Monthly Archives: January 2008

VMU: Hyde Park goes reactionary

This is a letter I just sent to most of the City Council. I’ll try to link a few things from here, but no extra analysis – I’m really too busy at the office to be spending time on this, even.

Councilmember McCracken and others,
I wanted to register my opposition to the ludicrous and irresponsible plans submitted by these two neighborhood associations in my area to completely opt out of the VMU ordinance on highly questionable grounds (claiming to have already implemented zoning accomplishing some of the same things while rejecting the rest based on parking and other typical excuses). There is no more critical corridor in our city for VMU than this part of Guadalupe.
My family and I walked up to the Triangle for a restaurant opening a week or two ago, and the streetscape along Guadalupe is just awful. This is the kind of thing that Karen McGraw‘s reactionaries are trying to preserve – oil change lots, gas stations, and barely used falling down storefronts which can’t be made economical when they are forced to adhere to suburban parking requirements. (The only healthy business along this strip was Vino Vino, which as you may recall, she tried to force to build a bunch more parking too).
The claim that this represents the will of the neighborhoods is questionable. If you read the backup material, you’ll see the same exact people who spent months and months building the McMansion Ordinance were the ‘voters’ on this plan – this isn’t the kind of issue you’re going to be able to get the rank and file of the neighborhood interested in, as you might have already figured. (But in the case of Vino Vino, you can argue that the true silent majority in Hyde Park made their feelings well known – the population in general is clearly not as reactionary about density as is their leadership).
You already gave these people way too much with McMansion – and the understood quid pro quo was that they’d have to accept additional housing units along transit corridors – and there’s no better transit corridor in central Austin than this one. Parking is thus no excuse. If you don’t force VMU here, you might as well throw in the towel everywhere.
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

Oh crap, I’m That Guy

Apparently just because the Popcorn Button works at home regardless of size of popcorn bag, DO NOT ASSUME it will work on a non-home microwave. The entire office is filled with smoke. I’m That Guy, dammit. (No, this is not a subconscious, or conscious for that matter, revenge for the location).

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.

Chronicle comment of the month

From “Dataholic” on this story. I still owe you guys at least one more installment of “What RG4N cost the city” which will be focused on lost opportunities to do the site better, but in the meantime, please read this:

Two judges have ruled that the City followed its own laws when it came to approving the Lincoln site plan. When there are laws, all sides have to abide by them, including Lincoln, including the City, including the neighborhoods. If the City capitulated to RG4N’s demands, it would be breaking its own laws, thus opening itself to being sued by Lincoln (and losing since the laws were followed –per 2 judges). This would be even costlier for the City (all of us), and would achieve nothing (in terms of getting rid of Wal-Mart). Even RG4N founders stated, very early on, that no public process was required to build a supercenter on that site.
Regardless of what you think of Wal-Mart, regardless of how much more preferable a different (or no) development might be, Lincoln owns the property and Lincoln followed the law.
If the laws need changing, then change them — but RG4N demanding the City break its own laws is divisive, expensive, and only a ploy to further the political careers of its leaders at the expense of the neighborhoods.

I couldn’t put that any better myself. And, no, I don’t post under anybody other than “m1ek”. RG4N needs to man up and admit they lost this, big-time, and the Chronicle needs to stop carrying their water just because they happen to be highly connected. Enough is enough. You’re making a mockery of yourselves and you’re hurting the city.

Downtown Austin Plan gets transportation completely wrong

Coverage by the Chronicle and Austinist, but I’ll focus on two very narrow areas here where they are dead wrong. Note: I don’t have the time to spend all day Saturday at the Convention Center to tell these guys stuff they already know deep-down, thanks.
The long PDF is here. Here’s the two things I’m going to address (I agree with most, but not all, of the remainder of the thing, but nothing else is as remarkably wrong as these):
#1: Two-way streets are NOT better for pedestrians and cyclists. The only thing you have to do to throw out this ridiculous piece of conventional wisdom that we need to convert all our one-ways to two-ways is imagine being a driver who is sitting waiting to make a left turn from a 2-way 4-lane undivided roadway downtown into a driveway or cross street. Hey, there’s a little break in traffic!, you think, GUN IT!. How’s that going to work out for the pedestrian crossing on the flashing Walk signal? You know, the one you couldn’t see until a split second before you hit him, because your view was obstructed by the oncoming traffic before the gap?
With one-way streets, you always get one cycle where pedestrians have a fully protected (solid-white walk signal) crossing (bar left-turn-on-red; which requires enough motorist vigilance to be very safe for pedestrians anyways). Crossing one-way streets as a pedestrian is comparatively much safer and much saner and much more pleasant than crossing a similarly sized two-way street.
The primary reason this 2-way nonsense keeps coming up is because people compare a narrow 2-lane 2-way street like 2nd street to a wide 1-way street with 4 or 5 lanes; and, of course, because they’re completely car-centric to boot. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world have tons of one-way streets. Throw out this piece of ‘wisdom’ that 2-way is better; it’s just not true.
(I plan on eventually writing a backgrounder on this one – suffice to say for now that you need to know that the primary motivating force behind this stuff are urban-but-suburban-minded business owners who want you to see their shop no matter which direction you’re driving; not people who honestly want to build a downtown people like to walk around in).
#2: The streetcar line proposed by Capital Metro will provide more people-moving capacity downtown – ABSOLUTELY FALSE. Compare/contrast with light rail, which certainly would have; and McCracken/Wynn’s rail proposal, which COULD, but if and only if they get significant chunks of reserved guideway and don’t follow Cap Metro’s stupid up-the-rear-end-of-UT-and-out-Manor-Road route. The existing AND FUTURE density in central Austin is on Guadalupe, not on San Jacinto and Manor Road (neighborhood plans out there don’t allow for enough future density to make running them a streetcar remotely worth the cost; and Guadalupe already has significant enough density to justify it).
If the streetcar runs in shared traffic, as it will according to Capital Metro’s proposal, it will not be able to attract many more people than do the buses that currently run around downtown. This is important, because building new transit that doesn’t actually get USED more doesn’t actually help with the person-moving capacity of the corridor.
In addition, the streetcar line as proposed by Capital Metro will not be a significantly better way to distribute commuter rail passengers than will the buses that will do it on day one. Read my recent comments about streetcar versus bus for starters – Capital Metro’s proposal runs entirely in ‘shared lanes’, meaning that the streetcars will be even slower and even less reliable than the buses these commuters won’t set foot on today. So it’s not going to be the ‘dessert’ which makes more people want to eat the ‘meal’. Once again, no improvement in people-moving capacity.
These use cases basically show you what a passenger on the commuter rail line will face. Imagine that the last segment is on a streetcar, stuck in traffic behind their coworkers’ cars, instead of on a bus. Does it make much difference?
I have a strong suspicion that the people working on the downtown plan know all of this, by the way, but there is a political risk to being too much against Capital Metro’s transit plan and the 2-way-street conventional wisdom. Nonetheless, it would have been very helpful for some caveats to be included at a bare minimum, like they did with the commuter rail line itself (their quote below).

In its first phase, the Leander-to-
Austin Commuter Rail Line will terminate in the extreme east/southeast quadrant of Downtown,
at Brush Square. This peripheral location is not ideal, being about a 30-minute walk to the
Capitol Complex, 10 minutes to Sixth and Congress (2.5 MPH) and 15 minutes to City Hall (2.5
MPH). While transfers to waiting buses are planned from the MLK Rail Station to UT and to the
Capitol, as well as from Brush Square to Downtown destinations, it is unclear how desirable these
bus transfers will be to the transit user.

Note the skillful caveats here. This particular page is well-done – it addresses the problem, while still being optimistic enough to satisfy people who think we can actually get more things done through consensus rather than forceful advocacy of our needs.
The rule of thumb for transit users is roughly a 5-minute walk, by the way, in case you were still wondering why I keep talking about what a disaster this thing is going to be. Light rail would have run to within a 5-minute walk of essentially all the major employment destinations in central Austin.

Why transit service doesn’t work on frontage roads

This has come up frequently in the past in regards to the idiocy of claiming that major retail belongs out on the frontage road (where I have claimed in the past that it’s impossible to practically provide good transit service). Here’s a much better version than my previous one, and as a bonus, MS Paint was still tangentially involved!

(For non-Texas readers who may have wandered in from Jeff’s excellent transit portal, almost all limited-access highways in this state are built from pre-existing major arterial roadways – where property access is maintained via the construction of new “frontage roads” which unlike perimeter roads often used for that purpose in other states, also serve as on-and-off-ramps. The incredibly wide road footprint that results makes it far more expensive to build new or maintain existing crossings over or under the highway).

Both images from google transit; click through for full details. This is basically the “how do I get from the drop-off for the express bus at the park-and-ride on the west side of the road to the entrance to all the office parks on the east side of the road”. Note that the address for the park-and-ride you sometimes get (12400 Research) doesn’t match the actual location, which is on Pavilion Boulevard back towards Jollyville.

First, the transit directions, which look pretty good at first:


Then, the driving directions, which look like this:


Huh. Wait a minute. If I can just jump across the road, why do the driving directions have me go down a mile and back? Let’s look at the satellite image (click to embiggen):


(Get more current satellite view here)

Oh. Now I see. Note that the bus stop images you see on the other side of the road are for a poorly performing cross-town route which suffers from the same basic problem – if you need to leave an office on that side of the street and go southbound on 183 back home, you get to walk to the next crossing – which on a normal street wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but crossings of frontage roads are few and far between. Farther to the northwest, crossings are even less frequent – you face a walk of close to 3 miles in spots to make this trip across the freeway. Taking that cross-town route would be even worse than taking the express plus the incredibly long walk, because it would require a long slow trip down the frontage road and then a transfer to a second bus, and because the service on the frontage road is inevitably low-demand, it doesn’t run very often either.

Keep in mind that this is just to cross the freeway. If you work at the Riata office park, you then face another walk of a half-mile or so inside the complex. I used to do this commute on my bike, with bus boost in the morning at times and am very familiar with the area – ironically, proximity to the Pavilion transit center was supposedly touted as a positive for this development when it was originally proposed. I was always pretty sure Pavilion used to connect with what is now called Riata Trace Parkway when 183 was just a six-lane divided arterial but have never been able to find a clear enough old satellite image to confirm, but our Tennessee correspondent has already confirmed in comments that it did cross.

For reference, my last job before this one was also on US 183, but between Balcones Woods and Braker Lane, which was much more accessible by transit – and yes, I did sometimes take the bus even on days where I wasn’t biking. I tried the bus commute once to Riata and never did it again – that walk, in addition to being far too long even for a nice comfortable express bus, is just dreadful, even compared to conditions down by Braker.

And, yes, there’s a personal reason this is coming up now too. All I can say now is dammit, dammit.

Gadget transit

Quick recommendation: My readers who are tempted to fall for the monorail siren song, as well as those who have been misled by neanderthal clap-trap about “choo-choo” trains being too old a technology should check out this excellent piece by Christof in Houston.
As I’ve commented in his forums, though, also be aware that these solutions are often pushed disingenuously by people who really want nothing to get done, because they don’t want the status quo to be threatened. In other words, whenever you read about monorail and especially PRT, be aware that a lot of the guys pushing this are doing so not because they actually want or expect it to ever get built, but precisely because they know it WON’T ever get built so they can protect transit funds which can later be diverted for suburban highways instead.

Streetcars suck in Seattle too

Yesterday, I posted a quick hit about our bus ride down to First Night which noted several times where a bus was actually more useful than a streetcar would have been. It’s actually fairer to say “less awful”, of course, since anybody who knows me knows I don’t find bus transit remotely acceptable on a corridor like this either – it needs true light rail like Austin voters approved in 2000.
Now, I see that things aren’t going so great in Seattle with their stuck-in-traffic streetcar either:

On Sunday, the southbound streetcar was out of service at Westlake Avenue and Lenora Street because a car was parked in the way.
“In spite of the fact we have clearly marked areas, and despite signs we have, for some reason a driver parked their car so it caused a problem for the streetcar,” Sheridan said.
He did not know how long the streetcar was out of service, but one witness said he saw the streetcar still stopped at 8:30 p.m.

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.