This is the category archive for "PS: I am not a crackpot".
Main

May 12, 2011

twitlonger.crackplog

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

Zero.

So in direct response to this question from @jacedeloney:

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

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

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

May 05, 2011

My endorsements

In case anybody cares.

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

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

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

April 08, 2011

Dear Lee Leffingwell And Rob Spillar

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

This (somebody 'messing up the track'):

is a minor concern. It happens rarely.

This:

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

Any questions?

April 04, 2011

My First Comment On The Urban Rail Scoping Study

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

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

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

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

October 29, 2010

Why oppose the Red Line now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 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.

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).

April 13, 2010

Kill The Boulevard-less Bike Boulevard

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

Commissioners,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

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.

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.

February 03, 2010

Rapid Bus ain't BRT

A collection of comments made elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Rapid Bus ain't BRT" »

January 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" »

November 18, 2009

Two quick hits

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

Also,

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

Continue reading "Two quick hits" »

November 16, 2009

Why The Horse Isn't Dead

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

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

And my response:

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

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

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

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

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

November 13, 2009

PS: Still a bike crackpot

Recording this email for posterity, since I firmly believe this kind of discussion should be in the public eye - so it's possible for others to see whether the input was acted on or just ignored (as is commonly the case).

Nadia,

This is expanded feedback from the forum - as you may know I was on the UTC for 5 years and used to be a serious bicycle commuter and still maintain a healthy interest, and I live about 500 feet from the intersection in question.

First issue is the fact that the bike lanes 'downstream' of the intersection were recently restriped all the way back to the intersection. This removes much of the supposed reason for bike boxes (in the old design where the bike lanes didn't start for 100 feet or so past the intersection, the bike boxes would have allowed cyclists to be at the front of through traffic so they could get 'up and over' rather than having to wait behind motorists - now there is literally no reason to even get in the bike box.

The second problem is one of signage and paint - without a "Stop HERE on Red" sign, motorists don't typically stop that far back from the intersection - even when white lines exist on the pavement. Coloring the bike box would help but would, I think, not be sufficient.

Please forward my email to the CTR people and invite them to contact me if they would like. I'd be very happy to share continued observations as I go through this intersection an average of 2 times per day, usually in the rush hours.

Regards, Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

October 30, 2009

Cap Metro is lying to you - again.

Doug Allen's pants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

July 13, 2009

Yes, right-wing know-nothings, bicyclists do pay for the roads

Just sent to the morning show guys at 590-KLBJ, who were discussing the 3-foot passing rule and then let a caller drag the show down into the typical "cyclists don't pay for roads" nonsense. They didn't start there, but also didn't contradict her...

Gentlemen,

Although you probably don't remember, y'all have had me on your show a couple of times for a short talk about transportation. This morning on the way into work, I heard you and your listeners talking about the 3-foot-passing law that Gov. Perry vetoed; and the last caller I listened to made some very inaccurate points which you didn't challenge at all which need to be corrected, regarding paying for roadways.

The fact is that in the state of Texas, the state gas tax is constitutionally dedicated to the state highway system (and schools) - meaning it cannot be spent on any roadway without a route shield (number) on it. For instance, I-35, US 183, RM 2222 - state highways; can get gas tax funding and usually do (with some local contributions thrown into the mix). While the federal gas tax has no such restriction, in practice in our area, the metropolitan planning group that disperses such money spends almost all of it on the state highway system as well.

What does that leave out? Well, essentially 99% of the streets cyclists ride on when they're actually trying to get somewhere. Not just little roads - major roads like Enfield/15th; Cesar Chavez; all the numbered streets downtown; Windsor; Lamar north of the river; Burnet south of 183; etc. - these roads don't get one cent of funding from the gas tax.

What about vehicle registration? Goes exclusively to the state and county governments - and the county doesn't spend any of their money on roads inside city limits.

So cyclists do, in fact, pay for the roads they ride on - in fact, they likely overpay by orders of magnitude considering that their 'bill' for using one of those city-funded streets is the same as if they drove that day, yet they cause a lot more damage and take up a lot more space when they drive (you can fit a lot more cyclists on a street like Speedway than you can cars, in other words).

Please don't let your callers get away with this kind of hurtful know-nothing reactionary attack. While "cyclists don't pay for roads" is a patently false statement, there's plenty of valid disagreement on the 3-foot-passing rule that could have been explored instead, and the listeners deserve that higher-quality discourse.

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

Looking at this in retrospect, I forgot to even mention that the city pays for its roads with general funds - mostly sales taxes, property taxes, and utility transfers. D'oh. Will email them accordingly. (Still sick with plague and no sleep).

July 09, 2009

Updates

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

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

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

June 10, 2009

Rapid Bus update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 30, 2009

TWITC: Save Town Lake and Save Affordable Housing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 02, 2009

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

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

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

FAIL.

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

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

February 27, 2009

Listen for M1EK

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

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

February 16, 2009

Time for the adults to slam on the brakes

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

triple-track the Red Line.

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

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

Dear councilmembers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 20, 2009

Wherein M1EK defends teenagers

Even though I'm 96 years old, I found myself defending teenagers twice recently - as per the following comment on this post on Steve Crossland's local real estate blog (which I'm also adding a long-overdue link to today). Steve was arguing that the quality of contractors he uses as a property manager is declining dramatically (as a landlord of one unit myself, I can definitely agree with his point), but then placed the blame mostly on today's kids not wanting to work hard. My response:

I had this same conversation with my dad over Xmas, or at least one very much like it, and I ended up defending teenagers.

Why is it that when we talk about ourSELVES, and our work choices, we think we're being rational economic actors when we decide to pursue work that offers us the greatest compensation for our effort (whether that be strictly financial or some other compensation), but we expect teenagers to work crappy jobs for low pay just because we had to do it?

Frankly, the importation of so much illegal labor has made it a suckers' game for teenagers to do a lot of that hard work. My dad was complaining more about fast-food workers all being illegals because the kids didn't 'want' to do that work (I had to point out to him that when I was in high school, the local McDonald's briefly raised wages to $5.00/hour in the $3.35 minimum days and then had no problem whatsoever getting local kids to work there).

If economics is a good reason for you and I to pick certain jobs, it's a good reason for them, too. So if you want better tradesmen, you're going to have to get the contractors to give up on the illegals first, and then invest a bit more in wages to attract locals (no, there's no such thing as a "job Americans won't do", but there damn well are jobs they won't do for a specified wage - as is true with any occupation).

And like with my field, if you allow outside-of-the-market competition to take all the entry-level jobs (or, if you prefer, discourage Americans from pursuing those jobs), you're going to see an eventual erosion of the more advanced jobs, too, because you don't become an experienced senior guy at trade X without spending a number of years working as the junior guy. You touched on this briefly with regards to your favorite handyman, but misidentified the cause.

Insisting that teenagers give up more attractive or more lucrative options just to suffer so we can feel better, uh, ain't gonna happen.

January 08, 2009

Push the rail back on track

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

Councilmembers and Mayor,

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

Page 14:

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

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

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

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

December 02, 2008

Hop on the Shuttle

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

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

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

[...]

and my response:

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

October 02, 2008

Your dose of humor for the day

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

September 26, 2008

That didn't take long

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

Here's what I commented to that post:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 24, 2008

No, Capital Metro, it's NOT light rail

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a second comment, I add:

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

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

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

And, my email to our city council:

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus

August 28, 2008

Lamar Smith Hearts Hugo

A note I just sent to the morning show guys at KLBJ after I got to work late from the car dealer:

Ed and Mark,

I heard your conversation with Lamar Smith while coming late to work today from the car dealer. While his figure of 20% for ANWR's possible increase to US oil production is higher than anything I've ever seen anybody say, that's not the most relevant thing: the more important point is that oil is priced on the world market (it's 'fungible'), so it doesn't matter whether the US produces 1% or 99% as much oil as we consume; what matters is the world supply and demand (unless we were to nationalize our oil industry and force 'our' oil to be sold to us at a discount).

I wrote a short post on this a few weeks ago; finding it ironic that the party that has stood for supposed economic literacy and against nationalization is proposing a plan that can only work if you ignore one or both. Here's the link: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000515.html

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

August 06, 2008

In print again

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

July 25, 2008

Yes, that was me you heard this morning

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

Points I hit:

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

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

July 24, 2008

The lane is as important as the route

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 08, 2008

BFATFIAC: M1EK at the austinist

My austinist post is up - this is why you haven't seen anything from me in a while. In retrospect, as pointed out by truecraig, probably too much of a rehash; but we'll see. Almost all about rail transit in Austin; with a little bit of bus thrown in for good measure.

This is a one-time affair; part of an idea truecraig had to allow frequent commenters to write a column.

January 30, 2008

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

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

Councilmember McCracken and others,

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

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 15, 2007

TWITC: RG4N are our heroes!

Michael King writes that we should support RG4N even though their case is utterly without merit as even their news staff is beginning to discover, months too late. Here's a comment I just placed there:

Michael, this is ridiculous. Zoning means something - in this case, it means that Lincoln bought the property knowing what they should be allowed to develop (and what they should not be allowed to develop). If they were up there asking for variances or even a change in zoning, RG4N and the rest of you guys would have a point, but they're not, and you don't.

When it comes to cases where developers seek upzoning, many of these same people are very quick to tell you that the prospective developer should have known what they were getting when they bought the tract. Interesting how this doesn't apply here. Also interesting how none of the RG4N homeowners are volunteering to let Lincoln have veto power over their own development projects within current zoning. Democracy for me, not thee.

As for the comparison to the Triangle - the bulk of RG4N's supporters are using the group as 'useful idiots' here - they have shown through their actions on other projects (including very recently) that they have no interest at all in dense urban development - they want to preserve low-density stuff they already have.

A critical eye once in a while, even at your fellow travellers, would seem to me to be a basic responsibility for a journalist.

One point I should have added but forgot: this lawsuit, in which the city has to defend its legal responsibility to approve site plans that comply with city code, is costing Austin taxpayers a half-million or so at last count. Still think RG4N is so noble?

A second point I just remembered: the Triangle development was such a big fight because the state (leasing the land to the developer) is exempt from Austin zoning codes.

September 24, 2007

It IS time to raise fares, BUT

Dear Friends at Capital Metro:

Hey, the last few rides, taking my 3-year-old to the UT lab school and back, have been swell. Good work. So I saw your fare increase went over like a lead balloon. Well, I just filled out your survey. Here's my additional comments:

  1. This fare increase is long overdue, especially for the door-to-door special transit stuff. Yes, I so went there. It costs like 60 cents to provide a ride which actually costs the taxpayers something like 20 or 30 bucks. But even the normal fares are too low (and, no, almost nobody rides the bus to save money on an individual trip - because the economics of that don't make sense, even when the bus ride is free).
  2. It's typical stupid PR by Capital Metro to be pushing this fare increase at precisely the time when it's most easy for the bus riders to complain about subsidizing suburban commuter rail passengers. Of course, I don't think there will be many of them, but it's still an incredibly dumb bit of timing.
  3. No, eliminating free transfers and Ozone Action Day free rides doesn't count as raising fares. Cut it out. Presumably, you had to take a round-trip, so even with that free transfer slip, you used to pay a buck, and you're paying a buck now; it's just costing CM a bit less in driver time.

