Category Archives: Subsidies to Suburban Sprawl

Where did the Highland alignment come from?

A short interlude from the “urbanists, seriously, the rail election is important” thread:

As somebody who was involved in the Project Connect Phase 1 process, I can tell you that the inclusion of Highland as a high-scoring choice for the final projects to move forward into Phase 1 was a complete surprise to all of us. Highland is an awful segment of the route. It only works if you ignore every bit of good advice about how to build urban rail – it assumes park-and-rides on the highway for suburbanites are how we fill trains for an urban service. Nobody who was involved in Project Connect Phase 1 liked Highland.

Except, apparently, the Chamber of Commerce.

I’ve made the case lately that the Highland alignment was flat-out chosen for us BY the Chamber of Commerce, based on circumstantial evidence (what other reason could there be?) – and please don’t quote me Project Connect statistics; that entire process was a complete joke. It’s certainly not a good choice on transit grounds (see “urban rail should be urban” series underway at another great blog – CarFree Austin). But when I’ve suggested that the Chamber picked this line, I’ve been attacked by people at the Chamber and told it’s nonsense.


Then I got an anonymous tip.

I wonder if you guys would like to see a video.

This is an excerpt from Citizens Communications from 6/13/2014 at the CCAG meeting. The speaker is Beth Ann Ray from the Chamber of Commerce. The full video of the meeting is here at the City, I suggest you click on “Item 5″ on the right and then advance to about 15:30.

Transcript of this section, by me:

based on our input, from Project Connect, and the meetings and workshops that we have had with the project staff, you have an LPA that our committee (our transportation committee) selected actually, way back in the beginning in the first workshop we did, and a few weeks ago, that same committtee recommended to our board that they consider supporting the entire LPA from Grove all the way up to ACC’s flagship campus up at Highland redevelopment

Let’s look at that transcript again, with some added emphasis:

based on our input, from Project Connect, and the meetings and workshops that we have had with the project staff, you have an LPA that our committee (our transportation committee) selected actually, way back in the beginning in the first workshop we did, and a few weeks ago, that same committtee recommended to our board that they consider supporting the entire LPA from Grove all the way up to ACC’s flagship campus up at Highland redevelopment

Hmmm. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that nobody except the Chamber liked Highland, and Highland ended up being picked, right?

No sir, I don’t buy it.

No, the Riley fig leaf last night changes nothing – it does not commit to a fair evaluation of the Lamar/Guadalupe ROUTE against whatever is shat out for Highlandmall or Highlandmueller; and it does not force a real answer about the FTA’s opinion about moving Rapid Bus in 2020 or 2022 or whenever (instead of John Langmore’s claims that made it pretty clear he implied to them he wanted an opinion on cancelling it today, in 2013). Its only tangible effect would be an attempt to delay opposition until it’s too late.

I’m continuing to urge all transit advocates to vote AGAINST the bond referendum in 2014.

The ceiling for the Red Line

is very low.

I keep having to drag up this old Chronicle article so much I finally thought I’d better link to it AND excerpt the relevant parts in case it ever disappears down the memory hole.

February 25, 2000 in the Chronicle:

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

The key here is that from about 1997-1999, Capital Metro’s plan of record was to take the entire Red Line (what we use now for commuter rail), build two new tracks, put up electric wire, and run light rail trains on it all day long at high frequencies.

The Federal government said the ridership would be low, negligibly higher than what we’re seeing today, and hinted to Capital Metro that they would not fund that line. Capital Metro quickly switched to what became the 2000 light rail proposal – the “Red/Green” line, using the Red Line’s ROW only from Leander to Airport/Lamar, then going in the street from there.

You can use the 1997 proposal as, effectively, a ceiling for what can be accomplished with further investment in the Red Line we have today. Nothing has truly changed since then – Capital Metro anticipated infill then around the stations in the far northwest, and they anticipate it now, and it still turns out to be low-density crap if it ever gets built. No more jobs have moved to be close to the MLK station instead of at UT.

Folks, there isn’t that much more that can be accomplished with a train that doesn’t go very many places worth going. The real action is, as it always has been, around Congress Avenue downtown (not the Convention Center); at the University of Texas (preferably its front door on Guadalupe), and at the Capitol; and no, you aren’t going to convince suburbanites to transfer to a shuttle-bus(*) to get to those places (as we’ve finally, I hope, proven by now).


This is why further investment in the Red Line is best characterized as wasting money trying to disprove the sunk cost fallacy. There’s very little new ridership there, even if the train gets a little faster, or runs a few more hours on the weekend.

* – no, urban rail doesn’t help either. Suburbanites own cars. Two train trips in our commuting environment, even if the second one goes closer to where they want to go, is fundamentally uncompetitive. Believe me, or not, but remember: I’m the guy who predicted the Year 1 ridership correctly, and called that nobody would want to ride shuttlebuses when everybody else said they would.

Here They Go Again

Short epistle posted by me to a couple of neighborhood lists in response to attempts to rally the usual suspects behind an effort to enact rental registration in order to supposedly stop “stealth dorms”.

I promise I’ll get back to Rapid Bus someday.

Here’s the actual note I sent:




The attempts to tie this rental registration initiative to stealth dorms seems very similar to attempts to justify the McMansion ordinance based on a supposed “drainage emergency” (remember?).

Given that this resolution claims to be a boon for renters, has there been any outcry, at all, from renters or people who purport to represent them, for a solution like this? As a landlord who occasionally has to bother my tenants by entering the dwelling they’re paying to inhabit for things like supervising a repair crew, I have a hard time believing they’re enthusiastic about additional mandatory visits (inspections) from people they don’t know and don’t approve.

Or has this been pushed solely by nearby homeowners against certain problematic behaviors they associate with renters, such as noise and trash? If so, why are the existing enforcement mechanisms insufficient, or if they are not, in what ways will these new enforcement mechanisms somehow succeed in discouraging the real problematic behaviors being experienced (noise, trash)?

Has the affordable housing community weighed in, at all, about the sometimes-mentioned reduction in “unrelated tenants” from 6 to 4? And on the registration fee’s impact as well? (I’ve seen a posting on another neighborhood’s list from a homeowner who rents two rooms to people to help pay his mortgage and has indicated he’ll likely have to stop, and sell, if the fees are non-trivial).

I have a sneaking suspicion that this is really about stopping properties from being rented in Central Austin in general. And I cannot support measures like that, nor do I have a lot of respect for those who would.

- MD

Rapid Bus versus existing conditions on the #3 corridor

Best-case time for Rapid Bus, here we are.

The existing service on Burnet Road heading southbound into downtown in the morning rush looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 9.45.16 AM

This basically boils down to a local bus every 22 minutes during the morning peak. Service drops slightly to 26-minute headways during the mid-day, and then rises back to 22 minutes during the evening peak. People from other cities may not believe this, but this actually qualifies as frequent by Austin standards. This route makes a lot of stops. Meaning it’s fairly slow, but you don’t have to walk far to pick it up (I used to use this one, occasionally, for a former work commute).

Stops on existing #3

The new Rapid Bus line running on Burnet/Lamar (the second one to be built, but the first one we’re talking about) will run every 10 minutes during the morning peak, and every “12-20 minutes” during the mid-day.

Here’s a diagram of the Rapid Bus route replacing the #3 (look at the purple line). The bus will only stop at the indicated ‘stations’ (bench + sign).

MetroRapid on Burnet/S Lamar

An interesting aside: Capital Metro’s newest MetroRapid presentations now only include the best example of travel time improvement for each route (somewhat OK in the case of the #3 replacement; complete bullshit on the other route). Luckily, your intrepid reporter located the old presentation from which the picture below is taken

And here’s the travel time estimate improvement graphic from Capital Metro:

MetroRapid #3 improvements

So we can see a pretty big travel improvement here – focusing on North Austin, a 20% or so time improvement over the #3. But where does that improvement come from? Traffic lights, or reducing stops?

Unfortunately, there’s no existing express service (limited-stop) on the corridor to compare to, so we can’t answer that question – but the results from the next post may serve illustrative on that metric. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let’s imagine a couple of users of the current #3 and see how this affects them. Using 600 Congress for the destination here.

Allan Allandale boards the #3 bus today at a stop that will be served by the new MetroRapid service. He gets on the bus at Justin/Burnet today for his job downtown. Currently, this trip takes from 8:11 to 8:43. 32 minutes. In the new service, we’ll be completely credulous and assume the 20% time reduction from the entire “Domain to 10th St” trip applies equally here – and the new trip will take 25 minutes (32 – (20% == 7)). Allan saved 7 minutes.

But that’s not the only case. Scroll back up and notice the high number of #3 stops up there. Most of those are going away; unlike the other Rapid Bus line on Guadalupe/Lamar, the existing local bus is not just being cut; it’s being eliminated. So a person may have to walk quite a bit further to the new stop than the old one.

Suppose Allan’s friend Andy Allandale lives in a slightly different spot in Allandale and currently uses the bus stop at Burnet & Greenlawn. His extra walk from that bus stop down to Justin/Burnet will take about 4 minutes. Doesn’t seem like much, but remember Andy is only going to save 7 minutes on the actual bus ride. So the savings for Andy are actually only 3 minutes.

This pattern gets worse the closer in you get to town (and better the further out you get) – which makes sense. A 20% time savings is going to buy you more savings on the bus part of the trip the further out you are, and if the walk penalty is about the same, the suburbanite will benefit more from the service than will the urbanite. Unfortunately, this ruins the narrative that Rapid Bus is going to be great for Central Austin. In fact, Rapid Bus delivers its travel time benefits on the #3 route disproportionately to people who live very far out; people in Central Austin likely see little benefit even if they live right next to the stop; and zero or even worse conditions if they live next to a #3 stop that’s being eliminated.

Worse case scenario still: Ronald Rosedale currently boards the #3 at 45th and Burnet. The new Rapid Bus that eliminated the #3 actually moves away from Burnet here over to Lamar – the closest new stop will be at Sunshine and Lamar (or 40th and Lamar). 8 minute walk, which totally eliminates the time savings from the Rapid Bus trip.

Once we go further south than that, we’re into the territory where the lines overlap, and the #1 remains a (less frequent than before) option.

Now, what about frequency? On this corridor, all users see a significant increase in peak-hour frequency, roughly doubling the number of available bus trips per hour over current conditions. Mid-day frequency improvement is likely not significant (I’d wager the 12-20 minute citation here means this corridor is getting 20 minute headways and the other one 12; existing conditions are 26-minute headways).

So the conclusion for the #3 corridor? If you live far out of the core, but still close to a stop that will be served by the new service, you are going to be much better off. Central city residents, down in the urban core, will see little travel time benefits, but still enjoy frequency benefits.

On to Guadalupe/Lamar Rapid Bus next, likely next week.

It’s time to talk about Rapid Bus again.

So the PR machine is out in force trying to make Rapid Bus sound great so people are distracted from the fact that the densest, most active, most vibrant corridor in the city – not only now but 40 years from now – isn’t going to get rail until the 2040s, if then. In the meantime, we’re planning on building another hugely subsidized line to suburbs that don’t pay any Capital Metro taxes; and an urban rail line to a “new urban” development that is new, but isn’t urban; and even when fully built out will have far less people and far less travel demand to the core than Guadalupe/Lamar do today.

Was that sentence long enough? I pay by the period.

Anyways, so Rapid Bus? Snakes like JMVC are pitching the hell out of it and talking about it in the same breath as light rail and commuter rail as “high capacity transit” – which is a way to make people in Central Austin think they’re getting equal or nearly-equal quality.

This is bullshit.

So apparently I need to do this again – and this time, for the maximum possible fairness, I’m going to start with the BEST POSSIBLE CASE for Rapid Bus – the Burnet/Lamar corridor, where no express service currently exists.


Capital Metro and Rail Demand, Part The Deux

As always, click to embiggen.

According to our buddy John-Michael Vincent Cortez, this area justifies rail service:

Lakeline "station"
Do the Cedar trees make it urban?

but this location does not:

NB Guadalupe near 27th
Clearly there’s no demand here.

But surely I must have taken a bad picture of the first location. Let’s spin around and take a couple more shots:

Lakeline "station" looking west-ish?
Lakeline "station" looking east-ish?

One last one, to the north-ish, showing development happening any day now which will turn this into an urban paradise:

Lakeline "station", looking north-ish
Man, that screams “future TOD”, don’t it?

Oops, looks like suburban homebuilder signs. Well, still, if he says that this area justifies rail service:

Lakeline "station", looking north-ish
Man, that screams “future TOD”, don’t it?


Lakeline "station" looking east-ish?


Lakeline "station" looking west-ish?


Lakeline "station"
Do the Cedar trees make it urban?

and this does not:

Guadalupe near 27th, looking south
Desolate low-density wasteland with no urban activity, obviously

who are we to argue?


(All Lakeline pictures taken during a serendipitous Saturday morning trip from my kid’s chess tournament up in Cedar Round Rock Park to the Super Awesome Target to buy a camp chair, in which I coincidentally (yes, coincidentally) drove right by the ‘station’. Austin pictures horked from Google streetview, which were obviously snapped during a slow period. Posted with some pain to bookface because RRISD blocks that, and IMAP/SMTP, but NOT tworter for some reason, so Round Cedar Park Rock punks should please plan on getting tworter accounts posthaste).

Quick note on the city’s proposal to subsidize Red Line weekend service

Things are going crazy at my day jorb. So this might be all I get to post. This is a comment I just left on the Statesman article:

Almost nobody inside the city limits of Austin has a reason to use this thing on the weekends – because the stations with parking primarly serve those outside city limits, and the stations without parking aren’t pedestrian-friendly (and buses that might connect to them don’t run much on the weekends).

Combine this with the fact that we’d be giving up the $5-$10 the person from the non-Austin jurisdiction would otherwise pay to park their car downtown and this is a truly STUPID move for the city of Austin to even contemplate.

This is something the cities of Leander and Cedar Park and Round Rock and Pfluygerville should be subsidizing, not Austin.

Update from a few months later:

Who is riding the Red Line?


How much are we subsidizing passengers on the Red Line?

Update on lack of updates

  • Very busy with new position at day job. Unlike most of the people who write or advocate on transportation, I have a non-transportation, non-government, job in the private sector; and it’s now consuming all my possible time and then some. Turns out you get a lot more time to write in between builds than you do when writing planning documents. Who knew?
  • Not much to report on anyways. Ridership is back down, despite anectdotal reports to the contrary.
  • Despite that, we’re going to start running even more trains to places almost nobody wants to go (shuttlebuses) – making the operating cost subsidy even more monstrously high; resulting in even more cuts to bus service that actual Capital Metro taxpayers actually use. Chris Riley and Mike Martinez have done absolutely nothing to get Capital Metro on the right track here. I am critically disappointed, especially in Chris.
  • My long-range plan is still what it was a month ago – move content to WordPress on my own domain to give my gracious host a long-deserved break; start building back story to refer to from new posts to make them easier to write (and the older ones easier to refer to without having to wade through current content which is no longer current).
  • In the meantime, it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about crackplogging anyways – thanks to a couple of local sites which apparently think that even though people still call the damn thing light rail; people still think it can be expanded to serve the city’s core; people still think it just needs better connections – that somehow I’ve been beating a dead horse. Or that Capital Metro would change their plans if I just eased up on them.
  • It doesn’t help that local rail and downtown advocates keep sucking up to the people who got us into this mess. Every time I see one of these guys ‘like’ some irrelevant piece of news about the Red Line on facebook, l want to scream – you idiots; don’t you realize that this thing is killing urban rail right this very minute? Where would you rather be able to take a train in ten years from your downtown condo – a cow pasture in Leander or the University of Texas? The middle of a huge parking lot a half-mile from Lakeline Mall or the Triangle? You can’t have both; you’d better make up your damn mind.

So there’s where we are. I recommend you pay attention to the twitter for short comments on whatever’s going on in the meantime.

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.