Category Archives: Transit Field Trips

Transit Field Trip: Back From Jury Duty

On Monday, I had jury duty, which allowed for me to watch a whopping two people get off the 8:25 AM train at MLK, and also ride the bus back home. But first, on the way there, my wife drove me down; and we observed full shuttles (the UT variety, not the Red Line rail shuttles) and expresses and normal city buses dropping tons of people off on Guadalupe at the front door of UT – this was important to verify just in case the low rail turnout was due to UT traffic being down thanks to exams or something.
I got let out of empanelling kind of late at about 1:00; walked quickly to Texadelphia and had a very good but surprisingly expensive lunch (low snack availability = big-time starving) and then walked over to Lavaca to find the first northbound stop.
1:52 PM: Picked up by the #5 bus heading northbound from 15th and Lavaca. Nice. Was about to call Cap Metro to decide whether to wait for the #5 or just get on the first #1 I saw (runs more often, but would have much longer walk to house). There were 7 people on this bus before I boarded; total count now 8.
Stopped for about a minute by the light at MLK. Rapid Bus (were we on it) would not have helped here; the red light was stale when we arrived. One person got off the bus at Guadalupe/20th; total count now 7.
BIG backup at 21st st. Took a while to clear out as the lights turned green many blocks ahead. Another place where Rapid Bus wouldn’t have helped. Got hit by a fresh red at 21st right as we got there – Rapid Bus might actually have helped here (were I riding the #1 replacement, that is; rather than the #5). Lost about a minute here due to this.
1:58 PM: Bus arrives at ped crossing between 22nd and 23rd; 9 people got on, including a confused elderly passenger who held up the bus for about 2 minutes by asking the driver a bunch of questions. I presume Rapid Bus wouldn’t put up with this but don’t know for sure. Total count now 16.
Made all green lights with no stops all the way to Dean Keeton, then turned and made it through another couple greens to the red light at Speedway (stale; no help from Rapid Bus). Thanks, mid-day light traffic. At the big stop on the north side of campus right after this light, dropped off 2 and picked up 6; for total count of 20.
Picked up one more at San Jacinto/30th (unusual), total count now 21.
Dropped one off at 31st; and then no more drop-offs until I got off the bus at 35th/Speedway with a couple other passengers; leaving 17 people still on the bus heading north.
Conclusion for urbanites: All-in-all, a good local bus experience, except for the long delay with the passenger who didn’t know where he wanted to go. Little delay due to traffic; bus well-used but nobody had to stand.
Special bonus for suburbanites: If you wanted to get a self-fulfilling prophecy and see this bus almost empty, you probably would have had to observe it north of the northern edges of Hyde Park or the Triangle area. Try Woodrow up around North Loop, or even Anderson near Northcross Mall.

Transit Field Trip: Houston 2010

So for Spring Break I took the family down to Houston to do a bunch of museums – and we stayed at the Holiday Inn Medical Center, which is close-ish (not real close) to the Main Street light rail line. My only condition for the trip was that we had to ride the line once; which we did.

Thursday we drove to the Hermann Park Zoo on this route. As it turns out, we had to park slightly further away than the light rail station actually was (and even that was a very long walk). The close-in lot that we could otherwise have used was difficult to approach since the road that apparently would have taken us there was closed by the cops (I have a handicapped plate thanks to the reactive arthritis). So we parked about a block and a half away from the train station, and paid $12 for the privilege. Hooray. Streetscape in the Medical Center is very nice and very busy – in a good way. Pointed out to the family that the basic layout here matches what we would have had in front of UT with the 2000 light rail proposal (and now can probably never have).
During the time we took just to cross the street, a train in each direction went by – each one standing-room-only. Headway this time of day is every 6 minutes. Turns out it takes long enough to cross the street there that you’ll always see a train either coming or going.
Leaving the zoo on the long walk, once again saw a couple of trains; once again standing-room-only.
Friday was the train day. Got a late start thanks to sleeping in and a late breakfast; then walked about 1/2 mile (remember, this was the point of the day for me) and boarded at the Dryer/TMC station. Bought our single-ride tickets (really a 2-hour pass) from the vending machine without incident – although couldn’t take pictures as the train was arriving fast enough we just had to board immediately. We went only three stations up the line to the Museum District station and then took another longish walk back to the Museum of Natural Science (which sucked). The train this time was about half full – we actually got to sit down.
Left the Natual Science Museum (which sucked) and took the train back at about 5:00. Standing room only again; again no wait for the train; pointed out to the 16 year old that Texans won’t ride public transportation; walked back to the hotel. The end.
On this drive, saw a good instance of TOD (brand new block-spanning apartment complex advertising proximity to the train; parking garage not readily apparent – doubtlessly THERE, but the complex is clearly oriented to the train, not the drive – unlike the joke at Crestview Station).
Saturday was wet and cold, and our destination (Downtown Aquarium) was way too far from the train to do that way; so we drove; but I made sure to drive next to the train most of the way. Even on a wet sloppy day, the trains were relatively full; frequent; and uneventful. Pointed out to the family that the cross-section in the Museum District on the one-way streets matched what we would have had on Guadalupe/Lavaca downtown between MLK and 9th-11th-ish on the 2000 light rail proposal. Second half of the day we spent at the Childrens’ Museum which was a workable walk from the train station, but we already had the car, so we drove.
Sunday was NASA. No train, obviously. 6 year old would have spent the entire time in the giant playscape had we let him.
Overall conclusions:

  • Houston’s still a sprawling mess, which is depressing. They’ve also got a good urban core which has gotten a lot better in the Medical Center area, which is also depressing, since they did it by just following the easy recipe for light rail success that we’re ignoring.
  • The CityPass is a good deal only if you’re not that much into the Natural Science museum. Everything that was interesting there was a separate charge. Ugh.
  • The Downtown Aquarium is OK but a half-day event. The restaurant is expensive but really worth it; the kids (and the adults) LOVED the fish while we ate. Even the baby was enthralled.
  • NASA: Would be nice if you didn’t have to have an adult or adult-like substance sitting next to the playscape all friggin’ day.
  • The rail line is a success. Period. 36,000 daily trips. And they’re actually paying money to ride. They’ve fixed most of their safety issues; it’s very hard to interact with the train now and not know exactly what you’re supposed to do – and interactions are kept to a minimum; unlike the current debacle at 51st/Airport which I warned you about in November and the city/CapMet are just starting to take seriously.

No more time. Trainin’, trainin’, trainin’. Not that kind of train, sadly.

Tri-Rail, The Red Line, and “Is It TOD?”

This was originally going to be a comment in response to a comment Erica from Capital Metro made to Two Quick Hits. I’ve reproduced her comment in full here.

Four comments on your two quick hits!
1. I’m new to all of this, so fact check it, but I think Polikov’s involvement dealt with the Crystal Falls development, which is not in the Leander TOD district and is not part of the TOD being developed around Capital Metro’s Leander Station. Leander is not on hold or abandoned, it is on track. http://www.capmetroblog.blogspot.com
2. Crestview: the developers have told us that the presence of MetroRail there made the opportunity attractive and desirable…doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have been developed on its own, without the rail line there, but maybe not as quickly.
3. Tri-Rail ridership has doubled since 2005. Last year ridership was over 4m, so the “nobody rides it” argument is wearing thin. Anyhow, one of our TOD staff tells me that Tri-Rail has 2 TOD projects underway: Deerfield Beach Station and Boca Raton Station.
4. Development takes time; Mueller planning started in 1997. Groundbreaking for the big box stuff on the frontage road happened in 2006, Dell & the first housing in 2007. It’s a tad early to declare that the Red Line TOD is a failure.

Erica, I can’t agree with any of those points. In order:

  1. Under no circumstance ought you declare this a TOD – not a single spade of dirt has been turned. A lesson which should have been learned from Tri-Rail, which declared a dozen or more TODs that never materialized.
    The Leander plans are rather underwhelming, too. A development that requires that its residents cross at an unprotected crosswalk across a busy highway to get to the transit service is NOT “oriented towards transit”.
    Update: In comments on CM’s blog entry about the TOD, it becomes clear that the blog author was throwing in the crosswalk as an afterthought; it doesn’t appear to be related to this particular supposed TOD project at all. However, the thinking that a ‘crosswalk’ is somehow a bicycle/pedestrian feature which we ought to be impressed by is kind of illustrative here.

  2. Yes, Crestview would have developed just fine – the developers may have gotten a bit of a pass through the neighborhood gauntlet because of the transit, but that’s exactly what I said.
  3. Tri-Rail: Yes, it doubled, when gas went to $4.00 a gallon. Your own ridership figures skyrocketed too. More trains are also running now. The TOD projects that are ‘underway’ are, uh, NOT. “Boca Raton station” is a strip mall of retail that fronts the major arterial roadway and a bunch of parking; the train station is off and to the back. I saw absolutely nothing in Deerfield to indicate that anything’s being built.
  4. Mueller is a special case. The Triangle got done much more quickly; we’d see spades of dirt being turned by now on TODs on the Red Line if, indeed, it were capable of generating any TOD.

Some requirements to call something a TOD, from the VTPI; full list here:

  • The transit-oriented development lies within a five-minute walk of the transit stop, or about a quarter-mile from stop to edge. For major stations offering access to frequent high-speed service this catchment area may be extended to the measure of a 10-minute walk.
  • A balanced mix of uses generates 24-hour ridership. There are places to work, to live, to learn, to relax and to shop for daily needs.”
  • Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.
  • Roadway space is allocated and traffic signals timed primarily for the convenience of walkers and cyclists.

Note that the Red Line, even if it operates every 15 minutes, is only part of their trip. The shuttle service on the downtown/UT end of the trip will never be fast, comfortable, or reliable. We can already tell, in other words, that the development in Leander won’t be real TOD – it’s already on track to fail at least four of the metrics even if they do everything right with their buildings.
Tri-Rail has been running for almost 20 years now. There’s still precisely zero square feet of TOD. Not surprising when you read what you need to answer the question “Is it really TOD?”. Light rail can do it. Heavy urban rail can do it. Commuter rail can’t and never will. They may use TOD as an excuse to upzone to what the market was already clamoring for, as demonstrated by Crestview (vs. the Triangle), or they may actually be trying to get it done, but it ain’t gonna happen – people aren’t going to pay a financial premium to live next to a train that doesn’t go anywhere worth going without transfers.
(In case you’re wondering, the CAMPO TWG streetcar/light-rail plan could produce TOD, especially on East Riverside, by the way, because people would be able to board a train operating at high frequencies in reserved guideway that would go straight downtown, to the Capitol, or to UT, without requiring transfers. People will pay more than they would otherwise be willing to pay if they’re provided with a reliable time-certain trip straight to work or school, i.e., that doesn’t ask them to get off a train and onto a bus, or even off a train and onto another train)

Two quick hits

Still catching up at work, but there’s two things I didn’t want to forget to comment on.
First, before leaving for Florida, I went with the boys and my father-in-law to the Palmer center during one of the last evenings of their Xmas shopping event. Luckily, we planned on parking at One Texas Center and walking, because traffic was backed up all the way across the 1st street bridge for the Trail of Lights. Right in the middle of all those cars not moving, what could you see? The shuttlebuses that the city wanted everybody to ride.
Easy lesson for the day: If you want people to leave their cars in a remote lot and ride shuttlebuses, ensure that the shuttlebuses aren’t stuck in traffic for an hour with the cars of everybody who didn’t take your advice. It’s amazing that in this day and age, people still don’t get this – somehow we’re supposed to enjoy being stuck in traffic more because we’re on a jerky uncomfortable bus instead of in our own vehicle (which, although almost as annoying to be stuck in traffic in, at least allows for more comfort)? There’s a trivially easy solution which requires only a small amount of political spine: make one lane of Barton Springs for shuttle-buses only. Cost? A few cops who had to be there anyways, and some orange cones. After all, you already closed Barton Springs down by the restaurants anyways, right?
Second item: There is still precisely zero square feet of evident transit-oriented development along Tri-Rail in South Florida (caveat: I only observed between the Fort Lauderdale airport and the Dreher Park Zoo, in West Palm Beach, but that’s about 50 miles worth). The relevance, for those who may be coming to this late, is that Tri-Rail is almost exactly like what we’re opening here in March: a commuter rail line which runs infrequently compared to light rail, and requires transfers to shuttle buses on the destination end of essentially all trips to get where you really want to go. Despite more than a decade now of effort to subsidize, encourage, rezone, whatever, there is no, zero, KAPUT TOD on the ground there, and none under construction, and every single prospective project along those lines floated mostly by governmental entities has failed. Every. Single. One.
And here in Austin? The supposed (mislabelled) TOD along Capital Metro’s line falls exclusively into three categories: Abandoned/on hold (far suburban projects); TOD-as-excuse-for-sorely-needed-upzoning (Crestview Station); and way-too-low-density-to-be-called-TOD (Chestnut, for instance). In the second category, Crestview Station is no more dense (probably less when complete) than the Triangle, so clearly the rail transit available to Crestview has provided precisely zero additional support for density in the project (it could have been just as dense without the rail).
More later as I slowly get up to speed.

A tale of the edges of two campuses

Sorry for the long break. I’ve been on business trips to Jebusland for 3 of the last 7 weeks, and had a vacation in the middle, and very busy even when here. Although I’m still busy, I at least have a minute (not enough time to grab any good pictures; since my google-fu was too weak to get something quickly).
I took the family on a short vacation to visit family in State College, home of Penn State (where I went to school and spent the first 9 years of my life – my grandmother still lives in the same neighborhood as the Paternos). On this trip, since my wife is still recovering from Achilles surgery, we didn’t spend much time walking through campus as we normally would – we instead spent our time driving around the edges of campus. This was an interesting contrast for me, since I spend quite a bit of time driving around the edge of another major university’s campus right here in Austin. Let’s compare.
Penn State:
There’s a signed and marked bike route which starts on the north end of campus (which is bounded by the old residential neighborhood in which my grandmother lives). This bike route says “Campus and Downtown”. It was added shortly before my college years but has been improved since then on each end and consists mainly of off-street paths (sharrows on the street in the neighborhood north of campus, although done poorly). Automobile traffic can still enter the campus from the north in several places, but is then shunted off to the corners – you can no longer go completely through campus from north to south by automobile. Pedestrian accomodations on this side of campus haven’t changed for decades – a pleasant cool walk under tons and tons of trees.
On the south side of campus is the downtown area – the area most analogous to The Drag; fronting College Avenue, part of a one-way couplet which carries State Route 26 through the area (other half is two blocks away, called Beaver Avenue). College Avenue has two through lanes of traffic. Shops line the road at a pleasingly short pedestrian-oriented setback, except for a few places (one a church, one a surface parking lot). Pedestrians, counting both sides of the street, get a bit more space than do cars – and cars have to stop almost every block at a traffic light. The speed limit here is 25; you can rarely go that fast. There is plenty of on-street parking. Again, there’s places where cars can penetrate campus a bit, but they can’t go through campus this direction. Bicycle access from the south comes from a major bike route (with bike lanes that end short of campus) on Garner St. – which then allows bicyclists to continue while motorists have to exit by turning a corner towards the stadium. Two images of the corner of Allen and College from different angles:
College and Allen; shot by ehpien on flickr
From WikiMedia commons
East and west at Penn State aren’t as important – the west side fronts US 322 Business (and a major automobile access point was closed; a classroom building now spans the whole old highway!). The east side is primarily for access to sports facilities and the agricultural areas. Ped access from the west is mediocre unless you feel like going through that classroom building, but not very important if you don’t since there’s not much other reason to be over there. Access from the east is the main future area for improvement – although it’s still of a caliber that we would kill for here in Austin; with 2-lane roadways and 30-35 mph speed limits; traffic signals everywhere pedestrians go in reasonable numbers; etc.
Penn State and the town of State College have made it inviting to walk to and through campus, and have made it at pleasant as possible to bike there. Some students still drive, of course, but most cars are warehoused most of the time.
UTier2-West
On UT’s west side, Guadalupe is a wide choking monstrosity (4 car lanes with 2 bike lanes – one of which functions pretty well and the other of which was a good attempt that fails in practice due to bad driver behavior). On-street parking exists but is rather difficult to use for its intended purpose; but the merchants will still defend it tooth and nail. Despite having even more students living across this road that need to walk to UT than the analogous group at Penn State, there are fewer pedestrian crossings and they are far less attractive; and there is no bicycle access from the west that indicates any desire at all to promoting this mode of transportation. Although you can’t completely get through campus from west to east, you can get a lot farther in than you can at Penn State, and the pedestrian environment suffers for it. The city won’t put any more traffic signals on Guadalupe even though there’s thousands of pedestrians; and the built environment on Guadalupe is ghastly, with far too much surface parking and far too little in the way of street trees. This shot is about as good as it gets on Guadalupe:
taken by kerri on picasa
On the east side of campus, there’s I-35. You’d think this would be much worse than the Guadalupe side for everybody, but at least bicyclists can use Manor Road, which is pretty civilized (better than anything on the west side). Pedestrians are pretty much screwed – noisy, stinky, and hot is no way to walk through life, son.
UT’s north side is similarly ghastly. A road clearly designed for high-speed motor vehicle traffic and then gruesomely underposted at 30 mph; way too wide and lots of surface parking. For pedestrians, this edge of campus sucks – for cyclists, it’s OK to penetrate, but then UT destroyed through access for cyclists by turning Speedway into UT’s underwhelming idea of a pedestrian mall (hint: this is what one really looks like). I could write a whole post on that (and may someday), but the short version is that years ago, UT came to our commission (UTC) with a master plan that crowed about how much they were promoting cycling, yet the only actual change from current conditions was destroying the only good cycling route to and through campus. Yeah, they put up showers and lockers – but that’s not going to help if the route TO the showers and lockers is awful enough, and it is. You’ll get a lot of cyclists at almost any university just because a lot of students won’t have cars and because parking isn’t free and plentiful, but if you really want to take it to the next level, I’m pretty confident that eliminating your one good bike route isn’t the way to go about it.
Since I went to Penn State (1989-1992), access for pedestrians and bicyclists has actually gradually improved, even though it already was much better than UT, and the campus has become more and more livable. More people walk and bike; fewer people drive; and it’s a more enjoyable place than it was before. Since I moved to Austin (1996), the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists travelling to and through UT has actually gotten worse – they’re still coasting on the fact that a lot of the area was developed before everybody had a car. Almost every decision they have made since then has been hostile to bicyclists and at least indifferent to pedestrians. As a result, a much larger proportion of students in the area have cars that they use much more often. (Just comparing near-campus-but-off-campus residents here). The recent long-overdue developments in West Campus are a start, but the built environment on the edge of campus has to dramatically change for UT to be anything more than laughable compared to other major college campuses’ interfaces with business districts.
Bonus coverage: The area I was staying in in Huntsville, AL is right next to the ‘campus’ for Alabama-Huntsville. The least said about that, the better – the area in general is like US 183 before the freeway upgrades, except even uglier (if that’s possible); and their campus has literally nowhere to walk to – my guess is that every student there has a car, even though the place is clearly not a commuter school.

Last Best Chance For Urban Rail In Austin Is Here

I swear there’s no conspiracy regarding the lateness of this posting – my gracious host happened to perform an apache upgrade which messed with Movable Type. Here’s what I wrote this morning, Made With Notepad!

At 4:30 PM yesterday, I left my lovely suburban office and walked through lovely suburban Westlake to the awful bus stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle. After broiling in the hot sun for a few minutes, I decided to walk up to the next stop at Walsh Tarlton and Pinnacle; where there was also no shade. This did not bode well; but things got better.

The bus arrived on time (5:08ish) and was thankfully very well air conditioned. I read a book until I was dropped off quite a long walk from Texas Center (I should have taken the earlier stop). Went inside; saw Jonathan Horak and Kedron Touvell; introduced myself to both (how creepy is it that I knew what they looked like even though we’d never met; but they didn’t recognize me? Pretty creepy, I think). Just on time.

Will Wynn gave a speech which emphasized how much he wants rail downtown. He got in the weeds a bit, first talking about how we were growing faster than everybody else in the world, then talking about how this decade’s growth is actually slower than all previous decades back to the 1880s (huh?), but then eventually came back on track and handed the reins over to Brewster McCracken.
McCracken introduced ROMA; ROMA gave a nice presentation which I’ll summarize in bullet points below. No surprises, really, if you read Ben Wear or the print article beforehand. My quick comments in italics. I will go into more depth on many of these in the upcoming several weeks.

  • Terminology: The system is going to be called “ultra-light rail”. ROMA mentions that streetcars usually run in shared lanes (where I got the sinking feeling ROMA believes a bit much in the magic fairy dust theory of streetcars).
  • Technology: As mentioned, most likely streetcar vehicles. Possibility of more of a standard light rail vehicle if a decision point goes a certain way (see: Routes: doubling-back-to-the-east).
  • Runningway: Usually the center of the street; almost always dedicated lanes. This is a big win over Capital Metro’s previous plans, and everybody who cares about rail transit should be grateful that McCracken and Wynn understand how critical this is to success.
  • Routes: Defined as three or four subroutes even though the service may not operate that way. They didn’t actually say “downtown to” on all of these; some were Seaholm or something else; but realistically they’d all converge on Congress.
    1. Downtown to airport: Using Congress, East Riverside; reserved guideway (dedicated lanes, center of road). Alternative presented is a very unlikely extension of commuter rail to the airport. I’m very pleased we didn’t try to run on the right side of Riverside. Big win here for business travellers to the airport, and we can pull in a lot of residential out there to hopefully fill trains.
    2. Downtown to Mueller: using Congress (possibility of San Jac or Brazos as fallback), 9th/10th/11th transition to San Jacinto, north to/through UT, Dean Keeton/Manor out to Mueller. Slight possibility of still going out there via MLK. It’s not Guadalupe, and we probably won’t get reserved guideway through UT without a lot of arm-twisting, but I think Guadalupe’s a lost cause for right now. With this technology and route, though, we can eventually get there; whereas commuter rail is a complete dead end. The Manor vs. MLK issue is, I feel, largely settled for Manor unless UT makes going through campus prohibitively difficult – the only pro to MLK is the commuter rail TOD, which I obviously don’t believe in anyways; and cons are many – have to deal with TXDOT; don’t get even the half-assed acccess to UT that San Jac provides; etc.
    3. Downtown to Long Center and Zilker area: less likely at first, using West Riverside past Lamar, cutting over to Toomey after that. Alternative using Barton Springs would get you all the way to Zilker but no reserved lanes. I think these are unlikely to make it for the first cut anyways but it would be nice to be able to tell tourists they could take the train to Barton Springs Pool, wouldn’t it?
  • Financing – ROMA didn’t talk about this but McCracken did – combination of TIFs and some other mechanisms (including requiring that some portion of Cap Metro’s budget be under the control of the city or CAMPO for capital spending, which I heartily endorse
  • Future – wide arrows going north and south. Again, this system can be expanded – although it’ll never become anything as good as 2000′s LRT line; it at least can grow into something better – whereas commuter rail is a dead end.
  • Bone-throwing – Elgin commuter rail spur thrown in to try to get some suburban votes (even though we really ought to be doing better for the urban folks who provide most of Capital Metro’s funds and essentially all of their support; we apparently still need to pander to the burbs – disappointing).

That’s all for right now. Expect expanded analysis of all of the above coming soon. But here’s the kicker:

You MUST support this plan if you ever want any urban rail in Austin. Unlike how 2004′s commuter rail election was incorrectly framed, this truly is our last best chance for rail so although I obviously would prefer rail running up Guadalupe, I’m going to be supporting this plan whole-heartedly and urge every reader of this post to do the same.

Humorous snippets: I introduced myself to Ben Wear, and even though he wrote an article with my name in it a year or two ago, and I’ve emailed back/forth with him 5 or 6 times, I don’t think he had any idea who the hell I was. Also, Jeff Jack (future Worst Person In Austin nominee? told me I should cut out the blogging until I know what I’m talking about.

TFT: Suburban wasteland

As alluded to at the end of this crackplog, my company just opened a physical office in a truly awful part of the suburban wasteland. Today was the test case for “how bad is the trip home on the bus”, after getting rides to/from work with my wife and a travelling coworker all of last week (not so bad in the morning; but awful in the afternoon, especially for my wife, who had to invest 30-40 minutes getting to the office to pick me up to then spend 30-40 minutes going home). Ironically, this would be a great bike commute, if I could still ride my bike any non-trivial amount.
I’m still not sure how often I’m going to need to come in, but there’s a sliding scale here – at some point it’d require us to get a second car, which I don’t want to do for many reasons, not least among them financial (we couldn’t have taken our trip to Hawaii if we’d had a second car payment, after all). There’s a certain number of days per month on which we could tolerate a both-ways drive (very little); a larger number where we could tolerate a drop-off in the morning and a bus ride home (determining that right now); a larger number which might be achievable on something like a scooter, if I can get past some emotional barriers; and anything else requires that second car. At which point I also have to consider other options, because if I have to lay out the money and time for two cars, might as well look for somewhere that can make up the gap (or maybe downtown, or at least in a less awful suburban part of Austin where you can actually take the bus).
I am writing this on the bus – filling in links later. It’s a crackplivebusblog!
Google transit called this trip a 10-minute walk, a 26-minute bus ride, a transfer, and another 20ish minute ride from there, the last leg being one on which I can take about six different routes home, so no worries there. I was highly dubious of google’s estimation of the walk, having ridden this route many times on my bike, back when I still could, so I gave myself 25 minutes to walk and 5 minutes to wait (buses can and sometimes do arrive early).
Update on the next day: Now google is accurately saying 19 minutes for the walk. Huh.
Walking trip: Got to the elevator at 4:03 (after having to run back in and use office phone to call home, since cell phone battery had died). Started on the long, not so scenic, walk through suburban Westlake. Guh. No sidewalks, of course, on Allen (behind the Westlake High tennis courts and other fields). Pretty decent sidewalks after that on Pinnacle, which I took the rest of the way down. Walked past some middle schoolers who will doubtlessly be telling their friends they saw a Real Adult Walking – must have been a bum or a predator. Got to the bus stop at 4:20. Whoops – although google was way too optimistic, I was a bit on the pessimistic side. Would budget 20 minutes for the walk next time, if it happens, plus the 5 minute wait.
First bus leg:

  1. 8 people were on the #30 bus as it pulled up (exactly on time at 4:33). I made 9.
  2. 5 more people got on at Walsh Tarlton and Bee Caves. Total on bus counting me now 14.
  3. 1 more guy got on in the weird office park at the end of Bee Caves. 15 people on the bus now. Bus goes through a road at this complex and then turns up Spyglass to make a short loop in the wrong direction, at least for me.
  4. 1 more got on somewhere along Spyglass at one of the apartment complexes. 16 people now!
  5. #17 got on at Spyglass / Barton Skyway.
  6. At Spyglass, near north intersection with Mopac, one got on and one got off. Still 17.
  7. Turned back onto southbound Mopac at 4:44. Guess that loop was worth it after all. Stopped for a couple minutes at the Bee Caves light, and then another 3 got on! We’re essentially at standing room now – one standing, although there are a couple of seats left. 20 passengers.
  8. At 4:48, we turn into a bus bay to pick up a guy with a bike. That makes 21 passengers.
  9. We cruise through Zilker Park without stopping and arrive at Robert E Lee at 4:51. Not a good day to be hitting the park anyways – but someday remind me to write a crackplog about how the city needs to jack up the parking prices there in the summer quite a bit higher. Still 21 passengers. A Barton Hills bus (#29) turns off Lee with about ten people on board that I can see (maybe more).
  10. Amazingly, they’re still working on that Villas of Lost Canyon project. We arrive at the backup for the Lamar light at 4:53 and almost hit a bicyclist stopped in the right lane for no apparent reason. We’re back in civilization, as I see real adult people with apparent jobs walking about like actual pedestrians. Hooray! Stuck for a bit behind our friends on the #29 as they load a bike. Boo. Driver may not make my promised 4:59 drop-off if he keeps this up.
  11. 4:54: Somebody finally pulls the chain to be let off in front of the Armstrong Music School. Down to a mere 20. The bus is practically empty! The suburbanites are right!
  12. 4:55: Lady gets off at the corner of S 1st. Down to 19 people! I think I see a tumbleweed.
  13. 4:58: D’oh. Somebody signals they need off just past Riverside. Going to be hard to make my best transfer at this rate. Time to hibernate the laptop now, though; the rest of first leg is from memory. About 10 people got off at that stop! Holy cow. Down to 7 passengers now. All of those passengers walked over to S Congress to hop on one of the many buses that pick up on the other corner, by the way.

Transcribed later on from here on out.
The wait: Had my bus been just a minute earlier, I could have immediately jumped on the 4:59 #7 bus which was a few minutes late. Rats. As it turns out, my #5 bus was quite a bit more late.
Second bus leg (transcribed today from yellow legal pad – since the ride was way too jerky and crowded to crack open the laptop):

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

Things learned:

  • Don’t trust the pedestrian part of google transit’s directions. I kind of suspected this before, but they clearly assume you can take a bees’-line. It would be a much better idea if they were to assume you had to take the same route as your car – they’d be erring in the conservative direction if at all – which is definitely the better way to err when walking to a bus stop!
  • They might be able to run the #30 a bit more often, if this is any indication. At least a bit more frequent during rush hours, as the people on the bus were (mostly) clearly headed home from work.
  • As another commenter alluded to on his blog, this is the kind of thing Ben Wear should be doing from time to time.
  • Rapid Bus is shelved, of course but today’s experience yet again confirms how useless it would be. Likewise, streetcar on this corridor in a shared lane would be an absolute disaster – even worse than the bus. Broken record time: Light rail as conceived in 2000 would have greatly helped this corridor – giving people a transit alternative which would be superior to the private automobile and FAR superior to slow, unreliable, jerky buses or streetcars.

Why Streetcars Suck: Simple Example

Very quick hit today; not even any links, although I may fill them in later if I get a minute.
My family took the #5 down to Town Lake yesterday for the First Night festivities (the parade was outstanding – best one I’ve ever seen). One simple thing we experienced shows why streetcars in shared lanes are completely useless.
We’re travelling southbound in the right lane of Congress (where shared-lane low-budget streetcar would inevitably operate as well). Oops, a car has stopped and is unloading a bunch of stuff with their flashers on. The bus driver quickly changes to the center lane to get around them and then moves back right.
A block later, somebody starts to pull out of one of the angle-parking spaces and stops. I was never able to figure out why – they may have been spooked by traffic. Again, the bus driver changes lanes and moves around the obstruction.
Anybody see the problem with shared-lane streetcar yet?
You get enough little blockages like that and the performance and reliability of the streetcar gets so bad that even the mystical streetcar fairy dust that supposedly makes commuters forget how to read their watch won’t help.
True light rail, with reserved guideway (“running in its own lane”) is a slam-dunk win for Austin. But shared-lane streetcar is a complete waste of time that actually performs worse for passengers than does the city bus that most of them won’t even take today.
Unfortunately, I have my suspicions that the Wynn/McCracken rail plan will end up having to rely on mixed-traffic streetcar service for a good chunk of its proposed route (and that’s only one of the two impending problems; the other being that the route absolutely must go up Congress and then Guadalupe, rather than over the east side of UT and then out to Mueller as in the useless Capital Metro proposal). So, once again, we’re scrod by our pal Mike Krusee – because of his push in 2000 to destroy Capital Metro, and then his push in 2004 to force commuter rail instead of light rail, urban Austin will probably end up with no rail at all, or, at best, rail which is actually less useful than city buses.

TFT: Southeast Austin

Councilmember McCracken wrote back to my email referenced in the last post and said some things which made me more optimistic again, which I will cover in my next crackplog, but probably not until Monday. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote up today on the #27 bus (transit field trip time!)
Short one today – my company was having a rare physical meeting at Ventana del Soul, a non-profit with some meeting rooms. (Well, actually, only three of the five locals, and one non-local; most of the company is still in Virginia). Took the #7 down in order to leave the car with my wife. Google Transit trip indicates 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by car in traffic (highly optimistic; more like 30).
I waited about ten minutes for the #7 at or about 8:30 AM; just missed one apparently. When my bus arrived, every seat was full, and there were 10-15 people standing. We picked up one more person before entering the UT area, in which the bus rapidly disgorged – I was able to get a seat when we crossed Dean Keaton, and by the time we hit MLK, nobody was standing and about half the seats were full. Continued on through downtown, people getting on and off (more on than off), and then as the #27 down Riverside through near-in southeast Austin. A few more people got on, but the bus was never completely full; when I disembarked at my stop, there were about 15-20 riders remaining.
So, summary, from 37th to UT, every seat full; 10-15 straphangers. Dropped off about 2/3 of those people at UT, but more got on downtown, and through Riverside about 3/4 of seats were full.
On the way home, I waited about three minutes for the #27 at Burton and Riverside while I was talking with a billing rep at a medical office. The bus actually came while I was still on the phone – and I accidentally tried to board with a soda (oops). Almost every seat was full – I estimate 20 to 25 passengers; but several got off at the next stop and I was able to move to the back next to the window. Picked up a lot more people along East Riverside. Summary: From my stop on Oltorf to downtown, average 3/4 to all seats full; dropped off about half downtown; then about half full to my stop at 33rd.
Hard to believe, but this bus was actually more full than most of my rides on the #3 back when I reverse-commuted in the mornings once or twice a week to Netbotz.

TFT Honolulu: Part Two – Current Conditions

Well, I’m all the way up to part 2 out of 3 on the May 2007 Hawaii trip, and I still need to backtrack and talk about Newark in June and State College in July. Argh. Here goes. Go back and read Part One if so inclined.


Background: O’ahu is the only island with any real transit service (up to the standards of a medium-sized mainland city, that is; the Neighbor Islands have some desultory bus service). Inside Honolulu, buses run all the time – you see them more often than in most big mainland cities. The system in Honolulu has for a long time been a vast network somewhat centered on Ala Moana Mall – a huge mall with a couple of large bus areas. Waiting outside in Honolulu is no big deal, so that’s what they do. In Waikiki, where we spent almost all our time, the buses all run down the central two-way road (Kuhio) rather than the one-way couplet of Kalakaua and Ala Wai. The system is called TheBus which I find irritating.

The population on O’ahu outside Honolulu uses the buses a bit but the primary ridership is in Honolulu (and commuters to same). There’s a huge proportion of the population that is transit-dependent; and I’ll further divide that market segment (for the first time here, although I’ve been thinking about it for a long time) into two subgroups: the voluntarily transit-dependent (could afford to own a car but choose not to because the bus system is good enough) and the involuntarily (don’t own and can’t afford a car). Of course, choice commuters exist here too.

The transit-dependent are a larger proportion in Honolulu than in most cities on the mainland (save New York) because parking is difficult and expensive, wages aren’t that high, and the weather is very favorable for waiting for a bus or walking to/from the stop. Not too difficult to figure. Buses don’t get much priority boost except on the long Kapolei-to-Honolulu route, in which buses get a bit of a leg up by using the HOV “zipper lane”. In the city, there’s one bus boulevard (Hotel Street) in the small “downtown” Honolulu, but I have no experience there.

Bus fares are startlingly high. Subsidies are quite low – and you’d figure in an island where they have to simultaneously worry about earthquakes and running out of room, they’d want to subsidize people to leave their cars at home – but the farebox recovery ratio is very high (over 30 percent, which is quite high for a bus-only system). The system is recovering slowly from a strike a few years ago which induced a large number of the voluntarily transit-dependent (mentioned above) to get cars or find other ways to get to work. One-way adult fares are $2.00; anybody between toddler and adult is $1.00 each way. There are no short-term passes (shortest is a 4-day pass which isn’t that good of a deal anyways). Monthly passes seem more moderate compared to mainland prices.

Tourist usage is moderate – the system is used heavily by hotel workers, but you will see plenty of people who are obviously non-local getting on and off the bus in Waikiki. This crowd is heavily weighted towards the hotels on Kuhio and on the Ala Wai side – the people in the most expensive rooms on the Kalakaua side probably don’t even know the bus exists. But there’s far more young people staying along Kuhio anyways in the moderately priced stuff, and the books they read (like Lonely Planet) highly recommend the bus, and we saw plenty of that sort as well as a few retirees.

Now for our direct experience, first the two trips to Hanauma Bay:

The whole family took the #22 bus twice to Hanauma Bay, which is a really delightful place to snorkel, especially when you can get to the outer reef (we couldn’t on either time this trip due to high waves). Calm enough for very poor swimmers to get to see a lot of pretty fish; still interesting enough for the moderately adventurous; and very easy to get in. This is the beach where Elvis lived in “Blue Hawaii”, by the way; and I’ve been here about 15 times going back to my first visit as a middle-schooler.

Although the drive to Hanauma Bay is fine, and the views are nice, parking is a problem – the lot is fairly small compared to peak demand, and on a previous visit we actually were turned away once (this happens fairly often but we’ve been lucky overall). Parking fees, stupidly enough, are only like a buck. Somebody failed basic economics. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out the bus – especially since the travel guides recommend it, and we were trying to save money by not having a mostly unused rental car all week.

We left our timeshare and walked out to Kuhio and waited. Actually, I had observed several buses running the route bunched together right before we got down there on one of our two trips (can’t remember which one), which is understandable given traffic conditions on this route. The buses theoretically run every 20 minutes or so, but due to bunching we ended up waiting much longer one of the two times. Boarding the bus was fine but SLOW – they still use an old transfer scheme like Capital Metro did until a year or so ago (slips of paper), and feeding in dollar bills for us (5 bucks; Ethan was free) took quite a while. On the first trip, we were headed out in what was supposed to be early but ended up mid-afternoon (more like 2:30 as it turned out), and on the second trip we headed out right after lunch.
The route took us past Diamond Head and provided opportunities for a lot of nice views there on a road I actually haven’t driven before. Both times, the bus was very full – at times, every seat was full (perhaps 30 seats) and up to 10 were standing. People constantly got on and off the bus – apparently some folks use this same route to travel to/from Diamond Head to hike, although you have a much longer walk to the ostensible beginning of the hike from the bus stop than from the car parking. Also noticed many middle-school age kids using the bus to get from school to various spots along the Kalaniole – some to go home, others obviously to bodysurf (headed past us to Sandy’s Beach). A handful of tourists like us were obviously headed to Hanauma Bay on both occasions. The bus rejoined my normal driving route near the Kahala Mall and then I got to enjoy the views like I hadn’t since my one bike trip there (before the arthritis many years ago) since usually I’m driving in traffic with enough lights that I can’t look at the ocean as much as I’d like.

The dropoff/pickup location at Hanauma Bay is awful. It’s a much longer walk to the entrance – and I feel every inch of it on my bad feet while also carrying our heavy snorkel bag.

Compared to driving: The total trip time was about 50 minutes, compared to maybe 35 in the car (but add in 20-40 minutes for the wait for the bus, and add in 10-15 minutes for what it would have taken me to get the car out of the garage and come back to the timeshare for a more accurate comparison). The cost of the individual trip was competitive – figure $3.25/gallon gas and a 12 mile trip = $1.95 each way, $1 to park for a total of $4.90, compared to $10 for bus fare. But since we were “voluntarily transit-dependent”, we didn’t have to worry about being turned away, and for the whole trip we saved about $250 on rental car costs ($300ish for a weekly rental car + $10/day to park it, compared to two daily rentals we did do at about $60 each). That made going without a rental car a great decision for the week we spent in Waikiki, but as mentioned in part one, I wish I had rented one for the couple of days we spent on the Leeward side (about the same price as using the car service!)

Return trip: We waited with a large group each time at the inconveniently far out bus stop, where Ethan amused himself by chasing chickens. Don’t know how close to schedule the bus was; we didn’t care much at this point. Ride back was nice – again, standing room only at certain times.

I also hopped the bus once by myself on a trip back from the rental car dropoff (on the Sunday when we switched from the timeshare to the Hilton) and helped a couple figure out which bus would take them to the airport (they were Australian; most Americans, even those who took the bus while here, would know it’d be better to take a cab to the airport when you have to deal with luggage). Unventful for the most part, and at the Hilton it’s obvious that nobody there takes the bus – the stop is outside the property and a bit of a hike. The Hilton seems like a spot where people who don’t know what they’re doing end up spending $20/day warehousing rental cars, frankly. Like is often the case when I’m returning to my house from downtown, I had a choice of four or five bus routes – whichever one came first, in other words; I think the one I took was the #8.

Finally, we all took a tour bus to the Polynesian Cultural Center one day, which was a nice trip – but not transit per se. The place was a lot less hokey than I anticipated – I actually recommend giving this a try, although bring a hat – it’s very hot out there.

Summary recommendations: If you go to Honolulu once, rent a car. You’ll want it to do the North Shore, Pearl Harbor, and a few other things you should do at least once. But if you’ve already been to those places, try getting by without it if you can – you’ll be surprised at how much money you save, not to mention time (parking a car in Honolulu takes quite a bit of time as well as money – and rental car agencies are even slower there than on the mainland). On our trip, we rented a car for 2 out of the 11 days – I just walked to one of the four or five options in Waikiki, got a car, and went back to the timeshare to load up the family (Lanikai Beach, where we got married and where we spent parts of both of those two days, is unfortunately not feasible to reach on the bus – although you can circle the island on one route if you’re sufficiently adventurous, it doesn’t go back down towards Lanikai; the only way to get there is two transfers, the second one of which runs very infrequently).

Whenever I get to it, look for the final part: Future plans for transit on O’ahu.