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May 13, 2011

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, 2011 Confirmation

Click for larger version.

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

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

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

May 12, 2011

twitlonger.crackplog

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

Zero.

So in direct response to this question from @jacedeloney:

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

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

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

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

April 01, 2011

Approximately 3100 words for today about TOD

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

Click on each picture for a double-size version.

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

March 28, 2011

Demoralized

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

Continue reading "Demoralized" »

March 21, 2011

A Really Crappy Chart For Your Monday

Since so many people either don't get why the Red Line continues to be a problem or are disingenuously pretending not to know, I'm starting a flowchart for you. Thank me later. Click on the image below to get the full (part 1 only) chart.

If you want more, let me know.

February 02, 2011

Red Line Phase One Wrap-Up

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

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

December 10, 2010

3000 words on rail ridership

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

Continue reading "3000 words on rail ridership" »

December 03, 2010

You Idiots, You Blew It Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 24, 2010

Chutzpah of the Year

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

Continue reading "Chutzpah of the Year" »

November 10, 2010

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

(cut/pasted from the facebook)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 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).

August 24, 2010

The Other Shoe Begins To Drop

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2010

Whole shakers of salt

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

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

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

So let's examine in detail. My tweet:

Continue reading "Whole shakers of salt" »

August 12, 2010

Holding Capital Metro Accountable on Ridership

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

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

Any questions? (Click to enlarge).

Continue reading "Holding Capital Metro Accountable on Ridership" »

July 29, 2010

Will Kramer Save The Red Line?

The bus is outta control. So I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel, and now I'm driving the bus.

So. The Kramer shuttle. The next step from South Florida's playbook on how to rescue a commuter rail line that's foundering due to not going where anybody actually works. Is it gonna help?

Continue reading "Will Kramer Save The Red Line?" »

July 23, 2010

Will adding later morning runs help the Red Line?

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

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

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

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

July 07, 2010

Today's news bits

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

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

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

June 29, 2010

Red Line May 2010 Ridership

Down, down, down.

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2010

April ridership data for Red Line

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

Continue reading "April ridership data for Red Line" »

May 07, 2010

Just what you needed: Some Crappy Video

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

May 06, 2010

Transit Field Trip: Back From Jury Duty

On Monday, I had jury duty, which allowed for me to watch a whopping two people get off the 8:25 AM train at MLK, and also ride the bus back home. But first, on the way there, my wife drove me down; and we observed full shuttles (the UT variety, not the Red Line rail shuttles) and expresses and normal city buses dropping tons of people off on Guadalupe at the front door of UT - this was important to verify just in case the low rail turnout was due to UT traffic being down thanks to exams or something.

I got let out of empanelling kind of late at about 1:00; walked quickly to Texadelphia and had a very good but surprisingly expensive lunch (low snack availability = big-time starving) and then walked over to Lavaca to find the first northbound stop.

1:52 PM: Picked up by the #5 bus heading northbound from 15th and Lavaca. Nice. Was about to call Cap Metro to decide whether to wait for the #5 or just get on the first #1 I saw (runs more often, but would have much longer walk to house). There were 7 people on this bus before I boarded; total count now 8.

Stopped for about a minute by the light at MLK. Rapid Bus (were we on it) would not have helped here; the red light was stale when we arrived. One person got off the bus at Guadalupe/20th; total count now 7.

BIG backup at 21st st. Took a while to clear out as the lights turned green many blocks ahead. Another place where Rapid Bus wouldn't have helped. Got hit by a fresh red at 21st right as we got there - Rapid Bus might actually have helped here (were I riding the #1 replacement, that is; rather than the #5). Lost about a minute here due to this.

1:58 PM: Bus arrives at ped crossing between 22nd and 23rd; 9 people got on, including a confused elderly passenger who held up the bus for about 2 minutes by asking the driver a bunch of questions. I presume Rapid Bus wouldn't put up with this but don't know for sure. Total count now 16.

Made all green lights with no stops all the way to Dean Keeton, then turned and made it through another couple greens to the red light at Speedway (stale; no help from Rapid Bus). Thanks, mid-day light traffic. At the big stop on the north side of campus right after this light, dropped off 2 and picked up 6; for total count of 20.

Picked up one more at San Jacinto/30th (unusual), total count now 21.

Dropped one off at 31st; and then no more drop-offs until I got off the bus at 35th/Speedway with a couple other passengers; leaving 17 people still on the bus heading north.

Conclusion for urbanites: All-in-all, a good local bus experience, except for the long delay with the passenger who didn't know where he wanted to go. Little delay due to traffic; bus well-used but nobody had to stand.

Special bonus for suburbanites: If you wanted to get a self-fulfilling prophecy and see this bus almost empty, you probably would have had to observe it north of the northern edges of Hyde Park or the Triangle area. Try Woodrow up around North Loop, or even Anderson near Northcross Mall.

May 05, 2010

Slightly Less Epic MetroFail

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

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

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

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

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

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

180 boardings. Maximum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 03, 2010

Epic MetroFail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Epic MetroFail" »

April 30, 2010

Blast From The Past

From The Chronicle in 2000:

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

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

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

April 28, 2010

Sad Lonely Shuttle

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

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

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

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

April 27, 2010

1000 Words

April 13, 2010

Red Line: What Comes Next?

Really short but need to get this out for posterity.

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

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

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

April 05, 2010

Red Line Update

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

What a difference $3 can make.

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

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

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

for this:

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

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

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

Good show, Austin. Good show.

March 30, 2010

Red Line Round Up

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

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

March 17, 2010

Ticketing isn't much better than just yelling

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

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

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

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

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

My response in comments to the Statesman article:

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

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

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

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

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

March 12, 2010

Teaser graphic

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

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

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

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

After the break, the picture...

Continue reading "Teaser graphic" »

March 04, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Three

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

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

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

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

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Three" »

March 02, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part Two

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

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

Continue reading "Days of Reckoning, Part Two" »

March 01, 2010

Days of Reckoning, Part One

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

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

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

July 15, 2004:

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

More references:

February 18, 2010

Capital Metro's Service 2020 plan: Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

I only have five minutes, but am officially out of time to crackplog this, so here goes.

Three special areas of stupidity in the Capital Metro 2020 plan:

Luckily for me, two others already hit two of my three major points. (No, Wells, it wasn't due to secret meetings of the echo chamber; note Shilli wasn't even involved).

1. Covered by Austin Contrarian: Moving major (i.e. the #1) bus routes off Congress, which is walkable and dense, to Guadalupe/Lavaca, which are infested with low density garbage for blocks in certain parts and farther away from the core of downtown, is stupid. Yes, the buses will move quicker. No, this isn't better; the reason the buses will move quicker is that they will be far away from the places people actually want to go downtown. (No, the residential density developing west of Congress isn't relevant here; every one possible reverse transmit commuter from one of those condo buildings is matched by a hundred or more existing work commuters trying to get to an office building - and the office building center of mass is on Congress).

2. Covered by a commenter on Capital MetroBlog; moving certain local routes like the #5 off the Drag is stupid. Most people going to UT are closer to Guadalupe than San Jacinto; this seems like a poorly justified way to pretend like Guadalupe isn't where the action is, to forestall complaints by people like yours truly when the Red Line finally opens.

"Robert"'s comment:

This would be a disaster. Quite a lot of the #5’s ridership–myself included–consists of UT students and staff who are destined for the engineering complex, the communications buildings, the west mall, or the six-pack–all very dense clusters on campus. The proposed changes would drop them off a good deal farther away from their destination, and at the bottom of a hill–not at all pedestrian-friendly. This seems, like the proposed switch from Congress to Guadalupe/Lavaca downtown–to be the general principle: move the bus routes away from the places people need to go, and into areas that are less congested. That is not a plan for increased ridership.

(pre-emptive comeback to inevitable complant from CM insiders: Guadalupe near UT is the best place for UT trips. Guadalupe near downtown is NOT the best place for downtown trips).

3. Covered by nobody else, so it falls to me: Eliminating West Austin routes like the #21/#22 (which my stepson uses) is stupid. Yes, I said eliminate; if you believe that the proposed 'flexible' service being provided in its place will (a) work and (b) last, you're more credulous than Capital Metro deserves at this point in history.

Look, ridership on some of those routes out west IS low. But here's a little hint: Capital Metro isn't at risk for having their sales tax cut because too few people ride the bus in Tarrytown; they're at risk for having their sales tax cut if enough people listen to that Neanderthal pantload Jim Skaggs and VOTE to cut their sales tax. Guess what? Voter turnout in the parts of town served by the #21/#22 is extraordinarily high. Guess what tends to happen to voter support for transit in areas with no visible transit service when you have elections on sustaining taxes to support transit service?

To say nothing of the PR impact of removing one of the primary ways transfer students from less affluent neighborhoods get to schools like O Henry and Austin High (yes, my stepson is among them; but there's kids a lot poorer on the same buses doing the same thing). No, the flexible service, even if it lasts, won't be any help here; nor will service being proposed to replace UT shuttles. And this may even impact students from the west who want to, say, go to the Kealing magnet school.

I've said for years that I give Capital Metro credit for doing the best job possible in the political environment in which they operate at the job of running a city bus service through a built environment that doesn't naturally sustain much choice commuter interest. I've spent a lot of time on the internets defending them against charges of "empty buses" and the like.

But you know what? If CM is stupid enough to commit this kind of suicide, after screwing the city of Austin for a generation on the rail front? I'm not so sure I'm in their corner any more - even on the city bus issue.

References:

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 28, 2010

Capital Metro flips city the bird

or, in short, Ben Wear was right.

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

Full Statesman article and relevant quote:

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

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

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

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

Earlier coverage:

January 18, 2010

No, I can't stop beating that horse

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

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

December 18, 2009

History, Not Learning From

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

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

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

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

As Jeff points out,

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2009

Red Line Death Watch Part 1

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

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

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

Continue reading "Red Line Death Watch Part 1" »

November 18, 2009

Two quick hits

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

Also,

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

Continue reading "Two quick hits" »

November 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.

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." »

October 01, 2009

Don't Let The Door Hit You, Fred

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

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

August 26, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 18, 2009

New link and upcoming story

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

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

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

More on this tomorrow I hope.

July 23, 2009

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

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

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

Look at this picture, from page 5:

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

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

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 27, 2009

Bad service is hard to kill

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

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

[...]

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

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

Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs

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

Here's a little table for you to consider:

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

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

Continue reading "Rail Should Reduce Operating Costs" »

May 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?

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 28, 2009

CM reserves down to effectively nothing

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

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

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

April 10, 2009

Chris Riley for City Council

As Chris at the Austin Contrarian has already pointed out, Chris Riley is the urban candidate. I'm not going to address that end of the equation, since the other Chris pretty much nailed my feelings on the matter.

I'm going to talk about transportation.

Today, I think it's fair to say that every city council member is a driver. While a few of them indicated they may ride bikes for fun, none of them regularly ride for transportation; and only one regularly walks for transportation (Mayor Wynn, about to leave). None of the rest appear to be Capital Metro users either. While they usually say things that support those modes of transportation, their actions quite often don't live up to their words. I don't think all or even most of this discrepancy is the result of anything other than a lack of working familiarity with the issues those modes of transportation face - in other words, they may want to do the right thing, but often don't know what that is in a way that might be obvious to those of us with more experience.

Chris Riley is a cyclist and a pedestrian and a transit user. He doesn't own a car now, but helped found Austin CarShare. He rides his bike everywhere, but isn't against motorists; he just wants to make sure that we make things easier for those who don't want to (or even more importantly can't) drive. He understands the role of transportation in supporting sustainable land use in a way that some current city council members might claim to do, but has a commitment to the issue which far surpasses what I've seen from those folks. He co-founded the Alliance for Public Transportation; a group which is trying to push the rail conversation in the right direction.

Unlike some past city council candidates who have identified with bicyclists, Chris is realistic - he does not seek to eliminate cars, or punish drivers. He wants to make things better by moves that I think most motorists are even willing to accept. He's a guy who's been working in the private sector, so can speak to issues that regular citizens face every day, but has dedicated countless hours to the public to try to make things better for everybody.

I am not exaggerating when I say that on the issue of transportation, Chris is the strongest candidate for any city office, including mayor, that I have seen in the 13 years I've lived here in Austin.

I trust Chris implicitly to do as much as is realistically possible to improve transportation in our city in a sustainable forward-looking direction. I urge every reader of this blog to vote early for Chris, and tell your friends to do the same.

Chris Riley is the transportation candidate.

(PS: My readers are invited to meet Chris next Sunday. I don't know if we'll be able to make it due to ongoing pregnancy concerns, but I hope to be there).

Also see: Burnt Orange Report.

April 01, 2009

Capital Metro is trying to mislead you

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2009

What's Up With Capital Metro?

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

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

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

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2009

Simplified headline

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

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

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

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

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

March 05, 2009

Capital Metro express bus changes screw Austin in favor of Leander

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

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

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

March 04, 2009

Effort to game the numbers on Red Line begins

Slowly at first.

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

Also, later on in the same document:

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

Let's emphasize that again:

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

Any questions why they might be doing this?

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

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

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

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.

Still Stupid about Shuttles

A quick hit as I'm preparing for another trip to beautiful Huntsville.

While my wife and I were painting on Sunday, my father-in-law took our 5-year-old to the Kite Festival. Or, rather, he tried. As he put it, when he got to the shuttle pickup (around 16th/Lavaca), a cop told him there was about an hour wait to board the shuttle and another hour to get to the park (this was at 2:00 in the afternoon or so). There were supposedly about 25 shuttles stuck in traffic on the way to the park.

Sound familiar?

Here's another free clue: if you want people to take shuttles to a special event, make sure the shuttles aren't stuck in the same traffic that their cars would be if they drove. This doesn't have to be complicated; as I told my father-in-law: Barton Springs has two lanes. Cone off one for buses. Problem solved.

This is just another brick in the gigantic wall of ignorance about transit that prevents nearly everyone in government from making effective decisions: the ridership figures you see for any transit service are the result of a bunch of individual decisions whether to ride based on incentives (cost, time, etc). In this case, if the shuttlebuses are going to be as slow or slower than peoples' cars, both the cars and the shuttlebuses will be stuck in traffic - and overall performance will be very poor. The folks making decisions for events like this think, as Christof once put it, that transit is like a big vaccuum cleaner - put it somewhere and it'll magically suck up riders.

A lot of people were waiting in line for those shuttles, but the overall performance was likely very poor - considering that all 25 buses were out, stuck in traffic. (Cars do better in traffic than buses do, remember). A setup where the shuttles had their own lane on Barton Springs (and maybe S 1st if necessary) would easily have carried thousands more people - basically everybody that was stuck in line plus everybody that got turned away (and, after people saw buses actually performing well,. even more car drivers would switch to the shuttles the next time around; while after THIS disastrous performance, even fewer people will be willing to try the shuttles next time there's an event down there).

Lessons can be drawn from this for future transit investment. Is anybody at the city (who can, if they choose to, rein in Capital Metro) seriously under the impression that transferring to shuttlebuses at the end of a rail trip won't be a major disincentive for riders? I would have thought they got it by now, but the last two major shuttles-to-parks fiascoes have showed me that perhaps I was too optimistic.

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 25, 2009

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

Commenter "breathesgelatin" pointed out 2 posts ago:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crestview Station and Commuter Rail

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

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

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

But wait. There's more.

Continue reading "Crestview Station and Commuter Rail" »

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" »

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 12, 2009

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

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

Four comments on your two quick hits!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 08, 2009

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.

Two quick hits

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

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

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

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

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

More later as I slowly get up to speed.

December 09, 2008

2047 words about the commuter rail station downtown

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

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

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

December 03, 2008

The downtown station, drawn optimistically

Erica from Capital Metro, in comments to this post, brings up the fact that the third image (originally from the city's old OnTrack newsletter, updated with green and yellow dots by yours truly), had an error in how the circles were drawn around prospective rail stations on the extension to Seaholm many people unsuccessfully lobbied for in 2004. The point of this image was to show the locations of the office buildings -- not the circles (although that is not inherently obvious if the image is viewed in isolation), and the error wasn't mine (somebody at the city drew a 1/4 mile diameter rather than radius) - but I've known about it for quite some time; using the image just to show the office locations since I have not yet created a new map with a better representation of offices. Typically when I discuss this issue on other forums, I prefer to use a google maps link like this one which shows a walk of 0.4 miles to 6th and Congress.

However, some folks at CM just produced the image below, which is about the best light you can put this 'downtown' station in, and which I will post even though it has its own problem: an attempt to fudge the issue by presenting both the legitimate 1/4 mile circle and a far less legitimate 1/2 mile catchment zone. Another discrepancy between the maps, not anybody's fault, is that in 2004, the station location was projected a half block or so farther east.

Please see comments after the image.

Important things to note here:

  • Most major office buildings are outside the 1/4 mile zone. Most are also inside the 1/2 mile range. However, using the same principle as above, note that, for instance, the second-newest big office building downtown is more than a half-mile from the train station. Essentially all major office buildings downtown, including this one, would have been within 1/4 mile of the 2000 light rail route, whether on Congress or Colorado or even Guadalupe/Lavaca.

  • The 1/2 mile radius is used as a fallback 'rule' to declare that you can attract a few more choice commuters to excellent high-frequency rail service than the 1/4 mile rule would suggest. The problem here, of course, is that the service we are providing is neither high-quality (doesn't go to UT or the Capitol or anywhere else worth going if your origin is 'downtown') nor high-frequency (runs only every 30 minutes and only during rush hours). In addition, the expanded catchment area is most suited to the residential end of the trip - i.e. you might walk farther from your home to pick up the train if it's really good - but surely not to take the train if the walk FROM the train station TO your office was extra-long - this is borne out by New York's transit agency's project to spend billions to bring the LIRR a bit closer to employment centers (see also: non-trivial unwillingness of choice commuters to tolerate transfers even from 'good rail' to 'good rail', even in Manhattan).

  • We don't have a large population of people who would be willing to walk 1/2 mile to work from the train station (and risk mistiming a 1/2 mile walk back to the train station in the afternoon only to maybe miss the once-every-half-hour train) who, and this is critically important here: aren't already riding the bus. The same people who would give the train such an incredible time investment are already going to be riding the buses from all over the city that head straight to their offices downtown. I speak from experience here: a long walk to pick up transit from the office isn't sustainable in the long-run even for transit-positive people like me. If I had to pay $10/day to park, I might think differently, but then I'd already be taking the bus, wouldn't I?

  • And, most importantly, if Capital Metro really believed that the average choice commuter would consider this train station to be within a quick, comfortable, walk of their office, they wouldn't be providing these three downtown shuttles, one of which runs right up Congress Avenue.

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?

December 01, 2008

You forgot the air quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated update

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

November 04, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

October 27, 2008

Why the new library is in the wrong place

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2008

That didn't take long

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

Here's what I commented to that post:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 24, 2008

No, Capital Metro, it's NOT light rail

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a second comment, I add:

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

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

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

And, my email to our city council:

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus

September 17, 2008

Getting to the ACM on transit

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

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

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

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

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

Additional suggestions welcome.

1. From Burnet/Koenig:

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

Continue reading "Getting to the ACM on transit" »

September 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.

September 11, 2008

TWITC: They get to the Convention Center. Then what?

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).

September 05, 2008

Austin Contrarian on Austin Rail

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

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 31, 2008

BRT is a fraud (so is Rapid Bus)

A quick hit from Orphan Road in Seattle; excerpts:

BRT is neither cheaper nor faster to build. No matter what you might say about a mixed system or buses needed as feeders or matching the traffic requirements with the market, at the end of the day, BRT is most likely to be a fraud.

I'll let other people be "reasonable" and concede that, if you grant a lot of things that never will happen, BRT "might" work. When I look around at all these existing BRT implementations and find delay, financial ruin, and angry riders, I've had enough. BRT is a fraud.

Also of note from the BRT example city of Curitiba are these scalability problems courtesy of The Overhead Wire:

During peak hours, buses on the main routes are already arriving at almost 30-second intervals; any more buses, and they would back up. While acknowledging his iconoclasm in questioning the sufficiency of Curitiba’s trademark bus network, Schmidt nevertheless says a light-rail system is needed to complement it.

All of this (and more) applies to Rapid Bus. The investment is high - and the payoff is nearly zero; you're still stuck with an awful vehicle that can't get through traffic congestion like light rail does all over the country. No wonder the highway guys push for BRT (and its dumber sibling, Rapid Bus) so much - it's not a threat to them. The Feds are pushing it now because the Bush guys have finally wrecked the FTA - but that doesn't make it a good idea; it makes it something to pretend to consider until saner hands take the till.

Capital Metro needs to cut this out right now and put this money into something that works - like the light rail proposal which, unlike Rapid Bus, is at least something that has worked in other cities and can insulate us from diesel costs in the future.

July 28, 2008

The trouble with Manor to Mueller

This is going to be a bit disjoint - I'm typing this at 6:25 at a Pizza Hut in Huntsville, AL (no buffet; waiting for my personal pan pizza; do they still do this?) after having gotten up at 4AM to fly to Nashville and then drive 2 hours down here, then working all day with the other companies on a project for my day job.

After the original unveiling of the streetcar plan promised complete dedicated guideway, ROMA has begun the inevitable backing away process - now saying that dedicated guideway is unlikely on Manor and Congress. Neither one makes sense, but ROMA is likely a believer in the "magic streetcar fairy dust" (note to readers: remind me to write an article on this phenomenon; in short: the theory that streetcars are so great that people won't mind being stuck in traffic). Let's look at Manor in particular.

At the original public unveiling of the plan, yours truly stood up and asked why Manor couldn't be singletracked instead of condemning right-of-way to build dedicated doubletrack. An anonymous jackass on the skyscraperpage forum (who I believe to be either Lyndon Henry or Dave Dobbs) scoffed at the idea, but it's time to consider it again, since ROMA has apparently decided that expanding the right-of-way of Manor is now off the table.

The problem: Manor doesn't have enough width for a car lane each way and one "train lane" each way. (Current configuration is 2 bike lanes, 2 through lanes, and a center-turn lane). There's ALMOST enough width to run reserved-guideway rail and keep one through lane each way if you lose the bike lanes, but not quite. The old configuration of Manor prior to the installation of bike lanes was 4 through lanes, but they were probably too narrow to support car next to train operation (at least, that's what I'm assuming).

ROMA's solution: Run the streetcar in with regular traffic. Sounds fine, right? There's not much traffic on Manor today by any reasonable standard.

Why ROMA's solution stinks: If there's going to be enough traffic headed downtown to fill streetcars in 5 years when a lot more people live at Mueller, there's also going to be a lot more people driving on Manor (which is the smartest driving route to UT, and probably right up there for the Capitol and downtown). So the conditions today that make it look like cars would never slow down the train (much) are misleading - most of the cars that will be there in 5 years aren't there now.

M1EK's solution: Single-track reserved guideway. This stretch is very short (took about two minutes to drive down in the cab on the way to the airport at 4:45 this morning). Initial frequency is set for "every 10 minutes". You ought to be able to keep this as single-track and maintain that schedule with no problems - but if that's too close for comfort, bulb out at a station right in the middle - voila, two shorter single-track segments, and you only need to condemn a sliver of land around that station rather than along the whole stretch.

Why M1EK's solution stinks: Trains will still compete with each other; schedules will suffer.

Why ROMA's solution stinks more: Trains will lose a lot more schedule time stuck behind cars than they will waiting for an oncoming train to clear the single-track section, on average.

Why magical streetcar fairy dust partisans will still dislike M1EK's solution: "You can't expand your solution into dedicated double-track". One track right in the middle of what used to be the center turn lane is right in the middle of where two tracks would need to be - you can't reuse that track.

Why it's not any worse than ROMA's solution on that metric: The rails on which the shared-lane streetcar will run are also going to be in the wrong place - you can't magically change those into reserved guideway either (unless you completely close Manor off to cars). In fact, M1EK's solution allows for a more incremental approach - where you can gradually acquire more right-of-way and shift the double-to-single-track transitions further out away from the station(s).

Does anybody else ever do this? Yes, Baltimore had single-track on their light rail line for quite a while (maybe still do; I haven't kept up to speed on their system).

Congress Avenue is a much easier case, by the way; it's largely an aesthetic objection (reserved guideway should run in the middle of the street, but some people with absolutely no grounding in history are upset about the caternary wires in front of the view of the Capitol - forgetting that for 50 years or more, that's exactly what we had).

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.

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.

Capital Metro is blogging

They've just started up an effort called Capital MetroBlog. Expect to see me there from time to time -we'll see how transparent they intend to be if/when they start talking about commuter rail.

June 05, 2008

Why progressives, transit-supporters, environmentalists, and urbanites need to vote for Galindo

I'm way late on this and way short of time - so this is necessarily brief.

The Austinist covered this race in more depth and asked smarter questions than did anybody else (thanks, Shilli). Here's Cid Galindo's answers. Laura Morrison gave answers to their questions which sound sustainable, too but here's why Galindo ought to be your choice if you care at all about sustainability and affordability (not to mention environmentalism and transit):

1. Laura Morrison has opposed essentially all density anywhere in the city. Cid Galindo supports urban development which is not only sustainable for its residents, but will lower tax bills for everyone else in the long-run. The few projects Morrison lists as not opposing were cases where her hands were tied by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan (which I worked on), which called for mid-rise mixed-use development along those corridors (before the VMU ordinance existed). This plan was written before she obtained a position of power in the NA; and had been enacted by the City Council before she had a chance to do anything about it. She can't claim credit for these, because she couldn't have stopped them if she had tried. She did, however, try to stop Spring, 7Rio, and supposedly was even responsible for the suburban front design of the Whole Foods, burning all the hard-earned political capital of OWANA in the process. The City Council now, in my observation, rightly views my old neighborhood association as a no-to-everything joke that can be safely ignored.

2. Laura Morrison was the leader of the task force that developed the McMansion Ordinance. This ordinance's primary effect is to discourage secondary dwelling units like garage apartments and duplexes - the only true affordable housing left in central Austin. Although the Planning Commission acted on input from me and others to try to remedy this effect, the City Council was fooled by Morrison's group into ignoring the thoughtful Planning Commission recommendation. Galindo, according to press from the other side, voted against the McMansion Ordinance - which is absolutely the right position on this matter if you care at all about density and urbanism.

3. Laura Morrison is supported financially (maximum donations) by Jim Skaggs. Yes, that Jim Skaggs - he and his wife have donated the max to both Morrison and BATPAC (which in turn supports Morrison). Her base of support among the old ANC crowd is full of folks who claim to be pro-transit, but if you scratch them a bit, you find a lot of Skaggs poking through. People who will tell you they want improved bus service before building rail, which, of course, is the same thing as letting Skaggs take half of Capital Metro's budget for more freeways, since the buses are already being run as well as they can given current roadway design and population density. These folks don't care, of course; they don't bike or walk or use transit - they drive. Galindo's positions on transportation aren't much better defined than are Morrison's, but density supports rail in a virtuous circle, unlike the negative feedback loop the Skaggs/Morrison crowd prefers with lower density and highways.

4. Those policies will encourage more sprawl over the aquifer than the current state of affairs; while Galindo has a reasonable plan to lessen already-allowed development there (transferring development rights to new 'town centers' that can use the height and density in a sustainable fashion).

That ought to be enough - but keep in mind when you hear negatives about Galindo that many of the same things apply equally to Morrison. For instance, it's hard to think of a more traditionally Republican stance than her take on density and transportation - which is, of course, why people like Skaggs like her. And it's hard to credit attacks on Galindo for supposed family wealth when she hasn't had to hold a real job in quite some time despite living in a huge house on a big lot in Old West Austin.

Vote Galindo in the runoff. Tell your friends. It's critically important.

April 23, 2008

Last Best Chance For Urban Rail In Austin Is Here

I swear there's no conspiracy regarding the lateness of this posting - my gracious host happened to perform an apache upgrade which messed with Movable Type. Here's what I wrote this morning, Made With Notepad!

At 4:30 PM yesterday, I left my lovely suburban office and walked through lovely suburban Westlake to the awful bus stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle. After broiling in the hot sun for a few minutes, I decided to walk up to the next stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle; where there was also no shade. This did not bode well; but things got better.

The bus arrived on time (5:08ish) and was thankfully very well air conditioned. I read a book until I was dropped off quite a long walk from Texas Center (I should have taken the earlier stop). Went inside; saw Jonathan Horak and Kedron Touvell; introduced myself to both (how creepy is it that I knew what they looked like even though we'd never met; but they didn't recognize me? Pretty creepy, I think). Just on time.

Will Wynn gave a speech which emphasized how much he wants rail downtown. He got in the weeds a bit, first talking about how we were growing faster than everybody else in the world, then talking about how this decade's growth is actually slower than all previous decades back to the 1880s (huh?), but then eventually came back on track and handed the reins over to Brewster McCracken.

McCracken introduced ROMA; ROMA gave a nice presentation which I'll summarize in bullet points below. No surprises, really, if you read Ben Wear or the print article beforehand. My quick comments in italics. I will go into more depth on many of these in the upcoming several weeks.