M1EK's recommendations:

  1. The aforementioned STS hike (yes, disabled people should get more of a break than regular bus riders. If we expect a 25% farebox recovery on able-bodied people, then let's shoot for 10% for the disabled. Something has got to be done here, though - serving the disabled is not Capital Metro's only mission).
  2. STOP THE FREE RIDER PROBLEM. Even today, with nothing but express buses to serve them, many residents of Pflugerville and Cedar Park, who don't pay any Capital Metro taxes, get to ride the bus for the same price as the Austin and Leander residents who DO pay those taxes. My solution? Walk-up fares go up dramatically (to about 80% of estimated full cost - remainder covered by Federal subsidy). Residents of the service area can buy discounted single or multiple rides by showing proof of residency in the service area. You guys actually encouraged this by moving the old Pflugerville express bus stop to just inside the CM service area right next to where it used to be - CUT THIS SHIT OUT. We don't owe Pflugerville anything but contempt for refusing to fund transportation solutions. Likewise with this stupid Round Rock idea.
  3. Since you guys think this shitty commuter rail service is going to be a magical gold unicorn which poops out fairy rainbows, PROVE IT by charging double the express bus fare. This will take the wind out of the sails of the bus riders complaining that poor eastsiders will be subsidizing rich suburbanites.

Here's what those fares might look like (this is just a wide estimate, though). Let's assume that we have developed a smart-card for residents of the service area which can be used even for the walk-up case - this is simple and is done in many other jurisdictions to identify people who qualify for reduced fares (such as senior citizens).

Ride typeCurrent fareTarget FRR for residentsResident fareNon-resident fare
Standard one-way bus fare$0.5025%$1.00$3.00
STS ride$0.6010%$2.00$15.00
Express bus one-way fare$1.0025%$2.00$6.00
Commuter rail one-way fareN/A40%$4.00$8.00

(similar relative discounts as today for students, seniors, and day/monthly passes. Assumption is that average cost of a one-way city bus ride, all costs included, is $4.00; $8.00 for express; $10.00 for commuter rail with shuttle bus; $20.00 for STS).

The conclusion is that if we're going to raise our farebox recovery ratio but simultaneously not drive away choice commuters (who are the voters we need to keep on board), we need to do something to capture the free-rider revenue, or lower the free-rider cost. Systems like New York's can handle this by heavily discounting monthly passes and having relatively steep one-way fares; we're not to that point yet here.

I'll expect my consultants' fee any day now.

Your pal,
M1EK

August 20, 2007

Ben Wear article on bike bridge misleads

Just sent to the Statesman in response to Ben Wear's article this morning

There are a few key facts that Ben Wear left out of his article on the South Mopac bicycle/pedestrian bridge which paint a very different picture:

1. There used to be a shoulder (available for use by commuting and recreational cyclists) on the Mopac bridge until a few years ago (when it was restriped to provide a longer exit lane). When the shoulder existed, it was frequently used.

2. The 15% figure cited by Wear is misleading - when you run the same comparison on total transportation funding in our area, about 1% (last time I ran the figures) went to bike/ped projects.

3. Urban residents, even those who don't drive, are subsidizing suburban commuters through the toll-road 'donations' he mentioned (remember; the city has to repay those bonds from sources like sales and property taxes; not the gas tax) and in many other ways. When you add up the flows of dollars, it would take a couple of bridges like this every single year just to begin to make up for the money flowing out of Austin towards the suburbs, from drivers and non-drivers alike. Perhaps THAT would be a better focus for an article in the future. I'd be happy to help.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

I spoke on this exact same 15% issue a few years ago on KLBJ's morning news show but it keeps popping up as if we're in a bad game of Whack-A-Mole. In this case, the 15% applies only to city funding, and includes pedestrian infrastructure which was never built back when saner cities would have done it (i.e. when the road was constructed in the first place). When I ran the numbers a few years ago, bike/ped funding for the whole area ended up at something like 1%.

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

June 21, 2007

Chronicle continues to fail us

I'll get back to the Hawaii field trip reports when I get a bit more time, I promise; but in the meantime:

Katherine Gregor at the Chronicle has published yet another in what must be about a half-dozen articles by now promoting TOD on the commuter rail line. As I noted in comments, it's now 2007 (3 years after the election; 1 year before service supposedly starts), and yet nobody at the Chronicle has ever bothered to analyze the service from the perspective of a prospective passenger.

As I noted in my previous crackplog You Can't Have TOD WIthout Good T, the experience around the country is very consistent: if you expect people to pay more (relatively) to live in higher density development outside downtown, you'd better be sure that their transit alternative is a very good one.

So how about it? How have we done here? Well, each resident of these "TOD"s faces two shuttle bus rides (one each way, which will basically turn off all commuters who actually own cars), and an infrequently-running rail service (runs every half-hour during rush hours and only once in the middle of the day). Sound like good T to you? And as I've mentioned, well, about a billion times, it is impossible to morph this commuter rail line into something like 2000's light rail proposal to eliminate that shuttle bus ride to UT, the Capitol, and the part of downtown where people actually work in offices.

Anyways, this is the kind of analysis the Chronicle ought to be doing. But, instead, the recent pattern has been basically fleshing out press releases with some fluffy and modest prose which tries desperately to avoid coming to any conclusions at all - unless, of course, they happen to be conclusions supported by the ANC (or the so-called "granola mafia").

So what the hell is up at the Chronicle? I honestly didn't think I'd be pining for the days of Mike Clark-Madison, who I thought was irrationally pro-neighborhood at the time, but honestly, he's Woodward and/or Bernstein compared to the current crop. It's a sad day when you actually get better analysis of local politics from the Statesman, but that day is just about here.

June 02, 2007

Bus headways aren't Austin's problem

(posted to a local neighborhood list in response to a portion of a long letter from an Eastwoods resident complaining about densification)

The position that transit use would skyrocket if we just reduced headways on our existing bus system seems logical but is, in fact, not likely to be the case given experience in other cities and a bit of common sense.

Those who can get and keep a job largely have the ability to check timetables and use their watch - and this gets even easier with new tools like Google's - and most of the close-in neighborhoods have bus service with far better headways than the alleged 30-minutes-or-worse in Barbara's note. For instance, from my house on 35th, I can choose the #5 or the #7 - combined maximum wait during the day approximately 15 minutes; meaning if I decide on a whim to leave the house right now, I can look at the schedule to figure out which one to walk to knowing that it won't be longer than 15 minutes.

However, even if headways really were much worse in central Austin, it still wouldn't matter (much) - peoples' daily commute decision centers more around speed and reliability than on headways. For instance, headways on express subway service in Queens are sometimes long, but people take them anyways (over the local, the bus, and especially their car) because the subway simply works so much better. In our case, running buses more often would do nothing to the speed or reliability gap compared to the private automobile and could even make it worse (due to bunching, buses interfering with other buses, etc.).

The only technology which can compete well enough with cars on those two metrics (the only two that really matter, since our downtown parking isn't currently and probably will never be expensive enough to be a major factor) is reserved-guideway transit. This excludes streetcar, but includes light rail (as proposed in 2000) and commuter rail (if it actually went anywhere near major employment destinations, which it does not).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
(Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005)

February 21, 2007

Managed lanes on Mopac: gridlock

Just sent to Council as a followup to yesterday's crackplog

Your Name: Mike Dahmus Your e-mail address: mdahmus@io.com Subject: Managed lanes implementation on Mopac Comments: Dear Mayor and Council Members:

While I support managed lanes in general, the implementation being discussed for Mopac will be a disaster, and is not worthy of our support. Any facility in which express traffic must then cut across general-purpose traffic in order to exit will surely devolve into gridlock - if traffic in the three general-purpose lanes is bad enough to make people want to pay to drive in the inside lane, it will also be bad enough to make it difficult to quickly cut through those same three lanes to get off the highway. Which means that vehicle slows down, and eventually stops, as it tries to get over; which means through traffic in the 'managed lane' must also slow or stop.

This is a really dumb idea. Managed lanes without separate exits are worse than nothing at all. Please don't continue to let TXDOT get away with this foolish and naive design, paid for with the gas tax money collected from our urban drivers.

(An aside: for the money spent on this facility, we could make a down payment on a real urban rail system - i.e. true light rail running in reserved-guideway, say from downtown up to the Triangle or so).

December 21, 2006

Response to McCracken

Brewster McCracken posted a response (seemingly authentic) to this austinist thread, attempting to rebut many of my points about Northcross and Wal-Mart. Here's what I said in response.

Brewster,

Obviously I disagree with much of what you posted. I'll just pick the one I know the most about, though; this peculiar idea that it's better to put large retail destinations on "highways" rather than at the intersection of two city arterial roadways, next to a major transit center. Only in Texas (where frontage roads are viewed as the normal state of affairs rather than an occasional last-ditch tool to provide access when all else fails) would we even be having this conversation; note that the new Wal-Mart in Atlanta being compared to this one is _NOT_, I repeat, _NOT_ "on the highway".

I refer readers again to my (artlessly drawn but hopefully at least readable) diagram linked to if you click on "M1EK" at the end of this posting. It's simply impossible to deliver high-quality transit service on highway frontage roads -- but it's very easy to do so on arterial roadways. All you need to do is take a look at those #3 buses going up and down Burnet Road vs. the #383 buses going up and down Research Blvd. if you don't believe me - both are operating in relatively the same density development; but one is a success and one is a failure.

Frontage roads also destroy the ability to travel by foot (for nearby pedestrians) and severely hamper travel by bicycle; but in this case, transit is probably the most important mode to worry about. Remember, though, that when dealing with frontage road development, we also have to somehow convince TXDOT to build sidewalks along the frontage road in the best-case scenario (and, of course, they've designed some 'highways' in ways that make even the provision of such sidewalks by the City of Austin impossible - US 183 near Braker Lane, for instance; in this photo-essay: http://www.io.com/~mdahmus/183sidewalks/183sidewalks.html

Pushing all our big boxes (and other employers/destinations) to frontage roads simply means the people travelling there can't do so by any means other than the private automobile. This doesn't hurt high-tech office workers on US 183 as much as it does the potential employees of Wal-Mart, of course.

As for the remaining points - I'm happy the neighborhoods have learned to not make the strategic error that NUNA did vis-a-vis The Villas On Guadalupe. That's a far cry from evidence that they now support urban mixed-use development "like the Triangle". A Triangle-style development, expanded to cover the footprint of Northcross Mall, would be bringing in not only roughly the same amount of retail as this proposal, but thousands of units of multi-family; and the nearby neighborhoods have opposed previous efforts to increase multi-family in the area quite recently (hotel conversion at south edge of property).

Regards,
Mike Dahmus (M1EK's Bake-Sale of Bile)
Urban Transportation Commission 2001-2005

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.

August 17, 2006

Letter to City Council

Just sent a moment ago. Links added for reference.

Dear mayor and council members:

My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 to 2005, and still write on the subject of transportation from time to time. Until a medical condition forced me to stop, I was a frequent bicycle commuter (but, unlike some others you probably hear from, also continued to own and drive a car as well).

I can't emphasize enough the points previously made by Jen Duthie from UT that this ordinance may seem like much ado about nothing if you're used to thinking about bicycling as simply a sporting activity - like the ride Bruce Todd was on when he hurt himself. If you're going out to ride for fun, a helmet doesn't make a lot of difference - you'll probably still ride, and even if forcing a helmet makes you delay your ride until a cooler day, for instance, the overall public health is not significantly harmed.

But for transportation bicyclists, mandating a helmet be used for what is essentially a safer activity overall than driving is a critical error - many marginal cyclists will simply stop riding their bikes and return to their cars. You certainly see this effect at play among children - hardly any of whom ride their bikes to school any more, partly because of the inconvenience and discomfort of the helmet, but also due to their parents belief that cycling must be a very dangerous activity if it requires a helmet.

Every adult cyclist you convince not to ride is one more driver. Every driver is that much more traffic and pollution; making Austin less healthy not only for themselves but for the rest of us as well.

Since the evidence in the real world has shown that there has been no actual benefit from dramatic increases in helmet usage in this and other countries, there ought to be no justification whatsoever for a mandatory helmet law (or even, I'd argue, excessive promotion of helmets compared to more effective measures such as traffic enforcement and education).

Please take this in mind when voting. No serious transportation cyclist (i.e. one who actually uses their bike to get around) has signed on to this effort as far as I'm aware.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

July 18, 2006

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?

June 09, 2006

You maniacs! You blew it up!

Council last night passed the McMansion Ordinance with 0.4 FAR applying to everything (totally rejecting the Planning Commission's efforts), and while they were at it, removed the "quick review commission" which could have provided a cheap(er) quick(er) path for obvious variance cases like mine. This means my next door neighbor wouldn't be allowed to build a second floor to expand his 1010 square foot house (family of 5).

Let's review: The unmitigated evil of this task force, and yes, I'm going to name names now, includes these sterling folks:

- Karen McGraw, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (link is to one of three properties at same address for her and husband): Has worked for years to stifle multifamily development in this area - leading to unintended consequences such as superduplexes and "McDorms". Lives in a property with 3500 square feet of developed space, including a garage apartment, surrounded by properties which are more like 1100 square feet. Incompatible size and bulk, anybody?

- Mary Gay Maxwell, North University Neighborhood Association: Likewise has worked to obstruct multifamily development for years - and then has the gall to simultaneously complain about students renting houses in our area. Lives in a 2-story house which 'towers over the backyards of its neighbors'.

Chris Allen - lone person on the task force from the neighborhood side who understands anything about development - misled people for weeks and weeks into thinking the ordinance would have no effect on cases like mine, then switched tactics late in the game and started smugly telling people that I should just build "habitable attic space" or a basement, and, if that might be a wee bit too expensive or impractical, just go to the "quick review commission". Nothing to worry about, right? Except that the "quick review commission" just evaporated. Say hello once again to our old friend, the neighborhood-pandering kilodollars-wasting Board Of Adjustment!

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell me that I can't have a garage apartment and a second floor? (Neither of which would, unlike Maxwell's, 'tower over my neighbor's yard'?)

Tell me again why these people have any moral justification whatsoever to tell my next door neighbors that they can't have a second floor unless they tear down their existing garage apartment?

Tell me again why these people, who were wrong about opposing multifamily development, should be allowed to do even more to attempt to obstruct the market's desire to provide additional housing supply in the central city? (By further disincenting duplex and garage apartment development - both of which are much more affordable than single family homes, even tiny ones).

I'm disgusted. It's 9:00 AM, and I need a beer.

Contest Idea: If/When my next door neighbors move out after they find out they can't build their second floor, and we're left as the only family among about six houses full of students (thanks to the fine work of Ms. McGraw and Ms. Maxwell), what should I do about it? Most entertaining suggestion wins a prize.

June 08, 2006

Update on McMansion Ordinance

Tonight the City Council considers it. I spoke before the Planning Commission on Tuesday night (very late) and was covered by Fox 7 (including screen time I missed seeing, although my cow orker says I did pretty well) and the Statesman. Oddly, KVUE spent the most time with me but didn't even run a story on the meeting (admittedly it went so late everybody had to cover it on Thursday instead of Wednesday). Maybe once they figured out I was 'the crackpot' they abandoned the story.

The Chronicle's fluff coverage of this issue makes me sad. I alerted them to this impending fight a couple of weeks ago, but all they've done is this analysis-free notice-like blurb.

Planning Commission gave a thoughtfully skeptical endorsement - raising the FAR for lots with duplexes or garage apartments to 0.5 (which completely lets us of the hook and is a great help to our neighbors, as well as reducing MOST of the city-wide affordable housing disincentives in the original ordinance).

