As usual, the Chronicle's coverage of commuter rail, this time the Elgin branch, basically ignores(*) the most pressing issue of all, which is NOT "how will people get to the train station in Elgin" or "are there enough people out there". It's "do they work at the Convention Center, and if not, how will they get to their offices?
The residential end (Elgin or Leander) of these trips is obvious. People will drive to the train stations, which will have lots of parking. (The Leander station already does, as does the "Austin" station which will really be serving mostly Cedar Park, who of course don't even pay Capital Metro taxes). (All the supposed transit-oriented development along the first line is really just transit-adjacent-development taking advantage of political cover to get the density that should already have been granted for locations that close into the city, of course - Leander's TOD, by the way, is on hold due to bankruptcy proceedings for one of the developers and was never anything more than a joke as far as I'm concerned.)
So what about the office end of the trip? Are people going to walk to their office from the train station? NO. This is obvious for UT and the Capitol, but there are some naive folks who think that since they currently walk a long distance to ride a train, that everybody will. Not gonna happen here.
The key here, folks, is that these commuter rail lines are targetting "choice commuters" - and in the actual case of Leander and Elgin, they're way down on the skeptic end of the "choice commuter" spectrum. What "choice commuter" means is that they have cars, and are using them right now - so they will have to be convinced to CHOOSE transit. In Leander's case, excellent express bus service already exists which will take passengers straight to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown in which office workers actually work - nice, comfortable, touring buses with internet connections; we're not talking normal city buses here. In Elgin's case, not as much. And what this also means is that they're precisely the people who will NOT be willing to walk 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the train station to their office - these are exactly the people for whom the 1/4 mile rule was devised. People who are so in love with taking public transportation that they will take extra-long walks to do so are already riding the express bus, in other words.
So how, Chronicle writers, are the passengers on these 2 commuter rail lines going to get to work? Shuttlebuses. Yes, the same people who (in Leander's case at least) can't be convinced to take relatively luxurious express buses straight to their office today are somehow going to be convinced they enjoy getting on and off much more spartan, jerky, shuttlebuses each and every day to get from the train station to their final destination.
While the 2008 TWG proposal may improve things slightly, it's still going to be a transfer, and, repeat with me: choice commuters hate transfers - you're asking them to give up a 1-seat ride (their car) for a 3-seat ride (car, train, bus/streetcar). Even if the last 2 seats are reserved-guideway, you're going to turn off a huge proportion of your potential audience with that transfer - it happens even in Manhattan, where an investment of over six billion dollars is being made to move the LIRR just a bit farther into the core to allow more LIRR passengers to walk to work instead of having to transfer. They're not doing this just to make things nicer for existing riders, people; the Bush administration doesn't play that game - they're doing it based on recovering a bunch of choice commuters who are now driving. And, people, we're not Manhattan, nor will we ever be - we will never have parking so expensive or traffic so difficult that many people will be willing to take the extra transfer if they can just drive.
Christof in Houston put this best quite a while back, emphasis mine::
Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.
Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.
What's the solution? Tear up commuter rail, right now, and go back to the 2000 light rail plan, which served all the same suburban northwest commuters in precisely the same locations as does commuter rail, but also hit the major residential density in Austin itself, and went straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown. Until then, the best we can do is try to support the salvage effort in that 2008 CAMPO TWG plan which makes noise about distributing commuter rail passengers but unlike Capital Metro's stupid proposal, can also serve as a modest start to an urban rail system that actually serves Austin residents without relying on the commuter rail line itself. And, of course, the 2000 and 2008 rail plans would actually serve more of the transit-positive population of the city that would be willing to take a longer walk just to ride transit, but that's just a bonus.
* - there is brief mention of the TWG proposal in the final paragraph along with a mention that it will enable the commuter rail line to "really work" - I don't believe this qualifies as serious consideration given the points above - the work end of the trip is by far the most important aspect of any rail start, and even reserved guideway streetcar won't save commuter rail thanks to the fact that it's, repeat along with me: still a transfer. If brand-new rail lines are to succeed in cities with mostly choice commuters, they have to serve a large proportion of their ridership with a one-seat ride; transfers can build ridership from there; but any city which is trying to start from nothing while relying 100% on transfers is dooming themselves to failure (see Tri-Rail, South Florida).