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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" »

November 11, 2009

Board of Adjustment versus Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2009

New blog to read

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

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

June 03, 2009

The Lance Armstrong Stopway Strikes Again

Was going to start a new series today ("Myths of the Red Line"), but this was too perfect.

This morning, I dropped off my stepson at Austin HIgh for his last day of school this year. Pulled in at the PAC, which is the entrance closest to that underpass of Cesar Chavez. As I was leaving, I saw a cyclist on the Stopway; waiting for a spot to clear (lots of people turning into the same entrance I used). I stopped short of the crosswalk and motioned him on, trying to be nice, but after several moments of people coming around the corner and turning, he gave up and motioned me to go instead.

Yay, Stopway!

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.

April 14, 2009

Circle C in Hyde Park

So after reading a long set of complaints on the hydeparkaustin yahoo group(*) about the city not adequately enforcing code regarding to unrelated occupants in 'McMansions' in Hyde Park, I posted the following to their group, which was bland enough to make it through the moderator gauntlet:

I would suggest that if you want to be taken more seriously on this issue that you show the city where you WILL accept more housing units - such as the attempt by some on city council to make a 'deal' for VMU in place of McMansion development.

If, as has happened with Hyde Park and CANPAC, your VMU application was nothing but "no thanks" and, after the first shot was rejected, some desultory last-minute additions with plenty of conditions, don't expect to be taken seriously.

And I got the following, in my email, this morning:

Mike, no one takes you seriously. You don't speak for anyone but yourself and your constant criticisms of everyone who doesn't buy into your fake "new urbanism" has alienated all but a few weak minded individuals like yourself. Frankly, nobody wants you on the Hyde Park listserve. Get a life loser!

In case anybody was wondering how Hyde Park stands. I hope you guys don't blame me for your weak-mindedness!

(* - not technically my neighborhood but I'm one block away).

Update: Weak-minded commenter DSK unintentionally performs a great service. Sure, he gave away the method...

BUT BUT BUT! Now I know that there is a site called walterkoenig.com thanks to a surprisingly difficult effort to locate a picture of the method in question. I think we're all richer for the experience.

April 06, 2009

My disingenuous sense is tingling

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

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

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

2. From this posting for the forum:

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

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

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

Update: How could I have forgotten their other priority?

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

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

March 16, 2009

It's not the condo dwellers complaining about the music

Jeff Ward fell for it, big-time. So did 100% of his callers on Friday afternoon. You know what I'm talking about; the "OMG! All these people moving downtown are complaining about live music!" crap.

Folks, the people pushing for the extra restrictions on live music outdoors are NOT the people downtown. As reported elsewhere, they didn't even make up a significant part of the audience for the task force that came up with the new rules. Nor should one look at Lee Leffingwell, Laura Morrison, and Mike Martinez (the authors of the ordinance) and see some kind of rich downtown-dweller conspiracy - Morrison and increasingly Leffingwell are ANC tools first and foremost, and Martinez has been leaning that way occasionally as well (disappointing, given his usual sanity on the issue of development). If the downtown dwellers were really behind this effort, you'd be seeing this ordinance spearheaded by the like of McCracken and Wynn, wouldn't you think?

Here's one representative set of minutes from that task force. Notice complaints from Zilker, Castle Hill, and Travis Heights. Notice not one complaint from downtown.

As I've said in many a comment thread before, the primary force behind new and expanded limits on noise is the same group it's always been: old-school single-family homeowners in Zilker and Eastwoods/Hancock. Jeff Jack's crowd, in other words. These folks have been complaining about venues on Barton Springs and Congress and Red River ever since I've been here - for more than a decade; and there hasn't been any new group of downtown residents joining them; they're just using the supposed downtown residents as cover - most people living downtown view music as an amenity, not a problem.

Don't fall for it. Downtown condos aren't the enemy of live music; the ANC is.

March 04, 2009

Why I'm Hard on Mueller

and note, I'm far from the only one.

Also please excuse the brevity - I'm doing this from a Wendy's in Huntsville during a short lunch break.

Breathless media coverage from the Statesman makes you think that Mueller is the wildest dreams of urbanites and environmentalists and sustainable-liviing fans all come to life. Meanwhile, every time I raise some (informed, compared to most) criticism of Mueller, I get personal attacks in return. At times like this, I like to remind myself (and hopefully others) of the substantive, objective, reasons why Mueller presents us with problems.

Continue reading "Why I'm Hard on Mueller" »

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.

November 05, 2008

Why we should subsidize more projects like The Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 04, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

October 27, 2008

Why the new library is in the wrong place

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

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

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

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

October 24, 2008

RG4TD?

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

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

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

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

September 29, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Further:

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

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

September 19, 2008

TWITC: Here we go again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 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 05, 2008

Austin Contrarian on Austin Rail

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

September 03, 2008

RG4N: Still wrong

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

August 27, 2008

A tale of the edges of two campuses

Sorry for the long break. I've been on business trips to Jebusland for 3 of the last 7 weeks, and had a vacation in the middle, and very busy even when here. Although I'm still busy, I at least have a minute (not enough time to grab any good pictures; since my google-fu was too weak to get something quickly).

I took the family on a short vacation to visit family in State College, home of Penn State (where I went to school and spent the first 9 years of my life - my grandmother still lives in the same neighborhood as the Paternos). On this trip, since my wife is still recovering from Achilles surgery, we didn't spend much time walking through campus as we normally would - we instead spent our time driving around the edges of campus. This was an interesting contrast for me, since I spend quite a bit of time driving around the edge of another major university's campus right here in Austin. Let's compare.

Penn State:

There's a signed and marked bike route which starts on the north end of campus (which is bounded by the old residential neighborhood in which my grandmother lives). This bike route says "Campus and Downtown". It was added shortly before my college years but has been improved since then on each end and consists mainly of off-street paths (sharrows on the street in the neighborhood north of campus, although done poorly). Automobile traffic can still enter the campus from the north in several places, but is then shunted off to the corners - you can no longer go completely through campus from north to south by automobile. Pedestrian accomodations on this side of campus haven't changed for decades - a pleasant cool walk under tons and tons of trees.

On the south side of campus is the downtown area - the area most analogous to The Drag; fronting College Avenue, part of a one-way couplet which carries State Route 26 through the area (other half is two blocks away, called Beaver Avenue). College Avenue has two through lanes of traffic. Shops line the road at a pleasingly short pedestrian-oriented setback, except for a few places (one a church, one a surface parking lot). Pedestrians, counting both sides of the street, get a bit more space than do cars - and cars have to stop almost every block at a traffic light. The speed limit here is 25; you can rarely go that fast. There is plenty of on-street parking. Again, there's places where cars can penetrate campus a bit, but they can't go through campus this direction. Bicycle access from the south comes from a major bike route (with bike lanes that end short of campus) on Garner St. - which then allows bicyclists to continue while motorists have to exit by turning a corner towards the stadium. Two images of the corner of Allen and College from different angles:

College and Allen; shot by ehpien on flickr

From WikiMedia commons

East and west at Penn State aren't as important - the west side fronts US 322 Business (and a major automobile access point was closed; a classroom building now spans the whole old highway!). The east side is primarily for access to sports facilities and the agricultural areas. Ped access from the west is mediocre unless you feel like going through that classroom building, but not very important if you don't since there's not much other reason to be over there. Access from the east is the main future area for improvement - although it's still of a caliber that we would kill for here in Austin; with 2-lane roadways and 30-35 mph speed limits; traffic signals everywhere pedestrians go in reasonable numbers; etc.

Penn State and the town of State College have made it inviting to walk to and through campus, and have made it at pleasant as possible to bike there. Some students still drive, of course, but most cars are warehoused most of the time.

UTier2-West

On UT's west side, Guadalupe is a wide choking monstrosity (4 car lanes with 2 bike lanes - one of which functions pretty well and the other of which was a good attempt that fails in practice due to bad driver behavior). On-street parking exists but is rather difficult to use for its intended purpose; but the merchants will still defend it tooth and nail. Despite having even more students living across this road that need to walk to UT than the analogous group at Penn State, there are fewer pedestrian crossings and they are far less attractive; and there is no bicycle access from the west that indicates any desire at all to promoting this mode of transportation. Although you can't completely get through campus from west to east, you can get a lot farther in than you can at Penn State, and the pedestrian environment suffers for it. The city won't put any more traffic signals on Guadalupe even though there's thousands of pedestrians; and the built environment on Guadalupe is ghastly, with far too much surface parking and far too little in the way of street trees. This shot is about as good as it gets on Guadalupe:

taken by kerri on picasa

On the east side of campus, there's I-35. You'd think this would be much worse than the Guadalupe side for everybody, but at least bicyclists can use Manor Road, which is pretty civilized (better than anything on the west side). Pedestrians are pretty much screwed - noisy, stinky, and hot is no way to walk through life, son.

UT's north side is similarly ghastly. A road clearly designed for high-speed motor vehicle traffic and then gruesomely underposted at 30 mph; way too wide and lots of surface parking. For pedestrians, this edge of campus sucks - for cyclists, it's OK to penetrate, but then UT destroyed through access for cyclists by turning Speedway into UT's underwhelming idea of a pedestrian mall (hint: this is what one really looks like). I could write a whole post on that (and may someday), but the short version is that years ago, UT came to our commission (UTC) with a master plan that crowed about how much they were promoting cycling, yet the only actual change from current conditions was destroying the only good cycling route to and through campus. Yeah, they put up showers and lockers - but that's not going to help if the route TO the showers and lockers is awful enough, and it is. You'll get a lot of cyclists at almost any university just because a lot of students won't have cars and because parking isn't free and plentiful, but if you really want to take it to the next level, I'm pretty confident that eliminating your one good bike route isn't the way to go about it.

Since I went to Penn State (1989-1992), access for pedestrians and bicyclists has actually gradually improved, even though it already was much better than UT, and the campus has become more and more livable. More people walk and bike; fewer people drive; and it's a more enjoyable place than it was before. Since I moved to Austin (1996), the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists travelling to and through UT has actually gotten worse - they're still coasting on the fact that a lot of the area was developed before everybody had a car. Almost every decision they have made since then has been hostile to bicyclists and at least indifferent to pedestrians. As a result, a much larger proportion of students in the area have cars that they use much more often. (Just comparing near-campus-but-off-campus residents here). The recent long-overdue developments in West Campus are a start, but the built environment on the edge of campus has to dramatically change for UT to be anything more than laughable compared to other major college campuses' interfaces with business districts.

Bonus coverage: The area I was staying in in Huntsville, AL is right next to the 'campus' for Alabama-Huntsville. The least said about that, the better - the area in general is like US 183 before the freeway upgrades, except even uglier (if that's possible); and their campus has literally nowhere to walk to - my guess is that every student there has a car, even though the place is clearly not a commuter school.

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 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.

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.

May 29, 2008

Jaywalking crackdown is stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 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 04, 2008

My bad neighborhood's sour grapes about VMU

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- MD

And my follow-up:

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
MD

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 24, 2008

Link of the day

"The Next Slum?" if anything underestimates how bad things are going to get for the suburbs. There's not much more ability at the margins for people to absorb higher fuel costs, and yet fuel costs in the long-term are going nowhere but up. In the meantime, as the article notes, modern exurbs cannot be reconfigured into anything useful - but even more important, it's impossible to serve them with reasonably priced mass transit due to their broken roadway design.

In the meantime, though, we still subsidize this unsustainable pattern (and every time you get suckered by Sal Costello into fighting toll roads, you persist in this unhealthy subsidy), and we still have, even in central Austin, zoning codes which outlaw the historical development patterns that generated Hyde Park and Clarksville. Even the new Mueller development is laughably suburban. At some point, somebody has to stand up to the ANC and say "enough is enough; we're going to densify with or without you". I think we're almost there.

January 30, 2008

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

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

Councilmember McCracken and others,

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

January 15, 2008

TFT: Suburban wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

First bus leg:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed later on from here on out.

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

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

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

Things learned:

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2008

Chronicle comment of the month

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

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

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

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

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

January 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 31, 2007

Keep Domain Subsidies

Whenever I hear this guy talk about how bad the Domain is, I wonder which ones of the strip centers filled with locally-owned businesses he owns. Because I haven't seen one strip mall with local businesses in it that isn't a pedestrian-hostile disaster.

Sign me up for MORE DOMAIN SUBSIDIES if it means that we encourage pedestrian use, even if it's only inside the project. Too many of these awful strip malls inhabited by the local businesses who are fighting this fight are like the ones on Anderson Lane where even a confirmed car-hater like me is tempted to start the car and move it farther down the road rather than walk a quarter-mile. It's just that awful.

When locally owned businesses do things that hurt us, they don't deserve a pass. When Terra Toys reacts to higher rent by leaving a good urban environment and moving somewhere where nobody will walk to, and very few will walk around in, why on earth am I supposed to support them against Wal-Mart or the Domain, when those guys are at least trying to make things a little better?

Also, for extra credit, remember City Comforts' primary rule of urbanism: it starts with the location of the parking lot.

versus

Any questions?

December 24, 2007

What RG4N cost us: part two

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

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

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

Your pal,
M1EK

December 12, 2007

Big boxes and the ITE

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

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

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

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

DEAR EDITOR:

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

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

...

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

...

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

...

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

...

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

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

December 06, 2007

TWITC: Krusee's change of heart

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

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

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

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

As for the rail issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 29, 2007

TWITC: Sad confirmation on local retailers and parking

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2007

Good News, Bad News

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

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

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

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

Shit. We're screwed.

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

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

November 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Are you listening, Chronicle?

