Monthly Archives: September 2005

On Misrepresentation (Willful, that is)

So The Triangle is almost open, and in a thread on the Hyde Park mailing list, I called a Hyde Park resident on the “students are going to drive to UT from there” canard which was so abhorrently misused by NUNA during the Villas on Guadalupe fight. It’s obvious to anybody with half a brain that students aren’t going to drive from 45th/Guadalupe to UT, considering the parking situation at UT — in fact, it is quite likely that their car, in the garage at the Triangle, is already as close as it could get to the campus without spending way too much time circling. (Many student drivers drive to the IM fields, and take a shuttle-bus the rest of the way in – the Triangle is already no further away than that, and there’s a BETTER bus right outside their door). Yeah, a couple of them might do it once in a while because they need to run an errand right after class, but they’ll just displace a student who’s currently parking down there at a pay lot, since the supply of near-UT parking is COMPLETELY taken up by the current demand for same.
Now the guy who I responded to is pissed, having sent me a curt response demanding an apology, and I replied with a fairly inflammatory note back asking if he’d prefer I assume he’s stupid and apologize, or assume he’s smart and not do so. Like most center-city neighborhood partisans, I think he’s willing to bend what he knows to be true about traffic in order to win points at City Council, i.e. “the ends justify the means”. But is my response to such the right way to handle things? Is it better to remain respectful, courteous, and get played for a sucker; or is it better to not take any crap and call it what it is?
I see too many people being played for fools by bad actors who make statements they know to be false – like certain posters on the new Shoal Creek Boulevard group. Is it better to pretend that these bad actors are genuine and risk giving them credibility they don’t deserve? Is it better to call them what they are? Is it better to do what I typically do and attempt both, and depending on who you ask, fail at both? I figure there’s enough people out there who pretend like bad actors are genuine; the world doesn’t need another one. Am I wrong here?
Ironically, my original post to the hydeparkaustin group got rejected by the moderator for being too inflammatory – the one which has got the original poster up in arms was the nicer version that got approved.
(For the record, I’m not this mad at my old neighborhood over Spring; it is conceivable that somebody could honestly believe it would make traffic worse — but for me to believe that somebody who lives and apparently works in central Austin would be unaware of the parking situation around UT requires an unsustainable suspension of disbelief).
Update: Got a bounce from him – apparently my response got sent to his spamtrap. So I guess we’ll see.

You don’t get TOD with buses (or commuter rail)

I still have the RealVideo from the City Council Meeting up (was following the Shoal Creek debacle) and there’s a well-meaning guy from Oak Hill trying to get the Council to approve a TOD out there on a Rapid Bus line. Time to dispel a few illusions:

  1. You don’t get TOD without the perception of permanence. Rapid Bus ain’t it. Even BRT ain’t it. Only rail works. People don’t buy into a development where getting to their cars is expensive or inconvenient UNLESS the transit alternative is clearly going to be there for the long-haul. Buses’ infamous “flexibility” works against them here.
  2. You don’t get TOD with commuter rail. You need frequent headways (which this line won’t have) and one-stop rides to some major destinations (which this line won’t have). So even on our commuter rail line, TOD ain’t gonna happen.

What CAN you put on the ground to stimulate TOD? Something like our 2000 light rail plan (which would have been a one-stop ride from northwest Austin through the center-city to UT, the Capitol, and downtown) works, in city after city after city after city after city. Subways and monorails would work too – there’s no chance those rails are going away next year. Buses don’t. Not even fancy buses with nice signs at their stops which tell you how much delayed your next bus is since it’s stuck in traffic behind everybody else’s car.

Horrible news

The Bjorkstens were good friends of ours, and had 4 daughters. KVUE says that the girls weren’t home at the time. I’ve been trying to spread the news to everybody I know who knew them this morning but do not yet know if the girls found other family (have call out to friend who may know better). Quite a shock. Please pray for the girls.

