The Statesman Loves New Construction

The Statesman has long been reviled by environmentalists as the RealEstatesman, with an apparent bias towards new greenfield construction (whose purveyors consume a substantial majority of the advertising space in the paper). This weekend’s fluff piece on the AMD development is no exception.

As SOS points out in an email today:

Then there’s the classic error by omission: the Statesman has been pathological in failing to report opposition to AMD’s move by Austin Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, Liveable City, and Texas Clean Water Action. Instead, their reporting has only listed SOS Alliance as opposing.

This is extra special since the Statesman has been giving Livable City plenty of coverage over the last year or two.

AMD’s proposed move would increase traffic over the Barton Springs watershed, as over 60% of AMD’s employees here don’t live in Southwest Austin. If AMD moves to Stratus’ land, 100% of AMD’s employees would be commuting over the Barton Springs watershed.

Personally, I think both SOS and the Statesman have dropped the ball on the transportation analysis – it’s fairly likely that a site downtown would reduce employees’ commutes even more, since it’s at dead-center for the region. IE, if 58% of AMD’s employees live within 10 miles of the Southwest Parkway site, it’s hard to imagine that a smaller proportion live within 10 miles of downtown, given the geography of the area. There simply isn’t enough residential development farther south of AMD to account for enough trips to make that true. All of the employees who live southeast, central, east, west-central, and especially north and northwest would be closer to work downtown. And employers who locate downtown put far less of a burden on the infrastructure than employers in the suburbs — more people bike, ride the bus, walk to lunch, etc.

So it’s crystal-clear to me at least that reducing EMPLOYEE commutes has nothing to do with AMD’s decision. Reducing the CEO’S commute, on the other hand, is likely part of the reason for AMD’s site selection…


On The Smoking Ban

I’m for it on selfish grounds – I’ll get to go to more shows. I used to go to live music fairly frequently, but heavy smoke would occasionally chase me out. My wife’s more sensitive than I am, and we essentially stopped going (even before the baby changed our ratio of disposable to non-disposable income). People that tell you that there are a lot of non-smoking live music venues are being disingenuous – yes, there’s plenty of places like Central Market mostly booking third-class stuff, but if you want GOOD music, the only real non-smoking alternative for YEARS was the Cactus Cafe, and that only because UT prohibited smoking.

But there’s a very simple argument to cut through all the smoke:

We used to allow smoking in restaurants. Back in that day, even though most people didn’t smoke, essentially zero restaurants were non-smoking. Even those that had non-smoking sections weren’t separately ventilated, making them the kind of joke that you hear about the Peeing Section in the pool. A few fast-food chains banned smoking, but that was about it.
Why didn’t the restaurant business drift towards non-smoking on its own? (This is not a simple answer).

All over the country, it took governmental action to make non-smoking happen in restaurants. (It took governmental action to ban smoking on airplanes too, if you remember).

Those who reduce this issue to the simple libertarian “if you don’t want to go into a smoking bar, don’t; the market will provide you with a non-smoking bar” need to explain why that didn’t work for restaurants or airlines.

Short answer: it doesn’t work because of the “race to the bottom”. Any one bar which bans smoking is at a significant disadvantage to all the other bars on the street, since it’s playing by different rules. Unless the ratio of non-smokers to smokers is incredibly high (think like 20-1), the lost business from {smokers, parties with smokers, people want to see a particular band, […]} is going to kill them.

Short retort: But won’t that kill all bars then?

Short reretort: Of course not. Did it kill all restaurants? Did it kill all airlines? Setting common rules for businesses serving the public can, in fact, result in the market providing a better apparent outcome than it will on its own in cases like this. Remember, think “race to the bottom”. EVENTUALLY, the market will sort this out and provide a few more non-smoking venues, but EVENTUALLY we’ll all be dead of lung cancer.
“race to the bottom” comment stolen from various blogs includng this entry at Burnt Orange Report – search comments, this one (again in comments), and Hit And Run (in comments).