It's being fought vigorously by the Task Force, who, frankly, doesn't like secondary housing units in general (as well as multifamily development in the urban core. And McDorms. And superduplexes. Keep pluggin' them loopholes!).

Meanwhile, the one city council member who bothered to respond to me is apparently using boilerplate about how this ordinance is a supposed "compromise". (Not the PC version, but the original 0.4 FAR version). How, exactly, is this a compromise? I give up the right to develop my property and in return I get to live among people who already developed their property in the way I'm now not allowed to do?

The rhetorical gymnastics people will go through to avoid simply opposing bad neighborhood actors are just amazing.

No further crackplogging for a while - parents are in town.

June 06, 2006

Letter to council member - and "compromise"

One of the city council members wrote me back with a comment that they appreciated my letter but were going to vote for the ordinance on first reading anyways since it was a 'compromise'. I just sent the note below in response, but wanted to expand on the 'compromise' notion too.

A 'compromise' in this case would mean that I'd be giving up the right to develop some of my property, and in return, my neighbors would be giving up some of the right to develop their property, which would presumably benefit me (if I believed that they were likely to build McMansions and that those buildings would cause me some sort of harm).

The problem is that in my case, I already have a big duplex on one side (two stories, built to the minimum side setback line next to my backyard), and on the other side is my neighbors who would, like me, like to build a second story on their house.

So what have I obtained from this compromise? Compromise, by definition, isn't "I give something up, and you get the benefits". It's "we both give something up, and we both benefit". So what's the benefit for people like me - who already live in dense areas and would actually PREFER that their next door neighbors go ahead and build that second floor (since it's the only thing that could keep them in this neighborhood)?

The note I sent:

Thanks for the response.

I don't know that 'compromise' is the right word here. I didn't consent to negotiating away any of my minimal property rights in this case - so it's really more accurate to say that I'm being robbed of the ability to develop this property (which we paid a premium for at the time over other properties which could not be expanded according to SF3). A thief could rob you and only take half your money - but it's not a compromise.

The most likely outcome of this is that the family next door to us will decide to move out of town (can you blame them? A family of 5 in 1010 square feet is pretty cramped even by the standards of past generations) - at which point MY family has to decide what to do - stay as the only family left in a sea of deteriorating rental housing (since nobody's going to want to buy these things and fix them up) or move out of central Austin (which means leaving Austin entirely, since I would never live farther out than this).

I doubt that's the consequence the task force (or especially the city council) has in mind, but I honestly believe that's what's going to happen.

The only positive changes I could make to this are to prepare for the state to overturn these regulations in 5-10 years. If they wouldn't allow you to impose SOS on properties without grandfathering, there's no way these SF3 rules will stand, since SOS at least was in response to a clear and evident negative externality. If these regulations really addressed drainage instead of merely using it as a convenient launching point, the city would be in a SOS-like position; but as it stands you're on even shakier legal ground.

But again, that'll take years to resolve. Unfortunately, I can't see my neighbors sticking around with a family of 5 in 1010 square feet for that long.

June 05, 2006

Oppose the "McMansion Ordinance"

Just sent this to Council:

Council members: My name is Mike Dahmus; I own a condominium unit in Old West Austin and currently live in a house I own in the North University neighborhood. I'd like to ask you to oppose the "McMansion ordinance" at Thursday's meeting. I will be brief.

I've corresponded extensively with the task force on their bulletin boards, but frankly, there was little common ground to be had. Like many "smart growth" people, I think restricting residential density is exactly the wrong way to go. There wasn't any room to compromise with these people - because, frankly, I'd prefer to go in the entirely opposite direction.

In my own case, these rules will force me to choose between a garage apartment (every other lot on my block has at least 2 dwelling units) or the second floor we'd like to build someday for our family of 4 (currently living in 1200 square feet). My next-door neighbors, about to be a family of 5, face having to tear down an existing garage apartment so they could build their second floor under these proposed rules.

The most ghastly thing about all this, though, is that the task force members themselves are comprised mainly of two groups: childless couples living in small houses, and people who are living in very large homes which violate the spirit (but not quite the letter) of the proposed regulations. Two examples: (name), in my neighborhood, lives in a two-story home which, thanks to an incompatible front setback, 'towers' over the backyards of her neighbors (who have small one-story homes which are set much closer to the street, and are much more pedestrian-friendly). (name) lives in a home with 3600 square feet on a corner in Hyde Park; her immediate neighbors live in tiny, tiny bungalows.

The same people who opposed every single multifamily project in the urban core for decades with drastic unintended consequences like the explosion of single-family-homes converted into rental properties for students now want you to do even more to prevent the market from responding efficiently to the demand for urban housing.

What unintended consequences could one predict from _these_ rules? I can think of a couple: a net decline in central housing units (due to dilemnas like the one my neighbor and I will face), and a net INCREASE in impervious cover (it will now be even more proportionally difficult to build up rather than back).

Please do the right thing, and stand up to these irresponsible neighborhood groups for the good of the city and for the rights of property owners.

Thanks for your time,
Mike Dahmus

and this to some neighborhood groups in response to some pro-ordinance politicking:

The task force's work stands to destroy the rights to develop property for families like myself and especially my neighbors - forcing them to either tear down an existing garage apartment or move, since they're about to become a family of 5 in about 1050 square feet.

There are plenty of people opposing these regulations who don't want
to build McMansions and aren't developers. I'd like to eventually have
what every other property on my lot already has - a secondary dwelling
unit, while still maintaining the right to develop a second floor.
The task force's work absolutely precludes me from doing so.

