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August 19, 2011

Cap Metro operating subsidies - then and now

In a tweet yesterday attempting to answer yours truly without actually directly doing so, JMVC said:

Oh, really?

Here's the original graphic from the first few months of service (click for larger shot):

Here's the figures from a few months ago when service was expanded and boardings were up to 1700-2000 (even higher during the SXSW period). Click the image for the full shot. Ridership since SXSW has settled down back to around 1700 boardings/day, it looks like, so the most current subsidy (until the connector buses were cancelled) is likely somewhere in this range below.

Draw your own conclusions. Dramatically lower? Looks like about the same to me.

August 17, 2011

Short Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 13, 2011

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, 2011 Confirmation

Click for larger version.

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

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

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

May 12, 2011

twitlonger.crackplog

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

Zero.

So in direct response to this question from @jacedeloney:

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

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

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

May 09, 2011

The Austin Neighborhoods Chronicle

Not a big surprise to me, but Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro donated money to Kathie Tovo. Note that their endorsement article did not point out the conflict of interest (although the news coverage, to their credit, did; that conflict being that Kathie Tovo in particular and the ANC in general are very closely tied to Barbaro and especially his wife, no-growther, i.e., defend-the-landed-gentry-at-the-expense-of-sustainability-er Susan Moffatt).

Hence, Chron guys, horribly biased. As I said on twitter, I may be biased, and I'm not even media by the most generous definition, but even I would disclose a conflict of interest of this nature - and not buried in the accompanying news article, but right at the front of the endorsement. And I wouldn't feel comfortable writing about a race in which I donated money to one of the candidates.

It so happens I don't need to worry about it because I have never met (or even received e-mail from) two of the three candidates I endorsed (I have corresponded with Chris Riley a few times and have met him in person a couple of times over the years).

At least the subsequent news coverage was thankfully fact-based and fair. It is left to the reader to decide whether the editorial board, which split in favor of Tovo, is more disingenuous or naive.

April 04, 2011

My First Comment On The Urban Rail Scoping Study

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

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

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

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

April 01, 2011

Approximately 3100 words for today about TOD

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

Click on each picture for a double-size version.

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

March 28, 2011

Demoralized

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

Continue reading "Demoralized" »

March 14, 2011

A short set of downers to tide you over

I'm way too busy for this. Up from 2-6 with the knees of death; work is a nightmare. But it's been long enough.

1. At 1300 boardings/day and overflowing on the weekend, this line would be the most failingest light rail line ever in the country. Ever. That's of any rail line with all-day service that purports to serve an urban area (remember, Capital Metro's been trying to claim this is just light rail with diesel engines for quite a while now - especially Lyndon Henry). For reference, Tri-Rail, a huge failure, racks up about 15,000 boardings/day. The worst light rail starts in the country easily hit low 5 figures (i.e. past 10,000)* in boardings - 15,000 is viewed as a failure for a reserved-guideway all-day service serving supposedly urban areas.

2. This line has (essentially forever) precluded the one slam-dunk light rail line we could have built here - the 2000 route - which would have easily surpassed 40,000 boardings/day within the first year (like Phoenix). We can now never have a starter line as good as Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, Minneapolis, or Seattle. We've wasted that existing rail corridor on the Red Line. We needed it for the first 2/3 of the 2000 light rail route - you cannot get a train in its own lane on Lamar and Guadalupe if it's not part of a non-stop trip up to the suburbs; there is zero chance of it ever happening now because the Red Line has crapped all over the remainder and those Red Line trains can never run into the urban core. Suburbanites don't like transfers - so the ridership of a light rail spur hitting the last 1/3 of the 2000 route would not be high enough to justify taking its own lane on the constrained parts of the Drag, meaning it will now never happen. No, JMVC, not ever, ever, ever. You killed it.

3. This line is in the process of killing the urban rail proposal in its cradle. While nowhere near as good as the 2000 route, the city's urban rail proposal, if given its own lane throughout downtown, could surpass 20,000 boardings/day fairly quickly. It could be a smaller, moderately successful version of the Houston plan (run in-street the whole way and try to hit as much density as you can). But it's going to be fighting the Red Line for money and political will; which leads us to:

4. Other local rail advocates have thrown in the towel and are now enthusiastically cheerleading the modest improvements in the Red Line's ridership since all-day service started. Remember, Capital Metro projected 1700-2000 boardings/day on day one on this thing with its original schedule so they're still only 2/3 of the way there, and only after cancelling the best express bus competition it had and expanding the hours of operation. Also worth noting that the operating subsidy (which was previously a monstrously high $36 per ride) has likely gone even higher given the added number of runs compared to the added number of riders. I will ask Capital Metro for the new figure and will post it when I get it.

5. Those other local rail advocates should consider that every dollar spent on the Red Line; and every bit of political will spent on it; is a dollar or push that's not available to make the city's urban rail line a success. And the Red Line's ceiling is very limited - perhaps 2000 boardings/day in 5 years given population growth, assuming another major employer or two can be coaxed downtown. You guys are giving up the shot at a truly transformative rail service - one which will turn the suburbanites into supporters - for this POS which will never be more than a tiny drop in the bucket. You are ensuring that the city's urban rail proposal will be fighting harder for fewer dollars, and will be running in shared lanes where even if it somehow gets passsed and built, it will suck ass.

That's all I have time for now. I may fill in a few more links to back-story later if I get a minute. We'll see. Watch this week's or next week's Chronicle for more from me.

* - note - I corrected a typo in this on 3/21/2011 - meant "low 5 figures", had originally written this as "high 4 figures" and then changed the number but forgot to change "high" to "low". "high 5 figures" would be a success anywhere.

February 02, 2011

Red Line Phase One Wrap-Up

This is the last monthly data we get before Big Changes make for a big discontinuity in the graphs. December is, as Capital Metro wants to make sure you know, a low ridership month. As usual, click for larger versions. Analysis follows the pictures.

Continue reading "Red Line Phase One Wrap-Up" »

December 10, 2010

3000 words on rail ridership

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

Continue reading "3000 words on rail ridership" »

December 03, 2010

You Idiots, You Blew It Up

I posted this link on twitter with the caption: "Austin Urban Rail Goes To Hell". Note entry number for giggles.

I really don't have time for this, with the 60 hour workweeks, young family including baby that still doesn't sleep nights, and impending back surgery, but I have to say something, so I'll be brief.

I offered a year or more ago to become involved with Leffingwell's team on the urban rail project. I was ignored. (Note: I offered quite nicely.)

Recently, the plans have crystallized - and it's bad. Shared running almost everywhere - except for one (admittedly long, but not really relevant) stretch from I-35 to the airport, the trains will be stuck behind cars - or at best, buses (including local buses). No, a 'possible future transit lane' on Guadalupe/Lavaca doesn't mitigate; unless it's reserved for ONLY Rapid Bus and the train - and I don't see that happening; it's going to be stuffed with locals too, and that's if it even happens.

Unlike Brewster McCracken, who talked up reserved guideway everywhere except the leg out Manor to Mueller, Leffingwell's team has relented and the plan now calls for the trains to be stuck in traffic almost everywhere important. McCracken talked about "time certainty" being a big deal on a trip to/from the airport (or to/from work, of course). You don't get that without your own lane - period. No amount of Rapid [sic] Bus technology is going to get you there.

This rail plan, in its current state, is not worth fighting for. In fact, it's probably worth fighting against, as was the 2004 plan that so many of the "why don't you just stay civil" folks failed to affect in any way, shape, or form.

Be ready for a lot of the same people who claimed from 2004-2010 that car drivers would switch in droves to a train that required them to ride shuttlebuses to claim that the fact that these trains are stuck in traffic won't keep people from switching to them.

Remember who was right before, and who's been wrong the entire time. Or just be lazy and maintain access to the gladhanders to stay "civil" - and hold hands as we all ride the train off the cliff together - your choice.

And Not a done deal, you say? The engineering docs look pretty much done-deal level to me; as do the interactions with the media (note: the ONLY media outlet to cover the issue of guideway AT ALL was "Impact Central Texas"; their story here - good job guys; and shame on everybody else).

The urban rail system route is expected to follow Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, San Jacinto Boulevard and Congress Avenue. It will travel with traffic and may potentially receive signal priority at traffic lights, similar to Capital Metro's buses.

An urban rail system in Austin is expected to cost $200 million in its first phase of development. The track will be 33.8 miles in length and extend from Mueller to downtown to the Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Photo by Bobby Longoria/Community Impact Newspaper. Click for a larger image.
"Big difference between this and a bus is that it can fit 170 people, mostly standing, where a bus caps out at 60 or 80," Spillar said.

Hey guess what another big difference between this and a bus is, Rob? The bus that's stuck behind somebody double-parked can change lanes. A train sharing a lane with cars is the worst transit possibly imaginable in a city where most people drive - it has the worst aspects of buses and the worst aspects of trains with almost none of the good parts of either.

More background on Why Streetcars Suck courtesy of Jarrett Walker here: streetcars: an inconvenient truth

So I guess I need to update my "IT'S NOT LIGHT RAIL" chart:

If your train runs on freight tracks, can't run in the street, and requires shuttle buses - IT'S NOT LIGHT RAIL. Know what else? If your train doesn't have its own lane - and relies on the same crap Rapid [sic] Bus uses to get a leg up, IT'S ALSO NOT LIGHT RAIL.

Summary: If you want to live in a city with good urban rail, your best bet now is probably to move away. Seriously.

spreadsheet behind this image coming sometime down the road, maybe.

November 24, 2010

Chutzpah of the Year

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

Continue reading "Chutzpah of the Year" »

November 10, 2010

Red Line continues to smother urban rail in its bed; enfeeble existing bus service

(cut/pasted from the facebook)

Those of you who think the Red Line isn't hurting us now (via cuts to bus service and raises to bus fares) and in the future (via spending down money that is now absolutely essential to having any shot at delivering urban rail if it by some miracle can pass the election in 2012) should read these:

http://www.statesman.com/news/local/transit-board-to-vote-on-raising-bus-cutting-1035915.html

The base fare of $1 for a single bus ride and the $2 bus day pass (for non-express routes) would not change, according to the agency website. But almost everything else would.

Seniors and people with disabilities would pay 50 cents for a single bus ride. People with disabilities who qualify for MetroAccess, the agency's door-to-door service, would also pay more. A 10-ride pass would go from $12 to $15, and a monthly MetroAccess pass would increase from $35 to $40.

The cost of riding an express bus would increase from $2.50 to $2.75, and an express bus day pass from $5 to $5.50.

Children under 6, public safety workers and military members in uniform, Capital Metro employees and their families, and workers with Capital Metro's bus and rail contractors would still ride buses and MetroRail for free.

The cost of a two-zone MetroRail ride, meanwhile, will decrease from $3 to $2.75, with a concurrent decrease in the cost of a day pass for rail. And the cost for a shorter, one-zone rail ride will be cut in half, from $2 to $1.

The rail fare decrease would come as Capital Metro looks to increase MetroRail ridership, now between 800 and 900 boardings a day. The agency is adding 13 midday train runs — to date there has been only morning and evening service — and is in the midst of a rail marketing program expected to cost more than $200,000.

http://www.statesman.com/news/local/capital-metro-board-looks-to-increase-metrorail-spending-1032691.html

That added service will increase costs about $350,000 a year between now and 2015, according to agency documents discussed at a board committee meeting Monday.

The $6.8 million includes a $4 million increase in the contract's contingency, as well as $1 million in anticipated crossing signal work that the Texas Department of Transportation would reimburse to Capital Metro.

The original $4.1 million contingency in the contract approved in December has been depleted to almost nothing, officials said

Certain Capital Metro flacks will tell you this is just the media picking on them. Bear in mind that most of what Wear has written has turned out to be true despite CM's protests.

Those same flacks will try to tell you that Red Line operating cost overruns have nothing to do with raising fares and cutting service for bus passengers. Draw your own conclusions.

October 28, 2010

On civility

A response to a former friend on facebook:

Being 'civil', at least the definition used by some in response to yours truly, is how we got rolled by Mike Krusee in 2000 and 2004 and ended up with the Red Line, an 845 boardings/day disaster which has set back the cause of transportation in Austin for a generation. The hundred other strong rail advocates in this city put together have accomplished precisely nothing in getting Capital Metro to change by being nice (and maintaining access above all else).

Capital Metro is going to spend even more money starting in January, increasing the monstrous operating subsidy on this thing from its current figure of roughly $30/trip (huge compared to light rail around the country; doubly huge compared to buses), in the process eliminating far more useful bus routes, and spending money we will desperately need for urban rail (which, although nowhere near as good as the 2000 line would have been, would likely rack up around 20,000 boardings per day - a number the Red Line wouldn't reach running a train every minute all day long).

It may be time to rethink that definition of 'civil'. It may be more important to do the right thing than to remain friends with people who are doing the wrong thing.

October 27, 2010

Update on lack of updates

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

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


August 24, 2010

The Other Shoe Begins To Drop

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2010

Whole shakers of salt

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

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

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

So let's examine in detail. My tweet:

Continue reading "Whole shakers of salt" »

August 12, 2010

Holding Capital Metro Accountable on Ridership

So on a couple of forums I frequent, Cap Metro employees and hangers-on have been trying a new talking point - that they never expected 1700-2000 boardings/day anytime soon on the Red Line. This only requires a very short and obvious rebuttal.

The July 2010 performance report includes the picture below. (Capital Metro has suddenly decided to switch to only reporting rail numbers every two months, by the way).

Any questions? (Click to enlarge).

Continue reading "Holding Capital Metro Accountable on Ridership" »

July 23, 2010

Will adding later morning runs help the Red Line?

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

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

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

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

July 07, 2010

Today's news bits

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

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

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

June 29, 2010

Red Line May 2010 Ridership

Down, down, down.

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2010

April ridership data for Red Line

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

Continue reading "April ridership data for Red Line" »

May 07, 2010

Just what you needed: Some Crappy Video

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

May 05, 2010

Slightly Less Epic MetroFail

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

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

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

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

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

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

180 boardings. Maximum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 03, 2010

Epic MetroFail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Epic MetroFail" »

April 30, 2010

Blast From The Past

From The Chronicle in 2000:

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

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

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

April 28, 2010

Sad Lonely Shuttle

Today at 7:42 AM, I was stopped southbound on Red River at the light at MLK, and saw two rail shuttles cross the intersection eastbound; one headed to the Capitol Complex and one headed to UT.

There were 2 people on those buses, combined. One driving one bus, the other driving the other bus.

To be fair, these were likely the second shuttle in each case (I'm being charitable here - I have no way of knowing for sure). There are two buses running the same route for each train arrival - because Capital Metro was telling everybody they expected overflow crowds on the train. There's likely more than zero people still getting off the train at MLK and heading to UT, in other words, but for the station that's supposed to be the busiest these days, not being able to fill up the first shuttle enough for even one person to ride the second one is, well, according to Capital Metro and idiots like John Cowman, I guess, a positive sign?

Another point: Checking the schedules, the second UT shuttle was actually supposed to be at the drop-off at 23rd/San Jacinto at 7:42. Yes, the shuttle schedules, padded as they are, apparently aren't padded enough. The capitol shuttle was actually later still; supposed to be at 18th/Congress at 7:39.

April 27, 2010

1000 Words

April 13, 2010

Red Line: What Comes Next?

Really short but need to get this out for posterity.

Capital Metro is already declaring the thing a success, despite ridership half of projections and about a twentieth as much as a good light rail start would have delivered. What are they saying they're going to do next? And, will it work?

I'm going to do this in L33T table form. You'll see why in a minute.

Continue reading "Red Line: What Comes Next?" »

April 05, 2010

Red Line Update

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

What a difference $3 can make.

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

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

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

for this:

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

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

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

Good show, Austin. Good show.

March 30, 2010

Red Line Round Up

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

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

March 17, 2010

Ticketing isn't much better than just yelling

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

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

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

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

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

My response in comments to the Statesman article:

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

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

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

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

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

March 12, 2010

Teaser graphic

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

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

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

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

After the break, the picture...

Continue reading "Teaser graphic" »

March 04, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Three

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Three" »

March 02, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Two

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

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

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Two" »

March 01, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part One

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

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

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

July 15, 2004:

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

More references:

February 26, 2010

M1EK in comments: Why waste your time giving input?

Really sorry I don't have more time to spend on this blog - day job; family; etc. But this comment needed to be saved somewhere other than CM's blog so I could point to it. I've been meaning to write a long post on "staying friends versus getting something done", but this will have to suffice for now.

Commented to this post:

SR, it's really simple: Mike Krusee was willing to fight for his interests (kill light rail, allow commuter rail), and our city council members were not (nor was anybody else in Austin, except yours truly, as evidenced by this sad bit of history).

Talking, having charettes, staying connected, keeping in contact, maintaining relationships, giving input - none of this matters if the guy on the other side is willing to exercise his power to get what he wants and you aren't. (This, by the way, is why I don't bother showing up and giving 'input' at things like the 2020 service plan meetings - despite nice invitations and hurt feelings when not taken up on; I'm better off with speaking to hundreds of readers and having a 1% chance of slightly modifying the opinion of somebody with real power than I am giving my one input and having it roundly ignored).

In reality, the message really isn't "don't waste your time by giving input", but rather, it's make sure you're giving your input to people who are willing to listen and are willing to exercise their power to help get what you want. An awful lot of people in the political ecosphere are very, very, very skilled at using the input-gathering process to defuse opposition to things they've already decided they're going to do. Don't allow yourself to be effectively neutered in this fashion - make sure you're only spending your time with people who aren't just listening politely to keep you from talking to somebody else about it.

January 28, 2010

Capital Metro flips city the bird

or, in short, Ben Wear was right.

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

Full Statesman article and relevant quote:

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

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

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

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

Earlier coverage:

January 18, 2010

No, I can't stop beating that horse

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

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

December 18, 2009

History, Not Learning From

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

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

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

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

As Jeff points out,

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2009

MetroFAIL

A project of a former cow orker and friend of mine, Mike Kaply:

As for the contract stuff with Veolia and the new guys, I'm sorry, folks, but I know my limitations - and I don't know enough about contract law to be able to say anything worthwhile other than it sure seems like Veolia had their act together (specific and detailed rebuttals of many CM charges, while CM kept things vague). I also find it hard to believe you can switch contractors at this point and not push back the start date, as I told KUT, but then again, Allen probably has some experience with the new guys from up in Dallas, so who knows.

I see that over the weekend I also missed a second good KUT story by Mose Buchele on Veolia's response to being thrown under the bus. This is something I've hinted at for a long time - Capital Metro used Veolia as a scapegoat way back in March when the line didn't open, when in retrospect it clearly wasn't their fault. Highly recommended.

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" »

November 18, 2009

Two quick hits

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

Also,

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

Continue reading "Two quick hits" »

November 11, 2009

Board of Adjustment versus Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 01, 2009

Don't Let The Door Hit You, Fred

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

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

September 25, 2009

What I Would Have Said

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

Dear Carole, a few points:

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

Dear Jeff, an additional two points:

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

Dear Jeff's callers, an additional point:

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

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

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

OK THANKS BYE.

August 26, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 2009

New link and upcoming story

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

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

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

More on this tomorrow I hope.

July 28, 2009

Updates

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

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

July 23, 2009

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

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

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

Look at this picture, from page 5:

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

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

July 21, 2009

New blog to read

I still don't have much time myself, obviously, but did discover a great new blog called Human Transit which I'm slowly poring through - a transit planner from Portland, seems like. One of the first great finds has been a discussion of the inconvenient truth about streetcars which expands quite well on a point I've made here many times in the past: streetcars running in a shared lane are actually worse than buses on the metrics of speed and reliability.

Please check it out; I'm adding them to my blogroll.

June 17, 2009

Connecting some dots

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

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

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

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

3. Past list of ANC presidents, excerpted:

Past ANC Presidents


2008 Danette Chimenti
South River City Citizens

2006 - 2007 Laura Morrison
OWANA

2004-2005 Susan Pascoe
WANG

2003 Bryan King
South Lamar NA

2001 - 2002 Jim Walker
Cherrywood NA

1999 - 2000 Will Boseman
NUNA

1997 - 1998 Jeff Jack
Zilker NA

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

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

5. From the day before:

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

June 16, 2009

Laura Morrison's innocent act

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

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

Citizine Mag "Keep Austin Quiet"

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

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

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

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

Back to work...

June 12, 2009

Who's been complaining about the music?

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

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

Judge for yourself:

C. PUBLIC INPUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From austin360:

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

More at the link.

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

Earlier:

June 01, 2009

Quote of the century of the week

From this article, I shall piss into the wind since it seems like half my extended family works in the parasitical finance industry anyways. Posted here since even the quote was a bit too long for the meth-fueled megaphone-wielding-10-year-old-girl twitter machine.

GM's failure after 101 years is an indictment of American management in general. It highlights the damage to our economy that results when finance becomes the tail that wags the economic dog.

Guess what Toyota and Honda do? No, not finance; they actually make cars! Cars that the whole world wants to buy, instead of creating demand out of whole cloth for suburbanites to use 10 mpg trucks to hit the grocery store; demand that evaporates outside of the US and even inside the US as soon as gas gets expensive. Yeah, for a while you didn't have to worry about competing against those two; but they found their way into the SUV market eventually, and in the meantime you got out of the market segments the rest of the world actually buys.

Not just GM; but our entire economy fell prey to the stupid idea that if you could sucker somebody into paying you to do something for a while, it had to be valuable work. Rebuttal: Ponzi schemes work for a while too.

At my current jorb in the military-industrial complex, I'm already more removed from making useful things than I like to be; but compared to most jobs in our 'economy', I'm practically still a farmer.

May 27, 2009

Bad service is hard to kill

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

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

[...]

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

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

Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs

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

Here's a little table for you to consider:

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

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

Continue reading "Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs" »

May 25, 2009

Tri-Rail is dying; corpse still admired by idiots

Two posts I made today to the "busridersAustin" yahoo list in response to continuing misinformation from our old friend Lyndon Henry that I wanted to save for posterity. Reproduced as-is except that I've made the links live.

--- In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
> Well, I see Mike has basically morphed into the rant-recycling stage

Well, I see Lyndon has basically morphed back into his lying-sack-of-crap stage.

Just ONE among many of your lies:

Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties - extending a bit into
Dade County, but that's not the focus of the service. MetroRail is a Dade County
phenomenon (more specifically Miami) - most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that
far south. MetroRail (Dade County / Miami) is largely an artifact of the 1970s.

The area that saw transit stall out for 20 years was Broward and Palm Beach
Counties (Ft. Lauderdale is still trying to establish some momentum for a
streetcar/light-rail system against the headwinds of 20 years of Tri-Rail
failure).

Tri-Rail was planned and built during the mid-to-late 1980s; AFTER MetroRail.
The fact is that after Tri-Rail turned out to be such a disaster, nobody could
get any traction on any additional rail in the region for a couple of decades.
And now, the local governments are so enamored by Tri-Rail's 'success' that
they're writing 'doomsday budgets':

Recent Miami Herald article

Recent Palm Beach Post article

Tri-Rail ridership has, in fact, declined since the 2008 fuel spike has eased,
despite what these articles imply (note that they do not state what current
ridership actually is; if anybody cares to doubt THAT, I'll spend some time
finding the media that I read a few months back on the subject).

One can certainly conclude, with accuracy missing from anything Lyndon Henry has
ever written here, that the public in South Florida has not supported Tri-Rail
like they have, let's say, DART in Dallas or Houston's Metro system (both of
which passed expansion referendi with overwhelming support).

Some other (older) links, with links back to media (some of which has expired)
and with excerpts:

Old crackplog post

"Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It's located way west of
downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where
can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create
an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray
Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still
have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond
walking distance. "

[...]

"I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the
mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and
other places people actually go, and it doesn't share its tracks with 8,000
mile-long freight trains. That's why it works."

and:

Old crackplog post

"The greatest hindrance to Mica's rail, however, could come from the failure of
a predecessor, South Florida's Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County south
to Miami. Tri-Rail has proven costly; it has drained $433 million so far, and
reports say it needs another $327 million to stay alive. Despite the investment,
Tri-Rail averages only 60 percent of its projected ridership, and governments
subsidize more than 70 percent of the operating costs.

The problem? Essentially, Tri-Rail doesn't go anywhere. For most of its 11-year
life, Tri-Rail delved only into northern Dade County. "That's like taking a
train from Volusia and dropping people off at the Seminole County line," Mica
says. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus
systems. Moreover, Tri-Rail only runs once an hour, and is frequently late at
that."

and:

Old crackplog post

"Luksha is among the many South Floridians who derisively note that not a single
Tri-Rail train goes through a single �downtown�, and only indirect services
via, bus, taxi or Metrorail will get you to the region�s airports after
getting off Tri-Rail. "

As should be obvious by the lead to this post, I will not stand by and let you
drag me down without responding in kind.

- MD

and

--- In BusRidersAustin@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
> At 2009/05/25 15:41, Mike Dahmus wrote:
> >Just ONE among many of your lies:

> >

> >Tri-Rail serves mostly Broward and Palm Beach Counties - extending a

> >bit into Dade County, but that's not the focus of the service.

> >MetroRail is a Dade County phenomenon (more specifically Miami) -

> >most Tri-Rail ridership never goes that far south.


>
> Mike is just disseminating rubbish. By far the heaviest Tri-Rail
> ridership occurs at the 5 Miami-area stations, particularly the
> MetroRail Transfer station, where interface with the MetroRail rapid
> transit occurs. Tri-Rail also serves the Miami Airport.
>
> When I stayed in Deerfield Park

Heh.

Credibility, huh?

It's "Deerfield Beach", you ignoramus.

And, yes, Tri-Rail ENTERS Dade County. Of its 70 mile length, by far, the overwhelming majority of the line is in Palm Beach and Broward Counties. The fact that those stations see a bit more than typical traffic shows how stupid the plan was to rely on shuttlebuses for passenger distribution everywhere else; the only marginally successful stops are the ones that feed into the existing urban rail network in Dade County at the extreme end of a 70 mile system.

Urban rail systems never took off in Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach or Boca Raton or any of the other large towns and cities along the line. Commuter rail spurred precisely nothing; no public support for more rail that might actually work - were it not for the existing MetroRail system that actually goes where people want to go, and, this is important, the 1200 magnet students riding every day, the system would have collapsed 15 years ago.

I lived there for most of my life, genius. I was around when Tri-Rail was getting started. I worked at IBM three summers and then three full years within a short shuttle ride of both the Delray Beach and Boca Raton Tri-Rail stops.

I had many coworkers that gave it a try (I lived too close for it to be of any use to me). None stuck. The shuttlebuses were the problem for every single one of them.

I've seen more than a dozen proposals for TOD come and go along the line. None stuck. The lack of choice commuters was the problem for every single one of _them_.

I was around when the original discussions about CSX vs. FEC were taking place. You're right in one small respect - the FEC wasn't available right at that instant; but there were people EVEN BACK THEN who said we'd be better served by waiting a couple of years and trying to negotiate with FEC instead of CSX. (Parallel to Austin here: Some people said, me among them, that rather than barreling ahead with a stupid dead-end Red Line commuter "ender" line, we'd be better served by waiting a few years to develop momentum for a re-run at the 2000 LRT line).

This was 20 years ago, mind you. Tri-Rail still, now, 20 years after the fact, has not approached initial ridership projections, unlike light rail starter lines all over the country which have mostly knocked them out of the park. After 20 years of disastrous failure on Tri-Rail, the number of people willing to say we should have waited for FEC has grown dramatically - including most of the political leadership in the counties paying the bills.

Those counties, by the way, are the ones that are cutting their subsidy to Tri-Rail because it was such a 'success' that they've gotten tired of the bleeding for so little benefit (again, compare and contrast to what happened in Houston and Dallas after GOOD LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINES showed people what could happen - 2/3 of the electorate voted in favor of huge expansions in both cases).

It's you whose credibility ought to be completely lacking here. You visited South Florida once and rode Tri-Rail a couple of times.

Big whoop.

I lived there for 20 years.

You're absolutely wrong, as usual.

May 19, 2009

M1EK vs. Revisionist History

From a Capital Metro employee in this thread:

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

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

My work is never done.

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

My response:

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

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

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

May 14, 2009

CM being flexible with the truth again

Short post from the hospital while my wife naps.

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

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

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

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

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

April 28, 2009

CM reserves down to effectively nothing

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

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

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

April 14, 2009

Jeff Jack claims first music venue victim

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

Excerpt from the post:

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

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

April 01, 2009

Capital Metro is trying to mislead you

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2009

What's Up With Capital Metro?

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

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

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

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2009

Simplified headline

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

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

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

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

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

March 05, 2009

Capital Metro express bus changes screw Austin in favor of Leander

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

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

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

The right way to do solar PV

Atlantic City shows off exactly what I was talking about.

