One Chance Is All You Get

In the latest brou-ha-ha on the lightrail_now yahoo group, some folks have re-expressed the sentiment that Lyndon Henry and I should bury the hatchet, and that I should work to improve this commuter rail line with a better streetcar distributor. It’s as if nothing I’ve written in the last two years has remotely penetrated these folks’ heads.
What Tri-Rail shows us is that if your starter line is bad enough, you will not get the chance to fix it. Tri-Rail destroyed the momentum for passenger rail in South Florida – for the first ten years after the service began, the (suburban voter) narrative was “see? rail transit doesn’t work”.
Now, for the last few years, it’s finally begun to shift to “of course it didn’t work; you ran it down the wrong corridor – nobody that has a choice wants to ride a train where they have to transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus on every single trip. Why didn’t those idiots run it on the other rail line which happens to conveniently run through all the major downtowns in South Florida?”.
Maybe in five more years, Fort Lauderdale will be able to get a light rail line off the ground. They only lost 20 years worth of time, after all.
Only in states like California can you get away with an awful starter line that you then gradually improve with time (San José). In less liberal states like Florida, and especially in “red” states like Texas, the starter line must be impressive to voters, or it’s “one and done”.
More on this later this week, since both Lyndon and I are now ‘moderated’ (I don’t think the owner of the group understands the meaning of this word, since he seems to actually be saying we’re not going to be allowed to post at all).

Bicycle Helmets Don’t Work, Part MCMXVII

Just sent the following crackpot letter in response to the featured letter in today’s Statesman. (I’d like to link to it, but the Letters page for today somehow left out its actual text).

(This is in response to the letter published today, May 25, by the person who was upset about the picture of the cyclist not wearing a helmet).
Those who are aghast at the sight of cyclists who dare to venture out on the roads without wearing a helmet should be aware that the dramatic safety benefits promised by early case-control studies have failed to be borne out in actual use. As helmet usage has gone up in this country, actual head injury rates have remained on the same trajectory – indicating that the benefits of current bicycle helmets may have been vastly oversold. (New York Times, July 29, 2001; by Julian Barnes). Analyses of those case control studies have uncovered serious statistical errors which render them unsuitable as support for the mandatory helmet position.
In addition, experience in other countries has shown the same lack of benefit from increasing helmet use, as well as a dramatic decrease in cycling whenever mandatory helmet laws have been imposed. In short: a mandatory helmet law’s primary effect is to reduce the number of cyclists (shifting them back to riding in cars) without providing a real benefit to those who remain.
Wear a helmet, if you want, to provide you with some protection against minor injuries; but please don’t be under the misapprehension that it helps you in a major collision, and please lay off those of us who would rather not waste our time with them.
[ed: don't know how you like to cite earlier articles; and if I remember, I think your own paper may have also carried the referenced story].

Update: Austin group fighting the mandatory helmet law is at http://www.nohelmetlaw.org/

Reminder: It’s Not Light Rail

From a response I just made to Lyndon (first sentence below is his):

> I disagree. The “commuter” light railway (and that’s what it is)
There you go again.
It’s nothing like “light” rail. It’s certainly not “urban”. It’s not
electrified; it’s going to run at half-hour frequencies during rush
hours only (with one midday trip); it’s sharing track with freight
rail; its stations are located quite far apart and none are within
walking distance of any credible destinations.
If this thing is a “light railway”, then ANYTHING qualifies as a
“light railway”.
If you keep trying to paint this sack of garbage as “light rail”,
don’t be surprised when I keep popping back up to tell you otherwise.

M1EK SMASH PEOPLE CALL CAP METRO”S CRAPPY RAIL LINE “LIGHT RAIL”.

You can’t fix a bad route.

My cow orker threatened to do nasty things, partially to himself, if I didn’t crackplog before he left on his trip. I’m in the middle of yet another attempt to stop Lyndon Henry from rewriting history on the lightrail_now yahoo group; and went looking for Tri-Rail news and found this letter which explains why Tri-Rail is still, 20 years later, a complete and utter failure at attracting ‘choice commuters’ in South Florida.
Read carefully. Does any of this sound familiar?

Take the Delray Beach Tri-Rail station, for instance. It’s located way west of downtown, languishing between Linton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. Now, where can one walk from that location? The whole point of public transit is to create an alternative to driving. Yet, the thriving popular downtown area of Delray Beach is far removed from the poorly planned station location. Thus, you still have a downtown clogged with cars, because the Tri-Rail station is beyond walking distance.

Remember this discussion?
Then, there’s this gem:

I have ridden on Metrorail, on the other hand, and it is a joy compared to the mess that Tri-Rail is. Metrorail actually goes places, near neighborhoods, and other places people actually go, and it doesn’t share its tracks with 8,000 mile-long freight trains. That’s why it works.

Tri-Rail is viewed as a failure in South Florida because nearly nobody who has the choice between driving and taking it will leave their car at home. We’re headed down the same path here in Austin, because people like Lyndon Henry didn’t stand up and fight for Austin’s interests against those of Mike Krusee.
For shame.
Those who continue to nicely but naively ask us to ‘work together to fix it’ don’t get it: there ISN’T ANY WAY TO FIX THIS DEBACLE. More stations won’t help. Nice streetcar circulators won’t help. You can’t recover from deciding to run your trains on existing tracks instead of where the people are who might like to ride and where the places are they definitely want to go.
We’re turning dirt on a rail line which will ‘prove’ to most on-the-fence Austinites that ‘passenger rail doesn’t work’ – the same thing that happened in South Florida with Tri-Rail. Only now, 20 years after the thing was planned, have many people started to change their tune from “rail doesn’t work” to “maybe we screwed up in how we built it”. Can Austin wait that long?
Continuing to misrepresent this thing as urban ‘light’ rail only makes it worse – at some point a decade from now, we’re going to have to pick up the pieces from this disaster and try to sell rail again to the public. And part of that is clearly identifying what went wrong, and who led us down the wrong path. I ain’t gonna stop anytime soon.

FUH GUH BUH

My cow orker‘s IM just reminded me to crackplog in short about this quote in this puff piece about the McMansion ordinance:

People, like Karen McGraw, who live in smaller homes, say bigger homes mean more residents — and more cars. They also worry about drainage and trees. McGraw is also a member of the Hyde Park Planning Association.

MCGRAW LIVES IN 3600 SQUARE FEET IN HYDE PARK, DAMMIT. That’s HUGE compared to her neighbors. In the meantime, my neighbor will likely face the ‘choice’ between demolishing the garage apartment in his backyard or foregoing the second floor on his house (current size: 1010 square feet; family about to grow to 5).
Also, this, again from McGraw:

“Trees are actually retention devices and help to retain a lot of water that otherwise might run off. So, we’re very concerned with losing tree cover,” said McGraw.

The most likely effect of FAR regulations on my family’s eventual expansion plans is that we will build back rather than up. Hence, MORE IMPERVIOUS COVER. LESS TREES.

Why Commuter Rail Will Fail In Austin

A link from Houston I just stumbled upon today which explains why rail transit works so much better in Washington, DC than in San Francisco, and shows quite well the problem the commuter rail line will have in Austin. (San Francisco still has a ton of rail passengers, of course, but the argument is that they have far fewer than they _should_).
Check it out here.
Relevant excerpts (summaries – read the whole article for depth):

  • BART saves money by using existing rights of way; Metrorail maximizes ridership by puting lines where the transit demand is
  • BART serves the suburbs. Metrorail serves the suburbs and the urban core.
  • BART stations are where the cars are; Metrorail stations are where the people are.

It strikes me that you could almost substitute “Austin’s 2004 commuter rail proposal” for BART and “Austin’s 2000 light rail proposal” for Metrorail and essentially the whole thing would stand just as well as it does now.
And the whole thing exposes how much of a snow job Lyndon Henry and Capital Metro are pulling by calling “All Systems Go” a “light urban railway”.
I highly recommend a full read. I’m also adding this blog to my links.

Facts about the McMansion proposal

Some answers to questions raised by my letter to the Planning Commission and today’s Statesman article. Updates will be made here as I think of them and/or receive comments or emails.

  1. I believe the greatest effect of this ordinance is going to be to make small-lot bungalow homes less attractive to buy than they are today which will probably lead to more deteriorating rental stock rather than an owner-occupied renaissance. McMansions themselves are hurt less by these rules than are traditionally styled two-story residences which are quite common on the narrow lots of Hyde Park.
  2. Despite being a response to a “drainage emergency”, the sum effect of the regulations being proposed is that it will become even more proportionally expensive to build “up” rather than “back”. Consequence: more impervious cover; worse drainage.
  3. Garage apartments appear to count towards the FAR total. Consequence: fewer housing units in the central city. Existing garage apartments would be more likely to be demolished so that the owner could put a more practical second story on the “front house”.
  4. Detached and attached garages count, over a certain square footage. More credit is given to detached than attached garages, which is good from an aesthetic perspective but stupid from a drainage perspective.
  5. Yes, one of the proposed solutions for those who want more space than the new regulations would allow is to just build a basement. Yes, apparently they were serious. After all, if you live in central Austin, what’s another hundred grand or so worth of cost, right?
  6. I don’t yet know where the “height” measurement is taken from (average elevation of lot or front elevation or minimum or maximum). This affects the practicality of a second story dramatically in our cases.

More to come as I get comments / emails.

Letter to Planning Commission – McMansion Ordinance

Just sent the following to the Planning Commission, which is the most likely place for a rebuke to the ridiculous McMansion people. (My bet is that the City Council will be more afraid of angering center-city neighborhood associations).

Dear Planning Commissioners:
My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission for about 5 years, and I live and own property in two central city neighborhoods. As a resident of OWANA, I chaired the transportation subcommittee for our neighborhood plan, and remain to this day very proud of the work we all (especially Dave Sullivan, who chaired the zoning subcommittee) did in making sure our neighborhood answered the question “where do you want your additional density” with a more responsible answer than “NO”.
Since then, many other central neighborhoods have failed in their responsibility to identify appropriate infill and have instead attempted to stand athwart the market and yell “stop”, as the saying (sort-of) goes. Today, you find yourselves considering yet another attempt to artificially retard the market from solving our housing problems for us — all under the guise of a so-called “drainage emergency”. The same neighborhoods that prevented and delayed multi-family housing from being built anywhere in or near their neighborhoods for so long (resulting in a plague of superduplexes and other rental housing as the unstoppable demand for close-in living by students could not be denied) now want you to further restrict residential development at precisely the time when we should, in fact, be allowing more density and more infill. And, of course, these same groups claim to be against sprawl.
Consider our case – I have a family of four living in a 1250 square-foot house on a 6000 square-foot lot in NUNA. My next-door neighbor is about to have a new addition, raising their family to 5, in a house about 1050 square feet. We’re both presumably the kind of people who you’d rather have in center-city neighborhoods than party houses full of rowdy undergraduates; but we’re precisely the ones who will be most hurt by these overreaching regulations. In fact, both of us bought our houses assuming that we would eventually build up; and yes, even the supposed compromise engineered by the working group will drastically affect both of us – likely making it financially impossible to expand our homes. We both have detached garages (his with an apartment overtop) and we both have narrow lots. The task force’s “solution” to cases like ours is to build a basement, or seek a variance. Fat chance.
My family will probably stay, although our rights to develop will be unfairly eliminated. My neighbor, on the other hand, probably won’t. Neither of us would seek to build a McMansion, but we (especially they) need more space to be comfortable – even my grandparents’ family of 12 had more square feet per person than my neighbors will without building up.
The beauty of this is that I already live next to a duplex – built “straight up from the 5 foot setback line” on the other side of my home.
The drainage emergency itself is a joke – yes, there are real drainage problems, but notice that the only item in the regulations which could possibly have a direct effect on drainage is OPTIONAL (impervious cover changes). And, of course, regulations which only apply to new homes can’t be said to be a fair response to a drainage problem which older homes of course contribute to. I’ve mentioned several times on the group’s discussion board that there’s a trivially simple way to address drainage problems – simply change the utility’s drainage billing to a formula based on the square feet of impervious cover. That way, old houses which cover too much of their lot will have to pay more to solve the problem, and so will new houses.
Finally, the task force itself is a joke – it’s staffed by people who mainly fall into two groups – 1: those who already have big homes which violate the spirit, if technically not the letter, of the new regulations, see footnote below; and 2: those who have small families, i.e., childless couples.
The only correct answer to this group is “NO”. Instead of further restricting center-city development, we need to be allowing more small-scale multifamily infill to relieve the demand for close-in living. We need to make it easier, not harder, for families to stay in the city for the sake of center-city schools. And we need to make it clear that those who have been irresponsible in the past by obstructing worthwhile projects ought not be rewarded now for their bad works.
I chose not to become engaged with this group despite Chris Allen’s invitation because I firmly believe that you do not negotiate over how MUCH to drag your city in precisely the wrong direction – you simply say “NO. That’s the wrong way”. I hope you’ll join me in opposing this plan on those grounds.
Thank you for your time.
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
1: (member), NUNA, on Laurel Lane – lives in a home with an ‘incompatible’ front setback, and her second story ‘towers over the backyards of her neighbors’. (member), Hyde Park, lives in a huge house which dwarfs its neighbors. Several other task force members live in huge houses, albeit on bigger lots than the two mentioned specifically, and I haven’t seen them personally.

Health Savings Accounts Suck, Part 28

Just had to deal with the typical problem we’ve been facing with our “consumer-driven health plan” (i.e. HSA with high-deductible ‘insurance’) – this is perhaps the fifth or sixth time this has happened.
1. We get bill for $X.
2. I make sure there is $X in our Health Savings Account.
3. I call the place and pay over the phone, using some combination of the HSA “credit” card1 and our normal credit card.
4. They wait too long to post the charge (see #8)
5. In the meantime, we pay for something else.
6. We get a letter in the mail saying that our “credit card was refused”.
7. I call them and ask which credit card failed (I usually have to split charges due to #2 above).
8. They can’t tell me, but do say that it would have posted within 7 to 10 days of the call. Aha.
This thing causes so much extra work compared to the old FSA, it’s just not funny.
Of course, if you don’t actually USE medical care, the HSA is a great deal, as long as you’re wealthy enough to be paying high marginal income tax rates. But for people who actually have to use medical care, and believe me, our family qualifies, it suuuuuuuuucks.
1: Of course, it’s really a debit card, as the rejection shows. But the fact that they run it as a credit card encourages them to wait to post the charges rather than figuring out immediately if there’s enough money in there. Big mistake.

What’s Been Bugging Me About Slusher’s Letter

I just realized what’s been itching at my brain about Daryl Slusher’s letter urging people to vote against Props 1 and 2. Personally, I find his arguments fairly compelling, but am viscerally compelled to vote for the propositions anyways thanks to the co-opting of the evil “Costs Too Much” iconography from Skaggs and Daugherty’s execrable anti-light rail campaign of 2000.
Here’s the important part:

- If the amendments lose, with united environmental support in favor, then the environmental movement will be seen as losing strength and will further lose influence.
- What may well be worse for the environment and environmental movement is if the amendments pass. Then every resulting unintended, and some intended, consequence will be blamed on the environmental movement — with considerable justification if environmentalists are largely united in supporting the amendments.

This is exactly why I thought it important for pro-transit people to vote against the 2004 Capital Metro commuter rail proposal. Here’s one relevant excerpt from one of my many crackplogs on the subject:

In fact, it will be difficult to defend Capital Metro’s money if this election doesn’t pass. However, it will be even MORE difficult to defend Capital Metro’s money if this election does pass, and the rail service meets my expectations (matching the performance of South Florida’s Tri-Rail, the only other new start rail plan relying exclusively on shuttle buses for passenger distribution). At that point, we will have SHOWN that “rail doesn’t work in Austin”, and the long-term justification for at least 1/4 cent of Capital Metro’s money will be gone.

There are many other cases where I made the point that, yes, if Capital Metro lost the ’04 election, it would be bad; but it’d be even worse if they won with unanimous transit-supporter support (er, yeah). The “But we did what you wanted and it sucked” argument is pretty hard to overcome the next time around.
Yet Slusher was so royally pissed by my opposition to that plan that he wouldn’t return emails from that day forward.
Ironic, huh?