Claims about Spring don’t Spring

I don’t have time for a full write-up on my old neighborhood’s irresponsible opposition to the Spring project but one thing I talked about with my coworker yesterday merits a quick jotting down so I don’t forget.
The neighborhood (and my coworker) assert that you shouldn’t build this project because it would make traffic much worse at the 5th/6th/Lamar intersection, which already fails during rush hour. This seems like a reasonable proposition, but I assert otherwise. Consider a simplified model of the Spring residents – there are two residents, both of whom work downtown. Wendy Walker and Dave Driver.
Dave Driver is going to get in his car and drive east. This won’t make the intersections at Lamar any worse, since he’s already east of Lamar. Oops. (Note: during my conversation with my cow orker, both of us forgot the fact that Spring is east, not west, of Lamar – if it makes this more worthwhile, you can pretend that we’re now talking about the intersection of 5th and Guadalupe, or that Spring is west of Lamar for the hypothetical).
Wendy Walker is going to walk to her job downtown. This can’t make things any worse either.
Now, consider what happens if the project isn’t built. Wendy and Dave still have their downtown jobs, but now they must drive there. Both will now go through the intersection at 5th and Lamar in the mornings and through 6th and Lamar in the evenings. Oops.
Like most opposition to densification, OWANA settled on the traffic argument since it’s an easy one to win, even if it lacks merit. In this case it’s clear – many (possibly most) of the people moving into these downtown complexes aren’t going to bother driving to work, and even if they do, they’re either ‘reverse commuting’ (driving OUT of downtown in the morning, where there’s plenty of spare capacity) or they can’t be making things any worse, since otherwise they’d be driving downtown from further out.

Oh, the humanity

My school’s football game isn’t going to be on TV. Not even at the sports bar we’d have to drive all the way out to Lakeway for, although we wouldn’t have, for such a crappy opponent.
This is the first time in many years that you haven’t been able to see a Penn State game, at least on pay-per-view. Sign that the end is nigh? Methinks so.

Economic theory and physical reality

The Peak Oil guys keep trying to tell the economists that there’s a drop-off in oil production coming (the ‘peak’), and the economists keep saying that the market will solve the problem when it arrives. Left unsaid is that sometimes market solutions involve “demand destruction” in the form of recession, depression, or worse.
Most of the energy optimists though think the market will wave its magic wand and incent the development of alternative technology. This is foolish – economics can’t trump physics (especially energy density), but it’s hard to sell this to economists. But I just had an idea, after hearing an old Spin Doctors song on my itunes shuffle.
What amount of money would I have to give you right now to develop a technology that would allow me to achieve Superman-like powers of flight, heat vision, super strength, etc? After all, if the power of the market can solve any problem, presumably there is a ‘bid’ I can make at which it will be able to solve THIS one, right?
(If the answer is “not an infinite amount of money, but considerably more than exists in the entire world economy” then you might as well treat it as an infinite amount of money for all intents and purposes. The same logic applies for oil – how much money will it take to get a portable energy storage mechanism which can achieve goals X, Y, and Z? Answer: money can’t beat physics – there are some problems that no amount of money will ‘solve’ for given acceptable values of ‘solution’).

SCB: Speed Is Not The Problem

A lot of folks (especially Stuart Werbner and Preston Tyree, who normally do a lot of good work for the cycling community) fell hard for the position that “the problem on Shoal Creek Boulevard isn’t the bike lanes, it’s the traffic speed”. Since this position continues to rear its ugly head in discussions before and after yesterday’s meeting, I thought I’d address it here.
The key is that all other things being equal, higher car speeds do indeed result in less safety for nearby cyclists and pedestrians. This is unquestionably true.
The problem is that all things aren’t equal. This picture shows a cyclist trying to pass a parked vehicle at the same time he is being passed by a moving vehicle. It doesn’t matter if the passing vehicle is going 45 or 25; if the cyclist veers out unexpectedly into the through lane and is hit, they’re in bad, bad, BAD shape. (Note: you have to imagine that the stripe between the 4-foot ‘bike lane’ and 6-foot ‘parking lane’ isn’t there to match the current conditions on SCB).
Likewise, this infamous accident happened despite the fact that the conflicting vehicle’s speed was 0 MPH and the vehicle which ended up killing her wasn’t going very fast either.
On the other hand, hundreds of cyclists use Loop 360 every day with no conflicts with motorists. Automobile speed in the through lanes of that roadway is typically around 60 MPH.
What can we conclude? Traffic engineering seeks to avoid presenting users with unexpected conflicts; and having a cyclist veer out into the travel lane when the motorist in that lane thinks they’re not going to have to is the very definition of unexpected. A safe pass by a car going 40 is far preferrable to a collision with a car going 30.
How does this apply to Shoal Creek Boulevard? It’s clear to me at least that the original city plan probably wouldn’t have reduced automobile speeds much, but definitely would have resulted in fewer conflicts with cyclists who need to leave the bike lane to get around obstructions. As on Loop 360, if you rarely need to leave the bicycle facility, you don’t need to worry as much about the speed of the cars in the lane next to you.
Another thing Preston in particular got wrong was the theory that riding on Shoal Creek is ‘easy’ once you ‘learn’ how to pass. Even for an experienced cyclist like myself, the conflict with motorists during a pass is irritating (the motorists don’t understand why I go into the travel lane and are sometimes aggressive in expressing their displeasure). For a novice cyclist, it’s likely to be so intimidating that they will (unwisely) stay in the far-too-narrow space between the white stripe and the parked car, and someday soon somebody’s going to get killed that way.
Finally, of critical importance to the City of Austin is the following paragraph, excerpted from a detailed analysis of the Laird case in Boston:

The City might be held negligent for creating what is called in legal language an “attractive nuisance” — that is, a baited trap. Ample evidence exists that the City of Cambridge had been notified of the hazards of bike lanes in the “door zone” before the Massachusetts Avenue lane was striped, yet the City continued to stripe them.

This is basically why Shoal Creek Boulevard doesn’t have bike lanes today, it has a “multipurpose shoulder”. Unknown whether this will do enough to shield Austin from liability in the event of an accident, but cyclists ought to think about this when you decide to ride on this facility.

Shoal Creek Meeting Is Done

Largely as expected – council members want to remove the islands, and then were going to talk some more about what to do. Some indications that they’re either not willing to admit or not capable of understanding that a compromise solution is impossible for this roadway. Neighborhood people largely against the curb extensions but still adamant that parking on both sides must be preserved — which means that we’re back to bike lanes with parking in them, which pretty much the entire rest of the world views as an oxymoron.
Here’s the letter I just sent to the three council members on the subcommittee:

Councilmembers:
I watched most of the meeting today while working at my desk, and had a couple of comments:
1. 2-way on-street bike lanes are not accepted in traffic engineering circles and have not for quite some time. They will not be an option for Shoal Creek Boulevard unless you want to override your staff.
2. Bike lanes down the median – same story.
3. A reminder: We already know there is no way to reconcile “parking on both sides” with “car-free bike lanes” on this street. There is insufficient width. Either one or more bike lanes must be abandoned, or one or more sides of parking must be abandoned.
Comments that you made in regards to #3 were especially disappointing – the failure of the previous council was in attempting to avoid this painful choice, which MUST be made. EITHER car-free bike lanes OR parking on both sides – you cannot have both. I would argue that the correct choice is to preserve on-street parking on ONE side of Shoal Creek Boulevard – this is not an unreasonable imposition on residents (my own neighborhood has highly restricted on-street parking; many streets allow it on one side and a few not at all).
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mdahmus@io.com

Frustration with simplistic market analysis

So I spend a lot of time on this blog which is a stunning waste of time, since the commenters are disproportionately the simplistic wing of the libertarian party, with a handful of SwiftBoat types trolling from the Republicans. A brou-ha-ha there completely unrelated to markets (for once) reminded me that I meant to write this article, so here you go.
I’ve always been interested in, but not really affiliated with, libertarianism. Unlike the leftists that most of the suburban Republicans at my last job think I’m one of, I believe in the market. When things don’t work out, I usually look for market distortions first, rather than simply believing that capitalism is evil or that the market doesn’t ‘work’. The market is a tool, like a really good computer; it produces optimal outcomes if it has very good information, but sometimes doesn’t do as well with inaccurate or incomplete data. Most ills in our society, I think, can be fixed by improving those inputs, rather than through more onerous regulation.
Personally, I find looking at the imperfections of markets a very interesting thing, and am disappointed at how often self-identified libertarians fall back into an eighth-grade “market didn’t do X therefore no demand for X” philosophy. Essentially, they either don’t believe in or haven’t even HEARD of externalities, network effects, the “race to the bottom”, etc.
This applies especially to the various smoking bans being passed all over the country. (Pretend I’m talking about restaurants here rather than bars; I’m uncomfortable with a total ban on smoking in bars, but was very happy to ban it in restaurants). Short summary: the market didn’t provide any non-smoking airlines before the government made them go non-smoking; in most cities non-smoking restaurants were trivial embarassments until smoking bans passed. The simplistic view is to say that people didn’t value (non-smoking) more than (eating-out-at-all) or (flying), and this is technically true. But is it useful when you’re staring down the barrel of a referendum that you’re about to lose? Probably not – which is when it would be helpful, I think, to study the issue and find out WHY so few businesses made the switch before being forced, even given apparent overwhelming customer preference.
And then there’s the ‘remedy’ – again, the simplistic view is to say ‘do nothing’, but the voters in that referendum are going to ‘do something’ for you if you keep messing around. For a brief time, Julian Sanchez at least was willing to explore alternative ways to, in DC, provide more non-smoking venues, but he’s in the minority among the “Ban the Ban” types. To me, using the government’s incentive power to encourage movement towards what appears to be a huge consumer preference anyways is a legitimate use of power – the market is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Why don’t more people think of “how can I encourage the market to solve this problem” instead of “oh well, the market doesn’t want it”?
In reference to Austin’s bar smoking ban, I’d much rather have used the market to gently push a greater portion of live music venues and other bars towards non-smoking and still have some smoking bars available for the portion of the population that wants to smoke and drink; but the ban-the-ban-ers weren’t willing to listen to the “hey, a hell of a lot of people want to see music and not breathe smoke; why isn’t the market providing any of these kinds of venues” arguments, so they got a full-on ban.
In other words, with reference to the bar ban in Austin, I’d be most satisfied if substantial chunks of real live music venues existed in BOTH smoking and non-smoking camps. I’m not happy that there will be essentially zero smoking bars; this is heavy-handed regulation. But to say that the only other alternative was the status quo, i.e., NO non-smoking music venues or bars, is basically handing the referendum a guaranteed victory.
Economists study this stuff; I would think that libertarians, who believe in the market, would want to do it as well. It remains a mystery to me why so few are interested in figuring this stuff out.

Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.


Dear Mayor and councilmembers:
My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work — i.e., I’m not a pure cyclist, and I’m not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.
I understand you’re going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.
For those of you who don’t bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin – alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.
Years back, Shoal Creek’s turn came up in the “let’s do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes” process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.
Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a ‘residential street’ and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.
At this point, as I’m sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman’s approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the ‘bike lane’ and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it’s not marked as a ‘bike lane’ is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.
The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy “10-4-6″ plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the “bike lane” designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).
This isn’t about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there’s zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you’re passing it.
But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury – a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.
This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with — and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.
I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters – please don’t take this precedent anywhere else.
Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus