This is the category archive for "Subsidies to Suburban Sprawl".
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October 27, 2010

Update on lack of updates

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them easier to write (and the older ones easier to refer to without having to wade through current content which is no longer current).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

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


November 11, 2009

Board of Adjustment versus Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 13, 2009

Math with M1EK, Lesson 1

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Math with M1EK, Lesson 1" »

May 08, 2009

Bad transit news

(see update at bottom as of 3:00)

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

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

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

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

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

Some selected background reading for you from the archives:

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

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

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

April 06, 2009

My disingenuous sense is tingling

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

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

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

2. From this posting for the forum:

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

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

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

Update: How could I have forgotten their other priority?

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

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

March 05, 2009

Capital Metro express bus changes screw Austin in favor of Leander

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

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

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

February 25, 2009

Crestview Station and Commuter Rail

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

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

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

But wait. There's more.

Continue reading "Crestview Station and Commuter Rail" »

February 23, 2009

Red Line: Taxes versus benefits

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

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

Continue reading "Red Line: Taxes versus benefits" »

November 17, 2008

Don't Let The Door Hit You...

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 05, 2008

Why we should subsidize more projects like The Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2008

The Austin Suburban Childrens' Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15, 2008

Rapid Bus Still Ain't Rapid

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

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

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

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

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

June 13, 2008

Transportation Microeconomics Bites Me In The Butt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2008

More depreciation nonsense for cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 26, 2007

Good News, Bad News

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

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

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

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

Shit. We're screwed.

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

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

October 24, 2007

Commuter rail train arrives; raises M1EK's blood pressure

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

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

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

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

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

September 24, 2007

It IS time to raise fares, BUT

Dear Friends at Capital Metro:

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

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

M1EK's recommendations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your pal,
M1EK

September 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

September 19, 2007

Driving: Fixed versus variable

Wanted to point readers to a discussion between Austin Contrarian and myself about fixed versus variable costs of driving, and how best to account the fixed costs. One thing many commute calculators get just absolutely and stupidly wrong is the idea that depreciation is a factor of miles driven (it's actually far more a factor of age - miles a distant second). For instance, this is a comparison I ran for one of the early comment's on AC's post: a 1998 Honda Civic LX, automatic, all other values default. All values as "private party" and "excellent condition".

Miles drivenValue
20,0006,540
90,0005,640
180,0004,825

(KBB said 86,000 would be "typical", but actually seems a bit low to me).

A 1998 Civic would be either 9 or 10 years old today, depending. The added depreciation due to driving normally versus the little-old-lady case is no more than $100 per year ($8.25 per month). The depreciation due to age swamps this figure by a factor of 10 or more. This stands to reason - would you really pay a ton of money for a 9-year-old Civic just because it wasn't driven very much? Of course not.

What does this mean? Ignore the commute calculators which include depreciation, insurance, and registration, unless you're one of the vanishingly rare few people who can completely get rid of a vehicle. Instead, use one of the calculators which only includes truly variable costs, like mine (originally written for bike commutes, but can be used to compare the cost for transit commutes just as easily - just zero out the cost of bike tubes and tires and put bus fare in "extra costs"). For instance, at gas prices of $3.00, and with $80 tires (about what our last set cost, each), you end up with these values for some of my old commutes (assuming I got to use our Prius instead of what I actually drove back then, which only got 38 mpg):

TripCarBus
Home to 183/Braker (Netbotz)$1.31$1.00 / $2.00 (regular / express)
Home to downtown (free parking)$0.46$1.00
Home to downtown ($8 parking)$8.46$1.00

Now, if AC's parking cost was unbundled - charged per-day, his commute would actually come out cheaper on the bus by a fair margin, as indicated above. He indicated a monthly cost of $100, and I'm just guessing that $8 might be the price on the spot market, but that means that if he drives even about half the time, it'd be smarter to pay for the parking pass and then drive every day.

How can we fix this? If more of the costs of driving were borne directly by drivers, at the time they drove (or at least paid for gas), it wouldn't be so artificially cheap. For instance, when I drive downtown, I'm using roadways which were paid for out of property and sales taxes - not the gas tax. If we were to pay for all major roadways out of the gas tax, well, first, Round Rock would start to have to finally pay something approaching the cost of their infrastructure without free-riding on Austin, and second, at the extra buck a gallon I figure it would take, the math would shift a bit. It'd shift more if we could get auto insurance priced by the mile (although you keep hearing about it, it's never been an option for me or anybody I know personally). And, of course, if we paid for the costs of our Iraq adventure by gas taxes instead of through income taxes, the story would be even more different. But in the meantime, it rarely makes sense on purely economic grounds to ride the bus, even at our currently way-too-low fares so we're going to have to keep working on the other reasons. Like reliability. Light rail, dependable in time and at least competitive with the car, on which you could comfortably work or read, would be an easy winner. City buses - well, I salute AC and Tim for being able to work and/or read on the jerky city buses, but I was never able to, and I doubt most people would consider it acceptable even if saving a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, of course, our brand-new commuter rail line is going to inflict two of those jerky bus rides on every single rail passenger every single day. Oops.

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%.

April 10, 2007

Don't get excited about Mopac changes...

I'm still not sure if it's willful ignorance or childish spite (because their grand plan to do the huge rebuild was rejected), but TXDOT still isn't answering the most important question of all with the managed lane proposal for Mopac, which is:

Since the managed lanes do not have dedicated on/off ramps,
when the 3 regular lanes are stop-and-go, how is a car or bus in the managed lane going to manage to get over to its exit without having to also come to a stop, and thus make all the other cars or buses in the managed lane have to stop too?

Note that I'm the only guy even talking about this; the local media, unfortunately reduced to just rephrasing press releases, just reports this as "hey, a new lane in the middle, hooray!" without bothering to think about how it will actually work.

February 20, 2007

Managed Lanes: Good Theory; Will Suck Here

A short entry; and I won't inflict a drawing on you, so please use the power of your mind to visualize.

CAMPO has already tentatively allocated $110 million for "managed lanes" (one in each direction) on Mopac from Parmer to Town Lake and is now explaining the plan. These will, apparently, boil down to a new inside lane in each direction, with possibly flimsy barriers between them and the general-purpose lanes, similar to what you see on the northbound frontage road just north of Bee Caves Road. General-purpose lanes will have to be narrowed a bit, and some shoulder will be lost (especially the inside shoulder - which will be effectively gone).

I'm generally a moderate supporter of HOV lanes, and a stronger supporter of managed lanes. Tolling road capacity anywhere is a good move away from our current system in which urban drivers and especially non-drivers subsidize SUV-driving suburban soccer moms. Ironically, the more red-meat conservative you are around these parts, the more you apparently pine for the old Soviet method of market-clearing, at least as it applies to road capacity.

And, one of the best reasons to support HOV or managed lanes is the boost in performance and reliability it can give bus transit, which needs all the help it can get.

HOWEVER, the system considered here will do nothing to improve the performance of transit, for this reason:

To exit Mopac, the bus (or car that paid a toll) must travel through three lanes of general-purpose traffic in order to get to the exit lane.

If that traffic is backed up enough to make you want to use the toll facility, it will also be backed up enough that it will be impossible to quickly cut through to get to your exit. Much of the time savings in the managed lane will be lost at entry and exit.

This is the same problem other half-assed HOV facilities have around the country - in places like South Florida (no barrier; hard to enforce; and mostly useless during extremely high traffic periods except if you're going all the way through where the traffic is). Likewise, this facility won't help the commuter going to UT, or downtown; the only group it could really help dramatically would be people going from north suburb to south suburb.

IE, we're going to spend city drivers' gas tax money to even more excessively subsidize the suburban commuter - but just in case we might accidentally benefit the city; we're going to do it in such a way that it only helps those who don't live OR work in the center-city.

STUPID.

By the way, $110 million would pay for the entire commuter rail line (which won't do anything good for Austin), OR, it could be used as a down payment on a rail transit system which will work, i.e., build a leg of real non-streetcar light-rail from downtown up to the Triangle.

December 14, 2006

Why frontage roads are bad for transit

Here's two frankly awful drawings I just threw together in the five minutes I could spare. Better versions are gratefully appreciated if anybody's got some. I'm just an awful awful artist, but this satisfies a promise I made a few crackplogs back.

This first image is roughly what you face when you need to get to the destinations on Riata Trace Parkway on US 183 in northwest Austin. Imagine you're coming from the left - your bus runs down the frontage road on the opposite of the highway, and you get off the bus. (This stop in this picture actually represents the Pavillion Park and Ride - i.e., this is what really happens up here - no, the good buses don't stop at Duval either). Even though your destination is directly across US 183 from your stop, you need to walk the better part of a mile down to Duval Road, turn around, and walk the same distance back up the other side. (This is even more odious since there used to be a city street crossing US 183 here before the road was upgraded to a freeway).

For those who think this is an unlikely example, this situation is exactly what I faced when trying to take transit back home from an office I had (at Riata) a few years back. In my case, I was using the #982 bus as a boost for a bike commute, so at least I was only riding my bike this far out of the way - a walk like that would have been out of the question for a daily commute. Had I been trying to take transit both ways and intended to walk, in other words, you could have added about a half-hour walk each way just to get to/from my office from the bus stop, even though it was right across the freeway - and again, would have been a simple 2 minute walk before the freeway's frontage roads severed this crossing.

The second image represents the area around Northcross, on which runs a bus which I have also used frequently (the #3). Note that all you need to do here is, worst case, walk across the street (since you'll always have a stop at a light), and walk a few blocks from the light to your destination on the other side - a matter of a couple hundred feet at most.

It's not an accident that the routes which travel on city streets like the second picture above are feasible for people walking to work, while the routes which travel on frontage roads like the first one are only feasible for unidirectional suburban park-and-ride users (who drive to the park and ride and take the bus downtown). But somehow, people over and over again think that we need to keep building these stupid frontage roads AND keep putting our major retail and office destinations on them. Frontage roads kill the ability to travel by everything except the private automobile. They destroy existing street networks - so even if your city, like Austin, tries hard to maintain alternate routes, they're still drastically affected by this abyssmal roadway design.

November 08, 2006

Statesman clueless about urban development

Shilli knocks it out of the park: urban is more than a different coating to the building; and it's more than the number of floors. This Wal-Mart will still be car-friendly and pedestrian-and-transit-hostile; and should be opposed on those grounds alone. As I commented in an earlier item there, I also doubt Wal-Mart's urban bona-fides compared to Target, who seems to actually walk the walk on this stuff.

Not surprisingly, the Statesman credulously swallowed the misrepresentation of this project as both urban (see above) and central-city (Anderson Lane may be geographically central by some standards, but the area itself isn't "city"). Also not surprisingly, the typical whines about local businesses have come up - precisely the wrong reason to oppose this Wal-Mart. Let me state this succinctly:

A big box store which engages the street rather than a parking lot, and prioritizes pedestrian arrival over automobile convenience is much better for us in the long-run than a half-dozen 'local businesses' in pedestrian-hostile strip malls. Strip mall patrons come and go; but the physical buildings (and parking lots) don't. If Wal-Mart did what Shawn suggests and plunked down an urban building right on the corner of Anderson and Burnet (right next to a bunch of bus stops), I'd be supporting them whole-heartedly.

Remember: urban and suburban are styles of development, not just designations for geographic areas. You can have a suburban development right in the middle of downtown, and you can have an urban development in the middle of a ton of sprawl.

September 07, 2006

Chronicle remains credulous

In today's story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, not once, in the entire story, was this fact mentioned:

The three biggest "nodes", now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it'll be as slow as the bus is today, and that's the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as "Rapid" though they may be).

Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

September 02, 2006

"Please do what we want, or we'll ask nicely again!"

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro's long-range plans while never asking "hey, shouldn't we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin"?

There's a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.

People will get co-opted by this group, just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, and as a result, there's no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.

If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he'll end this now by using this group's forum to push for what Austin needs - but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn't be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do! Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I'd also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”. This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

July 18, 2006

Tidbits from Cap Metro's PR explosion

Capital Metro has completely redone their web site for the All Systems Go project, and it looks pretty darn nice. Here are some relevant tidbits:

1: The MetroRail page: "Regular and special shuttle buses will whisk you to your final destination.".

Yup, those shuttle buses will whisk you through traffic downtown, just like the Dillos do today. Anybody who rides those things feel "whisked"? The requirement that essentially all riders must transfer to shuttle buses to get to work is why Tri-Rail failed miserably in South Florida. Every successful rail start in the last 20 years has followed the same pattern (including DART in Dallas and MetroRail in Houston): the train goes where the people want to go. People with jobs don't mess around with shuttle buses. They just don't.

2. The MetroRapid page (formerly called "Rapid Bus"): "As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded Rapid bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, “that bus looks like a train.”"

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be thinking to myself: a train wouldn't be stuck in traffic behind all these damn cars and buses. Holding a green light at one intersection doesn't help clear the clogs from the next ten intersections ahead of you. (Anybody who doubts this is welcome to view Guadalupe near UT during rush-hour). The only way to turn a bus, even if it looks like a train, into something approaching light rail is to give it its own lane, which they are not doing with MetroRapid.

3. The Circulator System page - they're hyping streetcar, but as noted before: it's going to be shuttle buses, for a long time; and streetcar only happens if they can con UT and/or the city into paying a good chunk of the bill.

Streetcars are a nice thing to have in the long-run for a variety of reasons, but they don't do one damn thing to improve speed or reliability of the 'circulator'.

In summary: Nothing's changed; the folks in central Austin who pay most of the bills are still getting screwed by Capital Metro. Any questions?

June 29, 2006

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here's a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.

Next week:

ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they're all wet.

June 21, 2006

Water and micro vs. macro economics

As usual, local leaders (most of whom hail from the environmental side of the divide) want to do something good, but come up with a stupid way to do it.

New rules could force homeowners to make plumbing improvements like removing wasteful showerheads and fixing leaking faucets or sprinklers. It may also include rules requiring watering of lawns and landscapes once every five days.

The City Council appears ready to impose a set of rules which attempt to solve this problem from the top down, via a sort of macroeconomic (for lack of a better word) approach. It will likely work, for given values of 'work' - I'm sure they can reduce water consumption to a certain degree with these measures, but it will likely be an inefficient effort which requires additional spending on inspection and enforcement which could be better spent elsewhere.

A far better approach would be a more graduated and progressive water charge - today, you pay a tiny amount per gallon for the first N gallons, and a higher (but still very very cheap) amount per gallon for the remaining gallons you use, where N is an amount which appears to be designed to handle a small family's typical water usage if they don't water a lawn. Adding more gradiations to this scale and more drastically accelerating the water cost as you go up would be the smartest way to internalize the incentives you want people to have to conserve water, without the need for a big bureaucracy at the city. (Yes, rain barrels should still be subsidized - there are drainage benefits to them which far exceed the tiny water supply benefits). Some people would xeriscape; others would take more showers instead of baths; others would wash dishes differently. You don't really care HOW they do it; the only interest of the city is in delaying the need to obtain more water supply. The additional cost to the city of this solution is basically zero.

This particular approach, which I dub "marketatarian", uses the power of the market to solve a readily identifiable problem involving what's commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons, but doesn't wallow in the mire of hard-core libertarian nonsense (whose practitioners would go on and on about how the market would solve the water supply issue if we just let it do so, but would then call the pricing strategy above an example of socialist statism run amok). The Sierra Clubbers, on the other hand, typically have such a deep-seated mistrust of capitalism (thanks to those self-identified libertarians, among others) that they can't even wrap their heads around the simple fact that the market is a really really really good tool to solve problems, as long as you supply the right rules inside which it must operate. In this case, the only rules are "less water supply" and "progressive pricing so we don't completely cut off poor peoples' basic water needs".

By the way, the lack of support from the city for people who want to install "grey water" irrigation systems is another big part of the problem here. Now that we have a small child in the house who likes baths and I spend a couple nights a week soaking my aching legs in hot water, we send a ton of water down the drain which could just as easily be dumped in the yard.

This starts a new category I'm working on - titled "subsidies to suburban sprawl". This water billing scheme is one of many such 'user fees' which total up to massive undercharging of suburbanites for the costs they generate compared to urban dwellers. More to come - next up: garbage collection.

Also found another new Austin blog which seems right up my alley: New Urban Prospect.