Like previously foolhardy opposition to all multifamily development in
the urban core, this ordinance will likely have unintended
consequences which will be worse than the problem they tried to solve
- for instance, one could easily predict a decline in net affordable
housing units as people like my neighbor now must tear down their
garage apartments in order to expand their home to what was previously
allowed. One could also predict quite easily that the new 'building
envelope' rule will lead to a net INCREASE in impervious cover and
concomittant drainage problems, since it further incents property
owners to expand back rather than up.

My block consists of 6000 square foot lots - every single lot except
mine has multiple dwelling units on it already; and on one side of me
is a duplex full of undergrads - who are attracted to rental housing
like that because many of the same people who formed this task force
succeeded until recently in preventing the market from providing real
multifamily housing close to UT. If I want to build up AND build my
garage apartment, I can't see any reason why I should be forced
through the hostile variance process just to do what everybody else on
the block already _has_ done; but the task force sees no problem here.

This ordinance goes exactly the wrong direction for Austin in so many
ways. If you have any concern for families like ours, please express
your opposition.

May 25, 2006

Bicycle Helmets Don't Work, Part MCMXVII

Just sent the following crackpot letter in response to the featured letter in today's Statesman. (I'd like to link to it, but the Letters page for today somehow left out its actual text).

(This is in response to the letter published today, May 25, by the person who was upset about the picture of the cyclist not wearing a helmet).

Those who are aghast at the sight of cyclists who dare to venture out on the roads without wearing a helmet should be aware that the dramatic safety benefits promised by early case-control studies have failed to be borne out in actual use. As helmet usage has gone up in this country, actual head injury rates have remained on the same trajectory - indicating that the benefits of current bicycle helmets may have been vastly oversold. (New York Times, July 29, 2001; by Julian Barnes). Analyses of those case control studies have uncovered serious statistical errors which render them unsuitable as support for the mandatory helmet position.

In addition, experience in other countries has shown the same lack of benefit from increasing helmet use, as well as a dramatic decrease in cycling whenever mandatory helmet laws have been imposed. In short: a mandatory helmet law's primary effect is to reduce the number of cyclists (shifting them back to riding in cars) without providing a real benefit to those who remain.

Wear a helmet, if you want, to provide you with some protection against minor injuries; but please don't be under the misapprehension that it helps you in a major collision, and please lay off those of us who would rather not waste our time with them.

[ed: don't know how you like to cite earlier articles; and if I remember, I think your own paper may have also carried the referenced story].

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

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.

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 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 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 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 05, 2006

Crackpot Letter, Part XXIV

From today's Chronicle, in reference to last week's 37th street lights / student housing complaint:

More Apartments Near UT Dear Editor,

Mary-Gay Maxwell's complaints about houses rented out to too many students strike home for a lot of us ["Are Partiers Dimming the 37th Street Lights?," News, Dec. 30]. I live in her neighborhood, next to a duplex full of undergrads who are occasionally a problem despite a landlord who's more responsible than most.

But let's be clear: Most college kids don't particularly want to live in a house. It's more work than an apartment, you don't get a pool or an entertainment room, you have more worries about parking and roommates, etc.

So why are so many UT students living in rental houses, compared to cities with other large colleges (such as Penn State)? Well, for one, UT doesn't have many dorms. Not much we can do about that out here in the community. But there's another contributing factor here: This area doesn't have anywhere near enough near-campus apartments to satisfy demand. Some students would doubtlessly still live in rental houses, but a large majority would switch back to apartments, as they do at other big universities. It's ludicrous that there's so much low-density development (single-story even) along Guadalupe close to campus.

Living off Far West or Riverside (in low-density apartment sprawl) is a poor substitute to being able to walk (or ride your bike) to class - a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus isn't going to win the battle against close-in rental houses. So it's clear we need more near-campus high-density apartment development - and the recent rezoning of West Campus is a good start, but not nearly enough. The problem today, though, is that we're still dealing with the effects of the last 20-30 years of ill-advised obstruction tactics by near-campus neighborhoods to any and all apartment development. Villas on Guadalupe, anyone?

Unfortunately, this lack of near-campus high-density apartment housing was, in fact, created by neighbors like Maxwell through their irresponsible opposition to essential projects like the Villas. Too bad that people like me (living a few blocks from those 37th lights) have to suffer the consequences with her.

Mike Dahmus

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 17, 2005

I officially coin the term

crackplog - short for "crackpot blog", i.e., have you read M1EK's crackplog?

The evil google machine indicates today that I am the first person in the universe to use this term. Feel free to use it from here on out, but credit me.

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

More idiot cyclists

From a surprising source. (I post as "doinky" there).

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 19, 2005

Pastafarians unite!

I've never talked about religion on this blog, and haven't said much about personal matters in general. Today, however, I am filled with the holy impulse to tell you about the real story behind the creation of the Earth. Please share and make sure that this correct version of our origin is discussed in schools alongside the so-called "Intelligent Design".

Other links:

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 06, 2005

Helmet science (for real)

Here's an interesting paper on bike helmet design. Should be mandatory reading no matter which side of the debate you fall on, especially if you like to repeat stories about how a helmet 'saved [some person's] life'.

(Note for the record that I'm a skeptic; I wear one when mountain biking but never else, and won't go on rides that require them, because I believe (and am backed up by real-world data) that biking isn't that dangerous; that helmets haven't had much impact on head injuries; and that wearing helmets helps perpetuate the myth that biking is too dangerous to do regularly.)