Austin Driving in Austin Funding of Transportation I Told You So Personal Politics (Outside Austin) Texas Republicans Hate Cities

You’d better be hedging

Some fairly respectable analysts are beginning to join “kooks” like Kunstler, although in a far less inflammatory way, in predicting that high oil prices are not only here to stay, but likely to get quite higher. The latest “Occasional Report” from CIBC World Markets lays out the case. Older “Occasional Reports” are also highly recommended, as they seem to cut through a lot of baloney and show how and where higher energy costs will hurt (without going flat-out lunatic like the idiots who think every N% increase in gas prices means an N% increase n the price of everything delivered by truck, for instance).

I’ve been hedging higher energy prices for a long time now – we paid a hefty premium for our house in central Austin, and part of the reason was that we could, much more easily than your average suburbanite anyways, drastically reduce our driving and/or switch to jobs better served by public transportation. (my current office is served about as well as any out here in the ‘burbs, which is to say that I can take the bus each day by spending only about 40 extra minutes – as sad as that is, it makes me the winner here by far). We also bought a Prius in February of 2004 (after waiting five months) – again, a hedge; if we do end up having to drive a lot, at least it won’t kill us. Well, as it turns out, we’re only driving about 10,000 miles a year combined anyways, but every little bit helps.

The only problem is that hedges like this are largely a loss-amelioration strategy – they don’t gain us anything unless inflation makes wages go up. The same group above thinks it won’t this time, unlike in the 1970s, so the best we’re really able to do is attempt to be a bit less screwed than the average suburbanite will be.

This hedging logic (whether you believe in local kook Roger Baker’s Kunstler-like rants or not) should also apply to public infrastructure spending. I happen to believe that building the toll roads is a way to do this – the ‘hedge’ being that since the roads are going to be built either way (an assertion the environmentalists disgree with), it’s better to have them paid back with tolls rather than with property and gas taxes (even if the tolls come up short, the impact on central-city residents is still less than with the typical free highway payment mechanism – remember, you still pay gas taxes while driving around central Austin, but none of that money goes to those roads – in fact, urban areas all over the country are screwed by the gas tax’s bias towards suburban and particularly exurban areas). In other words, paying for the new toll roads with gas taxes simply makes things better for people at the far edges of Leander, and far worse for people living in Central Austin.

A better hedge, of course, would be a gradual overall increase in gasoline taxes with a mandatory minimum payback for major urban areas similar to what the Feds do with ‘donor states’. But with the average suburbanite convinced that they’re undertaxed rather than subsidized, it’s simply never going to happen. Toll roads are, in this sense, the best hedge we can manage at this point in time.

For those interested – ways to hedge on energy costs which are easier if you live in an urban neighborhood than out in one of the soulless sprawlburbs:

  • I can bike to work (up to 5 days a week) – right now I average once a week; mainly due to scheduling difficulties, but we could change this if we had to.
  • I can take the bus to work – at a 40 minute or so penalty per day (which as mentioned above puts me ahead of pretty much anybody else here)
  • I can get a job downtown (easier said than done) and reduce the transit penalty to near-zero
  • We’re within a (long) walk of 5 grocery stores – right now this means we have a very short drive; we only occasionally walk, but at least we CAN walk if it becomes expensive enough to drive
  • We can walk to a battery of other shopping and dining choices (we do this quite frequently now)
  • In an era of higher fuel prices, the places we shop are going to be less impacted than the strip-mall businesses, due to efficiencies of scale (cheaper to deliver to 5 grocery stores that are very close together than 5 that are very far apart)
  • Our house is small – less air conditioning and heating costs
  • Our house is old enough that it was designed before air conditioning – meaning we have enough windows for good ventilation most of the year

For these hedge privileges, however, we pay through the nose:

  • The house price is far higher, per square foot, than in the ‘burbs — this is not purely because of location, but also because post-WWII zoning laws have artificially restricted the supply of walkable urban neighborhoods. Most of the homes on our street are illegal under current zoning code for various bogus reasons.
  • Our city, county, and schools tax mainly through property taxes, which are a double whammy – not only are we appraised proportionally higher, but the property tax itself is often used in ways which subsidize suburban development – providing city services is far more expensive per acre in Anderson Mill than it is in Central Austin, but the Central Austinites pay orders of magnitude more property taxes.
  • Those property (and also sales) taxes are often grabbed by the state and spent in ways which not only subsidize the suburbs, but hurt central cities – things like requiring local ‘donations’ in order to expand freeways. (The 1998 and 2000 bond elections floated tens of millions of dollars in bonds which were used to pay for right-of-way and other costs for roads like the far north extension of Mopac, SH45, SH130, etc – none of which provide any use for central Austin at all, yet central Austin is where most of that tax money comes from – and when a project IS proposed which affects central Austin, it ends up being a destructive force like the ridiculous proposal by TXDOT to double-deck Mopac).

AMD does Austin wrong

I’ve always rooted for AMD over Intel, but they’re now moving to a spot on top of the most critical land in Austin for the health of Barton Springs.

AMD’s PR people have claimed that this will reduce employee driving by 10,000 miles a day (I doubt it), but even if true, it doesn’t make things better, since employees will now have to drive further for lunch, and the incentive for additional development around their new site will overwhelm any small gains from slightly shorter commutes. I wrote a note reminding them that if they were truly serious about reducing their impact on the environment, they’d move downtown (like Intel almost did) so that their employees had more options than the single-occupant-vehicle (carpooling, transit, and bicycling all work far better when your office is downtown, even without the HOV lanes that we all know are coming soon). Plus, their employees could walk to lunch.

This also is another piece of supporting evidence that company moves are almost always due to a desire to move the office closer to the boss’s house, with disastrous results. Note from the page above that the boss’s address is in the Barton Creek Country Club. Hmmm. What a coincidence.

Because the state legislature is so hostile to Austin, even (especially?) when the will of the citizenry is written into law, public pressure ends up being the only weapon committed citizens can bring to bear on companies that are thinking about a move like this. Please go to the site and ask AMD to reconsider.

Austin Bicycling in Austin I Told You So Personal The Shoal Creek Debacle Walking in Austin (Pedestrian Issues) When Neighborhoods Go Bad

Shoal Creek Updates

I will hopefully move some of this content to my old moldy Shoal Creek Debacle Page when I get time.

Brief introduction: Prior to around 2000, Shoal Creek Boulevard was a minor arterial roadway with extensive bicycle traffic in fairly wide bike lanes which allowed parking (which presented a problem, since modern engineering practice does not allow parking in bike lanes). Shoal Creek’s turn came in the “put up no-parking signs in bike lanes” carousel, and the city came up with a plan to preserve on-street parking on one side of the street. The neighbors freaked; a consultant came up with a ridiculous cyclist-killer proposal; the city rejected it; and then a small group of neighborhood people came up with the idea to just stripe a wide “shared lane” for parked cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. With curb extensions to theoretically slow traffic, although since the extensions don’t go out to the travel lane (so cyclists can pass), their effect is likely to be minimal.

Here’s some stuff that’s been happening recently:

  1. The neighborhoods’ email groups (allandale and rosedale) have been full of complaints about the curb extensions, as well as observations about bad driver behavior, including running over and up onto curb extensions. Additionally, neighbors have complained that the bike lane stripe (separating the bike lane from the parking lane) never got put in, which shows that some people didn’t realize that the awful Gandy plan was shelved when no engineers would sign on to it. Finally, motorists have (as I predicted) been using the shoulder as a driving or passing lane.
    Gandy’s plan, endorsed by the neighborhood:

    The current striping is basically the image above, with no stripe separating the bike lane and parking lane.

  2. Neighbors still think there’s a “bike lane” here. There isn’t. There’s a shoulder, with insufficient space in which to safely pass parked cars. (the absence of the stripe separating the 10 feet into 4 and 6 a la the Gandy plan doesn’t change the geometry here – bicyclists must still enter the travel lane in order to safely pass a parked vehicle).
    Images copied from Michael Bluejay:

  3. Motorists are still expecting cyclists to stay in the bike lane. I rode home down Shoal Creek on Monday, and had some indications of impatient motorists behind me as I passed parked cars (no honking this time at least). Remember that even when there’s a bit more room than in the pictures above, you still have to worry about the dooring problem. Even the city compromise with parking on one side had this problem (although to a far lesser degree).
  4. Parked car and passing car conflicts continue to be high. Many people who supported this debacle from the beginning are still cowering behind the idea that since parked cars are “scarce” (average of ten on each side for the entire stretch from Foster to 38th), that we don’t need to worry about the passing conflicts. The problem, however, is that due to the higher speeds of automobiles, there is a very high chance of conflict on each one of those passes, meaning that it is very likely that a motorist will slow down and wait behind a passing cyclist on each pass. In fact, on Monday, my experience was that 4 out of the 5 times I performed this passing manuever, there were motorists stuck behind me by the time I went back into the shoulder area; and the fifth time I found myself stuck while a car passed me (I didn’t get out into the lane early enough).
  5. People continue to misrepresent this process as a compromise (implying that cyclists got something, parking motorists got something, drivers got something, neighborhood got something, etc). In fact, any rational observer can compare conditions before this change to conditions now and make the following judgement: Parking won. Period. Cyclists got less than they had before, and far less than they should have had. The neighborhood got curb extensions (even though they won’t work). Cyclists got the middle finger.
  6. The City Council member most responsible for this debacle, Jackie Goodman, is being term-limited out of office. Unfortunately, I hold little hope that a stronger (i.e. decision-maker rather than consensus-hoper) member will emerge from the pack seeking election.
  7. Neighborhood troublemakers are still misrepresenting the history of this debacle; failing to mention that the original proposal from the city for this roadway preserved on-street parking on one side of the road, which is more than almost any minor arterial roadway (SCB’s original classification) has, and about average for collectors (SCB’s new neighborhood-forced underclassification). This city proposal represented a substantial compromise of bicycle interests, but because it didn’t preserve ALL on-street parking, several malcontent nincompoops in the neighborhood fought it bitterly.
  8. The same neighborhood troublemakers continue to misrepresent Shoal Creek’s role in the city’s transportation system. SCB was originally (correctly) classified as a minor arterial, which means that its main purpose is not for property access, but for a combination of traffic collection/distribution and small amounts of through traffic. For cyclists, SCB is a critical transportation link, since it’s so long, and has right-of-way at all intersections (meaning it never has a 2-way stop where through traffic doesn’t stop; everything’s either a 4-way stop or traffic light). SCB was reclassified thanks to neighborhood pressure to a “residential collector” around 2001ish, against my objections (I-TOLD-YOU-SO-MARKER: I told the other members of the UTC at the time that this change would make it easier for them to then prevent no-parking-in-bike-lanes). Also note that this makes SCB, by far, the longest collector roadway in the city. The neighborhood, ever since then, has claimed that SCB is a “residential street”, which means something very different from “residential collector”. A “residential street” is supposed to serve property access first, parking second, and distribution a distant third, with essentially no provision for through traffic. A “residential collector”, on the other hand, is supposed to serve distribution first, property access second, through traffic third, and parking last.
    The original city plan, preserving on-street parking on one side:

  9. (Humor value only): One of the malcontent neighborhood nincompoops has surfaced again on my old fan group (from my undergraduate days; no, I didn’t make it).
Bicycling in Austin I Told You So metablog Personal

Sometimes I get it right

Right after reading the stories about more buyers being upside-down on car loans (and pointing out to my wife that we have a 72-month loan on the new family car), this story comes out,
and all of the sudden I look like Einstien again.

Was planning a Shoal Creek entry for today (after riding to work on Friday), but discovered Friday morning that my road (commuter) bike was missing, presumed stolen. Spent Sunday outfitting my old mountain bike; rode it to the bus stop this morning, hopefully riding home this afternoon. Spent all day Saturday reconfiguring the garage so I won’t be tempted to leave a bike out overnight (unlocked) again. I may shift gears and write a rebuttal to my John Birch Society commenter today over lunch instead.