November 15, 2007

TWITC: RG4N are our heroes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

October 11, 2007

TWITC: Save Town Lake Kills Town Lake Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional coverage:

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

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

October 02, 2007

More North Loop shenanigans

Last night's vote went 79-78 against the variance request. Now, Clay at ILoveNorthLoop has gone off the deep end. Others have noticed his deleting of most pro-variance comments which he still claims were all from non-residents of the area. Here's one of those supposed out-of-state or bicycle-activist "non-resident" comments which he deleted (which I saved yesterday when I saw it):

I don’t understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howard’s. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is “don’t bother talking to us”. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

Sure sounds like an out-of-state bicycle activist rant to me. What, with the having gone to the meeting and casting of the vote. Amazing they were able to do that despite not being a resident, huh?

And in the meantime, he's gone exactly where you would expect; telling me to "Have fun pimping for Endeavor". Yeah, right after I get done pimping for Wal-Mart. And Lincoln Properties. And don't forget CWS. And, of course, CJB Partners. And don't forget all that pimpin' I do for the toll roads. Let me tell you, pimpin' ain't easy. What is it about these Neanderthals anyways that makes them think that any time anybody ever supports any change of any kind, they must be paid off? I certainly don't think everybody in RG4N is taking money from Target, for instance.

If, as it seems likely, the Northfield Neighborhood Association would not be happy with the implicit endorsement of this site's one-sided position despite the 79-78 vote, they should probably say so at this point, since Clay's got the public spotlight and is making it look like the neighborhood was strongly against the variance, thanks to deleting comments he just doesn't feel like posting. Just a little friendly advice.

October 01, 2007

Shenanigans in North Loop

(Background: Endeavor is proposing a vertical mixed-use project on the old Howard Nursery tract, frontage on Koenig Lane - i.e. FM2222, a major arterial roadway. Current zoning would allow strip retail with nothing more than administrative approval. Endeavor's proposal appears quite nice and is even supported by some folks in this neighborhood, but a group of single-family-uber-alles reactionaries has popped up and is trying to stir up opposition to the project).

The author of ILoveNorthLoop has characterized the comments below as "rants" in supporting his decision not to accept comments. (He previously was a bit more civil in email - claiming that he only wanted comments from 'stakeholders' -- although that requirement is listed nowhere on the site nor anywhere the site has been publicized). Anyways, you make the call. Follow the links to get to the articles; my comments in blockquote:

In reference to this post about a 'better location' for this type of project a bit further down the street:

The problem with this retort is that it pretends that we have the authority to take that “better-suited” parcel from its current owners and somehow deliver it to Endeavor for development. We don’t; we have to live in a world where the best choice if we were playing SimCity isn’t always available.

And in reference to this one called "Tell Us What You Think":

Anything that increases housing supply in an area well-served by bicycle routes and bus routes is a positive thing for our city. The fact that Endeavor also wants to make this VMU makes it even more of a win, because it potentially provides services which might induce more of you in the single-family homes to walk to shop/eat/whatever.

The idea that without Endeavor, you’re somehow going to end up with a paradise of small local shops with no homes there is just ludicrous. The next best use of the property would be as strip retail - which generates more, and more annoying, traffic than an apartment-plus-retail development would, without providing the pedestrian amenities.

Luckily, I now see that some people in the neighborhood have commented in a similar vein - so my earlier fear that this would be RG4N part deux, as austinpoliticalreport hoped appears to be overblown. As my former colleague Patrick Goetz tried to tell me, there are some responsible folks up there after all. Those responsible folks had better keep cracking, though, since the Chronicle will probably be jumping all over this in minutes to tell us how noble these neighbors are being in keeping that tract safe for future strip-mall development (one-story retail/fast food outlets surrounded by acres of parking lot).

Update:

The vote was 79-78 to oppose the variance. Note the following comment on ILoveNorthLoop from the celebratory post:

I don’t understand how you could possibly consider this a success. I attended last night planning to oppose based upon this website and the rumors. After listening last night, it was clear that very little of this website is accurate. You have managed to damage the Parkers & Howard’s. You have chased off a fine developer with a plan that was consistent with our Neighborhood Plan. You have fractured the neighborhood by distorting the facts. Do you really think we can now somehow control what happens on this or any other site with CS-MU zoning in our hood? We have just sent the strongest possible signal to the development community, which is “don’t bother talking to us”. Trust me, they no longer will. Shame on you.

The NA president himself indicated that some people want Endeavor to come back and talk some more, but I doubt very much whether anything good will result - since this promise they supposedly made to not pursue the project if the NA opposed the variance would likely come into play. Keep your eyes open.

Updated update: As DSK points out in comments, the comment quoted above has now been removed by the ILoveNorthLoop guy, despite his claim to only be removing comments from non-'stakeholders' (the comment is clearly from somebody in the neighborhood). One wonders why he just didn't make the site subject to manual moderation if he only wanted positive comments to stay.

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 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.

August 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2007

Ben Wear article on bike bridge misleads

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

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

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 02, 2007

Letter of the Year

From the online Chronicle letters; don't know if they'll have the guts to publish it given their overwhelming tilt towards Karen McGraw's ANC "granola mafia":

Just caught your piece [“Naked City,” News] in the July 27 issue about our [Vino Vino] off-site parking hearing before the Planning Commission on Tuesday, July 24, and the opposition to our proposal by Karen McGraw. It's good to see the Chronicle taking a peek, if even an ever-so-lightly colored one, at this little turf war going on right here in bucolic Hyde Park (you could have given us a ring, you know). As you correctly point out, parking in Hyde Park and along the run of Guadalupe in question (from 40th to 43rd) is extremely tight. That's why we, along with our landlord, Thad Avery, have looked into every possibility to lighten our parking load along this slowly revitalizing stretch of Guadalupe. Ms. McGraw has led a "spirited" opposition to our attempts to find a solution. In spite of overwhelming approval by the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association back in February and last Tuesday's unanimous approval by the Planning Commission, we still await the green light to do our thing. We've been at this process, grinding it out, for two years now, and this is a wee bit frustrating. As to the concern Ms. McGraw expressed for her parking lot, we have no intention of letting any of our customers use her lot. Ain't gonna happen. No matter what she may say. About half of our customers are Hyde Park residents who have walked from their nearby homes, and this is part of the charm of being here in the first place. However, we are happy that some of the lunch customers of the deli located in Ms. McGraw's building use our lot to park their cars.

But that's a whole other story. In fact, there is so much more to the story. Anyway, thanks for all the coverage of all things Austin.

Sincerely,

Jerry Reid

Manager, etc.

Vino Vino

p.s. As for the mass-demolishing-of-homes-on-Avenue A-scenario Ms. McGraw fears, got a clue as to how much those houses go for these days? That would be one friggin' expensive parking lot! Oh, and the bus? Yep, we rented a bus for our supporters. With more than 30 folks turning up to show their support, it was the least we could do. We had room for Ms. McGraw and her two supporters. They should have come along.

Update: Here's the link to the letter in case anybody wants to comment. I highly encourage it.

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 13, 2007

Panderama: Jennifer Kim

While I was up in Newark at a class for work, Jennifer Kim wrote a letter to the Statesman which is just plain awful. Since AC has promised (although not yet delivered, ahem!) a fisking of the Northcross lawsuit, it falls to me to perform this one; hat tip to DSK for the link.

I am deeply troubled by the outcome of the site plan approval for Northcross Mall. It's wrong and embarrassing when residents believe they must protect the community by suing the city.

Me fail English? That's unpossible! Seriously - what is she troubled by? The outcome of the approval? The approval itself? Doesn't really matter - the process followed the rule of law. As I've said many times, the city is not allowed to, nor should they seek to, deny approval for a project based on dislike of the particular tenant involved.

I have worked with Responsible Growth 4 Northcross to prevent this. Ideas ranged from a public-private partnership to build a community center or other public facility, to limiting the operating hours of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. However, we failed to gain the support of the City Council.

That's because RG4N staked out a position very early on that the presence of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter was non-negotiable. Hint: you don't negotiate with people who have said that your presence is unacceptable.

The area is full of pedestrian-oriented businesses and family-friendly neighborhoods.

Sure it is. Why, just look at this satellite photo of Anderson Lane. Looks like new urban nirvana to me! Ignore the fact that every strip mall has a parking lot in front. Ignore the fact that the sidewalks are out in broiling heat, far away from the buildings. Ignore the first rule of urbanism. They must be pedestrian-oriented, because, well, because I say so! And when my cow orkers and I ate at various places in the area the last 2 weeks, boy, were they impressed at the pedestrian orientation near Star of India!

And what's more family-friendly than the 2nd least dense neighborhood in the city which is also one of the slowest growing, thanks to deed restrictions and super-low-density zoning which have made the area attractive primarily to empty-nesters? Even the folks at Allandale Reporter were basically forced to admit that, and I quote, it's one of the least dense, slowest growing neighborhoods in Austin. Hey, remember those wacky kids at RG4N who claimed a VMU project would be feasible in this spot? Remember how wacky M1EK pointed out the extremely low density of the residential catchment area? Those were they days, huh?

Don't forget the family-friendliness of pressuring weak-willed panderers on the City Council to allow cars to park in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd, the most important bicycle commuting route in the city - both for long distance work commuters and for kids going to Northwest Park. What's more family-friendly than making an 8-year-old swerve around parked pickup trucks four or five times before getting to the park?

It's clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic, so I sought evidence that the city could use to reject the site plan.

That's charming! Most of us would actually look for evidence first before declaring that it was clear that a Wal-Mart would generate an unreasonable amount of traffic for a parcel zoned as a shopping mall.

I asked city staff to rerun the traffic impact analysis submitted by Lincoln Properties using the higher traffic numbers listed in a 2006 ITE Journal article on "big-box" stores, but I was told the staff lacked the software. The city asked Lincoln Properties to run the numbers, but it did not respond.

Hm. I wonder why they wouldn't respond. Maybe it's because they know they have the rule of law on their side?

I applaud the efforts of Responsible Growth and local neighborhood associations, and I support their vision. I hope this wonderful community involvement we have seen will triumph in the end.

So far, this wonderful community involvement has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the city to defend the rule of law against rule-by-mob. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to the overthrow of one neighborhood association's leadership in favor of a new group which has demonstrated their commitment to RG4N's purported VMU goals by opposing VMU anywhere but at Northcross itself. So far, this wonderful community involvement has led to an increased likelihood that Northcross will end up like the Intel Shell, and that some local businesses counting on this project will go bankrupt.

So far, this wonderful letter has made me reconsider my position that Brewster was the worst panderer currently on the City Council.

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 08, 2007

TFT Honolulu: Urban vs. suburban vs. rural

So the family and I went to Hawaii in May. Here's the first of three detailed posts about the experience as it relates to urban design and transportation. I've tried to get at least one done in the originally promised week but had to finish this quickly, so no pictures (maybe later).

I'm a contrarian about Hawaii, compared to most tourists, and often residents. The complaint is often given that O'ahu is urban and crowded, and the other islands are natural, peaceful, bucolic, paradises. Of course, this complaint comes largely from the same people who can't possibly conceive of a vacation in which you wouldn't drive everywhere to everything, while to me, a good vacation day is one where I never drive. I visited twice as a kid, staying with my family at my grandparents' condo about a mile from Waikiki for 3 weeks at a time; and a bunch of times since then in hotels. I also know a few people who have lived there for many years - although not all of them would agree with me by any means. So, given that perspective, let's look at the islands in detail:

O'ahu is the only island which could be classified as anything but "suburban". A lot of people think the other islands (Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii) are "rural" or "natural", but if you actually spend any time on those islands, you spend so much time stuck in (100% car) traffic that it's highly inaccurate, although sadly typical, to call them anything but "suburban". In particular, all three islands (Maui being the worst) are infested with standard suburban subdivisions, strip malls, big boxes, and the like. So the other islands aren't different because they don't have suburban sprawl - they're different because that's ALL they have.

The three commonly visited "neighbor islands" listed above largely follow the same pattern: one (mostly two-lane) road winding around most to all of the island, with a trans-island route or two on Maui and Hawaii. Sprawling development, both tourist and local, has followed all of those roads - and zoning has strictly prohibited anything remotely urban in form. If your idea of a vacation is being stuck for an hour in traffic, visiting Wal-Mart, then driving back to your hotel, then driving from your hotel to a strip mall for lunch, then being stuck for half an hour in traffic again, then driving back to your hotel, then maybe hiting the pool: I've got great news for you - the Neighbor Islands are PERFECT!

O'ahu is different. It's got BOTH suburban sprawl AND a high-density urban center (and arguably a few decent old small towns which are also urban in nature). Largely due to history - O'ahu was developed so much more than the other islands back before the whole country went insane and outlawed everything but suburban sprawl, and inertia from that development has even led to a slightly smarter urban policy (in places, anyways). Waikiki (which people who never visit, or spend half a day on a cruise visiting like to slag) is a gorgeous beach with a fairly nice urban environment (could be better, but is far nicer than most urban areas in most US cities). The influx of Japanese tourists in the 1980s and thereafter helped preserve and expand the urban nature of this development - as such tourists rarely rent cars (often travelling in big tour groups on big tour buses). Downtown Honolulu has some good pockets of density as well - and as I mentioned above, some of the small towns have chunks of nice Old Urban. There's also, as previously mentioned, plenty of suburban crap on O'ahu too.

Waikiki Beach - often slagged by residents and many tourists as being crowded, noisy, dirty, and just full of Japanese - is actually a great place to spend a week or more. I highly recommend you ignore the slagging as typically uninformed know-nothing suburbanality. There's lots to do; there's lots of good (both cheap and expensive) restaurants; and it's safer and cleaner than most of the other places you'll see in Hawai'i. The contention that it's only for Japanese people is also a load of crap - at its highest point, perhaps a small majority of tourists in the area were Japanese, but now it's perhaps a third at most. On this most recent trip, a lot of families were in evidence, as well as the obligatory retirees, Australians, etc. The beach itself in Waikiki is gorgeous and remember, I'm a beachophile. The water is cool (but not cold); the air is usually warm enough to provide good contrast; and the scenery in all respects is beautiful. And if, while you're at the beach, you decide you want a soda (or my favorite - guava nectar in a can), you walk right across the street, get one, and walk back to your towel. There are a few beaches that I'd call nicer if you don't mind having to drive, but not much nicer, and even those are still on O'ahu.