  • Terminology: The system is going to be called "ultra-light rail". ROMA mentions that streetcars usually run in shared lanes (where I got the sinking feeling ROMA believes a bit much in the magic fairy dust theory of streetcars).
  • Technology: As mentioned, most likely streetcar vehicles. Possibility of more of a standard light rail vehicle if a decision point goes a certain way (see: Routes: doubling-back-to-the-east).
  • Runningway: Usually the center of the street; almost always dedicated lanes. This is a big win over Capital Metro's previous plans, and everybody who cares about rail transit should be grateful that McCracken and Wynn understand how critical this is to success.
  • Routes: Defined as three or four subroutes even though the service may not operate that way. They didn't actually say "downtown to" on all of these; some were Seaholm or something else; but realistically they'd all converge on Congress.
    1. Downtown to airport: Using Congress, East Riverside; reserved guideway (dedicated lanes, center of road). Alternative presented is a very unlikely extension of commuter rail to the airport. I'm very pleased we didn't try to run on the right side of Riverside. Big win here for business travellers to the airport, and we can pull in a lot of residential out there to hopefully fill trains.
    2. Downtown to Mueller: using Congress (possibility of San Jac or Brazos as fallback), 9th/10th/11th transition to San Jacinto, north to/through UT, Dean Keeton/Manor out to Mueller. Slight possibility of still going out there via MLK. It's not Guadalupe, and we probably won't get reserved guideway through UT without a lot of arm-twisting, but I think Guadalupe's a lost cause for right now. With this technology and route, though, we can eventually get there; whereas commuter rail is a complete dead end. The Manor vs. MLK issue is, I feel, largely settled for Manor unless UT makes going through campus prohibitively difficult - the only pro to MLK is the commuter rail TOD, which I obviously don't believe in anyways; and cons are many - have to deal with TXDOT; don't get even the half-assed acccess to UT that San Jac provides; etc.
    3. Downtown to Long Center and Zilker area: less likely at first, using West Riverside past Lamar, cutting over to Toomey after that. Alternative using Barton Springs would get you all the way to Zilker but no reserved lanes. I think these are unlikely to make it for the first cut anyways but it would be nice to be able to tell tourists they could take the train to Barton Springs Pool, wouldn't it?
  • Financing - ROMA didn't talk about this but McCracken did - combination of TIFs and some other mechanisms (including requiring that some portion of Cap Metro's budget be under the control of the city or CAMPO for capital spending, which I heartily endorse
  • Future - wide arrows going north and south. Again, this system can be expanded - although it'll never become anything as good as 2000's LRT line; it at least can grow into something better - whereas commuter rail is a dead end.
  • Bone-throwing - Elgin commuter rail spur thrown in to try to get some suburban votes (even though we really ought to be doing better for the urban folks who provide most of Capital Metro's funds and essentially all of their support; we apparently still need to pander to the burbs - disappointing).

That's all for right now. Expect expanded analysis of all of the above coming soon. But here's the kicker:

You MUST support this plan if you ever want any urban rail in Austin. Unlike how 2004's commuter rail election was incorrectly framed, this truly is our last best chance for rail so although I obviously would prefer rail running up Guadalupe, I'm going to be supporting this plan whole-heartedly and urge every reader of this post to do the same.

Humorous snippets: I introduced myself to Ben Wear, and even though he wrote an article with my name in it a year or two ago, and I've emailed back/forth with him 5 or 6 times, I don't think he had any idea who the hell I was. Also, Jeff Jack (future Worst Person In Austin nominee? told me I should cut out the blogging until I know what I'm talking about.

April 06, 2008

The Buses Aren't Empty, Part VIII

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

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

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

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

March 28, 2008

The shuttle buses are particularly cutting-edge

Thanks, Shilli, for making me take the last few minutes of my work day on this!

BAD KXAN, BAD!! Particularly disappointing given you got it right in 2004 when nobody else on TV did.

Austin's commuter rail has attracted attention from other major cities because of budget. Other rail systems can run about $100 million a mile. Capital Metro's rail system runs for about $4 million a mile.

Yeah, because we're not building any new track, geniuses.

"The kind of DMU units that the agency here is using are becoming basically the product of choice for this kind of application," said Marvin Snow of Bay Area Rail Transit.

Yes, for shitty rail service which has to run on existing tracks and operate with time-separation from freight use and that will never be able to run where it needs to go, DMU fits the bill! - BART is indeed thinking about DMU, on some existing tracks, by the way. They, unlike us, would be able to transfer from the DMU to a good rail system for the final leg - i.e. DMUBart running up/down the east bay to RegularBart running into San Francisco.

And the headline, saved for last:

Other cities say Austin commuter rail is cutting edge

The inside of the vehicles are, sure. The service? NOT SO MUCH. Tri-Rail showed in 1989 that shuttle buses aren't cutting edge.

Shuttle buses. Capital Metro's idea of "cutting-edge".

Working on brevity

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

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

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

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

THANKS, KRUSEE!

March 19, 2008

Commuter Rail Use Case #2: Leander

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

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

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

Leander to UT

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for trip to UT:

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

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

Next: Mueller!

March 18, 2008

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

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

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

Train times taken from page 4 of the PDF.

Crestview Station to UT

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for trip to UT:

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

Crestview Station to 6th/Congress

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

Notes from superscripts above:

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

Conclusions for downtown trip:

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

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

Next: Leander.

March 12, 2008

City wastes millions of dollars...

on TOD planning. I was reminded about this by the Chronicle article, but meant to write this post this morning after watching the Planning Commission cover the TOD station plans for the MLK and Saltillo stations.

Here's how TOD (transit-oriented development) works in the real world:

You start with a rail line that goes to places a lot of people work (drops them off within walking distance of their office). You notice that the rail line is doing pretty well, but could do even better if more people lived right next to the stations instead of having to be driven to stations or transfer from buses. You loosen zoning restrictions around those stations allowing for high-density development (and maybe lease some land owned by the transit agency to developers too).

Here's how it's working in Austin:

The city is spending millions of dollars on consultants (and in-house employee time) on plans to avoid stepping on any neighborhood toes to allow for marginal increases in density around train stations for a commuter rail line which is only going to run twice an hour during rush hour, once in the middle of the day, and not at all at night. If you're dumb enough to move into one of these apartments expecting to take the train to work and the low frequency doesn't bother you, you face a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus ride twice a day from the train station at the Convention Center or on far east MLK to your office.

Will it 'work'? Sure... but only because current zoning is far too low-density in these areas. You could change the zoning without the train station and see exactly the same development occur - because this train service is so awful it's not going to result in any more than a trivial few taking transit instead of driving or taking existing buses to their jobs.

If only there were some other alternative. Something that has worked in cities like Dallas, Houston, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, etc. Something, I dunno, lighter, that could actually, you know, go where lots of people actually need to go.

So what could work with this awful crappy commuter rail line we're stuck with now, you ask? Precious little. If we could somehow convince a mega-employer like IBM to totally redesign their suburban-style office campus around the train station (which is going to be a long walk from their closest building as it stands today), and replicate that on each of the suburban stops, and add a bunch of offices at places like Crestview and the TODs being studied here, then maybe. But that'd be 180 degrees opposite from what the city is futilely trying to do today - in other words, the problem isn't that people don't live close enough to train stations, although they don't; the worse problem is that nobody WORKS near a train station. Because the thing about people with real jobs is: if they're not willing to take a one-leg bus trip straight to their office today, there's no way in hell you're going to get them to take a shuttle-bus trip from the train station to their office.

I need to get that last sentence made into a big rubber stamp. Or tattoo it on the inside of some peoples' eyelids.

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 15, 2008

TFT: Suburban wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

First bus leg:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed later on from here on out.

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

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

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

Things learned:

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2008

Downtown Austin Plan gets transportation completely wrong

Coverage by the Chronicle and Austinist, but I'll focus on two very narrow areas here where they are dead wrong. Note: I don't have the time to spend all day Saturday at the Convention Center to tell these guys stuff they already know deep-down, thanks.

The long PDF is here. Here's the two things I'm going to address (I agree with most, but not all, of the remainder of the thing, but nothing else is as remarkably wrong as these):

#1: Two-way streets are NOT better for pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing you have to do to throw out this ridiculous piece of conventional wisdom that we need to convert all our one-ways to two-ways is imagine being a driver who is sitting waiting to make a left turn from a 2-way 4-lane undivided roadway downtown into a driveway or cross street. Hey, there's a little break in traffic!, you think, GUN IT!. How's that going to work out for the pedestrian crossing on the flashing Walk signal? You know, the one you couldn't see until a split second before you hit him, because your view was obstructed by the oncoming traffic before the gap?

With one-way streets, you always get one cycle where pedestrians have a fully protected (solid-white walk signal) crossing (bar left-turn-on-red; which requires enough motorist vigilance to be very safe for pedestrians anyways). Crossing one-way streets as a pedestrian is comparatively much safer and much saner and much more pleasant than crossing a similarly sized two-way street.

The primary reason this 2-way nonsense keeps coming up is because people compare a narrow 2-lane 2-way street like 2nd street to a wide 1-way street with 4 or 5 lanes; and, of course, because they're completely car-centric to boot. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world have tons of one-way streets. Throw out this piece of 'wisdom' that 2-way is better; it's just not true.

(I plan on eventually writing a backgrounder on this one - suffice to say for now that you need to know that the primary motivating force behind this stuff are urban-but-suburban-minded business owners who want you to see their shop no matter which direction you're driving; not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in).

#2: The streetcar line proposed by Capital Metro will provide more people-moving capacity downtown - ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Compare/contrast with light rail, which certainly would have; and McCracken/Wynn's rail proposal, which COULD, but if and only if they get significant chunks of reserved guideway and don't follow Cap Metro's stupid up-the-rear-end-of-UT-and-out-Manor-Road route. The existing AND FUTURE density in central Austin is on Guadalupe, not on San Jacinto and Manor Road (neighborhood plans out there don't allow for enough future density to make running them a streetcar remotely worth the cost; and Guadalupe already has significant enough density to justify it).

If the streetcar runs in shared traffic, as it will according to Capital Metro's proposal, it will not be able to attract many more people than do the buses that currently run around downtown. This is important, because building new transit that doesn't actually get USED more doesn't actually help with the person-moving capacity of the corridor.

In addition, the streetcar line as proposed by Capital Metro will not be a significantly better way to distribute commuter rail passengers than will the buses that will do it on day one. Read my recent comments about streetcar versus bus for starters - Capital Metro's proposal runs entirely in 'shared lanes', meaning that the streetcars will be even slower and even less reliable than the buses these commuters won't set foot on today. So it's not going to be the 'dessert' which makes more people want to eat the 'meal'. Once again, no improvement in people-moving capacity.

These use cases basically show you what a passenger on the commuter rail line will face. Imagine that the last segment is on a streetcar, stuck in traffic behind their coworkers' cars, instead of on a bus. Does it make much difference?

I have a strong suspicion that the people working on the downtown plan know all of this, by the way, but there is a political risk to being too much against Capital Metro's transit plan and the 2-way-street conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, it would have been very helpful for some caveats to be included at a bare minimum, like they did with the commuter rail line itself (their quote below).

In its first phase, the Leander-to- Austin Commuter Rail Line will terminate in the extreme east/southeast quadrant of Downtown, at Brush Square. This peripheral location is not ideal, being about a 30-minute walk to the Capitol Complex, 10 minutes to Sixth and Congress (2.5 MPH) and 15 minutes to City Hall (2.5 MPH). While transfers to waiting buses are planned from the MLK Rail Station to UT and to the Capitol, as well as from Brush Square to Downtown destinations, it is unclear how desirable these bus transfers will be to the transit user.

Note the skillful caveats here. This particular page is well-done - it addresses the problem, while still being optimistic enough to satisfy people who think we can actually get more things done through consensus rather than forceful advocacy of our needs.

The rule of thumb for transit users is roughly a 5-minute walk, by the way, in case you were still wondering why I keep talking about what a disaster this thing is going to be. Light rail would have run to within a 5-minute walk of essentially all the major employment destinations in central Austin.

January 04, 2008

Why transit service doesn't work on frontage roads

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

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

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

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

Then, the driving directions, which look like this:

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


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

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

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

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

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!

November 12, 2007

Rail update

I'm now upgrading my position to cautious pessimism (from complete horror) after a nice exchange of email with Councilmember McCracken. As I said in my initial post a week or two ago, the early media coverage made it sound like the project would just be an extension of Capital Metro's awful circulator route (which avoids most places people want to go, and services, albeit poorly, commuter rail passengers to the exclusion of the central Austinites for whom it was originally promised).

McCracken wrote back late last week, saying he had missed the email originally. Since my email only talked about reserved guideway, that's all he addressed at first - and he indicated he'd be pushing strongly for reserved guideway whereever possible, agreeing with my opinion that Capital Metro is underplaying the liabilities of running in shared lanes. So far so good. I wrote him back asking about my route questions raised by my second run through the media coverage, and he also indicated he favors a Guadalupe route up to the Triangle, pointing out that the #1/#101 are the most ridden buses we've got, proving a strong demand for transit in the corridor even today, even with bad bus service as the only option.

Sounds good, right? Well, to be realistic, it was going to be hard to get reserved guideway on Guadalupe past UT even with true light rail and with the Feds paying half to 80% of the bill. If we're funding most to all of this system ourselves, as I suspect we are, I think it will be difficult to get an exclusive lane near UT, which, unfortunately, is the place where it would be most needed. Also, the talk about running in reserved guideway alongside Riverside seems unworkable - I paid close attention during Friday's transit field trip, and didn't see enough space to get this done, unless there's something else I'm missing, like narrowing existing lanes.

So, mark me as guardedly pessimistic. I'll be rooting that McCracken can pull this off - I have not heard similarly educated stuff from any other council member, so he's the only hope here. I think Wynn believes in the streetcar fairy dust (the idea that streetcar running in shared lane will attract a lot more daily commuters than bus). Keep your eye on the ball.

November 09, 2007

TFT: Southeast Austin

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 25, 2007

Early reaction to Mayor Wynn's rail proposal

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

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

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

Now, back to the original 4:15 reaction:

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

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

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

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

Coverage round-up:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2007

Commuter rail train arrives; raises M1EK's blood pressure

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

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

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

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

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

October 16, 2007

Clue: "On a bus route" is not remotely the same as "downtown near dozens of bus routes".

The Statesman reports that the ACLU and LULAC have complained about the location of the new municipal court. They're exactly right. The idea that Capital Metro is going to move any non-trivial bus routes is, as it was with the new library location, wishful thinking from suburban drivers who have no idea how much transit agencies rightfully loathe the idea of introducing a little jog into any long and heavily used bus route.

A bus line runs next to the St. Johns site, and the city will work with Capital Metro if other routes need to be added, McDonald said.

Sure, they will. They'll ask Capital Metro, and Capital Metro will dutifully say "we'll look into it", and then they'll do nothing, because diverting one of the useful north/south routes all the way over to I-35 would lose a big chunk of their existing riders, and starting a new route just for the court would be a disaster.

MJ Kellogg also covered this at Metroblogging Austin a few days back. Sorry I missed linking from here.

I'm especially disappointed in councilmember Cole - I would expect her to know better than to claim that being next to a couple of the crosstown bus routes (which are execrable - slow and low-frequency) on St. John's is enough to get the transit-dependent to court. We're talking multiple transfers to get there for most people - while the downtown location requires only one bus ride for a large number of the transit-dependent, and is served with high frequency.

Existing location here, thanks to Google transit. Click on the little bus icons to see what routes are within a few blocks of the court. Hint: low numbers mean frequent service. Now try the new location. Click on the little buses. Notice how all the route are in the 300 range? That means they run infrequently, and don't go downtown.

September 27, 2007

TWITC: The Domain and The Bus

Starting a new category - "This Week In The Chronicle" where I post a short response to a couple of articles matching my subject matter here. Subtitle for this category should be "In which M1EK performs the critical analysis that we used to rely on the Chronicle to do, instead of just fleshing out Capital Metro / city press releases".

Both about The Domain today, which is actually a pretty nice little project in the middle of suburban crap.

First, the main article which includes this:

Each TOD, inevitably, has separate demands, different problems, and a different mix between the core components. "No TOD has everything," said Lucy Galbraith, TOD manager for Capital Metro. "Some will primarily be employment centers, some retail or residential. Nobody ever gets everything in there – except maybe Downtown Manhattan."

So what do they have in common? "It's the three D's: density, diversity, design," explained Galbraith. Density isn't about buildings per acre but bodies. It means enough people to make the area feel like a community. There's a psychological factor, that a busy street is a comfortable street. "If you're the only person walking, it can be a little lonely," Galbraith said. "If there's 50 people walking, you feel fine." Similarly, diversity is supposed to reflect not just the usage but the culture of a TOD. "It's incomes, housing types, ethnicity, everything you can find," she added, "because the full range creates the kind of all-day use that makes it a healthy, lively place."

But the third and most critical component is design. Transit plans depend on road design, and a transit plan that hopes to balance public, private, and pedestrian traffic needs to get it right early on, because fixing a road is a lot harder than building it in the first place. According to Galbraith, for a really successful TOD, that means putting people-on-foot first. "There's many technical details, but basically you think about how you make life easy for the pedestrians, and then you fit in everything else."

And my response:

As I've said before, you never, ever, ever get TOD with anything but high-quality rail transit. Note: the rail transit has to be within walking distance of the TOD for this to work - a 'circulator' shuttle bus will absolutely NOT work. Also note, the same lady quoted here has previously attempted to claim that the Far West and Riverside student ghettoes are TOD.

Wishful thinking pushed by the Feds aside, the general opinion in the field is that obvious and frequent bus service is arguably an impediment to high-quality TOD, because it drives away the tenants most in demand (choice commuters). The only thing that appears to work is rail transit within walking distance, period.

Sub-article, on "Getting There":

One concept being considered is a circulator shuttle-bus service that will pick up train passengers and distribute them through the area. It will mean less of an overall dependence on the ubiquitous Cap Metro big bus, but it's not exactly virgin territory for the city's public-transport system. "Our range is a little longer than people perceive, because not everyone sees our express buses or our smaller special-transit service shuttles," said Lucy Galbraith, TOD manager for Cap Metro.

Response:

Even in true downtown areas, circulators are a huge disincentive to choice commuters. In an area like this, which is a pale shadow of downtown, they're going to be a killer. Imagine the use case here, from either central Austin or Leander:








#Segment typeDestinationNotes
From Leander
1DriveTo park-and-rideNot realistic to pick up circulator buses on residential end in Leander
2WaitFor commuter rail trainRuns every 30 minutes during rush hour only for first N years, maybe as often as 15 minutes many years later
3TrainTo Kramer stationStation is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli
4BusFrom Kramer station to DomainProbably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic
5WalkFrom bus stop to destination(short walk)
From Central Austin
1WalkTo shuttle bus stopNo parking at the few stations closer in than Kramer, so only way there is bus
2WaitFor shuttlebusModerate to long wait. (Timing only guaranteed on train end).
3BusTo station (one of three)Slow, jerky, stuck-in-traffic ride
4WaitFor commuter rail trainRuns every 30 minutes during rush hour only for first N years, maybe as often as 15 minutes many years later. Only one reverse commute per day initially.
5TrainTo Kramer stationStation is way east of Domain - behind IBM/Tivoli
6BusFrom Kramer station to DomainProbably no wait here (circulators timed to train arrival) but bus stuck in traffic
7WalkFrom bus stop to destination(short walk)

Now, compare to driving. Does either one of those trips look remotely attractive enough to get you out of your car? The whole point of transit-oriented development is that the trips to and from the development must be served as well or better by transit as they are by the automobile. Unless you're smoking a particularly potent brand of crack, commuter rail service plus shuttlebus to The Domain will never in a million years, even with gridlock, be better than just driving there.

What could have been done differently? The 2000 light-rail proposal would have knocked off items 2 through 4 from the Central Austin use case above; and light rail could eventually have been routed directly into The Domain (someday removing the other shuttlebus trips from both cases). The DMUs being used on this commuter rail, on the other hand, will never be able to be run in the street, even up there, because they can't make anything but the widest of turns. Once again we see that the decision to implement commuter rail instead of light rail not only buys Austin absolutely nothing now, it prevents us from doing anything better in the future.

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 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.

September 12, 2007

Round Rock screws Austin again

Quick hit:

Most coverage of Round Rock's attempt to set up their own bus which drops off at a Capital Metro stop is positive. But here's the kicker that nobody's talking about: Every Round Rock resident (or Round Rock worker) who rides this thing is getting a huge subsidy from Austin residents, because Round Rock doesn't pay Capital Metro sales taxes. Each one of those riders from Round Rock is paying 50 cents or a buck to ride the bus, and then Austin taxpayers are kicking in another buck or two. Round Rock taxpayers are kicking in only for the Tech Ridge to Round Rock portion.

The only fair thing to do here would be to charge Round Rock residents more to ride the Capital Metro bus but don't expect CM to ever do this - they'd get spanked so quickly by the Austin-bashing state legislator that their heads would spin.

Look for more of this type of problem, for instance if/when Cedar Park starts a bus shuttle to the Lakeline commuter rail stop. In more progressive states, the free-rider (parasite) problem would be solved by not giving Cedar Park, Round Rock, Pflugerville, etc. the choice about whether to participate in a regional transit agency. Not so in Texas; once again, cities just have to grin and bear it as the suburbs suck out even more money.

September 11, 2007

Why streetcars suck

If you're seeing a lot of people with whom I normally agree pushing streetcars very hard, and you might be wondering why I keep naysaying them, here's a handy guide. Consider this list of pros and cons for two transit modes I talk about a lot: the city bus and light rail. And remember the target is daily commuters, not tourists - otherwise, we're not really doing anything to improve mobility.

City buses are, well, normal buses. They're what we run today.

Pros:


  1. Low capital costs (very little facility investment; moderate vehicle investment)
  2. Slightly flexible (vastly oversold by Skaggs' band of Neanderthals; but at least it can change lanes to get around an accident and can be detoured around a festival).

Cons:

  1. Slow - even on the open road (no traffic), will always be a bit slower than an econobox. And in stop/go traffic, poor acceleration is magnified.
  2. Very unreliable - traffic is a big problem; and unlike in your car, you can't go over one block if you feel like it (this is where the libertarian anti-transit trolls go so far off reality by claiming "flexibility").
  3. High operating costs - relatively few passengers per driver, even on articulated buses.

LRT, or "light rail" runs in the street where it needs to, but in a reserved guideway (has its own lane and some control over traffic signals) and runs in off-street right-of-way elsewhere. We almost passed this in 2000 and could easily have done so in 2004. In Austin, it would have run right down the middle of two-way streets such as Guadalupe and Congress - in its own lane, so in most cases, traffic congestion could not slow it down.

Pros:

  1. Reasonably fast - in similar conditions can accelerate or decelerate almost as well as a private automobile.
  2. Very Reliable - more so, even, than the private automobile. Blows buses out of the water. This is a very key metric - people will accept a slghtly slower AVERAGE commute if the worst-case is basically the same as the average.
  3. Low operating costs - very many passengers per driver, and electric drive is much cheaper than diesel.

Cons:

  1. High capital costs - requires infrastructure such as rails, electric wires, and expensive vehicles.

Now, for comparison, look at how streetcar stacks up, including all pros and cons from light rail and bus above. Note for the record that our streetcar proposal does not include any segments of reserved guideway, nor can it ever be converted into reserved guideway.

Pros from buses:

  1. Low capital costs - Nope. Has almost all of the capital costs of light rail. Slightly cheaper vehicles, but you still need electrical wires and rails.
  2. Slightly flexible - Nope. Unlike that city bus, it can't even change lanes to get around a double-parked, stalled, or wrecked car. (Irrelevant for LRT since it has its own lane).

Pros from LRT:

  1. Fast - accelerates pretty well.
  2. Reliable - Nope. Just as unreliable as the city bus, if not worse (due to the flexibility liability).
  3. Low operating costs - Partial. Not much better than bus in passengers-per-driver; but electric drive still provides some cost savings.

Cons from buses:

  1. Slow - Win. Yes, streetcar can accelerate a bit better than buses, thanks, DSK. I submit this makes very little difference given:
  2. Very unreliable - Loss. As indicated above, streetcar is likely to be even less reliable than city bus on the same route.
  3. High operating costs - Partial. As indicated in pros section, somewhere in the middle.

Cons from LRT:

  1. High capital costs - Yup, as indicated above, streetcar's capital costs are practically as high as LRT.


The summary here: streetcars have almost none of the positives that light rail has but city buses lack; and it shares almost all of the liabilities of BOTH modes. It's almost expensive to build as true light rail; but it's also more expensive to run, and very unreliable, like city buses. Even in Portland (Home Of The Streetcar!), people who look at it dispassionately come to the conclusion that it's usually juat a glamorous (for now) immobile bus.

But M1EK, you ask, what about all the people who won't ride the bus today? Won't they flock to streetcars because of their image? Capital Metro's consultant certainly thought so.

The mode preference problem for buses versus rail is vastly misunderstood. It's not that people always prefer rail over bus even if they're exactly the same in all other respects, it's that rail service in the past was always at least a little bit better than bus service on several of the critical metrics listed above. Even traditional streetcars held up as examples have some pros which the "streetcar vulgaris" we're thinking about building here won't - dedicated right-of-way in segments, for instance, or other enhancements. Streetcar seems to attract more people than buses because the rail service is usually far superior to the bus service it is being compared to. That's not going to be the case here in Austin - all we're doing is nailing the shitty buses onto rails, with all their old liabilities and some exciting new liabilities and, thus, streetcar isn't going to buy us anything worth paying for.

No, there's no magical streetcar fairy dust. Sorry, guys; even people who try it out of curiousity will figure out pretty quickly it's actually slower than the Dillo used to be (combining speed and reliability).

Also, while I'm at it: another nugget from Appendix A, just confirming something I've been saying for a really long time, but which still hasn't made any traction with the naive fools who think we can expand commuter rail into the center city:

(Note: Capital Metro is currently implementing Capital MetroRail using Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) type vehicles on its existing railroad right-of-way from Austin to Leander. Although in the future transit system it may be desirable to extend this technology into the circulator corridor to gain certain operational efficiencies, this technology is not envisioned as a viable alternative to the bus and streetcar technologies identified for further study. This is primarily because of the mobility limitations of the DMU technology. DMU technology is therefore not included as one of the potential technologies carried forward into the analysis of alternatives.)

(Yes, this ends up rehashing about 75% of the last post; but this one, I hope, does so more coherently).

September 07, 2007

Difference between streetcar and bus

Since many people still think that if you build streetcar, they will come; here's a set of use case-like tables which I hope will explain what the actual difference is between streetcars and buses. The first case is for "why can't we just fix commuter rail by building a streetcar line to which they can transfer?". The second case is for "won't streetcar get more residents of central Austin to take transit to work?".

Some shorthand below explained up here:

"Stuck in traffic": Does the vehicle have its own lane, or is it sharing a lane with cars? This affects speed and reliability.

"Detourable": If there's a traffic accident in the shared lane, can the vehicle in question change lanes to get around it? This is a drastic impact on reliability.

"Fast/slow": Is the vehicle capable of accelerating/decelerating quickly? Speed, obviously.

ModeStuck in traffic?Detourable?Fast/slow?
Circulators as applied to commuter rail service
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow
Mode by itself (for residents of actual central Austin)
ShuttlebusYesYesSlow
StreetcarYesNoSlow

Notice anything? Whether you're using the vehicle as a circulator or as your primary form of transit, it performs exactly the same. I know this seems obvious, but I still get people thinking that there's some magic fairy dust that will make streetcars turn into good transit service for the people who actually wanted it, in both 2000 and 2004. No, credulous fellow residents of Central Austin, streetcar doesn't bringing anything more to the table than bus does - arguably LESS, for daily commuters. Note the "Detourable" column. Yes, I've had times on the bus when I've benefitted from this capability. They won't detour just to get around heavy traffic, but they darn sure will to get around an accident.

So what are some of the other benefits of streetcar not mentioned here? It provides a perception of permanence that bus service does not. This is worth something if you're trying to stimulate development somewhere - but downtown Austin doesn't need the help. It also provides a minor benefit for tourists - making it more obvious that transit exists, and making it more attractive (people from out of town are unlikely to want to ride the bus given the stigma of bus service in many other cities).

The only advantage streetcar has is for tourists - which is why, IF we build this thing, it should only be funded out of hotel/rental car taxes. Even if it ran through the dense residential parts of Austin, it would provide precisely nothing of benefit to those residents, who, by the way, pay almost all of Capital Metro's bills.

September 04, 2007

Rapid Bus slips to 2010

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

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

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

September 03, 2007

Capital Metro misses huge opportunity

Last Saturday, I went down to FlugTag with my 3 and 13-year-olds. I wrote down the next few buses on the #5 and #7; we picked the #5; and walked out to the stop. Three UT students were already there - also going to the FlugTag. Got to the stop at about 5:25 for the bus that should have been there at 5:32.

Note that the buses were running on the Saturday schedule - which means that instead of running every 18-19 minutes, it runs every 38 minutes. IE, probably half as many buses as usual. I think the #7 was roughly the same.

We waited. And waited. Saw 2 buses go by northbound. By 6:00 or so, after I had called Cap Metro twice and been assured that the bus was only 5 minutes delayed, the 3 students walked to Guadalupe to catch the #1. Since my arthritis was already going to make this a risky endeavor, we stayed put. Called Cap Metro again, and was told this time that the 5:32 bus had already gone by - a lie. I let the agent have it; telling her that the #5 might have detoured down Guadalupe to make up some time but he damn well didn't go by us. She told me the next bus would be by in about ten minutes (about ten minutes later than schedule). I figured we'd give it that ten minutes and then give up.

Five minutes later, a #5 bus comes by, and as I'm paying for myself and the boys, the driver is asking us to hurry, as he's already 45 minutes late. A-ha! While the driver lied (apparently) to the dispatcher about where he was, at least he continued to run the correct route. We got basically the last 3 seats on the bus and settled in. As we headed farther south, the bus filled up more and more - by the time we reached Dean Keeton and Speedway, every seat and every standing position was full; and the driver started telling people at stops that he couldn't take any more people.

Between there and the southern end of UT, we probably skipped another 30 people. The bus was full of brand-new UT students - I had to give a lot of directions - who were new in town and trying out Capital Metro for the first time.

Downtown was a madhouse - as expected - very slow on Congress. Our original plan was to hop off at Cesar Chavez and walk - but at 5th (right in front of Eckerd's), the driver announced that there was a #30 a block behind him that would get us as close as possible to the event. So we, and 25 others, hopped off and then back on the #30, only to be stuck when a police car pulled right in front of us, stopped, and the officers went into the Eckerd's and left their car right in front of us - forcing our bus driver to try to change lanes in the middle of gridlock. That took another 10 minutes (just to get around the cop car). Thanks, APD!.

By the time the #30 bus reached Cesar Chavez, we all gave up and got off the bus.

FlugTag was amazingly crowded, and I'm glad we went, but then I had to acquire ice cream I had promised the 3-year-old, and through a comedy of bad decisions ended up walking all the way to the convenience store near Peter Pan. Observed dozens of people waiting at every bus stop heading away from downtown (for the #10, for instance).

After the ice cream mission was completed, we walked out to Lamar intent on catching the #3. A dozen people there, too. Crap. Called Cap Metro and the next bus wasn't scheduled for another 40 minutes! Decided to just walk the north side of the lake back to Congress, where at least I could choose between the first #1, #3, #5, or #7 to show up. Once we managed to struggle to the stop there, I was about dead (and am lucky I didn't end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like the last time I pushed it and walked this much) and only had to wait about 15 minutes for a #7 (even passed up a #1 in the meantime).

So, what did Capital Metro do wrong? Well, they had no control over the traffic. There's nothing they could have done about the hour it took to get from my bus stop at 35th and Speedway to Cesar Chavez/Congress. Of course, light rail a la 2000 would have worked great, but commuter rail wouldn't have worked at all - because people would have had to take shuttle buses through that same traffic.

But one obvious thing Capital Metro could have done was simply run a bunch of these routes on their weekday schedules. This would have meant that the dozens of people futilely waiting at bus stops, many of whom were obviously trying Capital Metro for the first time ever, might have had a better impression. I'll bet, however, that with the hour-long waits for buses in evidence, that Capital Metro gained exactly zero future customers, and probably even lost some who were previously willing to ride. Don't tell me that's too difficult - they have no trouble when they want to reduce frequency (run a Sunday schedule on a mid-week holiday, for instance).

People who are stuck on a bus that's stuck in traffic aren't going to blame the bus. Well, most of them, anyways. But people who are stuck waiting an hour for a bus only to be told that there's no room to ride? They're damn well going to blame the bus, and they damn well should. And meanwhile, Capital Metro is pushing a long overdue fare increase at precisely the worst possible time - making it trivially easy for the "bus riders union" to claim that they're subsidizing commuter rail for Leanderites. Does it get any dumber?

And, moral of the story? Ride your bike. If I could still ride, I would have ridden down with the boys, and it would have been a piece of cake.

August 14, 2007

First of many "TOD"'s collapses

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

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

Original post follows:

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

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

August 07, 2007

8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 01, 2007

Better than I could put it

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

Focus on this sentence:

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

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

We ignore lessons from other cities at our own peril.

July 20, 2007

Why I do it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  7. Fifteen years later, when people still don't ride, somebody reads about TOD and thinks "maybe that will help". Millions are spent trying to encourage developers to build residential density around the train stations to no avail (a bit unlike Austin in that here, all we need to do is allow more density and it will crop up by itself due to pent-up demand for living in that part of town). Nothing comes of this - because people don't want to pay extra to live next to a train station where they can hop a train to... a shuttle-bus.

  8. Twenty years later, whenever somebody brings up light rail, "we tried rail and it didn't work here" is still the primary response - but finally some people are starting to say "well, we built the wrong thing last time".

If there had been more people pointing out before, during, and after the system opened that a rail line which didn't go where the people wanted to go would be a failure, it might not have taken twenty years just to restart the rail conversation there.

I don't want it to take twenty years to restart the conversation here in Austin.

Don't believe it will happen? Remember: the pro-commuter-rail forces, before the election, were saying let's ride and then decide. People in South Florida rode. They decided. It didn't work. It has taken twenty years to even start seriously talking about building rail in the right places (along the FEC corridor, or light-rail in Fort Lauderdale). We can't afford twenty years here.

July 19, 2007

PS: Still not a crackpot

Posted to comments and as letter-to-editor in their new interface, but who knows if this new technology will work, so it's reposted here for your pleasure. The 2nd Hawaii report coming as soon as work calms down a bit.

Commuters will only switch to transit if they are delivered to their final destination – within a couple of blocks. Failing to provide that "last mile" transport can doom an entire regional rail system. If far-flung suburbanites hate the bus, and their offices are too far to walk from the last rail or rapid-bus stop, then they'll just keep driving, however long their commutes.

The part which was left out, in what's becoming a disturbing trend of analysis-free journalism at the Chronicle, is that choice commuters will also NOT accept transfers as part of their daily commute, unless we're talking about the Manhattan end of the scale where the transit alternative has the benefit of competing against 50-dollar parking.

Transfers from commuter rail to streetcar will not be any more attractive to daily commuters than transfers from commuter rail to shuttlebus - and choice commuters, as shown in South Florida with Tri-Rail, simply will not do the latter. Once you ride every day, the fact that the streetcar isn't any faster or more reliable than the bus was becomes very obvious.

It's time to remind people yet again: we did NOT decide to build what worked in Dallas, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake, Houston, and Minneapolis (light rail, or, what we would have built in 2000 and should have tried again in 2004). What we're building instead was what failed in South Florida - a transit alternative which is utterly non-competitive with the car and will continue to serve only the transit-dependent at an incredibly high cost, while derailing transit momentum for decades.

Mike Dahmus

Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

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)

April 09, 2007

Why can't MetroRail be extended to Seaholm?

Just thought I'd better write this down since I composed it twice only to lose most of it due to a stupid typepad/austinist interaction. Guys? Don't use AJAX where input can be lost, OK?

In the annals of Transit Stupidity, this will be one of the top entries. Read on.

MetroRail can't feasibly be extended to Seaholm because it would have to run on 4th street all the way to the creek, and then get a brand new, very expensive, diagonal (long) bridge to transition to the 3rd street alignment the Seaholm project roughly abuts. (See image, source city's OnTrack newsletter; click if it appears cut off). The DMUs we picked are too heavy and clunky to corner in the intersections available before that - so despite the fact that 3rd was the preferred rail corridor, we're stuck with tearing up a ton of 4th street to do this project or just cutting through the middle of a downtown block - not gonna happen. (Go to page 3 of that PDF). Combine that with the fact that the Feds would be extremely unlikely to kick in one lousy penny due to low ridership and low cost/benefit rating for service like this, and it's not going to happen. Note that Capital Metro didn't get any federal funding for the commuter rail starter line, fairly obviously because of extremely low ridership projections.

Note that all of the "Seaholm and rail" planning from the people who actually have any say on this issue has to do with a streetcar connection to UP at the Seaholm site, NOT any extension of the starter line west to there.

And, even if by some miracle we did get commuter rail to Seaholm, it couldn't continue up or down that Union Pacific line, because the DMU is not, by rule, allowed to run with freight rail. Cap Metro solved this by getting a "temporal separation" agreement ratified which promises that freight will only run in the wee hours of the morning, but UP would never agree to this. So, ironically, this DMU that we picked because it's supposed to be so much cheaper than real light rail is too heavy to run where we need it to run in the street, but too light to run on existing rail which might be better suited for transit-oriented development opportunities than our starter line is.

Who screwed up here? Well, of course, Capital Metro did, if you assume that they cared about rail transit (I don't think they do; I think their post-Karen-Rae leadership wanted to prove, with Mike Krusee's assistance, that "rail doesn't work"). But the more correct answer is: the credulous center-city pro-rail-transit people who assumed that we could 'fix' the plan by adding things to it later despite commentary all along from yours truly that it wasn't going to be possible.

Addendum: I finally found the full Seaholm station report. According to them, the DMU Capital Metro is using for the starter service has a turning radius of 300', which is way too high, but even at the more often heard 135' or so, it will, as I expected, never be able to turn a corner in the street (see city's OnTrack newsletter link above for more on that). The east-to-south curve being preserved only supports a turning radius of 100' - meaning these DMUs will never be able to cross the river from here to South Austin. If we somehow convinced UP to abandon freight operations on this line, there is no physical obstacle to DMUs continuing west and then north up the Mopac line, but again, for all the practical reasons detailed above and then some, this will never happen.

April 04, 2007

You can't have TOD without good T

Don't gimme no crappy transit, fool!

So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let's see how attractive the "T" component of the "TOD" will be for Crestview Station, the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don't achieve the true benefits of TOD.

First, let's consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She's able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that's not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.

But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked "UT". Well, she's rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:

The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. "What a pain in the ass," thinks Paula, "if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn't I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in 2006 2007 2008 2010, I'll just take the Rapid Bus there".

On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. "What happens," Paula wondered, "if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it's stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening"

Paula ain't gonna ride this thing again, folks.

Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I'll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:

"Wow," said Steve, "I didn't believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do."

What's Steve's better option?

Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn't it?

Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. "Wow," he thought, "this is a lot more comfortable than the bus - and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there's nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?"

"I got off the train," Larry explained later, "and there was a shuttle bus there that said 'downtown', but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that's what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better - a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I'll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn't there a better way to do this?"

The common thread in all three of these "direct" pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it's pretty darn clear that most "choice commuters" (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn't require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and "transit-adjacent development", and pay particular attention to this item:

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

Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we're likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren't going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.

April 02, 2007

Alliance for Public Transportation is a joke

Hey guys? Here's what a grass-roots pro-transit organization ought to look like: the CTC in Houston, which actually does more than just saying "please do exactly what Capital Metro and CAMPO want, as fast as possible". IE, they analyze route proposals and try to figure out which ones are likely to work and which ones are not. They also don't buy into the nonsense that stuck-in-traffic city buses will ever work for choice commuters and that circulators are somehow exempt from choice commuters' distaste for transfers.

Yes, like yours truly, they actually hold the radical position that while rail transit is great in general, it IS possible to build rail transit that choice commuters won't ride so you'd better think carefully about where you decide to run it rather than just assuming that rail anywhere works as well as rail in the perfect place.

I highly recommend following some of those CTC stories to their forums in which it becomes even more clear what APT ought to be doing for Austin - instead of asking us all to support exactly what Round Rock legislator Mike Krusee wants Capital Metro to do with their tax money (92% from Austin, 0% from Round Rock), we ought to be asking ourselves whether what they want to do will actually work, and not from the anti-all-rail Neanderthal perspective either.

Grow up, APT. We need people who really want rail transit to succeed to challenge this garbage. If Capital Metro ever needed boot-licking sycophants, it needed them before the 2000 election; certainly not now.

March 29, 2007

Our circulators won't work either

From Christof in Houston:

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.

Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

Note that, as Christof further backed up in the forum, Denver's circulator is far superior to the one we'll be delivering here in Austin - it actually has some reserved right-of-way (which even our future maybe streetcar line won't have). In Austin, just about every daily commuter on the commuter rail line will have to transfer to a shuttle bus to get to their office. Not a shuttle bus which has some segments of reserved right-of-way, like in Denver, but a shuttle bus which is stuck in the same traffic the train was supposed to bypass.

That's why Tri-Rail in South Florida failed. Some credulous fools here think we're radically different from everybody else - but if we were so different in the "people with real jobs dislike uncomfortable, jerky, slow bus rides" department, we wouldn't need to build rail in the first place.

March 28, 2007

Circulators don't work

Fresh on the heels of yesterday's post, Christof from Houston weighs in that rail service that depends on circulators rather than pedestrian traffic isn't likely to succeed in garnering so-called "choice commuters" (those who you're trying to attract away from their cars).

Unfortunately, it appears that the same lesson which was learned from watching Tri-Rail's abject failure in South Florida has to keep getting re-learned all over the country, since we keep pushing these stupid commuter rail projects which reuse existing track but don't go anywhere worth going rather than building light rail which DOES.

So, care to guess how you're going to get from the Capital Metro commuter rail station to your office in downtown, the Capitol, or UT?

March 27, 2007

The Great Interconnections Lie

The North Burnet/Gateway presentation, which, frankly, looks very very appealing in the alternate universe where we had the guts to stand up to Mike Krusee and develop light rail, continues the rationalization of poor transit service by calling it "interconnected", which is a euphemism for "you're going to have a lot of transfers". Specifically, a resident of this area trying to go downtown would need to first board a circulator (probably a bus) to get to the commuter rail station between Metric and Burnet, then wait for the train, then ride the train to MLK or the Convention Center, then switch to another circulator (probably again a bus) to get to UT, the Capitol, or the parts of downtown where people actually work.

And yet nobody sees this as a problem.

Today, all you have to do is spend some time outside the transfer centers at Northcross or Highland Mall, and it becomes abundantly clear that the only people who use bus service that requires a transfer are the utterly transit-dependent (not the choice commuters we're supposed to be serving). So we're going to build a rail spine for our transit network that requires at least one transfer to bus for anybody to use.

And yet nobody sees this as a problem.

Light rail, as promised here in 2000 and delivered everywhere else in the meantime, on the other hand, is designed to serve as a one-seat ride for the majority of riders (two seats for suburban users of park-and-rides). Let's compare and contrast again:

Suburban users:

Light Rail a la 2000Commuter Rail With Interconnections(tm)
1Drive to park-and-rideDrive to park-and-ride
2Wait for train (every 10 mins rush hour; every 20-30 otherwise)Wait for train (every 30 mins rush hour; no service otherwise)
3Ride train to stationRide train to station
4Walk to officeWait for circulator (probably bus)
5 Ride bus (stuck in traffic)
6 Walk to office

And now, for this "second downtown", we're being sold on the idea that "interconnected transit" with "circulators" is the way to go, meaning that the commuter in the right column will actually be adding another bus ride at the beginning of their trip.

Folks, even in Manhattan, routes that require transfers see a substantial drop in ridership, yet somehow we think that our comparatively low-density city is going to do better? Even when our transfer is to a jerky, slow, stuck-in-traffic bus? And now these idiots working on the Burnet plan think a bus ride on the OTHER END is actually a POSITIVE?

(No, streetcars won't help; they're still stuck in traffic behind everybody else's car).

Somebody other than me's got to start talking about this stuff so it's not such a surprise in 2008 when nobody rides the thing. Please, for the love of god, somebody speak up. Ben Wear? Wells Dunbar? John Kelso? Somebody hep me!

And, no, this is not a problem we can fix with better circulators. Remember, the Manhattan transfer commuters go from one reserved-guideway rail vehicle to another reserved-guideway rail vehicle, and yet it still cuts their ridership by a substantial percentage. And that's in a town where you have to lay something like 50 bucks a day just to park that car.

Start here to learn about all the places New Yorkers are still trying to eliminate transfers.

March 16, 2007

Today's Fun Bus Report

Had a business meeting at the library downtown today, and wanted to leave my wife the car so she could go to the Y, so I bused it. Here's the report. Note that this wasn't rush hour, and this is Spring Break. + are people getting on the bus; - are people getting off the bus. Number in parentheses is total number of passengers.

South:Route 5 / 26:

Walked two blocks to bus stop. Got on at 38th/Speedway (on time). +me and one other; (8)
31st st: +1 (9)
Dean Keeton/Speedway: -5 (4)
Co-op (23rd/Guadalupe): -1 (3)
9th/Congress: -me (2)

Nothing amazing to report from this trip. Very light due to UT being out of session.


Return: I can choose between the #1, #3, #5, and #7. Yay, odd numbers. First arrival was the #1L.

10th/Congress: +me (12)
Capitol: -1, +2 (13)
Guadalupe/MLK: -1, +1 including SXSW badger (10)
22nd/Guadalupe: -5, +2 (10)
24th/Guadalupe: -1, +1 (10)
Dean Keeton/Guadalupe: -2 including badger (8)
30th/Guadalupe: -1 (7)
34th/Guadalupe: -me (6)

As you go farther north on the 1L, it probably emptied out, and when it finally decamped in suburbia, it would look empty.

February 26, 2007

Brewster et al, I Told You So

Especially Brewster, but also some others are finally, now that it's long too late, beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to give Capital Metro $160 million / year when they turn around and spend all the rail money on a plan which screws Central Austin and provide useless Rapid Bus service as the "thanks for 92% of our tax revenue" gift. Kudos to Kimberly for coverage of this issue.

Let's set the wayback machine to May of 2004. I wrote a post on that day referring to a resolution I floated; the text is below. While Brewster from all accounts thinks I'm a troll, the irony of seeing him come pretty darn close to my 2004 position is just really really delicious. Of course, I'd trade it in a second for some actual movement on this issue.

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

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

It died for lack of a second. Since then, two fellow commissioners expressed their regret at their decision to not at least second the motion so we could have gone on the record, after seeing how the plan unfolded pretty much as I predicted way back then.

February 20, 2007

Managed Lanes: Good Theory; Will Suck Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STUPID.

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

February 12, 2007

Weekend Northcross Wal-Mart Roundup

A few things about Wal-Mart:

DSK took pictures of the people ringing Northcross, and actually asked the people at the bus stop what they thought.

A RG4N supporter took pictures all the way around.

Austin Contrarian just posted a great summary of the neighborhoods around the site. Note that I've discussed previously, to the derision of some, that it would be nice for a big box to be located somewhere where lower-income workers could practically travel via the bus. Here's the map linking all of this together - several bus routes accessible to those denser, lower-income neighborhoods, go straight to Northcross.

Note the other major transfer center at a mall in Austin - Highland Mall - which, not being a dead husk like Northcross, has high levels of both transfer traffic _and_ local (destined for the area in and around the mall) traffic. For the record, I'd be thrilled if a Wal-Mart like the one proposed here would take over some of the acres of awful strip-mall-and-surface-parking-lot area around Highland.

As I've said in some comment threads, besides downtown itself, Northcross (and Highland) are the two spots in our area which have the best transit access, bar none. Trish has disingenuously highjacked that into pedantry about the fact that the transfer center isn't in the Wal-Mart parking lot and so can't count as a bonus to the plan; but it's still true: if you're going to put a large retail center ANYWHERE, these two spots are exactly the right place to do it.

Finally, in an incredibly obnoxious and hypocritical attack-comment, Trish did bring up a point I hadn't even noticed before: in my entry detailing how the Wal-Mart site isn't in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I erred by saying that you had to go all the way to Mopac to the west before you hit residential use. I was thinking along Austin's tilted axis when I made this comment - i.e. the area roughly between Anderson and Foster is almost completely commercial (with one apartment complex I can think of) - but that's actually a diagonal line. Straight west DOES, in fact, penetrate single-family use in Allandale. Mea culpa. I also used "residential" in the same way the neighborhoods do - to mean "only single-family residential", and I should have been more explicit, but it's disingenuous to complain too much about this when the neighborhoods in the area have been so vehemently against multi-family development for so long.

Finally, wrapping up the wrap-up, a lot of arguments have centered around a practice I'm going to refer to in shorthand as "defining down into meaningless". For instance, arguing over whether Wal-Mart would be "in the middle of a residential neighborhood" can degenerate into defining how far away the building has to be from the first house before it qualifies, OR you can argue in good faith by taking a look at some other major retail destinations in the area and seeing how close _they_ are. Basically, if Highland Mall, Barton Creek Square, 6th/Lamar, etc. are closer (in several cases MUCH closer) to residential uses than is Northcross, you can't honestly continue this claim about "in the middle" unless you admit that your definition is so generous it catches almost everybody else too. That's simply not arguing in good-faith.

Same with transit access. Read this blog for even a few minutes and you discover I'm one of Capital Metro's harshest critics from an under-delivery of transit perspective. But that doesn't change the fact that if you call transit access to Northcross "bad", you've redefined "bad" so it includes effectively everywhere except downtown. Not good-faith argument, either. To be fair (and notice the RG4N folks, and Trish, never do this), this applies to a replacement development there as well, except that the RG4N folks obviously hope for retail that attracts higher-income clientele than the Wal-Mart. It'd still help the workers either way; just like how good transit service between UT and the Arboretum results in a few college-age kids getting off the bus up there to go work retail every morning.

Wrapping up the wrap-up of the wrap-up: Northcross is a great place to take the bus to, for both choice commuters and the transit-dependent. It's not any closer to residential development than most major retail centers in our area and is actually farther away from houses than most (Lakeline Mall being the one main exception). The demonstrators this weekend are slapping each other on the back, but none of them bothered to talk to the people waiting for the bus at the transfer center. Hmmm. Wonder why.

February 05, 2007

Commuter rail ridership projection: pathetic

Ben Wear notes that Capital Metro is now projecting 1,000 riders per day on the commuter rail line for the approximately $100 million investment. Yes, you heard right. ONE THOUSAND RIDERS PER DAY.

Let's compare to two recent light-rail starts.

Minneapolis (opened late 2004): Ridership in 2005 grew to 25,000 per day on a 12-mile line that cost roughly $700 million and runs in a combination of in-street and separate right-of-way.

Houston: 40,000 per day on a fairly short and completely in-street runningway. That's just to answer the "but but but Minneapolis isn't in Texas!" cries some trogolodytes were beginning to choke on after the first example.

So let's take the Minneapolis example. 25 times as many riders; 7.5 times as much cost. Sounds like a damn good deal to me - and we could have built that here very easily... a slightly scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan would have cost about that much, and would have delivered at least that many riders. Remember that the next time somebody tries to convince you that this awful commuter rail plan is just light rail done cheaper and smarter.

The key in both Minneapolis and Houston is actually NOT that they run their trains more often; it's that once a rider gets off the train, they can take a short walk to their office rather than having to hop a shuttle bus. Again, we could have had that here if we hadn't have rolled over for Mike Krusee.

In other words, Capital Metro didn't mess up by ordering too few cars for the amazing ridership they could get for this line; they apparently read the writing on the wall from Tri-Rail's experience and figured out they're not going to get many long-term choice commuters on this thing after the first batch tries the shuttle bus experience on for size so they'd better not buy too many rail cars.

And, no, upgrading the shuttle buses to streetcars won't help since they're still a transfer to a slow stuck-in-traffic vehicle, and it can't be improved over time into something that works as well as light rail, but it sure as hell will bring the total cost of our worthless Austin-screwing transit-killing debacle up to something approaching Minneapolis' successful light rail line.

In summary:

commuter rail: costs very little; does jack squat1

1: Looking for a better quick slogan here that also includes the fact that commuter rail not only doesn't move rail transit forward, it actually moves us in the wrong direction since it precludes the later addition of light rail in the 2000 alignment. Suggestions?

February 01, 2007

Dear Jennifer Kim

I understand your retreat into pandering given the difficulties you're currently facing, and I even sympathize a bit, but let's be clear: big retail and employment destinations do NOT NOT NOT NOT belong on frontage roads.

Here's why.

This talking point works well with people who drive everywhere - like most folks in Allandale. It doesn't work so well with people who actually have some experience with alternate modes of transportation, like yours truly. I used to occasionally ride the bus in the morning and get off at the stop on one side of 183 between Oak Knoll and Duval and have to go to exactly the other side - and the presence of frontage roads (destroyed an old road which used to cross) made a 2-minute walk into a 10-minute bike ride (30-minute walk). No wonder nobody else does it.

January 29, 2007

Nobody talks about Austin rail like this...

Well, except for me, that is.

From Christof's excellent site in Houston,
this is the kind of discussion we needed to have here in 2000 and again in 2004. Of course, I believe we were about to have this kind of planning in late 2000 for a May or November 2001 election, until Mike Krusee forced Capital Metro to hold the election in November of 2000, before they were remotely prepared to do so. In 2004, nobody bothered to look at the line's routing and figure out whether it served the needs of choice commuters (people who aren't willing to ride the bus today). Again, except for me. So here's a recap, with a new exciing picture at the end.

Note the references to 1/4 mile being the typical capture area for a rail stop (despite what you hear from people who think the typical commuter will walk the 1/2 mile or more from the Convention Center stop to their downtown office building).

Here's a similar image I'm working on for Austin. I'm no photoshop wiz, obviously, but this might be the best I can make this look, so here you go. The original image comes from "Mopacs", a poster to the Skyscraper Forum. I've drawn in the 2004 commuter rail route in yellow (just barely penetrates the picture on the lower right); the 2000 light rail route in green; and the maybe-never streetcar route in red. Note that the streetcar doesn't have reserved-guideway, as I've noted before, so it's really not going to help much in getting choice commuters to ride.

Click for full image if you don't see the yellow route!

The big building you see just north of the yellow line is the Hilton Hotel (not a major destination for choice commuters; anectdotal evidence suggests that a large percentage of workers there actually take the bus to work today).

Note that the walking distance from the yellow stop to the corner of 7th/Congress (rough center of the office buildings on Congress) is a half-mile, give or take which, as I've pointed out before to the derision of people who don't study transportation, is about twice what the average person will walk to a train station if they have to do it every day. Capital Metro knows this, of course, which is why their shuttles are planned for not only UT and the Capitol, but also for downtown; their only error is in repeating the Tri-Rail debacle by forgetting that choice commuters don't like riding the bus.

Also note in the upper reaches of the image, the other two critical employment centers downtown - the Capitol Complex and UT. Notice how the green line (2000 light rail) goes right next to them as well. What you don't see is further up to the north, the green line continues up the only high-density residential corridor in our city - that being Guadalupe Blvd., so in addition to being able to walk to their office _from_ the train station, a lot of prospective riders would have been able to walk to the train station from their homes.

That's what Mike Krusee took away from Austin, folks. And it ain't coming back once commuter rail opens; there's no way to operate anything like the 2000 light rail proposal cooperatively with this worthless commuter rail crock.

Update: Here's the other aerial photos from "Mopacs". Worth a look.

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

December 05, 2006

Rapid bus (and streetcar) aren't interim steps

It's worth crackplogging this briefly since I was reminded by a discussion on one of the blogs in my list that I hadn't written anything on Cap Metro in a month or so, and I've been meaning to do this for quite a while anyways, expanding on a quick hit I did a while back:

Some folks think we can view either/both of Rapid Bus and streetcars as a "placeholder for light rail", or a "step towards urban rail", or what have you, implying that the investment we make in those technologies is in fact a down payment on a real urban transit system. In fact, though, neither one can be evolved into reserved-guideway transit which is what it would take to get the gains seen in Dallas, Portland, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. Reserved-guideway transit, for those not familiar with the term, is any facility where the transit vehicle doesn't need to share space with, be stuck behind, or otherwise compete with other vehicles (usually cars, but could be regular buses too). Obviously this makes a big difference if you're trying to make up the currently huge speed and reliability gap in Austin between transit and the automobile.

Note that unlike my former colleague Patrick Goetz from the UTC, I view reserved-guideway transit as sufficient to garner significant numbers of choice commuters (those who drive to work today) - as it has worked in Dallas, Portland, Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, etc. Reserved-guideway doesn't mean grade-separated; grade-separated is elevated or subsurface rail, or if you're feeling generous, completely separate surface rail like Austin's commuter rail route (few crossings, and those completely controlled by physical means, not just traffic control devices). Light rail and BRT both accept less separation in return for the huge economic savings resulting from not having to build elevated or underground facilities, and in practice, almost all of the benefit of true grade-separation is achieved on good reserved-guideway designs.

I don't even have to write a long list of reasons, when just the first will suffice - although there are others. Here it is:

You don't run reserved guideway transit in the right lane.

That's really all you need to know to understand this issue. You can't eliminate right turns on any roadway in this country - it just doesn't work. People are used to restrictions on left turns, sure. But no right turns? No way. It's far too ingrained in our driving culture that we pull over to the right to turn, let people out, find parking, etc. (The British probably have a similar constraint against reserved guideways on the left, come to think).

So what's the problem? Both the streetcar system and the rapid bus starter line will be running in the right lane. (The 2000 light rail plan would have run down the middle of the road, at least on the two-way streets like Lamar and Guadalupe). So all the investment in rail (streetcar) and stations (rapid bus) needs to be completely dug up and rebuilt if either one was to be transitioned into any form of reserved-guideway transit, either light rail or bus rapid transit.

That means that building streetcar and rapid bus is actually a step FARTHER AWAY FROM URBAN RAIL, not a step towards it.

And no, a right lane shared by transit and "right turns only" isn't a solution to this problem either. (It's what Honolulu briefly tried to float with their ghastly failure of an experiment with BRT). Trucks pull over to the right to load and unload; so do normal buses; and cars turning right can stop your transit vehicle just as dead in its tracks as a car waiting to go through an intersection can.

December 04, 2006

Wal-Marts on freeways: bad idea

I've been participating in comment threads on austinist and metroblogging Austin on this issue in general and probably ought to write a full crackplog on the whole thing - but for now, just the traffic point:

The latest reason opponents of the Northcross Wal-Mart are attaching desperately to is the fact that Wal-Mart's proposed new location is not directly on a freeway, unlike the two other projects of larger size in our area. From a transportation perspective, this is exactly the wrong reason to oppose Wal-Mart; it's far better for the city for major destinations like Wal-Mart to be on city arterials rather than on frontage roads. In cities in states which don't have this obsession with highways as economic development tools for politically connected landowners, frontage roads typically aren't part of the project, because frontage roads end up generating their own traffic - so every big box retail site is located on arterial roadways, not freeways. Somehow, Brewster, these towns continue to thrive.

In short: it's impossible to deliver good transit service on frontage roads. I'll talk more about WHY this is in a future crackplog; but for now, just take it as a given. The service along US 183 in Northwest Austin is very very bad -- were it not for the useful nearby 2-way Jollyville Road, it'd be even worse. Long, long, long walks for transit patrons to businesses on the other side of the freeway. The workers at this proposed new Wal-Mart on the other hand can walk there quickly from the Northcross transfer center which attracts a dozen or more bus routes from all over the city, no matter from which direction they arrived.

There are lots of defensible reasons to oppose Wal-Mart; just like there were defensible reasons to push the McMansion Ordinance. Like then, latching on to something you think will be effective but you know is dishonest is a bad move in the long-run.

November 13, 2006

Streetcar isn't a step in the right direction

A quick hit; just posted to the austin streetcars mailing list in response to my old buddy Lyndon Henry, who defended streetcar investment against somebody complaining about low-frequency east-west downtown bus service on the weekend. I meant several months ago to address this "streetcar is a step towards light rail" issue - it still deserves its own post, but here's a start.

On 10:28 PM 11/12/2006 -0600, Nawdry wrote:

There are plenty of advantages that streetcars can have over buses,

exactly zero of which would help any of the issues (original complainaint) raised. The streetcar service proposed by Capital Metro truly is "bus on rails" - it has zero feet of reserved guideway; zero instances of signal prioritization; will be slow and take many stops. None of the advantages remaining which one could fairly assign to streetcars help local riders in the slightest - they just help tourists and businesses that cater to the same (the rails in the street making it more obvious that transit service exists and in which direction it goes).

It will not improve circulation from commuter rail one lousy iota. In fact, the initial shuttle buses will likely perform better than this streetcar, given Cap Metro's intention to have the streetcar line make many many stops (the early shuttles will likely not do this until they reach the area of their destination - i.e. they won't be stopping along Manor).

Nor can streetcar be upgraded to higher-quality reserved-guideway service once installed. No transit agency would dream of attempting to run reserved-guideway transit in the RIGHT lane - but that's exactly where the streetcar is getting put.

You and yours sold the Austin area a pig in a poke that can never and will never turn into the light rail we should have built all along. I remain ready to point this out whenever necessary.

Your pal,
M1EK


Note that I absolutely reject this bogus "run buses more often and see what happens before investing in rail" argument in general but in this particular case, the rail investment really isn't any better than the existing buses, so it actually does hold.

So, as a review: streetcars were originally sold two ways: first, as as a replacement for the rail service that Central Austin is not getting from commuter rail, and second as a good distributor/circulator for the commuter rail line passengers themselves, since commuter rail goes nowhere near the primary work destinations in the center-city. How's that working out? First, streetcars aren't going through Central Austin at all, and second, they aren't going to be an attractive transfer for commuter rail passengers. Yeehaw.

October 08, 2006

Rapid Bus in LA ain't rapid either

Check out this tale of woe, which is pretty much what I'd expect out of Capital Metro's MetroRapid service here in Austin in a couple of years. Any transit service without reserved guideway is doomed to these kinds of performance and reliability problems - holding a light green for a few seconds doesn't come close to cutting the mustard.

Remember that this 'rapid' bus service is all the urban core of Austin is ever going to get from Capital Metro, thanks to the decision of other pro-light-rail folks to sign on to ASG.

September 27, 2006

Rail transit dies in Austin, thanks to one final cut

Here's what I sent to the Alliance for Public Transportation, upon seeing their official launch and noting that their platform is basically "push for Capital Metro's full plan, quicker", despite alleging to be an "Independent Voice for Transportation". Note that this will probably signify a great reduction in posts from here on out - as there's really nothing more to say; the remaining pro-rail forces which could have fought for rail for central Austin have instead fully backed Krusee's plan. There's nobody left.

This means that rail down Guadalupe is dead. This means that Hyde Park, West Campus, and the Triangle will never have light rail. This means that central Austinites who pay most of Capital Metro's bills will never, ever, get served with rail transit. This means that even downtown Austin, the University, and the Capitol will never get anything better than a slow, stuck-in-traffic, shared-lane streetcar which doesn't work any better than a bus.

Here's my note. I've already gotten a short, snarky, response from Glenn Gadbois which basically said "We'll accept this as an announcement that you won't be joining". IE: they aren't interested in fighting for real light rail at all.

I see the site is finally unveiled. It's worth noting that there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Austin commuters are going to be significantly more willing than those in other new rail start cities to accept a transfer as part of their daily commute - which means that nothing short of reserved-guideway, one-seat, transit will be enough to attract a significant number of choice commuters.


IE: transfer to "urban core circulator" is going to be completely useless -
it's no better than transferring to a shuttle bus, as people will very
quickly figure out, since the streetcar will likewise be stuck in traffic
(no reserved guideway); and in no city in this country has a new rail start
which relies on shuttle distribution been anything other than a huge
disappointment.


You can't fix this plan with enhanced circulators. (Even a
reserved-guideway circulator, such as true light rail running through
downtown, would be a significant disincentive to ridership - areas where
rail transit is just beginning can't afford to make the trip any more
difficult than absolutely necessary - reports from New York or Chicago or
San Francisco are thus irrelevant here).


We're not using Minneapolis or Portland or St. Louis or Denver or Salt Lake
or Dallas as our model. They all built light rail on reserved guideway
which went directly to major employment centers without requiring transfers
to shuttle buses - and all have succeeded. (Most did what we would have
done with the 2000 plan: use some existing right-of-way, and transition to
the street where necessary to get directly where they needed to go).


We're instead doing what South Florida did with Tri-Rail, which is:
implement rail service on the cheapest, most available, existing track; and
hope people will be willing to ride shuttle buses the last mile or two to
their office every single day through congested traffic. It failed, despite
the shuttles being there to "whisk passengers to their final destination".


Pushing further for this plan only takes us further out on a limb which is
guaranteed to break. If we ever want real rail for central Austin, the only
path forward is to point out that this plan is not going to work and cannot
be made to work; and that we need reserved-guideway rail transit running
through the urban core NOW.

September 20, 2006

Somebody Finally Gets It

Whether through coincidence or because their aides have read this crackplog, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken have stood up and finally asked the $100,000 question about Rapid Bus, namely, "why are we spending all this money for something that's not likely to be any better than the #101 bus and won't generate any transit-oriented development", and what's more, they're apparently doing it from a pro-rail perspective. A rare bit of good news.

My fear is, though, that it's already too late. Where were you guys in 2004 when I was saying this stuff? Frankly, I don't think we can get light rail down this corridor once commuter rail is built -- as I've commented before, it would be nigh-impossible to continue the light rail route northwest on the existing right-of-way from the intersection of Lamar and Airport (since commuter rail will already be there, and the vehicles are mostly incompatible), but if you don't, you give up about half of the ridership which would have made the 2000 route a success.

(I originally misattributed Lee Leffingwell as Lee Walker; I apologize for taking so long to realize this and correct it).

September 14, 2006

Tying together two forms of crackpottery

A Bush-apologist economist I occasionally read keeps talking about how the EITC is more effective than the minimum wage at providing incentives for the very poor to work. I just added the following comment:

You misunderstand the point.

Group A advocates that we increase the minimum wage. They're serious. They're really trying to do it.

Group B says "that's stupid; just raise the EITC instead". They're not serious. They have no intention of raising the EITC.

Group B, when in power, did and continues to do nothing to raise the EITC. Hence, disingenuous.

Even if raising the EITC worked as well as its proponents claim, today, it's just a stalking horse, because its proponents have no intention at all of doing it.

Parallels abound. For instance, in most cities planning light-rail lines, you always end up with a group pushing for fully elevated transit - and if you dig hard enough you find that the guys who don't want any transit at all form about half of that group.

It's not just Austin where this happens, but of course, Austin is where we live. I'd say about half of the impetus behind the "build elevated transit, not grade-level transit" (whether grade-level is bad streetcar, good light-rail, or mediocre commuter-rail) comes from road warriors who find the naive but well-meaning monorail crew useful cover. Not to say that there aren't people on the monorail side who really believe it's what we need - my former colleague Patrick Goetz is certainly one of them - but whenever discussions come up of the "why would we build rail on the ground?" type, you can always dig a bit deeper and find some guys who really don't want any rail transit at all.

September 13, 2006

M1EK's Way Forward

This comes up from time to time, usually in other forums where people aren't familiar with the long history of rail in Austin:

Why don't you tell us what your (positive) plan is for improving rail in Austin?

Well, the only one that would work is to immediately stop the commuter rail project; cancel contracts for the rail vehicles; and build a light rail starter segment following most of the 2000 proposed route. Not real likely, folks.

Then there's the shorten rail transit's dark ages plan. Not real attractive, but I'm sad to say, the only one likely to have any impact. And it's what I've done so far, of course. During the Dark Ages, those monastaries that saved a bunch of literature and preserved some knowledge from the Greeks and Romans weren't helping anybody for quite a while, remember, they just made the Renaissance start a bit sooner / be a bit more effective, depending on who you ask.

During the past several years, many other people have come up with some other 'positive' plans, which I'll briefly describe below:

  1. Run light rail on a completely different route. (i.e. run up from downtown, by the Capitol and UT, but then shift over to Burnet Road, or stay on Lamar the whole way up to 183). Not gonna happen, folks - the reason the '00 route was favorable to the Feds is that it did what most successful rail starts do: run in exclusive right-of-way out in the suburbs and then transitioning to (slower) in-street running for only the last N miles where necessary. Running in-street all the way is a recipe for low ridership (slow trains). Plus, the residential catchment areas on North Lamar and Burnet Road are just awful.
  2. Improve streetcar - folks originally got suckered by Capital Metro into thinking we'd be delivering streetcar to central Austin residential areas as part of Future Connections. Of course, we're not, but it doesn't matter; streetcar is really no better than the bus for daily commuters. And, topic for future post, you can't turn streetcar into light rail later on - light rail runs in the middle of the street in its own lane; streetcar will run in the right lane, shared with cars & buses. You can't run a reserved-guideway mode on the right side of a street.
  3. Run light rail on commuter rail tracks, then branch off and go down the '00 route at Lamar. Pushed by a subset of the next group, mostly disingenuously - having a rail branch off at Lamar/Airport would basically shut down this intersection for cars, and the technologies are incompatible - the commuter rail vehicles we bought cannot feasibly run in the street for long distances (due mostly to station height).
  4. The most odious of all - Lyndon Henry and his cadre of misleaders - telling us that once we start running trains more often (and add more stops), the commuter rail line will magically become light rail. It still doesn't go anywhere worth going; Airport Boulevard is never going to turn into Guadalupe; and running trains more often to your shuttle bus transfer won't help ridership one lousy bit.

So, those who want to see more positive discussion - use this as a launching point. Let me know what you think. Come up with some positive direction that's not in the list above, or tell me why one of the above WILL work.

Some Selected Background (chronological, oldest at top):

September 12, 2006

Build Greater Austin and Capital Metro

A quick hit - since I missed this story due to scaling back to weekend-only service, I never got to comment on this piece:

So the budget released last Monday for the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1, eliminated the $6.6 million Austin portion (and a tiny amount that would have gone to Leander).

Left undisturbed, at the request of Capital Metro board member Fred Harless, was $1.1 million for the suburban communities in Capital Metro's service area that won't have rail stops.

Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim has been agitating for Capital Metro to keep giving Austin $2.4 million of the $6.6 million. The city says it's been falling behind on routine street maintenance and Kim's request would fill that gap.

Councilmember Kim is exactly right, albeit for the wrong reasons. If it's justifiable to leave the suburban money in there, Austin should keep a big chunk of its money too, since this commuter rail project barely serves Austin at all compared to Leander. It doesn't go anywhere near central Austin residential areas, nor to UT, the Capitol, or downtown, so the only practical beneficiaries of this line are Leander residents who don't mind riding shuttle buses.

In short, the people who pay Capital Metro's bills (i.e. central Austinites) aren't getting rail stations - and, therefore, should probably be keeping this BGA money; or at least, most of it. And thanks to the fact that Austin gets screwed by having to maintain a much, much larger percentage of major roads than do our suburban friends, we already have less money to spare on things like sidewalks, which is why the BGA money was so darn useful.

I'll try to get around to writing a new, updated, version of "M1EK'S SUPER-POSITIVE HAPPY FUN PLAN" in response to comments on the last posting sometime this week.

September 07, 2006

Chronicle remains credulous

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

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

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

September 02, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 01, 2006

Hand-holding consensus exercises play into the hands of the Bad Guys

NUPro's frustration echoes with me, obviously. I've long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the "good guys" are serious about gathering public input, and the "bad guys" are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don't matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.

Take Capital Metro's worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically "where should we put an extra station or two on this line we've already settled on", and "hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?". Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.

But please remember: Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan isn't the result of community input, folks. It's a result of Mike Krusee's command.

On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform's roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they'll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say "this is what we need to do; now, I'm willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:...". Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They've completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.

If I could say anything to folks like that, it's this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn't negotiate with them. He didn't gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn't even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

August 23, 2006

Think Like A Passenger

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, frankly, just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who's bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they're accepting input from the community - I'll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.

As usual, what's missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?

Take as a given that we're talking about 'choice commuters' - i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don't take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).

See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.

See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.

There's about one place where the "why is this better than a bus" question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It's not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out - so you're left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again - people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it's still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.

Think about it this way: We've got a passenger. His name's Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn't he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can't shift to another street when there's an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn't going to work - he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it - and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?

Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session - in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle's perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between "good rail" and "bad rail". At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play - but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I've got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than "rail bad" or "rail good" to "this rail bad BECAUSE".

The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it's going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he's doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

July 31, 2006

Buses Alone Can Never Get It Done

In response to one of the most common anti-rail arguments out there, paraphrased: "Why don't you get more people to ride buses and then come back and ask us to build rail", I posted the following to a yahoo group concerning the Mueller redevelopment, and it bears archiving here.

Buses cannot and will never be faster or more reliable than the private automobile, unless a vast network of bus-only lanes is built. Until that glorious day, anybody who argues that we need improve the bus system before building rail is either foolish or hiding a desire to avoid investment in transit altogether.

In other words, the bus system is, in fact, being run about as well as
it could be run, given the political and financial constraints under
which Capital Metro must labor. You could run buses every single
minute down every street in Austin and not pick up many more
passengers than ride today - essentially all of the people who are
willing to suffer the significant time, reliability, and comfort
penalty inherent in mixed-traffic bus service are already doing so.

That being said, these streetcars aren't the magic bullet which can
get people out of their automobiles either. They're still stuck in
traffic, slow, and unreliable; just like the Dillos they will
presumably model after.

Only reserved-guideway transit can really beat the private automobile
in cities where parking isn't that expensive and is widely available,
like ours. Too bad so many center-city folks, including so many
Mueller backers, fell for the con job of Krusee's commuter-rail plan,
which has in fact not only failed to deliver light rail to the urban
core, it actually precludes it from being delivered anytime in the
foreseeable future.

July 20, 2006

Why The Bile

From this thread full of optimistic talk from happy-fun-land about how We Can Still Make This Thing Work, I attempt to crush the dreams and hopes of the new generation by writing the following.


The solution is to keep reminding people that there is such a thing as "bad rail", and this thing is it. Seriously, there's no way to re-route it now; they've chosen a technology which is effectively incompatible with running down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress in the 2000 alignment. (And, by the way, it's also somewhat incompatible with street-running even across town on 4th street, due to vehicle height, unless you don't want any stations between the Convention Center and Seaholm). IE, even if Capital Metro turns over the agency to me at this point, the only solution is to completely stop working on the commuter rail line and completely change gears to the original light rail route; there's no way to extend commuter rail where it actually needs to go which is remotely feasible economically, politically, or even technologically.

The reason I keep harping on this is that LONG BEFORE the election, when there was still a chance to persuade Capital Metro to change their mind (or force them to), people like you and the other naive cheerleaders here said "well, they'll just build that thing and then we'll get light rail in the urban core later". The numerous technical, financial, and political reasons why that was never actually going to happen were viewed as just downer-talk from pessimist-land.

Switch gears to South Florida. Some people pointed out early on that requiring choice commuters to use shuttle buses wasn't going to fly. They were ignored, in favor of the great spirit of optimism. Surely, they said, we can improve the line later on, if those negative nellies actually have a point. Two decades later, and hundreds of millions of dollars of irrelevant double-tracking later, people are finally beginning to get it: the line can't be fixed; the fundamental problem is the location of the line itself; the only solution is to pick up and move to the FEC corridor (another existing rail line which runs right through all the major downtowns of the region).

Now, switch gears back to Austin. Same thing is about to happen. Not much chance of stopping them now, but at least all you cheerleaders ought to rejoin reality-land: Capital Metro is trying to convince you that Rapid Bus is really just as good as light rail would have been. Why do you think they're doing that? Could it be that old crotchedy M1EK was actually right, and that holding our noses and supporting commuter rail doomed us? No, must be something else. Keep cheering, folks! Sooner or later, something good's bound to happen!

And for those who think it couldn't possibly be this bad - I refer you to yesterday's post: there's really only one question you need to ask Capital Metro.

July 19, 2006

Where does the commuter rail line end downtown?

On this forum, some folks are naively optimistic about how close the commuter rail line comes to major employment centers downtown (one even argued, although was corrected, that people would walk the 2+ miles from the MLK station to UT every day!). I dug up the picture below, and added in a legend and drew in the route of the 2004 commuter rail line as well as the 2000 light rail line. I'm not enough of a photoshop wizard to remove the other three "possible station locations" - this image was originally from a city of Austin newsletter about possibly extending the commuter rail line west to Seaholm.

Note that the typical 1/4 mile catchment area around the station at Red River and 4th Street doesn't go anywhere near any big office buildings - the only big buildings it captures are some hotels - whose employees aren't the "choice commuters" a new rail start should be going after anyways. A quarter-mile radius is typically used as an estimate of the maximum amount of distance that the typical daily commuter would be willing to walk from the train station to their office - any more than this, and they won't take the transit trip (or, as Capital Metro would hope, contrary to all of the evidence from Tri-Rail in South Florida, they'll be excited to be "whisked to their destination on shuttle buses").

Also note that the Capitol and UT are much, much, much farther from any stations for the commuter rail line - this image only shows the southern half of downtown. Not even the most optimistic people are thinking anybody would walk to work at UT or the Capitol from this thing.

I've also put green dots on the biggest buildings in this area from emporis.com's list of Austin high-rises (top 20 only), and yellow dots on other future big buildings / employment centers in the area (mostly residential high-rises under construction). Note the complete lack of any current or proposed big buildings anywhere near this commuter rail stop.

July 18, 2006

Tidbits from Cap Metro's PR explosion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local puff media fails again

Apart from KUT, nobody bothered to get a remotely critical reading on Capital Metro's latest PR blitz other than Jim Skaggs' Neanderthal Act. And even KUT let Cap Metro off the hook, as it turns out. (Note that the Cap Metro flack responding to my comment that the shuttle bus or eventual streetcar would not be reliable or fast since it's sharing a lane with cars said that the commuter rail train would take the same amount of time every day - which is true - good dodge, CM flack; I salute you).

There's really only one question you need ask Capital Metro:

How are passengers on the train going to get from the train station to their office in the morning, and how are they going to get back to the train station in the evening?

The rail line doesn't even go close enough to downtown offices for people to walk; and there's zero chance anybody's going to walk the mile or two to UT or the Capitol. So, again, why is nobody asking Capital Metro how they're going to get to work in more detail?

July 10, 2006

Refresher on TOD and commuter rail

Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the 'downtown circulator', respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.

With that in mind, it's worth reiterating the answer to the question:

When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?

Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.

Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro's system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a "light railway" doesn't make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.

Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building "transit villages" around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn't go anywhere interesting on the "urban end" without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.

You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can't be stuck behind other peoples' cars. You don't get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).

The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that's not the fatal flaw - the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.

A large part of the 2000 line's residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers - until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.

As for UT - I hope they're not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee's bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT's main campus didn't make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn't help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form - it just tears up one of UT's streets for a transit mode which won't be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT's employees aren't going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus - it's still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.

(1: It's OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility - i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible - the bus driver can't decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).

May 23, 2006

You can't fix a bad route.

My cow orker threatened to do nasty things, partially to himself, if I didn't crackplog before he left on his trip. I'm in the middle of yet another attempt to stop Lyndon Henry from rewriting history on the lightrail_now yahoo group; and went looking for Tri-Rail news and found this letter which explains why Tri-Rail is still, 20 years later, a complete and utter failure at attracting 'choice commuters' in South Florida.

Read carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?

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

Remember this discussion?

Then, there's this gem:

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

Tri-Rail is viewed as a failure in South Florida because nearly nobody who has the choice between driving and taking it will leave their car at home. We're headed down the same path here in Austin, because people like Lyndon Henry didn't stand up and fight for Austin's interests against those of Mike Krusee.

For shame.

Those who continue to nicely but naively ask us to 'work together to fix it' don't get it: there ISN'T ANY WAY TO FIX THIS DEBACLE. More stations won't help. Nice streetcar circulators won't help. You can't recover from deciding to run your trains on existing tracks instead of where the people are who might like to ride and where the places are they definitely want to go.

We're turning dirt on a rail line which will 'prove' to most on-the-fence Austinites that 'passenger rail doesn't work' - the same thing that happened in South Florida with Tri-Rail. Only now, 20 years after the thing was planned, have many people started to change their tune from "rail doesn't work" to "maybe we screwed up in how we built it". Can Austin wait that long?

Continuing to misrepresent this thing as urban 'light' rail only makes it worse - at some point a decade from now, we're going to have to pick up the pieces from this disaster and try to sell rail again to the public. And part of that is clearly identifying what went wrong, and who led us down the wrong path. I ain't gonna stop anytime soon.

May 17, 2006

Why Commuter Rail Will Fail In Austin

A link from Houston I just stumbled upon today which explains why rail transit works so much better in Washington, DC than in San Francisco, and shows quite well the problem the commuter rail line will have in Austin. (San Francisco still has a ton of rail passengers, of course, but the argument is that they have far fewer than they _should_).

Check it out here.

Relevant excerpts (summaries - read the whole article for depth):

  • BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is
  • BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
  • BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are.

It strikes me that you could almost substitute "Austin's 2004 commuter rail proposal" for BART and "Austin's 2000 light rail proposal" for Metrorail and essentially the whole thing would stand just as well as it does now.

And the whole thing exposes how much of a snow job Lyndon Henry and Capital Metro are pulling by calling "All Systems Go" a "light urban railway".

I highly recommend a full read. I'm also adding this blog to my links.

March 27, 2006

Capital Metro Broken Promises Part 2

Well, I was planning on writing Part Two about finances - specifically, the debt issue. But, I just got the following across the wire on the austin-bikes email list (originally written by somebody else on the ACA list). Remember that one of the many levers used to try to pry the center-city away from my position of "rail which doesn't run anywhere near central Austin isn't worth voting for" was the promise of "rails with trails", pushed most heartily by folks like Jeb Boyt, David Foster, and Dave Dobbs. I never fell for it, of course; it was obvious that double-tracking needed to happen in enough spots to make trails of any serious length impractical bordering on impossible, and the political (performance-oriented) hurdles seemed insurmountable. I said so, frequently (see bottom; unfortunately, I didn't write any blog posts about this angle; I know, what are the odds).

But, as usual, I was alone.

Now, indications are that Capital Metro is wiggling out of yet another commitment made to central Austin in order to get the thing passed (see Part One and followup). Responses on the ACA list basically hem and haw about multi-organization planning efforts and the necessity to keep pushing and go get some money, ignoring the fact that Capital Metro and its defenders basically said this trail would get built and be useful for central Austinites; not that "if you pay your own money we might let you build one in a decade out by Leander where there's enough room, but then again we might not".

The Austin-screwing Krusee-train rides again. Yee-haw!

Here's the quote from the ACA list:

I was in a planning meeting with Lucy Galbraith from Capital Metro last week, and she said the words I've been dreading. She said there is no plan -- nor has there ever been a plan -- to build bike and pedestrian trails along the planned rail commuter lines.

I had been told repeatedly by several sources in Capital Metro that they were committed to building a connected trail for bicycles and pedestrians next to every rail line to allow people to safely walk or ride to or from the nearest station. I said, on this list, I couldn't wait for that day. It sounded swell to me.

And I voted for the commuter rail in part because I thought it would help us get this bike trail.

Now Ms. Galbraith is saying that Capital Metro never had any such plan. (More specifically, she said the language related to bike/pedestrian trails was ambiguous and vague.) She said there was an idea proposed for bike and pedestrian trails, but there were no funds ever allocated. She also said that Capital Metro intends to build parallel tracks in their right-of-way, so in many places there will not be room for a bike/pedestrian trail.

So, to sum up... There never was a plan, just an idea proposed. There are no funds. And there is no room. And I, for one, feel somewhat fooled.

Here are some excerpts from the austin-bikes list archive both from me and those who scoffed.

One of my first on the topic:

And I want to remind all of you that, while these bike facilities are an unquestionably good thing, it is very unlikely that Capital Metro will build them unless the performance of the starter line is fairly good, and by that I mean it has to be good enough to convince voters to continue to build the system drawn in the long-range plan. The rails-with-trails trail is not going to be part of the starter route; it's going to be built afterwards IF AND ONLY IF the long-range plan continues to be implemented.

Whether or not this starter line is good enough to get us on the path of implementing that long-range plan (which I think is still awful) is a matter of opinion. I think by now you all know I believe the chance that this starter line will match the extremely poor performance of Tri-Rail in South Florida, which it closely resembles in all important aspects, is quite good).

So please vote simply based on whether you think this starter line is going to work. Voting yes in the hopes of getting bike trails is foolish if the plan itself is never going to get to that point. You might in fact be impeding the development of mass transit in our area and not get the bike trails anyways.

The first real doozy, from David Foster. A nice guy who is probably feeling pretty down right now.

Bike Friends,

I have been out of town for a few days and am catching up on lots of
email on commuter rail and rails-with-trails. Rather than responding
to al of them, I just want to point out a few reasons why RwT is
more likely to happen with than without commuter rail. I will be out
of town again starting tomorrow and not back till Wednesday but I
look forward to the post-election analysis on this forum, and I hope
discussion of how to make rails-with-trails work should the
referendum pass, as I hope it will

1). Cap Metro will have more money if the referendum passes, and may
well not be able to withstand the attack to roll back its sales tax
and put the money into roads if it loses. This means we could lose
funding for RwT and the All Systems Go improvements to the bus
system as well, and cripple the agency's chance to do any kind of
rail system. This is of course what Skaggs and Levy want.

2) Cap Metro will have an incentive to do RwT if the referendum
passes, namely to increase ridership by providing an easier and
safer way for cyclists to access the stations and trains. Cap Metro
has also agreed to providing bike access on the trains and lockers
and/or bike racks at the stations, which will serve the same purpose
of increasing ridership. A cyclist will be able to ride to the
station, leave the bike there or take it along and ride to his/her
final destination.

3) I do not believe that Cap Metro would commit the political
blunder of backing out on this promise. Many of us worked to get Cap
Metro to agree to RwT, including the bicycle advocacy organizations
who issued the joint press release supporting the referendum (ACA,
AMTG, TBC, and now too Trans Texas Alliance). Cap Metro gives every
indication of wanting to go forward, including helping bring Mia
Birk of Alta Planning in from Portland Oregon to give a presentation
on Rails with Trails while back.

My response to David:

My statement that "you won't get rails-with-trails if commuter rail fails to deliver passengers" is based on political pragmatism, not what Capital Metro happens to be saying right now.

1. There is no legal requirement that they provide RwT if the election
passes. I don't think David disputes this. Nothing but the initial
commuter line is really up for a vote here. I believe Capital Metro
intends to build RwT. I also believe that if the commuter rail line
meets my expectations (performs similar to South Florida's Tri-Rail
line, the only other new start of the last 20-30 years which relies on
shuttle buses for distribution), the political pressure to give back 1/4
cent (at least) of Capital Metro's money will be as strong as it ever
has been. So I don't buy the argument that the money's only going back
if the election fails. I think the money's also going back if the
election succeeds but the starter line fails.

2. I don't think RwT provides much boost to ridership. This isn't going
to be providing cycling access to stations, for the most part; it will
be providing cycling routes ALONG the rail line, not TO the rail line.
The neighborhoods in Leander will continue to have no bicycling access
to stations whatsoever - RwT will not change this. Nor will RwT improve
access for central Austinites since the part of the line they call
"central Austin" (really north Austin - Crestview/Wooten) is the least
likely to have space for the trail due to narrower RoW. Also, cycling
access to stations in this part of Austin is already pretty good -
roughly ten million times better than in Leander or far northwest Austin.