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

March 04, 2009

Effort to game the numbers on Red Line begins

Slowly at first.

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

Also, later on in the same document:

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

Let's emphasize that again:

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

Any questions why they might be doing this?

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

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

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

February 25, 2009

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

Commenter "breathesgelatin" pointed out 2 posts ago:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crestview Station and Commuter Rail

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

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

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

But wait. There's more.

Continue reading "Crestview Station and Commuter Rail" »

January 25, 2009

What a shock

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

January 22, 2009

Gee, thanks

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

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

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

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

Thanks, guys. Thanks a hell of a lot.

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

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

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

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

Using my favorite roadtrip analogy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2009

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

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

Four comments on your two quick hits!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.

  • A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs."

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

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

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

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

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

January 08, 2009

Two quick hits

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

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

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

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

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

More later as I slowly get up to speed.

December 11, 2008

Kool-Aid Overload

Dear Kool-Aid drinkers: I, and two others you still tolerate, told you that it was pretty obvious they had picked Clark very early in the preseason and never intended to give Devlin serious snaps. This makes you guys, what, 0-245 by now? And what's the downside, anyways?

Here it is. And the "I told you so" part: You can't expect a top quarterback to stay for another year riding the bench where he wasn't given a serious chance to compete for the starting job last time, and got only ludicrously tiny amounts of mop-up duty. And, what's more important, you can't trust a coaching staff with a 100% solid record of always picking the upperclassman(*) to actually make it a fair competition no matter what they claim they did or are going to do.

Now we get to play next year with no real backup and no real starter on the horizon. Good job, guys.

(* - yeah, they'll make a senior the backup if he's a walk-on or a recruit who would never have started even in the lower conferences. Otherwise, no - the record is incredibly clear).

December 10, 2008

Labor cost isn't the Big 3's problem

Backing up a point I've made many times at my favorite car blog, we now have a link from Marginal Revolution to a Times story which says:

[H]ere’s a little experiment. Imagine that a Congressional bailout effectively pays for $10 an hour of the retiree benefits... the U.A.W. agrees to reduce pay and benefits for current workers to $45 an hour — the same as at Honda and Toyota. Do you know how much that would reduce the cost of producing a Big Three vehicle? Only about $800.... An extra $800 per vehicle would certainly help Detroit, but the Big Three already often sell their cars for about $2,500 less than equivalent cars from Japanese companies....

The problem isn't the $800. The problem is the $2500 (and I think that number is a bit low, actually). If GM was building Cobalts that were as good as Civics, they'd have a small case for some help - but they aren't; not even close; not even in the same ballpark.

December 09, 2008

2047 words about the commuter rail station downtown

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

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

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

December 01, 2008

You forgot the air quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated update

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

November 20, 2008

Bailout those that deserve it

You can guess how I feel about the #1 target from this comment I just left at this thread at gm-volt.com. Yes, the same bunch of idiots who scoffed at me and others a few months back who said the Volt wouldn't make it because GM was going Chap 11.

Hint: Ford might be worth throwing a life-jacket to. The others? (Outer blockquote is me).

It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t only the U.S. automakers who built these lumbering behemoth trucks and SUVs. Toyota, the auto maker with the fallen green halo is slowing down production of its Toyota Tundra monster truck plant here in San Antonio. They have also stated that they do not plan to build a plug-in hybrid and have talked down GM’s progress on the Chevy Volt.
More crap from denialists.

Honda and Toyota didn’t fight CAFE kicking and screaming and getting loopholes for awful SUVs and pickup trucks. Toyota sells trucks to those who want them, sure, but hasn’t tried to create the market from those who didn’t want them and never needed them.

As for talking down the Volt, they’ve sold a million Prii. Even if the Volt was an obvious success, talking down the Volt to sell the Prius isn’t damaging to the economy, the environment, or our national security the way it was when GM spent years talking down hybrids so they could continue to sell polluting inefficient SUVs.

GM needs to die in a fire. Yesterday.

I always forget to mention GM's role in destroying urban rail. Yes, a lot of the stuff you hear is exaggerated if not myth, but they did play a large role in it nonetheless.

If GM was a person, I have a hard time believing we wouldn't be charging him with treason for enabling our enemies (and disabling our ability to pressure our 'friends' the Saudis) and destroying our environment and our economy.

November 05, 2008

Why we should subsidize more projects like The Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 04, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

October 27, 2008

Why the new library is in the wrong place

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2008

RG4TD?

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2008

How can you tell DMUs aren't made for running in the city?

(I'm making a full post about this because I'm tired of having to dig up the links from comments; this is primarily for background for future postings).

Pictures from Camden, NJ, on the RiverLine, which is also inappropriately labelled "light rail" by the same people trying to mislead you about our starter line here in Austin:

Doesn't look so bad. Just a bit of a corner, right? Keep going.

Further down the street to the south (down in the first image):

Further:

Try it yourself - click on any one of those images and then drag to navigate along the supposed "light" railway - and see how they managed to get it into the city core.

Any questions? This isn't light rail - it's a freight rail line bulldozed through a bunch of city blocks; which we don't have the latitude to do here in Austin, since our downtown blocks actually have some economic value.

September 26, 2008

That didn't take long

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

Here's what I commented to that post:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 24, 2008

No, Capital Metro, it's NOT light rail

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a second comment, I add:

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

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

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

And, my email to our city council:

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus

September 19, 2008

TWITC: Here we go again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 17, 2008

Getting to the ACM on transit

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

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

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

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

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

Additional suggestions welcome.

1. From Burnet/Koenig:

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

Continue reading "Getting to the ACM on transit" »

September 16, 2008

Republicans Still Heart Hugo

A local radical 'winger has gotten on board my McCain/Chavez ticket suggestion, although like most of them, he doesn't understand it yet. Who's going to tell Palin the bad news?

Meanwhile, my favorite car site covered the issue and I have hope again for the world, after some relatively right-wing guys came up with comments like:

I’m not a particularly smart guy, but what is the value of exploiting a LOCAL resource when the price is going nowhere but up? If “we” have oil under our territory, and “they” have oil under theirs, shouldn’t we BUY THEIRS now while it is still relatively cheap?

Think ahead 25 or 50 years. If all of “theirs” is gone, but we still have “ours” in the ground, won’t we be WAY better off?

If I were a leader, or somebody who has oil under their feet, I’d hold mine and buy theirs, because mine will be worth orders of magnitude MORE when theirs is gone.

Or am I just a far too strategic thinker for the average American?

and

This idea the US can drill itself into control of the price of oil makes the Saudi’s, the Canadian’s and Hugo Chavez laugh.

The USA simply does not have enough oil to meaningfully influence the price from a supply point of view.

This will be remain true at any price of the stuff.

Honestly, you’ll do a hell of a lot better on the demand side.

But I guess nostalgia is an even more powerful force than the laws of the nature when it comes to politics.

Some of them get it, at least.

September 05, 2008

Austin Contrarian on Austin Rail

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

September 03, 2008

RG4N: Still wrong

Quick hit: About to leave on a business trip to Yuma, and have to hit a discount store on the drive from Phoenix to pick up some stuff. Guess what, RG4N? The Target I'm going to hit is NOT "on the freeway"; nor is the mall across the street.

August 14, 2008

An airline that needs to die, as soon as possible

Makes me angry just reading this. If our country had a saner transportation mix, airlines could focus on the stuff they're objectively better at (long-haul or overseas flights) instead of trying to keep alive this retarded hub/spoke model for domestic flights. Would only have helped this situation indirectly, but still - this kind of thing is precisely why I'm flying Southwest on Monday to Nashville and driving 2 hours to Huntsville instead of flying a 2-leg on one of the legacies (which would save 30-60 minutes).

And, by the way, If we didn't have incredibly stupid landing charges at most US airports that charge by the weight of the plane rather than by the time the plane ties up the runway and/or traffic control, we'd have already killed off most of these stupid legacy nightmares. It's time to make this change now - which would restore a rational air traffic model more like what you see in Europe and Japan (hubs for international travel, not domestic). If it kills United dead as a side-effect, that's just an added bonus, isn't it?

July 15, 2008

Rapid Bus Still Ain't Rapid

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2008

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.

June 10, 2008

Laura Morrison's McMansion

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

Somehow, I missed this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2008

Jaywalking crackdown is stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 06, 2008

The Buses Aren't Empty, Part VIII

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

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

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

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

April 04, 2008

My bad neighborhood's sour grapes about VMU

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- MD

And my follow-up:

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
MD

April 03, 2008

Shared-Lane Streetcar Still Sucks

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

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

From Seattle, just yesterday:


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

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

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

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

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

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

From Seattle Transit Blog, in response, some quotes:

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

March 28, 2008

Working on brevity

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

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

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

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

THANKS, KRUSEE!

March 22, 2008

Why monorail failed: Seattle

This is important because we still, even today, have some opposition to street rail here in Austin from people who claim that monorail is an obvious winner - when everybody who knows anything about transit knows it's not; and we even have two American examples; one (Las Vegas) that was built and then failed to generate the massive ridership and accompanying profit that would justify expansion (and put the lie to safety claims to boot); and another (Seattle) that never made it out the gate as the financials collapsed.

Seattle Transit Blog lays out why it failed in Seattle better than anybody ever has before. Worth a read.

March 19, 2008

Commuter Rail Use Case #2: Leander

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

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

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

Leander to UT

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for trip to UT:

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

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

Next: Mueller!

March 18, 2008

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

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

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

Train times taken from page 4 of the PDF.

Crestview Station to UT

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for trip to UT:

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

Crestview Station to 6th/Congress

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for downtown trip:

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

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

Next: Leander.

February 22, 2008

More depreciation nonsense for cars

I've covered this before, but it's popped up again, thanks to The Overhead Wire and others. A short summary:

You will not save much money by leaving your car parked in the driveway and taking the bus. Yes, the IRS allows you to deduct based on a formula that includes depreciation - because it's the only way to give you any credit for having your personal vehicle tied up for business use. It does not under any circumstance mean that depreciation is mostly a function of miles driven - because it is definitely NOT; depreciation has more to do with age than use.

The last time I did this, I ran the numbers and estimated that depreciation due to age is roughly ten times the depreciation due to miles in a high-mileage scenario.

The summary is: in most cities, you will not save much money, if any, by leaving your car at home and taking the bus or train to work - unless you're unlucky enough to have to pay a lot of money to park. And, of course, you have to have unbundled parking costs (pay per day rather than per month).

The converse of this, though, is: You will save a surprisingly large amount of money by going from two cars to one car. Insurance. Registration. Car payments. Most of the depreciation bill. Maintenance (like depreciation, most maintenance is a function of time rather than miles).

Alternatively, if your company opens up an office in one of the few parts of the suburbs to which even I can't tolerate the bus commute, you face spending a LOT more money going back up to two cars. That's where to focus the energy - not on the "leave your car at home today and save N bucks" argument - because N is likely too small to be worth the trouble.

For my trip, for instance, google doesn't have cost figures (must not be hooked up to Capital Metro's farebox) - but I can give an estimate from my own commute calculator which shows that the bus trip cost $1.00 round-trip (allocate 50 cents each way) compared to $1.32 for the car (66 cents each way). That means that I can save 16 cents by spending an hour and forty-five minutes on the bus instead of the 15-30 minute drive, which is only a good deal if the value of my time is at or below 15 cents / hour.

January 15, 2008

TFT: Suburban wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

First bus leg:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed later on from here on out.

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

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

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

Things learned:

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2008

Chronicle comment of the month

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

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

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

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

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

January 04, 2008

Why transit service doesn't work on frontage roads

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

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

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

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

Then, the driving directions, which look like this:

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


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

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

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

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

January 02, 2008

Streetcars suck in Seattle too

Yesterday, I posted a quick hit about our bus ride down to First Night which noted several times where a bus was actually more useful than a streetcar would have been. It's actually fairer to say "less awful", of course, since anybody who knows me knows I don't find bus transit remotely acceptable on a corridor like this either - it needs true light rail like Austin voters approved in 2000.

Now, I see that things aren't going so great in Seattle with their stuck-in-traffic streetcar either:

On Sunday, the southbound streetcar was out of service at Westlake Avenue and Lenora Street because a car was parked in the way.

"In spite of the fact we have clearly marked areas, and despite signs we have, for some reason a driver parked their car so it caused a problem for the streetcar," Sheridan said.

He did not know how long the streetcar was out of service, but one witness said he saw the streetcar still stopped at 8:30 p.m.

December 24, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part two

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

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

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

Your pal,
M1EK

December 22, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restriping Shoal Creek Boulevard into the safe, sane design that every other city would have done - and in fact, recommended to us. Just read those archives. And the same people who cost us the $600K this time are the ones who cost us the million on SCB in the first place, don't forget. Parking on both sides instead of just one was just that much more important than cyclist safety.

Operate a branch library for a year. Every time we go through a hiccup in the budget, we have to close libraries or delay their opening. I can't get a breakdown precisely from the city budget after ten minutes of scrutiny, but I'm betting one of the branches could run for a year on that much money (operating expenses).

So there's three. Anybody else have any suggestions? Of course, none of these were as important as catering to the tantrum of a bunch of people who just really really really REALLY don't like Wal-Mart, and want us to engage the Care Bear Stare against the legal system.

Next up: the indirect and long-term costs (such as foregone opportunities to improve the site plan with the supercenter intact).

December 12, 2007

Big boxes and the ITE

One of the many pieces of excrement flung against the wall by RG4N in the desperate hope something would stick was an ITE Journal article in which the author asserted a disproportionate (to square footage) traffic impact for "free-standing discount superstores" over 200,000 square feet. The conclusion, in other words, was that 199,999 square feet stores should have a trip generation figure of X per square foot; while 200,000 square foot stores should have a trip generation figure of Y, where Y is much larger than X.

This is counter-intuitive to say the least. One could argue that the increased size results in more trips overall - which would be the result of continuing to apply X trips per square feet (X times 200,000 is obviously more than X times 100,000). One could even argue that the increased size results in fewer trips than the same number of square feet in _two_ stores ("one-stop shopping"). But the theory that a bigger store results in, and I emphasize units here, more trips per square foot has always seemed ludicrous to me.

Anyways, as it turns out, Wal-Mart went with a slightly smaller store - which the army of anonymous RG4N trolls have used for quite a while as conspiracy fodder - claiming that they snuck it in under the threshold to avoid these supposedly more valid rules (which, again, as far as I can tell, the ITE still hasn't seriously considered adopting).

As it turns out, I wasn't alone in my skepticism. In addition to several disagreements about methodology, the respondent (another traffic engineer) points out that the study was too small to be statistically rigorous; the stores were too different to draw any firm conclusions; and that the author's supposed intuitive conclusion isn't. Some excerpts follow, since I'm not sure how long this article stays up for free. I'll leave out the most esoteric stuff.

DEAR EDITOR:

As a transportation consultant who is involved in both the performance and the review of traffic studies, my colleagues and I at McMahon Associates, Inc. are extremely concerned that the August 2006ITE Journal article entitled "Trip Generation Characteristics of FreeStanding Discount Superstores" lacks the rigorous scientific analysis and thoroughness that we have come to expect in ITE Journal articles.

As such, although ITE Journal states: "Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect official ITE or magazine policy unless so stated," the article may be utilized by transportation professionals and others as "gospel" even though its analysis is flawed, in our opinion, in many respects.

...

2. Additionally, the square footage of a gas station is not a good choice for independent variable, as compared to the number of fueling positions, when determining its estimated trip generation; i.e., a 225-square-foot building could serve four fueling positions or 14 fueling positions.

...

5. We also question whether the author confirmed, in her comparison to the ITE Land Use Code 813 rates, that the latter (ITE) square footage baselines are the same as she assumed, especially with regard to the garden center, which typically has significant (15,000 to 20,000 square feet) square footage. While we agree that the rates should be applied to "total" square footage, inclusive of a garden center, it is our understanding that the ITE samples were largely (or totally) based on building foundation square footage, not inclusive of outside garden centers. Our observations about baselines and "with and without gas pumps" are intended to reinforce our opinion that the author's analysis appears to be an "apples to oranges" comparison rather than "apples to apples."

...

7. There is also a fairly large discrepancy between the number of vehicle trips collected between different days at some of the supercenter locations. Site 3 shows an increase of almost 17 percent in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts. The increases in site traffic between the day 1 and day 2 counts at site 1 and site 5 are both about 10 percent. The fluctuation in these counts suggests that there could be flaws in the data or that other factors may have been involved in the traffic generation of the site on one or both days of the counts. These discrepancies may reflect seasonal variations, as the article indicates that the first weekday count was taken in July while the second count was taken in October.

...

and here's the one that I think is the most important to laypeople:

9. We also take issue with the author's statement that "free-standing discount superstores intuitively should have a higher trip generation rate than free-standing discount stores, which by definition do not contain a full-service grocery store but have most of the other amenities of the superstore." Are not shopping centers evidence that larger stores, with presumably more services or products in one location, result in documented lower trip rates, because customers shop longer and their shopping needs can be accommodated in fewer trips due to greater availability of goods and services? In fact, the author's argument is shown not to be the case in Table 1 of the article, where the author's own comparisons show that, as retail store sizes become larger and more services/products are offered, trip generation rates decrease. We also note that the number of samples for ITE free-standing discount store (47) and ITE shopping center (407) is large enough so as to make these land uses' rates statistically more reliable than ITE's rates for free-standing discount superstore (10 samples) or the author's study (five samples).
...
In conclusion, while the author's study and article adds to the body of knowledge on trip generation characteristics of superstores in excess of 200,000 square feet, its data and analysis of that data, we submit, are not rigorous or conclusive enough to support the article's recommendation that the rates derived from the author's analysis should be used as the future norm for 200,000 square-feet-plus superstores. Until such time that more samples are collected (we would recommend at least 20); preferably from various locations in the country, as she also recommends, to test geographic differences, if any; and are computed on common baselines first (separately, without, or with gas pumps) before combined (i.e., if not statistically different), we suggest that the jury is still out on the validity of this article's rates, conclusions and future use.

December 06, 2007

TWITC: Krusee's change of heart

A fairly good article this time about Krusee seeing the light on new urbanism and stepping down. I'm honestly not sure how much I believe, which is a huge step up for me on this guy, actually. Here's some interesting quotes:

"It's an article of faith for Democrats that the sales tax is regressive. The gas tax is much, much more regressive. The gas tax is, literally, a transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class – to the upper-middle class."

That's not some blogging transit activist or Green Partier speaking on the inequitable burdens of highway costs. It's District 52 state Rep. Mike Krusee, who's currently best known – for better and worse – as the legislative face of Texas toll roads.

Gosh, I wonder if anybody else has been talking about that for years now. Couldn't be, huh? I presume the "transit blogger" might be me, given that every other blogger in the universe has swallowed Costello's tripe "TOLLS BAD. HURRRR."

As for the rail issue:

There are those who say his successful advocacy of suburban commuter rail instead of the light-rail lines initially proposed clumsily destroyed the possibility of effective Downtown mass transit for another decade – and that instead, we'll be trying to retrofit a system conceived for the very suburban sprawl it's supposed to replace. But as Mike Clark-Madison wrote here, about a year after Krusee was having his New Urbanism epiphany, "It's also pretty obvious that the only way Austin will ever have rail transit is if we start with a commuter system serving western suburbanites" ("Austin @ Large," April 9, 2004).

It's too late, Mike. The first quote is right - we're screwed; but Michael King is as wrong now as Mike Clark-Madison was then; there is literally no way to start with this commuter rail line and end up with a system which both suburbanites and urbanites can ride and get some benefit from. Even a transfer from "good rail" to "good rail" (both running in their own right-of-way) is enough to turn off essentially all suburban commuters not currently taking the bus, unless we reach Manhattan levels of density and parking costs (which we never will). And that presumes that we're somehow able to surpass tremendous obstacles and get a light rail stub built down Lamar and Guadalupe, which I doubt very much that we can (now that we wasted all our money on "urban" commuter rail that serves the suburbs poorly and the urban area not at all).

My comments posted there (some repetition of the above):

I can't believe Krusee gets it about inner-city drivers. That makes precisely ONE politician that does.

Of course, that doesn't make the gas tax regressive by itself - it's the fact that we pay for so many of our roads (even parts of our state highways) with even more regressive taxes (property and sales) which do the trick.

As for the rail thing - Krusee has destroyed it here, forever. You can't start with commuter rail and end up with something good - suburban passengers won't transfer from one train to another train (even if by some miracle we GOT a second train running down Guadalupe in its own lane) to get to work until we're reaching Manhattan levels of density. He doomed us to the point where we have to abandon transit to the suburbs, even though we spent all of our money building it. Good show.

November 29, 2007

TWITC: Sad confirmation on local retailers and parking

This story is kind of sad, but also a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. I've expressed in other forums (comments, mostly) that local businesses around here have sadly not been prepared to adapt to a more urban environment - ref among others the locally-owned businesses around Northcross in pedestrian-hostile parking-loving strip centers protesting against a slightly-more-urban and slightly-less-hostile-to-pedestrians Northcross redesign, and don't forget Karen McGraw's shenanigans in Hyde Park. And now, from 2nd street:

Speaking confidentially, other tenants are concerned that there's no interest in keeping them in business and that the lack of parking in the area makes life as a retailer virtually impossible.

(Of course, an anonymous commenter has already said that they think shopowners/employees were hogging the few curbside spaces that existed - hard to verify, but wouldn't surprise me). The idea that you can't have retail without free nearby parking is a suburban mindset - which is the most clear indication that these people weren't prepared for urban retail.

Here's a clue: Don't move downtown if you can't figure out a way to attract customers who arrive by any means other than the private automobile parked right in front of your store. Sadly, there are a lot of national retailers who DO know how to do this - and we're probably better off with a pedestrian-oriented national business than a local business that doesn't know how to play in an urban center. That's going to result in a lot of backlash from the paleoliberals, and I won't be thrilled either, but I don't see any other way forward.

This might get worse before it gets better - transit ACCESS downtown is good, but competitiveness is poor, unless you have to pay to park. People who have free parking at their offices in the suburbs aren't going to enjoy paying to park to shop - so again, these businesses need to not rely on that type of customer to survive, but the other type of customer - the local (urban) resident - may not exist in large enough numbers (yet) to make up for a retailer that doesn't have a lot of experience marketing to those urbanites.

November 26, 2007

Good News, Bad News

"CAMPO wresting rail planning from Capital Metro" is the headline. Sounds good to me - Wynn and Watson in charge means smarter rail than Capital Metro's stupid useless stuck-in-traffic streetcar plan. Right?

But who else is going to be in charge here? Let's see:

The 14-member group will be led by Austin Mayor Will Wynn and will include among others McCracken, Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson (who had a whole lot to do with creating the group after Wynn called for something similar last month), Williamson County state Rep. Mike Krusee, Travis County Commissioner and Capital Metro critic emeritus Gerald Daugherty, and representatives of the University of Texas and road and rail advocacy groups.

Yes, that's the same Mike Krusee that got us into this mess in the first place - the asshat who screwed Austin out of a good starter rail line like Houston and Dallas and everybody else built. That Mike Krusee. The guy who derailed efforts to build good rail for Austin so his constituents (most of whom don't even pay Capital Metro taxes) could get more transit investments than the residents of central Austin who pay most of the bills.

Shit. We're screwed.

Note that even if Krusee wasn't involved, the implementation of commuter rail has now precluded anything like 2000's light rail line from being built and that's about the only light rail line worth trying around here. In other words, the damage has already been done - we can't recover the 2000 route now. But still - having him (and even Daugherty) involved is the death knell for even a mediocre effort at urban transit - as neither one is likely to support investing enough money in reserved guideway transit in the city core. To them, every dollar spent on the dirty hippies in Central Austin is a wasted dollar that should instead be spent ferrying some SUV-driving soccer mom from one strip mall to another.

If Krusee had just kept his mouth shut in 2000, we'd have had a light rail election in May of 2001, and it likely would have passed. By now, you'd be seeing trains running in their own lane down Guadalupe right in front of UT, and down Congress Avenue right in front of all those big office buildings. Instead, we're seeing test runs of a useless commuter line running out by Airport Boulevard that nobody will actually ride. That's what he got us last time. Imagine what he can do for an encore!

November 23, 2007

The legal system should not be subject to the Care Bear Stare

As DSK notes, this isn't incredibly clear on first reading, so here's a new lead-in:

I forgot to crackplog about this when it happened: a "remodel" of a property with a duplex on it on 34th was the subject of a lawsuit filed by some of the leadership of my neighborhood association which went down in flames, since the property owner clearly satisfied the legal requirements in the zoning code (although those requirements were indeed very vague and very generous). News 8 has given the complaining neighbor some pity press (was in first link but not obvious), and I was reminded to talk about it. Here we go!

This new kind of awful seems to be cropping up a lot lately - the tendency for people who ought to know better to insist that the legal system is broken if it doesn't give them outcomes they like - in other words, since we care enough to shine our rainbows on the problem (Julian Sanchez), that ought to be enough to solve it. But the legal system doesn't operate in the world of democracy; it operates in the world where the law means something, and in this case, my idiot neighbors wasted a bunch of money on a lawsuit that was clearly doomed to failure.

In other words, even though I, personally, think that these new duplexes are actually a lot nicer for the neighborhood than the old ones (described by a more moderate person than I as "red shacks from Somalia"), and that my neighbors are just plain bad people for wanting to keep out slightly-more-affordable housing than the single-family-classic-mansions that infest that side of Speedway (34th being the dividing line on that side between historically rich mansion stuff and more modest development), it's irrelevant: in this case, the law is clear, and what's more, was clear before they bothered to file the suit. If some neighbor was building a garage apartment on a 6000 square foot lot, an action which is consistent with my preferences but against the city code since our neighborhood plan prohibits it, I'd likewise think anybody who filed a suit to do it was stupid. Still left undetermined is how much of this frivolous lawsuit's cost my neighborhood association will ultimately bear - since the leadership is overwhelmingly from that side of Speedway and on the wrong side of so many other development issues, I expect them to eventually donate some funds. Ha ha, DSK, I never joined, so it won't be my money, at least!

Are you listening, Chronicle?

November 14, 2007

RG4N drainage argument: ridiculous

As reported at the Chronicle's blog:

The argument made by Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) this morning is that the city's approval of Lincoln Property's site plan violated the note, which mandates that "Rainfall runoff shall be held to the amount existing at undeveloped status by use of ponding or other approved methods." The city – with testimony from city engineers Benny Ho and Jose Guerrero – countered that "undeveloped status" means status at the time the application is filed, not a reversion to the status of when the property was a green pasture. Attorney Casey Dobson, representing the city, said "To use a legal term, that [would be] silly." Guerrero further testified that the law only requires that a project not make flooding worse, and that Lincoln's site plan will actually reduce impervious cover and presumable send less floodwater off-site.

In other words, the Wal-Mart plan is demonstrably better for drainage than current conditions but RG4N claims code should be interpreted as if a project must (not just can, but MUST) be rejected by city staff if it adds more runoff than the completely undeveloped state would have. Also keep in mind that the RG4N 'vision' would also be an improvement over current conditions, but most definitely not over the undeveloped prairie that was there seventy years ago.

If you ever needed proof that RG4N's legal strategy was the old "throw excrement on the wall and see what sticks" method, here it is. And if there were any justice in the world, the judge would call RG4N forward and issue this speech.

As my cow orker DSK pointed out a moment ago, though, it would almost be worth yielding on this point if the judge put similar conditions on the homeowners of Allandale and Crestview.

November 09, 2007

TFT: Southeast Austin

Councilmember McCracken wrote back to my email referenced in the last post and said some things which made me more optimistic again, which I will cover in my next crackplog, but probably not until Monday. In the meantime, here's something I wrote up today on the #27 bus (transit field trip time!)

Short one today - my company was having a rare physical meeting at Ventana del Soul, a non-profit with some meeting rooms. (Well, actually, only three of the five locals, and one non-local; most of the company is still in Virginia). Took the #7 down in order to leave the car with my wife. Google Transit trip indicates 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by car in traffic (highly optimistic; more like 30).

I waited about ten minutes for the #7 at or about 8:30 AM; just missed one apparently. When my bus arrived, every seat was full, and there were 10-15 people standing. We picked up one more person before entering the UT area, in which the bus rapidly disgorged - I was able to get a seat when we crossed Dean Keaton, and by the time we hit MLK, nobody was standing and about half the seats were full. Continued on through downtown, people getting on and off (more on than off), and then as the #27 down Riverside through near-in southeast Austin. A few more people got on, but the bus was never completely full; when I disembarked at my stop, there were about 15-20 riders remaining.

So, summary, from 37th to UT, every seat full; 10-15 straphangers. Dropped off about 2/3 of those people at UT, but more got on downtown, and through Riverside about 3/4 of seats were full.

On the way home, I waited about three minutes for the #27 at Burton and Riverside while I was talking with a billing rep at a medical office. The bus actually came while I was still on the phone - and I accidentally tried to board with a soda (oops). Almost every seat was full - I estimate 20 to 25 passengers; but several got off at the next stop and I was able to move to the back next to the window. Picked up a lot more people along East Riverside. Summary: From my stop on Oltorf to downtown, average 3/4 to all seats full; dropped off about half downtown; then about half full to my stop at 33rd.

Hard to believe, but this bus was actually more full than most of my rides on the #3 back when I reverse-commuted in the mornings once or twice a week to Netbotz.

October 25, 2007

Early reaction to Mayor Wynn's rail proposal

Doing this really fast since I'm working outside and almost out of power, but wanted to get this out today.

5:45 Update: I got suckered, folks. I wanted to believe this was different, but after re-reading the Chronicle and Statesman coverage, it's clear that this is nothing more than Capital Metro's circulator route with the spur to the Triangle built in the first phase - meaning it doesn't go down Guadalupe where all the people are and where they all work, it doesn't go by West Campus, where all of the future non-downtown density is apparently headed, and it doesn't go by Hyde Park or North University, where all the people who wanted rail in the first place actually are. Instead, it runs through the part of east Austin already 'served' by commuter rail and which is violently opposed to more density - and to Mueller, whose modest density is already assured, with or without streetcar, and "to the Triangle", although anybody who would take this from the Triangle to downtown is a certifiable moron, since it would be several miles out of their way through Mueller and East Austin rather than straight down Guadalupe. Fuck. See, shilli? Even M1EK can be naively optimistic.

4:45 Update: God, I hope I'm wrong, but after reading some additional laughably wrong coverage ("commuter rail election" from fox7, for instance), I'm getting the feeling that the route "to the Triangle" might actually just be completing the upper part of the question-mark from the circulator study's route, meaning it would run out to Mueller, then up to 51st, then back across I-35 to the Triangle that way, meaning we miss the best part of UT, West Campus, Hyde Park, etc. If that's the case, ignore everything good I wrote below and go back to the "oh, my god, this will suck goat ass" position.

Now, back to the original 4:15 reaction:

First, thank god he's finally doing SOMETHING. It would have helped more if he had done it in 2004, of course.

Second, there's more questions than answers here, and very little I can say definitively. Neither Wynn nor McCracken or their aides e-mailed me back (in McCracken's case, I didn't expect anything since he was reportedly pissed at my past interference with one of his attempts at pandering, and Wynn's might just be too busy or might likewise hate me, but it's hard to wait any longer).

Third, the emphasis on "doing it ourselves, since Capital Metro wants to let Mike Krusee screw us" SURE SOUNDS FAMILIAR, IF ONLY FOUR YEARS TOO LATE. Still, better late than never.

I will try to follow up on some new terms and questions in this post tomorrow, such as "Rapid Streetcar" and exploring the 2000 LRT route to the airport.

Coverage round-up:

  • Austinist (mostly good)
  • Austin Chronicle (not much here due to their publishing schedule)
  • Statesman - the most stuff, but come on, guys, I don't want to hear from Daugherty. Also, guys, it's not going to be DMUs from the commuter rail line, they can't turn corners tightly enough to be used in-town.
  • News 8 Austin - as I exclaimed to DSK, I don't know whether to applaud or boo the language involving light rail and resurrection. But they did mention that this is completely separate from commuter rail - far more accurate than I expect from these guys. Dammit, if I had any confidence in their description of this as basically "let's do 2000 now", I'd be tapdancing all over the backyard right now (from where I'm composing this). Look at the 2000 picture they dug out of the archives, which would be running by now if Mike Krusee hadn't kicked Austin in the balls, although probably down the middle of Guadalupe rather than on the edge as this early mockup showed.


What do we know so far? Very little. Some kind of rail being proposed for generally the part of town that needs it (nobody wants to be on Airport Boulevard). Connecting to, but not running on, commuter rail. Some indications that McCracken and Wynn are thinking about some reserved guideway rather than just going along with the magical streetcar fairydust approach that thinks running in shared traffic doesn't suck.

Vehicle/Technology: Streetcar or light rail. Sigh. Much confusion and conflation here, from News 8 probably not being able to tell the difference to Gerald Daugherty wanting to tar light rail with the same brush as streetcar to the councilmembers just not being able to commit. Statesman mentions DMU, but there's no way. These things are way too porky - the only way one even ran through the city in New Jersey on the other commuter line Lyndon Henry and his band of serial confusimicators like to call light rail was to cut corners through city blocks (workable in New Jersey since their downtowns, uh, don't have anything going on, to be charitable.

Route: They're talking about Triangle to UT to Capitol to downtown to the airport. This probably means the 2000 LRT route, which probably means no reserved guideway since it was a tough sell even with long and frequently running LRT vehicles. We're not going to be able to afford to give up 2 of 4 lanes on Guadalupe for vehicles the size of streetcars. Could be on Congress in the downtown stretch, in which you could bet against reserved guideway, or on one of the parallel streets, in which reserved guideway (or maybe just shared with buses) might be feasible. On Riverside, some talk of running off the side of the road so as to not take up lanes. As weird as this sounds, this is the best piece of news out of the plan, because it means that McCracken and Wynn at least understand that running streetcar purely in shared traffic lanes is a complete waste of money. Unfortunately, the one street they talk about doing this on is the one street where it's not really needed. Baby steps. My desperate hope is that this talk means they're comparing Riverside to other streets where they'd have to give up car lanes, not that they mean that they'd run in a shared lane on the other streets. Going to the airport is a new touch (was in eventual expansion plans in 2000).

Funding: Talking about using city money. Interesting wrinkle is using airport money for part of this. Federal funding mentioned, but I find it unlikely in the near term (give the Democrats a few years to reverse the past 8 years of disaster at the FTA, first). This line hits all the urban parts of town but doesn't grab the suburban park-and-rides. The Feds loved the 2000 plan because it hit both. They would have hated the 2004 commuter plan for skipping one, and they'd probably hate the 2008 plan for skipping the other one, unless this is substantially cheaper than I expect it to be. ("Rapid Streetcar" possible way around this?)

Operations: Getting Capital Metro out of the way for construction and funding: a good idea. Getting them involved in operations? A bad idea. We can't afford to subsidize suburbanites any more with this thing - if anything we should be treating this as an opportunity to build and operate our own rail system and grab back 1 of the 3 quarter-cents we give to Capital Metro in the process. 1/2 a cent is enough for bus needs, and Leander ought to be funding commuter rail themselves (maybe Cedar Park and Mike Krusee can kick in for the free-riders).

Conclusions: None, really. If they just try to build stuck-in-traffic streetcar, well, it'll be better than what Capital Metro wanted to build, since it'll run on the end of UT actually worth going to, and will run up past Hyde Park and the Triangle, and a few travellers to the airport will find it nominally more attractive than the #100. So, worst-case build scenario, we're better off than Cap Metro's awful circulator. Best-case? Probably some variant of light rail or "Rapid Streetcar". I can't see any possibility for reserved guideway where it would be needed the most - on Guadalupe between MLK and 29th - but if there's reserved guideway downtown, it'd be a lot better than what we could otherwise expect. Still, compared to 2000's light rail, this won't be worth much, but it's better than nothing. Stay tuned.

October 24, 2007

Commuter rail train arrives; raises M1EK's blood pressure

Since the delivery of the new rail cars have spurred a few "god dammit it's NOT LIGHT RAIL" responses from me, and since I typed something like the following up for Ben Wear's blog and am not sure it went through, here's a quick refresher on three major problems with this commuter rail line:

1. It does not primarily serve Austin residents. Leander residents deserve some service, because they pay some Capital Metro taxes, but the second best-served population for this line is actually Cedar Park, who pays absolutely nothing (it's considerably more feasible for the average Cedar Park resident to just drive down the road a bit to the NW Austin Park-and-ride and ride the train than it is for 90% of Austin residents to ride this train at all). Most of the Austin stations don't have parking, but are also not located in areas where a non-trivial number of people could walk to the stations (unlike the 2000 light rail line, which ran within walking distance of a few of the densest neighborhoods in the city).

2. It relies on shuttle buses for passenger distribution. No, you won't be walking to work, not even if you work downtown, unless you're even more of a stubborn cuss than M1EK is. The rule of thumb for transit agencies is 1/4 mile, that being, if their office is within a quarter-mile of the train station, most people would be willing to walk. The Convention Center station is a bit more than a quarter-mile from the closest major office building and more like 1/2 to 3/4 mile away from most downtown offices. And UT and the Capitol are much farther away than that from their purported station. Why is this a problem? Since anybody who wants to ride this thing is going to have to take shuttle buses, we're relying on the theory that people who aren't willing to ride the excellent express buses straight to their offices at UT, the Capitol, or downtown will somehow become major fans of buses when they are forced to transfer to one at the train station.

3. Yes, you have to builld one line in order to build a system - but in this case, the line we're building prevents us from ever building a good system. lt precludes the only realistically feasible light rail line from being built, and even if it didn't, the political blowback from "let's ride and then decide" would knock us dead once it becomes clear that Ben Wear and I were telling the truth when we said Capital Metro is only planning for something like 1500 riders per day. And no, Virginia, streetcar won't help one bit - it's still a daily transfer from a good mode - reserved-guideway fast rail transit - to a bad mode - stuck-in-traffic slow rail transit which is no better than stuck-in-traffic slow shuttlebus.

Think this is just a broken-record? When the initial impulse of writers who generally have clues is still to call this light rail and when people get unreasonably optimistic without thinking about where the stations actually are, my work continues to be necessary. Sorry, folks.

October 11, 2007

TWITC: Save Town Lake Kills Town Lake Trail

Of course, the Chronicle plays this up as a win for the lake:

This would have allowed them to move their secondary setback line from the river forward 50 ft, and 130ft on East Bouldin Creek, pushing their proposed developments at 222 and 300 East Riverside much closer to the waterfront.

Once again, we see the writers at the Chronicle pretty much taking the ANC line hook, line, and sinker - without any qualification whatsoever. And:

it seems likely that CWS will withdraw to lick their wounds and come up with another plan.

but here's the money quotes, courtesy of the ABJ:

If the variance request remains denied, CWS plans to build two highrises -- one 200 feet, the other 120 feet -- and redevelop dozens of apartments that sit as close as 20 feet from the lake shore to sell them as townhomes. Those apartments pre-date the 200-foot rule.

So, who are you going to trust? The developer? The ANC? Well, I'd say at a bare minimum, a journalist ought to at least report what the developer says they're going to do. The ABJ did, but not the Chronicle.

My prediction: While there's a distant possibility CWS would re-re-negotiate, the most likely scenario now is that there's two rather than three towers on the site, and that the existing buildings right next to the water get rebuilt and sold as townhomes/condos. Remember - after the sales happen, any donation of parkland (even a foot next to the water) would require a vote of that condo association. Key here: there's nothing non-trivial left to negotiate. CWS was denied just about the smallest variance that was worth anything; there's nowhere to retreat to from here. And the rich folks in Travis Heights (using the rest of you as dupes) won the battle they really cared about: keeping their property values high and their views unobstructed.

Anyways, this is what you get by standing up behind the ANC and Laura Morrison, folks. Hope you enjoy jogging on the Riverside sidewalk.

Several commissioners referred to the vote as a lose-lose situation because CWS will still rebuild close to the lakeshore and the public will lose an extension of the hike-and-bike trail.

And, Planning Commission, shame on you. Going on the record as saying this is a lose-lose situation but then voting unanimously for the ANC position? WTF?

Additional coverage:

From that Austinist piece, in comments, "Scooby" says:

I see that the Austin Chronicle is a "Waterfall Sponsor" ($2,500 donated). I wonder if that includes the in-kind donation of slanted "news" coverage?

September 20, 2007

Austin drivers don't come close to paying their own way

Quick hit, found from Jeff's excellent "City Transit Advocates" aggregator:

This recently released national study confirms that even in states with more progressive transportation policies than we have in Texas, motorists do not pay the full cost of providing them with roads and ancillary services. Not even close. (I've seen the New Jersey study before and have used it many times; but nobody bothered to go to that level of detail for the nation as a whole).

And in Texas, it's a lot worse - we don't allow state gas taxes to be spent on major roadways outside the state highway system (which screws cities like Austin in favor of suburbs like Round Rock); and we even require 'donations' from city and county general funds to get state and federal 'free'ways built. If the subsidy recovery would be 20-70 cents/gallon nationally, it'd easily be over a buck here.

September 04, 2007

Rapid Bus slips to 2010

I've been meaning to post on this for quite some time (an Outlook reminder pops up every day) but was putting it off because I had intended on gathering together quotes from before the election, after, and whatnot; showing the slip from 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to 2010. But the hell with it; Capital Metro's even showing it in powerpoint presentations now, so here you go:

The only service being provided to central Austin in any way, shape, or form; the execrable Rapid Bus, is now scheduled for 2010. This service, as useless as it will be, was the only bone thrown to Central Austin for their votes (and, don't forget, the vast majority of Capital Metro's tax revenue). The sterling work of the boot-licking sycophants in the ostensibly pro-transit community has done absolutely nothing but further enable Capital Metro to screw the people who want, and pay for, transit. Good show, folks.

("study" downtown circulator, by the way, means "try to convince the city and UT to pay for it"; and so far, the city has admirably been asking questions like "why is a stuck-in-traffic streetcar better than a stuck-in-traffic bus?").

August 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 14, 2007

First of many "TOD"'s collapses

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

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

Original post follows:

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

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

August 07, 2007

8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 01, 2007

Better than I could put it

Absent other options (and local bus is not an option) they will drive. That’s where rail comes in. We can build it, as some have suggested, in places where people don’t want to live right now in hopes that people will want to live there. Or we can build it where people already are, and where more people are coming, to take some of that load. We’ve learned from Main that people will ride rail if it goes where they want to go. We’ve also learned that dense development is most likely to occur in places that are already dense. Rail isn’t causing density — the density is coming anyway. Rail, done right, is a way to deal with the traffic that density brings.

Focus on this sentence:

We’ve also learned that dense development is most likely to occur in places that are already dense.

What parts of Austin are already dense? Why, the parts served by 2000's light rail proposal, and skipped by commuter rail (and streetcar). And, no, sorry, TOD won't make much of a difference.

We ignore lessons from other cities at our own peril.

July 20, 2007

Why I do it

This subject keeps coming up; and although I've explained it in bits and pieces in many crackplogs here, as well as in other forums, I've never put it all in one place before. But I'm also short on time, so I'll reuse most of a post I made today to the excellent SkyScraperPage forums and just expand a bit.

The immediate relevance is a somewhat petulant response from Michael King to my letter to the editor in the Chronicle next week. I suppose this means I'll be published, at least. The money quote:

we don't find it particularly useful to hold our breaths on transit questions until we turn blue (or bile green), nor particularly helpful to respond to every interim proposal with cheerless variations on "it's pointless and it won't work."

So, here it is: why it's important to keep bringing up that this thing won't work and WHY it won't work, and what WOULD have worked instead:

South Florida built almost exactly what we're going to build: a commuter rail line on existing tracks which is too far away from destinations people actually want to go to - so they have to transfer to shuttle buses for the final leg of their journey to work in the morning (and back from work in the evening). It has proved a miserable failure at attracting so-called "choice commuters", i.e., those who own a car but are considering leaving it at home today to take the train to work.

Here's how the experience has gone in the area:

  1. Start with a largely transit-friendly population (retirees from New York, for instance)

  2. In the mid-to-late 1980s, commuter rail gets built (requiring shuttle transfers).

  3. Everybody who says anything says "this is going to work; rail ALWAYS works!"

  4. Nobody but the transit-dependent rides it. ("we tried it and it didn't work").

  5. Ten years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here".

  6. In the meantime, a huge amount of money is spent double-tracking the corridor and increasing service; but still, essentially nobody who can choose to drive will ride the thing, because the three-seat ride (car, train, shuttle-bus) makes it so uncompetitive. (Remember that, like our rail line, it doesn't run through any dense residential areas where people might be tempted to walk to the station - all passengers arrive either by car or by bus).

  7. Fifteen years later, when people still don't ride, somebody reads about TOD and thinks "maybe that will help". Millions are spent trying to encourage developers to build residential density around the train stations to no avail (a bit unlike Austin in that here, all we need to do is allow more density and it will crop up by itself due to pent-up demand for living in that part of town). Nothing comes of this - because people don't want to pay extra to live next to a train station where they can hop a train to... a shuttle-bus.

  8. Twenty years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here" is still the primary response - but finally some people are starting to say "well, we built the wrong thing last time".

If there had been more people pointing out before, during, and after the system opened that a rail line which didn't go where the people wanted to go would be a failure, it might not have taken twenty years just to restart the rail conversation there.

I don't want it to take twenty years to restart the conversation here in Austin.

Don't believe it will happen? Remember: the pro-commuter-rail forces, before the election, were saying let's ride and then decide. People in South Florida rode. They decided. It didn't work. It has taken twenty years to even start seriously talking about building rail in the right places (along the FEC corridor, or light-rail in Fort Lauderdale). We can't afford twenty years here.

July 19, 2007

PS: Still not a crackpot

Posted to comments and as letter-to-editor in their new interface, but who knows if this new technology will work, so it's reposted here for your pleasure. The 2nd Hawaii report coming as soon as work calms down a bit.

Commuters will only switch to transit if they are delivered to their final destination – within a couple of blocks. Failing to provide that "last mile" transport can doom an entire regional rail system. If far-flung suburbanites hate the bus, and their offices are too far to walk from the last rail or rapid-bus stop, then they'll just keep driving, however long their commutes.

The part which was left out, in what's becoming a disturbing trend of analysis-free journalism at the Chronicle, is that choice commuters will also NOT accept transfers as part of their daily commute, unless we're talking about the Manhattan end of the scale where the transit alternative has the benefit of competing against 50-dollar parking.

Transfers from commuter rail to streetcar will not be any more attractive to daily commuters than transfers from commuter rail to shuttlebus - and choice commuters, as shown in South Florida with Tri-Rail, simply will not do the latter. Once you ride every day, the fact that the streetcar isn't any faster or more reliable than the bus was becomes very obvious.

It's time to remind people yet again: we did NOT decide to build what worked in Dallas, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake, Houston, and Minneapolis (light rail, or, what we would have built in 2000 and should have tried again in 2004). What we're building instead was what failed in South Florida - a transit alternative which is utterly non-competitive with the car and will continue to serve only the transit-dependent at an incredibly high cost, while derailing transit momentum for decades.

Mike Dahmus

Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

July 13, 2007

Panderama: Jennifer Kim

While I was up in Newark at a class for work, Jennifer Kim wrote a letter to the Statesman which is just plain awful. Since AC has promised (although not yet delivered, ahem!) a fisking of the Northcross lawsuit, it falls to me to perform this one; hat tip to DSK for the link.

I am deeply troubled by the outcome of the site plan approval for Northcross Mall. It's wrong and embarrassing when residents believe they must protect the community by suing the city.

Me fail English? That's unpossible! Seriously - what is she troubled by? The outcome of the approval? The approval itself? Doesn't really matter - the process followed the rule of law. As I've said many times, the city is not allowed to, nor should they seek to, deny approval for a project based on dislike of the particular tenant involved.

I have worked with Responsible Growth 4 Northcross to prevent this. Ideas ranged from a public-private partnership to build a community center or other public facility, to limiting the operating hours of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. However, we failed to gain the support of the City Council.

That's because RG4N staked out a position very early on that the presence of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter was non-negotiable. Hint: you don't negotiate with people who have said that your presence is unacceptable.

The area is full of pedestrian-oriented businesses and family-friendly neighborhoods.

Sure it is. Why, just look at this satellite photo of Anderson Lane. Looks like new urban nirvana to me! Ignore the fact that every strip mall has a parking lot in front. Ignore the fact that the sidewalks are out in broiling heat, far away from the buildings. Ignore the first rule of urbanism. They must be pedestrian-oriented, because, well, because I say so! And when my cow orkers and I ate at various places in the area the last 2 weeks, boy, were they impressed at the pedestrian orientation near Star of India!

And what's more family-friendly than the 2nd least dense neighborhood in the city which is also one of the slowest growing, thanks to deed restrictions and super-low-density zoning which have made the area attractive primarily to empty-nesters? Even the folks at Allandale Reporter were basically forced to admit that, and I quote, it's one of the least dense, slowest growing neighborhoods in Austin. Hey, remember those wacky kids at RG4N who claimed a VMU project would be feasible in this spot? Remember how wacky M1EK pointed out the extremely low density of the residential catchment area? Those were they days, huh?

Don't forget the family-friendliness of pressuring weak-willed panderers on the City Council to allow cars to park in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd, the most important bicycle commuting route in the city - both for long distance work commuters and for kids going to Northwest Park. What's more family-friendly than making an 8-year-old swerve around parked pickup trucks four or five times before getting to the park?

It's clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic, so I sought evidence that the city could use to reject the site plan.

That's charming! Most of us would actually look for evidence first before declaring that it was clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic for a parcel zoned as a shopping mall.

I asked city staff to rerun the traffic impact analysis submitted by Lincoln Properties using the higher traffic numbers listed in a 2006 ITE Journal article on "big-box" stores, but I was told the staff lacked the software. The city asked Lincoln Properties to run the numbers, but it did not respond.

Hm. I wonder why they wouldn't respond. Maybe it's because they know they have the rule of law on their side?

I applaud the efforts of Responsible Growth and local neighborhood associations, and I support their vision. I hope this wonderful community involvement we have seen will triumph in the end.

So far, this wonderful community involvement has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the city to defend the rule of law against rule-by-mob. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to the overthrow of one neighborhood association's leadership in favor of a new group which has demonstrated their commitment to RG4N's purported VMU goals by opposing VMU anywhere but at Northcross itself. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to an increased likelihood that Northcross will end up like the Intel Shell, and that some local businesses counting on this project will go bankrupt.

So far, this wonderful letter has made me reconsider my position that Brewster was the worst panderer currently on the City Council.

April 09, 2007

Why can't MetroRail be extended to Seaholm?

Just thought I'd better write this down since I composed it twice only to lose most of it due to a stupid typepad/austinist interaction. Guys? Don't use AJAX where input can be lost, OK?

In the annals of Transit Stupidity, this will be one of the top entries. Read on.

MetroRail can't feasibly be extended to Seaholm because it would have to run on 4th street all the way to the creek, and then get a brand new, very expensive, diagonal (long) bridge to transition to the 3rd street alignment the Seaholm project roughly abuts. (See image, source city's OnTrack newsletter; click if it appears cut off). The DMUs we picked are too heavy and clunky to corner in the intersections available before that - so despite the fact that 3rd was the preferred rail corridor, we're stuck with tearing up a ton of 4th street to do this project or just cutting through the middle of a downtown block - not gonna happen. (Go to page 3 of that PDF). Combine that with the fact that the Feds would be extremely unlikely to kick in one lousy penny due to low ridership and low cost/benefit rating for service like this, and it's not going to happen. Note that Capital Metro didn't get any federal funding for the commuter rail starter line, fairly obviously because of extremely low ridership projections.

Note that all of the "Seaholm and rail" planning from the people who actually have any say on this issue has to do with a streetcar connection to UP at the Seaholm site, NOT any extension of the starter line west to there.

And, even if by some miracle we did get commuter rail to Seaholm, it couldn't continue up or down that Union Pacific line, because the DMU is not, by rule, allowed to run with freight rail. Cap Metro solved this by getting a "temporal separation" agreement ratified which promises that freight will only run in the wee hours of the morning, but UP would never agree to this. So, ironically, this DMU that we picked because it's supposed to be so much cheaper than real light rail is too heavy to run where we need it to run in the street, but too light to run on existing rail which might be better suited for transit-oriented development opportunities than our starter line is.

Who screwed up here? Well, of course, Capital Metro did, if you assume that they cared about rail transit (I don't think they do; I think their post-Karen-Rae leadership wanted to prove, with Mike Krusee's assistance, that "rail doesn't work"). But the more correct answer is: the credulous center-city pro-rail-transit people who assumed that we could 'fix' the plan by adding things to it later despite commentary all along from yours truly that it wasn't going to be possible.

Addendum: I finally found the full Seaholm station report. According to them, the DMU Capital Metro is using for the starter service has a turning radius of 300', which is way too high, but even at the more often heard 135' or so, it will, as I expected, never be able to turn a corner in the street (see city's OnTrack newsletter link above for more on that). The east-to-south curve being preserved only supports a turning radius of 100' - meaning these DMUs will never be able to cross the river from here to South Austin. If we somehow convinced UP to abandon freight operations on this line, there is no physical obstacle to DMUs continuing west and then north up the Mopac line, but again, for all the practical reasons detailed above and then some, this will never happen.

April 04, 2007

You can't have TOD without good T

Don't gimme no crappy transit, fool!

So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let's see how attractive the "T" component of the "TOD" will be for Crestview Station, the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don't achieve the true benefits of TOD.

First, let's consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She's able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that's not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.

But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked "UT". Well, she's rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:

The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. "What a pain in the ass," thinks Paula, "if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn't I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in 2006 2007 2008 2010, I'll just take the Rapid Bus there".

On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. "What happens," Paula wondered, "if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it's stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening"

Paula ain't gonna ride this thing again, folks.

Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I'll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:

"Wow," said Steve, "I didn't believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do."

What's Steve's better option?

Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn't it?

Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. "Wow," he thought, "this is a lot more comfortable than the bus - and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there's nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?"

"I got off the train," Larry explained later, "and there was a shuttle bus there that said 'downtown', but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that's what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better - a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I'll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn't there a better way to do this?"

The common thread in all three of these "direct" pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it's pretty darn clear that most "choice commuters" (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn't require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and "transit-adjacent development", and pay particular attention to this item:

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

Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we're likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren't going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.

March 29, 2007

Our circulators won't work either

From Christof in Houston:

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

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

Note that, as Christof further backed up in the forum, Denver's circulator is far superior to the one we'll be delivering here in Austin - it actually has some reserved right-of-way (which even our future maybe streetcar line won't have). In Austin, just about every daily commuter on the commuter rail line will have to transfer to a shuttle bus to get to their office. Not a shuttle bus which has some segments of reserved right-of-way, like in Denver, but a shuttle bus which is stuck in the same traffic the train was supposed to bypass.

That's why Tri-Rail in South Florida failed. Some credulous fools here think we're radically different from everybody else - but if we were so different in the "people with real jobs dislike uncomfortable, jerky, slow bus rides" department, we wouldn't need to build rail in the first place.

March 28, 2007

Circulators don't work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday's post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn't likely to succeed in garnering so-called "choice commuters" (those who you're trying to attract away from their cars).

Unfortunately, it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail's abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don't go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.

So, care to guess how you're going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?

March 16, 2007

Today's Fun Bus Report

Had a business meeting at the library downtown today, and wanted to leave my wife the car so she could go to the Y, so I bused it. Here's the report. Note that this wasn't rush hour, and this is Spring Break. + are people getting on the bus; - are people getting off the bus. Number in parentheses is total number of passengers.

South:Route 5 / 26:

Walked two blocks to bus stop. Got on at 38th/Speedway (on time). +me and one other; (8)
31st st: +1 (9)
Dean Keeton/Speedway: -5 (4)
Co-op (23rd/Guadalupe): -1 (3)
9th/Congress: -me (2)

Nothing amazing to report from this trip. Very light due to UT being out of session.


Return: I can choose between the #1, #3, #5, and #7. Yay, odd numbers. First arrival was the #1L.

10th/Congress: +me (12)
Capitol: -1, +2 (13)
Guadalupe/MLK: -1, +1 including SXSW badger (10)
22nd/Guadalupe: -5, +2 (10)
24th/Guadalupe: -1, +1 (10)
Dean Keeton/Guadalupe: -2 including badger (8)
30th/Guadalupe: -1 (7)
34th/Guadalupe: -me (6)

As you go farther north on the 1L, it probably emptied out, and when it finally decamped in suburbia, it would look empty.

February 26, 2007

Brewster et al, I Told You So

Especially Brewster, but also some others are finally, now that it's long too late, beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to give Capital Metro $160 million / year when they turn around and spend all the rail money on a plan which screws Central Austin and provide useless Rapid Bus service as the "thanks for 92% of our tax revenue" gift. Kudos to Kimberly for coverage of this issue.

Let's set the wayback machine to May of 2004. I wrote a post on that day referring to a resolution I floated; the text is below. While Brewster from all accounts thinks I'm a troll, the irony of seeing him come pretty darn close to my 2004 position is just really really delicious. Of course, I'd trade it in a second for some actual movement on this issue.

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

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

It died for lack of a second. Since then, two fellow commissioners expressed their regret at their decision to not at least second the motion so we could have gone on the record, after seeing how the plan unfolded pretty much as I predicted way back then.

February 05, 2007

Commuter rail ridership projection: pathetic

Ben Wear notes that Capital Metro is now projecting 1,000 riders per day on the commuter rail line for the approximately $100 million investment. Yes, you heard right. ONE THOUSAND RIDERS PER DAY.

Let's compare to two recent light-rail starts.

Minneapolis (opened late 2004): Ridership in 2005 grew to 25,000 per day on a 12-mile line that cost roughly $700 million and runs in a combination of in-street and separate right-of-way.

Houston: 40,000 per day on a fairly short and completely in-street runningway. That's just to answer the "but but but Minneapolis isn't in Texas!" cries some trogolodytes were beginning to choke on after the first example.

So let's take the Minneapolis example. 25 times as many riders; 7.5 times as much cost. Sounds like a damn good deal to me - and we could have built that here very easily... a slightly scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan would have cost about that much, and would have delivered at least that many riders. Remember that the next time somebody tries to convince you that this awful commuter rail plan is just light rail done cheaper and smarter.

The key in both Minneapolis and Houston is actually NOT that they run their trains more often; it's that once a rider gets off the train, they can take a short walk to their office rather than having to hop a shuttle bus. Again, we could have had that here if we hadn't have rolled over for Mike Krusee.

In other words, Capital Metro didn't mess up by ordering too few cars for the amazing ridership they could get for this line; they apparently read the writing on the wall from Tri-Rail's experience and figured out they're not going to get many long-term choice commuters on this thing after the first batch tries the shuttle bus experience on for size so they'd better not buy too many rail cars.

And, no, upgrading the shuttle buses to streetcars won't help since they're still a transfer to a slow stuck-in-traffic vehicle, and it can't be improved over time into something that works as well as light rail, but it sure as hell will bring the total cost of our worthless Austin-screwing transit-killing debacle up to something approaching Minneapolis' successful light rail line.

In summary:

commuter rail: costs very little; does jack squat1

1: Looking for a better quick slogan here that also includes the fact that commuter rail not only doesn't move rail transit forward, it actually moves us in the wrong direction since it precludes the later addition of light rail in the 2000 alignment. Suggestions?

January 29, 2007

Nobody talks about Austin rail like this...

Well, except for me, that is.

From Christof's excellent site in Houston,
this is the kind of discussion we needed to have here in 2000 and again in 2004. Of course, I believe we were about to have this kind of planning in late 2000 for a May or November 2001 election, until Mike Krusee forced Capital Metro to hold the election in November of 2000, before they were remotely prepared to do so. In 2004, nobody bothered to look at the line's routing and figure out whether it served the needs of choice commuters (people who aren't willing to ride the bus today). Again, except for me. So here's a recap, with a new exciing picture at the end.

Note the references to 1/4 mile being the typical capture area for a rail stop (despite what you hear from people who think the typical commuter will walk the 1/2 mile or more from the Convention Center stop to their downtown office building).

Here's a similar image I'm working on for Austin. I'm no photoshop wiz, obviously, but this might be the best I can make this look, so here you go. The original image comes from "Mopacs", a poster to the Skyscraper Forum. I've drawn in the 2004 commuter rail route in yellow (just barely penetrates the picture on the lower right); the 2000 light rail route in green; and the maybe-never streetcar route in red. Note that the streetcar doesn't have reserved-guideway, as I've noted before, so it's really not going to help much in getting choice commuters to ride.

Click for full image if you don't see the yellow route!

The big building you see just north of the yellow line is the Hilton Hotel (not a major destination for choice commuters; anectdotal evidence suggests that a large percentage of workers there actually take the bus to work today).

Note that the walking distance from the yellow stop to the corner of 7th/Congress (rough center of the office buildings on Congress) is a half-mile, give or take which, as I've pointed out before to the derision of people who don't study transportation, is about twice what the average person will walk to a train station if they have to do it every day. Capital Metro knows this, of course, which is why their shuttles are planned for not only UT and the Capitol, but also for downtown; their only error is in repeating the Tri-Rail debacle by forgetting that choice commuters don't like riding the bus.

Also note in the upper reaches of the image, the other two critical employment centers downtown - the Capitol Complex and UT. Notice how the green line (2000 light rail) goes right next to them as well. What you don't see is further up to the north, the green line continues up the only high-density residential corridor in our city - that being Guadalupe Blvd., so in addition to being able to walk to their office _from_ the train station, a lot of prospective riders would have been able to walk to the train station from their homes.

That's what Mike Krusee took away from Austin, folks. And it ain't coming back once commuter rail opens; there's no way to operate anything like the 2000 light rail proposal cooperatively with this worthless commuter rail crock.

Update: Here's the other aerial photos from "Mopacs". Worth a look.

January 09, 2007

McDorms happened because idiots restricted apartments

Austin Contrarian makes a good point about student rentals which further supports the contention that it's better for surrounding neighbors if students rent individually rather than sharing a big house. My argument (re-expressed through comment to his post) was based on landlord's disincentive to penalize tenants in a big house versus in a fourplex or apartment/condo building; his adds a point I've not discussed before - the "party house" factor.

Yes, all college towns have students sharing houses, but we've got a lot more than you would expect, given the size of our city, health of our central-city residential economy, etc. We have so many (disproportionate for a 'college in healthy big city') bad student rental houses because people like my neighborhood association fought true multi-family development even on Guadalupe for decades - meaning that students who want to live near campus get artificially incented to live together in houses. Many of the students sharing these houses, in other words, would have been just as happy (or more so) in an apartment - where you can count on more amenities and less hassle - but have been forced to choose between jamming into a house or moving to Far West or Riverside.

I've addressed this before:

The McMansion ordinance further exacerbates the problem. The "highest use" for small single-family houses in my area particularly has now shifted much farther towards student rental and much farther away from "sell to a family that wants to live central" since the expandability of these properties has taken a drastic hit. The too-little too-late West Campus upzoning isn't going to help now that we've thrown another obstacle in the way of families wealthy enough to buy entry on a small lot property but not wealthy enough to live on the bigger lots that the Karen McGraws and Mary Gay Maxwells can afford (or were able to buy back when they were merely expensive, not astronomical). In other words, despite what you heard about the ordinance protecting families, actual central Austin owner-occupant families like me and my neighbor are just getting screwing out of a future in Central Austin - when my neighbor goes, and he's currently looking, he'll be renting to students).

December 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.

December 05, 2006

Rapid bus (and streetcar) aren't interim steps

It's worth crackplogging this briefly since I was reminded by a discussion on one of the blogs in my list that I hadn't written anything on Cap Metro in a month or so, and I've been meaning to do this for quite a while anyways, expanding on a quick hit I did a while back:

Some folks think we can view either/both of Rapid Bus and streetcars as a "placeholder for light rail", or a "step towards urban rail", or what have you, implying that the investment we make in those technologies is in fact a down payment on a real urban transit system. In fact, though, neither one can be evolved into reserved-guideway transit which is what it would take to get the gains seen in Dallas, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. Reserved-guideway transit, for those not familiar with the term, is any facility where the transit vehicle doesn't need to share space with, be stuck behind, or otherwise compete with other vehicles (usually cars, but could be regular buses too). Obviously this makes a big difference if you're trying to make up the currently huge speed and reliability gap in Austin between transit and the automobile.

Note that unlike my former colleague Patrick Goetz from the UTC, I view reserved-guideway transit as sufficient to garner significant numbers of choice commuters (those who drive to work today) - as it has worked in Dallas, Portland, Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, etc. Reserved-guideway doesn't mean grade-separated; grade-separated is elevated or subsurface rail, or if you're feeling generous, completely separate surface rail like Austin's commuter rail route (few crossings, and those completely controlled by physical means, not just traffic control devices). Light rail and BRT both accept less separation in return for the huge economic savings resulting from not having to build elevated or underground facilities, and in practice, almost all of the benefit of true grade-separation is achieved on good reserved-guideway designs.

I don't even have to write a long list of reasons, when just the first will suffice - although there are others. Here it is:

You don't run reserved guideway transit in the right lane.

That's really all you need to know to understand this issue. You can't eliminate right turns on any roadway in this country - it just doesn't work. People are used to restrictions on left turns, sure. But no right turns? No way. It's far too ingrained in our driving culture that we pull over to the right to turn, let people out, find parking, etc. (The British probably have a similar constraint against reserved guideways on the left, come to think).

So what's the problem? Both the streetcar system and the rapid bus starter line will be running in the right lane. (The 2000 light rail plan would have run down the middle of the road, at least on the two-way streets like Lamar and Guadalupe). So all the investment in rail (streetcar) and stations (rapid bus) needs to be completely dug up and rebuilt if either one was to be transitioned into any form of reserved-guideway transit, either light rail or bus rapid transit.

That means that building streetcar and rapid bus is actually a step FARTHER AWAY FROM URBAN RAIL, not a step towards it.

And no, a right lane shared by transit and "right turns only" isn't a solution to this problem either. (It's what Honolulu briefly tried to float with their ghastly failure of an experiment with BRT). Trucks pull over to the right to load and unload; so do normal buses; and cars turning right can stop your transit vehicle just as dead in its tracks as a car waiting to go through an intersection can.

November 20, 2006

When will I learn?

Despite past experience, I've once again gotten suckered into arguing with a sub-group of zealot mostly counter-culture exclusive-cyclists at Michael Bluejay's list that cyclists do, in fact, disobey traffic signals much more often than do motorists, a position which is commonly understood by the 99.5% of the population that is not clinically insane.

I was somewhat enheartened (?) to see that there are guys like me all over the country as well as in other countries making this same case: running red lights and stop signs hurts the cause of transportation bicyclists.

Want to maintain the reasonable right to ride without a bicycle helmet? Want to get bicycle facilities? Want to be taken seriously when you try to get the cops to enforce the laws against bad motorists? BEHAVE LIKE A GROWN-UP FIRST.

PS: Every time this comes up on Michael's e-mail list, I'm alone out there fighting the good fight. This has allowed the conventional wisdom among these folks to be: "car drivers run red lights more than bicyclists do; and you're making up all this stuff about how drivers see so many cyclists breaking the law that it causes them to lose respect for cycling as transportation". If you're reading this, and you're on that list, and you don't chime in, you're part of the problem.

November 13, 2006

Streetcar isn't a step in the right direction

A quick hit; just posted to the austin streetcars mailing list in response to my old buddy Lyndon Henry, who defended streetcar investment against somebody complaining about low-frequency east-west downtown bus service on the weekend. I meant several months ago to address this "streetcar is a step towards light rail" issue - it still deserves its own post, but here's a start.

On 10:28 PM 11/12/2006 -0600, Nawdry wrote:

There are plenty of advantages that streetcars can have over buses,

exactly zero of which would help any of the issues (original complainaint) raised. The streetcar service proposed by Capital Metro truly is "bus on rails" - it has zero feet of reserved guideway; zero instances of signal prioritization; will be slow and take many stops. None of the advantages remaining which one could fairly assign to streetcars help local riders in the slightest - they just help tourists and businesses that cater to the same (the rails in the street making it more obvious that transit service exists and in which direction it goes).

It will not improve circulation from commuter rail one lousy iota. In fact, the initial shuttle buses will likely perform better than this streetcar, given Cap Metro's intention to have the streetcar line make many many stops (the early shuttles will likely not do this until they reach the area of their destination - i.e. they won't be stopping along Manor).

Nor can streetcar be upgraded to higher-quality reserved-guideway service once installed. No transit agency would dream of attempting to run reserved-guideway transit in the RIGHT lane - but that's exactly where the streetcar is getting put.

You and yours sold the Austin area a pig in a poke that can never and will never turn into the light rail we should have built all along. I remain ready to point this out whenever necessary.

Your pal,
M1EK


Note that I absolutely reject this bogus "run buses more often and see what happens before investing in rail" argument in general but in this particular case, the rail investment really isn't any better than the existing buses, so it actually does hold.

So, as a review: streetcars were originally sold two ways: first, as as a replacement for the rail service that Central Austin is not getting from commuter rail, and second as a good distributor/circulator for the commuter rail line passengers themselves, since commuter rail goes nowhere near the primary work destinations in the center-city. How's that working out? First, streetcars aren't going through Central Austin at all, and second, they aren't going to be an attractive transfer for commuter rail passengers. Yeehaw.

October 08, 2006

Rapid Bus in LA ain't rapid either

Check out this tale of woe, which is pretty much what I'd expect out of Capital Metro's MetroRapid service here in Austin in a couple of years. Any transit service without reserved guideway is doomed to these kinds of performance and reliability problems - holding a light green for a few seconds doesn't come close to cutting the mustard.

Remember that this 'rapid' bus service is all the urban core of Austin is ever going to get from Capital Metro, thanks to the decision of other pro-light-rail folks to sign on to ASG.

September 27, 2006

Rail transit dies in Austin, thanks to one final cut

Here's what I sent to the Alliance for Public Transportation, upon seeing their official launch and noting that their platform is basically "push for Capital Metro's full plan, quicker", despite alleging to be an "Independent Voice for Transportation". Note that this will probably signify a great reduction in posts from here on out - as there's really nothing more to say; the remaining pro-rail forces which could have fought for rail for central Austin have instead fully backed Krusee's plan. There's nobody left.

This means that rail down Guadalupe is dead. This means that Hyde Park, West Campus, and the Triangle will never have light rail. This means that central Austinites who pay most of Capital Metro's bills will never, ever, get served with rail transit. This means that even downtown Austin, the University, and the Capitol will never get anything better than a slow, stuck-in-traffic, shared-lane streetcar which doesn't work any better than a bus.

Here's my note. I've already gotten a short, snarky, response from Glenn Gadbois which basically said "We'll accept this as an announcement that you won't be joining". IE: they aren't interested in fighting for real light rail at all.

I see the site is finally unveiled. It's worth noting that there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Austin commuters are going to be significantly more willing than those in other new rail start cities to accept a transfer as part of their daily commute - which means that nothing short of reserved-guideway, one-seat, transit will be enough to attract a significant number of choice commuters.


IE: transfer to "urban core circulator" is going to be completely useless -
it's no better than transferring to a shuttle bus, as people will very
quickly figure out, since the streetcar will likewise be stuck in traffic
(no reserved guideway); and in no city in this country has a new rail start
which relies on shuttle distribution been anything other than a huge
disappointment.


You can't fix this plan with enhanced circulators. (Even a
reserved-guideway circulator, such as true light rail running through
downtown, would be a significant disincentive to ridership - areas where
rail transit is just beginning can't afford to make the trip any more
difficult than absolutely necessary - reports from New York or Chicago or
San Francisco are thus irrelevant here).


We're not using Minneapolis or Portland or St. Louis or Denver or Salt Lake
or Dallas as our model. They all built light rail on reserved guideway
which went directly to major employment centers without requiring transfers
to shuttle buses - and all have succeeded. (Most did what we would have
done with the 2000 plan: use some existing right-of-way, and transition to
the street where necessary to get directly where they needed to go).


We're instead doing what South Florida did with Tri-Rail, which is:
implement rail service on the cheapest, most available, existing track; and
hope people will be willing to ride shuttle buses the last mile or two to
their office every single day through congested traffic. It failed, despite
the shuttles being there to "whisk passengers to their final destination".


Pushing further for this plan only takes us further out on a limb which is
guaranteed to break. If we ever want real rail for central Austin, the only
path forward is to point out that this plan is not going to work and cannot
be made to work; and that we need reserved-guideway rail transit running
through the urban core NOW.

September 20, 2006

Somebody Finally Gets It

Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100,000 question about Rapid Bus, namely, "why are we spending all this money for something that's not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won't generate any transit-oriented development", and what's more, they're apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it's already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don't think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built -- as I've commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don't, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).

September 13, 2006

M1EK's Way Forward

This comes up from time to time, usually in other forums where people aren't familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:

Why don't you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?

Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.

Then there's the shorten rail transit's dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I'm sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it's what I've done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren't helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.

During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other 'positive' plans, which I'll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks - the reason the '00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar - folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we'd be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we're not, but it doesn't matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can't turn streetcar into light rail later on - light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can't run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the '00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously - having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible - the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all - Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders - telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn't go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won't help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion - use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that's not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.

Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

September 07, 2006

Chronicle remains credulous

In today's story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, not once, in the entire story, was this fact mentioned:

The three biggest "nodes", now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it'll be as slow as the bus is today, and that's the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as "Rapid" though they may be).

Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

September 02, 2006

"Please do what we want, or we'll ask nicely again!"

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro's long-range plans while never asking "hey, shouldn't we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin"?

There's a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.

People will get co-opted by this group, just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, and as a result, there's no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.

If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he'll end this now by using this group's forum to push for what Austin needs - but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn't be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do! Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I'd also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”. This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

September 01, 2006

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro's frustration echoes with me, obviously. I've long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the "good guys" are serious about gathering public input, and the "bad guys" are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don't matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.

Take Capital Metro's worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically "where should we put an extra station or two on this line we've already settled on", and "hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?". Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.

But please remember: Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan isn't the result of community input, folks. It's a result of Mike Krusee's command.

On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform's roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they'll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say "this is what we need to do; now, I'm willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:...". Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They've completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.

If I could say anything to folks like that, it's this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn't negotiate with them. He didn't gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn't even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

August 23, 2006

Think Like A Passenger

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, frankly, just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who's bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they're accepting input from the community - I'll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.

As usual, what's missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?

Take as a given that we're talking about 'choice commuters' - i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don't take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).

See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.

See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.

There's about one place where the "why is this better than a bus" question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It's not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out - so you're left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again - people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it's still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.

Think about it this way: We've got a passenger. His name's Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn't he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can't shift to another street when there's an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn't going to work - he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it - and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?

Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session - in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle's perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between "good rail" and "bad rail". At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play - but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I've got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than "rail bad" or "rail good" to "this rail bad BECAUSE".

The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it's going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he's doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

MetroRapid: Part One

Since many others are doing a fine job showing how stupid the idea of an adult bicycle helmet law is, I'm catching up on stuff I was supposed to crackplog about a LOOONG time ago.

Here's the first of a series about Rapid Bus, now officially branded MetroRapid, which, don't forget, is the sum total of the transit improvements on tap for the urban core of Austin thanks to the bait-and-switch commuter-rail electioneering. You aren't getting rail; you're getting a bus that looks like a train. But does it perform like a train? In each one of these articles, I'll be looking at another "rapid bus" or "bus rapid transit" city and how the mode actually performs, and compare to Austin's proposal.

Let's start with a note that my intrepid cow orker forwarded me some months ago from New Jersey: Bus Rapid Transit - Not For New Jersey. I'll provide some excerpts, since the whole thing is fairly long.

Study after study has now clearly confirmed what NJ-ARP repeatedly has reported for more than a decade - busways do not attract large ridership, cost more to construct and operate and, where they do operate, have not produced the financial results their promoters have promised. It's a lose-lose-lose situation.

In our case, we're not actually constructing a busway; so the "costs more to construct" is not applicable to Austin. However, the "do not attract large ridership" will certainly bite us here.

Statistics show that busways attract only 33 percent of projected ridership, but rail lines exceed initial estimates by 22 percent. Notwithstanding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in concert with the highway and motor bus industry, has continued to advocate for BRT. In order to justify continued expansion of BRT, supporters have used rail planning models to predict bus patronage. Even though busway supporters have sponsored trips to places such as Curitiba, Brazil, to view what in their minds is a successful application of BRT technology, nowhere in North America has this mode of public transport attracted such rail passenger boardings.

Curitiba is really starting to become like the infamous (and discredited) 85% head-injury-reduction-for-bicycle-helmets study. It's trotted out every single time some transit agency is pressured by the Feds into building BRT (or Rapid Bus) instead of rail - and every single time it's not even remotely applicable to the United States' population. Curitiba is a poor city full of people who are, at best, marginally capable of affording automobiles. It doesn't take much at all to get them to use public transportation - most don't have a choice, and the remainder are poor enough that even relatively small cost savings are worth large investments in extra commuting time. All their "bus rapid transit system" really had to do was be a smidge faster than regular buses to be a huge success there.

The same, of course, is not true in the US (or Austin in particular). Remember this post in which I estimate that a potential transit user in the suburbs might save a couple of bucks at the cost of an hour or two of time. Not compelling in the least, even if the extra time investment drops by 20% or so.

When one considers that light rail cars have a 40-year life compared with 15 years for buses, LRT is much less costly as well as more attractive and safer.

Hey! Good news for Austin! We'll only be stuck with these awful articulated buses for 15 years, and then we can get rid of the "but we invested all that money in those fancy buses" argument.

A study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed that light rail vehicle was 15.5 percent less costly to operate than bus, all other factors being equal. Low floor light rail cars have a larger capacity than low floor buses of comparable length. The average capacity of a 40-foot low floor bus is only 37 seated passengers due to space that is taken up by the wheel wells which intrude on interior space that otherwise could be used for fare paying riders. While an articulated two-section low floor bus contains more seats, it will still have less capacity than a low floor light rail car. Unlike BRT, a light rail line can increase line capacity by adding more cars to a train, resulting in an increase in operator productivity. The only way to increase the capacity of BRT is to add more buses, each of which will require another driver resulting in higher operating costs.

Well, Capital Metro is so flush with money that higher operating costs won't matter at all, right?

Please check out the whole article. BRT and its stunted sibling "Rapid Bus" are nothing more than stalking horses, pushed by the Feds to avoid having to make investments in rail transit. After all, you can convert a busway back into a car lane. Don't be fooled - folks pushing Rapid Bus aren't friends of public transit.

Next time: Boston!

July 31, 2006

Buses Alone Can Never Get It Done

In response to one of the most common anti-rail arguments out there, paraphrased: "Why don't you get more people to ride buses and then come back and ask us to build rail", I posted the following to a yahoo group concerning the Mueller redevelopment, and it bears archiving here.

Buses cannot and will never be faster or more reliable than the private automobile, unless a vast network of bus-only lanes is built. Until that glorious day, anybody who argues that we need improve the bus system before building rail is either foolish or hiding a desire to avoid investment in transit altogether.

In other words, the bus system is, in fact, being run about as well as
it could be run, given the political and financial constraints under
which Capital Metro must labor. You could run buses every single
minute down every street in Austin and not pick up many more
passengers than ride today - essentially all of the people who are
willing to suffer the significant time, reliability, and comfort
penalty inherent in mixed-traffic bus service are already doing so.

That being said, these streetcars aren't the magic bullet which can
get people out of their automobiles either. They're still stuck in
traffic, slow, and unreliable; just like the Dillos they will
presumably model after.

Only reserved-guideway transit can really beat the private automobile
in cities where parking isn't that expensive and is widely available,
like ours. Too bad so many center-city folks, including so many
Mueller backers, fell for the con job of Krusee's commuter-rail plan,
which has in fact not only failed to deliver light rail to the urban
core, it actually precludes it from being delivered anytime in the
foreseeable future.

July 20, 2006

Why The Bile

From this thread full of optimistic talk from happy-fun-land about how We Can Still Make This Thing Work, I attempt to crush the dreams and hopes of the new generation by writing the following.


The solution is to keep reminding people that there is such a thing as "bad rail", and this thing is it. Seriously, there's no way to re-route it now; they've chosen a technology which is effectively incompatible with running down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress in the 2000 alignment. (And, by the way, it's also somewhat incompatible with street-running even across town on 4th street, due to vehicle height, unless you don't want any stations between the Convention Center and Seaholm). IE, even if Capital Metro turns over the agency to me at this point, the only solution is to completely stop working on the commuter rail line and completely change gears to the original light rail route; there's no way to extend commuter rail where it actually needs to go which is remotely feasible economically, politically, or even technologically.

The reason I keep harping on this is that LONG BEFORE the election, when there was still a chance to persuade Capital Metro to change their mind (or force them to), people like you and the other naive cheerleaders here said "well, they'll just build that thing and then we'll get light rail in the urban core later". The numerous technical, financial, and political reasons why that was never actually going to happen were viewed as just downer-talk from pessimist-land.

Switch gears to South Florida. Some people pointed out early on that requiring choice commuters to use shuttle buses wasn't going to fly. They were ignored, in favor of the great spirit of optimism. Surely, they said, we can improve the line later on, if those negative nellies actually have a point. Two decades later, and hundreds of millions of dollars of irrelevant double-tracking later, people are finally beginning to get it: the line can't be fixed; the fundamental problem is the location of the line itself; the only solution is to pick up and move to the FEC corridor (another existing rail line which runs right through all the major downtowns of the region).

Now, switch gears back to Austin. Same thing is about to happen. Not much chance of stopping them now, but at least all you cheerleaders ought to rejoin reality-land: Capital Metro is trying to convince you that Rapid Bus is really just as good as light rail would have been. Why do you think they're doing that? Could it be that old crotchedy M1EK was actually right, and that holding our noses and supporting commuter rail doomed us? No, must be something else. Keep cheering, folks! Sooner or later, something good's bound to happen!

And for those who think it couldn't possibly be this bad - I refer you to yesterday's post: there's really only one question you need to ask Capital Metro.

July 19, 2006

Where does the commuter rail line end downtown?

On this forum, some folks are naively optimistic about how close the commuter rail line comes to major employment centers downtown (one even argued, although was corrected, that people would walk the 2+ miles from the MLK station to UT every day!). I dug up the picture below, and added in a legend and drew in the route of the 2004 commuter rail line as well as the 2000 light rail line. I'm not enough of a photoshop wizard to remove the other three "possible station locations" - this image was originally from a city of Austin newsletter about possibly extending the commuter rail line west to Seaholm.

Note that the typical 1/4 mile catchment area around the station at Red River and 4th Street doesn't go anywhere near any big office buildings - the only big buildings it captures are some hotels - whose employees aren't the "choice commuters" a new rail start should be going after anyways. A quarter-mile radius is typically used as an estimate of the maximum amount of distance that the typical daily commuter would be willing to walk from the train station to their office - any more than this, and they won't take the transit trip (or, as Capital Metro would hope, contrary to all of the evidence from Tri-Rail in South Florida, they'll be excited to be "whisked to their destination on shuttle buses").

Also note that the Capitol and UT are much, much, much farther from any stations for the commuter rail line - this image only shows the southern half of downtown. Not even the most optimistic people are thinking anybody would walk to work at UT or the Capitol from this thing.

I've also put green dots on the biggest buildings in this area from emporis.com's list of Austin high-rises (top 20 only), and yellow dots on other future big buildings / employment centers in the area (mostly residential high-rises under construction). Note the complete lack of any current or proposed big buildings anywhere near this commuter rail stop.

July 18, 2006

Tidbits from Cap Metro's PR explosion

Capital Metro has completely redone their web site for the All Systems Go project, and it looks pretty darn nice. Here are some relevant tidbits:

1: The MetroRail page: "Regular and special shuttle buses will whisk you to your final destination.".

Yup, those shuttle buses will whisk you through traffic downtown, just like the Dillos do today. Anybody who rides those things feel "whisked"? The requirement that essentially all riders must transfer to shuttle buses to get to work is why Tri-Rail failed miserably in South Florida. Every successful rail start in the last 20 years has followed the same pattern (including DART in Dallas and MetroRail in Houston): the train goes where the people want to go. People with jobs don't mess around with shuttle buses. They just don't.

2. The MetroRapid page (formerly called "Rapid Bus"): "As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded Rapid bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, “that bus looks like a train.”"

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be thinking to myself: a train wouldn't be stuck in traffic behind all these damn cars and buses. Holding a green light at one intersection doesn't help clear the clogs from the next ten intersections ahead of you. (Anybody who doubts this is welcome to view Guadalupe near UT during rush-hour). The only way to turn a bus, even if it looks like a train, into something approaching light rail is to give it its own lane, which they are not doing with MetroRapid.

3. The Circulator System page - they're hyping streetcar, but as noted before: it's going to be shuttle buses, for a long time; and streetcar only happens if they can con UT and/or the city into paying a good chunk of the bill.

Streetcars are a nice thing to have in the long-run for a variety of reasons, but they don't do one damn thing to improve speed or reliability of the 'circulator'.

In summary: Nothing's changed; the folks in central Austin who pay most of the bills are still getting screwed by Capital Metro. Any questions?

Local puff media fails again

Apart from KUT, nobody bothered to get a remotely critical reading on Capital Metro's latest PR blitz other than Jim Skaggs' Neanderthal Act. And even KUT let Cap Metro off the hook, as it turns out. (Note that the Cap Metro flack responding to my comment that the shuttle bus or eventual streetcar would not be reliable or fast since it's sharing a lane with cars said that the commuter rail train would take the same amount of time every day - which is true - good dodge, CM flack; I salute you).

There's really only one question you need ask Capital Metro:

How are passengers on the train going to get from the train station to their office in the morning, and how are they going to get back to the train station in the evening?

The rail line doesn't even go close enough to downtown offices for people to walk; and there's zero chance anybody's going to walk the mile or two to UT or the Capitol. So, again, why is nobody asking Capital Metro how they're going to get to work in more detail?

July 16, 2006

Local neighborhoods not obstructionist enough, says ANC

Just posted to ANCTalk: a position paper on the Concordia redevelopment, which is in my neck of the woods. (I can tell you that as somebody close enough to hear I-35 during the winter months, I'd sure appreciate some big buildings, even if there's nothing there I'd ever want to go to, which is hard to believe).

Read especially the final couple of paragraphs. The responsible (only somewhat obstructionist) position of Hancock and Eastwoods is being assailed by the ANC - so now, not even restricting the project to the merely moderate levels of density supported by nearby neighborhoods is good enough for these people. In the past, the most egregious behavior by the ANC was limited to exploiting nearby (but not containing) neighborhood associations in cases like the Spring building (downtown neighborhood association was enthusiastically supporting it; so the ANC hung their hats on the disapproval of OWANA next door).

Mayor Will Wynn and City Council Members

The ANC executive committee at our July 12th meeting asked me to convey to
you the following with regard to the proposed redevelopment of Concordia
University.

The proposed redevelopment of the Concordia site presents the city with both
opportunities and challenges. The redevelopment of such a large area close
to downtown will provide an excellent opportunity for in-fill. At the same
time it poses a real challenge to ensure that scale of the development is
appropriate, the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods is protected and
that the neighborhood planning process is respected.

The surrounding neighborhoods most impacted, Hancock and Eastwoods, have
indicated their support for the concept of mixed use for the site. Despite
what has been reported, however, they do not support the developer's initial
proposal. While there has been some discussion of the proposal, neither
neighborhood has taken a position on it. They have committed to working
with the developer and are developing negotiating teams for this purpose.
They have contacted the other surrounding neighborhoods and CANPAC to engage
them in the process. ANC supports this approach and urges the Council to
grant these neighborhoods' request for an experienced city planner to assist
them in this effort.

The neighborhoods have made it clear that the major issues that such a
planning approach should address are density, height and traffic impact.
ANC believes that the resolution of these issues should be the starting
point for any design and not an afterthought. Further, a comprehensive
traffic analysis of this area, including the St. David's PUD, is essential
to establish the appropriate density for this development as was done for
the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment plan.

ANC also urges the City Council to respect the many years of effort these
neighborhoods have invested in their neighborhood plan. While this project
is asking for PUD zoning, it should not be treated any differently than any
project proposed in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan. Any change
to the Future Land Use Map or the current Civic zoning should go through the
regular neighborhood plan amendment process. Filing for a PUD should not
exempt a project from the standard neighborhood plan amendment process.

While we support the adjacent neighborhoods' role in defining what is
appropriate for this site we are also concerned about the precedent this
project will set for the surrounding areas and for future development in
East Austin along IH 35. We sincerely appreciate recent statements by
members of the City Council on limiting high rise construction to downtown
and in TOD's. We hope that sensitivity is also extended to the Concordia
Redevelopment plan.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Susan Pascoe

Immediate past president of ANC for

Laura Morrison, ANC President

July 10, 2006

Refresher on TOD and commuter rail

Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the 'downtown circulator', respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.

With that in mind, it's worth reiterating the answer to the question:

When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?

Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.

Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro's system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a "light railway" doesn't make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.

Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building "transit villages" around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn't go anywhere interesting on the "urban end" without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.

You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can't be stuck behind other peoples' cars. You don't get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).

The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that's not the fatal flaw - the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.

A large part of the 2000 line's residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers - until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.

As for UT - I hope they're not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee's bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT's main campus didn't make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn't help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form - it just tears up one of UT's streets for a transit mode which won't be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT's employees aren't going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus - it's still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.

(1: It's OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility - i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible - the bus driver can't decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).

July 03, 2006

"I wouldn't have bought a Corolla"

Another person gets it: Consumer Reports screwed up big-time in comparing the Prius to the Corolla rather than to the Camry.

I've done my own purely economic comparison here - I had done an earlier version of this on a spreadsheet; it's not that difficult. But many people will never try now that CR has incorrectly told people that hybrids don't pay for themselves.

June 29, 2006

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here's a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.

Next week:

ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they're all wet.

June 24, 2006

Surprise! Students want to live near UT!

This is from a thread on the Austin Neighborhoods Council yahoo group. None of the people who post there are remotely likely to be convinced, but some of the people who read (including, I assume, staff members for city council) are still not entirely lost causes. Reposted here for posterity as well.

Block-quoted items are from the person I was responding to.

Mike's complaint that neighborhoods are reluctant to allow SF to MF zoning changes is completely irrelevant.

No, I'm sorry, but it's perfectly relevant. The market tried to provide multifamily housing near UT for decades, and people like the ANC got in the way. Students still want to live close to UT; so (more) of them move into houses than otherwise would have. Some who would have lived in apartments instead live in rental houses. This should not be difficult to believe - all you have to do is put yourself in their shoes. Pick between riding the shuttle bus from Far West every day or cramming into a house and riding your bike to campus. I know which one I'd pick.

I understand why these students want to live in a house. Houses are fun. You can't throw keggers in the back yard of an apartment. You can't set up a pool table a juke box and a wet bar in the garage of an apartment.

On the other hand, most new apartment buildings have party rooms and pools; and are unlikely to have people living next door who call the cops on you every time you make noise after 10:30 (see below). You don't have to worry about the trash; you're less likely to have maintenance problems; parking is a simpler issue; etc.

Only one of us is making an extraordinary claim here. Clearly if there wasn't pent-up demand for multifamily development in this area, the recent relaxation of absurd height restrictions near UT wouldn't have resulted in an explosion of new projects, right?

No matter how many apartments we build near campus (and we are building a LOT right now),

Now, after 20 years of building essentially nothing. It's going to take a long time to catch up.

there will always be people who want the party "frat house" atmosphere you can't get in a dorm or an apartment.

Yes. There will always be SOME people who want this. But a few such houses in each neighborhood would certainly be better than 2 out of every 3 houses, wouldn't it? At Penn State (where I did my undergrad years), there were a ton of apartments near campus - far more than UT, compared to the number of students who couldn't fit in dorms, and the result was that far fewer houses near campus turned into rental properties.

But that party "frat house" atmosphere really sucks for people living next door trying to raise children and wanting to enjoy luxuries of home-ownership such as being able to pull out of their own driveway whenever they want or walk down the street without fearing for their safety.

I live next door to a duplex which until this summer had UT Wranglers in the front _and_ the back. I have a 2-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepson. I've called the cops enough that they now have become fairly quiet neighbors. I can tell you from observation that the situation wasn't ideal for either one of us - they certainly didn't enjoy dealing with the police or their landlord after some of those parties.

As for the parking issue - that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Think for a moment how you can ethically support the proposition that people in one given house have a right to on-street parking, but people in another house on the same street don't.

(That's the end of the posting. It's amazing to me how quickly people of this particular ideological bent will immediately assume that anybody arguing against their position must not have a family (or, even more common, be a developer. For the record, again, I'm trying to raise a family in the urban core; and I'm not a developer).

June 19, 2006

Hyde Park Honors A McMansion

From David Whitworth: a home on the Hyde Park Homes Tour which apparently would not be allowed under the McMansion regulations. As I've posted before, don't forget that one of the leaders of the Task Force lives in nearly 3600 square feet right in the middle of a bunch of approximately 1000 square foot bungalows.

Bicycle Helmets Don't Work

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

Since the mandatory bicycle helmet law is rearing its ugly head here in Austin again thanks to the efforts of former mayor Bruce Todd, the following analysis of actual real-world results of increased bicycle helmet use in other countries is particularly relevant now.

The New York Times covered this for the USA in 2001. In short: Bicycle helmet usage went way up, but head injuries and fatalities didn't go down. This matches the observations in Australia, the UK, and many other countries.

Ride with a helmet if you want. But don't get smug about those who don't - they're NOT "organ donors", they're NOT stupid, and they're NOT irresponsible. THEY'RE actually the smart ones, given the apparent lack of benefit to wearing bicycle helmets.

And, please, stop the bullshit analogies with regards to seat belts. Nobody ever stopped driving because of seat belts, and even if they did, why would we care? Bicycle helmets are hot, uncomfortable, and inconvenient - and results in country after country show that many people simply stop cycling when their use is mandated. You don't have to carry your seat-belt around with you when you park your car; your car likely has air-conditioning; you're not actually exercising when you drive; seat belts are built in to the car; etc. Oh, and don't forget: seat belts, unlike bike helmets, actually WORK. The analogy couldn't be any worse if they tried.

If it's so damn obvious that people with "something up there to protect" would naturally choose to wear bike helmets, then why is it also not obvious that the same people would do so when driving their car? You get the same impact protection; but you're not sweating and you have an easy place to stow the helmet when you're done (inside the car itself).

Wikipedia has outstanding, heavily footnoted, coverage of bicycle helmets, if you don't like the "cyclehelmets.org" people.

June 09, 2006

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Council last night passed the McMansion Ordinance with 0.4 FAR applying to everything (totally rejecting the Planning Commission's efforts), and while they were at it, removed the "quick review commission" which could have provided a cheap(er) quick(er) path for obvious variance cases like mine. This means my next door neighbor wouldn't be allowed to build a second floor to expand his 1010 square foot house (family of 5).

Let's review: The unmitigated evil of this task force, and yes, I'm going to name names now, includes these sterling folks:

- Karen McGraw, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (link is to one of three properties at same address for her and husband): Has worked for years to stifle multifamily development in this area - leading to unintended consequences such as superduplexes and "McDorms". Lives in a property with 3500 square feet of developed space, including a garage apartment, surrounded by properties which are more like 1100 square feet. Incompatible size and bulk, anybody?

- Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association: Likewise has worked to obstruct multifamily development for years - and then has the gall to simultaneously complain about students renting houses in our area. Lives in a 2-story house which 'towers over the backyards of its neighbors'.

Chris Allen - lone person on the task force from the neighborhood side who understands anything about development - misled people for weeks and weeks into thinking the ordinance would have no effect on cases like mine, then switched tactics late in the game and started smugly telling people that I should just build "habitable attic space" or a basement, and, if that might be a wee bit too expensive or impractical, just go to the "quick review commission". Nothing to worry about, right? Except that the "quick review commission" just evaporated. Say hello once again to our old friend, the neighborhood-pandering kilodollars-wasting Board Of Adjustment!

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell me that I can't have a garage apartment and a second floor? (Neither of which would, unlike Maxwell's, 'tower over my neighbor's yard'?)

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell my next door neighbors that they can't have a second floor unless they tear down their existing garage apartment?

Tell me again why these people, who were wrong about opposing multifamily development, should be allowed to do even more to attempt to obstruct the market's desire to provide additional housing supply in the central city? (By further disincenting duplex and garage apartment development - both of which are much more affordable than single family homes, even tiny ones).

I'm disgusted. It's 9:00 AM, and I need a beer.

Contest Idea: If/When my next door neighbors move out after they find out they can't build their second floor, and we're left as the only family among about six houses full of students (thanks to the fine work of Ms. McGraw and Ms. Maxwell), what should I do about it? Most entertaining suggestion wins a prize.

May 28, 2006

One Chance Is All You Get

In the latest brou-ha-ha on the lightrail_now yahoo group, some folks have re-expressed the sentiment that Lyndon Henry and I should bury the hatchet, and that I should work to improve this commuter rail line with a better streetcar distributor. It's as if nothing I've written in the last two years has remotely penetrated these folks' heads.

What Tri-Rail shows us is that if your starter line is bad enough, you will not get the chance to fix it. Tri-Rail destroyed the momentum for passenger rail in South Florida - for the first ten years after the service began, the (suburban voter) narrative was "see? rail transit doesn't work".

Now, for the last few years, it's finally begun to shift to "of course it didn't work; you ran it down the wrong corridor - nobody that has a choice wants to ride a train where they have to transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus on every single trip. Why didn't those idiots run it on the other rail line which happens to conveniently run through all the major downtowns in South Florida?".

Maybe in five more years, Fort Lauderdale will be able to get a light rail line off the ground. They only lost 20 years worth of time, after all.

Only in states like California can you get away with an awful starter line that you then gradually improve with time (San José). In less liberal states like Florida, and especially in "red" states like Texas, the starter line must be impressive to voters, or it's "one and done".

More on this later this week, since both Lyndon and I are now 'moderated' (I don't think the owner of the group understands the meaning of this word, since he seems to actually be saying we're not going to be allowed to post at all).

May 24, 2006

Reminder: It's Not Light Rail

From a response I just made to Lyndon (first sentence below is his):

> I disagree. The "commuter" light railway (and that's what it is)

There you go again.

It's nothing like "light" rail. It's certainly not "urban". It's not
electrified; it's going to run at half-hour frequencies during rush
hours only (with one midday trip); it's sharing track with freight
rail; its stations are located quite far apart and none are within
walking distance of any credible destinations.

If this thing is a "light railway", then ANYTHING qualifies as a
"light railway".

If you keep trying to paint this sack of garbage as "light rail",
don't be surprised when I keep popping back up to tell you otherwise.

M1EK SMASH PEOPLE CALL CAP METRO"S CRAPPY RAIL LINE "LIGHT RAIL".

May 23, 2006

You can't fix a bad route.

My cow orker threatened to do nasty things, partially to himself, if I didn't crackplog before he left on his trip. I'm in the middle of yet another attempt to stop Lyndon Henry from rewriting history on the lightrail_now yahoo group; and went looking for Tri-Rail news and found this letter which explains why Tri-Rail is still, 20 years later, a complete and utter failure at attracting 'choice commuters' in South Florida.

Read carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?

Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It's located way west of downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond walking distance.

Remember this discussion?

Then, there's this gem:

I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and other places people actually go, and it doesn't share its tracks with 8,000 mile-long freight trains. That's why it works.

Tri-Rail is viewed as a failure in South Florida because nearly nobody who has the choice between driving and taking it will leave their car at home. We're headed down the same path here in Austin, because people like Lyndon Henry didn't stand up and fight for Austin's interests against those of Mike Krusee.

For shame.

Those who continue to nicely but naively ask us to 'work together to fix it' don't get it: there ISN'T ANY WAY TO FIX THIS DEBACLE. More stations won't help. Nice streetcar circulators won't help. You can't recover from deciding to run your trains on existing tracks instead of where the people are who might like to ride and where the places are they definitely want to go.

We're turning dirt on a rail line which will 'prove' to most on-the-fence Austinites that 'passenger rail doesn't work' - the same thing that happened in South Florida with Tri-Rail. Only now, 20 years after the thing was planned, have many people started to change their tune from "rail doesn't work" to "maybe we screwed up in how we built it". Can Austin wait that long?

Continuing to misrepresent this thing as urban 'light' rail only makes it worse - at some point a decade from now, we're going to have to pick up the pieces from this disaster and try to sell rail again to the public. And part of that is clearly identifying what went wrong, and who led us down the wrong path. I ain't gonna stop anytime soon.

May 17, 2006

FUH GUH BUH

My cow orker's IM just reminded me to crackplog in short about this quote in this puff piece about the McMansion ordinance:

People, like Karen McGraw, who live in smaller homes, say bigger homes mean more residents -- and more cars. They also worry about drainage and trees. McGraw is also a member of the Hyde Park Planning Association.

MCGRAW LIVES IN 3600 SQUARE FEET IN HYDE PARK, DAMMIT. That's HUGE compared to her neighbors. In the meantime, my neighbor will likely face the 'choice' between demolishing the garage apartment in his backyard or foregoing the second floor on his house (current size: 1010 square feet; family about to grow to 5).

Also, this, again from McGraw:

"Trees are actually retention devices and help to retain a lot of water that otherwise might run off. So, we're very concerned with losing tree cover," said McGraw.

The most likely effect of FAR regulations on my family's eventual expansion plans is that we will build back rather than up. Hence, MORE IMPERVIOUS COVER. LESS TREES.

Why Commuter Rail Will Fail In Austin

A link from Houston I just stumbled upon today which explains why rail transit works so much better in Washington, DC than in San Francisco, and shows quite well the problem the commuter rail line will have in Austin. (San Francisco still has a ton of rail passengers, of course, but the argument is that they have far fewer than they _should_).

Check it out here.

Relevant excerpts (summaries - read the whole article for depth):

  • BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is
  • BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
  • BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are.

It strikes me that you could almost substitute "Austin's 2004 commuter rail proposal" for BART and "Austin's 2000 light rail proposal" for Metrorail and essentially the whole thing would stand just as well as it does now.

And the whole thing exposes how much of a snow job Lyndon Henry and Capital Metro are pulling by calling "All Systems Go" a "light urban railway".

I highly recommend a full read. I'm also adding this blog to my links.

May 16, 2006

Facts about the McMansion proposal

Some answers to questions raised by my letter to the Planning Commission and today's Statesman article. Updates will be made here as I think of them and/or receive comments or emails.

  1. I believe the greatest effect of this ordinance is going to be to make small-lot bungalow homes less attractive to buy than they are today which will probably lead to more deteriorating rental stock rather than an owner-occupied renaissance. McMansions themselves are hurt less by these rules than are traditionally styled two-story residences which are quite common on the narrow lots of Hyde Park.
  2. Despite being a response to a "drainage emergency", the sum effect of the regulations being proposed is that it will become even more proportionally expensive to build "up" rather than "back". Consequence: more impervious cover; worse drainage.
  3. Garage apartments appear to count towards the FAR total. Consequence: fewer housing units in the central city. Existing garage apartments would be more likely to be demolished so that the owner could put a more practical second story on the "front house".
  4. Detached and attached garages count, over a certain square footage. More credit is given to detached than attached garages, which is good from an aesthetic perspective but stupid from a drainage perspective.
  5. Yes, one of the proposed solutions for those who want more space than the new regulations would allow is to just build a basement. Yes, apparently they were serious. After all, if you live in central Austin, what's another hundred grand or so worth of cost, right?
  6. I don't yet know where the "height" measurement is taken from (average elevation of lot or front elevation or minimum or maximum). This affects the practicality of a second story dramatically in our cases.

More to come as I get comments / emails.

Letter to Planning Commission - McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:

My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city's Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question "where do you want your additional density" with a more responsible answer than "NO".

Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell "stop", as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us -- all under the guise of a so-called "drainage emergency". The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.

Consider our case - I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We're both presumably the kind of people who you'd rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we're precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us - likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force's "solution" to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.

My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won't. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable - even my grandparents' family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.

The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex - built "straight up from the 5 foot setback line" on the other side of my home.

The drainage emergency itself is a joke - yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can't be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I've mentioned several times on the group's discussion board that there's a trivially simple way to address drainage problems - simply change the utility's drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.

Finally, the task force itself is a joke - it's staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups - 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.

The only correct answer to this group is "NO". Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.

I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen's invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction - you simply say "NO. That's the wrong way". I hope you'll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.


Thank you for your time.


Regards,
Mike Dahmus

1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane - lives in a home with an 'incompatible' front setback, and her second story 'towers over the backyards of her neighbors'. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven't seen them personally.

May 09, 2006

What's Been Bugging Me About Slusher's Letter

I just realized what's been itching at my brain about Daryl Slusher's letter urging people to vote against Props 1 and 2. Personally, I find his arguments fairly compelling, but am viscerally compelled to vote for the propositions anyways thanks to the co-opting of the evil "Costs Too Much" iconography from Skaggs and Daugherty's execrable anti-light rail campaign of 2000.

Here's the important part:

- If the amendments lose, with united environmental support in favor, then the environmental movement will be seen as losing strength and will further lose influence.

- What may well be worse for the environment and environmental movement is if the amendments pass. Then every resulting unintended, and some intended, consequence will be blamed on the environmental movement -- with considerable justification if environmentalists are largely united in supporting the amendments.

This is exactly why I thought it important for pro-transit people to vote against the 2004 Capital Metro commuter rail proposal. Here's one relevant excerpt from one of my many crackplogs on the subject:

In fact, it will be difficult to defend Capital Metro's money if this election doesn't pass. However, it will be even MORE difficult to defend Capital Metro's money if this election does pass, and the rail service meets my expectations (matching the performance of South Florida's Tri-Rail, the only other new start rail plan relying exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution). At that point, we will have SHOWN that "rail doesn't work in Austin", and the long-term justification for at least 1/4 cent of Capital Metro's money will be gone.

There are many other cases where I made the point that, yes, if Capital Metro lost the '04 election, it would be bad; but it'd be even worse if they won with unanimous transit-supporter support (er, yeah). The "But we did what you wanted and it sucked" argument is pretty hard to overcome the next time around.

Yet Slusher was so royally pissed by my opposition to that plan that he wouldn't return emails from that day forward.

Ironic, huh?

May 03, 2006

Solution to Bile Shortage Found

Since I thought I had been dumped back into moderation for the horrible sin of providing more than two (actual content-filled) postings to austin-bikes on some day in the last week (turned out to just be a delay, apparently), this particular response to our good friend Roger Baker risked being unposted, and thus, I posted it here for posterity. Post-haste.

On 09:18 AM 5/3/2006 -0500, Roger Baker wrote:
I bet some of you thought that there wouldn't be any bike lanes along SH 130 didn't you? (hey, as an Austin taxpayer, you're paying for part of it).

[...]

...Darcie Schipull of TxDOT advised that they have hired Wilbur Smith
Associates to develop a master plan for bike and pedestrian trails
along SH 130. They will work with jurisdictions to develop the plans
and to encourage them to use the plan for applying for enhancement
funds...


So if the City of Austin can magically come up with a few million dollars to match against another few million dollars of Federal money, we might get hike/bike trails built along parts of this road, and along parts of the Capital Metro rail line, by the time our grandkids are riding bikes, assuming they still exist by then. Note that the road was absolutely not designed for bike trails to begin with; the only concession to them is essentially the maintenance of enough right-of-way to fit them in spots. (No design allowances made for interactions cross-streets, for instance).

Does the fact that TXDOT responded in exactly the same way as did Capital Metro penetrate the cocoons of credulity of any of y'all yet? Graciously allowing another governmental entity to build a bike trail on your unused land as long as it's not too much trouble and as long as they pay the entire bill was always possible, and here's the important part: EVEN WITH TXDOT.

The only right-of-way owner the city ever had any trouble with in this regard was Union Pacific. TXDOT was always willing to let us build trails with our own money in their right-of-way. It's not a particularly notable concession; and it does not signal support for bicycling.

Nothing new here. Someday, maybe, y'all will get a little less credulous about what exactly you're being promised and how much you're willing to give away for it.

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).

March 27, 2006

Capital Metro Broken Promises Part 2

Well, I was planning on writing Part Two about finances - specifically, the debt issue. But, I just got the following across the wire on the austin-bikes email list (originally written by somebody else on the ACA list). Remember that one of the many levers used to try to pry the center-city away from my position of "rail which doesn't run anywhere near central Austin isn't worth voting for" was the promise of "rails with trails", pushed most heartily by folks like Jeb Boyt, David Foster, and Dave Dobbs. I never fell for it, of course; it was obvious that double-tracking needed to happen in enough spots to make trails of any serious length impractical bordering on impossible, and the political (performance-oriented) hurdles seemed insurmountable. I said so, frequently (see bottom; unfortunately, I didn't write any blog posts about this angle; I know, what are the odds).

But, as usual, I was alone.

Now, indications are that Capital Metro is wiggling out of yet another commitment made to central Austin in order to get the thing passed (see Part One and followup). Responses on the ACA list basically hem and haw about multi-organization planning efforts and the necessity to keep pushing and go get some money, ignoring the fact that Capital Metro and its defenders basically said this trail would get built and be useful for central Austinites; not that "if you pay your own money we might let you build one in a decade out by Leander where there's enough room, but then again we might not".

The Austin-screwing Krusee-train rides again. Yee-haw!

Here's the quote from the ACA list:

I was in a planning meeting with Lucy Galbraith from Capital Metro last week, and she said the words I've been dreading. She said there is no plan -- nor has there ever been a plan -- to build bike and pedestrian trails along the planned rail commuter lines.

I had been told repeatedly by several sources in Capital Metro that they were committed to building a connected trail for bicycles and pedestrians next to every rail line to allow people to safely walk or ride to or from the nearest station. I said, on this list, I couldn't wait for that day. It sounded swell to me.

And I voted for the commuter rail in part because I thought it would help us get this bike trail.

Now Ms. Galbraith is saying that Capital Metro never had any such plan. (More specifically, she said the language related to bike/pedestrian trails was ambiguous and vague.) She said there was an idea proposed for bike and pedestrian trails, but there were no funds ever allocated. She also said that Capital Metro intends to build parallel tracks in their right-of-way, so in many places there will not be room for a bike/pedestrian trail.

So, to sum up... There never was a plan, just an idea proposed. There are no funds. And there is no room. And I, for one, feel somewhat fooled.

Here are some excerpts from the austin-bikes list archive both from me and those who scoffed.

One of my first on the topic:

And I want to remind all of you that, while these bike facilities are an unquestionably good thing, it is very unlikely that Capital Metro will build them unless the performance of the starter line is fairly good, and by that I mean it has to be good enough to convince voters to continue to build the system drawn in the long-range plan. The rails-with-trails trail is not going to be part of the starter route; it's going to be built afterwards IF AND ONLY IF the long-range plan continues to be implemented.

Whether or not this starter line is good enough to get us on the path of implementing that long-range plan (which I think is still awful) is a matter of opinion. I think by now you all know I believe the chance that this starter line will match the extremely poor performance of Tri-Rail in South Florida, which it closely resembles in all important aspects, is quite good).

So please vote simply based on whether you think this starter line is going to work. Voting yes in the hopes of getting bike trails is foolish if the plan itself is never going to get to that point. You might in fact be impeding the development of mass transit in our area and not get the bike trails anyways.

The first real doozy, from David Foster. A nice guy who is probably feeling pretty down right now.

Bike Friends,

I have been out of town for a few days and am catching up on lots of
email on commuter rail and rails-with-trails. Rather than responding
to al of them, I just want to point out a few reasons why RwT is
more likely to happen with than without commuter rail. I will be out
of town again starting tomorrow and not back till Wednesday but I
look forward to the post-election analysis on this forum, and I hope
discussion of how to make rails-with-trails work should the
referendum pass, as I hope it will

1). Cap Metro will have more money if the referendum passes, and may
well not be able to withstand the attack to roll back its sales tax
and put the money into roads if it loses. This means we could lose
funding for RwT and the All Systems Go improvements to the bus
system as well, and cripple the agency's chance to do any kind of
rail system. This is of course what Skaggs and Levy want.

2) Cap Metro will have an incentive to do RwT if the referendum
passes, namely to increase ridership by providing an easier and
safer way for cyclists to access the stations and trains. Cap Metro
has also agreed to providing bike access on the trains and lockers
and/or bike racks at the stations, which will serve the same purpose
of increasing ridership. A cyclist will be able to ride to the
station, leave the bike there or take it along and ride to his/her
final destination.

3) I do not believe that Cap Metro would commit the political
blunder of backing out on this promise. Many of us worked to get Cap
Metro to agree to RwT, including the bicycle advocacy organizations
who issued the joint press release supporting the referendum (ACA,
AMTG, TBC, and now too Trans Texas Alliance). Cap Metro gives every
indication of wanting to go forward, including helping bring Mia
Birk of Alta Planning in from Portland Oregon to give a presentation
on Rails with Trails while back.

My response to David:

My statement that "you won't get rails-with-trails if commuter rail fails to deliver passengers" is based on political pragmatism, not what Capital Metro happens to be saying right now.

1. There is no legal requirement that they provide RwT if the election
passes. I don't think David disputes this. Nothing but the initial
commuter line is really up for a vote here. I believe Capital Metro
intends to build RwT. I also believe that if the commuter rail line
meets my expectations (performs similar to South Florida's Tri-Rail
line, the only other new start of the last 20-30 years which relies on
shuttle buses for distribution), the political pressure to give back 1/4
cent (at least) of Capital Metro's money will be as strong as it ever
has been. So I don't buy the argument that the money's only going back
if the election fails. I think the money's also going back if the
election succeeds but the starter line fails.

2. I don't think RwT provides much boost to ridership. This isn't going
to be providing cycling access to stations, for the most part; it will
be providing cycling routes ALONG the rail line, not TO the rail line.
The neighborhoods in Leander will continue to have no bicycling access
to stations whatsoever - RwT will not change this. Nor will RwT improve
access for central Austinites since the part of the line they call
"central Austin" (really north Austin - Crestview/Wooten) is the least
likely to have space for the trail due to narrower RoW. Also, cycling
access to stations in this part of Austin is already pretty good -
roughly ten million times better than in Leander or far northwest Austin.

3. If Capital Metro wants to keep running the commuter rail line after
this point (attempting to fix it with streetcars or by going to
Seaholm), they're going to need to fight a POLITICAL battle to keep that
money. Guess what the likely casualty would be in that case? In other
words, the "political blunder of backing out" may end up being one
necessary part of Capital Metro's strategy to make the rail service
survive long enough for an attempted rescue by streetcars (or Seaholm).

In conclusion: I respect David and, unlike many on the
pro-commuter-rail-side, he has been an honorable and informed opponent.
I think he's kept that standard up here. I don't disagree that
rails-with-trails would be really nice if they happen; and my prediction
that they will not occur is based on my informed guess of what will
happen politically when the rail line fails to deliver passenger load. I
think he honestly believes the line will deliver enough passengers to
survive long enough for RwT to happen; and obviously I don't.

And a response from Eric Anderson...

Certainly, construction of Rails-with-Trails will accelerate with voter buy-in and continued build-out of Cap Metro's long range transit plan.

There is however simply no evidence that any/all bike facilities associated with the Austin-Leander commuter rail line must jump through some performance hoop.

[...]

In fact, Cap Metro spokesperson Sam Archer indicated to those present at Austin Cycling Association meeting on Oct. 11th, that immediately following an affirmative Nov. 2nd vote, Cap Metro would begin master-planning efforts for such Rails-with-Trails facilities in tandem with commuter rail planning efforts.

STILL feel good about falling for this snow-job instead of fighting for light rail for central Austin?

March 26, 2006

Bad Neighborhoods Shouldn't Get Help

Inspired by a survey pushed by Tarrytown neighborhood activists, I've re-entered the fray on McMansions. Read the survey, and note that if those regulations were enforced, essentially none of the best streets for pedestrians and residents in central Austin would be remotely legal (as opposed to current suburban-oriented zoning code, under which they're only MOSTLY illegal).

My latest contribution on the residential regulations discussion board relating to the McMansion debate follows. Please sign up and comment in the thread if you have an interest in this stuff. The perception that most homeowners believe that this stuff is OK is what gives these people the disproportionate power that they have today.

In other words, right now it looks like eeevil developers are the only people who would oppose these additional restrictions, since most of the responsible adults in Austin have stayed silent. It's my belief that the City Council will cave and essentially do whatever the task force comes up with, if it looks like their regulations have the support of a sufficiently large majority of people who expressed some interest in the process, just like another recent cowardly pandering dodge of their responsiblity as city leaders.

This builds on a thread by Chris Cosart.

I suppose you could sum up my "responsible urbanism" position this way:

Neighborhoods which have vigorously fought all density and infill over the years which could have helped the city achieve its overall goals should not receive extra protection from the market forces they have distorted in the process.

Specifically: if your neighborhood's plan doesn't allow for additional multifamily development not only on the fringes but on the inside of your neighborhood, in some non-trivial way, you shouldn't expect the support of the city to defend you against incompatible development. Period.

Living in a city entails responsibilities as well as rights. Too often, central neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and especially NUNA, have irresponsibly fought density which would have helped the city as a whole (the Villas on Guadalupe, for instance). Now, those same people who fought responsible multi-family development in places where it was drastically needed (even far away from their homes), and who, by the way, live in homes which are already big and/or incompatible with their neighbors, want additional city protection from the market distortions they themselves helped create through decades of obstructionism.

What we need is additional multifamily infill EVERYWHERE - not just on the big roads like Guadalupe and Lamar (where you've fought it), but also in garage apartments, even on small lots (where you've fought it); in duplexes (where you've fought it); two and four-plexes and rowhouses even on the inside of neighborhoods (where you've fought it). All that fighting only resulted in gross distorting loopholes like Super-Twos and Super-Duplexes, when a more rational response to the market would have resulted in quality multi-family infill. Who knows what will result from this latest attempt to stick another finger in the dike - but I can guarantee it won't be nice, and it won't be what you expect.

You won't get my support. I hope you won't get the City Council's support either.

March 17, 2006

Shoal Creek Summed Up

Michael Bluejay made an outstanding presentation (Quicktime slides with audio) which everybody needs to read. (He presented this before the City Council right before they approved the cyclist-endangering Option III).

Again, I can't recommend this video enough. It's the best quick summary of this issue, with pictures, that I've ever seen. Watch it now.

March 14, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One And A Half

(Bet you thought I was going to address the debt issue, since the Statesman wrote a scathing editorial today. That's Part Two, but it's coming later.)

Following up on Part One, Capital Metro has put up a survey trying to narrow down road choices for the infamous "circulator service" which represents the sum total of the 'additions' which were promised to transit-loving central Austinites who observed that All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere people want to go; nor does it go near people who might want to ride.

Notice from the picture: it doesn't go through residential central Austin in any way, shape, or form. This service, when implemented, is just a bus (maybe a streetcar) from Mueller to UT or downtown; it does NOT do anything to make up for the slap in the face to central Austin.

Note where it doesn't go. It doesn't go up Guadalupe, where tens of thousands of people live within a short walk of the 2000 light rail route. It doesn't go next to the Triangle, a transit-oriented development which is actually BUILT, not just a twinkle in somebody's eye. It doesn't go by high-density residential development presently under construction in West Campus. It doesn't reward the central Austinites who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's bills with any transit improvements at all (and no, Rapid Bus isn't worth shit).

And also remember that Capital Metro has already ruled out reserved-guideway-transit for this route. This means, essentially, that whether the vehicle has rubber tires (bus) or steel wheels (streetcar), it's still going to be stuck behind other peoples' cars in traffic.

Still feel good about falling for this snowjob, folks?

March 13, 2006

I Got Mine, Now You Can't Have Yours

Disappointing one of my three loyal readers who has been bugging me for Part II of Capital Metro's Broken Promises, I thought I should call attention to the bulletin board being used to hash out permanent version(s) of the McMansion Ordinance.

Specifically, I noticed that on the Task Force, the three representatives closest to my area have one guy with whom I don't have much problem with in general, but also two people who I most certainly have: one from Hyde Park and one from NUNA.

I did a little sleuthing on zillow.com, since I can't yet walk as far as Hyde Park thanks to the still-mostly-unresponsive-to-treatment-arthritis. The representative from Hyde Park's home is friggin' huge compared to its neighbors and the typical Hyde Park bungalow.

I did make it by the representative's house in NUNA, which, despite not being as huge, was arguably even more incompatible with its neighbors, having the cardinal sin of "looming over its neighbor's backyards" which is an oft-heard complaint against McMansions.

I'd also like to call attention to an excellent thread started by Chris Cosart, who has commented here in the past.

I'll close with those quote from another thread on that very board:

As I've pointed out with the two examples from the task force, though, this boils down to "I got mine; now you can't have yours". Both 111 Laurel and 4315 Avenue C are incompatible with their neighbors. Why should they be allowed to tell me how compatible I must be with mine?

March 03, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One

The ongoing brouhaha with Lyndon reminded me to start collecting these in one place. First in a series of at least three.

Advocates of light rail through central Austin (including myself, of course) were encouraged to vote for this commuter rail plan, and get "light rail later". Dave Dobbs took me to lunch and tried real hard to get me to fall into line on this, as a matter of fact. This strategy extended to electioneering by Capital Metro itself, who originally stated in Rapid Bus materials that the one proposed route was a "possible placeholder for light rail". One example here. After getting the pro-transit forces to ease up (except me, of course), they dropped this language from their materials. Since then, Capital Metro has never mentioned running rail on the 2000 light rail route past such minor destinations as the center of downtown, the Capitol, the University of Texas, high-density residential development in West Campus and points north, and the Triangle.

From Jeff Wood's thesis, the following:

Robin Rather, who also attended the meeting, asked the hard questions. "What is the best system and what does the Central City get out of all this?" She had a point. Bus Rapid Transit would not sit well with people who had voted overwhelmingly for light rail in 2000. "With the stroke of a pen, I could wipe out this whole proposal at the ballot box," she said "So why should we support this if we are not getting anything out of it?"

Fast-forward to 2006. Capital Metro has eliminated any talk of reserved-guideway rail on the 2000 light rail route; and the "circulator" service being hashed out is leaning heavily towards buses (although still keeping streetcars on the list until the bitter end as is typical). Where's it going to run? Through downtown and by the capitol; but then veering east past the south edge of UT and out to the old airport; avoiding all of the residential density which exists now or in the near future. In other words, this amazing "center-city circulator" which was supposed to make commuter rail provide some benefits to the people who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's tax dollars has morphed into "The Bus People Living At Mueller Will Take To Get To Their Job If They're Members Of The Small Group That Have To Pay A Lot To Park". (Need a catchy slogan for this vehicle! Ideas gladly stolen^H^H^H^H^H^Haccepted!)

Feel good so far about falling for this snow-job, folks?

March 02, 2006

Austin Rail Politics Thesis

Jeff Wood, in the middle of a thread on lightrail_now where I'm trying to once again prevent Lyndon from wriggling off the hook, just posted a link to his thesis on Austin rail transportation politics in which I'm quoted a few times. A good summary for those still interested in the issue.

February 20, 2006

Shoal Creek Attractive Nuisance Boulevard

(just posted to the austin transportational cycling list)

As I've tried to point out before but obviously not succeeded, the danger for SCB is that it becomes an 'attractive nuisance' - i.e., if you stripe a 'bike lane' or a 'shoulder' or even a 'shared use area', you are making an implied recommendation that this is where cyclists should be riding. (Well-established in both legal and traffic engineering circles).

Thus, the facility to which you're 'attracting' the cyclists to had better meet some basic, bare minimum, safety guidelines such as AASHTO. As many have pointed out, AASHTO standards for bike lanes next to parking are still not great - a good chunk of the bike lane would be in the door space, but the Gandy design would have had all of the bike lane within the door zone, and the 'space' shrinking to perhaps a foot when being passed by a motorist while you yourself were passing a parked truck - i.e., you would get brushed even if the parked vehicle never opened its door. The 10-foot shared space has this same exact problem; the absence of the stripe separating 'bike lane' from 'parking lane' makes no difference.

I get the sense that many people still haven't looked at these pictures, which tell the story far better than my words possibly could.

Take a look. That's not "normal bike lane bad" where the door would extend part of the way into the bike lane when it's open. That's "guaranteed collision bad" where the cyclist fundamentally doesn't have enough space to travel even when the truck's door is closed.

Some people (who must not have looked at that picture) drastically underestimate how bad a facility this is - thinking that they (good rider) would just get into the travel lane to pass the parked car. This forgets that:

1. Most inexperienced riders don't know to do this, and will thus 'swerve' at the last moment, or maybe not even go out into the lane at all, and

2. Experienced riders will take the lane well in advance of the parked car, and will (in my, and Lane's experience at least) get honked at, or possibly someday worse.

A facility which encourages inexperienced cyclists to perform unsafe manuevers and which causes conflict with other road users when experienced cyclists do what they're supposed to do has no place on our roadways. It doesn't matter how the other roads in the city are designed - if this one fails some basic minimum safety standards, it's a horrible, horrible design and needs to be rethought. If this means removing SCB from the city's bicycle route system, so be it.

That's the bottom line here - the city is basically signing up for a huge potential liability lawsuit, and if it ever happens, I'll be glad to testify that they were warned early and often.

February 12, 2006

Houston outlaws density better than Austin does

A pseudonymous trogolyde in this well-commented thread on Metroblogging Austin has just invoked the second component the "Austin no-growther duo", the first being "It's all the Californian's fault".

M1EK if you are so in love with density. And the idea of quaint neighborhoods with small houses is too much to take move the fuck out of Austin. Move to fucking Houston. Developers have less restrictions. You can tear down houses and build condos and no bats an eye.

The charm, it just oozes off the screen.

It's probably a good time to repoint readers to this article on Houston in which the author alleges a similar, perhaps even greater, interference by the government there in the processes which would otherwise create density, despite the oft-celebrated lack of zoning. One example, in case you don't want to wade through the PDF,

Until 1998, [FN37] Houston's city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached [FN38] single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. [FN39] And until 1998, [FN40] Houston's government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, [FN41] by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. [FN42] As Siegan admits, this law "tend(ed) to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses" [FN43] and thus effectively meant that townhouses "cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups." [FN44] Houston's townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, [FN45] were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, [FN46] 560 square feet in Phoenix, [FN47] and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada. [FN48] Houston's anti-townhouse policy, combined with its minimum lot size requirement for detached houses, effectively meant that almost all single-family development in Houston had to be on a lot of at least 5000 square feet [FN49] (which means that single-family areas in Houston could have no more than 8.7 houses per acre).

There's a lot more. Again, I highly recommend you read this if you've ever heard that "Houston has no zoning".

February 08, 2006

"Stick the renters in high-rises"

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was "none, never".

Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old "none, never", but still has some problems. I call it "stick 'em in high-rises downtown", and it goes something like this:

"Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses - instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don't they?"

Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood's yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument - namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.

Here's what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I've paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

("Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses")

I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn't necessarily cut it.

There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).

("The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem" - part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)

With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It's
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?

("Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I'm OK with that", implication being that this satisfies the 'problem').

This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best
compromised.

For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can't do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can't walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that's
where I'd be. We don't have them, not because there's no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.

To say that there's no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.


If I forget, I'm counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.

February 06, 2006

The Capital Metro Finances

Ben Wear finally checked in this morning about the "commuter rail finances causing pressure for cost reductions causing union strife issue" which I covered here, although I disagree completely with his conclusion that light rail would have left us in the same mess.

  1. The commuter rail plan would NOT have received any substantial Federal funding. Wear glosses over this for more commentary about how difficult the New Starts process is. Rail lines with such paltry projected ridership have not done well at the FTA in recent years.
  2. The light rail plan, on the other hand, would easily have received the 50% Federal funding. We already know the Feds rated it highly even though they weren't allowed to include the impact of TOD and other future development such as the Triangle (which is now, in 2006, online).
  3. The commuter rail plan was sold to the voters of Austin on the premise that it was so cheap (with the Federal money that Capital Metro is now NOT seeking) that it would not necessitate touching the 1/4 cent "rebate" or the Build Greater Austin funds.
  4. The light rail plan counted on using both. Wear glosses over this to some degree, but at least mentions it.
  5. The operating costs of commuter rail are likely to be high - Wear mentions this, but doesn't mention why they're disproportionately high compared to light rail - again, it runs back to low ridership. Operating cost per passenger, in fact, is likely to be much higher with commuter rail than with light rail. The physical cost of moving each train is quite likely to be higher with diesel than it was with electricity, and many of the ancillary operating costs such as maintenance actually rise at a lower rate than the number of vehicles do thanks to economies of scale. Then, when you divide that cost by a much smaller number of commuter rail passengers, you're in bad news city. It's going to be a feeding frenzy for the local suburban Republicans masquerading as libertarians when the "we're paying a $15 subsidy for each rail passenger's daily ride" stories start coming out.

Summarizing: the 2000 light rail plan would have gotten a bunch of money from the Feds, would have had access to the 1/4 cent 'rebate' and Build Greater Austin funds, would have had greater income from fares, would have had proportionally lower operating costs, and would have opened up more TOD income than will this commuter rail plan. Since it would have gone "right down the gut", i.e., right next to all the neighborhoods which actually want to use transit, and directly in front of UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown where people actually work, it would have become the success story that we've seen in Minneapolis, Portland, Dallas, etc. IE: a credible alternative which encourages even those who drive to work every day to support future expansions and even (shudder!) tax increases.

Instead, based on what we have now, it's unlikely that, if it's ever built out, the complete commuter rail + streetcars plan being pushed today will end up being any cheaper anyways, which really puts the lie to the idea that cost was the reason for picking it. It was about screwing the center-city in favor of Krusee's suburbanites all along. If you are one of the few who ride it, this is how you're gonna get to work. And our "success story" that we're attempting to emulate is South Florida: Shuttle buses for those who were going to take the bus anyways, and branded as a big fat failure by everybody else.

February 03, 2006

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie's site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!

Kyle,

I've spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing's for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does - or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like "all of Seattle" only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).

There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists - in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal 'justifies bike lanes' levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn't read his closely enough:

Kyle,

Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn't there in your comment. I'm way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it's obvious upon further reading that you weren't saying Austin's level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren't needed is too small. Couldn't agree more.

Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

January 31, 2006

"Build it and they'll come" is no way to run a city

So the end-result of the Parlor problem appears to be that the neighborhood isn't going to budge on the parking variance, which means that another local business is in danger of going under unless the notoriously neighborhood-friendly Board of Adjustment suddenly becomes more responsible.

The end of the thread on the hydeparkaustin mailing list occurred when a member of the "Circle C in downtown Austin" party commented that a plan (in the works now for a long time and seemingly not close to fruition) to arrange for parking at the State Hospital (across Guadalupe) to be used for employees of businesses on Guadalupe would be the only way out of this mess.

I replied that it was unlikely that any customer or employee of those businesses would find it attractive to park at the state hospital, walk out to Guadalupe, wait a long time for the light at 41st and Guadalupe to change, walk very quickly across the street, and then and only then arrive at their destination (as compared to parking on a side street or Avenue A).

The person replied (and was supported by the moderator, who then ended the discussion with the attached unpublished rebuttal in hand) that "the boss can make the employee park whereever they say". This may be true in an abstract sense, I replied, but it's unlikely that any such boss would want to spend the energy enforcing a rule which prevented employees from parking in PUBLIC spaces such as on Avenue A, even if they did want to keep employees out of their own private lot.

This goes back to thinking of a type which is unfortunately prevalent here in Austin and among many other progressive cities - that being that people will do things that are good, as long as we provide opportunities to do them. IE, build it and they will come. What you build, given this thinking, doesn't have to be attractive compared to the pre-existing or forthcoming alternatives; its mere existence will suffice.

For instance, in this circumstance, they think that simply providing available parking in an inconvenient and unpleasant location will get people to park there who would otherwise park on neighborhood streets. Likewise, Capital Metro thinks simply providing any rail will get people to use it, even if the individual incentives are pretty awful, given the shuttle bus transfers.

I have a whole blog category analyzing 'use cases' which I think is a far more useful way to look at the problem. In this case, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of that potential parking consumer a few paragraphs back and remember that your boss probably (a) isn't going to be able to stop you from parking on Avenue A, and (b) probably couldn't catch you even if he tried.

But like with the naive pro-transit suckers that bought the MikeKrusee ScrewAustin Express, it's unlikely that it's possible to get through to these people. And so, the consequence is that another local business which probably would have improved Guadalupe as a place we actually want to be is thwarted. Good work, geniuses.

This is not to say that we should never build transit or highways. What it does mean is that somebody ought to spend at least a few minutes figuring out whether the thing you're going to expect people to use is actually attractive enough for them to choose to use it. By that metric, light rail in 2000 was a slam dunk, despite the lies spread by Skaggs and Daugherty. But in this parking case and with this commuter rail line, nobody seems to have bothered to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective user.

my sadly now never-to-be-published response (remember, this is to somebody who said "But the Heart Hospital doesn't let their employees park in their lot!" follows.


Those cases have some clear and obvious differences to the one
we're talking about here -- one being that the employees are being prohibited from parking in a private lot (which is still difficult to enforce, but at least defensible). You're asking that these business' employees not only refrain from parking in the business' lot (private) but ALSO from the public spaces on Guadalupe and the street space on Avenue A. And nobody's 'requiring' those state employees to park in Siberia - if they could find an open metered space somewhere else, for instance, they're free to take it. Likewise, the Heart Hospital can't force its employees to mark at the MHMR pool.

So it's easy to prohibit people from parking in a given private lot. Unless you're going to turn Avenue A into RPPP as part of this, though, they'd still park there instead of across Guadalupe. And any boss who tried to force them otherwise would probably be experiencing the fun world of employee turnover.

January 24, 2006

Clearly I Am A Shrinking Violet

Both Austinist and Metroblogging Austin wrote articles about Cap Metro which talked about commuter rail and didn't link here to any one of the hundred or so articles in my vast Cap Metro commuter rail category archive. My feelings are hurt. More importantly: Baby Jebus is crying.

Update: Both have now added links to the category archive here, so that hopefully new readers can get a lot of backstory. Thanks, both of you.

A summary:

  • Capital Metro did not seek Federal money because they knew they'd not get much. The FTA was unlikely to rate this commuter rail plan very highly - even Cap Metro's own figures show a very small number of people riding, because this piece-of-crap Krusee debacle doesn't actually go anywhere people want to go, like UT, the Capitol, or Congress Avenue, and their bogus stuck-in-traffic 'circulator' is only going to circulate bums and other carless transit-dependent folks because of the extra time and discomfort involved in a three-seat ride. Oh, and it also doesn't go near any of the center-city neighborhoods that actually like to use transit.
  • The 2000 light rail plan, on the other hand, was rated pretty highly by the FTA and would have clearly obtained a good chunk of federal funding, as would a scaled-back version of same, due to much higher projected ridership (compared to the Krusee craptrain above).
  • The union, whether you like them or not, would be committing suicide if they consented to a two-tier wage structure. Any position by Cap Metro which includes that change is, therefore, evidence that they don't want to negotiate, but rather, that their desire is to kill the union.

January 19, 2006

New links

Chris Mooney has moved here (a much more palatable host) and I've added Tim Lambert.

Both often cover the distortion of science perpetrated by the current sorry crop of right-wingers. And don't fall for bogus claims of balance by shysters trying to convince you both sides are equally bad. They're just not. This is almost entirely a Republican problem, and it's not going anywhere. The mostly non-religious but very-rabid right-wingers at my last job were, despite being a highly educated and self-described moderate bunch, falling for most of the denial science pushed for profit by the GOP's pseudoscience shills. If those people are unwilling to use their critical thinking skills when their political party tells them not to, I fear for our future. I ain't kidding.

For instance: There isn't really any lack of consensus on global warming, people. The scientists who study climate are overwhelmingly speaking in one voice. The few skeptics who remain are largely shills funded by the oil companies. Yes, for real.

I note in passing that my buddies at Hit and Run are still curiously silent on the global warming news of the day.

Big surprise

These guys have nothing to say about this. Pushing claims of false controversy is obviously the game being played by the current crop of right-wingers (ticking off even moderate Republicans like the ones who used to run the show), but it's been very disappointing to me how much of that has rubbed off on the supposedly non-partisan libertarians.

Hint: Science doesn't care if you don't like the news - and it definitely doesn't care if you don't want to admit climate change is anthropogenic and dangerous just because the only effective solutions require some involvement from the evil State.

January 11, 2006

Diesel vs. Hybrid

Many folks who are pretty clearly disingenuously rooting for hybrid automobiles to go away because they don't like their implications for US automakers like to harp on the supposed superiority of diesel cars. Coincidentally, I just got an issue of Consumer Reports in the mail where the new Jetta TDI goes up against the new Civic Hybrid. Some stats from the article:

CarCityHwy0-60 time
Jetta TDI24 mpg46 mpg12.2 seconds
Civic Hybrid26 mpg47 mpg11.7 seconds
Prius35 mpg50 mpg11.3 seconds

And of course, the Civic Hybrid pollutes a hell of a lot less than does the Jetta, even with the forthcoming cleaner diesel fuel. The Prius is the cleanest of the lot and considerably larger than the Civic or Jetta. (I don't remember the 0-60 time for the Prius).

So, folks, the next time somebody tells you that hybrids are a joke compared to diesels, be aware they're selling you a load of bunk. Even in highway driving where diesels were supposed to be better, it turns out hybrids are winning in the real world.

(acceleration figures are from the magazine for Jetta and Civic Hybrid; attempted to get CR's figure for Prius via google, but may be unreliable; other sites have its 0-60 all over the map from sub-10 seconds to more like 12).

January 03, 2006

SUVs are a negative sum game

Most SUV drivers, sad to say, were perfectly happy to drive them when SUVs appeared to be a zero-sum game, i.e., if you drove an SUV, sure you killed more people in cars, but your own passengers were safer at about the same proportion. Because, after all, protecting your own family is the only thing that matters - so it doesn't matter if it happens by making it much more likely that others will die.

And, of course, most people who bother to study the issue always knew they got special treatment allowing them to enjoy more lenient fuel economy, pollution, tax, and safety regulations (pre-1999).

But recently we've found out that they're also more dangerous for pedestrians and finally, the conventional wisdom among those who study the vehicles that they really aren't safer for their own occupants than would be a sedan has been borne out in a recent study involving kids. Yes, the same kids you claim you bought the SUV for.

I guess you still have that high riding position to hang your hat on. Oh, and the donating of all that excess money to Middle Eastern regimes we're all big fans of. Way to go, guys.

December 23, 2005

Why Krusee Supported Rail, Part One

Round Rock doesn't pay Capital Metro taxes. They decided a long time ago that they didn't want to be part of the system. Great. I wish we Austinites could similarly exempt ourselves from paying taxes which build their roads for them, but here we are.

So where does Krusee and rail come into this, then?

CAMPO is about to approve using Federal money to build an "intermodal transit center" in downtown Round Rock, which will include a new bus line which connects to a Capital Metro Park-n-Ride in far North Austin.

Let me repeat again: Citizens of Austin subsidize bus rides on Capital Metro by paying a 1% sales tax. Citizens of Round Rock pay nothing to Capital Metro.

These park and rides (and the express buses which stop there) are fairly attractive today for a small subset of commuters who have to pay money to park at their office (mainly UT employees; a few folks downtown). So some people, even when not in the Cap Metro service area, drive to the park and ride and then hop the bus (paying the same low fare as an Austin resident would). Until recently, the main places this 'freeloading rider' problem occurred were Pflugerville (which voted themselves out of the system - Cap Metro responded by moving their park and ride what seemed like 500 feet further down the road towards Austin) and Cedar Park (who can freeload on either Leander or Austin).

Now we've just opened one of these at the far north fringe of the service area (near Howard Lane).

I have asked Cap Metro in the past (when I was on the UTC) whether they realized that building more park-and-rides at the far fringes of their service area would lead to this 'freeloading rider' problem; and they said, yes, it would, and no, they didn't intend to do anything about it.

So now, to add insult to injury, we're using area-wide tax revenue to build a project which will make it easier for Round Rock residents to ride Capital Metro, where they will be heavily subsidized (far more than Austin riders) by Austin taxpayers. This will further drive down Cap Metro's fairly abyssmal "farebox recovery ratio". And Cap Metro is enthusiastic about this.

Is Round Rock going to institute a 1% sales tax to pay for Capital Metro service? Hell no. They can't, even if they wanted to; they're maxed out. Is Cap Metro going to demand that passengers provide proof of residence inside the service area before getting the heavily discounted fare? Hell no. They won't, even if they wanted to.

But could Capital Metro build light rail for urban Austin where most of their tax revenue comes from? No, that was 'too expensive'. If you're appropriately slavish in your praise, Kaiser Krusee might deign to bless you with some streetcars which are stuck in traffic behind his constituents' cars. Just don't point out that by the time we've built a bunch of worthless commuter rail lines and a streetcar loop, we might as well have just built the 2000 light rail plan - it would have been no more expensive and far more effective.

Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?

More to come.

December 06, 2005

Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

More on Yesterday's Whiff

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, by claiming that there was "no data about any of the options". This is true, if you restrict the question to "what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments". However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities - that being, do option 2 and do it now.

The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I'm remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) - there's really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds - it's a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn't provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I'm unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only - the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven't been studied isn't particularly accurate - they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It's true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities - frankly because nobody cared - the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn't particularly important - whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn't very relevant.

December 05, 2005

Council Whiffs Again On Shoal Creek

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a "let's get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests" mode which, in case anybody's forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.

This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:

1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).

2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as "Option 2").

But instead, it sure as heck looks like they're ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this - they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.

The worst part is Brewster's gang of "stakeholders" which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn't represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.

This is so depressing...

November 26, 2005

Another Tri-Rail mention

Since I'm being assailed again by Lyndon Henry for being anti-rail-transit, I spent a bit of time looking for additional Tri-Rail mentions in the press, and found this one from the Orlando Press:

The greatest hindrance to Mica's rail, however, could come from the failure of a predecessor, South Florida's Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County south to Miami. Tri-Rail has proven costly; it has drained $433 million so far, and reports say it needs another $327 million to stay alive. Despite the investment, Tri-Rail averages only 60 percent of its projected ridership, and governments subsidize more than 70 percent of the operating costs.

The problem? Essentially, Tri-Rail doesn't go anywhere. For most of its 11-year life, Tri-Rail delved only into northern Dade County. "That's like taking a train from Volusia and dropping people off at the Seminole County line," Mica says. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus systems. Moreover, Tri-Rail only runs once an hour, and is frequently late at that.

Could rewrite this as:

The problem? Essentially, All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere. It delves only into the southeastern edge of downtown. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus systems. Moreover, ASG only runs twice an hour, and not at all at mid-day.

November 16, 2005

What Can Work

Seattle's light rail line just got a rating of "high" from the Feds meaning it's very likely they'll get the maximum possible financial contribution. Why? From the posting:

King County Executive Ron Sims said a big factor in the rating was the travel time savings. A bus from University Hospital near Husky Stadium to downtown takes 25 minutes during the afternoon rush hour compared with a projected 9 minutes for the light rail line. A bus from University Hospital to Capitol Hill takes 22 minutes compared with 3 minutes for light rail. And a bus from downtown to Capitol Hill takes 14 minutes compared with 6 minutes on light rail.

Compare and contrast to the route a rider of Capital Metro's commuter rail route would take to get from one of the northwestern park-and-rides to their office at UT or the Capitol. When you add in the shuttle bus trip through traffic (from the commuter rail station to the campus or capitol), it is doubtful that any time will be saved compared to the existing 183-corridor express buses (which also operate in traffic, but at least don't go out of their way on a dogleg through East Austin, and don't require a transfer to a second, much slower, vehicle).

Of course, Austin's 2000 light rail route would have gone from those park-and-rides straight to UT and the Capitol and then down Congress Avenue. But, sure, this will work just as well, and the Feds will be just as happy. Right.

Another Summary on Why All Systems Won't Go

I posted this to the hydeparkaustin yahoo group and didn't want it to go to waste.

The moderator asked me to provide additional background on this.

I write on this stuff voluminously at:

(category archive)

You may want to read that category archive bottom-up (chronological
order).

During 2004, I was the standard-bearer for the "pro-rail-transit but
anti-commuter-rail" side
. I was strongly in support of light rail in
2000; remained in support of such a system in 2004; and still support
it today; but this commuter rail system shares none of the aspects of
that plan which made it likely to attract new riders to public
transportation
- it neither goes by neighborhoods which want to use
transit (such as mine, NUNA, and yours, Hyde Park), nor goes TO
destinations to which people want to walk, i.e. most of downtown, the
University of Texas, and the Capitol
.

Capital Metro claims to be ready to solve this problem through "high
frequency circulators"
(Future Connections study previously linked) -
i.e. a vehicle you would board at the commuter rail stop way out in
east Austin which would take you to UT, for instance
. The problem is
that this has been tried elsewhere and never works - all you have to
do is go through the 'use case' of the prospective rider, i.e., a guy
who lives in Leander and works at UT.

Car trip: Get in car and drive there; park; walk to work.
Light rail trip: Drive to park-and-ride; take train to UT; walk to
work (probably shorter walk than car trip).
Commuter rail trip: Drive to park-and-ride; take train to east Austin;
transfer to shuttle bus; ride through backed-up traffic to UT; walk to
work.

And of course the Hyde Park resident 'use case' is even worse, since
taking commuter rail is not even remotely feasible - you (and I) would
be stuck taking the "Rapid Bus" which is an even worse scenario than
the above.

My fear was that a badly designed starter system (which this is) will
show Austinites that rail doesn't work
- meaning that we won't get any
more rail, not even GOOD rail. And this system is VERY badly designed
- it almost exactly matches Tri-Rail in South Florida (where I come
from) in its reliance on shuttle buses to get passengers anywhere
worth going
, rather than doing what all successful light rail starter
lines have done
, which is go straight to a few major employment
centers without requiring transfers.

Anyways, I spent the year pushing this position all over town, in
events at UT and at the ANC, and was constantly attacked by my
pro-transit friends for risking getting 'no rail at all'. The
pro-transit establishment
claimed that we could pass commuter rail and
then quickly get light rail put back in the plan
, i.e., running down
lamar and guadalupe, past the Triangle and Hyde Park, to UT and the
Capitol and then downtown.

I never bought the snow-job; but unfortunately, many people in the
center-city DID buy it. It ended up getting me kicked off the UTC by
councilmember Slusher
, as a matter of fact, but I thought that,
regardless of the consequences to me, SOMEBODY needed to raise the
position that bad rail could, in fact, be worse than delayed rail.

And now here we are. Guadalupe will not see light rail from Future
Connections. (I don't think it will for decades, since this commuter
rail plan is so bad that it will destroy the public's desire to try
any new rail lines for years and years to come once they see that
nobody wants to ride it since it's so uncompetitive even compared to
existing express bus routes). In fact, no rail of any kind will be
headed up our way, since even if you take the most optimistic reading
possible of the Future Connections study, they would be building
streetcar (still stuck in traffic, but hey, it's on rails in the
pavement)
out to the Mueller project; not up this way.

If anybody has any questions, you can ask me in the forum, or via
private email, and I'd be happy to fill in any more details.

Update: Unpaid blog QA intern "U. Nidentified Cow-orker" alerted me that the "voluminously" link didn't work. Thanks, U.N.!

November 15, 2005

Letter to Chronicle about FC

Just sent this:

Many well-intentioned people, including most of the staff of the Chronicle, advised Central Austinites to hold their nose and vote "yes" on the All Systems Go commuter rail plan, despite the fact that it goes nowhere near existing and proposed residential density, and nowhere near minor employment centers like the University of Texas or the Capitol Complex (to say nothing of most of downtown). In fact, the pro-rail-transit but anti-stupid-rail position fell all the way down to me, whose sole qualification was serving on the UTC for a few years. I was attacked quite viciously for daring to suggest that perhaps the right response was to vote No, as in "No, this isn't the right rail plan; come back with something like the 2000 plan, scaled back to get us over the top".

Well, now, the other shoe has dropped. The "Future Connections Study", on which those credulous folks based their hopes for adding back rail for central Austin, has released their draft technology review, which has now ruled out any mode requiring a reserved guideway. Meaning: no light rail; no bus rapid transit. You get either a shuttle bus or a streetcar; but either way you're going to be stuck in the same traffic you would be if you just drove.

More on my blog at: http://mdahmus.thebaba.com/blog/

The majority of the pro-transit establishment owes Austin an immediate apology for being part of this snowjob.

More Future Connections Stuff Is Up

The "Library" has a bunch of documents up from the most recent set of meetings for the Future Connections study, i.e., the "let's pretend like we considered rail to get central Austin off our back for screwing them with a commuter rail plan that doesn't go anywhere near them or minor destinations like UT and the Capitol Complex" exercise.

I'm only partway through and don't have time for full analysis now, but I will note that it is disappointing (but not surprising) that NONE of the objectives for this service include the simple one:

make it MORE ATTRACTIVE to ride transit than it is today, i.e., close at least some of the gap between the private automobile and public transportation in one or more of the following: (reliability, speed, comfort).

These guys still don't get it - you can't just rest your hopes on build it and they'll come; you also have to make sure that what you build is GOOD. And shuttle buses operating in mixed traffic aren't "good" unless you're somebody who can't afford their own car. Capital Metro already owns all of THAT market.

Update: One thing I notice is that in the Draft Technologies Report, they have already eliminated light rail and any other technology which uses a reserved guideway. I have to admit I'm not surprised at this decision (which I believe was made before this study even started), but AM surprised at the speed at which they've come to admit it semi-publically.

November 09, 2005

Rail, TOD, etc.

Responding to a comment on this old entry:

Jonathan, that's not accurate.

1. There ARE more lines in the "long-range plan", but NONE of them go anywhere near UT or the capitol or Mueller. There's one that might go down Mopac to Seaholm, where it will have the same exact problem that the starter line does; namely; that it's too far away from any destinations for people to walk; they'll have to take shuttle buses. And the starter line will be such a visible example of rail's supposed "failure" that no follow-on lines will be built for a very very very VERY long time. The whole reason I opposed the '04 plan was this danger - if you build a crappy enough starter line, it will become, as one of my UTC colleagues put it, a "finisher line".

2. TOD can't work if the line doesn't have good ridership without the TOD. Otherwise, real estate investors are going to be leery about spending more money for TOD than they would for traditional development.

3. These projections DO take into account all prospective density in east Austin, which has generally OPPOSED such projects. In fact, the TOD ordinance had to be watered down to nearly zero because of that part of town's virulent opposition to what they see as gentrification.

4. The only other area in this country which chose to run a rail line through a low-density area instead of running one from where the people are to where they want to go is: South Florida, whose 20-year experiment with Tri-Rail has plumbed new depths of failure. Shuttle buses are so unattractive to the "choice commuter" that even most of the transit-dependent in South Florida don't use Tri-Rail; they just stay on the normal bus; and NOBODY rides it who could have chosen to drive.

Compare/contrast to light rail, which is what Dallas, Portland, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City did; and what we almost did in 2000. We could easily have passed a scaled down version of the '00 plan in '04, but Mike Krusee kneecapped Capital Metro into this abomination instead.

Relevant entries in my blog which you might want to look at:

TOD and East Austin
TOD and commuter rail
How you'll use the starter line
Tri-Rail

November 04, 2005

Possibly The Stupidest Thing I've Ever Heard From Capital Metro, And That's Saying A Lot

I just heard from an acquaintance with the Austin Streetcars group that, at Tuesday's meeting for Future Connections, the Capital Metro consultant pointed at the ends of the UT shuttle bus line as examples of "Bus TOD" to presumably answer the complaint that I (and nearly everyone else in the world) state about TOD (transit-oriented development) and buses, namely, that it simply doesn't happen in this country unless you have frequent rail transit, not just buses. In Europe, where gas is six bucks a gallon and there's no parking anyways, you can get it with a bus station, but even there, the focus is on rail transit.

Good lord. I don't even know where to begin with this, but I'll try anyways. While I expect Capital Metro to continue with bogus claims that they can get TOD from the commuter rail line and maybe even the Rapid Bus line, I didn't think even they would go so far out into left-field as to claim you can get TOD from regular, crappy, city buses.

  1. I'm pretty sure the apartment complexes predate the shuttle bus lines, at least some of them did, and their density is, if anything, lower than apartment complexes elsewhere (some are only two stories instead of the typical three you get in MF-3 zoning, for instance).
  2. Those apartment complexes have just as much parking in just the same places as similar apartment complexes do along Jollyville, or Metric Blvd. In fact, transit coverage of the Far West area is poor, except if you want to go to UT during classtime. Riverside, at least, has decent transit coverage, but you have to walk a long ways to get to them. In NEITHER place is there EVER any incentive to use transit other than to get to class - it's going to be FAR easier and FAR quicker to use that car conveniently (and freely) parked in the lot next to your door. The very OPPOSITE of TOD.
  3. There's no mixed-use development of any kind in the vicinity of either 'student slum'. If you dodge driveways and walk a long ways one direction to get out of the area where there's only apartments, you get to an area where there's only single-family houses. If you walk a long ways the other direction, you get to an area where there's only strip-malls. NOWHERE do you find a place where there are buildings with offices or apartments on top and retail on the bottom.
  4. Neither area is remotely pedestrian-friendly. You have to walk a long ways to get to those strip malls, and then cross a huge surface parking lot to get to the stores. Again, this is the very OPPOSITE of TOD.

Any more? Man, I'm flabbergasted that they could sink this low. It's one thing to claim that buses can generate TOD (some people claim that BRT, at least, can do it). It's quite another to point to two student slums as your example.

October 21, 2005

Can YOU spot the right corridor for rail?

A photographic exercise by M1EK. All pictures obtained from the 9/24/05 Future Connections steering committee presentation.





This is a bit misleading since it makes it look like Hyde Park and the neighborhoods around Airport Blvd are equally suitable for rail transit - the problem is that you can't walk to stations along Airport from any residential developments of consequence; the area is fairly pedestrian-hostile.

Note that all of the existing and future high-density residential and employment centers are going to be served by "high-frequency circulators", i.e., shuttle buses stuck in traffic. While the incredibly important Airport Boulevard corridor gets rail. Here's one example of a circulator movement they envision; this one is planted right on Speedway near my house. Note: there's already high-frequency bus service to campus and downtown on this street, so it's doubtful they'll be doing anything here other than publicity:


Now, for comparison's sake, I took the two 2017 maps, and using my awesome drawing skills, drew the 2000 light rail proposal, in blue. The jog from the Guadalupe corridor over to Congress Avenue might have happened as far north as 11th; I chose 9th as a compromise. Some versions even had it running around the Capitol on both sides -- but this is a simpler drawing that still hits all the same major spots. A short distance north of this map, the 2000 light rail line would have converged with the red "All Systems Go" line and continued northwest on existing rail right-of-way towards Howard Lane, so this picture captures most of the "difference" between the proposals.




Gosh, which one would have a better chance at delivering ridership? I really can't tell the difference. I guess Lyndon IS right - this commuter rail plan IS just as good as light rail!

October 19, 2005

More on Tri-Rail and why shuttle buses matter

The current brou-ha-ha with Lyndon reminded me to go check if anything's up with Tri-Rail in South Florida. As I've previously written, they're the best example out there of the kind of rail line Capital Metro is going to build here in Austin, in that

  • they don't run trains very often
  • most destinations require a shuttle bus ride
  • they chose to run on a cheap existing track rather than building lines closer to those destinations (like light rail systems usually do)

Well, in the process I found an updated version of an old article I think I already used, but I hadn't noticed one important paragraph before. The context is that they're finally talking seriously about moving to the FEC corridor - which is where the service should have been built all along, since it allows passengers to walk to a non-trivial number of office and retail destinations. We're even worse off here, though, since building this commuter rail line basically prevents us from building anything like the 2000 starter line. Here's the quote:

Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the "inherent fear of feeder bus reliability." The buses "are often late," she explained.

Since Tri-Rail trains only run about every half-hour during the commute peak and less often the rest of the day (like Austin's commuter rail trains will), missing your train on the way home from work is a big deal. The "feeder" buses they're talking about are the same kind of shuttle buses we're going to be stuck with here in Austin, if you work downtown, at the Capitol, or at UT. And guess what? They're going to be unreliable too - they'll be stuck in the same traffic as your car.

Even if streetcars are used for the "high-frequency circulators" which will take you from your office to the train station, the same problem exists - since streetcars won't have their own lane and won't be given green lights over cross traffic. The chance that light rail will come out of the Future Connections Study is zero, since commuter rail precludes it from being built in the 2000 alignment, which is the only one good enough to merit Federal funding.

So just like in South Florida, people will experience a couple of missed trains and then, if they have any other options, will stop riding. Nobody wants to sit around for even a half-hour waiting for the next train home. And if all you're doing is catering to riders who don't have a choice, you might as well just dump the money into more buses.

October 18, 2005

Lyndon loses it

Lyndon Henry just called me "anti-rail". I'm so mad I could chew nails.

His "bend over for Mike Krusee side" has destroyed any chance at urban rail here in Austin for a generation, since the starter line implemented by Capital Metro will not be able to garner significant ridership due to its reliance on shuttle buses to get anywhere you might want to go.

After this failure, predicted by South Florida's experience with a commuter rail plan which is almost identical to Capital Metro's, Austin voters will not be willing to vote up any more rail for decades.

If anybody's "anti-rail", it's him and his ilk; since their collaboration with Mike Krusee will prevent urban Austin from seeing rail until my children are middle-aged.

Update: my cow orker pointed out that lightrail_now doesn't have public archives. Here's the offending opening paragraph of Lyndon's comment:

Let me just point out that, if Mike Dahmus's anti-rail side had won last November's vote - i.e., the rail plan had failed - the Road Warriors would be celebrating the "final" demise of rail transit in Austin and picking the bones of Capital Metro for more funding for roads - highways, tollways, etc. - in this area.

he then goes on to tell people how wonderful the commuter rail plan is, how it might be upgraded to electrified LRT (continuing his misleading crap about how sticking an electrical wire on it makes it "light rail"), and mentions the people trying to get streetcars running through downtown and an unnamed bunch of "rail advocates" trying to get light rail to run on the Rapid Bus corridor, failing to say anything about the fact that this commuter rail plan effectively precludes running light rail down that stretch of Lamar/Guadalupe.

October 10, 2005

Regionalism as the enemy of urban transportation

I couldn't put it any better myself. This is how Mike Krusee's killed Austin's hopes at getting intracity transit back from the dark ages of slow jerky buses.

October 07, 2005

Still At It

The folks who basically wanted us to suck it up and enjoy what crumbs we got from the All Systems Go plan are still at it, even today. On the Austin Streetcars group (for people who are trying desperately to salvage some kind of rail, even if it's stuck-in-traffic streetcars, for central Austin, which is otherwise going to only be served by "high frequency circulators" in the form of shuttle buses and, of course, Not So Rapid Bus), Lyndon Henry just called the ASG starter line an "urban light railway", to which I just had to respond with this old gem which now that I look back, is probably the best thing I wrote about this whole commuter rail debacle. Unfortunately, it was nine months after the election.

Update: Lyndon responded with:

They've ordered non-FRA-compliant light DEMUs for this line. It qualifies as a "light railway" by all standards I know of within the transit industry. However, since it's non-electrified, it is NOT LRT. Operationally, it will be somewhat similar to the Camden-Trenton RiverLine light railway and the Sprinter light railway currently under construction in Oceanside (north of San Diego - which they're calling "light rail").

to which I answered:


Pop quiz:

1. What are the headways it will run at during peak times when it opens?

2. How will the passengers get to their final destination?

The answers to those two questions are:

1. 30 minutes, at best

2. Shuttle buses

Neither of those answers is compatible with the concept of "light rail". As you know. It's a pretty shoddy effort to claim that it's light rail because it's using a slightly less heavy, but still non-electrified, locomotive.

This project is commuter rail, and not a very good one at that (most commuter rail lines at least penetrate a major downtown area; this one does only by the most generous definition of the term, and doesn't come remotely close to any of the 3 or 4 other activity centers of the region).

Your insistence on applying the adjective "light" to it as frequently as you can suggests to me that you might be uncomfortable with your role in selling Mike Krusee's Austin-screwing transit-killer to the citizens and are trying to convince yourself that this pile of garbage really is a stack of roses.

Again, I refer you to this:

and then I inserted the original blast that this isn't light rail by any reasonable definition of the term.

Lyndon is one of the "good guys" which is why I hate so much that he's helped, as I mentioned, sell Austin down the river for Mike Krusee (whose constituents by and large aren't even Capital Metro taxpayers).

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).

More idiot cyclists

From a surprising source. (I post as "doinky" there).

September 29, 2005

You don't get TOD with buses (or commuter rail)

I still have the RealVideo from the City Council Meeting up (was following the Shoal Creek debacle) and there's a well-meaning guy from Oak Hill trying to get the Council to approve a TOD out there on a Rapid Bus line. Time to dispel a few illusions:

  1. You don't get TOD without the perception of permanence. Rapid Bus ain't it. Even BRT ain't it. Only rail works. People don't buy into a development where getting to their cars is expensive or inconvenient UNLESS the transit alternative is clearly going to be there for the long-haul. Buses' infamous "flexibility" works against them here.
  2. You don't get TOD with commuter rail. You need frequent headways (which this line won't have) and one-stop rides to some major destinations (which this line won't have). So even on our commuter rail line, TOD ain't gonna happen.

What CAN you put on the ground to stimulate TOD? Something like our 2000 light rail plan (which would have been a one-stop ride from northwest Austin through the center-city to UT, the Capitol, and downtown) works, in city after city after city after city after city. Subways and monorails would work too - there's no chance those rails are going away next year. Buses don't. Not even fancy buses with nice signs at their stops which tell you how much delayed your next bus is since it's stuck in traffic behind everybody else's car.

September 13, 2005

SCB: Speed Is Not The Problem

A lot of folks (especially Stuart Werbner and Preston Tyree, who normally do a lot of good work for the cycling community) fell hard for the position that "the problem on Shoal Creek Boulevard isn't the bike lanes, it's the traffic speed". Since this position continues to rear its ugly head in discussions before and after yesterday's meeting, I thought I'd address it here.

The key is that all other things being equal, higher car speeds do indeed result in less safety for nearby cyclists and pedestrians. This is unquestionably true.

The problem is that all things aren't equal. This picture shows a cyclist trying to pass a parked vehicle at the same time he is being passed by a moving vehicle. It doesn't matter if the passing vehicle is going 45 or 25; if the cyclist veers out unexpectedly into the through lane and is hit, they're in bad, bad, BAD shape. (Note: you have to imagine that the stripe between the 4-foot 'bike lane' and 6-foot 'parking lane' isn't there to match the current conditions on SCB).

Likewise, this infamous accident happened despite the fact that the conflicting vehicle's speed was 0 MPH and the vehicle which ended up killing her wasn't going very fast either.

On the other hand, hundreds of cyclists use Loop 360 every day with no conflicts with motorists. Automobile speed in the through lanes of that roadway is typically around 60 MPH.

What can we conclude? Traffic engineering seeks to avoid presenting users with unexpected conflicts; and having a cyclist veer out into the travel lane when the motorist in that lane thinks they're not going to have to is the very definition of unexpected. A safe pass by a car going 40 is far preferrable to a collision with a car going 30.

How does this apply to Shoal Creek Boulevard? It's clear to me at least that the original city plan probably wouldn't have reduced automobile speeds much, but definitely would have resulted in fewer conflicts with cyclists who need to leave the bike lane to get around obstructions. As on Loop 360, if you rarely need to leave the bicycle facility, you don't need to worry as much about the speed of the cars in the lane next to you.

Another thing Preston in particular got wrong was the theory that riding on Shoal Creek is 'easy' once you 'learn' how to pass. Even for an experienced cyclist like myself, the conflict with motorists during a pass is irritating (the motorists don't understand why I go into the travel lane and are sometimes aggressive in expressing their displeasure). For a novice cyclist, it's likely to be so intimidating that they will (unwisely) stay in the far-too-narrow space between the white stripe and the parked car, and someday soon somebody's going to get killed that way.

Finally, of critical importance to the City of Austin is the following paragraph, excerpted from a detailed analysis of the Laird case in Boston:

The City might be held negligent for creating what is called in legal language an "attractive nuisance" -- that is, a baited trap. Ample evidence exists that the City of Cambridge had been notified of the hazards of bike lanes in the "door zone" before the Massachusetts Avenue lane was striped, yet the City continued to stripe them.

This is basically why Shoal Creek Boulevard doesn't have bike lanes today, it has a "multipurpose shoulder". Unknown whether this will do enough to shield Austin from liability in the event of an accident, but cyclists ought to think about this when you decide to ride on this facility.

September 12, 2005

Shoal Creek Meeting Is Done

Largely as expected - council members want to remove the islands, and then were going to talk some more about what to do. Some indications that they're either not willing to admit or not capable of understanding that a compromise solution is impossible for this roadway. Neighborhood people largely against the curb extensions but still adamant that parking on both sides must be preserved -- which means that we're back to bike lanes with parking in them, which pretty much the entire rest of the world views as an oxymoron.

Here's the letter I just sent to the three council members on the subcommittee:

Councilmembers:

I watched most of the meeting today while working at my desk, and had a couple of comments:

1. 2-way on-street bike lanes are not accepted in traffic engineering circles and have not for quite some time. They will not be an option for Shoal Creek Boulevard unless you want to override your staff.
2. Bike lanes down the median - same story.
3. A reminder: We already know there is no way to reconcile "parking on both sides" with "car-free bike lanes" on this street. There is insufficient width. Either one or more bike lanes must be abandoned, or one or more sides of parking must be abandoned.

Comments that you made in regards to #3 were especially disappointing - the failure of the previous council was in attempting to avoid this painful choice, which MUST be made. EITHER car-free bike lanes OR parking on both sides - you cannot have both. I would argue that the correct choice is to preserve on-street parking on ONE side of Shoal Creek Boulevard - this is not an unreasonable imposition on residents (my own neighborhood has highly restricted on-street parking; many streets allow it on one side and a few not at all).

Regards,

Mike Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.


Dear Mayor and councilmembers:

My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work -- i.e., I'm not a pure cyclist, and I'm not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.

I understand you're going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.

For those of you who don't bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin - alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.

Years back, Shoal Creek's turn came up in the "let's do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes" process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.

Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a 'residential street' and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.

At this point, as I'm sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman's approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the 'bike lane' and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it's not marked as a 'bike lane' is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.

The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy "10-4-6" plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the "bike lane" designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).

This isn't about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there's zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you're passing it.

But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury - a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.

This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with -- and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.

I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters - please don't take this precedent anywhere else.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus



September 04, 2005

The Gas Tax Isn't Regressive, Part Three

(at least, not regressive across the spectrum) - as I've argued here and here, the gas tax doesn't hit the poor that hard; it mostly hits the exurban parts of the middle class and leaves the rich alone. From my original article on the subject:

The supposed regressive nature of the gas tax is a fallacy - in fact, poor people spend far less proportionally on gasoline than do the upper-middle-class.

The gas tax isn't purely progressive; though; the very rich actually spend less proportionally than do the upper-middle-class, due to their tendency to be either in the few healthy downtowns, or less need to drive overall.

Here's another link I found today which asserts the same:

"A subsidy to new vehicles would be regressive. A tax on gasoline is not regressive across the lowest incomes but is regressive from middle to high incomes."

Note that the internet is replete with sites which say that the gas tax is regressive, but the only articles or studies which actually include any supporting arguments are the few that claim that it isn't regressive. This leads me to believe that the gas tax ISN'T regressive, for the reasons previously discussed, and that the 'conventional wisdom' is wrong here.

This is timely because of a current thread on Environmental Economics on this very subject. Amazingly, I've now provided THREE links which are credible and contain supporting evidence for the claim that the gas tax isn't regressive across-the-board; for the most part blind assertion is still the only support for the 'regressive' position. Moral: Conventional Wisdom is hard to fight, even when it's wrong.

August 31, 2005

CAFE versus gas taxes - which works?

Kevin Drum likes CAFE. He believes that gas taxes are highly regressive. He's wrong. But which one 'works' better? His argument rests on the last 5 years of generally rising fuel prices versus vehicle sales.

The problem is that the rise in fuel prices recently has been seen by most Americans as the result of gouging, or the result of storms, or hippie environmentalists or <insert other crazy reason>. Key here is that all of those things are temporary. Now, if you're one of the few people who follows the real oil situation you know that we're probably in for a period of ever-higher spikes and plateaus (with intervening drops due to recessions, perhaps), but most people don't know this stuff.

If you think the last couple of years are an anomaly, it doesn't make sense to invest in a fuel-efficient car. Therefore, using that period as an example of how higher fuel prices don't affect vehicle choice as much as CAFE did is foolish. Better to look at Europe, where CAFE-like standards don't really exist; but at the time of vehicle purchase, it is understood that gas taxes are very high and likely to stay that way.

Anyways, CAFE doesn't work half as well as a high baseline for gas prices does. The real reason? Once you buy your car, if gas prices/taxes are low, there's no real incentive to leave it in the driveway on any given day. With higher gas prices/taxes, however, there is an incentive to leave it at home and take the bus, or carpool, or whatever.

Addressed as a quickie since so many people around the interweb keep repeating this canard.

August 27, 2005

Blandburbs and 'choice'

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here's a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn't natural; isn't the result of consumer 'choice'; and isn't healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I'd add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.

The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural 'choice' ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).

I promise I'll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.

August 17, 2005

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Shuttle Buses

Here's what those of us who live or work in Central Austin are getting out of commuter rail. Stations in far east Austin and the Convention Center, with a handy transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus to get you to where you might actually want to go. Image below is from one of two new documents up at the Future Connections Study site:

Capital Metro is starting rail service here in Austin in a couple of years NOT by doing what success stories like Portland and Dallas did (light rail straight through and to the densest parts of town) but what South Florida did (commuter rail where tracks already exist, requiring transfers to shuttle buses to actually get anywhere). Fifteen years later, Tri-Rail in South Florida is an unmitigated disaster: no choice commuters despite heavy promotion by an enthusiastic community, no transit-oriented development despite heavy subsidization (below-market attempts at land sales around stations and the like). Unlike in Dallas and Portland (and Minneapolis and Houston and Denver and Salt Lake...), drivers in South Florida aren't trying Tri-Rail because they know that transferring to shuttle buses every day for your commute overwhelms any speed advantage the train might have bought you up to that point.

In short, commuter rail as your starter line just plain doesn't work. And the picture ought to make it clear why - even the nominally downtown station is too far from the 6th/Congress intersection for most people to walk, and all other major activity centers in our area will require people to say hey, I'll drive to the park-and-ride, board a train, get off the train, get on a bus, wait in traffic with all the other cars, get off the bus, and walk to my office. Even promotional images used in the pro-commuter-rail campaign show that they expect downtown workers to have to transfer to shuttle buses, as seen below.

Notice in the handouts that they're still pretending that all options are on the table. But believe me, there is zero chance that light rail will end up as the circulator, and near-zero chance that streetcars will make it, not that streetcars would work anyways. It's going to be shuttle-buses in mixed-traffic. Mark my words.

