i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it's the blunt instrument of tolls which don't change by the time of day).
3. You're paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a "toll" of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was "double-taxed" since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.

May 27, 2004

The Big Talk About Toll Roads - Part One

Yesterday's enjoyable lunch with Dave Dobbs reminded me that I intended to write this short piece, entitled "Why You Should Support (At Least Most Of) The Toll Road Plan Even If You Hate Sprawl".

So, there's ths big plan out there to build a bunch of toll roads. Well, not exactly. Realistically, the plan is to add toll lanes to a bunch of existing roads, and build a few new toll roads. The new toll lanes would be freeway-quality; some of the existing roads' capacity would be shifted to free frontage roads. This provides ammunition for the (false, but compelling) claim that existing roads are being 'converted' to toll roads, which I'll explore in detail perhaps in a later posting.

The assumption is that if you care about the center city, and you hate sprawl, that you should be against this plan. Well, I love the center city. I hate the suburbs. I think gas needs to be a lot more expensive. I ride my bike to work a couple days a week. And yet, I'm going to support this plan.

Most of this plan was already on the books in one way or another. For instance, the long-range CAMPO plan always had an upgrade planned for Loop 360 (usually "expressway 6", meaning 6 lanes and probably some more grade separation; by CAMPO's terminology "expressway" indicates some separation but still some traffic lights). That means that sooner or later, these roads would have been built, with a combination of woefully underfunded state gas tax dollars, CAMPO-controlled federal gas tax dollars, and a dollop of city, county, and even Capital Metro funding from property and sales taxes.

Read that again. Most of these roads would be built anyways. That's the first assumption you need to buy into in order to support these toll roads, and some people simply don't. That's fine, but at least understand the reasoning before you go on.

Why would these roads be built anyways? 99% of the drivers in this area think we don't build enough roads. Yes, they're wrong. Yes, informed people disagree. But those drivers are 99% of the population. You've got a lot of work to do to change their minds. I say good luck to you sir.

So, we're stuck between choosing a slow buildout of free freeways like the US 183 creeper northwest, or a quick buildout by some other means. Some people suggest simply raising the gas tax. While this would address the impact on non-drivers (I, personally, hate the fact that City of Austin general fund monies go to pay for roadways like US 183 which not only don't provide pedestrian accomodation, but are actively hostile to later accomodation - future paper on this subject to come), it doesn't address the city/suburb equity problem.

Consider this: if I drive 10 miles through the city on S 1st St., Lavaca, Guadalupe, and Lamar; and my vehicle gets 20 mpg, I pay about 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state. If my friend drives 10 miles through Round Rock on FM 620, he pays 18 cents in gas tax, about a dime of that to the state.

However, the state gas tax money (and the overwhelming majority of the federal gas tax money) is dedicated to roadways like FM 620. In fact, the state gas tax money cannot, by law, be spent on city roads (even major arterials).

So what's the big deal? Look at a bunch of streets sometime and see what roads have route symbols on them and what don't. (You might be fooled by Loop 343 through town on some maps - that's old data; the signs on the street are the only reliable judge). Anything with a "SH", "FM", "RM", "Loop", "US", or "Interstate" on it is getting gas tax money. Anything without is not. In most cases, not even federal gas tax money (on average, one major non-state-highway project per year gets a dollop of federal gas tax money through CAMPO's process).

So most of the big roads in the City of Austin don't get any gas tax money. This means that they must be funded by property and sales taxes. For instance, if one was going north from the river and looking at major E-W routes, all downtown streets (including Cesar Chavez); all numbered streets; Anderson Lane; Steck; basically every road between the river and US 183 with the exception of FM2222 is paid for by the city. And the same is true for N-S routes - such as Burnet Rd (south of US 183), Lamar Blvd. (ditto), Guadalupe, Red River, etc.

On the other hand, towns like Round Rock and Cedar Park have a much higher proportion of their infrastructure as signed and marked state highway routes (or US, which is really state under the covers). Go drive around and check it out if you don't believe me.

So the gas tax is inequitable to city drivers and encourages sprawl. Most of the gas tax money you pay while driving around Austin goes to the 'burbs.

So building these roads by increasing the gas tax is a bit more optimal than what we do now, but not much.

Finally, there's the choice of tolling the roads. This, at least, only hits the people who use the road. So the people who chose to live in areas which now must be served with expensive roadways pay for the trouble, at least. And the future option exists to use this toll money to improve other modes of transportation (again: the state gas tax, by law, cannot be used on anything but highways; tolls have no such restriction).

So what about the argument that these toll roads will encourage more sprawl? Well, it's possible. There's two basic subarguments here, that I'll address quickly:

1. That adding capacity, even toll capacity, encourages people to move further out. I do believe this to be the case - but it's less of an effect than adding free capacity would have been. And as said above, I don't believe that not adding the capacity at all is a realistic option given the feelings of 99% of drivers.