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 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.

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.

February 03, 2005

Letter in Chronicle

Letter from me in today's Chronicle. Text at the end of this dispatch.

and today's Statesman takes up the same subject (Transit Oriented Development - commonly abbreviated as TOD) again - using East Hillsboro Oregon (suburb of Portland) as their model. When are the cheerleaders going to get it - you get TOD IF AND ONLY IF your rail line has demonstrated a year or three of high ridership from people who CHOSE to ride rail, not from people who HAD to ride public transit?

For the I Told You So watch:

A fight is looming: The neighborhood plans that already exist for Plaza Saltillo and the areas around the Lamar and MLK stops don't call for the kind of intense density city leaders want around rail stations.

As I pointed out several times during the run-up to the election, one of the many problems with the routing of this commuter rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods that don't want any additional development, rather than down Lamar/Guadalupe where additional development is regarded as inevitable (although my own wildly irresponsible neighborhood does their best to counteract city-wide sanity on this regard).

(Chronicle Letter):

Cold Water on TOD

Dear Editor,

I hate to throw cold water on the frenzy over TOD (transit-oriented development) ["Here Comes the Train," News, Jan. 28], but it's worth remembering that no commuter rail start in the U.S. in recent memory has generated any transit-oriented development worth noting. In fact, all of the TOD that has occurred in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes has been around light rail starts which had to first demonstrate a high level of ridership from new transit customers (i.e., not just those who used to take the bus, but new customers to transit).

This is how Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis have gotten and are continuing to get great new urban buildings around their light-rail lines.

The key here is that thanks to Mike Krusee and naive pro-transit people in Austin, we're not getting a rail line like those cities got (which goes where people actually want to go from day one); we're getting one like South Florida got (which requires shuttle buses to get anywhere worth going). South Florida's commuter line has yet (after 15 years) to generate one lousy square-foot of TOD.

Regards,

Mike Dahmus

Urban Transportation Commission


Thanks to "pedaler" for the TOD expansion suggestion

August 31, 2004

Letter to 590 KLBJ morning show guys

I just sent this letter to the 590 KLBJ morning show.

Mark and Ed,

I heard the interview of Councilmember Slusher this morning and had a couple of comments for you to keep in mind if you talk to him again. (I've been on your show twice now - I'm the guy from the Urban Transportation Commission - actually, I'm Slusher's appointee, and he's not real happy with me these days for obvious reasons).

I know you guys usually attack this from an anti-transit perspective, and I'm firmly pro-transit (and especially pro-rail transit). Most people in the media are inaccurately depicting this as a repeat of 2000 - where central Austin transit people voted overwhelmingly in favor of light rail, and the suburban voters voted overwhelmingly against. That's not going to be the split this time - a lot of people who know and support transit are not happy with this plan from a pragmatic perspective.

Ed, you tried to raise a good point with the question about lack of service to south and central Austin. When Mr. Slusher responded with the Highland Mall (and other Austin stations), I think he knows that's not what most people mean by "central Austin" - we mean "the highest density residential areas" such as West Campus, North University, Hyde Park, etc. None of the places where there exists sufficient density to support rail transit are being served by this plan.

I'm also disappointed that nobody brought up the biggest problem with this plan - the fact that it requires riders to transfer to shuttle buses to get to UT, the Capitol, or downtown office buildings. In other cities in this country, it is very clear that your first rail line must deliver most of its passengers to stations which are within WALKING DISTANCE of their final destination, if you want to attract any new passengers to public transportation. People who can choose whether or not to drive (i.e. they own a car and don't have to pay a lot of money for parking) will not ride a service which sticks them on shuttle buses for the last leg of their journey. This is why South Florida's commuter rail line, after a decade, is viewed as an expensive failure.

Even without stops in Central Austin, the line could be a moderate success if it delivered passengers to at least one of those three big destinations without a shuttle-bus transfer (this is why so many center-city people were pushing so hard for the line to be immediately extended to the Seaholm power plant with a stop at 4th and Congress).

Without any modifications, the anti-transit people should be very happy with this rail plan, because after people see empty trains running down this route, it will become conventional wisdom that rail can't work in Austin. In fact, I believe that if this plan passes, it's going to be the end of rail transit for the area for a generation or two, as it was for South Florida.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

August 30, 2004

Letter to Editor

This letter was just sent today to the Statesman (registration required to view):

In Monday's column, Ben Wear places the population in two categories - those who oppose rail transit in general, such as Gerald Daugherty, and those who support Capital Metro's current plan. However, it's my experience that a growing number of urban Austinites, after taking a look at the plan, are realizing that it's a poor attempt at a starter system that will be, as a colleague on the Urban Transportation Commission aptly described it, a "finisher" system rather than a starter line.

Any first attempt at rail transit for a metropolitan area must deliver passengers to stations within walking distance of their office in order to attract a non-trivial number of people who can choose whether or not to use transit. Capital Metro's plan requires nearly all riders to transfer to shuttle buses for the final portion of their journey and will therefore, like South Florida's Tri-Rail line, doubtllessly be a huge disappointment from day one.

The Urban Transportation Commission at its last meeting unanimously voted to ask Capital Metro to include a referendum on the rail ballot asking the voter to indicate their preference among a set of 4 options, including several plans which solve the "circulator" problem.

In the future, please do not pigeonhole the entire area into the categories of "against all rail transit" and "for Capital Metro's 'finisher' system". The residents of the city of Austin (who voted FOR light rail in 2000, by the way) deserve better.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission