In many discussions about Peak Oil, economists are smug that the market will provide an alternative when oil gets too expensive. This, of course, focuses purely on the most pedantic definition of “alternative” – which includes things like demand destruction to the point of worldwide economic collapse – which is probably not what most people have in mind when they think of “solution”. Most “cornucopians”, as they’re called, believe the Magic Of The Market will provide new energy technologies when rising oil prices make them profitable; which ignores the reality that there is no energy source out there with anything approaching the “energy balance” of oil – i.e. the difference between the energy you get out vs. the energy you put in.
However, it’s been difficult to express this – for some reason, economists believe their soft science over the hard science of physics (specifically, thermodynamics, or in this case, energy return on energy investment).
Here’s a good short explanation of the difference between money economics and energy economics – IE, why the market can’t beat the laws of thermodynamics – for those Peak Oil cornucopians.
Fuel cells won’t save us. Electric cars won’t save us. Only taxing carbon and doing it quickly has any hope – and even then, it’ll be using the market to move from today’s default setting of “government provides more incentives for you to waste energy than to save it” to “energy becomes very expensive, giving you automatic incentives to conserve”.
Especially Brewster, but also some others are finally, now that it’s long too late, beginning to question the wisdom of continuing to give Capital Metro $160 million / year when they turn around and spend all the rail money on a plan which screws Central Austin and provide useless Rapid Bus service as the “thanks for 92% of our tax revenue” gift. Kudos to Kimberly for coverage of this issue.
Let’s set the wayback machine to May of 2004. I wrote a post on that day referring to a resolution I floated; the text is below. While Brewster from all accounts thinks I’m a troll, the irony of seeing him come pretty darn close to my 2004 position is just really really delicious. Of course, I’d trade it in a second for some actual movement on this issue.
WHEREAS the City of Austin does not receive adequate mobility benefits from the currently proposed Long Range Transit Plan due to its reliance on “rapid bus” transit without separate right-of-way
WHEREAS a “rapid bus” line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor
WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin
WHEREAS the commuter rail plan proposed as the centerpiece of this plan delivers most of its benefits to residents of areas which are not within the Capital Metro service area while ignoring the urban core which provides most Capital Metro monies
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Urban Transportation Commission recommends that the City Council immediately reject Capital Metro’s Long-Range Transit Plan and begin working towards a plan which:
A. delivers more reliable and high-performance transit into and through the urban core, including but not limited to the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and downtown
B. requires additional user fees from passengers using Capital Metro rail services who reside in areas which are not part of the Capital Metro service area
C. provides permanent infrastructure to provide impetus for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use redevelopment of the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
IF CAPITAL METRO will not work with the City of Austin on all items above, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the UTC advises the City Council to begin preparations to withdraw from the Capital Metro service area and provide its own transit system in order to provide true mobility benefits to the taxpayers of Austin.
It died for lack of a second. Since then, two fellow commissioners expressed their regret at their decision to not at least second the motion so we could have gone on the record, after seeing how the plan unfolded pretty much as I predicted way back then.
Just sent to Council as a followup to yesterday’s crackplog
Your Name: Mike Dahmus
Your e-mail address: email@example.com
Subject: Managed lanes implementation on Mopac
Dear Mayor and Council Members:
While I support managed lanes in general, the implementation being discussed for Mopac will be a disaster, and is not worthy of our support. Any facility in which express traffic must then cut across general-purpose traffic in order to exit will surely devolve into gridlock – if traffic in the three general-purpose lanes is bad enough to make people want to pay to drive in the inside lane, it will also be bad enough to make it difficult to quickly cut through those same three lanes to get off the highway. Which means that vehicle slows down, and eventually stops, as it tries to get over; which means through traffic in the ‘managed lane’ must also slow or stop.
This is a really dumb idea. Managed lanes without separate exits are worse than nothing at all. Please don’t continue to let TXDOT get away with this foolish and naive design, paid for with the gas tax money collected from our urban drivers.
(An aside: for the money spent on this facility, we could make a down payment on a real urban rail system – i.e. true light rail running in reserved-guideway, say from downtown up to the Triangle or so).
You left one out, Trish:
What is the problem right now? There are several ways you can describe it:
-Wal-Mart is trying to build a SuperCenter against the wishes of the nearby community;
-the city violated their own procedures for approving this kind of site plan;
-Wal-Mart and Lincoln, having benefited from an irregular approval process, are not willing to make the process right. They are willing to negotiate (to some degree), but not on the most important things.
-they threatened to sue the city if the city tried to undo a bad process.
Your declaration that the process was ‘irregular’ “as [you] understand it” is based on your unwillingness to listen to people like Chris Allen or myself, who have no direct interest in this fight, but have ten times the understanding of city zoning law (and traffic issues, respectively) as the people making public statements for RG4N.
Here’s an accurate summary of the current situation:
Lincoln got their big-box application in before the rules changed; so, by law, they must be handled under the old rules which essentially allow them to do what they want with the Northcross site. Their TIA was done according to standard process, so even if you don’t agree with its conclusions, it’s going to stick. Minor errors in notification, if they even happened, do not qualify as substantial enough problems to justify the city rejecting the plan which, let’s recall, by rule was subject to administrative approval meaning that if the rules were followed, the City Council had to approve it even if they didn’t like it.
The path you and RG4N are heading down is one where you lose the ability to negotiate anything with Lincoln because you’re too stupid to realize that the city is telling you the truth when they say that Lincoln’s got the force of law behind them. In the process, you’re forcing the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing to defend us all from the lawsuit that your merry band of idiots is causing, either by suing the city or by making Lincoln do so. And, and let’s make no bones about this; this isn’t just “as I understand it”; the city legal bill which results must be paid by all residents of Austin, not just the idiots in RG4N or in the neighborhoods which ‘support’ them.
Oh, and by the way, Wal-Mart and Lincoln aren’t willing to negotiate “on the most important things” because the negotiating position of RG4N (unlike the pre-coup neighborhood associations) has been “NO WAL-MART”. Not “a nicer Wal-Mart, please” but “no Wal-Mart at all”. (Were RG4N merely advocating for a nicer, more urban, Wal-Mart within the realms of what’s practical given the low-density nature of the surrounding area, I’d be first to sign up on their team).
Hope this helps.
A short entry; and I won’t inflict a drawing on you, so please use the power of your mind to visualize.
CAMPO has already tentatively allocated $110 million for “managed lanes” (one in each direction) on Mopac from Parmer to Town Lake and is now explaining the plan. These will, apparently, boil down to a new inside lane in each direction, with possibly flimsy barriers between them and the general-purpose lanes, similar to what you see on the northbound frontage road just north of Bee Caves Road. General-purpose lanes will have to be narrowed a bit, and some shoulder will be lost (especially the inside shoulder – which will be effectively gone).
I’m generally a moderate supporter of HOV lanes, and a stronger supporter of managed lanes. Tolling road capacity anywhere is a good move away from our current system in which urban drivers and especially non-drivers subsidize SUV-driving suburban soccer moms. Ironically, the more red-meat conservative you are around these parts, the more you apparently pine for the old Soviet method of market-clearing, at least as it applies to road capacity.
And, one of the best reasons to support HOV or managed lanes is the boost in performance and reliability it can give bus transit, which needs all the help it can get.
HOWEVER, the system considered here will do nothing to improve the performance of transit, for this reason:
To exit Mopac, the bus (or car that paid a toll) must travel through three lanes of general-purpose traffic in order to get to the exit lane.
If that traffic is backed up enough to make you want to use the toll facility, it will also be backed up enough that it will be impossible to quickly cut through to get to your exit. Much of the time savings in the managed lane will be lost at entry and exit.
This is the same problem other half-assed HOV facilities have around the country – in places like South Florida (no barrier; hard to enforce; and mostly useless during extremely high traffic periods except if you’re going all the way through where the traffic is). Likewise, this facility won’t help the commuter going to UT, or downtown; the only group it could really help dramatically would be people going from north suburb to south suburb.
IE, we’re going to spend city drivers’ gas tax money to even more excessively subsidize the suburban commuter – but just in case we might accidentally benefit the city; we’re going to do it in such a way that it only helps those who don’t live OR work in the center-city.
By the way, $110 million would pay for the entire commuter rail line (which won’t do anything good for Austin), OR, it could be used as a down payment on a rail transit system which will work, i.e., build a leg of real non-streetcar light-rail from downtown up to the Triangle.
Many folks have asserted that the TIA for Wal-Mart at Northcross must be wrong because it only projects something on the order of 8,000 trips per day; while traffic counts at other Wal-Marts were supposedly well north of 20,000 per day. I’ve found the city staff responses to the TIA questions here and here to be quite professional, as I expected.
From the second link:
38. Using actual, real world, on the ground traffic counts, what are the daily
unadjusted traffic counts for the following: (a) Cabela’s; (b) Ikea; (c) Super Wal-
Mart at I-35 and Ben White.
The following 24 hour counts were taken between December 11th and December 13th:
Wal-Mart at Slaughter Lane and IH-35: 28,227 trips
Wal-Mart at Ben White and IH-35: 15,109 trips
Wal-Mart at Lakeline and RM 620: 22,754 trips
Cabela’s: 7,003 trips
IKEA: 5,063 trips
It is important to note that these numbers are higher (as much as 41.8% according to
ITE) than an average daily trip count because they were taken in December which is
the highest month for vehicle travel.
These measurements are all over the board and show the difficulty in making conclusions from existing sites (note the word “unadjusted”). But Cabela’s, the Only Store Bigger Than This Wal-Mart!, actually has minimal traffic. I’m going to stick with the TIA, thanks.
And it’s eminently reasonable to deduct “internal capture” and “pass-by trips” from the TIA for the new site; everybody does this. Some non-trivial number of drivers in the area currently use the same roads to go to big-box (or other) stores farther away, and some non-trivial number of people in the area will patronize both Wal-Mart and something else on the same trip.
I’ll repeat what I said in what’s probably my last comment on that other blog: city staff doesn’t game the system; even when I have disagreed with the policy implied by their analyses, the analyses themselves were always correct. They don’t mess around – they’ve always been honest; it just doesn’t make sense for engineers to misrepresent data in a case like this – they have nothing to gain and a lot to lose.
A few things about Wal-Mart:
DSK took pictures of the people ringing Northcross, and actually asked the people at the bus stop what they thought.
A RG4N supporter took pictures all the way around.
Austin Contrarian just posted a great summary of the neighborhoods around the site. Note that I’ve discussed previously, to the derision of some, that it would be nice for a big box to be located somewhere where lower-income workers could practically travel via the bus. Here’s the map linking all of this together – several bus routes accessible to those denser, lower-income neighborhoods, go straight to Northcross.
Note the other major transfer center at a mall in Austin – Highland Mall – which, not being a dead husk like Northcross, has high levels of both transfer traffic _and_ local (destined for the area in and around the mall) traffic. For the record, I’d be thrilled if a Wal-Mart like the one proposed here would take over some of the acres of awful strip-mall-and-surface-parking-lot area around Highland.
As I’ve said in some comment threads, besides downtown itself, Northcross (and Highland) are the two spots in our area which have the best transit access, bar none. Trish has disingenuously highjacked that into pedantry about the fact that the transfer center isn’t in the Wal-Mart parking lot and so can’t count as a bonus to the plan; but it’s still true: if you’re going to put a large retail center ANYWHERE, these two spots are exactly the right place to do it.
Finally, in an incredibly obnoxious and hypocritical attack-comment, Trish did bring up a point I hadn’t even noticed before: in my entry detailing how the Wal-Mart site isn’t in the middle of a residential neighborhood, I erred by saying that you had to go all the way to Mopac to the west before you hit residential use. I was thinking along Austin’s tilted axis when I made this comment – i.e. the area roughly between Anderson and Foster is almost completely commercial (with one apartment complex I can think of) – but that’s actually a diagonal line. Straight west DOES, in fact, penetrate single-family use in Allandale. Mea culpa. I also used “residential” in the same way the neighborhoods do – to mean “only single-family residential”, and I should have been more explicit, but it’s disingenuous to complain too much about this when the neighborhoods in the area have been so vehemently against multi-family development for so long.
Finally, wrapping up the wrap-up, a lot of arguments have centered around a practice I’m going to refer to in shorthand as “defining down into meaningless”. For instance, arguing over whether Wal-Mart would be “in the middle of a residential neighborhood” can degenerate into defining how far away the building has to be from the first house before it qualifies, OR you can argue in good faith by taking a look at some other major retail destinations in the area and seeing how close _they_ are. Basically, if Highland Mall, Barton Creek Square, 6th/Lamar, etc. are closer (in several cases MUCH closer) to residential uses than is Northcross, you can’t honestly continue this claim about “in the middle” unless you admit that your definition is so generous it catches almost everybody else too. That’s simply not arguing in good-faith.
Same with transit access. Read this blog for even a few minutes and you discover I’m one of Capital Metro’s harshest critics from an under-delivery of transit perspective. But that doesn’t change the fact that if you call transit access to Northcross “bad”, you’ve redefined “bad” so it includes effectively everywhere except downtown. Not good-faith argument, either. To be fair (and notice the RG4N folks, and Trish, never do this), this applies to a replacement development there as well, except that the RG4N folks obviously hope for retail that attracts higher-income clientele than the Wal-Mart. It’d still help the workers either way; just like how good transit service between UT and the Arboretum results in a few college-age kids getting off the bus up there to go work retail every morning.
Wrapping up the wrap-up of the wrap-up: Northcross is a great place to take the bus to, for both choice commuters and the transit-dependent. It’s not any closer to residential development than most major retail centers in our area and is actually farther away from houses than most (Lakeline Mall being the one main exception). The demonstrators this weekend are slapping each other on the back, but none of them bothered to talk to the people waiting for the bus at the transfer center. Hmmm. Wonder why.
RG4N’s blog roundup of reaction to their plan is finally up: relevant excerpt:
we turn to M1EK, who takes issue with Councilmember Kim’s comments about the
inappropriateness of placing super-duper-centers in urban neighborhoods.
Clueflash: Allandale, Crestview, Wooten, and North Shoal Creek are NOT URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS. Urban neighborhoods address the street with porches and front doors, not garages. Urban neighborhoods prioritize walking over driving – and have sidewalks to prove it. Urban neighborhoods would prioritize bicycle travel over the ability to warehouse cars on not just one but both sides of a major street.
Folks, just because you’re closer to downtown than Circle C is doesn’t make you “urban”. Urban is a style of development (and living); not a mere geographic indicator. When I sit here in my garage office typing this entry, I see more people walking on the sidewalk in front of my house than I do cars driving down my street – THAT’S URBAN. I see our one car (for a family of four) parked beside the house on a driveway rather than in front, because our house addresses the street with a porch and front door rather than with a garage. THAT’S URBAN.
Urban neighborhoods have a mix of densities (even if it’s all residential, although it’s better if it’s not) – on the very same street in an URBAN neighborhood, you’ll see apartments, single-family houses, granny flats, etc. In Allandale and Crestview, you see big apartment complexes on the edges, and nothing but large-lot single-family on the interior. That’s not urban; it’s just older suburban.
1960s suburban sprawl? Not urban. Not gonna be. Sorry.
Ben Wear notes that Capital Metro is now projecting 1,000 riders per day on the commuter rail line for the approximately $100 million investment. Yes, you heard right. ONE THOUSAND RIDERS PER DAY.
Let’s compare to two recent light-rail starts.
Minneapolis (opened late 2004): Ridership in 2005 grew to 25,000 per day on a 12-mile line that cost roughly $700 million and runs in a combination of in-street and separate right-of-way.
Houston: 40,000 per day on a fairly short and completely in-street runningway. That’s just to answer the “but but but Minneapolis isn’t in Texas!” cries some trogolodytes were beginning to choke on after the first example.
So let’s take the Minneapolis example. 25 times as many riders; 7.5 times as much cost. Sounds like a damn good deal to me – and we could have built that here very easily… a slightly scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan would have cost about that much, and would have delivered at least that many riders. Remember that the next time somebody tries to convince you that this awful commuter rail plan is just light rail done cheaper and smarter.
The key in both Minneapolis and Houston is actually NOT that they run their trains more often; it’s that once a rider gets off the train, they can take a short walk to their office rather than having to hop a shuttle bus. Again, we could have had that here if we hadn’t have rolled over for Mike Krusee.
In other words, Capital Metro didn’t mess up by ordering too few cars for the amazing ridership they could get for this line; they apparently read the writing on the wall from Tri-Rail’s experience and figured out they’re not going to get many long-term choice commuters on this thing after the first batch tries the shuttle bus experience on for size so they’d better not buy too many rail cars.
And, no, upgrading the shuttle buses to streetcars won’t help since they’re still a transfer to a slow stuck-in-traffic vehicle, and it can’t be improved over time into something that works as well as light rail, but it sure as hell will bring the total cost of our worthless Austin-screwing transit-killing debacle up to something approaching Minneapolis’ successful light rail line.
commuter rail: costs very little; does jack squat1
1: Looking for a better quick slogan here that also includes the fact that commuter rail not only doesn’t move rail transit forward, it actually moves us in the wrong direction since it precludes the later addition of light rail in the 2000 alignment. Suggestions?