August 16, 2005

The Wrong Direction

I can't believe anybody, including the current batch of Republicans, honestly thinks this is a good idea, but my standard for surprise keeps getting reset.

August 04, 2005

Future Connections Has Started

Capital Metro's Future Connections Group is now, finally, up on the web. This group was tasked with figuring out how to get people from the commuter rail stops, which are far away from where people actually want to go, to the places they, those wacky commuters, actually want to go. Like, say, their office. Or the University. Or the Warehouse District.

This is basically going to be a waste of time, since those of us who operate in the reality-based community all know Capital Metro's going to end up delivering shuttle buses in mixed traffic. The streetcar guys like Jeff are holding out hope, but I don't see Capital Metro going that way, and even if they did, streetcars are only marginally better than mixed-traffic buses for those choice commuters. Streetcars might help make downtown redevelopment even more palatable, in other words, but they aren't going to fix the speed and reliability problems of the All Systems Go route for people who live outside downtown.

Terminology lesson: In most cases, "streetcars" means "vehicle on rails in a traffic lane which shares its lane with cars, or is otherwise 'sharing traffic' with other vehicles and stops at a lot of red lights". "light rail" in this case bumps you up to "has its own lane; always gets a green light". So a streetcar is basically a Dillo on an embedded rail - it still is stuck in traffic just like your car or other buses are.

History lesson: The 2000 light rail plan, or any one of ten easily passable scaled-back versions thereof, would have delivered passengers (in ONE train trip) from their dense center-city residential neighborhoods or from their suburban park-and-rides, directly TO the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and downtown, without requiring a transfer to anything else, bus or streetcar in a reasonably fast and very reliable amount of time. Capital Metro didn't even try to bring something like this back before the voters, and most of the pro-transit people here in Austin didn't have the guts to tell them otherwise.

August 03, 2005

First Trip To Middle School

This post marks the beginning of a new category called "Empty Buses".

My family walked to the bus stop at 34th and Guadalupe to take my stepson to his middle-school orientation (he'll be taking the bus there every day when school starts, so today was a good practice opportunity). We picked up the #22 bus at 8:00 AM (on time), and rode it to Exposition and Lake Austin in about 15 minutes, perhaps 2 more minutes than the drive would have taken. With the 3 of us (plus baby who didn't pay a fare), there were 7 people on that bus. Several got off in Tarrytown; I think there was only one left on the bus when we disembarked at the middle school.

On the way back, we took the #21 bus, also on time. With the 2 of us (plus baby), there were 15 people on the bus at that stop. A few got off on the way to our stop, but a few got on; so the count stayed around 15 the whole way. Many of the people on the bus were evidently headed towards UT (where the bus goes after our stop).

(Answering Kim, my stepson takes this city bus because he's going to be going to a middle school in whose attendance area we don't reside - this is part of the track from his elementary school, which he stayed in after we moved a couple of years ago).

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 22, 2005

It's Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan "light rail" or "light rail like" or "light 'commuter' rail", etc. This has done its job - most laypeople continue to call what ASG's building "light rail" even though it couldn't be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar "Rapid Bus" plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell "rapid bus" schemes as "as good as rail" to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

--- In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote: >Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.

What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn't and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn't and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn't and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.

What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we'll never get to the expansions.

This is a "one and done" line.

It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).

It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don't know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you're not stupid, and had hoped you weren't a liar.

_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.

This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.

What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.

There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been 'proven' that rail 'doesn't work'.

As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn't being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.

Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon's Dishonesty

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 11, 2005

Bicycling Is Very Safe

While doing a bit of preemptive research for the comments for the last entry, I stumbled across this article which does, by far, the best job of laying out comparative risk for cycling and other activities (like driving) that I've ever seen. Highly recommended.

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 21, 2005

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, June 2005 Update

Today's Statesman article continues their tradition of blindly accepting whatever Capital Metro says about the transit plan (which was, not coincidentally, innocuous enough not to piss off the real estate interests who largely shape the Statesman's editorial content).

For background on what Rapid Bus really is, and why it's a rip-off for central Austin taxpayers (who get nearly nothing out of the commuter rail plan but pay most of the bills) check the links at the bottom.

Short summary: The people in the densest neighborhoods (including the about-to-open Triangle) who actually WANT to use transit are getting nothing more than a lousy stuck-in-traffic slightly-fancier version of the #101, i.e., a BUS which is MUCH SLOWER THAN THEIR CARS. NO, holding a green light for a couple of seconds ISN'T GOING TO MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE. It'll be the cars IN FRONT OF THE BUS, sometimes stacked up through several intersections up ahead, that most affect its speed, not the traffic lights.

The people out in the suburbs who don't really want transit and don't pay most of the bills anyways are getting a commuter rail line which, as long as they don't mind changing to a SHUTTLE BUS at the end of the trip, will take them downtown. Oh, and if they're lucky enough to work directly at the Convention Center, it'll be competitive with their cars.

All this instead of a scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan, which would have served BOTH suburban AND urban residents with transit which was competitive with their cars AND dropped them off directly at UT, the Capitol, and downtown.

June 14, 2005

There is no lie brazen enough for the road warriors

A month or two ago I wrote a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser (we had just come back from there, and I was still reading the paper regularly online) rebutting the claims made by various right-wingers that Honolulu wasn't dense enough to support rail. (As it turns out, if you're measuring residential density, they're the densest city in the country - yes, more so than even New York City!). This is coming up because Honolulu is attempting yet again to start a rail system after a disastrous flirtation with Bus Rapid Transit which ended as almost all such flirtations do - with a scaled back system that doesn't perform any better than city buses, and thus didn't attract any new riders.

Today I was reminded of this again since their their drive-time columnist included this small blurb at the end of his column:

Still think of Honolulu has a small town? Think again.

Emporis.com reports that Honolulu is fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of high-rise buildings (10 stories or more).

The company, which specializes in geography information, says there are 424 high-rise buildings in the urban core from Pearl Harbor to Hawai'i Kai. That's enough to make us 14th in the world.

In America, only New York City (5,454), Chicago, (1,042) and Los Angeles (449) have more high-rises than Honolulu.

And yet, even in Hawaii, there are those (like Cliff Slater) who claim that rail won't work in Honolulu despite the fact that it works in far less-dense cities and the fact that the huge tourist movement from the airport to Waikiki could fill up three or four rail lines in the blink of an eye.

How dense is dense enough? Clearly the only dense things here are the road warriors themselves.

June 13, 2005

On rail success and how not to get there

Excerpted from a post I just made to the excellent Cyburbia Forums:

Actually, from what we heard from the Feds in 2000, Austin's development pattern was nearly ideal for a successful light rail line - the one which would have gone straight down Guadalupe past UT and the Capitol, I mean. Huge suburban catchment area served well by big park-and-rides followed by transition through inner-city residential neighborhoods with thousands of residents within walking distance followed by three mega-employment-centers (UT, capitol, downtown) all with parking issues which encourage transit as long as transit is reasonably competitive.

The reason commuter rail won't work is that it doesn't run through those inner-city neighborhoods (you know, the ones where people actually LIKE mass transit) _AND_ it requires a shuttle-bus transfer for UT and Capitol and most downtown employees. You can't come up with a better way to shoot yourself in the foot than to first lose your best customers (inner-city people) and then tell your remaining customer base of skeptical suburbanites that the last mile or two of their trip is going to be on a shuttle-bus stuck in traffic with everybody else's car.

June 07, 2005

Still Yes For Office Towers On Lamar

Another note I sent to the OWANA mailing list is below, recorded here for posterity and crackpottery.

I would take issue with the following characterizations made by charles:

charles price wrote:

>
> I am very much in favor of downtown densification, but very against
> allowing a zoning change here.

To most of Austin, including many people living in OWANA, downtown
begins at Lamar Blvd.

> Bear in mind that office is the highest dollar return on investment,
> the movie industry is in a slump, and there are two Alamo Drafthouse
> Cinemas within one mile.

You can't walk to one of those two Alamos from OWANA or from downtown
lofts, and the other one is likely not going to be at its current
location much longer.

> The Nokonah got the neighborhood's agreement to not oppose a variance
> when the developers promised retail and restaurants on the lower
> floors on Lamar. After it was built they rented it as office space to
> a realty. The Hartland bank Building got a height variance after we
> didn't oppose when they promised forty percent residential usage. The
> residential didn't happen. The AISD building got a density variance
> after they promised a significant residential component, which never
> happened. I don't think we should let the city relinquish control
> unless it is tied to a specific proposal. And we need to not pay much
> attention to the promises until they are made in writing with an way
> to enforce them.

Agreed 100%. Any agreement the developer promises should be backed up
with a deed restriction, CO, or other such arrangement.

> The site is zoned to allow commercial and office development already.
> They want the zoning change so they can build a significantly larger
> office component and a large parking garage.

The site is currently zoned to allow typical low-density retail strips
and small-scale office. Not an appropriate scale for Lamar Blvd.

> A large parking garage doesn't seem compatible with the types of
> arguments being presented here regarding creating an incentive for
> mass transit.

As a matter of fact, getting buildings built with parking garages is far
superior to keeping current buildings with surface parking. Yes,
ideally, they'll provide less parking than suburban alternatives. Some
do, many don't. But at least the streetscape is vastly improved, as is
the possibility that the parking won't be free.

> If we want to encourage mass transit, which I do, we want new office
> projects to be built downtown, not on the perimeter in an area
> surrounded by quality residential fabric.

The east side of Lamar _IS_ downtown.

> Leave the zoning as it is and they can build a reasonable amount
> of retail and offices including their movie house, but they can't
> build a ten-story office tower which would be very bad at this site.

A ten-story office tower ANYWHERE in downtown is EXACTLY what this city
needs, and quickly. Developing more offices in the suburbs, given the
oil situation we face, is criminally irresponsible.

>
> It is clear that offices increase traffic at peak traffic hours. More
> offices = more traffic. Downtown offices as an encouragement for mass
> transportation sounds good, but most office traffic will always be
> single occupancy vehicles.

1. When parking isn't free (as it isn't at many downtown garages),
there's an incentive to carpool or use transit which most of us don't
enjoy at our suburban jobs.

2. You can feasibly build HOV lanes (or managed lanes) which go
downtown, but you can't feasibly build them out to sprawl-land. (You can
BUILD them, but they'll never be used to capacity - this is why places
like Silicon Valley have poor performance from HOV while places like DC
do really well with them).

> Downtown densification is better if it includes residences, shops, and
> restaurants which encourage living downtown so that a significant
> component of the people do not need transportation because they're
> already there.

Agreed. How many of the people living downtown currently work in the
suburbs? Shouldn't we bring more office development to them? (I'd kill
to work downtown, but there simply aren't enough technology firms down
there to make it possible for more than a privileged few - luckily I
just took a job that allows me to work from home, so I can finally end
my trip out to the 128, I mean 101, I mean 183 corridor).

> We need people living downtown, not finding new ways to get to
> downtown from their suburban sprawl.


We need both, unless you're going to empty the suburbs entirely. People
commuting downtown from their suburban home is far better, overall, than
people commuting from one suburban location to another.

> I won't repeat at length the arguments concerning fairness or justice
> regarding changing a zoning that was in place when neighbors bought
> their properties understanding what could and could not be built
> across the street.

None of the people complaining live on Lamar Blvd, so characterizing
this as "across the street" is disingenuous.

> Obviously, no one wants an atrocity to be built next to their house or
> condo. Can you imagine buying a beautiful fifth floor condo in the
> Nokonah with floor to ceiling windows and then find the city is
> changing the neighboring zoning to allow a parking garage at the same
> height forty feet away!

Yes, I can. It's called "living downtown".

> We need to work together as a neighborhood to oppose this type of
> sprawling, profiteering commercialism,


This is the worst misrepresentation in your note - this project is the
antithesis of "sprawling" by any reasonable definition of the term. Good
or bad is an opinion, but it's NOT "sprawling".

> even when it doesn't directly negatively impact you as an individual.
> If we don't all fight against negative developments all around our
> neighborhood, we will become like the area across Lamar from us or
> like West Campus.


Ironically, had West Campus allowed tall buildings, they'd be a lot
better off today. The poor investment in old low-density multifamily
student properties is a direct unintended consequence of ridiculously
STRICT zoning codes imposed on an area which should have been allowed to
grow UP, and never was.

June 02, 2005

Not much room for optimism

Thought I'd copy this here for posterity - this is a comment I made to an excellent entry by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly blog, in reference to somebody who thought that since we adjusted to the 1970s oil shock (he's right on that one) that we could just as easily adjust to the oncoming (soon or later, depending on your alarmism) peak oil shock.

Adding this comment to my blog has made me recall that I still owe an analysis of "fire stations per capita" back to the Texas Fight guy. I'm sorry, I've been busy at work and at home, and will try to get this done soon.

My comment:

John,

The answer to why this shock will be much worse than the one in the 1970s is two words:

suburban sprawl

One thing Kunstler gets right is his analysis of the complete lack of options in a modern suburban development (really exurb) to the single-occupant vehicle and truck delivery to strip malls. There's no way to carpool. There's no way to use transit. There's no way to ride your bike or walk. There's no way for the store to switch to freight rail deliveries (not even the way it used to be, which was truck for only the last very small N% of the trip, if even that).

The ONLY things modern suburbanites can do are:

1. Trade in their SUV for a compact car - works well if you're one of the early adopters, but what if everybody else is trying to trade down at the same time?

2. Move back to the cities - see above.

We would have had to change our development laws twenty years ago in order to have a prayer of solving this problem, but instead we've been operating on a regime that not only requires urbanites to subsidize wasteful suburbanites, it actually PROHIBITS BY LAW (through zoning codes) the development of additional urban neighborhoods.

For reference, my last two homes have been in two center-city neighborhoods where 80-90% of the dwellings would be impossible to build today due to suburban-influenced zoning code which applies even in these older neighborhoods. Of course, to even get to that point, you'd have to overcome their fanatical opposition to infill, but every bit counts.

May 19, 2005

Shoal Creek Update - May 17, 2005

I biked home from work on Tuesday (Too bad it's Bike To Work Week, Not Bike From Work Week!) and went down Shoal Creek from Anderson to 41st. Report at the end.

The Chronicle has covered the recent brou-ha-ha, and kudos on the title. I have submitted a crackpot letter (check in a couple of days) which attempts to correct the misinterpretation of Lane's excellent soundbite (the obstructions he refers to are the parked cars, not the curb extensions).

The ride home was pretty good, actually. About five passing manuevers were necessary, and on two of them I had a motorist stuck behind me; and neither one showed evidence that they were perturbed. Definitely above par for the new striping. I wish I could believe that the motorists are getting the message about the necessity to take the lane to get around parked cars, but the comments from the neighbors at that meeting lead me to believe that I was just lucky to get a couple of reasonable motorists this time.

May 13, 2005

The Shoal Creek Debacle Keeps Rolling On

There was a public meeting on Wednesday night about the Shoal Creek Debacle in which many previously uninformed local residents complained about curb extensions and cyclists riding too close to the line (forced to do so, by the way, by the fact that there are CARS PARKED IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A BIKE LANE).

I just posted the following to the allandale yahoo group, and thought it might have some general interest:

--- In allandale@yahoogroups.com, Barbara Frock wrote: >I, like Rhonda, wonder about those who > don't live here who have come out swinging. Is it the cyclists who really > wanted a "veloway" through our neighborhood from 38th to Foster?

That's one way to put it.

Another way to put it is that Shoal Creek Boulevard is the most important route for bicycle commuting in the city. It forms the spine of the main route from points northwest (disproportionately recent residential growth) to the center-city and vice-versa; and serves as the bicyclist equivalent to at least Burnet Road, if not Mopac.

Yes, a bunch of people also ride this road for fun. And I'm as frustrated as you are (probably more) when the brightly-plumaged folks out for a training ride treat stop signs as matador capes.

But every day during rush hour you'll also see dozens of cyclists clearly heading to or from work. This isn't because they want to turn your neighborhood into a "veloway"; it's because SCB is the recommended route for people who, in their cars, would be using Burnet or Mopac. And this is the way it's SUPPOSED to work - you're not supposed to turn your major arterials into cycling routes, you're supposed to find a lower-traffic parallel road which can feasibly serve the same purpose.

Without SCB functioning as a major "cyclist artery", you'd be complaining about these same cyclists slowing you down on Burnet Road.

The city's legitimate interest in promoting bicycling as transportation requires that some routes like SCB be "major bicycling routes", which implies that the interests of cyclists should AT A BARE MINIUM be considered above both-sides on-street parking. The city council failed miserably in this case in understanding that those two interests could not be served by a compromise solution; and the neighborhood has failed miserably in understanding that the parking-on-one-side solution already represented a signficant compromise for the bicycling interests, since it still required riding slightly in the "door zone" on the parking-allowed side of the street.

And, by the way, "through our neighborhood" smacks of an 'ownership' of SCB which isn't supported by the facts. Even when misclassified as a residential collector, it's still "owned" by the city, and the street MUST serve the interests of people who don't live on that street (or even in that neighborhood). Even if SCB was misclassified all the way down to "residential street", no automatic right to park in front of your house is conveyed - I have to pay for a permit to park on my street; and some residential streets in my area have large sections where parking is only allowed on one side.

- MD

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).

April 13, 2005

Shoal Creek Updates

I will hopefully move some of this content to my old moldy Shoal Creek Debacle Page when I get time.

Brief introduction: Prior to around 2000, Shoal Creek Boulevard was a minor arterial roadway with extensive bicycle traffic in fairly wide bike lanes which allowed parking (which presented a problem, since modern engineering practice does not allow parking in bike lanes). Shoal Creek's turn came in the "put up no-parking signs in bike lanes" carousel, and the city came up with a plan to preserve on-street parking on one side of the street. The neighbors freaked; a consultant came up with a ridiculous cyclist-killer proposal; the city rejected it; and then a small group of neighborhood people came up with the idea to just stripe a wide "shared lane" for parked cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. With curb extensions to theoretically slow traffic, although since the extensions don't go out to the travel lane (so cyclists can pass), their effect is likely to be minimal.

Here's some stuff that's been happening recently:

1. The neighborhoods' email groups (allandale and rosedale) have been full of complaints about the curb extensions, as well as observations about bad driver behavior, including running over and up onto curb extensions. Additionally, neighbors have complained that the bike lane stripe (separating the bike lane from the parking lane) never got put in, which shows that some people didn't realize that the awful Gandy plan was shelved when no engineers would sign on to it. Finally, motorists have (as I predicted) been using the shoulder as a driving or passing lane.

Gandy's plan, endorsed by the neighborhood:

The current striping is basically the image above, with no stripe separating the bike lane and parking lane.

2. Neighbors still think there's a "bike lane" here. There isn't. There's a shoulder, with insufficient space in which to safely pass parked cars. (the absence of the stripe separating the 10 feet into 4 and 6 a la the Gandy plan doesn't change the geometry here - bicyclists must still enter the travel lane in order to safely pass a parked vehicle).

Images copied from Michael Bluejay:




3. Motorists are still expecting cyclists to stay in the bike lane. I rode home down Shoal Creek on Monday, and had some indications of impatient motorists behind me as I passed parked cars (no honking this time at least). Remember that even when there's a bit more room than in the pictures above, you still have to worry about the dooring problem. Even the city compromise with parking on one side had this problem (although to a far lesser degree).

4. Parked car and passing car conflicts continue to be high. Many people who supported this debacle from the beginning are still cowering behind the idea that since parked cars are "scarce" (average of ten on each side for the entire stretch from Foster to 38th), that we don't need to worry about the passing conflicts. The problem, however, is that due to the higher speeds of automobiles, there is a very high chance of conflict on each one of those passes, meaning that it is very likely that a motorist will slow down and wait behind a passing cyclist on each pass. In fact, on Monday, my experience was that 4 out of the 5 times I performed this passing manuever, there were motorists stuck behind me by the time I went back into the shoulder area; and the fifth time I found myself stuck while a car passed me (I didn't get out into the lane early enough).

5. People continue to misrepresent this process as a compromise (implying that cyclists got something, parking motorists got something, drivers got something, neighborhood got something, etc). In fact, any rational observer can compare conditions before this change to conditions now and make the following judgement: Parking won. Period. Cyclists got less than they had before, and far less than they should have had. The neighborhood got curb extensions (even though they won't work). Cyclists got the middle finger.

6. The City Council member most responsible for this debacle, Jackie Goodman, is being term-limited out of office. Unfortunately, I hold little hope that a stronger (i.e. decision-maker rather than consensus-hoper) member will emerge from the pack seeking election.

7. Neighborhood troublemakers are still misrepresenting the history of this debacle; failing to mention that the original proposal from the city for this roadway preserved on-street parking on one side of the road, which is more than almost any minor arterial roadway (SCB's original classification) has, and about average for collectors (SCB's new neighborhood-forced underclassification). This city proposal represented a substantial compromise of bicycle interests, but because it didn't preserve ALL on-street parking, several malcontent nincompoops in the neighborhood fought it bitterly.

8. The same neighborhood troublemakers continue to misrepresent Shoal Creek's role in the city's transportation system. SCB was originally (correctly) classified as a minor arterial, which means that its main purpose is not for property access, but for a combination of traffic collection/distribution and small amounts of through traffic. For cyclists, SCB is a critical transportation link, since it's so long, and has right-of-way at all intersections (meaning it never has a 2-way stop where through traffic doesn't stop; everything's either a 4-way stop or traffic light). SCB was reclassified thanks to neighborhood pressure to a "residential collector" around 2001ish, against my objections (I-TOLD-YOU-SO-MARKER: I told the other members of the UTC at the time that this change would make it easier for them to then prevent no-parking-in-bike-lanes). Also note that this makes SCB, by far, the longest collector roadway in the city. The neighborhood, ever since then, has claimed that SCB is a "residential street", which means something very different from "residential collector". A "residential street" is supposed to serve property access first, parking second, and distribution a distant third, with essentially no provision for through traffic. A "residential collector", on the other hand, is supposed to serve distribution first, property access second, through traffic third, and parking last.

The original city plan, preserving on-street parking on one side:

9. (Humor value only): One of the malcontent neighborhood nincompoops has surfaced again on my old fan group (from my undergraduate days; no, I didn't make it).

April 11, 2005

Sometimes I get it right

Right after reading the stories about more buyers being upside-down on car loans (and pointing out to my wife that we have a 72-month loan on the new family car), this story comes out, and all of the sudden I look like Einstien again.

Was planning a Shoal Creek entry for today (after riding to work on Friday), but discovered Friday morning that my road (commuter) bike was missing, presumed stolen. Spent Sunday outfitting my old mountain bike; rode it to the bus stop this morning, hopefully riding home this afternoon. Spent all day Saturday reconfiguring the garage so I won't be tempted to leave a bike out overnight (unlocked) again. I may shift gears and write a rebuttal to my John Birch Society commenter today over lunch instead.

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 23, 2005

I'm back

Was in Hawaii for 10 days; back now. I have a backlog of things to write, but for the time being, here's a link to Michael Bluejay's Shoal Creek page which has now been updated with new pictures.

March 09, 2005

Shoal Creek Report #2

Well, I ended up driving down Shoal Creek last night on the way home from work (from 2222 to 41st St.) due to a traffic jam, ironically right after reading a thread on the Allandale neighborhood group in which residents are grumbling about the project now that they're seeing it 'in action'.

This trip confirmed some things that I saw before, and conflicted with some things that residents of the street have previously said.

  1. I saw more cars parked this time
  2. I saw one vehicle turn into the 'shared lane' and drive down it for at least a block before turning right off Shoal Creek
  3. The apparent space between the white line and the parked car looks much smaller when I'm driving than it does when I'm biking, and it didn't look big on my bike. Hopefully this will result in drivers being more patient when cyclists take the lane.
  4. I only passed one cyclist (going the opposite direction) during my drive. It's not surprising that most motorists thus think conflicts with cyclists and parked cars are rare -- for each motorist trip, there's a very low chance of conflict; but for each cyclist trip, there's a very high chance of conflict. (There's ten or twenty drivers for each cyclist at a bare minimum - even though this road has a lot of cyclists, there's still far more motorists).
  5. Most motorists I observed drifted over the white lines on turns. I don't know how to solve this.

March 07, 2005

TOD isn't going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.

Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there's a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month - unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don't want any more density (and there's not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don't have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways -- because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn't belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.

So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects - TOD would have just been an added bonus there).

Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the 'business case' for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won't be much TOD at all when the thing's finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don't merit it, and don't give money to projects that do).

These things are connected

It's not a coincidence that now that small cars are rated on how they stand up to crashes with SUVs, that gas is headed up for good, but nobody in the suburbs will understand why this is so, and why it's really going to hurt this country's economic competitiveness.

Meanwhile, Western Europe waits patiently for their turn...

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

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:

March 01, 2005

New Shoal Creek Report #1

I'm going to try to bike home on Shoal Creek (at least from Anderson to 41st) once a month or so to track the results of the debacle. I plan on executing a polite but firm passing manuever out of the "shared lane" whenever passing a parked car, since there is insufficient space to safely pass a parked car in the space provided (even if you know ahead of time that the vehicle is empty). This passing manuever is likely to generate conflict with through motorists ("conflict" in this sense not meaning emotional or physical but simply that the through motorist behind me will have to slow down and wait for me to pass - although on many occasions on the pre-striped street, the motorist did in fact get angry enough to honk or swerve).

I made my first trip (post-stripe) yesterday (Monday).

The striping is done, but the islands are just getting started - post holes have been cut, and some markings made, but that's it.

First impressions:

  • When no cars are parked, this lane is really wide. Wider than the usable shoulder on Loop 360.
  • Cars are going to try to use this as a lane, at least the way it's striped now. When you're turning onto Shoal Creek, it's not altogether clear where you should go.
  • Few parking conflicts so far; most of the vehicles that were parked Monday night were parked on the northbound side. I passed four or five parked vehicles on my stretch, and only once did my passing manuever cause a conflict with a through motorist (and this one was polite).
  • When a small car is parked near the curb, there is enough room to pass in the lane, if I could be 100% positive that the car was unoccupied. However, with larger vehicles (SUVs/trucks) this is not true. Also, one of the two cars was parked far enough away from the curb (you get up to 18 inches legally) that it might as well have been a fire engine.

Verdict so far: Not enough data. Far more vehicles were parked northbound; I don't know why southbound was so comparatively empty yesterday. (Perhaps this side was striped last?).

February 24, 2005

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 14, 2005

What We Could Have Had

From Minneapolis, an update on their light-rail line that opened in 2004 and runs along and in city streets when necessary (goes directly into downtown rather than relying on shuttle buses to reach its primary destinations).

This line is similar in many ways to what a scaled-back version of the 2000 light rail plan could have brought to Austin. That's not what we voted on in 2004 (many people are still confused on this topic - what we voted on was an el-cheapo commuter line which uses shuttle buses to get you to your office or UT, and precludes the development of true urban rail later on).

Note that running the line in the street and straight into downtown appears to be a horrible failure (NOTE: THIS IS SARCASM).

On with the story:

STRONG JANUARY RAIL RIDERSHIP;
MORE THAN A THIRD OF TRAIN RIDERS ARE NEW TO TRANSIT

Rail ridership for January - the first full month with Hiawatha Line
service from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America -
was strong with customers boarding trains 441,846 times.

Nearly 40 percent of those riding the Hiawatha Line are first-time
transit users, according to a customer survey released this month. It is
the first onboard research Metro Transit has conducted specific to rail
service.

Of those new to transit, two-thirds said they would have otherwise
driven alone for their commute, illustrating the line's initial impact
on reducing traffic congestion.

More than half (55 percent) of customers said they take the train for
their weekday commutes. Three in every five customers are riding during
rush hours. A third of customers ride on weekends as well as weekdays.
More than half of those surveyed (57 percent) ride the train five or
more times per week.

The main reasons for riding were cited as convenience (23 percent) and
enjoyment of the train (23 percent). Those who ride because they don't
own a car, want to avoid driving or have environmental reasons accounted
for less than 4 percent of respondents. Those who chose the train over
bus service did so overwhelmingly (43 percent) due to convenient rail
schedules.

More customers (31 percent) reach a train station by bus than any other
way, while 26 percent walk and 24 percent use park-and-ride lots along
the line.

Thirty-seven percent pay their fares with cash, more than any other
payment method. Of those who used passes, 41 percent purchased them
through their employer, 39 percent of them using their company's
payroll deduction program.

Demographic information provided by customers shows that the average
Hiawatha Line customer is 25-54 years old (69 percent), Caucasian (84
percent), female (52 percent), speaks English as a primary language (96
percent) and has a household income of more than $70,000 (34 percent).

The research was conducted Nov. 14 through Dec. 2 by Periscope. Later
this year, a more compre