During the long years of suburban-zoning-code idiocy between roughly the 1950s and today, Waikiki barely hung on to its existing urban design - building too much parking (but not enough to make it free or even cheap), but additional development in the 1990s and later has thankfully hidden the parking, if it's provided at all, and returned to the good practice of focusing on pedestrians rather than motorists. As a result, Waikiki is almost as good a place to walk and shop as is Manhattan. Buildings, apart from a few built during the Dark Ages, generally have pedestrian-oriented uses on the ground floor which encourage activity at sidewalk level. Traffic policy is another thing entirely - too much pavement and priority, by far, is effectively given to private motorists at the expense of buses (more on this in the Current Transit Conditions post to come).

As mentioned before, apart from shopping and eating, there's also plenty to do within comfortable walking distance in Waikiki (and a lot more if you hop the bus, as we did to Hanauma Bay). There's an aquarium, a zoo, a bunch of excellent beach segments (with surfing lessons from the best teachers out there - the beach boys near the Outrigger), a bunch of neat public gardens/water features/statues, etc. And there's just plenty of good urban life to watch - one night as my wife and I walked back to the timeshare from a steak dinner, we saw a large group of people playing cards, chess, and some other games in pavillions right on the beach. You don't get that in the suburbs.

Even the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where we spent two days after the week in central Waikiki, has some good urban aspects - although it's separated a bit from the rest of Waikiki. Pedestrian traffic is highly prioritized over motorists - and even though most tourists here actually seem to have cars, they park in a garage out of sight, many days not moving their car.

As for the rest of O'ahu - the small towns which have a bit of good urban fabric are Haleiwa and Kailua. I haven't spent any time in Kaneohe or Waimanalo (two other big windward towns) but see no evidence I've missed anything good. Kailua in particular, though, has so much suburban crap around that tiny old town that you'll miss the good stuff if you blink.

The biggest mistake made on O'ahu in the last 50 years, though, is Kapolei, designed as a so-called "second city", implemented as a highly dense form of typical mainland suburban sprawl. You'll have a much smaller yard than you would in Round Rock, and a lot more of the dwelling units are townhouses, condos, etc.; but the design is still car-dependent suburbia as perfected in soul-killing suburban garbage towns like Round George Rocktown, Rolling west woodlake hills, and Leacedarparknder. As a result, traffic on the highways linking Kapolei and Honolulu is a disaster of epic proportions - and there's no solution in sight (even the 'express lane' which would have been part of the BRT idiocy doesn't help much - again, see next post in series). The naive hope was that building this crap on the west side of the island would actually HELP traffic, amazingly enough; but as anybody who bothers to study development knows, suburban sprawl doesn't scale - and peoples' jobs don't always stay in the same place. For instance, employment centers do exist in Kapolei, but the number of Honolulu residents commuting out to Kapolei to work there plus the number of Kapolei residents commuting into Honolulu dwarfs the Kapolei-to-Kapolei commute by about a million times, and over time that'll only get worse.

The JW Marriott Ihilani, where we spent our honeymoon and the last two days of this trip, is just past Kapolei on the beginning of the leeward side of the island. There's some very nice manmade lagoons with excellent beaches out there - but the captive audience and suburban design of the area means that the experience of vacationing there is more like the Neighbor Islands than Waikiki. And even though it would have cost us $10/day to park a rental car in the garage at that resort, I still should have rented a car for those two days - because the only transportation option from Waikiki out here and then from there to the airport was a car service - 80 bucks each way (ouch).

June 02, 2007

Transit Field Trip: Honolulu

Or, why you haven't heard from me in two weeks (click for large):

We (full family) returned yesterday morning from an 11-day trip to Oahu (mostly Honolulu), and I've got some transit talkin' to do about it. Some lessons apply to Austin, and others don't; but I've been meaning to write about good (and bad) experiences on other cities' lines for quite a while, and am finally going to do it. This week, I'll write a few posts trying to focus on particular areas of detail; this will serve as the introduction and outline. As for other cities, I'll hopefully go back and address Atlanta and New York - which I travelled to on business and leisure in the last 6 months.

My wife and I got married on Lanikai Beach a little more than five years ago. Since then, we've been back twice; only the last time with both kids (at the time 1 and 11 years old). I've also been to Oahu for two three-week trips as a kid during the 1980s with my family (grandparents lived near Chaminade University); and once for a week to help them pack up and move to Florida in the late 1990s. As for other islands, I went to the Big Island once as a kid; my wife and I visited Maui for 4 days two trips ago; and the whole family did day-trips to Kauai and the Big Island on our last trip (had free interisland air coupons from my grandfather which we finally used up on the last trip).

This trip included the whole family and stays at three different places - the first week, as usual, we used the timeshare I bought about 8 years ago (on ebay; don't ever do it any other way) which is roughly behind the International Marketplace in an old 3-story 1950s-era hotel building - much smaller than most buildings in Waikiki. Has a lot of charm, but is not a luxury property by any means. Since I own the timeshare, it's a cheap stay (obviously) but not free - the yearly maintenance fees skyrocketed a few years ago after the management company went bankrupt and was subsequently discovered to have not been a good custodian of the funds, as it were.

The next two days, we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which is a little enclave on the end of Waikiki we don't spend much time at on our visits. I got this hotel for 2 nights on priceline for a very attractive price. This place is famous - my wife and I both remember the old rainbow tower always being used on The Price Is Right (although it looks a lot less cheesy now after a recent redo).

The last two nights, we stayed at the hotel which we used for our honeymoon 5 years ago (almost exactly): the JW Marriott Ihilani at Ko Olina. Very luxury; but I was able to find a great deal - a PointSavers reward from the Marriott chain's rewards program (most of the hotels I stay in for business are Marriott-owned chains). Had to buy a bunch more points, but it still ended up a steal overall.

Here's what I'll be covering this week:

Urban living and suburban sprawl: Waikiki is very urban and is a pleasure to walk around (mostly). Hawaii in general, like the town my family originates from in Pennsylvania, is about 10-20 years behind the times in discovering that suburban sprawl doesn't scale, as Kapolei (the intended "second city") has led to a traffic disaster. Other islands are largely Round Rock With A Beach - with all the bad that entails - I'll talk about the standard suburban theory that the other islands are where it's at.

Transit - current system: Waikiki (and most of Honolulu) is served by TheBus, a fairly well-run bus-only transit agency. We all rode the bus twice to Hanauma Bay, and I rode it once more on the way back from one end of Waikiki to the other. The system is well-used by the population - which has a high portion of transit-dependent and transit-leaning subgroups due to low median incomes and high parking costs. Had problems with bunching and reliability. Buses were very very full even though fares are very high. Outside Honolulu, service is still far better than you would expect - better than most of Austin; but other islands are essentially dead zones.

Transit - future system and needs: Honolulu's been flirting with rail for a long time and should be a slam dunk. The city has a higher residential density than even New York(!) and fairly good employment density too. A disastrous debacle with BRT planning put them back about a decade, but they're currently fairly far along with what finally looks like an adequately locally-funded rail plan to take to the Feds. Doesn't go to Waikiki at first, of course; which is a bonehead move. Local trogolodytes bring out the standard anti-rail FUD spewed here by Neanderthals like Jim Skaggs - showing that no matter how high the case for rail, the guys on the other side say the same ridiculous crap.

That ought to be enough. Aloha.

May 10, 2007

Brewster, you're wrong

“I don’t believe this is the right land use for this location. This is not about an anti Wal-Mart thing. It’s about whether a store that produces this much traffic belongs on a four-lane Anderson Lane as opposed to on a highway. But we have been told consistently two things. One is that we do not have the power to take down or disapprove this site plan and the second is that if we try to do it we’re on our own in a subsequent lawsuit.”—Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Most Wal-Marts outside Texas are on major arterial roadways(*). Some are 6 lanes, some are 4 lanes. Many, such as the one closest to my parents' house in South Florida, are miles away from the nearest 'highway'(**). Only in Texas do we stupidly build major retail and employment destinations on frontage roads, which act as barriers to travel for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. Pay special attention to the impossibility of providing cost-effective high-quality transit service on frontage roads. Pushing Wal-Marts back out to frontage roads is a step backwards, not forwards.

(* - Try Wal-Mart's store-finder on a zip code for a major metropolitan area outside Texas. Plug addresses into Google Maps. I guarantee you will see that, outside Texas, nearly zero Wal-Marts can be directly accessed from a frontage road -- and most are accessed directly from roads very similar to Burnet Rd. and Anderson Lane. Example here. Be careful to plug all the addresses into Google Maps - many roads with "Hwy" in the name are in fact just major arterials - with frequent traffic lights, cross streets, etc. For instance, the Wal-Mart in Delray Beach, when accessed from the closest 'highway', requires a drive of about 2 miles on one major arterial roadway, then a turn onto a second major arterial roadway, then a short drive, and then another turn into the store lot.)

(** - 'highway' is a definition not frequently used by transportation planners. The common usage here in Texas would be either freeways - with or without frontage roads - or rural routes with limited cross traffic - neither one of which obviously includes Burnet Rd or Anderson Lane, although Burnet at one point in history was a 'highway'. In my case, I prefer to use the limitation of access as the qualifier - since the roads here in Austin which people want to keep the big boxes out on are essentially all limited-access roadways with frontage roads).

You can also use this "plug the address into Google Maps" process to disprove the fallacy that a Wal-Mart at Northcross would be particularly close to single-family residences. For instance, consider this one in West Boca Raton. (Yes, "Hwy" in the name, but look at the satellite image and you see it's a major arterial roadway - lots of cross streets and traffic lights).

April 09, 2007

Why can't MetroRail be extended to Seaholm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 04, 2007

You can't have TOD without good T

Don't gimme no crappy transit, fool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's Steve's better option?

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 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 15, 2007

Real Urbanists Don't Require

This came up in one of those forums where I'm spending way too much time. I'm responding to an RG4N officer who, I honestly believe, does in fact want more urban development.

You want to claim urbanist bona-fides? It's all about loosening rules to ALLOW people to build higher or denser or more mixed-use; not requiring it. When you start requiring people to build what you want, you leave yourself open to the possibility that they'll tell you to build what THEY want.

Allow? Great. Encourage? Even better. Require? No, and this is where
you rubbed a hell of a lot of people who would normally have been your
allies (like me) the wrong way.

Can't emphasize this enough. Banning or requiring should be a last resort and very very very infrequent. For instance, I'm marginally OK with requiring street-facing retail on downtown parcels largely because it falls under "Encourage" as in "We'll let you build very high and very dense and in return you will do XX". But I could sympathize with a view of that as "Require" in which case it's harder to defend (still possible given the expected duration of these land uses compared to the suburban model, but much more arguable).

Take another example: parking. Currently, we require suburban levels of parking almost everywhere. Very stupid and very restrictive of the market. But it's just as bad to have a maximum level of parking like Portland does. If somebody wants to build parking, they ought to be allowed to do so. Under "encourage", it'd be OK to give additional height in exchange for fewer parking spaces per capita, sure. But the base entitlement should be that you do what you want, within some very loose public-safety constraints.

If you focus too much on the "make them build what I want them to build" path, you confirm the worst fears of every suburban Neanderthal out there - that smart growth really is about forcing people to live in big hives and giving up their cars. Not good for the brand, as it were.

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 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 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 18, 2006

Things I hate about Wal-Mart

Since some people probably think I like them, it's worth expanding on a comment I made in response to Austin Contrarian on this posting. Bear in mind that my poltical/economic bent is that, when operating in a reasonably (lightly) regulated environment where externalities are properly assessed, free enterprise generally provides for a more positive outcome than government intervention would do. That being said:

What did AC get wrong? Wal-Mart are definitely bad guys. They have done very little good, and most of the good they did do was way back in the mists of time when Sam Walton was pretty new to the job. Since being an early (good) competitor in some areas that badly needed a kick in the pants, they've devolved into a lean mean destroying machine - wiping out small town after small town after small town. (On my summer trip up to the UP of Michigan, a shiny new Wal-Mart was in the process of decimating a pretty nice old downtown - yes, they've still got places they haven't killed yet). You can make money and be a bad guy - the market often isn't the perfect frictionless machine that libertarian ideologues believe it is.

They're bad because they build suburban crap even in the middle of urban areas. No, making the store 2 stories with a parking garage isn't urban. Building to the street, not to your parking lot, is what makes a store urban. Unfortunately, many people on the other side of this argument have a similar misunderstanding of the issue. Target gets it, but unfortunately, appear to not have been interested in this location. (Not that I blame them; the added expense of a truly urban store isn't justified by the surrounding low-density residential; they'd never make their money back). Costco is nicer to their workers and sells better quality stuff, but they've never expressed any interest in changing from their own awful suburban store format.

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size in an adversarial (monopsonial) relationship with their suppliers that has bankrupted some and seriously hurt many -- companies which were providing at least medium-quality goods have either been destroyed or been forcibly shifted into selling junk because of what Wal-Mart did. (And don't tell me they chose to sell to Wal-Mart; in vast parts of the country that's not a 'choice').

Wal-Mart is bad because they've used their size to eliminate competitors who were providing necessary goods and services, but doing it in a way which required substantially less public investment (an old downtown area doesn't cost the town in question much if anything; but the new one-story strip with huge parking lot on the edge of town costs them a bundle). They're also pretty crappy to their workers, but I don't necessarily buy the workers' welfare arguments in rural areas, since the small-town employers weren't paying for good heath insurance either, but there are certainly parts of the country where they can lead such a race to the bottom. But these poor areas have to pay for a lot of road upgrades, police patrols, and utility costs which would not be necessary if the downtown stores had won out. Wal-Mart doesn't contribute jack-squat to make up for these public costs.

So why am I not afraid of them doing the same in Austin?

Unlike Microsoft, the area in which Wal-Mart enjoys monopoly profits (rural retailing) is merely garden-variety lucrative, not Scrooge-McDuckesque-roll-in-the-money-while-wearing-a-monocle insanely lucrative. There aren't enough excess profits there to provide enough money to destroy Target and Costco (both Significantly Less Evil) in suburban and urban areas. Believe me; if there was, they'd have done it by now.

So here, at least, Wal-Mart must compete on its own merits - not like how Microsoft destroyed OS/2 and Netscape, but more like how Apple ended up as the primary name in MP3 players. They might still successfully win the urban retail market, but they're going to have to do it the right way.

So, it's worthwhile to despise what Wal-Mart does. It's good to point out that they're doing bad things. But don't be afraid that they can do the same thing in an area Austin's size that they've done to little 5,000 person towns, because they won't. Not because they wouldn't if they could, but because they simply don't have the excess money it would take.

All we'll do if we successfully keep Wal-Mart out of this location is forego a bunch of tax dollars for the benefit of a bunch of badly-behaved neighborhoods which have, I think, already been pandered to enough for one lifetime. Nobody better wants to move in, and the neighbors are being disingenuous by claiming now to have gotten the New Urbanist religion. Even if they had, though, this isn't a very good site for urban infill - it's still too far away from the parts of town people want to live close to.

So remember: Wal-Mart is bad. But that doesn't make keeping them out of this empty mall the best thing for Austin.

December 15, 2006

Wal-Mart at Northcross: Relevant pictures

From SGML2, a pictorial tour of the environs. Go check out for the full set; he's got a lot more than this one.

December 14, 2006

Why frontage roads are bad for transit

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

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

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

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

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

Why I'm Rooting For Wal-Mart

extracted from a thread on austinist, with links for some background:



I hate Wal-Mart too, and wish somebody else wanted to move in. They don't.

But I hate these neighborhoods even more. They:

1. Ruined the city's most important route for commuting bicyclists, costing the entire city a million bucks in the bargain). Their reward for screwing all of us? Brand new sidewalks at another couple hundred grand.

2. The <jerks> in Crestview voted against light rail in 2000 - screwing the whole city. Now the (much <less useful>) 2004 commuter rail line _still_ goes through their backyards, but the rest of the city gets nothing for it.

3. They're misleading you when they imply they want nice high-density urban development in Northcross. All efforts to do the same in the past at this and other nearby locations have been opposed by these same neighborhood organizations. Anyways, there isn't sufficient residential density to support good urban retail here - so nobody's going to come in and do it even if you ask really nicely. This Wal-Mart plan is actually about as high-quality a project as you could possibly expect in the middle of such low-quality car-dependent low-density 1950s-style sprawl.

These neighborhoods have been pandered to enough already. Unfortunately, thanks to term-limiting, the irresponsible council-members who are signing us up for a lawsuit that, once again, the ENTIRE CITY WILL HAVE TO PAY FOR, won't even be in office when the northcross hits the fan.

I forgot to mention the continuing bogus freeway argument. Go read that one too; it's far better for all concerned that we stop putting major retail destinations on frontage roads, so please shut up about how the other big stores are on highways.

I really do hate Wal-Mart for many reasons. But the fact is that even the crappy normal Wal-Mart design is better than what's currently there - and there's zero chance of something better coming along without drastic changes to the surrounding areas which I can guarantee the nearby neighbors will not support. The taxpayers of Austin have spent a million bucks or more just in the last few years pandering to these people; it's time to put something in this place that will generate some property and sales tax revenue to start paying us back.

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 10, 2006

Sprawl is rarely the result of the free market

AC cites a WSJ article about Houston which perpetuates the misconception that Houston's ugly, sprawling development is somehow the result of the free market because they don't have strict use-based zoning like most of the country.

I've addressed this before in reference to housing density; and Christof in Houston has addressed the parking end of things. There's a lot more that goes into subsidizing sprawl than even those two, but those two are largely sufficient to produce the typical suburban land-use pattern even without the subsidized freeways and sundry other market interferences that cooperate to produce the supposed "free outcome" of suburban sprawl.

Sprawl isn't the natural result of free-market processes; it's what the market gets forced into providing when regulations require fairly large minimum lot sizes and a ton of parking and subsidize single occupant automobile travel over other modes. Otherwise, we would have seen a lot more modern-style sprawl before the advent of zoning codes, parking minimums, lot size requirements, and government-subsidized freeways - all of which occurred long after most households had access to at least one automobile.

November 08, 2006

Statesman clueless about urban development

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

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

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

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

October 20, 2006

We Don't Need A New Library (Yet)

I go to the downtown library every couple of weeks for books for myself and my toddler. It's directly on some main-line bus routes; and no more than 2-3 blocks away from the remainder (filled green dot in image that follows). At certain times of the day, most patrons arrive via transit - and many of those are clearly mobility-impaired. The space is underutilized, despite what you hear - there's apparent office space on upper floors; and the shelves on the ground floor are of a substandard height (the tops well below my eye level, and I'm not a tall man). There's plenty of room for more books - if we got better shelves and made better use of the upper floors.


The new proposed location is in a backwater corner of downtown where the closest major bus routes would be 2-3 blocks away (big red dot off the edge of the picture here); and the remaining major routes would be 4-5 blocks away. The library campaigners claim otherwise, but remember: anybody who refers today to "light rail" obviously doesn't know what they're talking about. The commuter rail line ends a mile east of here; and the proposed streetcar (still a couple of blocks away) is just a gleam in peoples' eye. All of this seems like a small difference until you try to navigate the extra difference in a wheelchair (or as me, on a day when my arthritis is particularly bad). Then, you get it: drop me off right in front, please.

Yes, the new building would be pretty. Yes, the current building is a particularly ugly example of Soviet-inspired 1960s/1970s architecture. I'm positive the new location would have more parking, too; but the purpose of the main central library ought to be to serve folks in the following order of preference: the transit-dependent, downtown workers and residents, and only then suburban drivers. The branches are available for those who find having to pay to park (or park a couple of blocks away) too inconvenient. Quite simply: this is a case of people who occasionally want to use the library remaking it nicer for themselves while forgetting about those who need the library.

I'm with my former colleague Carl: some of these bonds are clearly just too much - we're borrowing for non-necessities which are going to dig us into an operations/maintenance hole later on. Unless somebody at the library can make a compelling case which doesn't rely on the obvious falsehood that they're out of space for books, I'd urge you to vote no on this particular bond (#6). Buy some better shelves; move some people's offices to other buildings; and if in a few more years, we're back where we are today, then plan a new building in the current location.

October 19, 2006

Truly iconic businesses will find a new lease

Another quick hit:

As a refreshing change, News 8 found somebody besides Las Manitas to use as the poster-child for the local nascent effort to protect 'iconic businesses'.

Tambaleo might be great but it's only been there because the definitely great Electric Lounge went away (where I was introduced to my favorite band). Who knows what the next great club might be - we might never find out if we obstruct downtown development that can provide additional spaces for and customers for those future 'icons'.

Anyways, a truly iconic business would just go get a new lease (or buy their building). Las Manitas is the worst offender here - they own a building next door to where they are right now; they're being offered a sweetheart deal in finding a new place if they don't want to move into that spot; but they're still complaining. It's as if the landlord has no rights whatsoever here, which is just abhorrent to me.

In 99% of local development politics, I think we'd be well-served to follow the rule "do whatever Dave Sullivan recommends". But not here; it will be too difficult to decide which local businesses are icons and which aren't; and the first one to get rejected will sue the city and win. At least Dave, to his credit, isn't proposing the kind of heavy-handed tactics that the City Council recently put into play against Marriott - he's instead calling for a mix of incentives to encourage preservation of such businesses.

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 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 01, 2006

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

NUPro's frustration echoes with me, obviously. I've long since come to the conclusion that the problem here in Austin is that the "good guys" are serious about gathering public input, and the "bad guys" are very good at gathering public input about things that fundamentally don't matter, and in the process getting exactly what they want.

Take Capital Metro's worthless public meetings about commuter rail, for instance. (Before the election, I mean). The topics were basically "where should we put an extra station or two on this line we've already settled on", and "hey, would you like any other bus lines turned into Rapid Bus?". Capital Metro never really wanted public input on anything that mattered, like the actual routing of the line, but they successfully fooled a whole lot of people into going to these meetings and wasting their time. By doing this, Capital Metro satisfied the basic requirements the Feds would have put on them (if CM had kept their promise and actually applied for Federal funding, that is), and fooled a lot of naive people into giving them a free pass.

But please remember: Capital Metro's All Systems Go plan isn't the result of community input, folks. It's a result of Mike Krusee's command.

On the other hand, Envision Central Texas (the group which many Good Guys view as their platform for pushing positive change) is paralyzed by paroxysms of uselessness because they actually try to get public input about things more consequential than the color of the station platform's roof. And, of course, if you ask these neighborhood groups for input, they'll gladly fill your ear with mostly-ignorant mostly-useless stuff that the average bus-riding third-grader could have come up with on the way to school last week (about the recent streetcar meetings in which, again, the route is already decided; the technology is already decided; the sharing-lane-with cars is already decided; etc). Likewise, other urbanist politicians are too unwilling to say "this is what we need to do; now, I'm willing to accept input on these issues, but no others:...". Envision Central Texas has, as a result, contributed absolutely nothing other than PR fluff. They've completely failed at pushing their agenda; the few wins the Good Guys have seen in the last few years have been the result of actions by politicians who would have acted the same way with or without the useless blessing of ECT.

If I could say anything to folks like that, it's this: you never win by back-door compromise, and you never win by charette-driven consensus exercises. Mike Krusee won by making Capital Metro do what he wanted them to do. He didn't negotiate with them. He didn't gather their input. He told them what to do, and they did it, because the other side didn't even try to stop him; because they were too busy holding meetings and wasting their time listening to a bunch of neighborhood nitwits.

August 23, 2006

Think Like A Passenger

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, frankly, just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who's bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they're accepting input from the community - I'll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.

As usual, what's missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?

Take as a given that we're talking about 'choice commuters' - i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don't take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).

See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.

See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.

There's about one place where the "why is this better than a bus" question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It's not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out - so you're left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again - people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it's still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.

Think about it this way: We've got a passenger. His name's Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn't he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can't shift to another street when there's an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn't going to work - he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it - and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?

Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session - in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle's perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between "good rail" and "bad rail". At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play - but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I've got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than "rail bad" or "rail good" to "this rail bad BECAUSE".

The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it's going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he's doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

MetroRapid: Part One

Since many others are doing a fine job showing how stupid the idea of an adult bicycle helmet law is, I'm catching up on stuff I was supposed to crackplog about a LOOONG time ago.

Here's the first of a series about Rapid Bus, now officially branded MetroRapid, which, don't forget, is the sum total of the transit improvements on tap for the urban core of Austin thanks to the bait-and-switch commuter-rail electioneering. You aren't getting rail; you're getting a bus that looks like a train. But does it perform like a train? In each one of these articles, I'll be looking at another "rapid bus" or "bus rapid transit" city and how the mode actually performs, and compare to Austin's proposal.

Let's start with a note that my intrepid cow orker forwarded me some months ago from New Jersey: Bus Rapid Transit - Not For New Jersey. I'll provide some excerpts, since the whole thing is fairly long.

Study after study has now clearly confirmed what NJ-ARP repeatedly has reported for more than a decade - busways do not attract large ridership, cost more to construct and operate and, where they do operate, have not produced the financial results their promoters have promised. It's a lose-lose-lose situation.

In our case, we're not actually constructing a busway; so the "costs more to construct" is not applicable to Austin. However, the "do not attract large ridership" will certainly bite us here.

Statistics show that busways attract only 33 percent of projected ridership, but rail lines exceed initial estimates by 22 percent. Notwithstanding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in concert with the highway and motor bus industry, has continued to advocate for BRT. In order to justify continued expansion of BRT, supporters have used rail planning models to predict bus patronage. Even though busway supporters have sponsored trips to places such as Curitiba, Brazil, to view what in their minds is a successful application of BRT technology, nowhere in North America has this mode of public transport attracted such rail passenger boardings.

Curitiba is really starting to become like the infamous (and discredited) 85% head-injury-reduction-for-bicycle-helmets study. It's trotted out every single time some transit agency is pressured by the Feds into building BRT (or Rapid Bus) instead of rail - and every single time it's not even remotely applicable to the United States' population. Curitiba is a poor city full of people who are, at best, marginally capable of affording automobiles. It doesn't take much at all to get them to use public transportation - most don't have a choice, and the remainder are poor enough that even relatively small cost savings are worth large investments in extra commuting time. All their "bus rapid transit system" really had to do was be a smidge faster than regular buses to be a huge success there.

The same, of course, is not true in the US (or Austin in particular). Remember this post in which I estimate that a potential transit user in the suburbs might save a couple of bucks at the cost of an hour or two of time. Not compelling in the least, even if the extra time investment drops by 20% or so.

When one considers that light rail cars have a 40-year life compared with 15 years for buses, LRT is much less costly as well as more attractive and safer.

Hey! Good news for Austin! We'll only be stuck with these awful articulated buses for 15 years, and then we can get rid of the "but we invested all that money in those fancy buses" argument.

A study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed that light rail vehicle was 15.5 percent less costly to operate than bus, all other factors being equal. Low floor light rail cars have a larger capacity than low floor buses of comparable length. The average capacity of a 40-foot low floor bus is only 37 seated passengers due to space that is taken up by the wheel wells which intrude on interior space that otherwise could be used for fare paying riders. While an articulated two-section low floor bus contains more seats, it will still have less capacity than a low floor light rail car. Unlike BRT, a light rail line can increase line capacity by adding more cars to a train, resulting in an increase in operator productivity. The only way to increase the capacity of BRT is to add more buses, each of which will require another driver resulting in higher operating costs.

Well, Capital Metro is so flush with money that higher operating costs won't matter at all, right?

Please check out the whole article. BRT and its stunted sibling "Rapid Bus" are nothing more than stalking horses, pushed by the Feds to avoid having to make investments in rail transit. After all, you can convert a busway back into a car lane. Don't be fooled - folks pushing Rapid Bus aren't friends of public transit.

Next time: Boston!

August 14, 2006

"People don't want density"

This thread on the New Urban Prospect blog is a good launching point for a short subject which seems obvious to me but doesn't to many others: most people say they don't like density because their previous 'density experiences' were with low-density apartment sprawl.

I can get this because my first three homes out of college were all in such complexes in South Florida, and my first place here was as well. You know the kind - every building exactly three stories1 and a dozen or two units, with a dozen or more such buildings arranged around winding parking lots which you have to drive through to get to your door even if you really wanted to walk - usually set on big busy roads to boot. This is the experience most people (including myself) have today with their first after-college housing. It's not very dense, all things considered, but you still don't have much space to yourself; you have no yard; you have to worry about noisy neighbors and thin walls; etc.

The thing that shook me out of this rut was remembering my college days. Unfortunately, far too many UT students live in car-dependent sprawl-suck out on Riverside or Far West, but most people from other universities ought to be able to remember a better experience - one where, yes, you had the lack of space and yard, and yes, you had the noise; but you also could walk to many interesting places without getting nailed by the traffic on US 183.

When I started shopping for a condo in 1996, I knew I wanted to live closer in; but I hadn't yet remembered that walking lifestyle - until I was shown the condo I ended up buying, about 100 feet from the Fresh Plus in Clarksville. I believe passers-by could actually see the big light bulb above my head at this juncture. And, as it turned out, it was a great place to live (if we could find the mythical 3-bedroom non-luxe unit, we'd still be living there, I'm sure). Suddenly, density had advantages. I could walk to a grocery store and be back in 5 minutes, instead of driving 15 minutes to the giant awful HEB on Mopac/Parmer and then shopping for an hour. I could walk or ride my bike downtown to shows or restaurants (and did - usually using my car only for the occasional work commute).

That's the part most people never get to see. Again, in those suburban pod-apartments, all you ever get is the downside of density - you never, ever, get to see the upside. Ironically, even the downside was less 'down' than most people would assume - the simple fact that the neighborhood was active with pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers essentially 24 hours a day tended to discourage noise and other shenanigans. I could sleep with the windows open there (when weather permitted); I can't ever do so where we are now - in a supposedly quieter mostly single-family neighborhood. Likewise, try walking a street in Manhattan at night and you'll be surprised how quiet it is compared to the car noise you hear in most suburbs.

There you go. A shorter distillation of this topic would be more than welcome, if anybody's feeling the urge to coin some phrases.

1: Note that the fact that 99% of all apartment development in this area is 3 stories, and the fact that the MF-3 zoning category allows a maxmium of 3 stories, must just be a coincidence - because, as we all know, the market isn't interested in providing taller buildings, because people don't want them.

August 04, 2006

The street is not the property of adjacent landowners.

Warning! High degrees of bile contained within! The excellent weather and low-stress environment up here in the UP of Michigan have somehow had the exact opposite effect as you might have predicted on my reaction to some more typical neighborhood association nonsense back home.

Here's the story: Some puff media are covering and some less puffy blogs are mocking the protests about the sidewalk-coverin' parking-reducin' patio on South Congress. Here's M1EK's position for you, short and bileful:

TRUDY'S SHOULDN'T HAVE TO BUILD MORE PARKING. Requiring suburban amounts of parking for this restaurant in a thriving urban area merely ensures that development will remain suburban in scope and blighted in quality. This is a city. Grow up, idiots.

COVERING UP THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCK. Don't expect my sympathy when you cover up the damn sidewalk, you Trudy's buttheads.

MAKING FUN OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T WANT TO STEP OFF THE SIDEWALK = TEH SUCKIER SUCK. It's easy for you or me to hop off a curb for a while. Now imagine you're in a wheelchair, or walking with a cane, you smug jackasses. Real cities have sidewalks. EVERYWHERE. (Note: The smug jackasses are sort of implied here; nothing in the non-puffy blog was all that smug about this; but I've seen this sentiment displayed in other circumstances. This city is way too mellow about protecting pedestrian infrastructure).

BITCHING ABOUT NOT BEING ABLE TO PARK IN "YOUR SPACE" IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE = TEH SUCKIEST SUCK OF ALL TEH SUCKS. Again, you don't own the space in front of your house, you reactionist retards. YOU DON'T OWN THE STREET IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE. (* - RPPP notwithstanding).

I'm thinking of getting those points printed on a big sign (with protruding asterisk for maximum pointiness) and then smacking the neighborhood association jerks over the head with it. Who's with me?

(Yes, the link is to the newer, and much more acceptable, Parking Benefit District; I can't find a general site for the RPPP, so sue me).

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 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 16, 2006

Local neighborhoods not obstructionist enough, says ANC

Just posted to ANCTalk: a position paper on the Concordia redevelopment, which is in my neck of the woods. (I can tell you that as somebody close enough to hear I-35 during the winter months, I'd sure appreciate some big buildings, even if there's nothing there I'd ever want to go to, which is hard to believe).

Read especially the final couple of paragraphs. The responsible (only somewhat obstructionist) position of Hancock and Eastwoods is being assailed by the ANC - so now, not even restricting the project to the merely moderate levels of density supported by nearby neighborhoods is good enough for these people. In the past, the most egregious behavior by the ANC was limited to exploiting nearby (but not containing) neighborhood associations in cases like the Spring building (downtown neighborhood association was enthusiastically supporting it; so the ANC hung their hats on the disapproval of OWANA next door).

Mayor Will Wynn and City Council Members

The ANC executive committee at our July 12th meeting asked me to convey to
you the following with regard to the proposed redevelopment of Concordia
University.

The proposed redevelopment of the Concordia site presents the city with both
opportunities and challenges. The redevelopment of such a large area close
to downtown will provide an excellent opportunity for in-fill. At the same
time it poses a real challenge to ensure that scale of the development is
appropriate, the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods is protected and
that the neighborhood planning process is respected.

The surrounding neighborhoods most impacted, Hancock and Eastwoods, have
indicated their support for the concept of mixed use for the site. Despite
what has been reported, however, they do not support the developer's initial
proposal. While there has been some discussion of the proposal, neither
neighborhood has taken a position on it. They have committed to working
with the developer and are developing negotiating teams for this purpose.
They have contacted the other surrounding neighborhoods and CANPAC to engage
them in the process. ANC supports this approach and urges the Council to
grant these neighborhoods' request for an experienced city planner to assist
them in this effort.

The neighborhoods have made it clear that the major issues that such a
planning approach should address are density, height and traffic impact.
ANC believes that the resolution of these issues should be the starting
point for any design and not an afterthought. Further, a comprehensive
traffic analysis of this area, including the St. David's PUD, is essential
to establish the appropriate density for this development as was done for
the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment plan.

ANC also urges the City Council to respect the many years of effort these
neighborhoods have invested in their neighborhood plan. While this project
is asking for PUD zoning, it should not be treated any differently than any
project proposed in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan. Any change
to the Future Land Use Map or the current Civic zoning should go through the
regular neighborhood plan amendment process. Filing for a PUD should not
exempt a project from the standard neighborhood plan amendment process.

While we support the adjacent neighborhoods' role in defining what is
appropriate for this site we are also concerned about the precedent this
project will set for the surrounding areas and for future development in
East Austin along IH 35. We sincerely appreciate recent statements by
members of the City Council on limiting high rise construction to downtown
and in TOD's. We hope that sensitivity is also extended to the Concordia
Redevelopment plan.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Susan Pascoe

Immediate past president of ANC for

Laura Morrison, ANC President

July 10, 2006

Refresher on TOD and commuter rail

Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the 'downtown circulator', respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.

With that in mind, it's worth reiterating the answer to the question:

When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?

Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.

Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro's system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a "light railway" doesn't make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.

Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building "transit villages" around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn't go anywhere interesting on the "urban end" without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.

You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can't be stuck behind other peoples' cars. You don't get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).

The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that's not the fatal flaw - the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.

A large part of the 2000 line's residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers - until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.

As for UT - I hope they're not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee's bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT's main campus didn't make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn't help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form - it just tears up one of UT's streets for a transit mode which won't be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT's employees aren't going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus - it's still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.

(1: It's OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility - i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible - the bus driver can't decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).

July 03, 2006

A complete misunderstanding of economics

So this guy has demanded that I post some kind of authoritative manifesto defending 'supply-side real-estate' and has banned me from commenting further because I dared make the assertion that adding a bunch of units to the luxury apartment market does, in fact, have an eventual impact on the moderately-priced apartment market. (To be extra conservative here, a typical comment by me is this:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Can somebody explain to me what, exactly, makes comments like that so reprehensible that they justify a chest-thump like his last paragraph? It's basic economics. If you add additional supply in any segment of a market with vast participation, eventually it affects the supply/demand balance in other segments, too.

Let me repeat for emphasis:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Paging through his voluminous response, I suppose you could best sum up his retort as "the markets are segmented, and thus adding additional supply to the luxury segment can't possibly affect the supply/demand balance for the moderate segment". He then uses a Ferarri/Camry example.

Well, his first assertion is true - the markets are 'segmented', but individual complexes can, and do, migrate from luxury to moderate segments. (Barring new construction and population growth, this is usually a function of time - for instance, the Penthouse1 and Westgate buildings near the Capitol were doubtlessly considered luxury units when built - but today are fairly cheap compared to the new lofts going up farther south). Data on those and other downtown properties can be found from downtownaustin.com. This also explains why the car analogy doesn't hold water - cars don't last long enough for entire models of cars to migrate like that. (If cars lasted 50 years, let's say, then a bunch of 50-year-old Ferraris might, in fact, be competing with brand-new Eclipses. And changes to the current production run which drastically increased new Ferrari output would lead to some people moving up from slightly less prestigious sports cars to that Ferrari, of course).

The impact of the new construction is that the migration of buildings from the "expensive" to "moderate" category will happen quicker. The 10-year-old properties can't obtain the rents they otherwise would have if a bunch of brand-new buildings are built in the surrounding blocks.

I'm not going to bother spending any time defending basic supply and demand to this person by siphoning the internet for studies on real estate. Others are more than welcome.

1: Relatives by marriage have purchased several units in this building over the last couple of years - for a pittance compared to what it would cost to buy a new loft.

Addendum: I went back to his previous entry and discovered why he's so pissed: a comment of his went to moderation and/or rejected. Dude. I didn't even see your comment; I don't force moderation on anybody - all I do is use the built-in automated Movable Type stuff based on words it thinks might be spam and some other metrics (probably number of URLs or whatnot). Try again; email me; whatever; but take off the tinfoil hat.

Addendum Deux: Wikipedia has a good overview of the differences between the real estate market and the market for, say, cars. Models for real estate economics must take into account the fact that the good being purchased is immovable (unless you live in West Virginia) and highly durable (this varies, of course).

June 29, 2006

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

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

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

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.

Next week:

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

June 24, 2006

Surprise! Students want to live near UT!

This is from a thread on the Austin Neighborhoods Council yahoo group. None of the people who post there are remotely likely to be convinced, but some of the people who read (including, I assume, staff members for city council) are still not entirely lost causes. Reposted here for posterity as well.

Block-quoted items are from the person I was responding to.

Mike's complaint that neighborhoods are reluctant to allow SF to MF zoning changes is completely irrelevant.

No, I'm sorry, but it's perfectly relevant. The market tried to provide multifamily housing near UT for decades, and people like the ANC got in the way. Students still want to live close to UT; so (more) of them move into houses than otherwise would have. Some who would have lived in apartments instead live in rental houses. This should not be difficult to believe - all you have to do is put yourself in their shoes. Pick between riding the shuttle bus from Far West every day or cramming into a house and riding your bike to campus. I know which one I'd pick.

I understand why these students want to live in a house. Houses are fun. You can't throw keggers in the back yard of an apartment. You can't set up a pool table a juke box and a wet bar in the garage of an apartment.

On the other hand, most new apartment buildings have party rooms and pools; and are unlikely to have people living next door who call the cops on you every time you make noise after 10:30 (see below). You don't have to worry about the trash; you're less likely to have maintenance problems; parking is a simpler issue; etc.

Only one of us is making an extraordinary claim here. Clearly if there wasn't pent-up demand for multifamily development in this area, the recent relaxation of absurd height restrictions near UT wouldn't have resulted in an explosion of new projects, right?

No matter how many apartments we build near campus (and we are building a LOT right now),

Now, after 20 years of building essentially nothing. It's going to take a long time to catch up.

there will always be people who want the party "frat house" atmosphere you can't get in a dorm or an apartment.

Yes. There will always be SOME people who want this. But a few such houses in each neighborhood would certainly be better than 2 out of every 3 houses, wouldn't it? At Penn State (where I did my undergrad years), there were a ton of apartments near campus - far more than UT, compared to the number of students who couldn't fit in dorms, and the result was that far fewer houses near campus turned into rental properties.

But that party "frat house" atmosphere really sucks for people living next door trying to raise children and wanting to enjoy luxuries of home-ownership such as being able to pull out of their own driveway whenever they want or walk down the street without fearing for their safety.

I live next door to a duplex which until this summer had UT Wranglers in the front _and_ the back. I have a 2-year-old son and a 12-year-old stepson. I've called the cops enough that they now have become fairly quiet neighbors. I can tell you from observation that the situation wasn't ideal for either one of us - they certainly didn't enjoy dealing with the police or their landlord after some of those parties.

As for the parking issue - that would merit an entirely separate discussion. Think for a moment how you can ethically support the proposition that people in one given house have a right to on-street parking, but people in another house on the same street don't.

(That's the end of the posting. It's amazing to me how quickly people of this particular ideological bent will immediately assume that anybody arguing against their position must not have a family (or, even more common, be a developer. For the record, again, I'm trying to raise a family in the urban core; and I'm not a developer).

June 21, 2006

Water and micro vs. macro economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2006

Hyde Park Honors A McMansion

From David Whitworth: a home on the Hyde Park Homes Tour which apparently would not be allowed under the McMansion regulations. As I've posted before, don't forget that one of the leaders of the Task Force lives in nearly 3600 square feet right in the middle of a bunch of approximately 1000 square foot bungalows.

June 09, 2006

You maniacs! You blew it up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 08, 2006

Update on McMansion Ordinance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 06, 2006

Letter to council member - and "compromise"

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

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

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

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

The note I sent:

Thanks for the response.

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

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

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

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

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

June 05, 2006

Oppose the "McMansion Ordinance"

Just sent this to Council:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your time,
Mike Dahmus

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 24, 2006

Reminder: It's Not Light Rail

From a response I just made to Lyndon (first sentence below is his):

> I disagree. The "commuter" light railway (and that's what it is)

There you go again.

It's nothing like "light" rail. It's certainly not "urban". It's not
electrified; it's going to run at half-hour frequencies during rush
hours only (with one midday trip); it's sharing track with freight
rail; its stations are located quite far apart and none are within
walking distance of any credible destinations.

If this thing is a "light railway", then ANYTHING qualifies as a
"light railway".

If you keep trying to paint this sack of garbage as "light rail",
don't be surprised when I keep popping back up to tell you otherwise.

M1EK SMASH PEOPLE CALL CAP METRO"S CRAPPY RAIL LINE "LIGHT RAIL".

May 17, 2006

FUH GUH BUH

My cow orker's IM just reminded me to crackplog in short about this quote in this puff piece about the McMansion ordinance:

People, like Karen McGraw, who live in smaller homes, say bigger homes mean more residents -- and more cars. They also worry about drainage and trees. McGraw is also a member of the Hyde Park Planning Association.

MCGRAW LIVES IN 3600 SQUARE FEET IN HYDE PARK, DAMMIT. That's HUGE compared to her neighbors. In the meantime, my neighbor will likely face the 'choice' between demolishing the garage apartment in his backyard or foregoing the second floor on his house (current size: 1010 square feet; family about to grow to 5).

Also, this, again from McGraw:

"Trees are actually retention devices and help to retain a lot of water that otherwise might run off. So, we're very concerned with losing tree cover," said McGraw.

The most likely effect of FAR regulations on my family's eventual expansion plans is that we will build back rather than up. Hence, MORE IMPERVIOUS COVER. LESS TREES.

May 16, 2006

Facts about the McMansion proposal

Some answers to questions raised by my letter to the Planning Commission and today's Statesman article. Updates will be made here as I think of them and/or receive comments or emails.

  1. I believe the greatest effect of this ordinance is going to be to make small-lot bungalow homes less attractive to buy than they are today which will probably lead to more deteriorating rental stock rather than an owner-occupied renaissance. McMansions themselves are hurt less by these rules than are traditionally styled two-story residences which are quite common on the narrow lots of Hyde Park.
  2. Despite being a response to a "drainage emergency", the sum effect of the regulations being proposed is that it will become even more proportionally expensive to build "up" rather than "back". Consequence: more impervious cover; worse drainage.
  3. Garage apartments appear to count towards the FAR total. Consequence: fewer housing units in the central city. Existing garage apartments would be more likely to be demolished so that the owner could put a more practical second story on the "front house".
  4. Detached and attached garages count, over a certain square footage. More credit is given to detached than attached garages, which is good from an aesthetic perspective but stupid from a drainage perspective.
  5. Yes, one of the proposed solutions for those who want more space than the new regulations would allow is to just build a basement. Yes, apparently they were serious. After all, if you live in central Austin, what's another hundred grand or so worth of cost, right?
  6. I don't yet know where the "height" measurement is taken from (average elevation of lot or front elevation or minimum or maximum). This affects the practicality of a second story dramatically in our cases.

More to come as I get comments / emails.

Letter to Planning Commission - McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:

My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city's Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question "where do you want your additional density" with a more responsible answer than "NO".

Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell "stop", as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us -- all under the guise of a so-called "drainage emergency". The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.

Consider our case - I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We're both presumably the kind of people who you'd rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we're precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us - likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force's "solution" to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.

My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won't. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable - even my grandparents' family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.

The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex - built "straight up from the 5 foot setback line" on the other side of my home.

The drainage emergency itself is a joke - yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can't be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I've mentioned several times on the group's discussion board that there's a trivially simple way to address drainage problems - simply change the utility's drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.

Finally, the task force itself is a joke - it's staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups - 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.

The only correct answer to this group is "NO". Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.

I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen's invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction - you simply say "NO. That's the wrong way". I hope you'll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.


Thank you for your time.


Regards,
Mike Dahmus

1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane - lives in a home with an 'incompatible' front setback, and her second story 'towers over the backyards of her neighbors'. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven't seen them personally.

May 08, 2006

Tree Trimming and Power Outages

I'm experiencing a bit of schadenfreude as the folks pushing hardest for restrictions on Austin Energy (AE)'s trimming plans in the neighborhoods with the most power outages due to tree limbs (and entire trees) falling down are forced to defend themselves against the quite accurate charges that a more vigorous pruning regime would have resulted in less problems overall. One example:

Last week's storms and some gratuitous vilification of those of us trying to preserve as much of our shade canopy as possible present something of a difficult environment for saving the trees in our alleys and especially along our numbered strees where lines cross, so if you want to support our work, I hope you wll attend.

It doesn't help that these same people form much of the nucleus of the abominable "let's further restrict residential development in the Center City while claiming to be against suburban sprawl" contingent.

However, I also don't want to see beautiful trees hacked to pieces, and, frankly, AE will do it if they're not reined in.

So, here's my proposal:

Each AE customer gets to choose between the following:

1. AE gets to do whatever they want.

2. AE can't trim anything, but residents at this address will be assessed a (fairly large) monthly charge designed to build up funds for putting electric lines underground (where, in more civilized parts of the country, they generally would be). This doesn't include wires from the street to your house; just the wires along the street. AE pays 50% of the cost of any such projects; the remaining 50% comes from the local residents' contributions and must be spent within the local neighborhood planning district (i.e. maybe not on your individual street but not too far from it).

Problem solved. Those who want to preserve their trees at the possible risk of cutting off their neighbors' electricity must pay for the privilege, and the money must go into a much better long-term solution than trimming.

(I'd choose #2 myself, by the way, depending on the charge. I don't want my trees hacked up either; but I don't assert the right to cut off power to my entire neighborhood).

Next up: M1EK solves the "Drainage Emergency".

March 26, 2006

Bad Neighborhoods Shouldn't Get Help

Inspired by a survey pushed by Tarrytown neighborhood activists, I've re-entered the fray on McMansions. Read the survey, and note that if those regulations were enforced, essentially none of the best streets for pedestrians and residents in central Austin would be remotely legal (as opposed to current suburban-oriented zoning code, under which they're only MOSTLY illegal).

My latest contribution on the residential regulations discussion board relating to the McMansion debate follows. Please sign up and comment in the thread if you have an interest in this stuff. The perception that most homeowners believe that this stuff is OK is what gives these people the disproportionate power that they have today.

In other words, right now it looks like eeevil developers are the only people who would oppose these additional restrictions, since most of the responsible adults in Austin have stayed silent. It's my belief that the City Council will cave and essentially do whatever the task force comes up with, if it looks like their regulations have the support of a sufficiently large majority of people who expressed some interest in the process, just like another recent cowardly pandering dodge of their responsiblity as city leaders.

This builds on a thread by Chris Cosart.

I suppose you could sum up my "responsible urbanism" position this way:

Neighborhoods which have vigorously fought all density and infill over the years which could have helped the city achieve its overall goals should not receive extra protection from the market forces they have distorted in the process.

Specifically: if your neighborhood's plan doesn't allow for additional multifamily development not only on the fringes but on the inside of your neighborhood, in some non-trivial way, you shouldn't expect the support of the city to defend you against incompatible development. Period.

Living in a city entails responsibilities as well as rights. Too often, central neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and especially NUNA, have irresponsibly fought density which would have helped the city as a whole (the Villas on Guadalupe, for instance). Now, those same people who fought responsible multi-family development in places where it was drastically needed (even far away from their homes), and who, by the way, live in homes which are already big and/or incompatible with their neighbors, want additional city protection from the market distortions they themselves helped create through decades of obstructionism.

What we need is additional multifamily infill EVERYWHERE - not just on the big roads like Guadalupe and Lamar (where you've fought it), but also in garage apartments, even on small lots (where you've fought it); in duplexes (where you've fought it); two and four-plexes and rowhouses even on the inside of neighborhoods (where you've fought it). All that fighting only resulted in gross distorting loopholes like Super-Twos and Super-Duplexes, when a more rational response to the market would have resulted in quality multi-family infill. Who knows what will result from this latest attempt to stick another finger in the dike - but I can guarantee it won't be nice, and it won't be what you expect.

You won't get my support. I hope you won't get the City Council's support either.

March 17, 2006

Shoal Creek Summed Up

Michael Bluejay made an outstanding presentation (Quicktime slides with audio) which everybody needs to read. (He presented this before the City Council right before they approved the cyclist-endangering Option III).

Again, I can't recommend this video enough. It's the best quick summary of this issue, with pictures, that I've ever seen. Watch it now.

March 14, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One And A Half

(Bet you thought I was going to address the debt issue, since the Statesman wrote a scathing editorial today. That's Part Two, but it's coming later.)

Following up on Part One, Capital Metro has put up a survey trying to narrow down road choices for the infamous "circulator service" which represents the sum total of the 'additions' which were promised to transit-loving central Austinites who observed that All Systems Go doesn't go anywhere people want to go; nor does it go near people who might want to ride.

Notice from the picture: it doesn't go through residential central Austin in any way, shape, or form. This service, when implemented, is just a bus (maybe a streetcar) from Mueller to UT or downtown; it does NOT do anything to make up for the slap in the face to central Austin.

Note where it doesn't go. It doesn't go up Guadalupe, where tens of thousands of people live within a short walk of the 2000 light rail route. It doesn't go next to the Triangle, a transit-oriented development which is actually BUILT, not just a twinkle in somebody's eye. It doesn't go by high-density residential development presently under construction in West Campus. It doesn't reward the central Austinites who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's bills with any transit improvements at all (and no, Rapid Bus isn't worth shit).

And also remember that Capital Metro has already ruled out reserved-guideway-transit for this route. This means, essentially, that whether the vehicle has rubber tires (bus) or steel wheels (streetcar), it's still going to be stuck behind other peoples' cars in traffic.

Still feel good about falling for this snowjob, folks?

March 13, 2006

I Got Mine, Now You Can't Have Yours

Disappointing one of my three loyal readers who has been bugging me for Part II of Capital Metro's Broken Promises, I thought I should call attention to the bulletin board being used to hash out permanent version(s) of the McMansion Ordinance.

Specifically, I noticed that on the Task Force, the three representatives closest to my area have one guy with whom I don't have much problem with in general, but also two people who I most certainly have: one from Hyde Park and one from NUNA.

I did a little sleuthing on zillow.com, since I can't yet walk as far as Hyde Park thanks to the still-mostly-unresponsive-to-treatment-arthritis. The representative from Hyde Park's home is friggin' huge compared to its neighbors and the typical Hyde Park bungalow.

I did make it by the representative's house in NUNA, which, despite not being as huge, was arguably even more incompatible with its neighbors, having the cardinal sin of "looming over its neighbor's backyards" which is an oft-heard complaint against McMansions.

I'd also like to call attention to an excellent thread started by Chris Cosart, who has commented here in the past.

I'll close with those quote from another thread on that very board:

As I've pointed out with the two examples from the task force, though, this boils down to "I got mine; now you can't have yours". Both 111 Laurel and 4315 Avenue C are incompatible with their neighbors. Why should they be allowed to tell me how compatible I must be with mine?

March 03, 2006

Broken Commuter Rail Promises, Part One

The ongoing brouhaha with Lyndon reminded me to start collecting these in one place. First in a series of at least three.

Advocates of light rail through central Austin (including myself, of course) were encouraged to vote for this commuter rail plan, and get "light rail later". Dave Dobbs took me to lunch and tried real hard to get me to fall into line on this, as a matter of fact. This strategy extended to electioneering by Capital Metro itself, who originally stated in Rapid Bus materials that the one proposed route was a "possible placeholder for light rail". One example here. After getting the pro-transit forces to ease up (except me, of course), they dropped this language from their materials. Since then, Capital Metro has never mentioned running rail on the 2000 light rail route past such minor destinations as the center of downtown, the Capitol, the University of Texas, high-density residential development in West Campus and points north, and the Triangle.

From Jeff Wood's thesis, the following:

Robin Rather, who also attended the meeting, asked the hard questions. "What is the best system and what does the Central City get out of all this?" She had a point. Bus Rapid Transit would not sit well with people who had voted overwhelmingly for light rail in 2000. "With the stroke of a pen, I could wipe out this whole proposal at the ballot box," she said "So why should we support this if we are not getting anything out of it?"

Fast-forward to 2006. Capital Metro has eliminated any talk of reserved-guideway rail on the 2000 light rail route; and the "circulator" service being hashed out is leaning heavily towards buses (although still keeping streetcars on the list until the bitter end as is typical). Where's it going to run? Through downtown and by the capitol; but then veering east past the south edge of UT and out to the old airport; avoiding all of the residential density which exists now or in the near future. In other words, this amazing "center-city circulator" which was supposed to make commuter rail provide some benefits to the people who pay essentially all of Capital Metro's tax dollars has morphed into "The Bus People Living At Mueller Will Take To Get To Their Job If They're Members Of The Small Group That Have To Pay A Lot To Park". (Need a catchy slogan for this vehicle! Ideas gladly stolen^H^H^H^H^H^Haccepted!)

Feel good so far about falling for this snow-job, folks?

March 02, 2006

Austin Rail Politics Thesis

Jeff Wood, in the middle of a thread on lightrail_now where I'm trying to once again prevent Lyndon from wriggling off the hook, just posted a link to his thesis on Austin rail transportation politics in which I'm quoted a few times. A good summary for those still interested in the issue.

February 24, 2006

The Drainage Emergency

Following up on yesterday's excitement where I got involved in the McMansion debate on an austin neighborhood planning email list, pointing out that the rationale used to justify adding MORE rather than LESS regulation of what people do with their property is shoddy,

and in which I accidentally mailed something to the whole list which I meant to send offline to one person in particular, for which I then had to apologize, to which I then received a snarky, obnoxious, rejoinder that I might want to read the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan (which I printed out and have had on hand for 3 or 4 years now, as I've done with all center-city neighborhood plans, since, heck, I was a committee chair on one back in the day),

to which I then wrote this mean, mean, mean retort...


Today, I call your attention to the Planning Commission recommendations for the issue. Note how few of the items listed have anything to do with drainage.

Here's a radical idea: If the problem being addressed here really is "drainage", i.e. storm sewers, and it MUST be, since the center-city neighborhood associations who pushed this through used the DRAINAGE EMERGENCY as the justification for their immediate moratorium, why not attack the actual problem? Here's a simple idea. (Using single-family here; multi-family fees would require another formula).

  1. "Normal" drainage fee on monthly utility statement = X (today's amount).
  2. Adjust for size of single-family lot. Larger lot = bigger fee.
  3. Adjust for amount of impervious cover, by percentage. More greenspace = smaller fee.
  4. Adjust for on-site detention such as rain barrels.

That's all it would take. Anybody who wanted to live in a McMansion would be faced with a higher drainage bill. Anybody who lives in an existing house which has similarly large impervious cover ALSO pays. Make these multipliers high enough that they generate enough money for the necessary drainage facilities, and you then have a way to harness the power of development to solve the actual problem.

I wonder how interested in this actual solution to the DRAINAGE!!!!!! EMERGENCY!!!!!! the center-city neighborhood associations will be. Any guesses?

I should probably start adding this disclaimer: M1EK hates McMansions more than you do. M1EK just doesn't like punishing property owners who don't want to build a McMansion but might want to build a bigger house. M1EK is especially pissed off by people who use bogus excuses to hide what they really want, which is to keep 'those people' out of 'their neighborhood'. M1EK is even more especially pissed off by neighborhood associations whose leaders bleat about keeping housing affordable, yet have resisted every multifamily development in and near their neighborhood for years..

February 23, 2006

Irresponsible Center-City Neighborhoods And Their Plans

Just posted to AustinNP, in response to a long-running thread originally about the McMansion ordinance.

Those neighborhood plans are very, very, very underwhelming. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan calls for barely more density than exists today, and the CANPAC 'trades' density which ALWAYS should have been allowed in West Campus for the right not to have any more multifamily or mixed-use development in most of the rest of the area.

When I chaired the transportation committee for the Old West Austin neighborhood plan, as long as we're trading bona-fides, we operated under the understanding that our responsibility was to tell the city where and how our neighborhood and surrounding area could accomodate additional density, both multifamily and mixed-use commercial, since the will of the city (including these neighborhoods) was to redirect development inwards (slowing suburban sprawl). The goal was _NOT_ to push it purely onto the fringe of our neighborhood so that apartments would only go up on the loud, busy, streets; or that it would become another neighborhood's problem. This is in direct contrast to the Hyde Park and especially CANPAC plans - where a responsible process would have resulted in much more density being called for on Guadalupe; somewhat more (as mixed-use or multifamily) on the interior streets of Speedway and Duval; loosening rather than tightening of secondary dwelling rules; etc.

So, if you ask me, do I respect the amount of time that you and the others spent making those neighborhood plans - yes, in a sense, I do, in the sense that I can respect how hard-working Karl Rove is, even though he works for my political enemies. You achieved your goals completely; but the outcome is not one I can respect.

- MD

February 12, 2006

Houston outlaws density better than Austin does

A pseudonymous trogolyde in this well-commented thread on Metroblogging Austin has just invoked the second component the "Austin no-growther duo", the first being "It's all the Californian's fault".

M1EK if you are so in love with density. And the idea of quaint neighborhoods with small houses is too much to take move the fuck out of Austin. Move to fucking Houston. Developers have less restrictions. You can tear down houses and build condos and no bats an eye.

The charm, it just oozes off the screen.

It's probably a good time to repoint readers to this article on Houston in which the author alleges a similar, perhaps even greater, interference by the government there in the processes which would otherwise create density, despite the oft-celebrated lack of zoning. One example, in case you don't want to wade through the PDF,

Until 1998, [FN37] Houston's city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached [FN38] single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. [FN39] And until 1998, [FN40] Houston's government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, [FN41] by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. [FN42] As Siegan admits, this law "tend(ed) to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses" [FN43] and thus effectively meant that townhouses "cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups." [FN44] Houston's townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, [FN45] were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, [FN46] 560 square feet in Phoenix, [FN47] and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada. [FN48] Houston's anti-townhouse policy, combined with its minimum lot size requirement for detached houses, effectively meant that almost all single-family development in Houston had to be on a lot of at least 5000 square feet [FN49] (which means that single-family areas in Houston could have no more than 8.7 houses per acre).

There's a lot more. Again, I highly recommend you read this if you've ever heard that "Houston has no zoning".

February 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 08, 2006

"Stick the renters in high-rises"

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was "none, never".

Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old "none, never", but still has some problems. I call it "stick 'em in high-rises downtown", and it goes something like this:

"Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses - instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don't they?"

Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood's yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument - namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.

Here's what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I've paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

("Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses")

I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn't necessarily cut it.

There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).

("The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem" - part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)

With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It's
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?

("Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I'm OK with that", implication being that this satisfies the 'problem').

This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best
compromised.

For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can't do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can't walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that's
where I'd be. We don't have them, not because there's no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.

To say that there's no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.


If I forget, I'm counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.

February 06, 2006

The Capital Metro Finances

Ben Wear finally checked in this morning about the "commuter rail finances causing pressure for cost reductions causing union strife issue" which I covered here, although I disagree completely with his conclusion that light rail would have left us in the same mess.

  1. The commuter rail plan would NOT have received any substantial Federal funding. Wear glosses over this for more commentary about how difficult the New Starts process is. Rail lines with such paltry projected ridership have not done well at the FTA in recent years.
  2. The light rail plan, on the other hand, would easily have received the 50% Federal funding. We already know the Feds rated it highly even though they weren't allowed to include the impact of TOD and other future development such as the Triangle (which is now, in 2006, online).
  3. The commuter rail plan was sold to the voters of Austin on the premise that it was so cheap (with the Federal money that Capital Metro is now NOT seeking) that it would not necessitate touching the 1/4 cent "rebate" or the Build Greater Austin funds.
  4. The light rail plan counted on using both. Wear glosses over this to some degree, but at least mentions it.
  5. The operating costs of commuter rail are likely to be high - Wear mentions this, but doesn't mention why they're disproportionately high compared to light rail - again, it runs back to low ridership. Operating cost per passenger, in fact, is likely to be much higher with commuter rail than with light rail. The physical cost of moving each train is quite likely to be higher with diesel than it was with electricity, and many of the ancillary operating costs such as maintenance actually rise at a lower rate than the number of vehicles do thanks to economies of scale. Then, when you divide that cost by a much smaller number of commuter rail passengers, you're in bad news city. It's going to be a feeding frenzy for the local suburban Republicans masquerading as libertarians when the "we're paying a $15 subsidy for each rail passenger's daily ride" stories start coming out.

Summarizing: the 2000 light rail plan would have gotten a bunch of money from the Feds, would have had access to the 1/4 cent 'rebate' and Build Greater Austin funds, would have had greater income from fares, would have had proportionally lower operating costs, and would have opened up more TOD income than will this commuter rail plan. Since it would have gone "right down the gut", i.e., right next to all the neighborhoods which actually want to use transit, and directly in front of UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown where people actually work, it would have become the success story that we've seen in Minneapolis, Portland, Dallas, etc. IE: a credible alternative which encourages even those who drive to work every day to support future expansions and even (shudder!) tax increases.

Instead, based on what we have now, it's unlikely that, if it's ever built out, the complete commuter rail + streetcars plan being pushed today will end up being any cheaper anyways, which really puts the lie to the idea that cost was the reason for picking it. It was about screwing the center-city in favor of Krusee's suburbanites all along. If you are one of the few who ride it, this is how you're gonna get to work. And our "success story" that we're attempting to emulate is South Florida: Shuttle buses for those who were going to take the bus anyways, and branded as a big fat failure by everybody else.

February 03, 2006

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie's site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!

Kyle,

I've spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing's for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does - or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like "all of Seattle" only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).

There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists - in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal 'justifies bike lanes' levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn't read his closely enough:

Kyle,

Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn't there in your comment. I'm way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it's obvious upon further reading that you weren't saying Austin's level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren't needed is too small. Couldn't agree more.

Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

January 31, 2006

"Build it and they'll come" is no way to run a city

So the end-result of the Parlor problem appears to be that the neighborhood isn't going to budge on the parking variance, which means that another local business is in danger of going under unless the notoriously neighborhood-friendly Board of Adjustment suddenly becomes more responsible.

The end of the thread on the hydeparkaustin mailing list occurred when a member of the "Circle C in downtown Austin" party commented that a plan (in the works now for a long time and seemingly not close to fruition) to arrange for parking at the State Hospital (across Guadalupe) to be used for employees of businesses on Guadalupe would be the only way out of this mess.

I replied that it was unlikely that any customer or employee of those businesses would find it attractive to park at the state hospital, walk out to Guadalupe, wait a long time for the light at 41st and Guadalupe to change, walk very quickly across the street, and then and only then arrive at their destination (as compared to parking on a side street or Avenue A).

The person replied (and was supported by the moderator, who then ended the discussion with the attached unpublished rebuttal in hand) that "the boss can make the employee park whereever they say". This may be true in an abstract sense, I replied, but it's unlikely that any such boss would want to spend the energy enforcing a rule which prevented employees from parking in PUBLIC spaces such as on Avenue A, even if they did want to keep employees out of their own private lot.

This goes back to thinking of a type which is unfortunately prevalent here in Austin and among many other progressive cities - that being that people will do things that are good, as long as we provide opportunities to do them. IE, build it and they will come. What you build, given this thinking, doesn't have to be attractive compared to the pre-existing or forthcoming alternatives; its mere existence will suffice.

For instance, in this circumstance, they think that simply providing available parking in an inconvenient and unpleasant location will get people to park there who would otherwise park on neighborhood streets. Likewise, Capital Metro thinks simply providing any rail will get people to use it, even if the individual incentives are pretty awful, given the shuttle bus transfers.

I have a whole blog category analyzing 'use cases' which I think is a far more useful way to look at the problem. In this case, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of that potential parking consumer a few paragraphs back and remember that your boss probably (a) isn't going to be able to stop you from parking on Avenue A, and (b) probably couldn't catch you even if he tried.

But like with the naive pro-transit suckers that bought the MikeKrusee ScrewAustin Express, it's unlikely that it's possible to get through to these people. And so, the consequence is that another local business which probably would have improved Guadalupe as a place we actually want to be is thwarted. Good work, geniuses.

This is not to say that we should never build transit or highways. What it does mean is that somebody ought to spend at least a few minutes figuring out whether the thing you're going to expect people to use is actually attractive enough for them to choose to use it. By that metric, light rail in 2000 was a slam dunk, despite the lies spread by Skaggs and Daugherty. But in this parking case and with this commuter rail line, nobody seems to have bothered to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective user.

my sadly now never-to-be-published response (remember, this is to somebody who said "But the Heart Hospital doesn't let their employees park in their lot!" follows.


Those cases have some clear and obvious differences to the one
we're talking about here -- one being that the employees are being prohibited from parking in a private lot (which is still difficult to enforce, but at least defensible). You're asking that these business' employees not only refrain from parking in the business' lot (private) but ALSO from the public spaces on Guadalupe and the street space on Avenue A. And nobody's 'requiring' those state employees to park in Siberia - if they could find an open metered space somewhere else, for instance, they're free to take it. Likewise, the Heart Hospital can't force its employees to mark at the MHMR pool.

So it's easy to prohibit people from parking in a given private lot. Unless you're going to turn Avenue A into RPPP as part of this, though, they'd still park there instead of across Guadalupe. And any boss who tried to force them otherwise would probably be experiencing the fun world of employee turnover.

January 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.

January 09, 2006

More on 37th, NUNA, and bad neighbors

I just posted the following in the comments of this post on Austin's metroblog (which, somehow, despite my focus on Austin politics, mostly ignores this blog's existence). Adam Rice also posted a good article on his theories on why the lights are going away which is much more informative and doubtlessly much more correct than my own.

Since the comment appears to have been held for moderation, I reproduce it here (this is in response to both Ray, who lives a bit to my east, and the other guy, who is a member of the Suck It Up You Knew What You Were Buying Into contingent):

To present a third pole to the geography of this discussion, I, personally, blame the folks running the center-city neighborhood organizations for the last couple of decades who basically shut down all apartment development near UT for most of that time (finally starting to have their grip on the City Council loosened about the time the Villas on Guadalupe made it through despite their vicious and obnoxious opposition).

If, as would have happened in a city run by responsible adults rather than pander-to-neighborhood-lunatics-at-all-costs-types like Jackie Goodman, we had built BIG BIG BIG buildings along Guadalupe and points further west (within walking distance of campus) when demand was indicated, instead of playing catch-up only TODAY, we wouldn't have nearly as many kids in rental houses - because, frankly, most college kids could give a crap if they have a yard - they'd probably rather have a pool and a workout room. But they sure as hell might rather live in a house within a bike ride of campus than in a crappy apartment on Far West or Riverside where they get a long, unreliable, and jerky shuttle-bus ride to school every day...

(I live nextdoor to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who have been problematic at times despite having a very responsible landlord - the guy who sold me the house and moved near Far West to be closer to Anderson High. Even with a good landlord, I feel bad about calling as much as I do - this is Not Fun Stuff).

January 05, 2006

Crackpot Letter, Part XXIV

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

More Apartments Near UT Dear Editor,

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Dahmus

December 06, 2005

Sprawl isn't the result of the free market

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.

Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, "Are Men Necessary?"

At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.

Then there's the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.

Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.

For example, one of the Atlanta region's biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called "smart growth" — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.

Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:

"What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit 'sprawl' is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live."

Well, I've covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that's just romantic mythology.

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that's how they make the most profit; you don't see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.

Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market's tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like "smart-growth" policies.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers' property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative's dream.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you'll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.

Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect "us" against the incursion of "them."

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region's success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.

Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

Unintended Consequences of Irresponsible Zoning

I just posted this to the allandale yahoo group but it bears repeating to a more general audience.

--- In allandale@yahoogroups.com, "kayn7"  wrote:
>
> Some of the neighbors in HPWBANA tried the nice approach and working
> with them - the students were - to say the least - not responsive and
> some were abusive. The neighbors on Hartford call the police and
> Varisty Properties owners on a regular basis because of parking on
> lawns, loud late night parties, beer cans thrown in yards.

This entire process (and I live next door to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who occasionally cause similar problems) is an unintended consequence of something which your neighborhood and mine probably supports - that being restrictions on multifamily development.

Most of these kids (not all, but most) don't have any particular interest in living in a house instead of a condo or apartment - but the artificially low-density development around UT for decades has forced them to either live out in Far West or Riverside and take a slow poky shuttle to school, or get together with a bunch of buddies and rent a house (and be able to carpool to school or take a much quicker and shorter bus ride, or bike or walk). I'd probably pick the same thing if I were in their shoes - I've seen how long it takes to bus in from those areas; my next-door neighbors can walk the 10 blocks to campus in half the time it takes those other schlubs to bus there.

(I know from my experience in college that when the market provides enough near-campus apartments, far fewer kids end up in rental houses - this was at Penn State, in case anybody cares).

So you can thank the decades of foolhardy opposition to density (height restrictions and moronic suburban parking requirements) in West Campus for a lot of this. Unfortunately, the recent rezonings are too little too late for most of us - it will be another decade or two before the number of new apartments there can begin to stem the tide.

Summary: for decades, inner-city neighborhoods pushed the city to keep building heights low, require way too much parking, and otherwise restrict high-density development near UT despite the fact that students living in this area WALK to class. UT doesn't provide even half as many dorms as the students would seem to need; the near-campus market doesn't have enough tall buildings to make up the difference (not even as many as Penn State has, despite having an oversupply of dorms); so students end up in rental houses, even though they have no interest in yardwork and get hassled a lot more by the neighbors (like me) than they would in an apartment in West Campus. Be careful of what you ask for.

More on Yesterday's Whiff

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, by claiming that there was "no data about any of the options". This is true, if you restrict the question to "what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments". However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities - that being, do option 2 and do it now.

The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I'm remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) - there's really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds - it's a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn't provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I'm unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only - the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven't been studied isn't particularly accurate - they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It's true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities - frankly because nobody cared - the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn't particularly important - whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn't very relevant.

December 05, 2005

Council Whiffs Again On Shoal Creek

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a "let's get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests" mode which, in case anybody's forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.

This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:

1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).

2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as "Option 2").

But instead, it sure as heck looks like they're ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this - they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.

The worst part is Brewster's gang of "stakeholders" which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn't represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.

This is so depressing...

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 16, 2005

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

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 29, 2005

Houston and Zoning

For a long time, Houston has been the thorn in the side of those who, like I, claim that suburban sprawl is not a natural preference of the market, but rather, the result of market distortions in the form of zoning and other anti-urban regulations and tax policies. Houston, as anybody who's travelled through it knows, is a gigantic metastisizing suburban sprawl which takes an hour to get through and which makes even Cedar Park look attractive. There's no density outside downtown; and the rest of the city is about as pleasant to walk through as a pit full of angry scorpions. You have to be particularly stubborn or perhaps particularly brave to live there without a car. Those of us who like to believe that removing those anti-urban regulations would lead to the market providing more traditional urban living are often stymied with the reply, "well, Houston has no zoning, and look at it".

Now, somebody's finally written a paper which addresses the question of Houston head-on. As expected, they've found that Houston's lack of zoning is more than made up for by a combination of other regulations and tax policies (which in Houston's case more than make up for the lack of formal zoning in effectively outlawing new urban development). Not just restrictive covenants, but a host of other policies which effectively outlaw urban development and force all residential construction into a couple of standard suburban forms (single-family houses on cul-de-sacs and three-story apartment buildings clustered around a ring of parking lots).

A good read for anybody who wonders why we have so much of the same crap in so many places.

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 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).

September 29, 2005

You don't get TOD with buses (or commuter rail)

I still have the RealVideo from the City Council Meeting up (was following the Shoal Creek debacle) and there's a well-meaning guy from Oak Hill trying to get the Council to approve a TOD out there on a Rapid Bus line. Time to dispel a few illusions:

  1. You don't get TOD without the perception of permanence. Rapid Bus ain't it. Even BRT ain't it. Only rail works. People don't buy into a development where getting to their cars is expensive or inconvenient UNLESS the transit alternative is clearly going to be there for the long-haul. Buses' infamous "flexibility" works against them here.
  2. You don't get TOD with commuter rail. You need frequent headways (which this line won't have) and one-stop rides to some major destinations (which this line won't have). So even on our commuter rail line, TOD ain't gonna happen.

What CAN you put on the ground to stimulate TOD? Something like our 2000 light rail plan (which would have been a one-stop ride from northwest Austin through the center-city to UT, the Capitol, and downtown) works, in city after city after city after city after city. Subways and monorails would work too - there's no chance those rails are going away next year. Buses don't. Not even fancy buses with nice signs at their stops which tell you how much delayed your next bus is since it's stuck in traffic behind everybody else's car.

September 16, 2005

Claims about Spring don't Spring

I don't have time for a full write-up on my old neighborhood's irresponsible opposition to the Spring project but one thing I talked about with my coworker yesterday merits a quick jotting down so I don't forget.

The neighborhood (and my coworker) assert that you shouldn't build this project because it would make traffic much worse at the 5th/6th/Lamar intersection, which already fails during rush hour. This seems like a reasonable proposition, but I assert otherwise. Consider a simplified model of the Spring residents - there are two residents, both of whom work downtown. Wendy Walker and Dave Driver.

Dave Driver is going to get in his car and drive east. This won't make the intersections at Lamar any worse, since he's already east of Lamar. Oops. (Note: during my conversation with my cow orker, both of us forgot the fact that Spring is east, not west, of Lamar - if it makes this more worthwhile, you can pretend that we're now talking about the intersection of 5th and Guadalupe, or that Spring is west of Lamar for the hypothetical).

Wendy Walker is going to walk to her job downtown. This can't make things any worse either.

Now, consider what happens if the project isn't built. Wendy and Dave still have their downtown jobs, but now they must drive there. Both will now go through the intersection at 5th and Lamar in the mornings and through 6th and Lamar in the evenings. Oops.

Like most opposition to densification, OWANA settled on the traffic argument since it's an easy one to win, even if it lacks merit. In this case it's clear - many (possibly most) of the people moving into these downtown complexes aren't going to bother driving to work, and even if they do, they're either 'reverse commuting' (driving OUT of downtown in the morning, where there's plenty of spare capacity) or they can't be making things any worse, since otherwise they'd be driving downtown from further out.

September 13, 2005

SCB: Speed Is Not The Problem

A lot of folks (especially Stuart Werbner and Preston Tyree, who normally do a lot of good work for the cycling community) fell hard for the position that "the problem on Shoal Creek Boulevard isn't the bike lanes, it's the traffic speed". Since this position continues to rear its ugly head in discussions before and after yesterday's meeting, I thought I'd address it here.

The key is that all other things being equal, higher car speeds do indeed result in less safety for nearby cyclists and pedestrians. This is unquestionably true.

The problem is that all things aren't equal. This picture shows a cyclist trying to pass a parked vehicle at the same time he is being passed by a moving vehicle. It doesn't matter if the passing vehicle is going 45 or 25; if the cyclist veers out unexpectedly into the through lane and is hit, they're in bad, bad, BAD shape. (Note: you have to imagine that the stripe between the 4-foot 'bike lane' and 6-foot 'parking lane' isn't there to match the current conditions on SCB).

Likewise, this infamous accident happened despite the fact that the conflicting vehicle's speed was 0 MPH and the vehicle which ended up killing her wasn't going very fast either.

On the other hand, hundreds of cyclists use Loop 360 every day with no conflicts with motorists. Automobile speed in the through lanes of that roadway is typically around 60 MPH.

What can we conclude? Traffic engineering seeks to avoid presenting users with unexpected conflicts; and having a cyclist veer out into the travel lane when the motorist in that lane thinks they're not going to have to is the very definition of unexpected. A safe pass by a car going 40 is far preferrable to a collision with a car going 30.

How does this apply to Shoal Creek Boulevard? It's clear to me at least that the original city plan probably wouldn't have reduced automobile speeds much, but definitely would have resulted in fewer conflicts with cyclists who need to leave the bike lane to get around obstructions. As on Loop 360, if you rarely need to leave the bicycle facility, you don't need to worry as much about the speed of the cars in the lane next to you.

Another thing Preston in particular got wrong was the theory that riding on Shoal Creek is 'easy' once you 'learn' how to pass. Even for an experienced cyclist like myself, the conflict with motorists during a pass is irritating (the motorists don't understand why I go into the travel lane and are sometimes aggressive in expressing their displeasure). For a novice cyclist, it's likely to be so intimidating that they will (unwisely) stay in the far-too-narrow space between the white stripe and the parked car, and someday soon somebody's going to get killed that way.

Finally, of critical importance to the City of Austin is the following paragraph, excerpted from a detailed analysis of the Laird case in Boston:

The City might be held negligent for creating what is called in legal language an "attractive nuisance" -- that is, a baited trap. Ample evidence exists that the City of Cambridge had been notified of the hazards of bike lanes in the "door zone" before the Massachusetts Avenue lane was striped, yet the City continued to stripe them.

This is basically why Shoal Creek Boulevard doesn't have bike lanes today, it has a "multipurpose shoulder". Unknown whether this will do enough to shield Austin from liability in the event of an accident, but cyclists ought to think about this when you decide to ride on this facility.

September 12, 2005

Shoal Creek Meeting Is Done

Largely as expected - council members want to remove the islands, and then were going to talk some more about what to do. Some indications that they're either not willing to admit or not capable of understanding that a compromise solution is impossible for this roadway. Neighborhood people largely against the curb extensions but still adamant that parking on both sides must be preserved -- which means that we're back to bike lanes with parking in them, which pretty much the entire rest of the world views as an oxymoron.

Here's the letter I just sent to the three council members on the subcommittee:

Councilmembers:

I watched most of the meeting today while working at my desk, and had a couple of comments:

1. 2-way on-street bike lanes are not accepted in traffic engineering circles and have not for quite some time. They will not be an option for Shoal Creek Boulevard unless you want to override your staff.
2. Bike lanes down the median - same story.
3. A reminder: We already know there is no way to reconcile "parking on both sides" with "car-free bike lanes" on this street. There is insufficient width. Either one or more bike lanes must be abandoned, or one or more sides of parking must be abandoned.

Comments that you made in regards to #3 were especially disappointing - the failure of the previous council was in attempting to avoid this painful choice, which MUST be made. EITHER car-free bike lanes OR parking on both sides - you cannot have both. I would argue that the correct choice is to preserve on-street parking on ONE side of Shoal Creek Boulevard - this is not an unreasonable imposition on residents (my own neighborhood has highly restricted on-street parking; many streets allow it on one side and a few not at all).

Regards,

Mike Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.


Dear Mayor and councilmembers:

My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work -- i.e., I'm not a pure cyclist, and I'm not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.

I understand you're going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.

For those of you who don't bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin - alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.

Years back, Shoal Creek's turn came up in the "let's do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes" process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.

Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a 'residential street' and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.

At this point, as I'm sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman's approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the 'bike lane' and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it's not marked as a 'bike lane' is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.

The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy "10-4-6" plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the "bike lane" designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).

This isn't about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there's zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you're passing it.

But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury - a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.

This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with -- and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.

I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters - please don't take this precedent anywhere else.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus



August 27, 2005

Blandburbs and 'choice'

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here's a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn't natural; isn't the result of consumer 'choice'; and isn't healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I'd add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.

The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural 'choice' ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).

I promise I'll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.

The Casbjorksen Has Landed

Steve Casburn is finally online in Portland and is telling a familiar story - the bad bicyclist tale of woe. What I hear on the libertarian sites that I spend an unhealthy amount of time on is that Portland is a hellhole on the verge of collapse. Hopefully Steve, (who somehow got deluded by the liberal media into moving there without even having a job in advance) will survive the post-apocalyptic urban-planning wasteland. At least there's fewer fat people there.

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.

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.)