Monthly Archives: July 2006

Buses Alone Can Never Get It Done

In response to one of the most common anti-rail arguments out there, paraphrased: “Why don’t you get more people to ride buses and then come back and ask us to build rail”, I posted the following to a yahoo group concerning the Mueller redevelopment, and it bears archiving here.

Buses cannot and will never be faster or more reliable than the
private automobile, unless a vast network of bus-only lanes is built.
Until that glorious day, anybody who argues that we need improve the
bus system before building rail is either foolish or hiding a desire
to avoid investment in transit altogether.
In other words, the bus system is, in fact, being run about as well as
it could be run, given the political and financial constraints under
which Capital Metro must labor. You could run buses every single
minute down every street in Austin and not pick up many more
passengers than ride today – essentially all of the people who are
willing to suffer the significant time, reliability, and comfort
penalty inherent in mixed-traffic bus service are already doing so.
That being said, these streetcars aren’t the magic bullet which can
get people out of their automobiles either. They’re still stuck in
traffic, slow, and unreliable; just like the Dillos they will
presumably model after.
Only reserved-guideway transit can really beat the private automobile
in cities where parking isn’t that expensive and is widely available,
like ours. Too bad so many center-city folks, including so many
Mueller backers, fell for the con job of Krusee’s commuter-rail plan,
which has in fact not only failed to deliver light rail to the urban
core, it actually precludes it from being delivered anytime in the
foreseeable future.

Why The Bile

From this thread full of optimistic talk from happy-fun-land about how We Can Still Make This Thing Work, I attempt to crush the dreams and hopes of the new generation by writing the following.
The solution is to keep reminding people that there is such a thing as “bad rail”, and this thing is it. Seriously, there’s no way to re-route it now; they’ve chosen a technology which is effectively incompatible with running down Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress in the 2000 alignment. (And, by the way, it’s also somewhat incompatible with street-running even across town on 4th street, due to vehicle height, unless you don’t want any stations between the Convention Center and Seaholm). IE, even if Capital Metro turns over the agency to me at this point, the only solution is to completely stop working on the commuter rail line and completely change gears to the original light rail route; there’s no way to extend commuter rail where it actually needs to go which is remotely feasible economically, politically, or even technologically.
The reason I keep harping on this is that LONG BEFORE the election, when there was still a chance to persuade Capital Metro to change their mind (or force them to), people like you and the other naive cheerleaders here said “well, they’ll just build that thing and then we’ll get light rail in the urban core later”. The numerous technical, financial, and political reasons why that was never actually going to happen were viewed as just downer-talk from pessimist-land.
Switch gears to South Florida. Some people pointed out early on that requiring choice commuters to use shuttle buses wasn’t going to fly. They were ignored, in favor of the great spirit of optimism. Surely, they said, we can improve the line later on, if those negative nellies actually have a point. Two decades later, and hundreds of millions of dollars of irrelevant double-tracking later, people are finally beginning to get it: the line can’t be fixed; the fundamental problem is the location of the line itself; the only solution is to pick up and move to the FEC corridor (another existing rail line which runs right through all the major downtowns of the region).
Now, switch gears back to Austin. Same thing is about to happen. Not much chance of stopping them now, but at least all you cheerleaders ought to rejoin reality-land: Capital Metro is trying to convince you that Rapid Bus is really just as good as light rail would have been. Why do you think they’re doing that? Could it be that old crotchedy M1EK was actually right, and that holding our noses and supporting commuter rail doomed us? No, must be something else. Keep cheering, folks! Sooner or later, something good’s bound to happen!
And for those who think it couldn’t possibly be this bad – I refer you to yesterday’s post: there’s really only one question you need to ask Capital Metro.

The Right Question To Ask Capital Metro

“If your prospective passengers for this commuter rail line are primarily people who weren’t interested in riding the bus before, isn’t it going to be difficult to keep them after they discover they have to take a bus to work every day once they get to the train station?”

Where does the commuter rail line end downtown?

On this forum, some folks are naively optimistic about how close the commuter rail line comes to major employment centers downtown (one even argued, although was corrected, that people would walk the 2+ miles from the MLK station to UT every day!). I dug up the picture below, and added in a legend and drew in the route of the 2004 commuter rail line as well as the 2000 light rail line. I’m not enough of a photoshop wizard to remove the other three “possible station locations” – this image was originally from a city of Austin newsletter about possibly extending the commuter rail line west to Seaholm.
Note that the typical 1/4 mile catchment area around the station at Red River and 4th Street doesn’t go anywhere near any big office buildings – the only big buildings it captures are some hotels – whose employees aren’t the “choice commuters” a new rail start should be going after anyways. A quarter-mile radius is typically used as an estimate of the maximum amount of distance that the typical daily commuter would be willing to walk from the train station to their office – any more than this, and they won’t take the transit trip (or, as Capital Metro would hope, contrary to all of the evidence from Tri-Rail in South Florida, they’ll be excited to be “whisked to their destination on shuttle buses”).
Also note that the Capitol and UT are much, much, much farther from any stations for the commuter rail line – this image only shows the southern half of downtown. Not even the most optimistic people are thinking anybody would walk to work at UT or the Capitol from this thing.
I’ve also put green dots on the biggest buildings in this area from emporis.com’s list of Austin high-rises (top 20 only), and yellow dots on other future big buildings / employment centers in the area (mostly residential high-rises under construction). Note the complete lack of any current or proposed big buildings anywhere near this commuter rail stop.

Tidbits from Cap Metro’s PR explosion

Capital Metro has completely redone their web site for the All Systems Go project, and it looks pretty darn nice. Here are some relevant tidbits:
1: The MetroRail page: “Regular and special shuttle buses will whisk you to your final destination.”.
Yup, those shuttle buses will whisk you through traffic downtown, just like the Dillos do today. Anybody who rides those things feel “whisked”? The requirement that essentially all riders must transfer to shuttle buses to get to work is why Tri-Rail failed miserably in South Florida. Every successful rail start in the last 20 years has followed the same pattern (including DART in Dallas and MetroRail in Houston): the train goes where the people want to go. People with jobs don’t mess around with shuttle buses. They just don’t.
2. The MetroRapid page (formerly called “Rapid Bus”): “As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded Rapid bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, “that bus looks like a train.””
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be thinking to myself: a train wouldn’t be stuck in traffic behind all these damn cars and buses. Holding a green light at one intersection doesn’t help clear the clogs from the next ten intersections ahead of you. (Anybody who doubts this is welcome to view Guadalupe near UT during rush-hour). The only way to turn a bus, even if it looks like a train, into something approaching light rail is to give it its own lane, which they are not doing with MetroRapid.
3. The Circulator System page – they’re hyping streetcar, but as noted before: it’s going to be shuttle buses, for a long time; and streetcar only happens if they can con UT and/or the city into paying a good chunk of the bill.
Streetcars are a nice thing to have in the long-run for a variety of reasons, but they don’t do one damn thing to improve speed or reliability of the ‘circulator’.
In summary: Nothing’s changed; the folks in central Austin who pay most of the bills are still getting screwed by Capital Metro. Any questions?

Local puff media fails again

Apart from KUT, nobody bothered to get a remotely critical reading on Capital Metro’s latest PR blitz other than Jim Skaggs’ Neanderthal Act. And even KUT let Cap Metro off the hook, as it turns out. (Note that the Cap Metro flack responding to my comment that the shuttle bus or eventual streetcar would not be reliable or fast since it’s sharing a lane with cars said that the commuter rail train would take the same amount of time every day – which is true – good dodge, CM flack; I salute you).
There’s really only one question you need ask Capital Metro:
How are passengers on the train going to get from the train station to their office in the morning, and how are they going to get back to the train station in the evening?
The rail line doesn’t even go close enough to downtown offices for people to walk; and there’s zero chance anybody’s going to walk the mile or two to UT or the Capitol. So, again, why is nobody asking Capital Metro how they’re going to get to work in more detail?

Local neighborhoods not obstructionist enough, says ANC

Just posted to ANCTalk: a position paper on the Concordia redevelopment, which is in my neck of the woods. (I can tell you that as somebody close enough to hear I-35 during the winter months, I’d sure appreciate some big buildings, even if there’s nothing there I’d ever want to go to, which is hard to believe).
Read especially the final couple of paragraphs. The responsible (only somewhat obstructionist) position of Hancock and Eastwoods is being assailed by the ANC – so now, not even restricting the project to the merely moderate levels of density supported by nearby neighborhoods is good enough for these people. In the past, the most egregious behavior by the ANC was limited to exploiting nearby (but not containing) neighborhood associations in cases like the Spring building (downtown neighborhood association was enthusiastically supporting it; so the ANC hung their hats on the disapproval of OWANA next door).

Mayor Will Wynn and City Council Members
The ANC executive committee at our July 12th meeting asked me to convey to
you the following with regard to the proposed redevelopment of Concordia
University.
The proposed redevelopment of the Concordia site presents the city with both
opportunities and challenges. The redevelopment of such a large area close
to downtown will provide an excellent opportunity for in-fill. At the same
time it poses a real challenge to ensure that scale of the development is
appropriate, the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods is protected and
that the neighborhood planning process is respected.
The surrounding neighborhoods most impacted, Hancock and Eastwoods, have
indicated their support for the concept of mixed use for the site. Despite
what has been reported, however, they do not support the developer’s initial
proposal. While there has been some discussion of the proposal, neither
neighborhood has taken a position on it. They have committed to working
with the developer and are developing negotiating teams for this purpose.
They have contacted the other surrounding neighborhoods and CANPAC to engage
them in the process. ANC supports this approach and urges the Council to
grant these neighborhoods’ request for an experienced city planner to assist
them in this effort.
The neighborhoods have made it clear that the major issues that such a
planning approach should address are density, height and traffic impact.
ANC believes that the resolution of these issues should be the starting
point for any design and not an afterthought. Further, a comprehensive
traffic analysis of this area, including the St. David’s PUD, is essential
to establish the appropriate density for this development as was done for
the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment plan.
ANC also urges the City Council to respect the many years of effort these
neighborhoods have invested in their neighborhood plan. While this project
is asking for PUD zoning, it should not be treated any differently than any
project proposed in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan. Any change
to the Future Land Use Map or the current Civic zoning should go through the
regular neighborhood plan amendment process. Filing for a PUD should not
exempt a project from the standard neighborhood plan amendment process.
While we support the adjacent neighborhoods’ role in defining what is
appropriate for this site we are also concerned about the precedent this
project will set for the surrounding areas and for future development in
East Austin along IH 35. We sincerely appreciate recent statements by
members of the City Council on limiting high rise construction to downtown
and in TOD’s. We hope that sensitivity is also extended to the Concordia
Redevelopment plan.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Sincerely,
Susan Pascoe
Immediate past president of ANC for
Laura Morrison, ANC President

Refresher on TOD and commuter rail

Various blogs including a promising new one and a old stalwart are excited over the north Austin density plan and UT possibly kicking in some of the money for the ‘downtown circulator’, respectively. Both accept fairly unchallenged the position that since we failed to bring the rail to the people, we can at least bring the people to the rail.
With that in mind, it’s worth reiterating the answer to the question:
When can you get transit-oriented development around stations for a commuter rail line?
Answer: In this country? Maybe when gas hits $10/gallon; otherwise, never, no matter how much you try to prime the pump.
Transit-oriented development is great. It happens all over the country, on good LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, which Capital Metro’s system definitely is NOT. Please take with a grain of salt the continuing efforts of people like Lyndon Henry to blur the boundaries here; calling this commuter rail project a “light railway” doesn’t make it go one foot closer to UT, the Capitol, or most of downtown. Turning the circulator into a streetcar instead of a bus does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of time and reliability which prospective passengers will face, thanks to the decision to route the line where the track already existed instead of right down the urban core as in 2000.
Keep a healthy amount of skepticism handy when people are talking about building “transit villages” around the suburban stations of a commuter rail line which doesn’t go anywhere interesting on the “urban end” without having to transfer to a bus. Developers certainly will figure it out, as they have in South Florida, where every such attempt by the government to stimulate TOD around a similarly retarded rail line has failed.
You want transit-oriented development? You need good transit, first. That means reserved-guideway transit, be it light or heavy rail, whether in-street or off-street, for all of the trip1. The only thing that matters is that it can’t be stuck behind other peoples’ cars. You don’t get transit-oriented development around transit which requires that its patrons ride the bus, even if you gussy the bus up and put it on rails (which is all that streetcars sharing a lane with cars really are, I hate to say).
The key here is that the problem end of this commuter rail line is not the residential end. Yes, the 2000 light rail plan would have gone through some high-density residential neighborhoods while the 2004 commuter rail line goes down Airport Blvd. instead. But that’s not the fatal flaw – the fatal flaw is the fact that the prospective rider of the 2000 line would have been able to walk to work from the rail station, while the 2004 rider must transfer to a bus, every single day.
A large part of the 2000 line’s residential ridership would have driven to the train station anyways. Those far northwest riders are still potential 2004 passengers – until they take the train a few times and start living la vida bus.
As for UT – I hope they’re not stupid enough to fall for Mike Krusee’s bait-and-switch here. They always stood to benefit dramatically from the 2000 light rail line and were fairly pissed that a line heading directly to UT’s main campus didn’t make it on the ballot in 2004. This streetcar line doesn’t help them get any closer to a high-quality transit route in any way, shape, or form – it just tears up one of UT’s streets for a transit mode which won’t be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses that currently infest that part of campus; and UT’s employees aren’t going to be any more likely to ride the commuter train if their shuttle is a streetcar versus a bus – it’s still a transfer to another vehicle which is slow and stuck in traffic.
(1: It’s OK if the passenger needs to drive to the station where they get on the train in the morning. People will accept unreliability if they can make up for it with speed and flexibility – i.e., if they have their car. Buses are slow, unreliable, AND inflexible – the bus driver can’t decide to take a different route to/from the train station if traffic on the normal route is too heavy).

“I wouldn’t have bought a Corolla”

Another person gets it: Consumer Reports screwed up big-time in comparing the Prius to the Corolla rather than to the Camry.
I’ve done my own purely economic comparison here – I had done an earlier version of this on a spreadsheet; it’s not that difficult. But many people will never try now that CR has incorrectly told people that hybrids don’t pay for themselves.

A complete misunderstanding of economics

So this guy has demanded that I post some kind of authoritative manifesto defending ‘supply-side real-estate’ and has banned me from commenting further because I dared make the assertion that adding a bunch of units to the luxury apartment market does, in fact, have an eventual impact on the moderately-priced apartment market. (To be extra conservative here, a typical comment by me is this:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Can somebody explain to me what, exactly, makes comments like that so reprehensible that they justify a chest-thump like his last paragraph? It’s basic economics. If you add additional supply in any segment of a market with vast participation, eventually it affects the supply/demand balance in other segments, too.
Let me repeat for emphasis:

The only thing worse for affordable housing than building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown is NOT building a bunch of new luxury apartments downtown, and doing everything else the same.

Paging through his voluminous response, I suppose you could best sum up his retort as “the markets are segmented, and thus adding additional supply to the luxury segment can’t possibly affect the supply/demand balance for the moderate segment”. He then uses a Ferarri/Camry example.
Well, his first assertion is true – the markets are ‘segmented’, but individual complexes can, and do, migrate from luxury to moderate segments. (Barring new construction and population growth, this is usually a function of time – for instance, the Penthouse1 and Westgate buildings near the Capitol were doubtlessly considered luxury units when built – but today are fairly cheap compared to the new lofts going up farther south). Data on those and other downtown properties can be found from downtownaustin.com. This also explains why the car analogy doesn’t hold water – cars don’t last long enough for entire models of cars to migrate like that. (If cars lasted 50 years, let’s say, then a bunch of 50-year-old Ferraris might, in fact, be competing with brand-new Eclipses. And changes to the current production run which drastically increased new Ferrari output would lead to some people moving up from slightly less prestigious sports cars to that Ferrari, of course).
The impact of the new construction is that the migration of buildings from the “expensive” to “moderate” category will happen quicker. The 10-year-old properties can’t obtain the rents they otherwise would have if a bunch of brand-new buildings are built in the surrounding blocks.
I’m not going to bother spending any time defending basic supply and demand to this person by siphoning the internet for studies on real estate. Others are more than welcome.
1: Relatives by marriage have purchased several units in this building over the last couple of years – for a pittance compared to what it would cost to buy a new loft.
Addendum: I went back to his previous entry and discovered why he’s so pissed: a comment of his went to moderation and/or rejected. Dude. I didn’t even see your comment; I don’t force moderation on anybody – all I do is use the built-in automated Movable Type stuff based on words it thinks might be spam and some other metrics (probably number of URLs or whatnot). Try again; email me; whatever; but take off the tinfoil hat.
Addendum Deux: Wikipedia has a good overview of the differences between the real estate market and the market for, say, cars. Models for real estate economics must take into account the fact that the good being purchased is immovable (unless you live in West Virginia) and highly durable (this varies, of course).