Category Archives: Driving in Austin

Today’s news bits

I still have a post simmering about double-tracking the Red Line, and why it won’t make much difference; but I may have to update it after this morning’s news.
1. The freight train derailment. It’s happened several times before in the recent past – the tracks are pretty crappy in that part of town and have not been replaced. So is this the fault of the Red Line? Not directly; no. The tracks were bad before the Red Line was a gleam in Mike Krusee’s eye. HOWEVER: if we had built light rail in the 2000 plan (if Krusee hadn’t forced it to the polls early); we’d have two brand-new, presumably better-engineered and more safe tracks through the whole corridor – so a derailment would have been less likely.
2. MOPAC managed lanes. I say the same thing now that I said THREE YEARS AGO: If the lanes don’t have a dedicated exit or exits, and there’s no indication TXDOT has changed their plans to add any, they will be completely useless – they will quickly degrade to the speed of the general purpose lanes as people in the managed lane struggle to merge back through 3 lanes of traffic to get off the highway.

Ticketing isn’t much better than just yelling

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

Austin police, beginning with Monday’s MetroRail startup and for the following two weeks, will be staking out a worrisome intersection on Airport Boulevard, where the track is just a few car lengths from a traffic light and cars often illegally stop on or near the railroad.
Despite new signal gate technology meant to clear waiting traffic near the tracks, Capital Metro officials are concerned that some drivers might flout posted signs and railroad signal lights and find themselves in the path of a fast-moving train.
Police officers, at Capital Metro’s request, will be monitoring 51st Street near Airport Boulevard and will issue citations immediately to motorists who stop on the track or under the four crossing arms that Capital Metro has installed where the track crosses 51st Street.

My response in comments to the Statesman article:

I covered this intersection on my blog a long time ago and have spoken about it on KUT several times since. The idea that we can avoid problems here through education and ticketing is just ludicrous – it only takes one person who missed the media coverage out of the thousands of people driving through here to make it all for naught.
The intersection actively encourages drivers to stop on the tracks, albeit briefly, if they want to ever have a chance to make a light – and this isn’t just one direction of travel; it’s people trying to turn off Clarkson; people just trying to go across Airport to the east; and people trying to turn left onto Clarkson from the east.
But let’s just yell and ticket. That’ll work, right? As long as we can make sure that 100.0% of all drivers who ever go through here will comply.
The far better policy, of course, would be to fix the intersection, but it doesn’t play into Capital Metro’s narrative that this was a cheap and easy rail start on all existing tracks.

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

Red Line Death Watch Part 1

No, not like the GM Death Watch at my favorite car blog; this is a “how long before somebody’s killed” series. Today, some pictures of the intersection I talked about on KUT last week.
First, the overheard. Imagine you’re headed west on 51st across Airport because you just went to Home Depot and are headed back to Hyde Park or points south. (Hint: Red River starts just south of this image as a turn off of Clarkson; turning on Clarkson is thus by far the best way into or around Hyde Park by car).

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

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Math with M1EK, Lesson 1

It’s come up again, this time on the twitter. The old road-warrior chestnut argument that it doesn’t matter if urbanites pay a much higher percentage of their driving costs than do suburbanites, because suburbanites drive more miles overall. This tactic is a favorite of the folks at various car blogs that M1EK frequents as well, and it’s time it was taken out back and shot.
Let’s use our favorite Houston road as an example, thanks to AC for maintaining the story.

For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

So this means that for every given dollar in road costs, the driver pays $0.16 in gasoline taxes while driving on that roadway. Got it. This also means that another $0.84 is subsidized. That subsidy can come from gas taxes assessed on other roads, many of those being arterial roadways inside the city of Houston that TXDOT doesn’t actually have to pay to maintain; from ‘local contributions’ that TXDOT often requires for freeway construction – i.e. property and sales taxes; or various other sources – the key is that the remaining money required to build and maintain this roadway isn’t gas taxes generated by this road itself. So far, so good.
So let’s assume that yesterday, Mr. Suburban Road-Warrior dove SH99 long enough to assess $1.00 in road costs to TXDOT and paid $0.16 in gas taxes for the privilege. Got it. Here’s what that looks like:

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Don’t Let The Door Hit You…

CNN’s Campbell Brown’s words ring true in relation to this pantload, whom the media never bothered to fact-check on anything:

Brown spoke of the “false equivalency” that’s often practiced in journalism. “Our view is that when Candidate A says it’s raining outside, and Candidate B says it’s sunny, a journalist should be able to look outside and say, ‘Well it’s sunny, so one of these guys is wrong,’” she told Stewart.

Guess what? Sal Costello was wrong on almost everything he ever said. But you wouldn’t know that for reading the Statesman, or the Chronicle, or even Burnt Orange Report – and the transportation discourse has suffered drastically for it. Instead of flat-out telling their readers that Costello’s position wasn’t true, they, at best, alluded to it indirectly, assuming people would get it. They didn’t. As a result, people now honestly believe his bullshit about being double-taxed and the money supposedly diverted to ‘toll roads’ from ‘free’ways.
In this whole process, one might assume the losers are suburban motorists. Not so; the losers are central city Austin residents, both drivers and non-drivers, who have to continue the unfair process of paying for suburban commuters’ highways through both the gas tax subsidy and the property tax and sales tax subsidy. With toll roads, at least suburban commuters would have paid something closer to the cost of their choice to live out there. Now? Back to business-as-usual, meaning people who ride the bus in East Austin get to subsidize people driving in from Circle C. My environmentalist friends who think this means “no roads” are deluded – the phase II toll roads weren’t highways to nowhere like Southwest Parkway; there already exists sufficient commuting demand and more than enough political support to make these roads happen, whether ‘free’ or tolled.
Anyways, to our erstwhile Circle C Crackpot: don’t let the door hit you. And shame on you, reporters. It was raining the whole time, and you let people think there was an honest disagreement on the weather.
(The worst part? As I mentioned to a facebook friend, he actually made me feel a little bit sorry at one point for this guy. UNCLEAN).

Your dose of humor for the day

Or, “M1EK is a downtown-hating car-loving sprawlmonger. Wait, what?”
Because I pointed out that most people won’t walk 7 blocks each way from a transit stop to get to their office, among other things, a commenter at the Statesman thinks I’m one of those folks who:

drive[s] around the parking lot at HEB for hours trying to find a good close-in spot. Maybe take a handicap spot if it’s REAL HOT…

and:

Your about to tell me that no one is going to move into those condos and they built too many. Maybe you should do a little looking into that statement before you bore us with it. Every condo built so far has been sold an there’s a waiting list big enough to fill 85% of the ones not done yet. I know because I looked into it, because obviously. I don’t mind walking around downtown.

Go there for the full experience. Anybody who knows me will have diet coke coke shooting out their nose. (Although, for one thing, I can go straight to the handicapped space at HEB, thanks, for the same reason I don’t ride my bike anymore).
Good lord. This is almost, but not quite, as funny as the Tahoe-haver label I got from another cyclist back in the day. Yee-haw!

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).

Transportation Microeconomics Bites Me In The Butt

So you may have heard me talk about the new suburban office. For a while, we were trying to keep making a go of it with just one car – my wife driving me in most days and picking me up sometimes; other times me taking that hour and 45 minute trip home with a long walk, 2 buses, and a transfer involved. I tried to work from home as much as possible – but the demands to be in the office were too great; and we couldn’t sustain the drop-offs and the long bus trips.
Well, we relented. Just in time; I got my wife to agree on a color and we now own a second Prius – this one obtained right as the waiting list shot up from zero to many months (ours was ordered; but there was no wait beyond that so it took about 2 weeks – arriving right as the house exploded so ironically I ended up working exlusively from home for a few weeks longer anyways). Do not argue with the M1EK on the futurism/economics predictions is the lesson you should be taking away from this.
So that’s the intro. Here’s the microeconomics lesson.
Assuming $4 gas, the trip to work in the car costs $1.56 according to my handy depreciation-free commute calculator. The morning drive takes 20 minutes. The afternoon drive more like 30.
The transit trip costs $1 (although soon to go up to at least $1.50). That means I save $0.56, at least before the fare increase, right? Not much, but every bit helps, right?
Well, the transit trip takes an hour and a half in the morning; an hour and 45 minutes in the afternoon; and I can’t afford that much extra time anyways, but even if I could, it would be placing an effective value of 23.1 cents per hour on my time, which seems a bit, uh, low.
So it’s gonna take a lot more than $4/gallon gas, sad to say. You might be seeing some marginal increases in ridership around here, but only in areas where transit service is very good and where people should have been considering taking the bus all along. And there’s no prospect for improvement – the reason bus service is so bad out here is because Rollingwood and Westlake don’t want to pay Capital Metro taxes, although they sure as heck enjoy taking my urban gas tax dollars to build them some nice roads to drive on. In the long-term Cap Metro plan, there may be a bus route on 360 which would at least lessen the 30 minute walk/wait involved, but that could be a decade or more – by then we’ll probably be getting chauffered through the blasted alkali flats in monkey-driven jet boats. Not gonna help me.
Also, those who think telecommuting and staggered work schedules are more important than pushing for higher-quality transit and urban density can bite it, hard. If even people in my business often get pressure to come into the physical office, there’s no way the typical workaday joe is going to be able to pull it off in large enough numbers to make any difference.

Commuter Rail Use Case #2: Leander

Continuing yesterday’s post, here are a couple of use-cases from Leander; the endpoint of the line. Since the train trip would be the longest here, one might expect the train to do well – let’s see.
Each table below is again based on a commute leaving the origin point at roughly 7:30 AM (for bus scheduling). I’m still taking Capital Metro at their word that the average shuttle bus trip length will be 10 minutes even though I suspect it will be worse. It certainly won’t be reliable – but the train schedules will. In each table, a row just indicates a step (a travel or wait step).
Train times taken from page 4 of the PDF. Note that I now include a drive to the park-and-ride. The last example, folks, was supposed to be the “let’s pretend we believe that Crestview Station will really be a TOD that people will really walk to the train station from”. Updated walk time for UT for car case to 10-15 minutes based on input from Kedron et al. Note I’m assuming faculty/staff here, not students.
Leander to UT

Step Drive Express Bus (#983) Rail
1 32-60 minutes Drive to park/ride (5-15 minutes)2 Drive to park/ride (5-15 minutes)2
2 Walk 10-15 minutes to office3 Wait for bus (10 minutes)2 Wait for train (10 minutes)2
3   Bus: 45-80 minutes5 Train: 48 minutes
4   Walk 0-5 minutes to office Transfer to shuttle bus (5-10 minutes)4
5     Bus: 10 minutes5
6     Walk 0-10 minutes to office1
TOTALS
Total Time 42-75 minutes 60-100 minutes 78-103 minutes

Notes from superscripts above:

  1. Offices are more likely closer to the Guadalupe end than the San Jacinto end of campus, but that still presents a range of walking times.

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

Conclusions for trip to UT:

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

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

Austin drivers don’t come close to paying their own way

Quick hit, found from Jeff’s excellent “City Transit Advocates” aggregator:
This recently released national study confirms that even in states with more progressive transportation policies than we have in Texas, motorists do not pay the full cost of providing them with roads and ancillary services. Not even close. (I’ve seen the New Jersey study before and have used it many times; but nobody bothered to go to that level of detail for the nation as a whole).
And in Texas, it’s a lot worse – we don’t allow state gas taxes to be spent on major roadways outside the state highway system (which screws cities like Austin in favor of suburbs like Round Rock); and we even require ‘donations’ from city and county general funds to get state and federal ‘free’ways built. If the subsidy recovery would be 20-70 cents/gallon nationally, it’d easily be over a buck here.