3. If Capital Metro wants to keep running the commuter rail line after
this point (attempting to fix it with streetcars or by going to
Seaholm), they're going to need to fight a POLITICAL battle to keep that
money. Guess what the likely casualty would be in that case? In other
words, the "political blunder of backing out" may end up being one
necessary part of Capital Metro's strategy to make the rail service
survive long enough for an attempted rescue by streetcars (or Seaholm).

In conclusion: I respect David and, unlike many on the
pro-commuter-rail-side, he has been an honorable and informed opponent.
I think he's kept that standard up here. I don't disagree that
rails-with-trails would be really nice if they happen; and my prediction
that they will not occur is based on my informed guess of what will
happen politically when the rail line fails to deliver passenger load. I
think he honestly believes the line will deliver enough passengers to
survive long enough for RwT to happen; and obviously I don't.

And a response from Eric Anderson...

Certainly, construction of Rails-with-Trails will accelerate with voter buy-in and continued build-out of Cap Metro's long range transit plan.

There is however simply no evidence that any/all bike facilities associated with the Austin-Leander commuter rail line must jump through some performance hoop.

[...]

In fact, Cap Metro spokesperson Sam Archer indicated to those present at Austin Cycling Association meeting on Oct. 11th, that immediately following an affirmative Nov. 2nd vote, Cap Metro would begin master-planning efforts for such Rails-with-Trails facilities in tandem with commuter rail planning efforts.

STILL feel good about falling for this snow-job instead of fighting for light rail for central Austin?

March 14, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One And A Half

(Bet you thought I was going to address the debt issue, since the Statesman wrote a scathing editorial today. That's Part Two, but it's coming later.)

Following up on Part One, Capital Metro has put up a survey trying to narrow down road choices for the infamous "circulator service" which represents the sum total of the 'additions' which were promised to transit-loving central Austinites who observed that All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere people want to go; nor does it go near people who might want to ride.

Notice from the picture: it doesn't go through residential central Austin in any way, shape, or form. This service, when implemented, is just a bus (maybe a streetcar) from Mueller to UT or downtown; it does NOT do anything to make up for the slap in the face to central Austin.

Note where it doesn't go. It doesn't go up Guadalupe, where tens of thousands of people live within a short walk of the 2000 light rail route. It doesn't go next to the Triangle, a transit-oriented development which is actually BUILT, not just a twinkle in somebody's eye. It doesn't go by high-density residential development presently under construction in West Campus. It doesn't reward the central Austinites who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's bills with any transit improvements at all (and no, Rapid Bus isn't worth shit).

And also remember that Capital Metro has already ruled out reserved-guideway-transit for this route. This means, essentially, that whether the vehicle has rubber tires (bus) or steel wheels (streetcar), it's still going to be stuck behind other peoples' cars in traffic.

Still feel good about falling for this snowjob, folks?

March 03, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One

The ongoing brouhaha with Lyndon reminded me to start collecting these in one place. First in a series of at least three.

Advocates of light rail through central Austin (including myself, of course) were encouraged to vote for this commuter rail plan, and get "light rail later". Dave Dobbs took me to lunch and tried real hard to get me to fall into line on this, as a matter of fact. This strategy extended to electioneering by Capital Metro itself, who originally stated in Rapid Bus materials that the one proposed route was a "possible placeholder for light rail". One example here. After getting the pro-transit forces to ease up (except me, of course), they dropped this language from their materials. Since then, Capital Metro has never mentioned running rail on the 2000 light rail route past such minor destinations as the center of downtown, the Capitol, the University of Texas, high-density residential development in West Campus and points north, and the Triangle.

From Jeff Wood's thesis, the following:

Robin Rather, who also attended the meeting, asked the hard questions. "What is the best system and what does the Central City get out of all this?" She had a point. Bus Rapid Transit would not sit well with people who had voted overwhelmingly for light rail in 2000. "With the stroke of a pen, I could wipe out this whole proposal at the ballot box," she said "So why should we support this if we are not getting anything out of it?"

Fast-forward to 2006. Capital Metro has eliminated any talk of reserved-guideway rail on the 2000 light rail route; and the "circulator" service being hashed out is leaning heavily towards buses (although still keeping streetcars on the list until the bitter end as is typical). Where's it going to run? Through downtown and by the capitol; but then veering east past the south edge of UT and out to the old airport; avoiding all of the residential density which exists now or in the near future. In other words, this amazing "center-city circulator" which was supposed to make commuter rail provide some benefits to the people who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's tax dollars has morphed into "The Bus People Living At Mueller Will Take To Get To Their Job If They're Members Of The Small Group That Have To Pay A Lot To Park". (Need a catchy slogan for this vehicle! Ideas gladly stolen^H^H^H^H^H^Haccepted!)

Feel good so far about falling for this snow-job, folks?

March 02, 2006

Austin Rail Politics Thesis

Jeff Wood, in the middle of a thread on lightrail_now where I'm trying to once again prevent Lyndon from wriggling off the hook, just posted a link to his thesis on Austin rail transportation politics in which I'm quoted a few times. A good summary for those still interested in the issue.

February 09, 2006

The thing people aren't getting about the library

With the call to build it somewhere pretty or where they can build it bigger is:

The people who most need and use the library currently are quite likely to get there on the bus. Yes, the bus you think nobody uses; although if you stand outside the current library and look at those buses go by, you'll quickly be disabused of that particular brand of suburban idiocy.

The current library works well because it's on one of the two most heavily bus-travelled corridors downtown (Guadalupe). A location on Cesar Chavez too far from Congress, on the other hand, won't be an easy trip for many of the current patrons.

Look at the map (zoom in on the lower-right inset). Notice how many buses go right next to the thing. Most of the rest of the buses are three blocks away on Congress. So, a huge chunk of routes don't require any walk at all, and most of the rest require a 3-block walk at most.

Now, consider the proposed new site at what's now the water treatment plant. Going by current routes, two come fairly close, but the big conglomeration coming down Guadalupe/Lavaca will be about two blocks away; and the Congress routes about five blocks away.

This doesn't sound like much to walk, and it wouldn't be for most of us. However, as somebody who hasn't been able to walk well for quite a while now and used to serve on a commission where we were often taking up issues important to those who are mobility-impaired, I have more appreciation than most for what a pain in the ass this is going to be. Oh, and don't forget, unlike most of the people involved with this decision, I've been to this library many times - and I can tell you that at any given time, a huge number, possibly even the majority of the patrons arrived on the bus, and a large fraction of those are either elderly or in wheelchairs or both. For THOSE people, two more blocks is a lot to ask.

Don't move somewhere which makes the library less accessible to those who need it most just for the sake of being pretty. Please say no to moving the central library off the main bus lines.

Update: Several commenters have commented along these lines (paraphrased, with my response):

"Isn't commuter rail going to a transit hub at Seaholm anyways?" - please do yourself a favor and read this category archive and start with this post, OK? Short summary: It ain't going to Seaholm for decades, if then. And Seaholm is still a couple-blocks'-walk from this site.

The buses will just be moved to go by the library - this isn't going to happen either, folks. Long-haul bus routes don't make two-block jogs just for the hell of it (people already complain about how supposedly indirect these things are). Each one of those bus routes might deliver a dozen passengers a day to the existing library - enough to make it a valuable part of the demand for the current route, but not enough to justify hauling a long, heavy, bus around a bunch of tight corners.

February 06, 2006

The Capital Metro Finances

Ben Wear finally checked in this morning about the "commuter rail finances causing pressure for cost reductions causing union strife issue" which I covered here, although I disagree completely with his conclusion that light rail would have left us in the same mess.

  1. The commuter rail plan would NOT have received any substantial Federal funding. Wear glosses over this for more commentary about how difficult the New Starts process is. Rail lines with such paltry projected ridership have not done well at the FTA in recent years.
  2. The light rail plan, on the other hand, would easily have received the 50% Federal funding. We already know the Feds rated it highly even though they weren't allowed to include the impact of TOD and other future development such as the Triangle (which is now, in 2006, online).
  3. The commuter rail plan was sold to the voters of Austin on the premise that it was so cheap (with the Federal money that Capital Metro is now NOT seeking) that it would not necessitate touching the 1/4 cent "rebate" or the Build Greater Austin funds.
  4. The light rail plan counted on using both. Wear glosses over this to some degree, but at least mentions it.
  5. The operating costs of commuter rail are likely to be high - Wear mentions this, but doesn't mention why they're disproportionately high compared to light rail - again, it runs back to low ridership. Operating cost per passenger, in fact, is likely to be much higher with commuter rail than with light rail. The physical cost of moving each train is quite likely to be higher with diesel than it was with electricity, and many of the ancillary operating costs such as maintenance actually rise at a lower rate than the number of vehicles do thanks to economies of scale. Then, when you divide that cost by a much smaller number of commuter rail passengers, you're in bad news city. It's going to be a feeding frenzy for the local suburban Republicans masquerading as libertarians when the "we're paying a $15 subsidy for each rail passenger's daily ride" stories start coming out.

Summarizing: the 2000 light rail plan would have gotten a bunch of money from the Feds, would have had access to the 1/4 cent 'rebate' and Build Greater Austin funds, would have had greater income from fares, would have had proportionally lower operating costs, and would have opened up more TOD income than will this commuter rail plan. Since it would have gone "right down the gut", i.e., right next to all the neighborhoods which actually want to use transit, and directly in front of UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown where people actually work, it would have become the success story that we've seen in Minneapolis, Portland, Dallas, etc. IE: a credible alternative which encourages even those who drive to work every day to support future expansions and even (shudder!) tax increases.

Instead, based on what we have now, it's unlikely that, if it's ever built out, the complete commuter rail + streetcars plan being pushed today will end up being any cheaper anyways, which really puts the lie to the idea that cost was the reason for picking it. It was about screwing the center-city in favor of Krusee's suburbanites all along. If you are one of the few who ride it, this is how you're gonna get to work. And our "success story" that we're attempting to emulate is South Florida: Shuttle buses for those who were going to take the bus anyways, and branded as a big fat failure by everybody else.

January 31, 2006

"Build it and they'll come" is no way to run a city

So the end-result of the Parlor problem appears to be that the neighborhood isn't going to budge on the parking variance, which means that another local business is in danger of going under unless the notoriously neighborhood-friendly Board of Adjustment suddenly becomes more responsible.

The end of the thread on the hydeparkaustin mailing list occurred when a member of the "Circle C in downtown Austin" party commented that a plan (in the works now for a long time and seemingly not close to fruition) to arrange for parking at the State Hospital (across Guadalupe) to be used for employees of businesses on Guadalupe would be the only way out of this mess.

I replied that it was unlikely that any customer or employee of those businesses would find it attractive to park at the state hospital, walk out to Guadalupe, wait a long time for the light at 41st and Guadalupe to change, walk very quickly across the street, and then and only then arrive at their destination (as compared to parking on a side street or Avenue A).

The person replied (and was supported by the moderator, who then ended the discussion with the attached unpublished rebuttal in hand) that "the boss can make the employee park whereever they say". This may be true in an abstract sense, I replied, but it's unlikely that any such boss would want to spend the energy enforcing a rule which prevented employees from parking in PUBLIC spaces such as on Avenue A, even if they did want to keep employees out of their own private lot.

This goes back to thinking of a type which is unfortunately prevalent here in Austin and among many other progressive cities - that being that people will do things that are good, as long as we provide opportunities to do them. IE, build it and they will come. What you build, given this thinking, doesn't have to be attractive compared to the pre-existing or forthcoming alternatives; its mere existence will suffice.

For instance, in this circumstance, they think that simply providing available parking in an inconvenient and unpleasant location will get people to park there who would otherwise park on neighborhood streets. Likewise, Capital Metro thinks simply providing any rail will get people to use it, even if the individual incentives are pretty awful, given the shuttle bus transfers.

I have a whole blog category analyzing 'use cases' which I think is a far more useful way to look at the problem. In this case, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of that potential parking consumer a few paragraphs back and remember that your boss probably (a) isn't going to be able to stop you from parking on Avenue A, and (b) probably couldn't catch you even if he tried.

But like with the naive pro-transit suckers that bought the MikeKrusee ScrewAustin Express, it's unlikely that it's possible to get through to these people. And so, the consequence is that another local business which probably would have improved Guadalupe as a place we actually want to be is thwarted. Good work, geniuses.

This is not to say that we should never build transit or highways. What it does mean is that somebody ought to spend at least a few minutes figuring out whether the thing you're going to expect people to use is actually attractive enough for them to choose to use it. By that metric, light rail in 2000 was a slam dunk, despite the lies spread by Skaggs and Daugherty. But in this parking case and with this commuter rail line, nobody seems to have bothered to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective user.

my sadly now never-to-be-published response (remember, this is to somebody who said "But the Heart Hospital doesn't let their employees park in their lot!" follows.


Those cases have some clear and obvious differences to the one
we're talking about here -- one being that the employees are being prohibited from parking in a private lot (which is still difficult to enforce, but at least defensible). You're asking that these business' employees not only refrain from parking in the business' lot (private) but ALSO from the public spaces on Guadalupe and the street space on Avenue A. And nobody's 'requiring' those state employees to park in Siberia - if they could find an open metered space somewhere else, for instance, they're free to take it. Likewise, the Heart Hospital can't force its employees to mark at the MHMR pool.

So it's easy to prohibit people from parking in a given private lot. Unless you're going to turn Avenue A into RPPP as part of this, though, they'd still park there instead of across Guadalupe. And any boss who tried to force them otherwise would probably be experiencing the fun world of employee turnover.

January 24, 2006

Clearly I Am A Shrinking Violet

Both Austinist and Metroblogging Austin wrote articles about Cap Metro which talked about commuter rail and didn't link here to any one of the hundred or so articles in my vast Cap Metro commuter rail category archive. My feelings are hurt. More importantly: Baby Jebus is crying.

Update: Both have now added links to the category archive here, so that hopefully new readers can get a lot of backstory. Thanks, both of you.

A summary:

  • Capital Metro did not seek Federal money because they knew they'd not get much. The FTA was unlikely to rate this commuter rail plan very highly - even Cap Metro's own figures show a very small number of people riding, because this piece-of-crap Krusee debacle doesn't actually go anywhere people want to go, like UT, the Capitol, or Congress Avenue, and their bogus stuck-in-traffic 'circulator' is only going to circulate bums and other carless transit-dependent folks because of the extra time and discomfort involved in a three-seat ride. Oh, and it also doesn't go near any of the center-city neighborhoods that actually like to use transit.
  • The 2000 light rail plan, on the other hand, was rated pretty highly by the FTA and would have clearly obtained a good chunk of federal funding, as would a scaled-back version of same, due to much higher projected ridership (compared to the Krusee craptrain above).
  • The union, whether you like them or not, would be committing suicide if they consented to a two-tier wage structure. Any position by Cap Metro which includes that change is, therefore, evidence that they don't want to negotiate, but rather, that their desire is to kill the union.

January 20, 2006

Our lunch, and parking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 23, 2005

Why Krusee Supported Rail, Part One

Round Rock doesn't pay Capital Metro taxes. They decided a long time ago that they didn't want to be part of the system. Great. I wish we Austinites could similarly exempt ourselves from paying taxes which build their roads for them, but here we are.

So where does Krusee and rail come into this, then?

CAMPO is about to approve using Federal money to build an "intermodal transit center" in downtown Round Rock, which will include a new bus line which connects to a Capital Metro Park-n-Ride in far North Austin.

Let me repeat again: Citizens of Austin subsidize bus rides on Capital Metro by paying a 1% sales tax. Citizens of Round Rock pay nothing to Capital Metro.

These park and rides (and the express buses which stop there) are fairly attractive today for a small subset of commuters who have to pay money to park at their office (mainly UT employees; a few folks downtown). So some people, even when not in the Cap Metro service area, drive to the park and ride and then hop the bus (paying the same low fare as an Austin resident would). Until recently, the main places this 'freeloading rider' problem occurred were Pflugerville (which voted themselves out of the system - Cap Metro responded by moving their park and ride what seemed like 500 feet further down the road towards Austin) and Cedar Park (who can freeload on either Leander or Austin).

Now we've just opened one of these at the far north fringe of the service area (near Howard Lane).

I have asked Cap Metro in the past (when I was on the UTC) whether they realized that building more park-and-rides at the far fringes of their service area would lead to this 'freeloading rider' problem; and they said, yes, it would, and no, they didn't intend to do anything about it.

So now, to add insult to injury, we're using area-wide tax revenue to build a project which will make it easier for Round Rock residents to ride Capital Metro, where they will be heavily subsidized (far more than Austin riders) by Austin taxpayers. This will further drive down Cap Metro's fairly abyssmal "farebox recovery ratio". And Cap Metro is enthusiastic about this.

Is Round Rock going to institute a 1% sales tax to pay for Capital Metro service? Hell no. They can't, even if they wanted to; they're maxed out. Is Cap Metro going to demand that passengers provide proof of residence inside the service area before getting the heavily discounted fare? Hell no. They won't, even if they wanted to.

But could Capital Metro build light rail for urban Austin where most of their tax revenue comes from? No, that was 'too expensive'. If you're appropriately slavish in your praise, Kaiser Krusee might deign to bless you with some streetcars which are stuck in traffic behind his constituents' cars. Just don't point out that by the time we've built a bunch of worthless commuter rail lines and a streetcar loop, we might as well have just built the 2000 light rail plan - it would have been no more expensive and far more effective.

Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?

More to come.

December 02, 2005

Why The Drag Sucks

This was going to be a comment at infobong to his entry about another local business biting it on the Drag, but I realized it was getting way too long and probably way too wonkish for that venue.

It's a simple but sadly misunderstood formula:

# of potential customers in area has been going up (more students; more residents).

Amount of retail space has been staying the same (stupidly limited by zoning regulations which effectively prevented any redevelopment along the drag which has way too much single-story car-oriented retail and even surface parking.

Result? Higher demand (from customers); stagnant supply; more demand (from businesses) for static space = higher rents = more national chains

Solution? No parking requirements and very very very generous height limits along the Drag. But even the recent West Campus rezoning didn't go far enough down that path - there's still way too much emphasis on parking minimums. Properties right along Guadalupe as far north as 38th and possibly 45th should have NO required parking, in my opinion. If you think this gives them too much of a leg up (even given the much higher rent they'll pay than their suburban competitors), consider having them pay an "in-lieu parking fee" dedicated to mass transit and pedestrian improvements along the corridor.

That's another piece of the formula of course, which ends up leading to a few big tenants being healthy because they can lock up access to a lot or a garage; while the little individual (usually local) tenants blight out - like what's happening up on Guadalupe between 29th and 45th. Properties can't redevelop because change of use between one type of commercial business and another make the grandfathered variance go away, which means they're suddenly subject to suburban-style parking requirements.

November 28, 2005

Use Cases Part Three: Reverse Commutes

In case you thought I'd never pick one which works well with commuter rail, we've got one (although light rail would have worked a little bit better).

Analyzing a couple of reverse commutes:

Case 1 is a young downtown resident (of one of the condo buildings now under construction, for instance) who works at IBM (which as the draft environmental impact assessment states, will be right next to one of the stations). Parking up at IBM is free, of course.

Most of the residential development downtown is on the west side of Congress (except for the Milago and the 555, which are within walking distance of the train station). This puts the majority of housing units within a 5 minute walk of the 2000 light rail line with a short shuttle bus ride for the commuter rail station; with the Milago and 555 being the opposite.

For a minor variation, my own commute when I was working at IBM was from my condominium in Clarksville, from which I could have ridden a bus to either rail station from a couple of bus options - add 10 more minutes for extra bus travel for those trips.

Numbers indicate "seats". IE, if the number gets up to 3, you had to ride in 3 vehicles to get there. T indicates transfers. W indicates wait. P indicates pedestrian trip.

Passenger TripCommuter RailLight Rail (2000)BusCar
Downtown condo to IBM For the majority: (P). Walk to shuttle bus stop.
(W). Wait for shuttle bus.
(1). Ride shuttle bus to rail station at Convention Center
(W). Short wait (we hope) for train
(2). Ride commuter rail (not stuck in traffic) to station near IBM
(P). Walk to office at IBM or Tivoli
Estimated time: 40-50 minutes (5 minute walk on each end; 5-15 minute range wait and ride on shuttle bus)
(P). Walk a few blocks to Guadalupe.
(W). Short wait for train
(1). Ride light rail train (not stuck in traffic) to station near IBM/Tivoli
(P). Walk to office.
Estimated time: 40 minutes (5 minute walk on each end).

(P). Walk to downtown bus stop for #174 express bus.
(W). Wait for bus.
(1). Bus ride to stop near IBM (far from Tivoli).
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 50-70 minutes (5 minute walk to bus stop; 5-10 minute wait for bus; 35-45 minute bus trip; 5-10 minute walk to office)

(1). Drive (stuck in traffic, but reverse commute is free-flowing in morning; quite bad in evening) to office
(W). Find parking in own parking garage
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 15-45 minutes

Unless you live in Milago or 555, this commutes would be better on light rail than on commuter rail, but the car still kicks both to the curb during the morning commute and probably always will. The afternoon is where this commute really gets competitive - this is the route I used to have to drive when I worked up north and lived in Clarksville, and it's not pretty. You can sometimes save a bit of time by using alternate routes, but it's never quick; the problem is that the express bus on Burnet isn't going to be quick or reliable either since it's stuck in stoplight and slow-speed traffic conditions. Rapid bus isn't an option for this commute (at least, not initially - the long-term buildout indicates a route up Burnet). Both commuter rail and light rail allow passengers to at least obtain a more reliable commute, and in some cases even a faster one.

Having lived this commute, I'd pick light rail and MAYBE commuter rail over the car - a comfortable transit ride which took on average 5 minutes longer but was reliable and allowed me to work or read would have been a big winner. The scary thing about the commuter rail trip would be (of course) the bus transfer (if your shuttle is running late due to traffic, you're on the next train ride 30 minutes later). Light rail would have run about every ten minutes during the peak hours; so the penalty for missing a train would not be as scary.

Either rail line could pick up a small number of passengers who match this travel pattern (small because most workers at the IBM-area complexes live in Round Rock and other north/northwest suburbs; only a handful live central). The other thing this travel pattern has going for it is that the car trip is only going to get worse; while both the light rail and commuter rail trip are unlikely to get much slower since neither one relies heavily on a bus component.


Case 2 is the same downtown resident but he now works at one of the tech businesses on the 183 corridor (let's not even talk about the apalling amount of office space on Loop 360).

I've worked in several offices along this corridor while living in central Austin, so I know the area very well. An interesting fact about the light and commuter rail plans is that despite claiming to be alternatives to the 183 corridor, neither one goes anywhere near a parallel line to US 183 until they approach Cedar Park from the east. This means that the predicted rerouting or elimination of the 183-corridor express buses is really going to hurt transit in this area.

Numbers indicate "seats". IE, if the number gets up to 3, you had to ride in 3 vehicles to get there. T indicates transfers. W indicates wait. P indicates pedestrian trip.

I'm picking the first office I had at S3 in 1998 - because it happens to be located directly across Jollyville from the Pavillion Park and Ride (I would take the express bus up many mornings and ride my bike home).

Passenger TripCommuter RailLight Rail (2000)BusCar
Downtown condo to 183-corridor For the majority: (P). Walk to shuttle bus stop.
(W). Wait for shuttle bus.
(1). Ride shuttle bus to train station at Convention Center
(W). Short wait (we hope!) for train
(2). Ride commuter rail (not stuck in traffic) to station near IBM or station at Howard Lane
(W). Wait for transfer bus (no high-frequency circulator in either of these areas).
(3). Ride transfer bus to 183-corridor stop (stuck in traffic and slow)
Estimated time: 45 to 85 minutes (5 minute walk on each end; 30-35 minute train trip; 10-45 minute range wait and ride on bus)
(P). Walk a few blocks to Guadalupe.
(W). Wait for train
(1). Ride light rail (not stuck in traffic) to station near IBM or station at Howard Lane
(W). Wait for transfer bus (no high-frequency circulator in either of these areas).
(2). Ride transfer bus to 183-corridor stop (stuck in traffic and slow)
Estimated time: 45 to 85 minutes (5 minute walk on each end; 30-35 minute train trip; 10-45 minute range wait and ride on bus)
(P). Walk to downtown bus stop for 983 express bus.
(W). Wait for bus.
(1). Bus ride to stop near IBM (far from Tivoli).
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 50-70 minutes (5 minute walk to bus stop; 5-10 minute wait for bus; 35-45 minute bus trip; 5-10 minute walk to office)

(1). Drive (stuck in traffic, but reverse commute is free-flowing in morning; quite bad in evening) to office
(W). Find parking in own parking lot/garage
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 15-45 minutes

Unfortunately, neither light rail nor commuter rail is going to work for this trip, even if you brought your bike along and wanted to ride from the station to your office. (There are no good bike routes from either the prospective Howard Lane-area station or the IBM-area to the Jollyville corridor). Express buses today aren't horrible (you'll spend a good deal more time in the morning and be nearly competitive in the afternoon), but might be going away as part of this rail plan. Clearly neither rail line would gain a non-trivial number of passengers falling into this travel pattern.

November 26, 2005

Another Tri-Rail mention

Since I'm being assailed again by Lyndon Henry for being anti-rail-transit, I spent a bit of time looking for additional Tri-Rail mentions in the press, and found this one from the Orlando Press:

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

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

Could rewrite this as:

The problem? Essentially, All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere. It delves only into the southeastern edge of downtown. Connections to major workplaces and airports rely on unreliable bus systems. Moreover, ASG only runs twice an hour, and not at all at mid-day.

November 20, 2005

Use Cases Part Two: Central Austin to Central Destinations

This use case analyzes a typical central Austin resident.

Let's consider a lawyer who lives in one of those expensive houses in Hyde Park and wants to get to his law office downtown. Mister Law-Talkin'-Guy probably has free parking available in his office building, but many downtown workers don't (they would have to pay to park). Today, Mister LTG doesn't take the bus, because it's a lot slower than his car, and he can park for free in his building.

Numbers indicate "seats". IE, if the number gets up to 3, you had to ride in 3 vehicles to get there. T indicates transfers. W indicates wait. P indicates pedestrian trip.

Passenger TripCommuter RailLight Rail (2000)BusCar
Hyde Park to Downtown Office Building (6th/Congress) (P). Walk to bus stop.
(W). Wait for bus
(1). Take normal city bus (new route) to commuter rail station out in east Austin or north on Lamar.
(W). Wait for train.
(2). Ride commuter rail to Convention Center station (not stuck in traffic).
(W). Hopefully shuttle bus is waiting for you (short wait).
(3). Ride shuttle bus "circulator" (stuck in traffic) to 4th/Congress
(P). Walk 2 blocks to office
Estimated time: 35-50 minutes

(P). Walk a few blocks to Guadalupe.
(W). Wait for train
(1). Ride light rail train (not stuck in traffic) to 6th/Congress
(P). Short (sub-block) walk to office
Estimated time: 15 minutes

(P). Walk to Speedway (for #5), Duval (for #7), or Guadalupe (for #1, #101, or Rapid).
(W). Wait for bus
(1). Ride bus (stuck in traffic - yes, even the Rapid Bus is stuck in traffic) to 6th/Congress
(P). Short (sub-block) walk to office
Estimated time: 25-40 minutes

(1). Drive (stuck in traffic) to downtown
(W). Find parking in own parking garage
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 10-20 minutes

To me, the only transit option which seems remotely palatable to Mr. LTG is the light-rail trip, because it could save time over his drive through rush-hour traffic. None of the other options are likely to be remotely competitive in time or reliability - in fact, the light rail trip might be a BIT slower than his car too. But if you're a downtown worker who has to pay to park, or parks a few blocks away from your office, the light-rail option would be a clear winner. The light rail trip might even win Mr. LTG over since he'd have a smooth comfortable ride where he could read the Wall Street Journal, which of course he can't do when he's driving, and probably not on the bus, unless he's unusually carsickness-resistant.

Note how unreliable the trips are which involve navigating traffic. On a good day, the car would beat even the light rail trip; but on a bad day, light rail would be faster. Light rail's speed doesn't change, in other words, because it has its own lane. The bus and the shuttle-bus both suffer from this worse than even the private car does, since you can always change your route when you're driving.

This particular passenger type maps well to UT students who live at the Triangle, or to UT staffers who live anywhere central, etc. Essentially, the entire central Austin residential market could have been very well-served by light rail, but will not be served at ALL by commuter rail.

Most people in Central Austin are transit-positive. That is, even if they own a car, they're willing to seriously consider using public transportation. A good number of these folks take city buses today; but the idea that Rapid Bus is going to get a non-trivial number of the remainder to leave their cars at home is ridiculous.


What about streetcars? The Future Connections Study, as I previously noted, has settled on a route which winds from downtown up to UT, then east to Mueller, so it won't be of much use for actual residents of Central Austin. Even if it DID go "straight up the gut" as intelligent folks asked for, it wouldn't be able to beat the city bus (or Rapid Bus) - unlike light rail vehicles, streetcars share lanes with cars.

Use cases Part One: From Leander / Northwest

Start of a new series - for those who are still optimistic about this commuter rail line. A "use case" in my business (software) describes how a customer might perform a certain task using your product - in this case, we'll describe how a few prospective transit customers would get to work using 4 transportation products.

Today's example is a Leander resident who works at the University of Texas or the State Capitol. Both locations don't provide much in the way of free convenient parking, so workers at both locations currently provide a good deal of business for the 183-corridor express buses. Leander residents are much more suburban and conservative than Central Austin residents, so the performance and reliability gap between transit and the car would need to be smaller, in my opinion, to attract new riders to choose transit than it would be for the analogous central Austinite. I expect most of those who are motivated by expensive or inconvenient parking are already taking those express buses, in other words. (and the express buses are actually pretty nice; most of the time I can read in them without getting carsick).

Numbers indicate "seats". IE, if the number gets up to 3, you had to ride in 3 vehicles to get there. T indicates transfers. W indicates wait. P indicates pedestrian trip.

"Current" is indicated next to the bus trip because there are some indications that Capital Metro might eliminate some of the 183-corridor express buses in order to induce more commuter rail ridership.

Note that the "shuttle bus" portion of this trip will, even if made on a streetcar, still have the same traffic characteristics (i.e. a streetcar running in mixed traffic will still be as slow and unreliable as a shuttle bus).

See notes after the table for more.

Passenger TripCommuter RailLight Rail (2000)Bus (current)Car
Leander to the University of Texas (1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for train.
(2). Ride commuter rail to MLK station (not stuck in traffic).
(W). Hopefully shuttle bus is waiting for you (short wait).
(3). Ride shuttle bus (stuck in traffic) to UT
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour, 25 minutes to 1 hour, 45 minutes

(1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for train.
(2). Ride light rail all the way to UT (not stuck in traffic).
(P). Short walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour

(1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for bus.
(2). Ride express bus (stuck in traffic) to UT
(P). Short walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1 hour, 45 minutes

(1). Drive (stuck in traffic) to UT area
(W). Find parking
(P). Potentially long walk to office
Estimated time: 40 minutes to 1 hour, 5 minutes

Leander to the state Capitol (1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for train.
(2). Ride commuter rail to MLK station (not stuck in traffic).
(W). Hopefully shuttle bus is waiting for you (short wait).
(3). Ride shuttle bus (stuck in traffic) to UT
(P). Walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour, 35 minutes to 1 hour, 55 minutes

(1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for train.
(2). Ride light rail all the way to UT (not stuck in traffic).
(P). Short walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

(1). Drive to Leander park-and-ride.
(W). Wait for bus.
(2). Ride express bus (stuck in traffic) to UT
(P). Short walk to office
Estimated time: 1 hour, 20 minutes to 1 hour, 50 minutes

(1). Drive (stuck in traffic) to UT area
(W). Find parking
(P). Potentially long walk to office
Estimated time: 45 minutes to 1 hour, 10 minutes


In general, I assumed you would get to the express bus stop and wait 5-10 minutes for the express bus, and I was charitably assuming it would be on time. The remainder of that trip is from the 7:25 route in from Leander, and assuming a 5 minute or less walk from the stop. The drive is me estimating what I suppose it would take that time of day (I'd like to hear from a Leander resident that makes this trip in their car for a more accurate estimate). The commuter rail time has such a wide swing because of the shuttle bus component - buses fare worse than cars in heavy traffic due to their acceleration characteristics and the fact that they can't change their route to get around heavy traffic. In general, I assume that the more time you spend on a bus, the less reliable your trip (could be faster or slower than the average). (The express buses don't try to slow down to avoid hitting stops early on the way in in the mornings, unlike city buses, so you actually could get dropped off earlier than schedule indicates).

Note that one of the key attractions to the 2000 light rail route is its reliability. A route which doesn't require that you take shuttle buses can dependably get you to work at the same time every day. The train isn't stuck in traffic, and you don't have to make any transfers.

November 16, 2005

What Can Work

Seattle's light rail line just got a rating of "high" from the Feds meaning it's very likely they'll get the maximum possible financial contribution. Why? From the posting:

King County Executive Ron Sims said a big factor in the rating was the travel time savings. A bus from University Hospital near Husky Stadium to downtown takes 25 minutes during the afternoon rush hour compared with a projected 9 minutes for the light rail line. A bus from University Hospital to Capitol Hill takes 22 minutes compared with 3 minutes for light rail. And a bus from downtown to Capitol Hill takes 14 minutes compared with 6 minutes on light rail.

Compare and contrast to the route a rider of Capital Metro's commuter rail route would take to get from one of the northwestern park-and-rides to their office at UT or the Capitol. When you add in the shuttle bus trip through traffic (from the commuter rail station to the campus or capitol), it is doubtful that any time will be saved compared to the existing 183-corridor express buses (which also operate in traffic, but at least don't go out of their way on a dogleg through East Austin, and don't require a transfer to a second, much slower, vehicle).

Of course, Austin's 2000 light rail route would have gone from those park-and-rides straight to UT and the Capitol and then down Congress Avenue. But, sure, this will work just as well, and the Feds will be just as happy. Right.

Another Summary on Why All Systems Won't Go

I posted this to the hydeparkaustin yahoo group and didn't want it to go to waste.

The moderator asked me to provide additional background on this.

I write on this stuff voluminously at:

(category archive)

You may want to read that category archive bottom-up (chronological
order).

During 2004, I was the standard-bearer for the "pro-rail-transit but
anti-commuter-rail" side
. I was strongly in support of light rail in
2000; remained in support of such a system in 2004; and still support
it today; but this commuter rail system shares none of the aspects of
that plan which made it likely to attract new riders to public
transportation
- it neither goes by neighborhoods which want to use
transit (such as mine, NUNA, and yours, Hyde Park), nor goes TO
destinations to which people want to walk, i.e. most of downtown, the
University of Texas, and the Capitol
.

Capital Metro claims to be ready to solve this problem through "high
frequency circulators"
(Future Connections study previously linked) -
i.e. a vehicle you would board at the commuter rail stop way out in
east Austin which would take you to UT, for instance
. The problem is
that this has been tried elsewhere and never works - all you have to
do is go through the 'use case' of the prospective rider, i.e., a guy
who lives in Leander and works at UT.

Car trip: Get in car and drive there; park; walk to work.
Light rail trip: Drive to park-and-ride; take train to UT; walk to
work (probably shorter walk than car trip).
Commuter rail trip: Drive to park-and-ride; take train to east Austin;
transfer to shuttle bus; ride through backed-up traffic to UT; walk to
work.

And of course the Hyde Park resident 'use case' is even worse, since
taking commuter rail is not even remotely feasible - you (and I) would
be stuck taking the "Rapid Bus" which is an even worse scenario than
the above.

My fear was that a badly designed starter system (which this is) will
show Austinites that rail doesn't work
- meaning that we won't get any
more rail, not even GOOD rail. And this system is VERY badly designed
- it almost exactly matches Tri-Rail in South Florida (where I come
from) in its reliance on shuttle buses to get passengers anywhere
worth going
, rather than doing what all successful light rail starter
lines have done
, which is go straight to a few major employment
centers without requiring transfers.

Anyways, I spent the year pushing this position all over town, in
events at UT and at the ANC, and was constantly attacked by my
pro-transit friends for risking getting 'no rail at all'. The
pro-transit establishment
claimed that we could pass commuter rail and
then quickly get light rail put back in the plan
, i.e., running down
lamar and guadalupe, past the Triangle and Hyde Park, to UT and the
Capitol and then downtown.

I never bought the snow-job; but unfortunately, many people in the
center-city DID buy it. It ended up getting me kicked off the UTC by
councilmember Slusher
, as a matter of fact, but I thought that,
regardless of the consequences to me, SOMEBODY needed to raise the
position that bad rail could, in fact, be worse than delayed rail.

And now here we are. Guadalupe will not see light rail from Future
Connections. (I don't think it will for decades, since this commuter
rail plan is so bad that it will destroy the public's desire to try
any new rail lines for years and years to come once they see that
nobody wants to ride it since it's so uncompetitive even compared to
existing express bus routes). In fact, no rail of any kind will be
headed up our way, since even if you take the most optimistic reading
possible of the Future Connections study, they would be building
streetcar (still stuck in traffic, but hey, it's on rails in the
pavement)
out to the Mueller project; not up this way.

If anybody has any questions, you can ask me in the forum, or via
private email, and I'd be happy to fill in any more details.

Update: Unpaid blog QA intern "U. Nidentified Cow-orker" alerted me that the "voluminously" link didn't work. Thanks, U.N.!

November 15, 2005

Letter to Chronicle about FC

Just sent this:

Many well-intentioned people, including most of the staff of the Chronicle, advised Central Austinites to hold their nose and vote "yes" on the All Systems Go commuter rail plan, despite the fact that it goes nowhere near existing and proposed residential density, and nowhere near minor employment centers like the University of Texas or the Capitol Complex (to say nothing of most of downtown). In fact, the pro-rail-transit but anti-stupid-rail position fell all the way down to me, whose sole qualification was serving on the UTC for a few years. I was attacked quite viciously for daring to suggest that perhaps the right response was to vote No, as in "No, this isn't the right rail plan; come back with something like the 2000 plan, scaled back to get us over the top".

Well, now, the other shoe has dropped. The "Future Connections Study", on which those credulous folks based their hopes for adding back rail for central Austin, has released their draft technology review, which has now ruled out any mode requiring a reserved guideway. Meaning: no light rail; no bus rapid transit. You get either a shuttle bus or a streetcar; but either way you're going to be stuck in the same traffic you would be if you just drove.

More on my blog at: http://mdahmus.thebaba.com/blog/

The majority of the pro-transit establishment owes Austin an immediate apology for being part of this snowjob.

More Future Connections Stuff Is Up

The "Library" has a bunch of documents up from the most recent set of meetings for the Future Connections study, i.e., the "let's pretend like we considered rail to get central Austin off our back for screwing them with a commuter rail plan that doesn't go anywhere near them or minor destinations like UT and the Capitol Complex" exercise.

I'm only partway through and don't have time for full analysis now, but I will note that it is disappointing (but not surprising) that NONE of the objectives for this service include the simple one:

make it MORE ATTRACTIVE to ride transit than it is today, i.e., close at least some of the gap between the private automobile and public transportation in one or more of the following: (reliability, speed, comfort).

These guys still don't get it - you can't just rest your hopes on build it and they'll come; you also have to make sure that what you build is GOOD. And shuttle buses operating in mixed traffic aren't "good" unless you're somebody who can't afford their own car. Capital Metro already owns all of THAT market.

Update: One thing I notice is that in the Draft Technologies Report, they have already eliminated light rail and any other technology which uses a reserved guideway. I have to admit I'm not surprised at this decision (which I believe was made before this study even started), but AM surprised at the speed at which they've come to admit it semi-publically.

November 09, 2005

Rail, TOD, etc.

Responding to a comment on this old entry:

Jonathan, that's not accurate.

1. There ARE more lines in the "long-range plan", but NONE of them go anywhere near UT or the capitol or Mueller. There's one that might go down Mopac to Seaholm, where it will have the same exact problem that the starter line does; namely; that it's too far away from any destinations for people to walk; they'll have to take shuttle buses. And the starter line will be such a visible example of rail's supposed "failure" that no follow-on lines will be built for a very very very VERY long time. The whole reason I opposed the '04 plan was this danger - if you build a crappy enough starter line, it will become, as one of my UTC colleagues put it, a "finisher line".

2. TOD can't work if the line doesn't have good ridership without the TOD. Otherwise, real estate investors are going to be leery about spending more money for TOD than they would for traditional development.

3. These projections DO take into account all prospective density in east Austin, which has generally OPPOSED such projects. In fact, the TOD ordinance had to be watered down to nearly zero because of that part of town's virulent opposition to what they see as gentrification.

4. The only other area in this country which chose to run a rail line through a low-density area instead of running one from where the people are to where they want to go is: South Florida, whose 20-year experiment with Tri-Rail has plumbed new depths of failure. Shuttle buses are so unattractive to the "choice commuter" that even most of the transit-dependent in South Florida don't use Tri-Rail; they just stay on the normal bus; and NOBODY rides it who could have chosen to drive.

Compare/contrast to light rail, which is what Dallas, Portland, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City did; and what we almost did in 2000. We could easily have passed a scaled down version of the '00 plan in '04, but Mike Krusee kneecapped Capital Metro into this abomination instead.

Relevant entries in my blog which you might want to look at:

TOD and East Austin
TOD and commuter rail
How you'll use the starter line
Tri-Rail

November 04, 2005

Possibly The Stupidest Thing I've Ever Heard From Capital Metro, And That's Saying A Lot

I just heard from an acquaintance with the Austin Streetcars group that, at Tuesday's meeting for Future Connections, the Capital Metro consultant pointed at the ends of the UT shuttle bus line as examples of "Bus TOD" to presumably answer the complaint that I (and nearly everyone else in the world) state about TOD (transit-oriented development) and buses, namely, that it simply doesn't happen in this country unless you have frequent rail transit, not just buses. In Europe, where gas is six bucks a gallon and there's no parking anyways, you can get it with a bus station, but even there, the focus is on rail transit.

Good lord. I don't even know where to begin with this, but I'll try anyways. While I expect Capital Metro to continue with bogus claims that they can get TOD from the commuter rail line and maybe even the Rapid Bus line, I didn't think even they would go so far out into left-field as to claim you can get TOD from regular, crappy, city buses.

  1. I'm pretty sure the apartment complexes predate the shuttle bus lines, at least some of them did, and their density is, if anything, lower than apartment complexes elsewhere (some are only two stories instead of the typical three you get in MF-3 zoning, for instance).
  2. Those apartment complexes have just as much parking in just the same places as similar apartment complexes do along Jollyville, or Metric Blvd. In fact, transit coverage of the Far West area is poor, except if you want to go to UT during classtime. Riverside, at least, has decent transit coverage, but you have to walk a long ways to get to them. In NEITHER place is there EVER any incentive to use transit other than to get to class - it's going to be FAR easier and FAR quicker to use that car conveniently (and freely) parked in the lot next to your door. The very OPPOSITE of TOD.
  3. There's no mixed-use development of any kind in the vicinity of either 'student slum'. If you dodge driveways and walk a long ways one direction to get out of the area where there's only apartments, you get to an area where there's only single-family houses. If you walk a long ways the other direction, you get to an area where there's only strip-malls. NOWHERE do you find a place where there are buildings with offices or apartments on top and retail on the bottom.
  4. Neither area is remotely pedestrian-friendly. You have to walk a long ways to get to those strip malls, and then cross a huge surface parking lot to get to the stores. Again, this is the very OPPOSITE of TOD.

Any more? Man, I'm flabbergasted that they could sink this low. It's one thing to claim that buses can generate TOD (some people claim that BRT, at least, can do it). It's quite another to point to two student slums as your example.

October 31, 2005

New link

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

October 25, 2005

Buttheads at Capital Metro still calling it Urban Commuter Rail

Capital Metro's On The Move E-Newsletter is still calling this thing "urban commuter rail".

It's not urban. It's arguably commuter. It's definitely rail. One and a half out of three is not enough to justify this misleading terminology. This thing goes nowhere near the urban parts of Austin. Even its just-barely-inside-downtown last station is in the part of Austin where surface parking lots are more common than buildings.

Cut it out, you buttheads. Just cut it out. It's commuter rail, not "urban rail", and adding more stations in 2020 isn't going to make it any more urban.

If it doesn't go anywhere near the densest residential neighborhoods or anywhere near the densest employment centers, it isn't urban, by any stretch of the imagination. If your stations are only in locations to which you have to drive, take a bus, or be dropped off by somebody who drove, it's not urban; not even close.

CUT IT OUT DAMMIT.

October 21, 2005

Can YOU spot the right corridor for rail?

A photographic exercise by M1EK. All pictures obtained from the 9/24/05 Future Connections steering committee presentation.





This is a bit misleading since it makes it look like Hyde Park and the neighborhoods around Airport Blvd are equally suitable for rail transit - the problem is that you can't walk to stations along Airport from any residential developments of consequence; the area is fairly pedestrian-hostile.

Note that all of the existing and future high-density residential and employment centers are going to be served by "high-frequency circulators", i.e., shuttle buses stuck in traffic. While the incredibly important Airport Boulevard corridor gets rail. Here's one example of a circulator movement they envision; this one is planted right on Speedway near my house. Note: there's already high-frequency bus service to campus and downtown on this street, so it's doubtful they'll be doing anything here other than publicity:


Now, for comparison's sake, I took the two 2017 maps, and using my awesome drawing skills, drew the 2000 light rail proposal, in blue. The jog from the Guadalupe corridor over to Congress Avenue might have happened as far north as 11th; I chose 9th as a compromise. Some versions even had it running around the Capitol on both sides -- but this is a simpler drawing that still hits all the same major spots. A short distance north of this map, the 2000 light rail line would have converged with the red "All Systems Go" line and continued northwest on existing rail right-of-way towards Howard Lane, so this picture captures most of the "difference" between the proposals.




Gosh, which one would have a better chance at delivering ridership? I really can't tell the difference. I guess Lyndon IS right - this commuter rail plan IS just as good as light rail!

October 19, 2005

More on Tri-Rail and why shuttle buses matter

The current brou-ha-ha with Lyndon reminded me to go check if anything's up with Tri-Rail in South Florida. As I've previously written, they're the best example out there of the kind of rail line Capital Metro is going to build here in Austin, in that

  • they don't run trains very often
  • most destinations require a shuttle bus ride
  • they chose to run on a cheap existing track rather than building lines closer to those destinations (like light rail systems usually do)

Well, in the process I found an updated version of an old article I think I already used, but I hadn't noticed one important paragraph before. The context is that they're finally talking seriously about moving to the FEC corridor - which is where the service should have been built all along, since it allows passengers to walk to a non-trivial number of office and retail destinations. We're even worse off here, though, since building this commuter rail line basically prevents us from building anything like the 2000 starter line. Here's the quote:

Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the "inherent fear of feeder bus reliability." The buses "are often late," she explained.

Since Tri-Rail trains only run about every half-hour during the commute peak and less often the rest of the day (like Austin's commuter rail trains will), missing your train on the way home from work is a big deal. The "feeder" buses they're talking about are the same kind of shuttle buses we're going to be stuck with here in Austin, if you work downtown, at the Capitol, or at UT. And guess what? They're going to be unreliable too - they'll be stuck in the same traffic as your car.

Even if streetcars are used for the "high-frequency circulators" which will take you from your office to the train station, the same problem exists - since streetcars won't have their own lane and won't be given green lights over cross traffic. The chance that light rail will come out of the Future Connections Study is zero, since commuter rail precludes it from being built in the 2000 alignment, which is the only one good enough to merit Federal funding.

So just like in South Florida, people will experience a couple of missed trains and then, if they have any other options, will stop riding. Nobody wants to sit around for even a half-hour waiting for the next train home. And if all you're doing is catering to riders who don't have a choice, you might as well just dump the money into more buses.

October 18, 2005

Lyndon loses it

Lyndon Henry just called me "anti-rail". I'm so mad I could chew nails.

His "bend over for Mike Krusee side" has destroyed any chance at urban rail here in Austin for a generation, since the starter line implemented by Capital Metro will not be able to garner significant ridership due to its reliance on shuttle buses to get anywhere you might want to go.

After this failure, predicted by South Florida's experience with a commuter rail plan which is almost identical to Capital Metro's, Austin voters will not be willing to vote up any more rail for decades.

If anybody's "anti-rail", it's him and his ilk; since their collaboration with Mike Krusee will prevent urban Austin from seeing rail until my children are middle-aged.

Update: my cow orker pointed out that lightrail_now doesn't have public archives. Here's the offending opening paragraph of Lyndon's comment:

Let me just point out that, if Mike Dahmus's anti-rail side had won last November's vote - i.e., the rail plan had failed - the Road Warriors would be celebrating the "final" demise of rail transit in Austin and picking the bones of Capital Metro for more funding for roads - highways, tollways, etc. - in this area.

he then goes on to tell people how wonderful the commuter rail plan is, how it might be upgraded to electrified LRT (continuing his misleading crap about how sticking an electrical wire on it makes it "light rail"), and mentions the people trying to get streetcars running through downtown and an unnamed bunch of "rail advocates" trying to get light rail to run on the Rapid Bus corridor, failing to say anything about the fact that this commuter rail plan effectively precludes running light rail down that stretch of Lamar/Guadalupe.

October 10, 2005

Regionalism as the enemy of urban transportation

I couldn't put it any better myself. This is how Mike Krusee's killed Austin's hopes at getting intracity transit back from the dark ages of slow jerky buses.

October 07, 2005

Still At It

The folks who basically wanted us to suck it up and enjoy what crumbs we got from the All Systems Go plan are still at it, even today. On the Austin Streetcars group (for people who are trying desperately to salvage some kind of rail, even if it's stuck-in-traffic streetcars, for central Austin, which is otherwise going to only be served by "high frequency circulators" in the form of shuttle buses and, of course, Not So Rapid Bus), Lyndon Henry just called the ASG starter line an "urban light railway", to which I just had to respond with this old gem which now that I look back, is probably the best thing I wrote about this whole commuter rail debacle. Unfortunately, it was nine months after the election.

Update: Lyndon responded with:

They've ordered non-FRA-compliant light DEMUs for this line. It qualifies as a "light railway" by all standards I know of within the transit industry. However, since it's non-electrified, it is NOT LRT. Operationally, it will be somewhat similar to the Camden-Trenton RiverLine light railway and the Sprinter light railway currently under construction in Oceanside (north of San Diego - which they're calling "light rail").

to which I answered:


Pop quiz:

1. What are the headways it will run at during peak times when it opens?

2. How will the passengers get to their final destination?

The answers to those two questions are:

1. 30 minutes, at best

2. Shuttle buses

Neither of those answers is compatible with the concept of "light rail". As you know. It's a pretty shoddy effort to claim that it's light rail because it's using a slightly less heavy, but still non-electrified, locomotive.

This project is commuter rail, and not a very good one at that (most commuter rail lines at least penetrate a major downtown area; this one does only by the most generous definition of the term, and doesn't come remotely close to any of the 3 or 4 other activity centers of the region).

Your insistence on applying the adjective "light" to it as frequently as you can suggests to me that you might be uncomfortable with your role in selling Mike Krusee's Austin-screwing transit-killer to the citizens and are trying to convince yourself that this pile of garbage really is a stack of roses.

Again, I refer you to this:

and then I inserted the original blast that this isn't light rail by any reasonable definition of the term.

Lyndon is one of the "good guys" which is why I hate so much that he's helped, as I mentioned, sell Austin down the river for Mike Krusee (whose constituents by and large aren't even Capital Metro taxpayers).

October 05, 2005

Ben White and I-35

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

FRONTAGE ROADS SUCK

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2005

You don't get TOD with buses (or commuter rail)

I still have the RealVideo from the City Council Meeting up (was following the Shoal Creek debacle) and there's a well-meaning guy from Oak Hill trying to get the Council to approve a TOD out there on a Rapid Bus line. Time to dispel a few illusions:

  1. You don't get TOD without the perception of permanence. Rapid Bus ain't it. Even BRT ain't it. Only rail works. People don't buy into a development where getting to their cars is expensive or inconvenient UNLESS the transit alternative is clearly going to be there for the long-haul. Buses' infamous "flexibility" works against them here.
  2. You don't get TOD with commuter rail. You need frequent headways (which this line won't have) and one-stop rides to some major destinations (which this line won't have). So even on our commuter rail line, TOD ain't gonna happen.

What CAN you put on the ground to stimulate TOD? Something like our 2000 light rail plan (which would have been a one-stop ride from northwest Austin through the center-city to UT, the Capitol, and downtown) works, in city after city after city after city after city. Subways and monorails would work too - there's no chance those rails are going away next year. Buses don't. Not even fancy buses with nice signs at their stops which tell you how much delayed your next bus is since it's stuck in traffic behind everybody else's car.

August 17, 2005

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Shuttle Buses

Here's what those of us who live or work in Central Austin are getting out of commuter rail. Stations in far east Austin and the Convention Center, with a handy transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus to get you to where you might actually want to go. Image below is from one of two new documents up at the Future Connections Study site:

Capital Metro is starting rail service here in Austin in a couple of years NOT by doing what success stories like Portland and Dallas did (light rail straight through and to the densest parts of town) but what South Florida did (commuter rail where tracks already exist, requiring transfers to shuttle buses to actually get anywhere). Fifteen years later, Tri-Rail in South Florida is an unmitigated disaster: no choice commuters despite heavy promotion by an enthusiastic community, no transit-oriented development despite heavy subsidization (below-market attempts at land sales around stations and the like). Unlike in Dallas and Portland (and Minneapolis and Houston and Denver and Salt Lake...), drivers in South Florida aren't trying Tri-Rail because they know that transferring to shuttle buses every day for your commute overwhelms any speed advantage the train might have bought you up to that point.

In short, commuter rail as your starter line just plain doesn't work. And the picture ought to make it clear why - even the nominally downtown station is too far from the 6th/Congress intersection for most people to walk, and all other major activity centers in our area will require people to say hey, I'll drive to the park-and-ride, board a train, get off the train, get on a bus, wait in traffic with all the other cars, get off the bus, and walk to my office. Even promotional images used in the pro-commuter-rail campaign show that they expect downtown workers to have to transfer to shuttle buses, as seen below.

Notice in the handouts that they're still pretending that all options are on the table. But believe me, there is zero chance that light rail will end up as the circulator, and near-zero chance that streetcars will make it, not that streetcars would work anyways. It's going to be shuttle-buses in mixed-traffic. Mark my words.

August 13, 2005

Commuting To Riata

I had a nice conversation with Jonathan from Another Pointless Dotcom while doing some work last night, and it came to light that he works in the same complex I did for about a year and a half. This reminded me to share with him my old slideshow of that commute, which I've probably never mentioned on the blog. I also then chatted about it this morning with my current cow orker who has a lot of experience in the area. Since this might be of general interest to people who work in the area, I'll initiate this new Bicycle Commuting category with this oldie-but-goodie.

Riata is a cautionary tale of any number of my hot buttons, including the problems that frontage roads cause transit and pedestrians, neighborhoods being irresponsible, developers getting to claim credit for being 'near' transit when it's not feasible to actually use, high tech offices and apartment complexes metastasizing along sprawl corridors rather than being downtown where they ought to be, etc. There's at least a few thousand employees of various companies in there now - probably still down from the pre-bust peak.

The key things to remember about commuting to Riata, which is halfway between Duval and Oak Knoll on the north/east side of US 183 are:

  1. Use Jollyville. Now with bike lanes!
  2. When transitioning to Riata Trace Parkway, your choices are to go all the way up to Oak Knoll and come in the back way, or go over on Duval to the 183 frontage, and go in that way. In the morning, the northbound 183 frontage is very civilized and not a problem.
  3. When going home in the afternoon, you'll want to use the TI/Oak Knoll back way. Don't mess with 183 then.
  4. Think about using the bus for a boost uphill in some mornings, if you're like the (old) me and commuting from central Austin.
  5. Decide whether you want to cross Mopac on Spicewood or Steck. My current cow orker prefers Steck all the time; I prefer Steck uphill and Spicewood downhill. Depends on your tolerance for the stress of the crossing at Mopac/Spicewood versus the speed you'll give up at the 4-way stop on Steck.

(Technical details: I wrote the crappy slideshow script which reads pseudo-XML a long time ago and have never touched it since; it BARELY works; don't look at it cross-eyed or you might break the internet).

August 04, 2005

Future Connections Has Started

Capital Metro's Future Connections Group is now, finally, up on the web. This group was tasked with figuring out how to get people from the commuter rail stops, which are far away from where people actually want to go, to the places they, those wacky commuters, actually want to go. Like, say, their office. Or the University. Or the Warehouse District.

This is basically going to be a waste of time, since those of us who operate in the reality-based community all know Capital Metro's going to end up delivering shuttle buses in mixed traffic. The streetcar guys like Jeff are holding out hope, but I don't see Capital Metro going that way, and even if they did, streetcars are only marginally better than mixed-traffic buses for those choice commuters. Streetcars might help make downtown redevelopment even more palatable, in other words, but they aren't going to fix the speed and reliability problems of the All Systems Go route for people who live outside downtown.

Terminology lesson: In most cases, "streetcars" means "vehicle on rails in a traffic lane which shares its lane with cars, or is otherwise 'sharing traffic' with other vehicles and stops at a lot of red lights". "light rail" in this case bumps you up to "has its own lane; always gets a green light". So a streetcar is basically a Dillo on an embedded rail - it still is stuck in traffic just like your car or other buses are.

History lesson: The 2000 light rail plan, or any one of ten easily passable scaled-back versions thereof, would have delivered passengers (in ONE train trip) from their dense center-city residential neighborhoods or from their suburban park-and-rides, directly TO the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and downtown, without requiring a transfer to anything else, bus or streetcar in a reasonably fast and very reliable amount of time. Capital Metro didn't even try to bring something like this back before the voters, and most of the pro-transit people here in Austin didn't have the guts to tell them otherwise.

August 03, 2005

First Trip To Middle School

This post marks the beginning of a new category called "Empty Buses".

My family walked to the bus stop at 34th and Guadalupe to take my stepson to his middle-school orientation (he'll be taking the bus there every day when school starts, so today was a good practice opportunity). We picked up the #22 bus at 8:00 AM (on time), and rode it to Exposition and Lake Austin in about 15 minutes, perhaps 2 more minutes than the drive would have taken. With the 3 of us (plus baby who didn't pay a fare), there were 7 people on that bus. Several got off in Tarrytown; I think there was only one left on the bus when we disembarked at the middle school.