2. That the interests holding the bonds will have an economic incentive to produce more development in these areas in order to ensure adequate economic return (i.e.: the guys loaning the money need to make sure the supply of drivers fills the tollbooths). I find this less believable, because I think that most of the projects in this plan are going in corridors where sufficient demand for improved travel already exists, as long as the tolls are relatively low. Ironically, a toll project which sailed through with far less opposition (SH 130) seems to me to be a much worse bet. I have no problem believing current drivers will pay tolls today to travel up and down Loop 360 at twice current speed, in other words; but I don't believe SH 130 is going to fill its coffers anytime soon.

The final bit is to analyze the projects and see which ones make sense and which might not, although I've already said that I think that at least one project under construction (SH 130) is worse than any of these. The RMA doesn't want us to think this way, because they're relying on an economic package consisting of all of the roads put together (i.e. they think they need the dollars from the better ones to pay for the weaker ones, and they need the capacity from the weaker ones to feed the better ones). This argument, while I disagree with it, is more defensible than many would have you believe - it's the same argument transit supporters use to support little-travelled late-night trips on major routes (am I going to commit to riding the bus if it's not going to be there the one night I work late?).

But I'll analyze them anyways, because that's what I'm supposed to do. When I rate revenue, I'm assuming no new development of any kind (in other words, this is based on my subjective opinion of existing traffic demand).

Already underway:

US 183A - seems a poor candidate for revenue to me, but it was already approved.
SH 130 - very poor candidate for revenue, but it was already approved.
SH 45 N - good candidate for revenue, already approved.
Loop 1 N - good candidate for revenue, already approved.
SH 45 SE - marginal candidate for revenue, already approved. (Remind me to write an article about the 45 naming sometime - TXDOT is still keeping alive the Outer Loop through shenanigans like this).

New proposal:
"Y" in Oak Hill - SH 71 phase - very good candidate (neighborhood very opposed since they assumed they were getting free capacity, but this does NOT qualify as "converting a free road")
US 183 in East Austin - very good candidate (airport traffic tends to seek predictable routes even at higher expense)
SH 71 Southeast Austin - very good candidate (same as above)
Loop 1 S (SH 71 to William Cannon) - dubious candidate (short segment, unclear how feasible tolling it wll be). Seems like a stupid idea to toll a small segment in the middle of a long free stretch.
SH 45 S from Loop 1 to 1626 - dubious candidate, and opposed by the City of Austin.
"Y" in Oak Hill - US 290 phase - same as 71 phase.
Loop 360 - Bee Caves (2244) to Walsh Tarlton - very good candidate.
Loop 360 - remaining segments (as franchise) - would be good candidates. I don't understand the desire to have one part of this road operated by the RMA and the rest by a franchise - this seems stupid (would be better to do it all one or the other).

OK, back to work.

April 13, 2004

Why suburbanites think all buses are empty, Part One

I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway this morning to get on the 983 "express" bus to work. 6 people, includng me, got on at this stop. There were 4 or 5 people already on the bus.

Several people disembarked at the Arboretum, and one other person disembarked with me at Balcones Woods. By the time it got up to the suburban park-and-ride, it was surely emptier than when I got on.

Actually, this bus isn't a great example, since it is 'deadheading' for the most part - the primary traffic on these routes is inbound in the morning; they actually run some of the buses back straight up 183 without stopping to get back up to the big park-n-rides quicker. But it reminded me to write this article anyways, so there you go.

A better example is the #3 bus (Burnet). It has at least 30-40 stops in between its northern terminus loop around the Arboretum and downown (and then continues on down to Manchaca with probably another 40 stops). It runs very frequently (every 20 minutes). Well, that's frequent for this town anyways.

Imagine this experiment: At each stop, exactly one person gets on the bus. All of them are headed either downtown or to UT.

If you drive past the bus at the Arboretum (its northernmost stop), how many people will you see on the bus? Exactly 0, until that one guy gets on.

If you drive past the bus at UT, how many people will you see on the bus? 30 or 40.

In fact, many of Capital Metro's routes operate this way; it's how transit is supposed to work. Although the disembarking model is unrealistically simple; some people do get off in between, and many stops have no pickups while others pick 5 or 6 up like mine this morning.

But the real lesson here is that suburbanites are stupid. While reading the example above, I'm betting you were offended at my lack of respect for your intelligence, yet, in fact, most people here nod their heads when some knuckle-dragging Fred Flintstone type like Gerald Daugherty's ROAD bumcaps rant about empty buses.

You want to see full buses? Go to the end of the route, Einstien!

Also, get your ass on Lamar or Burnet - don't expect to see a ton of buses on Mopac or I-35; I'm fairly certain Capital Metro found it difficult to convince people to run across the on-ramps to get to the bus stops.

Same logic applies to bicyclists too, by the way. Local libertarialoon Jeff Ward rants that he sees no cyclists when he drives around town, and again, the suburban knuckle-draggers can't wait to grunt their affirmation. Ask him where he drives, though; he's almost certainly going from his far suburban home to the KLBJ studio at I-35 and US 183. Probably using freeways the whole way, too. If you want to see cyclists, drive down Shoal Creek or Speedway or Duval, you morons.