Saving this because I’ve been looking for it for weeks and Jace just reposted it. More discussion on it later.
Mayor and council members: I want to call your attention to the Planning Commission meeting this week – specifically the treatment given by some of the commissioners to Tyler Markham, a UT student and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. If you watch the video record of the meeting, I believe you will see a young man who is highly professional trying to make a decent, objective, case for something he believes in. For his trouble, he’s treated aggressively and unprofessionally by several members of the Planning Commission. I myself served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000-2005, and would never have dreamed of treating a speaker in the way these commissioners have treated Mr. Markham. I urge you to reprimand your appointees and make it clear to them that their behavior was unacceptable.
Before I get to Todd Hemingson’s latest amazing chutzpah, I did promise this and then ran out of time, and then a week on the murderfoot medicine sapped all my energy:
— M1EK Dahmus (@mdahmus) March 27, 2015
so here it is, finally:
I was wrong about Steve Adler.
I wanted to believe that the “new way forward” meant taking transit seriously on technical grounds and not being beholden to the bad actors controlling the ANC-aligned “neighborhood associations”1. (which Martinez sometimes tacked towards and sometimes tacked against). I endorsed him, modestly, in his runoff. But that was all wishful thinking. Wishful thinking that he was aligned more to rich developers than rich landowners, basically. His ads about permitting fooled me, as did meetings he had in private with people whose judgement I trust.
As much of an unmitigated disaster as Mike Martinez was at Capital Metro, basically meaning that his governance strategy was going along with every stupid idea they ever came up with, Steve Adler is even worse – with the continued push for the homestead exemption, pandering to the aforementioned bad actors hiding behind the term “neighborhoods” worse than I ever imagined possible on every development issue2, hiring Capital Metro’s chief eel as his new chief of staff3, and most recently, an absurd traffic strategy which boils down to “every stupid thing your ignorant idiot suburban coworkers think will fix everything, a lot of which we were already doing, and none of which will do jack shit given that the grid is just fundamentally over capacity”. The traffic strategy shows he is a suburbanite, or just cravenly and ignorantly pandering to same, but either way, there is no way that ends well for the city.
I should have seen this coming, when he backed his campaign treasurer’s idiocy about the Guadalavaca bus lanes, but he fooled me (and others I trust). I also wanted to punish Martinez for his incredibly bad leadership of the transit agency and vote out anybody who voted for Prop 1, but as others pointed out at the time, it was possible to end up with somebody even worse by doing that. And it sure looks like we did.
Next in this series: I was wrong about AURA.
- changed from ‘neighborhoods’ in first draft, see Roger’s comment [↩]
- his comment that he wanted to “let neighborhoods decide on loosening rules for ADUs” = nobody will ever build any more ADUs [↩]
- which some people at AURA actually thought was a good thing, which will lead into the next episode in the Mea Culpa series. There is no universe in which making that guy your chief of staff is a sign of anything but ignorance on transit and sliminess on everything else. [↩]
The insiders who messed up Proposition 1 still haven’t come to terms with what they did, so I’m not going to let it sit either. Here’s something not to forget; when certain political actors try to pretend there was some kind of consensus behind the choice that got spanked at the polls instead of the one that was never allowed to be studied:
— Central Austin CDC (@cdcatx) April 8, 2015
I tweeted about this yesterday and due to time constraints will just copy it here via storify.
I just sent the slideshare version (contains more slides) to all city council members. I’ve exported some to images for this blog post; but the slideshare may be a better viewing experience if your platform permits it.
Honesty also requires that you be open and transparent – meaning that you must address legitimate criticism publically instead of ignoring it, attempting to delegitimize it, or only addressing it privately.
Saturday while at my son’s chess tournament and writing this article, I also stumbled across an old exchange (pre-election) between some folks in AURA (obviously not myself as I just found this discussion a couple of days ago) and one of the people in the Prop 1 campaign. The Prop 1 person indicated they “don’t do facebook battles” and wanted to set up a face to face meeting (this same person offered once to do the same thing with me).
This happened to me other times too. During the Prop 1 issue, I got 5 or 6 offers to meet privately – usually on twitter – from people who would not communicate on the issue publically. I took one person up on it (mine said they didn’t do ‘twitter battles’) and had a lunch at Zocalo, in which no minds were changed. I also saw no serious public response; not even once; to the legitimate concerns raised by myself and other members of AURA. Basically, these folks want to be able to say their piece, and then never answer for it – and they think that if they can only get you one-on-one, they’ll be able to convince you to change your mind1. It’s a fundamentally insulting, and, quite frankly, dishonest worldview – akin to believing that they are the rational adults and you are just a willful child; and if they can isolate you from your peer group, you will bend to their will. Or, another common belief is that people on our side could not possibly believe what we were saying – so maybe face to face we could be convinced to see reason. Perhaps, the goal was to claim to persuadable folks in the middle that “we tried to meet with them and discuss their concerns but they said no”, as if it’s reasonable to expect that a guy with a suburban office job and young kids can get downtown every day of the week for individual meetings.
It’s not only the hangers-on that did this. I’ve seen the same thing from actual Capital Metro employees. And it has to stop. To me, if it’s not said in public where everybody can see, it doesn’t count. And if you lack the courage of your convictions enough to answer your critics, that says that you are not truly being honest. And no, John Langmore, a broadside a day before the election repeating the same talking points you used the whole time does not count.
As it turns out, a local executive tried desperately to fix things at the last minute by getting Leffingwell, Spelman, and a few others together with representatives from AURA and OurRail in which the willful children were asked, finally, by the mediator, what it would take to get them to vote for the plan. The changes offered by the ‘adults’ were meaningless, of course, because even immediately before getting pantsed at the polls, the bubble they put themselves in prevented them from believing that the pro-transit criticism of the plan was legitimate.
And by then it was far too late – the plan could not be changed in any meaningful way; the failure by the self-proclaimed adults to listen to and/or publically address those many legitimate arguments had doomed the proposition to a significant defeat at the polls (which is, granted, better for transit than if the bad plan had actually passed, but nowhere near as good as if the bad plan had been scuttled before being placed on the ballot).
Austin deserves better. Demand better.
- I had a typo in here for a long time; thanks, actually, to JD Gins, for inadvertently pointing it out in March 2015 [↩]
Earlier entries in the series:
- FOR 2015: AN HONESTY AGENDA FOR CAPITAL METRO (AND OTHERS): PRELUDE
- 2015 HONESTY AGENDA ON TRANSPORTATION: WHAT IS HONESTY?
So there was a flurry of activity two weeks ago on the Capital Metro front, thanks to our friends at KUT. First, a story titled “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“, and then following the next day one titled “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Cap Metro Go From Here?“.
I found both efforts by Terrence Henry to be good, fair, articles overall (I was quoted for neither); and thought it would be a nice test-run of the (in progress) Honesty Agenda to evaluate the statements in these articles based on the “What is Honesty?” points.
First, from “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“:
“There’s a few reasons to explain the dip we seem to be looking at in 2014,” saysChris Riley, Vice-Chair of Capital Metro’s board and former city council member. “First, continued reductions in UT ridership.” The University of Texas at Austin has cut funding in recent years for its share of the Capital Metro system, reducing shuttle service. “And partly because of changing transportation patterns among the students,” Riley adds. “You have more students living in West Campus today and not riding the bus.”
Next, Todd Hemingson:
“Of the overall percent in reduction [in 2014], what we found was the UT shuttle system accounted for a full 2 percent of that ridership decrease,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development with Capital Metro.
Hemingson and Riley say there were several other factors that led to last year’s drop in ridership: fare increases and restructuring as well as some extreme weather events. But even all those factors together don’t account for the entire drop. And when pushed a little further, Hemingson says the problem goes deeper.
“Really, any analysis of transit ridership begins and ends with how much service you provide,” Hemingson says. The actual number of hours of service Capital Metro provides per person in Austin is down, and so ridership is down as a result. “Unfortunately, the reality is we’re just not keeping up. Our service hour, as we call it, has been declining since 2004.”
Riley did not support his claim that UT’s ridership has dropped, and Henry has recently posted this tweet which indicates that the jury is still out on whether that is true. Additionally, Riley left out the fact that the Guadalupe/Lamar and Burnet corridors have seen large vertical-mixed-use developments opening up which should have resulted in increased ridership but have not done so. (I have my theory why this is the case, from “Rapid Bus Has Degraded Bus Service Overall“).
Rating: Technically true – possible but unsupported so far. The whole truth? NO. He did apparently at least mention ‘restructuring’ (see paraphrase in Hemingson’s section), but obviously did so as a second or third cause, which dramatically understates that it was the most significant, already observed and proven, ridership drop explanation shown to date – something that should have been the lead, not the footnote! Nothing but the truth? OK. No obfuscation or disingenuousness here. Riley’s quote I’d rate as “sort of true”. Not the whole truth, but not laughably false.
This Riley section gets a C+.
And also, Capital Metro as an agency gets their first F of the year here for not publishing ridership data like good transit agencies do, so we could independently verify the claim. Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano shows an example from Phoenix here. I’ve referred to others in earlier posts in this series.
Hemingson, so far, comes off OK. He at least mentions that service hours are down (contrasting to John-Michael Vincent Cortez, who insisted throughout the Red Line debacle that it wasn’t happening and doubled down on the false claim as recently as Halloween). But weather? I call that an obfuscation. It may have dropped ridership a couple of days, but Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano’s recent series of charts shows that weather events are an excuse at best, not a cause. Hemingson so far: also truthy. Not the whole truth, and the twitterati largely laughs off his weather excuse for good reason.
Hemingson gets a B- here. Mostly true but the weather thing is ridiculous.
Now on to Jace Deloney, recently elevated to chair of the UTC:
But despite those reductions in service hours, ridership has increased during that time. Deloney with Urban Transportation Commission thinks that the 2014 drop was due to something more specific to that year.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the changes that took place in 2014. Lots of changes,” he says. “We had Metro Rapid launch, which caused a lot of issues for some people.”
Deloney is talking about a very well-documented cut to the city’s most popular bus route last year. When Capital Metro launched it’s first rapid bus line, the 801, it also cut the local bus service (the 1) along the same route in half. Up until then, the 1 was the most popular bus route in the city.
There is literally nothing bad you can say about this statement other than that it may be understating the problem. Notice he doesn’t shy away from reality here. He doesn’t put the #1 cause at #5. He doesn’t do what Hemingson does next, which is belittle the honest concerns of people who are trying to get places as mere preference. Jace is an excellent example of being honest about transit. Jace gets our first A of the season.
“One of the things we knew going in was that not everyone was going to like that,” Hemingson says. “And that’s what we saw, a drop in ridership in the corridor, that’s undeniable. But since we’ve launched MetroRapid, we’ve seen that trend in the right direction, which is positive.”
Aaand here we go. This is technically true, if you define “some people in North Austin had to change jobs or get cars” as merely “disliked the change”. It’s highly misleading; it’s obfuscating (the ‘trend in the right direction’ is that current ridership is almost back up to the level it was before the change was made, which is a very low standard given that population growth and development on the corridor should have resulted in large boosts in ridership). This statement is not the absolute worst I’ve seen, but is a good solid example of Capital Metro’s lack of honesty on transportation.
Hemingson gets a C- on that quote. Technically true but too much spin.
Next, back to Riley:
There are also several factors that are out of Capital Metro’s control. Land use and density, for starters. Much of the population growth in Austin is happening outside of the city itself, or along its periphery. That development typically consists of large lots with single family homes that are difficult to make work with transit.
“If we had a code that allowed for more development along our corridors, in places that are easier to serve with transit, then I think you’d see a healthier rise in our transit ridership,” Riley of the Capital Metro board says.
Riley’s worst quote. It’s true that development on the periphery stinks. But it’s also true that even good development there would not result in large transit ridership given office sprawl.
What’s undeniable is that the VMU ordinance was specifically designed to encourage dense, walkable, midrise development along our best transit corridors on the theory that there would be self-selection going on for people who wanted to ride the good transit that was on those corridors; that development is actually happening as envisioned (N Lamar/S Lamar/Burnet), but the local bus service that would best support those new residents was cut drastically (in half for the 1, not quite as bad for the 3, but the 3’s frequency wasn’t as high to begin with). You now get a local once every half hour during peak on the #1 route and about every 40 minutes on the #3 route. That’s not development-supporting levels of transit.
Note that the benefit provided by Rapid Bus (801/803 which are basically just express service like the old 101 was) over local service diminishes the closer you get to the core; and once you’re about halfway in, the extra time spent walking will overwhelm the time savings the actual bus ride gives you (almost entirely due to fewer stops). This should have led to a transit plan where local frequencies were high and express service was gradually improved; that’s not what we did – we made the locals infrequent and the express relatively frequent, which again, is useless to residents of the VMUs that are about halfway out from the core.
Riley’s statement here is obfuscating and disingenuous, and does not tell the whole truth. We’ve added enough development along Lamar and Burnet to generate significant new ridership on transit, but the transit service those corridors have now is significantly, objectively, worse than it was before, especially in the sections a few miles from the core where most of the development is happening. In other words, the 803 makes things better compared to the 3 (even with the extra walk) once you’re past 183 on Burnet or near Ben White on Lamar, but all the new development is happening much closer in – near 2222 on Burnet or around the Alamo on S Lamar, or around North Loop on N Lamar. All of those places are seeing equal to much worse transit service now. Capital Metro punished its best potential future customers. That’s the real development-related reason we’re seeing ridership drop and not rebound.
Riley gets a D- on that quote.
Now on to “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Capital Metro Go From Here?“, the immediate follow-up.
“I think we are on the cusp of making a significant step in the right direction,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development at Capital Metro. The agency has laid out several goals for the years ahead, and one of them is adding frequency to some of the city’s most popular bus routes.
“What we have is a proposal to take five of the busiest routes in the system and upgrade those so they operate every 15 minutes or better, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., every single weekday.” It’s called a Frequent Service Network, Hemingson says. The initial routes being proposed for higher frequency are the 7, 20, 300, 325, and 331.
Hemingson left out the elephant in the room. The route which, even after being crippled by having its frequency cut in half and being paired with an incompatible express, still has the top ridership in the system.
Let’s take a closer look at the left side of that graph.
F for truth. Leaving out the most important fact of all gets you an immediate F. No way back from that.
Back to Jace Deloney:
“It makes no sense that they’re talking about the frequent service in 2015 while they took away that frequency on the highest ridership route,” says Jace Deloney, Chair of the Urban Transportation Commission, which advises the city on transit issues.
Deloney is talking about Route 1, which runs along the main arteries of the city: North Lamar, Guadalupe and South Congress. Capital Metro says they will not restore Route 1 frequency to where it was before the launch of the rapid bus service along the same route, even though the rapid bus costs 40 percent more, and the stops are much farther apart in many areas.
“They’re going to have to look into restoring the Route 1 frequency,” Deloney says, “or else we’re going to be hurting our best corridor going forward.”
A+ for truth. No arguments here.
That’s about it, apart from some minor quotes that aren’t controversial about real-time information being useful (but what’s more useful is frequent service so you don’t have to check).
Oh, and overall? Terrence Henry and KUT gets a solid B+, which is about the highest grade I’ll give the media in the last couple of years. It would have been nice to make Hemingson get on the record about why the #1’s frequency can’t be restored, and why we should consider Metro Rapid to be part of the new frequency network when its fares are not compatible – you can’t buy a day pass on one of the new frequent locals and transfer to the 801 or 803, so they aren’t part of the same network, man.
Note a pattern here. The Capital Metro planner gets very low grades; the Capital Metro board member gets medium to low grades. The real citizen gets high grades. KUT scores well overall compared to other, much more credulous, local media. The agency itself doesn’t provide the transparency that would actually help; just the transparency that makes them look good to state lawmakers.
When I go back and analyze Project Connect, this pattern will keep coming up again and again.
Austin deserves better.
Citations to other sites referenced above and some other suggested reading from other Austin bloggers:
- “The Longest Chart” and “Bus City Blues” from Keep Austin Wonky (Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano).
- “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?” and “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Cap Metro Go From Here?” from KUT News (Terrence Henry).
- “Ridership Woes For CapMetro Continue in 2014” from Jace Deloney.
- “Is MetroRapid signal priority a myth?” from Local Mustard (Cory Brown).
- “MetroRapid: The Good, The Bad, and The Bumpy” from savingcities (Chris Lazaro).
Honesty Agenda 2015 – Part Two
This is going to seem a bit disjointed because I ended up writing the main draft in the middle, very cramped, seat of a very delayed flight to Atlanta for a business trip; and
Made With Notepad because paying for wifi for an hour of personal use seemed unwise. So here we go.
What do I mean when I say honesty?
Honesty is more than simply “technically telling the truth”. A good place to start, but just to start, is the oath people take when testifying in court. So let’s at least look at those three parts:
Don’t say something which is obviously false. This is the easiest thing in the world to do, yet Capital Metro has gotten this wrong in the past (ref Todd Hemingson’s claim about the projection he made and then tried to claim he didn’t make, about first year Red Line ridership). The simplest attention by the media ought to catch our transit agency and city in this one, yet they rarely do (KUT being one very rare exception here).
The whole truth
Don’t say something which, while true, leads people to think they now know what’s going on, when you’ve actually kept a portion of the ‘whole truth’ behind so that they come to the conclusion you want them to. For instance, Capital Metro claims we’re going to have a new, exciting, frequent transit network (buses arriving at least every 15 minutes). If Capital Metro knows we used to have that, at least on the #1 route, and they don’t say so, they haven’t told the whole truth. Or, let’s say, if Capital Metro says ridership on MetroRapid is growing! (comparing 801 ridership six months ago to 801 ridership today), but overall ridership on the corridor is significantly below what it was before MetroRapid launched and staying stagnant since the initial drop, have they told the whole truth? Put another way:
Would “the 801 is doing better” be enough information without “but the overall 1/801 ridership is going nowhere and significantly below the old 1/101 ridership” for our elected leaders to make smart decisions?
Those aren’t even the most important examples though. During transit planning, this is far more critical. When the 801 was proposed, Capital Metro talked about how much faster it was going to be than the 1, while hiding the fact that it wasn’t going to be much, if any, faster than the existing limited-stop 101. It’s technically true that the 801 is faster than the 1. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s not useful in making decisions; the far more useful fact is the difference compared to the 101’s speed when it ran (and it turns out, there’s no difference except for that attributable to the downtown transit lane, which made the 1 faster and would have made the 101 faster too).
Nothing but the truth
Don’t add things that might (misleadingly) shade people away from the truth. Don’t talk about highway subsidies to try to mislead people away from a serious discussion on transit operating subsidies (the subsidy on a given highway might be higher than the Red Line, but it is irrelevant to a discussion of whether we can afford the Red Line subsidy as it currently exists).
But that’s not enough for me. Public agencies, funded by tax dollars, should meet a higher standard even than the above (which, after all, is just the oath people take when in an often adversarial relationship in court, to which the punishment for noncompliance is charges of perjury). Public agencies should educate taxpayers – in a way which does not lead taxpayers to a given conclusion, but allows them to make their own educated judgements. By this I do NOT mean the opinion pieces often approving cited, referenced, or retweeted by Capital Metro employees which are actually in direct conflict with their own actions without ever noting the problem. That’s fundamentally DIShonest.
I also don’t mean Project Connect’s “data theater” exercises. “Showing your work” via PDF files, with ‘zones’ chosen and then changed, arbitrarily, by the people running the project in ways transparently obviously designed to make some projects rise to the top and others, uh, not; is not honest. Project Connect should have functioned as an open data source by which decision-makers (and the public) could make educated choices, but none of us who participated in that effort would describe it as anything except the exact opposite. In most other cities, Project Connect would have been a straight-up comparison between a few corridors (not this ‘subcorridors which are really zones which were purposefully drawn to make the route they knew they had to compete against look bad’ nonsense). Then, once a corridor was chosen, phase 2 would have been a straight-up comparison of ROUTES.
Don’t Be Disingenuous
This is a big one. It happens all the time. Most of the time you know your audience and you know what they know, so don’t pretend they’re talking about something they really aren’t (don’t oversimplify or misrepresent their argument).
For instance: “There are winners and losers with any change” is not an honest answer to a detailed explanation that points out that the frequency of the combined 1/801 is no higher than the frequency of the 1/101 was – which if honestly addressed, leads to the conclusion that every single local bus rider on the MetroRapid corridor is much worse off now that the new service came along, and the old express riders are for all intents and purposes paying a little more for a little more frequency, the same speed, and the same reliability (i.e. best case = no better off). The person making that statement about ‘winners and losers’ knows it’s not honest; but they know it’s technically true also – it’s just that the ‘winners’ were Capital Metro themselves, and the losers were, uh, all the riders. The public who pays your salary deserves better than being purposefully misled. Likewise, when Project Connect published ‘data’ from a ridiculous model that was essentially predicting almost three million daily transit riders in East Riverside alone and then tried to pretend it didn’t matter because it was just sort of a starting point, that’s disingenuous. If it didn’t really matter, throw that model out of the equation completely and use something that everybody agrees on (common basis). Because when it was left in, it provided significant confirmation for the theory among participants in the process that the data were being cherry-picked and/or made up to support a predetermined plan.
Offer All Sorts Of Data Without Prejudicial Conclusions
Why doesn’t Capital Metro publish their ridership numbers – and on the rare occasions when they do, why never in a form that can be processed by the public? The MTA in New York does.
Why don’t they publish their operating subsidies by mode (or even by line)? They haven’t done this at all since September of 2013, and if you think it’s because the Red Line subsidy figures would have damaged the public case for Proposition 1, you’re probably right! Yes, there’s arguments over methodology that would come into play in either case – but those arguments could be had in the open light of day. Instead, we assume that Capital Metro hides behind the firewall of freedom-of-information requests because they have something to hide (in many cases they do – for instance, recent word on the fare recovery ratio of MetroRapid is pretty awful). While I appreciate Ben Wear’s efforts in seeking this information (most media outlets don’t even try), it should be published every month on Capital Metro’s website so guys like me can analyze it. No excuses. If the data tells a bad story, then have a conversation about it with people who understand how transit works instead of hiding behind meaningless platitudes that prevent any transit project from ever being declared ‘bad’.
In future chapters I will explain in more detail, with many more specific examples, where we have fallen short on these metrics; and then what an honest Project Connect would have looked like. What an honest Capital Metro would look like. And what an honest City of Austin would look like. Because if we’re ever going to see real progress, that’s what we all need.
Right now, in order to get ridership numbers from Capital Metro, you practically have to file a freedom of information request. That’s not the case in New York City;. In fact, Capital Metro stopped even publishing subsidy numbers more than a year ago.
Right now, whenever Capital Metro is asked about what’s next on rail, they mention a few possibilities, but pointedly do not mention the one route for which the transit activists and experts in Austin have continuously expressed a preference..
Right now, whenever Capital Metro is asked what they intend to do about local buses, they mention ideas for a ‘new’ ‘frequent’ network, and neither they, nor the media, bring up the inconvenient truth that Capital Metro used to have such a network, which they destroyed in order to make Rapid Bus look good less bad.
Right now, we’re coming off a rail campaign in which Austin’s transit advocates and experts rallied around defeating a rail proposal brought to them by a corrupt, dishonest, temporary agency comprised of mostly Capital Metro and some of the City of Austin. Said temporary agency is now pivoting even further towards suburban transit. In that rail campaign, our local media ranged from merely OK to outright cheerleaders for the establishment they claim to oppose. It’s clear that whichever side you fell on, you at least agree that Austin sustained a significant black eye.
Right now, the city of Austin is continuing a Guadalupe corridor study in which the overwhelming expressed preference of the people at the forum and via survey was for transit priority (either light rail or bus lanes), yet ongoing communications from the city mention neither.
Is anybody happy about this?
It’s time for a change. In following posts I will be laying out the 2015 Honesty Agenda on transportation. Most of the items will apply to Capital Metro (big shock). A few will apply to the City of Austin. A few will apply to the media. And a few will apply to my fellow transit activists. They are all things that should happen, if you want to feel good about what you’re pushing to the public (I’m being optimistic in presuming that even the worst offenders actually don’t like what happened at the end of 2014).
Join me on a new way forward – be honest about transportation and we’ll win more battles, and what’s more, the battles we win will be ones that were for things worth fighting for.