On the way back, we took the #21 bus, also on time. With the 2 of us (plus baby), there were 15 people on the bus at that stop. A few got off on the way to our stop, but a few got on; so the count stayed around 15 the whole way. Many of the people on the bus were evidently headed towards UT (where the bus goes after our stop).

(Answering Kim, my stepson takes this city bus because he's going to be going to a middle school in whose attendance area we don't reside - this is part of the track from his elementary school, which he stayed in after we moved a couple of years ago).

July 22, 2005

It's Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan "light rail" or "light rail like" or "light 'commuter' rail", etc. This has done its job - most laypeople continue to call what ASG's building "light rail" even though it couldn't be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar "Rapid Bus" plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell "rapid bus" schemes as "as good as rail" to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

--- In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote: >Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.

What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn't and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn't and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn't and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.

What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we'll never get to the expansions.

This is a "one and done" line.

It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).

It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don't know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you're not stupid, and had hoped you weren't a liar.

_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.

This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.

What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.

There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been 'proven' that rail 'doesn't work'.

As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn't being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.

Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon's Dishonesty

July 21, 2005

The Buses Aren't Empty, You Idiots

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

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

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

July 15, 2005

Free Parking Kills Cities

I've known this for a long time, but for most people living in the 'burbs, this is highly counterintuitive. Here's the latest article on why, if you want to have a city you actually WANT TO DO THINGS IN, free parking is the worst possible of all land uses.

Unfortunately, most of Austin's irresponsible inner-city neighborhoods (including the two in which I own property) still push for exactly the opposite - suburban-style off-street parking which end up killing street life and (gradually) the center-city in which we all live.

(An aside - my current neighborhood apparently pushed for increased parking requirements in mixed-use development on Guadalupe. It doesn't get any more brazen than that.)

June 21, 2005

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid, June 2005 Update

Today's Statesman article continues their tradition of blindly accepting whatever Capital Metro says about the transit plan (which was, not coincidentally, innocuous enough not to piss off the real estate interests who largely shape the Statesman's editorial content).

For background on what Rapid Bus really is, and why it's a rip-off for central Austin taxpayers (who get nearly nothing out of the commuter rail plan but pay most of the bills) check the links at the bottom.

Short summary: The people in the densest neighborhoods (including the about-to-open Triangle) who actually WANT to use transit are getting nothing more than a lousy stuck-in-traffic slightly-fancier version of the #101, i.e., a BUS which is MUCH SLOWER THAN THEIR CARS. NO, holding a green light for a couple of seconds ISN'T GOING TO MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE. It'll be the cars IN FRONT OF THE BUS, sometimes stacked up through several intersections up ahead, that most affect its speed, not the traffic lights.

The people out in the suburbs who don't really want transit and don't pay most of the bills anyways are getting a commuter rail line which, as long as they don't mind changing to a SHUTTLE BUS at the end of the trip, will take them downtown. Oh, and if they're lucky enough to work directly at the Convention Center, it'll be competitive with their cars.

All this instead of a scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan, which would have served BOTH suburban AND urban residents with transit which was competitive with their cars AND dropped them off directly at UT, the Capitol, and downtown.

June 16, 2005

On office locations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

June 13, 2005

On rail success and how not to get there

Excerpted from a post I just made to the excellent Cyburbia Forums:

Actually, from what we heard from the Feds in 2000, Austin's development pattern was nearly ideal for a successful light rail line - the one which would have gone straight down Guadalupe past UT and the Capitol, I mean. Huge suburban catchment area served well by big park-and-rides followed by transition through inner-city residential neighborhoods with thousands of residents within walking distance followed by three mega-employment-centers (UT, capitol, downtown) all with parking issues which encourage transit as long as transit is reasonably competitive.

The reason commuter rail won't work is that it doesn't run through those inner-city neighborhoods (you know, the ones where people actually LIKE mass transit) _AND_ it requires a shuttle-bus transfer for UT and Capitol and most downtown employees. You can't come up with a better way to shoot yourself in the foot than to first lose your best customers (inner-city people) and then tell your remaining customer base of skeptical suburbanites that the last mile or two of their trip is going to be on a shuttle-bus stuck in traffic with everybody else's car.

June 07, 2005

Still Yes For Office Towers On Lamar

Another note I sent to the OWANA mailing list is below, recorded here for posterity and crackpottery.

I would take issue with the following characterizations made by charles:

charles price wrote:

>
> I am very much in favor of downtown densification, but very against
> allowing a zoning change here.

To most of Austin, including many people living in OWANA, downtown
begins at Lamar Blvd.

> Bear in mind that office is the highest dollar return on investment,
> the movie industry is in a slump, and there are two Alamo Drafthouse
> Cinemas within one mile.

You can't walk to one of those two Alamos from OWANA or from downtown
lofts, and the other one is likely not going to be at its current
location much longer.

> The Nokonah got the neighborhood's agreement to not oppose a variance
> when the developers promised retail and restaurants on the lower
> floors on Lamar. After it was built they rented it as office space to
> a realty. The Hartland bank Building got a height variance after we
> didn't oppose when they promised forty percent residential usage. The
> residential didn't happen. The AISD building got a density variance
> after they promised a significant residential component, which never
> happened. I don't think we should let the city relinquish control
> unless it is tied to a specific proposal. And we need to not pay much
> attention to the promises until they are made in writing with an way
> to enforce them.

Agreed 100%. Any agreement the developer promises should be backed up
with a deed restriction, CO, or other such arrangement.

> The site is zoned to allow commercial and office development already.
> They want the zoning change so they can build a significantly larger
> office component and a large parking garage.

The site is currently zoned to allow typical low-density retail strips
and small-scale office. Not an appropriate scale for Lamar Blvd.

> A large parking garage doesn't seem compatible with the types of
> arguments being presented here regarding creating an incentive for
> mass transit.

As a matter of fact, getting buildings built with parking garages is far
superior to keeping current buildings with surface parking. Yes,
ideally, they'll provide less parking than suburban alternatives. Some
do, many don't. But at least the streetscape is vastly improved, as is
the possibility that the parking won't be free.

> If we want to encourage mass transit, which I do, we want new office
> projects to be built downtown, not on the perimeter in an area
> surrounded by quality residential fabric.

The east side of Lamar _IS_ downtown.

> Leave the zoning as it is and they can build a reasonable amount
> of retail and offices including their movie house, but they can't
> build a ten-story office tower which would be very bad at this site.

A ten-story office tower ANYWHERE in downtown is EXACTLY what this city
needs, and quickly. Developing more offices in the suburbs, given the
oil situation we face, is criminally irresponsible.

>
> It is clear that offices increase traffic at peak traffic hours. More
> offices = more traffic. Downtown offices as an encouragement for mass
> transportation sounds good, but most office traffic will always be
> single occupancy vehicles.

1. When parking isn't free (as it isn't at many downtown garages),
there's an incentive to carpool or use transit which most of us don't
enjoy at our suburban jobs.

2. You can feasibly build HOV lanes (or managed lanes) which go
downtown, but you can't feasibly build them out to sprawl-land. (You can
BUILD them, but they'll never be used to capacity - this is why places
like Silicon Valley have poor performance from HOV while places like DC
do really well with them).

> Downtown densification is better if it includes residences, shops, and
> restaurants which encourage living downtown so that a significant
> component of the people do not need transportation because they're
> already there.

Agreed. How many of the people living downtown currently work in the
suburbs? Shouldn't we bring more office development to them? (I'd kill
to work downtown, but there simply aren't enough technology firms down
there to make it possible for more than a privileged few - luckily I
just took a job that allows me to work from home, so I can finally end
my trip out to the 128, I mean 101, I mean 183 corridor).

> We need people living downtown, not finding new ways to get to
> downtown from their suburban sprawl.


We need both, unless you're going to empty the suburbs entirely. People
commuting downtown from their suburban home is far better, overall, than
people commuting from one suburban location to another.

> I won't repeat at length the arguments concerning fairness or justice
> regarding changing a zoning that was in place when neighbors bought
> their properties understanding what could and could not be built
> across the street.

None of the people complaining live on Lamar Blvd, so characterizing
this as "across the street" is disingenuous.

> Obviously, no one wants an atrocity to be built next to their house or
> condo. Can you imagine buying a beautiful fifth floor condo in the
> Nokonah with floor to ceiling windows and then find the city is
> changing the neighboring zoning to allow a parking garage at the same
> height forty feet away!

Yes, I can. It's called "living downtown".

> We need to work together as a neighborhood to oppose this type of
> sprawling, profiteering commercialism,


This is the worst misrepresentation in your note - this project is the
antithesis of "sprawling" by any reasonable definition of the term. Good
or bad is an opinion, but it's NOT "sprawling".

> even when it doesn't directly negatively impact you as an individual.
> If we don't all fight against negative developments all around our
> neighborhood, we will become like the area across Lamar from us or
> like West Campus.


Ironically, had West Campus allowed tall buildings, they'd be a lot
better off today. The poor investment in old low-density multifamily
student properties is a direct unintended consequence of ridiculously
STRICT zoning codes imposed on an area which should have been allowed to
grow UP, and never was.

June 02, 2005

Yes To Office Towers At Old Whole Foods

My old neighborhood has really gone downhill since I left. Now many of them* are vehemently opposing infill at the Old Whole Foods on the grounds that it'll create too much automobile traffic.

What a load of garbage. The SAME folks who signed the Move AMD petition with me are apparently ALSO against developing high-density office and retail ON TOP OF A PARKING LOT IN THE URBAN CORE. This is exactly why I can't hold my nose and vote for Margot Clarke. Hint: SOMETIMES THE NEIGHBORHOODS ARE WRONG.

And too much automobile traffic? Here's a clue: At some point, you have to accept that TRAFFIC IN THE URBAN CENTER ISN'T GOING TO FLOW SMOOTHLY, PERIOD. If you want to live in OWANA and expect free-flowing traffic on neighboring arterials, you're insane. The whole POINT of living there is that you don't HAVE to drive (or not as often). Embrace it and get out of your car like I did when I lived there.

You can't get any more wrong than this unless you opposed student housing on Guadalupe at 27th. Oops.

Pros for this PUD: A lot of these office workers would otherwise work in the suburbs, which creates more traffic overall, since you mostly can't carpool, bike, walk, or take the bus to jobs out here (and believe me, I try). It doesn't use up any more pervious cover. It doesn't wreck the aquifer. Some of these office workers will no doubt 'commute' from nearby high-density residential development already completed or planned; and the presence of more offices downtown will encourage even more residential development.

In short: this project would fuel a virtuous cycle of urban development instead of the vicious circle of suburban sprawl. I don't see how any responsible Austinite can be against it.

(* - updated to reflect supportive offline and online comments at the OWANA group, and my own lack of surety on whether opposing the PUD is an official position of the neighborhood association or not - although I still suspect it is)

March 28, 2005

Transportation microeconomics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 07, 2005

TOD isn't going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.

Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there's a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month - unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don't want any more density (and there's not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don't have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways -- because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn't belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.

So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects - TOD would have just been an added bonus there).

Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the 'business case' for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won't be much TOD at all when the thing's finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don't merit it, and don't give money to projects that do).

March 04, 2005

Why Central Austinites Should Support Toll Roads

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

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

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

Here's the thread:

Roger Baker wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- MD

March 03, 2005

Rapid Bus Ain't Rapid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

February 24, 2005

Cars' FRR is often zero

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capital Metro, Empty Buses, and Farebox Recovery Ratio

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2005

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

The "Exit Test":

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

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

Round Rock:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources used in this article:

February 14, 2005

What We Could Have Had

From Minneapolis, an update on their light-rail line that opened in 2004 and runs along and in city streets when necessary (goes directly into downtown rather than relying on shuttle buses to reach its primary destinations).

This line is similar in many ways to what a scaled-back version of the 2000 light rail plan could have brought to Austin. That's not what we voted on in 2004 (many people are still confused on this topic - what we voted on was an el-cheapo commuter line which uses shuttle buses to get you to your office or UT, and precludes the development of true urban rail later on).

Note that running the line in the street and straight into downtown appears to be a horrible failure (NOTE: THIS IS SARCASM).

On with the story:

STRONG JANUARY RAIL RIDERSHIP;
MORE THAN A THIRD OF TRAIN RIDERS ARE NEW TO TRANSIT

Rail ridership for January - the first full month with Hiawatha Line
service from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America -
was strong with customers boarding trains 441,846 times.

Nearly 40 percent of those riding the Hiawatha Line are first-time
transit users, according to a customer survey released this month. It is
the first onboard research Metro Transit has conducted specific to rail
service.

Of those new to transit, two-thirds said they would have otherwise
driven alone for their commute, illustrating the line's initial impact
on reducing traffic congestion.

More than half (55 percent) of customers said they take the train for
their weekday commutes. Three in every five customers are riding during
rush hours. A third of customers ride on weekends as well as weekdays.
More than half of those surveyed (57 percent) ride the train five or
more times per week.

The main reasons for riding were cited as convenience (23 percent) and
enjoyment of the train (23 percent). Those who ride because they don't
own a car, want to avoid driving or have environmental reasons accounted
for less than 4 percent of respondents. Those who chose the train over
bus service did so overwhelmingly (43 percent) due to convenient rail
schedules.

More customers (31 percent) reach a train station by bus than any other
way, while 26 percent walk and 24 percent use park-and-ride lots along
the line.

Thirty-seven percent pay their fares with cash, more than any other
payment method. Of those who used passes, 41 percent purchased them
through their employer, 39 percent of them using their company's
payroll deduction program.

Demographic information provided by customers shows that the average
Hiawatha Line customer is 25-54 years old (69 percent), Caucasian (84
percent), female (52 percent), speaks English as a primary language (96
percent) and has a household income of more than $70,000 (34 percent).

The research was conducted Nov. 14 through Dec. 2 by Periscope. Later
this year, a more comprehensive study, encompassing both bus and rail,
will allow Metro Transit to compare the two modes and gauge customer
satisfaction with train service for the same 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

January 10, 2005

More on What We're In For

Tri-Rail, the commuter rail line which parallels I-95 through most of South Florida, is the transit start most like Austin's proposed commuter rail line, for good and ill. Read the archives for the whole story, but here's the short version: It was cheap to get started (used existing track), just like ours will be; it doesn't go near any downtown areas, just like ours won't; and it relies exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution, just like ours will. Since then, a hugely expensive double-tracking project has nearly finished without any corresponding improvement in ridership. (The double-tracking has proceeded in phases; portions complete are already in use with their corresponding speed/reliability improvements).

My own observations from my trip home follow the excerpts and comments from this article in the Boca Raton News which appeared recently.

Critics, who suggest that Tri-Rail should be shot and put out of its financial misery, grudgingly admit that railroads are closely linked with the state�s continued development and growth. Resigned to Tri-Rail�s financial reality, but resolute about its future, Palm Beach County Commissioner Jeff Koons admitted Tri-Rail �will never, never, ever pay for itself� operationally. He nodded when asked if this will mean millions upon millions annually in continued local, state and federal subsidy. He continued to nod slowly when told that critics are outraged that it�s costing taxpayers about $46,000 each and every day so that about 9,000 persons per day on average can ride the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) commuter rail service.

That kind of talk ignores the reality that automobile commuters are incredibly subsidized too, but it bears repeating that Tri-Rail's economic performance is far worse than most light-rail starts in this country. So you can't get rid of transit subsidies, but you CAN do a hell of a lot better than that.

And note "9,000 people per day". After 15 years. On a line much much longer than the one proposed for Austin.

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.

Yup, just like Austin (nearly zero downtown workers work within the typically considered 1/4 mile walking distance of the station at the Convention Center, so don't even try me).

Koons sighs: �It�s tough trying to promote a railroad in the middle of I-95 construction.�

No, it's not. It should be even easier to get people to take grade-separated transit when the highway option gets worse. It's not, because the grade-separated transit option in this case has the fatal flaw of relying on shuttle buses to get people where they actually need to go.

�We�re too suburban,� according to Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who says Tri-Rail�s financial health in fact may depend on whether SFRTA can negotiate an agreement with Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) for use of the FEC line that wanders through most of Florida�s urban areas. 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.

The FEC railroad runs right through all of the major downtowns in the area -- meaning riders of a service there could actually walk from the train station to work.

They've learned from painful experience what we're going to learn because we fell for Mike Krusee and Fred Gilliam''s snow-job.

Now for my observations:

I saw half a dozen Tri-Rail trains (while driving on I-95). All were emptier than Capital Metro's worst bus routes. I got to see the line from Boynton Beach down to I-595 (Fort Lauderdale), and did not see one lick of transit-oriented development anywhere -- the same low-density warehouse sprawl that used to be around the line is still around the line.

A brand new station is under construction (nearly done) in Boca Raton on the old IBM property (where I used to work). This old IBM site was purchased by a company which has subleased to a ton of smaller firms about 5 years ago. The property is also currently full of new construction which seems mostly to be retail uses -- interestingly enough, they are oriented as far away from the rail line as feasible -- i.e. they do not view proximity to the train station as even slightly desirable. (And the existing offices in the old IBM buildings are a good hike from the train station - especially given South Florida's weather most of the year). This station's location was chosen after about five years of failed work trying to get a station built farther south as part of a new transit-oriented development.

Lesson: You don't get transit-oriented development around a failed rail line. Meaning: the developer contemplating building a project which will incur more cost and potentially less access for motorists is going to want to see people riding the train now who fit their economic profile - i.e. people who can afford cars, but are choosing to ride the train; not the people who ride the train because they have no other choice.

This does not bode well for the Capital Metro backers who think that transit-oriented development can make up for the poor routing of our own starter line.

December 10, 2004

Observations from a car-less week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23, 2004

Pedestrian problems on US 183

183 sidewalk photo essay

Prentiss appeared to have beat me to the punch on the photo-essay thing, but I have archives of this very blog that prove that my photo essay on pedestrian problems on US 183 was planned much earlier, and simply took longer to implement since I'm far far far lazier than he is. I'm frankly amazed I ever got it done. Thanks, slow day at work!

ALSO ALSO ALSO! This is the ONE HUNDREDTH ENTRY in this crackpot blog! Somebody put on a party hat or something, please.

November 18, 2004

Commuter rail photo essay

Prentiss has put together a brilliant photo essay showing where the stations for Capital Metro's commuter rail starter line are going to be. I highly recommend checking it out.

November 08, 2004

Plans for the blog

Well, now that the election is over, and I waited a week to cool the electrons, here's where this blog is going to go:

1. More emphasis on other transportation-talk (I had a bit of this sprinkled through the early articles here - see these categories for some examples). I took up the pro-transit but anti-commuter-rail flag because nobody else would, not because it's my only interest). I have a couple of long articles ready to write once I get some time - one about TXDOT's pedestrian-hostile highway construction, and one about the Jollyville Road severing.

2. I'll be evaluating any proposals made to "fix" the commuter rail line. Some mumblings in the press right now indicate that they think they're going to get a proposal or two before the voters for the 2006 election. I sincerely doubt this will happen - there was far too much political capital spent on the "let's build this one and then see how it does" position, and the kind of studies they need to do in order to get to the ballot-box are not likely to be quick.

3. I'll be commenting on the election results if and when the Chronicle does a precinct analysis (like they did for the 2000 light rail election).

Evaluating my campaign and my predictions: I thought the rail plan would pass, but I did not think the margin would be this great. I'm surprised at the margin in unincorporated Williamson County (according to today's Statesman, it was fairly large). As mentioned before, I don't know how it did in the central city compared to light rail.

I had hoped that I would get enough traction with the press that it would be difficult to forget (in 2010) that there was at least one guy who knew what he was talking about who predicted that the starter line was fatally flawed (to shorten the rail transit interregnum that will occur when the line fails). I don't think I met my goals here - got some early coverage, including a good spot on KXAN where I was able to articulate the main failure, but most of the other press coverage misrepresented my position to "it doesn't go far enough" which is too easy to counter with "well, we'll just build streetcar or go to Seaholm" which only solves one of the ten or so problems with this line.

The success of the starter line is now in the hands of people in Cedar Park and far northwest Austin. If they enjoy riding shuttle buses every day from the station at MLK (crossing I-35 on MLK to get to UT and the Capitol) or from the Convention Center to 6th and Congress, then the plan will survive long enough to build extensions and expansions. Note, however, that none of those extensions or expansions provide rail service for the residents of the center city - they are other commuter rail lines headed from shuttle-bus stations out to other suburban areas.

I'm prepared to make a limited number of ridership bets for more steak dinners (hi Patrick!). You know where to find me. Otherwise, I may have the sidewalk article up in a week or so.

November 01, 2004

My final pre-election note

(Thank God, say the readers)

Sent by me a moment ago to the austin-bikes email list:

David Dobbs wrote:

> At 08:25 -0600 11/1/04, Mike Dahmus wrote:
>
>> So I don't buy the argument that the money's only going back if the election fails. I think the money's also going back if the election succeeds but the starter line fails.
>
>
>
> Well, clearly we can be virtually certain that, save for a half-cent bus system, Capital Metro's funding will be gone if commuter rail doesn't pass tomorrow.

No, clearly we can't be virtually certain of that.

I expect the 1/4 cent diversion to local governments to continue if Capital Metro were to lose the election. This diversion is easily rectified, unlike the permanent diversion that would happen if they win the election and build the virtually guaranteed failure of a commuter rail stub.

The fact that the ROAD guys aren't fighting this very hard should tell you all you need to know about their feeling on the matter. But if you don't believe THAT, consider the fact that this plan comes from Mike Krusee, no friend of Austin and definitely no friend of public transportation. He and Fred Gilliam have come up with the cheapest possible way to show once and for all that rail "doesn't work in Austin" - at which point I'm sure their common cause evaporates as Krusee seeks road funds and Gilliam seeks bus rapid transit. Either way, central Austin in particular gets nothing but the back of the hand.

There is no way I can see in which urban rail can be salvaged if this election passes. David is parroting the dubious party line that this commuter rail line can be turned into "light rail" by running the trains more often and through TOD - ignoring the fact that TOD won't occur if nobody is riding the line when it opens (real estate developers will shy away from such development if the line looks like a failure AS HAPPENED IN SOUTH FLORIDA). And NOBODY has explained how Austin is going to be SO DIFFERENT from South Florida that the shuttle-bus liability won't be a huge problem here for building choice commuter ridership. High-frequency shuttle buses waiting for you when you get off the train? Check. Speedy rail portion of commute? Check. Cheap because they used existing track? Check. Now planning on shifting emphasis over the next decade to a much better rail corridor after 15 wasted years? One down, one to go.

Let's recap:

- This line delivers rail + shuttle-bus commutes to Leander and far northwest Austin. It does not deliver ANYTHING to central Austin. It does not deliver rail service to ANY OF THE THREE major attractors (downtown*, UT, Capitol). It will be relying on far-out suburbanites to form the bulk of the daily ridership - and those are PRECISELY the people who are LEAST likely to accept a shuttle-bus as part of their daily commute. The progressive parts of town where residential density is at its highest get nothing but bus service under the LONG-RANGE plan (NOT just being skipped by the starter line, but SKIPPED ENTIRELY).

- The idea that the plan can then be saved by streetcar is also naive and foolish. While streetcars are more attractive than buses for a single transit trip:

1. The transfer penalty still applies. A three-leg trip (car, train, shuttle-bus) is much much worse than a two-leg trip (car, light rail) or a one-leg trip, as a Hyde Park resident could have had with 2000 LRT.
2. Unlike light rail (and the rail portion of the ASG commute), streetcars are stuck in traffic just like shuttle buses. You lose so much speed and reliability that the private car becomes competitive again.
3. Streetcars (and any other rail extensions or expansions) must be voted on under the same rules - only in November, only an even-numbered year, and they won't be ready to take it to a vote in 2006 since they've committed to a long study process. November 2008 would be the first chance to VOTE on these saviours, at which point the daily ridership numbers of the initial line WITH SHUTTLE BUSES will be public knowledge.

- The reason we're not getting to vote on light rail this time around has NOTHING to do with light rail's viability. EVERY CITY THAT HAS SUCCEEDED WITH RAIL IN THE LAST 20 YEARS HAS DONE SO WITH A LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINE, NOT COMMUTER RAIL. Light rail in 2000 was forced to the polls early by Mike Krusee, and still only narrowly lost in an election where suburban turnout was disproportionately high. The idea that we couldn't have taken out some of the objectionable parts of the 2000 LRT proposal and gotten a winning result is just a COMPLETE AND UTTER LIE.

I can't believe so many intelligent people fell for this snow-job pulled on you by Krusee, who hates Austin with a passion, and Fred Gilliam, who wants bus rapid transit and is pushing commuter rail as a way to get it. If I'm still living here in Austin in 2008, I expect to see many more comments a la Shoal Creek of:

" I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning."

- MD

* - by the 1/4 mile rule, no major downtown office buildings are within walking distance of the "downtown station". Nearly every major office building downtown, as well as the Capitol, UT, West Campus, most of North University and Hyde Park, and 38th/Guadalupe would have been within 1/4 mile of a light-rail station in 2000.

If "not going far enough" was the only problem...

I wouldn't be campaigning against this thing.

This entry is good for people seeking back-story; the linked articles form a "best of" collection from this blog explaining various supporting arguments for the Pro-Transit But No vote on Capital Metro this time around.

Today kicks off with another Chronicle mention in which they say:

Opponents like Mike Dahmus, a member of the city Urban Transportation Commission, say the current commuter rail plan does not go far enough.

The real problem here, as I've covered again and again and again, is that this line (unlike light rail) will require shuttle-buses for all commuters every single day and will thus fail miserably at attracting passengers from the suburban (non-bus-riding) population. Since this line, unlike light rail in 2000, doesn't run anywhere near the areas of central Austin where transit enjoys high use and overwhelming popularity, it can't make up the difference with progressives either.

Simply not going "far enough" could be fixed with some hard work. But this plan not only goes the wrong way, it precludes light rail from being built to "fix" it. Additionally, it's SO INCREDIBLY CRAPPY that it's going to "show" pretty conclusively that Austinites "don't want rail". Which, I think, is what Mike Krusee and Fred Gilliam had in mind the whole time....

The Crappy Is The Enemy Of The Good

Jeb Boyt throws back one of the most effective sound bites on commuter rail. I'm disappointed he didn't have the guts to link to me; I will certainly allow you to read his own words directly and make up your own mind.

I responded in his comments with:

Again, I disagree. Rail systems which attempt to provide starter line service by requiring shuttle bus transfers are universally failures at pulling people out of their cars (unlike light rail lines in the last two decades).

And Guadalupe/Lamar was completely feasible - the 2000 election lost by such a small margin that any number of minor changes to the plan, or heck, even a more concrete plan (remember we voted without knowing the downtown routing!) could have put it over the top.

The spin that Guadalupe/Lamar is impossible comes straight from Fred Gilliam, who DOESN'T WANT RAIL AT ALL. Hint: He's teamed up with Mike Krusee here to build commuter rail because it's the cheapest way to show that it "doesn't work".

And it "won't work" because it doesn't run through neighborhoods where people actually want to use it, and the only people who COULD use it are precisely those who would be the LEAST willing to take shuttle buses every day.

The real problem here, folks, is that a starter line which is this horrible will be, as one of my colleagues on the Urban Transportation Commission put it, a "finisher line". It will end rail transit in this area for decades. Please don't fall for this baloney that the commuter rail line is good enough for a start, and that we can work on improving it later. As Jeb's entry points out, Lamar/Guadalupe is not even under consideration as one of the possible "improvements" anyways, even if I end up wrong and suburbanites eagerly flock to daily shuttle-bus trips as part of their Leander-to-Austin commute.

October 28, 2004

Commuter Rail Is Not Light Rail, Part 851

Or: A letter I just wrote to the Statesman which they probably won't publish:

Many of your readers and a significant number of public boosters of the commuter rail proposal on the ballot November 2nd appear to be confused as to the nature of the project. Referring to cities such as Salt Lake City and Portland as rail success stories is misleading in this context, since those cities are succeeding with LIGHT RAIL (like we narrowly voted down in 2000), not COMMUTER RAIL. The only recent example of a system like the one we're voting on comes from South Florida - it relies exclusively on "high-frequency circulators" (shuttle buses) while all the success stories mentioned have stations within walking distance of existing offices and shops. South Florida's line has been an unmitigated disaster that after 15 years still carries only 12,000 passengers a day on a far longer corridor than the one we're contemplating building.

October 27, 2004

A Yes Vote for this plan kills Light Rail, Part XII

In early versions of the All Systems Go literature, the Rapid Bus line on Lamar/Guadalupe was described as a "placeholder for possible future urban rail". This corridor is the only one in our area which has sufficient existing residential density to support urban rail (light rail or otherwise).

Many of the people who are holding their nose and voting yes on the commuter rail plan appear to still think that they can get light rail on this corridor even if this commuter rail plan passes. I've discussed on several occasions the technical problems with that idea - in short: the original 2000 route would be out due to vehicle/track incompatibilities, and a route continuing north on Lamar instead of bending northwest would be out due to speed and demographics (far fewer northeast Austin residents work at downtown/UT/capitol than do northwest residents).

More simply, though, one can simply look at the language of Capital Metro themselves. The current version of the ASG plan drops the "placeholder" phrase entirely - and recent quotes from Fred Gilliam are particularly damning:

What Capital Metro does not intend to do, at least in the foreseeable future, is have lanes of city streets dedicated solely to bus traffic. When that occurs, the system is called "bus rapid transit." Lacking those lanes, Capital Metro calls its proposal rapid bus. But Gilliam made it clear he'd like to reverse those two words in the long run.

"My hope is that . . . eventually we will get to bus lanes," Gilliam said. "But
our plan is not designed around having to have them."

Back when Fred took over from Karen Walker, he made some pro-BRT and anti-LRT statements which I have been unable to locate. Thankfully his recent comments remove the need for me to do so - it's pretty clear which way Fred intends to go for Lamar/Guadalupe, and it's going to be Bus Rapid Transit.

What is Bus Rapid Transit, you ask? Well, it's Rapid Bus with bus lanes. You get most of the reliability and speed of light rail, but you get none of the comfort, perceived quality (suburbanites don't like buses, remember?), and perceived permanence. Studies in this country have shown pretty conclusively that you get redevelopment and infill with rails that you don't get with buses - even Rapid Buses. If that doesn't make sense to you, consider what it takes to move Rapid Bus service to a different road versus moving rail service.

October 26, 2004

Reason to vote no on commuter rail

The picture below is my son, Ethan. He wanted me to tell you that by the time he's ten, he wants urban rail service (dedicated right-of-way; not streetcars) running down the real urban rail corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe), not "Rapid Bus". He also wanted me to add that if you vote for commuter rail, and his dad is right about the negative effects, he's coming for you.

If I were you, I'd do what he wants.

8 down, 19992 to go

My wife and I voted (early) on Sunday. And this weekend, Jonathan Horak endorsed this blog's position. Also, Chip Rosenthal declared his opposition and used very similar reasoning to that used by this author.

In the meantime, Ben Wear wrote about commuter rai again on Sunday in the Statesman, this time using my colleague Patrick Goetz for the lone pro-transit and oh-my-god-does-this-plan-really-stink perspective. I think I've fallen permanently off his radar.

Finally, in the twenty minutes or so since I submitted this post, a blog I've not read before called Grits For Breakfast added their endorsement, and the author made a very good general point about how perplexing it is that Austin voters don't fight these Austin-bashing initiatives harder.

October 21, 2004

Which possible outcome should scare you more?

a response to Dave Dobbs on the austin-bikes list, in which Dave ended with:

There will be no options if this doesn't pass.

In fact, it will be difficult to defend Capital Metro's money if this election doesn't pass. However, it will be even MORE difficult to defend Capital Metro's money if this election does pass, and the rail service meets my expectations (matching the performance of South Florida's Tri-Rail, the only other new start rail plan relying exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution). At that point, we will have SHOWN that "rail doesn't work in Austin", and the long-term justification for at least 1/4 cent of Capital Metro's money will be gone.

The position, however, that we will definitely lose the money after an election failure fails to compel on two counts:

1. We didn't permanently lose the money in 2000
2. Even if we do 'lose' the money, it's going to be easier to get it back if we don't have a pathetically poor rail line on the ground SHOWING people that "rail doesn't work in Austin".

Keep in mind, if you doubt me that commuter rail won't work, that:

1. Most of the people in 2000 who said they wanted light rail get no rail service from the starter line, and most of that most don't get rail service in the long-range plan either.

2. The people who ARE being delivered rail service are the people who, in 2000, were most against light rail.

3. Those lucky few being delivered rail service are precisely the people who have been the LEAST WILLING to ride buses, and yet in order to use this rail line, they're going to have to ride a bus every single day.

4. In order to improve this line in any way, shape, or form, a follow-on election must be held. Does anybody think that's going to be easy to sell, what with the pro-rail PAC telling everybody that we're following a "vote on every step" plan so they can evaluate rail's performance each time before approving more?

At worst, I urge all of you to remember the Great Shoal Creek Debacle Of Aught-Aught. Is anybody willing to argue with me NOW that I was wrong back then? Want to bet against me again?

October 19, 2004

Three down

19,997 to go.

Kellyd from activitystory.com has endorsed this blog's position on the All Systems Go referendum and linked me. Thanks, Kelly.

Send Krusee Cruisin'

If like me, you're disgusted at Mike Krusee's role in destroying any chance that Austinites will be able to enjoy rail transit, and you live in his district, please check out Karen Felthauser's campaign.

If I win, what do we do

Phil Hallmark from the austin-bikes email list asked for a clear description of what my "next referendum" would look like, since I'm asking people to vote no on this one. A good point; while I've made some recommendations scattered through this blog, I haven't ever written it down in one place.

My referendum would be, legally, the same language as this one (since ballot language just says "operaton of a rail system") but the notice of election would state that the starter line would be a light rail line running from Leander to downtown Austin (sound similar?). I don't know if it's even legal to state "running past UT and the Capitol", but I'd give it a whirl.

The difference is that the routing would follow the 2000 election's route. I would drop South Congress completely from the long-range plan; the starter line would use the existing rail right-of-way from the northwest; entering Lamar Blvd at its intersection with Airport Blvd (as in 2000); switching to Guadalupe; running by the Triangle, Central Park, West Campus. It would run next to UT on Guadalupe.

The line would transition to Congress Ave. around 11th; then run down Congress to 4th St., terminating there (for the time being). The long-range plan would continue that line west to Seaholm and then south on the UP right-of-way into south Austin (this solves the South Congress opposition in 2000). (Is there enough space for the train to turn on/off Congress at 4th? I think so; but I'm not sure).

The long-range plan would also include spurs to Mueller and Bergstrom. But as wth commuter rail, you only vote on the starter line.

Isn't this a small change? Well, my position on the 2000 election is that you could put the EXACT SAME PACKAGE up for a vote again, and there'd be a 60% chance of passage (with Dubya voters energized in 2000, it lost by less than 1%). With the South Congress change made to avoid opposition from that sector, I'd estimate an 80% chance of success with my plan.

Shouldn't Capital Metro have tried something like this? Any one of a few changes could have brought the 2000 light rail line over the top, after all (another option is avoiding Crestview/Wooten). Well, as I've said, they weren't motivated by the voters, but by one particular state legislator.

If this sounds good to you, you'd better vote against commuter rail; because light rail on this corridor is effectively precluded by the implementation of commuter rail.

October 18, 2004

Another opinion

In the spirit of "get something posted today with a minimum amount of time", I also present an email from a friend of mine who works in the business (transit) who commented a while back to me on Capital Metro's plan. Note that he's more sanguine about streetcars than am I; he also mentioned in a follow-on that streetcars on both 4th and Congress wouldn't necessitate a transfer in all cases, since there are models out there that could easily navigate that turn.

Here's his note to me (this was a couple of months ago):

Hey M1EK,

Good stuff about the Cap Metro plan. I agree with you: it's flawed.

The transfer penalty for choice riders is significant regardless of the type
of transfer - if it's not a one-seat transit ride to work, it's usually not
going to compete, in the mind of the choice rider, with driving to work.
Some folks will tolerate having to transfer between trains (which is how
commuter rail generally works), but much fewer will tolerate transferring
from a bus to a train to get to work. For example, the park and ride bus
that used to run from north Houston to the Texas Medical Center was
truncated when the rail line opened, and people who used to ride the bus all
the way to the TMC are now forced to transfer to the train in downtown.
Needless to say, ridership on that route has fallen.

As you correctly note, almost nobody will tolerate a rail-to-bus transfer to
get to work.

About eight or so years ago, when TxDOT was doing the Major Investment Study
on the Katy Freeway (I-10 west), they looked at using the existing MKT
railroad right-of-way running parallel to the freeway as a possible commuter
rail corridor. It would have been a quick and smooth trip into the central
city, but there was no way to distribute the passengers to major activity
centers such as downtown or the Texas Medical Center once they got there
(because Bob Lanier the highway lobby whore was still mayor, the Main Street
rail line wasn't even on the drawing board at the time). Passengers would
have been forced to get off the train at the Amtrak station just northwest
of downtown Houston and continue their journeys by bus. Even if the bus trip
from the train station into downtown was relatively short, you can imagine
what the ridership models looked like when the transfer penalty was factored
in. The commuter rail idea was dropped and the MKT right-of-way was used to
expand the freeway itself instead.

What kind of ridership predictions is Cap Metro making for this system?

The streetcar idea intrigued me. This plan might work if a downtown
streetcar network were implemented to distribute passengers. People might
not transfer from trains to shuttle buses, but they'll transfer from trains
to streetcars. Such is the nature of mode preference.

The real danger

I've been busy at work and playing landlord, so I haven't had time to write any new material, but I will share a response I just wrote to Fred Meredith on the austin-bikes list. Fred's among the people who wants good mass transit in this area, but believes that voting yes on commuter rail is the best way to do it.

Fred Meredith wrote:


I will vote for this plan for the following basic reasons.

1.) We need a "first step" project in order to have any further advancement in mass transit through consideration of rail or other option to the single-occupant motor vehicle that increasingly gridlocks Austin. It may not be the best beginning, but it would be a beginning rather than a mandate to keep all rail plans off the horizon and just throw money at more lanes of concrete in a misguided attempt to overcome congestion. Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation.

I don't know how many more times I can take this argument without assuming that I've become invisible or inaudible (fat chance, huh?), but I'll try to remain calm once more.

The danger here is that a starter line that is bad ENOUGH will completely destroy the momentum among the public (that actually WANTS rail right now by at least a slim margin, in Austin itself). This is what happened in South Florida with a system which is identical in every way that matters to the one proposed by Capital Metro. (Their demographics are a bit more liberal than ours, if you include the entire Capital Metro service area, but still far more conservative than Seattle or Portland).

Aspects of Tri-Rail's service which are important:

  1. It doesn't go anywhere people actually want to go, but relies on high-frequency circulators (shuttle buses) to take people to their final destinations.
  2. What happened was that people who were potential new transit customers stayed away, in droves, when they heard about the shuttle-bus transfer. (This transfer makes the entire trip noncompetitive with the private automobile - i.e. not even close).
  3. Hundreds of millions have been spent and are being spent to double-track the corridor, but now after 15 years of no real penetration among new transit customers, the people in charge are finally talking about moving or adding service to a far better rail corridor which actually goes through the major downtowns. (This is in their new long-range plans - meaning next decade or two).
  4. In the meantime, nothing else could be done (in terms of transit) for 15 years, and for at least another 10-15.
  5. Transit-oriented development has been pursued vigorously along Tri-Rail's corridor for at least ten years now with no results whatsoever (no construction; only some plans, most of which died on the vine).

Compare (and contrast if you can) to Austin. Here's the danger:

  1. We're exactly the same as Tri-Rail. Unless you think drivers in Leander are in love with transfers to shuttle buses. I don't.
  2. Capital Metro comes back to the voter in 2008 with plans to "expand" (either build the next commuter line down Mopac; build a streetcar system downtown; or if you don't believe me that commuter rail precludes light rail, even rail down Lamar/Guadalupe).
  3. The voters, who were told in no uncertain terms back in 2004 that they should evaluate the line's actual performance before voting on extensions/expansions, see that basically the commuter rail line is handling the old express bus riders (Capital Metro closed down the 183-corridor express buses in 2007 as commuter rail came online).
  4. The voters come to the (understandable) conclusion that "we tried rail, and it didn't work; so we're not going to spend any more money on it".

So no, the position that "Once a first step is taken, I feel it is more likely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue. I think it is a foot-in-the-door situation" is not an accurate representation of what we face. It's more like "once a first step is taken on rail, it is very unlikely that better plans can be brought to bear on the issue unless the first step is a success in the minds of the voters. It is an out-on-a-limb situation".

October 15, 2004

Two down

Adam Rice, another of Austin's best bloggers and a fellow center-city cyclist, has kindly linked to this blog with an endorsement.

So I've won two votes so far - only about 20,000 to go! Well, also, since my cousin, wife, and father-in-law said they liked my presentation at the LBJ school last week, I probably have their votes too. My mom would probably also have liked my presentation, so there you go.

Adam also came up with a great title - All Systems Whoa. If I wasn't running my quixotic campaign on a budget of exactly zero, I'd go buy the domain name allsystemswhoa.org to match the monorail guys at allsystemsno.org (not an endorsement by me - remember I support light rail, which runs in the street and would also be hated by these guys).

How you'll use commuter rail

Or won't, if like most people you don't like shuttle buses.

At the last panel at which I spoke (LBJ school), Scott Polikov claimed that the commuter rail line DOES stop within walking distance of most of downtown. I've cut and pasted the image off the flier for New Ways To Connect, showing the downtown station for commuter rail. Notice the labels on the shuttle buses on the right. From front: CAPITOL, DOWNTOWN, UT

This also marks the first post to this blog where I've included a picture. Man, I'm slipping.

October 14, 2004

Chronicle mention

Today's Chronicle has a piece by Mike Clark-Madison which to its credit remembers that there are people (well, A person anyways) willingly to publically oppose the ASG plan on the grounds that it's a crappy rail system, rather than the Neanderthal view pushed by Skaggs & Company that we need to build more freeways instead.

Unfortunately, the tone of the article basically matches the endorsement at the front, that being that you Must Vote Yes Or Capital Metro Will Die.

This ties into my yet-as-unwritten piece which explains why this very real fear should not make you vote Yes this time around - because the fear that an implemented starter line which doesn't pull in any new transit customers will be even worse for the long-term future of rail transit in this city.

I've not had any trouble making this case in public - with the exception of Scott Polikov, I think the pro-ASG guys treat it with respect and not with the disdain showed in the endorsement section today. Unfortunately, that's not making enough headway to win the day. The approach currently proposed by the pro-ASG-but-we-know-it-sucks crowd is to pass it and then work to fix it. That falls short in two ways:

1. As I keep saying, this commuter rail line precludes light rail in the urban Lamar/Guadalupe corridor so the only "fix" you could do would be streetcars, which aren't enough of a fix to make any difference

2. Since this plan has been sold as an isolated step, after which all expansions involving rails must come up for additional votes, the poor performance of the initial line (unless I'm wrong and suburbanites fall in love with shuttle buses) will make it impossible to even get #1 off the ground.

The end.

October 08, 2004

What do we do about this?

Two people so far have commented on the "why Mike Krusee and I aren't going to be hoisting beers together" screed.

Addressing both of them:

Clockwork Orange is right. Most of the people who should be fighting Mike Krusee haven't yet realized that he HASN'T turned into their friend, and as a result, he's winning. I'm a friggin' flea compared to this guy and the people he's snowed, and yet I'm the most prestigious pro-rail-transit but anti-commuter-rail guy that people are able to find to speak at these panels. THIS DOES NOT BODE WELL! I'm no heavyweight, folks, I'm just the heaviest one who was willing to fight.

Jonathan is right too. What do we do? My tack is to keep fighting so that the historical record is NOT "everybody liked this and we built it and it failed so obviously rail doesn't work". At a MINIMUM, I need to replicate the Shoal Creek experience and have it be "at least Mike Dahmus wasn't snowed by Mike Krusee; he pointed out how STUPID this plan was, and he was right". This might shave a couple of years off the Dark Ages For Rail that South Florida went through because of the Tri-Rail debacle.

MORE PEOPLE SAYING THIS PLAN IS DUMB FROM A PRO-RAIL PERSPECTIVE WOULD HELP DRAMATICALLY! Right now, it's way too easy for the Capital Metro guys to say "he's the only one" or "he's a crackpot" or "he's on crack and pot". And the media, with the exception of KXAN, has bought into the even worse theory that only Jim Skaggs' band of anti-transit fund-raiders opposes this plan. Even the Austin Chronicle hasn't done well here, which is truly disappointing.

I'm basically spending all of the forty-eight cents of political capital I have on this - since my councilmember wouldn't return my emails after the very FIRST time I even started talking about this plan, I'm 99% sure that I'm not going to be reappointed in January. It would be helpful if people with more than my slightly-more-than-squat amount of power would speak up, but that's not the world we're living in. It would also be helpful if regular citizens would start to ask informed questions of the media here - like "how exactly is an individual going to get from point A to point B under this plan" and then when "high-frequency circulators" are mentioned, they'll at least have had to say it.

At least I know that at the end of this process, I'll have one more night a month free to do what I like!

October 06, 2004

The Mike Krusee Story

Adam asked in comments for some background on Mike Krusee. Here it is:

In 2000, Capital Metro was preparing for a push for light-rail on a corridor which, on objective measures, was the best suited for an urban rail starter line in this city. It would have hit all three major attractors, ran through the densest residential neighborhoods, and hit the big suburban park-and-rides. The FTA loved this line. It would have given transit service to Leander as well as urban Austin, and it would have been competitive enough with the car to be a successful starter line for a future rail network, based on similar experience in cities like Dallas, Denver, Portland, and Salt Lake City.

Mike Krusee did not like this.

Capital Metro was, in my opinion based on our meetings with them at the time, preparing for an election in 2001, possibly in May.

Mike Krusee did not like this.

Virtually none of Capital Metro's constituents are in Mike Krusee's district.

This did not stop Mike Krusee.

Mike Krusee forced an election in November, 2000 on light rail. This was:

  • Too early - Capital Metro hadn't finished figuring out what roads it would run on, or how much support there would be for various parts of the route (for instance, in retrospect, running on South Congress was a non-starter and should have been dropped, but there wasn't time to figure this out well enough beforehand; others complained that it was impossible to evaluate the proposal since CM still had five or six proposed routes through downtown).
  • Bad timing - Dubya was running for President, which pulled in a disproportionate number of suburban voters disinclined to give transit a chance.

That election failed, by the closest margin ever seen in a rail ballot. In fact, it passed inside Austin, and passed overwhelmingly in central Austin. The cities now viewed as light-rail success stories generally had to run multiple votes after their first vote failed by a much larger margin than did Austin's. This should have demonstrated a mandate in favor of rail, within the city limits of Austin.

This wasn't enough for Mike Krusee.

He then wrote a bill which was passed by the state Legislature which required that Capital Metro only hold rail elections in November of even-numbered years (basically stacking the deck against transit - common local issue elections typically happen in May and would draw out people more interested in local issues than national ones; Krusee forced the reverse).

Keep in mind that most of Mike Krusee's constituents do not pay taxes to Capital Metro.

This restriction was not placed on transit systems in general (i.e. Dallas' DART system, Houston's METRO system, or proposed VIA rail system in San Antonion). It was placed only on Capital Metro.

The people of Austin demonstrated they wanted rail, and Mike Krusee made sure they wouldn't get it.

Now, fast forward to 2004. The guiding force behind Capital Metro's switch to commuter rail is..... Mike Krusee. Capital Metro is understandably scared to death of Mike Krusee, since he holds some powerful levers at the State. Mike Krusee wants commuter rail instead of urban rail, and that's what Capital Metro is giving him.

Why does Mike Krusee support this plan? Take a look at the long-range plan. Where does the second commuter rail line go?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Where do Mike Krusee's constituents live?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Who doesn't pay Capital Metro taxes?

Round Rock and Georgetown.

Who DOES pay 93% of Capital Metro taxes?

Those Dirty Hippies In Urban Austin.

Who gets NO RAIL under the All Systems Go plan? Not with the starter line, not with the full system, (and definitely NOT with wink-wink we-don't-mention-it-but-we're-gonna-give-it-to-you light rail, since if you've been reading my blog, you know that it's precluded by the construction of this commuter rail system)?

Those Dirty Hippies In Urban Austin.

Mike Krusee is not a friend of Austin. He's not a friend of Capital Metro. He's not a friend of rail transit. He's getting transit service for his constituents (who don't pay) at the expense of the people of Austin who have been consistently demanding urban rail service for decades. Yes, at the expense of the same people who consisently subsidize suburban sprawl through property taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes. People in Austin now get to pay for BOTH the roads AND the transit of Round Rock, while they get nothing more than a glorified express bus for the actual sensible rail corridor in Austin.

This is why I don't like Mike Krusee.

Any questions?

Today's panel

Some observations from today's panel at the LBJ school:

I was the only one talking about the actual alignment of the route, the location of the stations, and unimportant stuff like that, for obvious reasons.

I did not enjoy my exchanges with Scott Polikov(from the pro-commuter rail contingent, a former Capital Metro board member). Jim Skaggs was his usual self, and Jim Walker was about the same as he was at the Austin Neighborhoods Council panel a few weeks ago.

David Foster (with whom I shared a panel last week at the UT planning school as well as the first panel at the Austin Neighborhoods Council) understands that I want rail and just have some experience which leads me to believe that we should be even more scared of a successful election + unsuccessful ridership than we should of an unsuccessful election (he disagrees, but he at least keeps it on that level). He and Jim Walker both admit that this plan is about as far from ideal as you can get while still calling it "rail"; they disagree with me about the idea that it precludes light-rail down the original corridor, but they do it honestly; David a little more than Jim. If I could summarize their position as charitably as possible, it would be "they know we need rail, and they think that this is the only way to get it". I think David would honestly summarize my position, and I hope Jim would as well.

Scott, not so much.

One of Scott's points was that it was unfair to compare this starter line to Tri-Rail as I've done, because this line "enters downtown" and is only "4 blocks from Congress Avenue". He scored a point on me here since this ended up as a "gotcha" comeback to my quote that Tri-Rail's first route was a stupid idea because "Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn't serve even one downtown area."

This ended up being my biggest missed opportunity today. I failed to point out that in their own literature the pro-RAIL PAC talks about shuttle buses downtown, and not only that, has a picture of a shuttle bus with the sign "DOWNTOWN" on it, at the supposed downtown rail station. If they expect that downtown workers will think that a station at the Convention Center is close enough to walk to their office, why do they need a shuttle-bus at all? Why talk up the "quick and easy transfer"?

Take a look at their literature - the picture on the front cover is a rendition of the Convention Center stop ("downtown"), illustrating the "quick and easy transfers" to shuttle buses. Note the second bus back (on the right) is labelled DOWNTOWN.

This is still burnin' my biscuits even tonight. I'm sure David thinks I'm crazy for being more scared of B than A when everybody else is more scared of A than B, but he presents his position honestly without misrepresentation. Scott, not so much.

October 05, 2004

Quickie

While replying to somebody who was nice enough to give feedback from the ANC meeting I spoke at a couple of weeks ago, I ended up with this chestnut:

"Trying to fix this plan with streetcars is like trying to fix a gaping chest wound with a band-aid".

Meaning: It's still going to be a 3-seat ride (or even a 4-seat ride if you don't take an extremely charitable interpretation of the route proposal); the last part of it will still be stuck in traffic; and the dense residential neighborhoods of West Campus and Hyde Park still won't have any service of any kind whatsoever beyond the ludicrously misnamed Rapid Bus.

Shine On, You Crazy Diamonds.

More on our Commuter Rail Model, Tri-Rail

http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2004-04-15/news/next-stop-nowhere/

Again, this system is about the closest analogue out there to what Mike Krusee's puppets at Capital Metro are proposing this time around. It serves primarily suburban areas; doesn't reach any downtowns or other activity centers; has high-frequency "circulators" at every station; etc.

One key difference, though: Tri-Rail's 15-year experiment with the horrible route doesn't preclude them, at least technically, from going to a much better route (down the FEC railroad which DOES run through the major actviity centers of the region). In Austin's case, if commuter rail is built, you can't technically OR politically build light-rail on the 2000 corridor, and I don't think you can even do it on the modified "keep going north on Lamar" corridor proposed briefly in 2003. In other words, we're worse off - if we're making a mistake here, we not only waste a decade or more and a hundred million bucks, we ALSO prevent ourselves from building the rail right.

Excerpts:


A week's worth of trips on the Tri-Rail, South Florida's poky, 15-year-old commuter railway, recently confirmed the conventional rat-racing wisdom: The train serves not the region's most populated areas but the fringes. It doesn't offer riders destinations they truly need or desire, nor convenient times to get there. It's underutilized, even during rush hour. It's not located where people like Nick -- an unemployed construction worker who says he's "between cars" -- are most likely to use it.

[...]

Since its start, Tri-Rail has operated on the CSX tracks, west of I-95. After about $1 billion of expenditures on its current line, transportation officials are considering shifting their main focus to the more desirable Florida East Coast Railway line, which links the region's coastal city centers. The FEC, long resistant to the idea, now says it's willing, maybe. The state has applied for $5 million in federal funds to analyze options along the FEC corridor where, critics say, Tri-Rail should have been located all along.

"Was this the best investment?" asks Steve Polzin, director of public transit research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You wonder what could have been accomplished if they had not rushed into it. If, for example, they'd waited a few years and bought the FEC." Tri-Rail began operating in January 1989 to alleviate traffic during construction on I-95. As the highway project continued unabated, though, the commuter train became a permanent fixture. But Tri-Rail officials never took their eyes off the far-preferable downtown route -- even now, in the midst of its largest overhaul ever, including the construction of a second track along the 72-mile line and a new bridge over the New River, both of which are under way to the tune of $340 million.

Is a second track to nowhere really the answer? "It'll be nice to have," Polzin concedes. "There's value in having a corridor in good condition with double-track capacity. But is it worth that much money, especially if something happens with the rail farther to the east? When you think of the expenditure, you could argue that a marginal demand necessitated it."

Joseph Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, acknowledges that the new plan may render the current Tri-Rail obsolete. "But when you've invested a little over a billion dollars to make this one functional -- which it is," he says, "you have to look at how to support that function."

[...]

Tri-Rail runs through a metropolitan strip that's now home to 5.2 million people. In February, it carried just 10,151 passengers a day (the highest average since April 1994). Unlike most commuter rail systems, it doesn't serve even one downtown area. "It's unique nationally in the sense that it doesn't penetrate a downtown," Polzin notes. "It's an anomaly. You scratch your head and ask, 'Could they have done more with it?'"

[...]

But Polzin isn't quite ready to call Tri-Rail a failure. "It's certainly not a raving success," he says, "but the community seems comfortable with it. At least you feel good that you tried. But you have to ask how much additional investment, if any, makes sense. Perhaps there will be a greater appreciation for commuter rail in the future, but it's not a slam-dunk by any stretch of the imagination."

Tri-Rail wants to boost ridership to 68,000 a day by 2015, which would reduce the cost per rider from a current $8.81 to $5.06. Back in 1999, the agency's then-director, Linda Bohlinger, gave the commuter system five years to accumulate 20,000 riders a day, opining that if that goal weren't reached, "either we don't know what we're doing or the public doesn't really need it."

Again, this is what Mike Krusee wants for Austin: a rail line which requires that you transfer to shuttle buses if you want to get anywhere, and that doesn't go anywhere near the densest residential parts of the city. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone?

October 04, 2004

Lessons from South Florida

I can't believe it took me this long to find this link, but I finally got it.

http://www.floridacdc.org/articles/030930-1.htm

Excerpts:

Some South Florida leaders are itching to introduce something new to the region's commuter rail service: a train that takes people somewhere they want to go.

As it stands, Tri-Rail rides on tracks beside Interstate 95. The agency's trains go through no downtowns, and provide only indirect service to the region's airports. Getting where you want to go generally involves a second trip via bus, bike, taxi or Metrorail.

The CSX line currently being used by Tri-Rail requires transfers to shuttle buses to get anywhere useful, just like the proposed Austin commuter rail line.

This article talks about efforts to get Tri-Rail service on another existing rail line which actually runs through the downtown areas of the major cities in the region (allowing people to walk to offices, basically).

Another excerpt:

In a telephone interview, Winton said the FEC line would offer a serious alternative to driving for the growing number of people who commute between counties.

Now, a Broward commuter who works in downtown Miami would have to drive to a Tri-Rail station, take the train to a Metrorail station, take Metrorail to downtown, and possibly take Metromover after that.

In contrast, a passenger service on the FEC line would link downtown Miami with, for example, downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of new apartments and condominiums either built or on the way.

In hindsight, the decision to put Tri-Rail on the CSX track was probably unwise, Winton said.

''I think it was a huge mistake,'' he said. ``It doesn't seem logical to me. It clearly hurts ridership by a ton.''


October 01, 2004

"Pass commuter rail and then work for light rail"

Excerpted from a comment I made on David Nunez' site:

I've explained a couple of times why you can't get light rail after this plan is passed. From the technical obstacles (incompatible trackage prevents original '00 route up the existing rail ROW to northwest areas) to the political (a revised northeasterly route continuing purely in-street up Lamar would suck for speed AND would necessitate essentially shutting down the intersection of Lamar and Airport).

Please don't keep misleading people, whomever you are.

As for the success of the starter line - again, every first line which has succeeded in this country has delivered people within walking distance of their destinations. Once you have the choice commuters used to using rail transit, you can start hitting them with transfers, but NOT at first; they'll stay in their cars.

Here's the rub: If this first line, with shuttlebuses and all, doesn't pull a lot of car-drivers out of their cars, THERE WILL NOT BE ANY MORE RAIL IN THIS AREA IN OUR LIFETIMES. The voters will vote down any expansions of a system which already "showed" that people "don't want to ride trains in Austin".

I can't make this any more clear, folks. The starter line absolutely MUST pull in a bunch of choice commuters for it to succeed. Buffalo and Miami showed what happens when it relies on transfers - car owners stay away, and then voters aren't interested in more rail.

September 30, 2004

Lessons from the Shoal Creek debacle

Michael Bluejay, who runs the largest and most comprehensive site on bicycling in Austin, wrote a letter which appears in this week's Chronicle. The letter refers to the infamous Shoal Creek debacle.

Lessons can be learned here.

Lesson 1: Don't bet against Mike Dahmus. He'll lose, but he'll be right. :+) This comment comes from an anonymous contributor whose missive is stored for posterity on Michael's site on the Shoal Creek debacle:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I'm still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck. Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process -- however slight -- was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood