Monthly Archives: September 2008

How can you tell DMUs aren’t made for running in the city?

(I’m making a full post about this because I’m tired of having to dig up the links from comments; this is primarily for background for future postings).
Pictures from Camden, NJ, on the RiverLine, which is also inappropriately labelled “light rail” by the same people trying to mislead you about our starter line here in Austin:

Doesn’t look so bad. Just a bit of a corner, right? Keep going.
Further down the street to the south (down in the first image):

Further:

Try it yourself – click on any one of those images and then drag to navigate along the supposed “light” railway – and see how they managed to get it into the city core.
Any questions? This isn’t light rail – it’s a freight rail line bulldozed through a bunch of city blocks; which we don’t have the latitude to do here in Austin, since our downtown blocks actually have some economic value.

That didn’t take long

Capital Metro has now gone to moderation on comments at their blog, after posting this followup to yesterday’s trial balloon on the “it’s light rail because we say so” front. (Update: Erica says in comments here that they went to moderation because of a nasty personal attack – I have no reason to believe otherwise; they have posted everything I’ve written, so far).
Here’s what I commented to that post:

LRT was actually projected to have ridership in the mid 30s with the minimal operable segment (in 2007); and that was before some major developments have come online (like the Triangle).
Adam, 2000 per day is pathetic. So is the RiverLine’s 9000 per day. And the RiverLine was only able to operate that ‘well’ with those DMUs because they condemned a bunch of corners in downtown Camden in order to run directly to their CBD rather than to one far edge, then relying on shuttle buses for the “last mile”.
We don’t have the ‘luxury’ of a downtown so blighted that it’s no big deal to take corners of blocks here and there to run a porky DMU instead of a true light rail vehicle – which is why our commuter rail line is such a dead end – it can never and will never go to UT, the Capitol, and most of downtown.

Update: They’re really getting desperate over there. Follow the link, and here’s my comment for posterity:

Essentially nobody else other than the agencies in question would consider New Jersey’s service to be “light rail” either. So that’s not really going to convince anybody. They called it “light rail” for the same reason Lyndon Henry’s been doing it – to try to capitalize on the favorable brand image of LRT with people who have had good experiences on true light rail in other cities.
If you were going to bold something, how about this paragraph:

In the meantime, the best strategy for any transit agency interested in developing a shared-use project is to follow FRA’s policy advice and meet with FRA as soon as possible. Ideally, this should be done during the project definition phase and no later than the beginning of preliminary engineering. Transit agencies should recognize the FRA’s broad regulatory authority over shared-use rail transit projects and focus more on obtaining a jurisdictional determination that is compatible with their project mission. The critical shared-use issue for transit agencies to be concerned with is not the FRA’s regulatory authority over shared-use operations. It is the FRA’s jurisdictional determination process and how it relates to defining your project as light rail or commuter rail.

No, Capital Metro, it’s NOT light rail

You might have wondered why I haven’t written about the efforts by Capital Metro to claim their commuter rail service is “light rail” now that the FRA is giving them much more trouble than anticipated with their regulatory oversight. The answer is that I’ve been slammed by the worst bout of Austin allergies yet, and have had to marshal my diminished concentration on the day job. Important excerpts, since the Statesman’ news site will probably age this off before too long:

After all, supporters of the plan said, it won’t be powered with electricity, like most light-rail systems, but rather with diesel engines like commuter rail. It will originate 32 miles away in the suburbs and haul in commuters. The stops would generally be far apart, especially those first few out northwest. This is not light rail, they said. I eventually bought into all this, becoming a bit of a prig about correcting people who called it light rail.

[...]

Turns out that dubbing it commuter rail meant, at least to Uncle Sam and in conjunction with the freight hauled on the same track, that regulation of the line falls under the auspices of the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration. And that first agency’s rules for running a passenger train on a line that also has freight trains — albeit at different times of the day or night under Capital Metro’s plan — have much tougher standards for the track control system and the construction of the cars. Capital Metro has been trying for more than two years to get the railroad agency to say yes to its plan, a final nod it has yet to secure.
Earlier this year, Capital Metro tried to change referees, petitioning to have the transit administration take over and waive certain requirements. In pursuit of that effort, Capital Metro chief Fred Gilliam wrote a letter May 22 to James Simpson, administrator of the transit agency.
“Our MetroRail project is clearly an urban rapid transit or light rail system,” he wrote. It was “initially” referred to as urban commuter rail, he said, “to avoid confusion with an earlier proposal that involved electric vehicles.” You know how confused voters can get

I’ve been too overwhelmed with that allergy attack to focus enough to write a good piece, but I couldn’t wait any longer, especially after they posted this on their blog. Here’s my response in their comment section:

This is a misleading article. Nearly nothing in traditional light rail lines would apply to starting DMU service on an existing freight line, and to say that 8 of the 9 stations are within Austin is also incredibly misleading as the two northernmost, the ones that actually have parking, are right on the edge of the city limits and expected to serve primarily non-residents. The remaining “Austin” stations are largely for drop-offs only, and have hardly any residential development within walking distance.
This is a sharp contrast to the 2000 light rail route – which served the same suburban constituencies but also served central Austin.
There’s really nothing urban OR light about this line. It’s standard commuter rail – buy trains and stick them on freight tracks. Period. Just because the FRA gives you trouble is no reason to join Lyndon Henry’s brigade of serial misinformation artists.

In a second comment, I add:

The other key difference, of course, is that a “light railway” could easily be brought straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown – like that 2000 route does. Our commuter rail vehicles will never be able to do any of those things – they are designed to run on freight railways and cannot make turns that would be necessary to run on anything like a normal light rail route through a true urban area. As a result, essentially every single passenger that rides this thing will be forced to transfer to a shuttle-bus at the work end of their trip. You can’t get any farther away from the idea of light rail than that.

By the crappy arguments promoted by agents of misinformation like the aforementioned Lyndon Henry, if we bought a DMU and ran it in between freight traffic on the UP line that runs down Mopac, that would, too, magically turn into a “light railway”. Of course that’s complete and utter bullshit – everybody knows what ‘light rail’ is – it’s rail and vehicles that can be run through cities without having to demolish a bunch of buildings to make turns, and that doesn’t have to maintain compatibility with freight traffic.
You can expect more from me when I feel better – I need to focus my periods of concentration on my real job in the meantime, but don’t buy this nonsense – it’s NOT light rail – it’s a standard, stupid, shuttle-bus-dependent commuter rail service, even if they do what they’re claiming they might and add a bunch more stations because it will never be capable of running to UT, the Capitol, or even turning downtown to make it to Seaholm. It’s still fundamentally a freight rail line, and the trains we bought are designed to run on freight railways with long turns.
And, my email to our city council:

Please be aware that the decision by Capital Metro to attempt to rebrand (at this late date) their commuter rail service as “light rail” in a desperate attempt to avoid FRA oversight is not supportable by the facts. By their flimsy arguments, if we somehow got Amtrak to increase frequency a bit on the UP line, it would magically turn into a “light railway”.
What we’re building is standard-issue commuter rail (service started on the cheap that only runs on existing freight tracks – and uses vehicles incapable of navigating the turns it would have to take in central Austin to get anywhere worth going without transferring to shuttle buses).
I hope those of you who are board members will disabuse Capital Metro of the notion that simply calling it “light rail” makes it so. It’s still an awful commuter rail service that barely serves Austin at all and can never take passengers to any major destinations without a ridership-killing transfer at the work end of their journey. The city of Austin would be best served by continuing down the path undertaken by the CAMPO TWG which is an actual urban rail system that can and will serve Austin residents in a way commuter rail can never do.
Regards,
Mike Dahmus

TWITC: Here we go again

Thanks to the precedent set by the Shoal Creek debacle, yet another neighborhood has agitated for, and won, parking in bike lanes. From the Chronicle’s piece:

The stated policy of the city’s bicycle program is to implement no-parking zones for bike lanes when streets are scheduled for maintenance and restriping – which is now the case between Westover and Windsor roads on Exposition. City staff’s recommendation, however, includes allowing parking in bike lanes overnight beginning at 7pm on certain segments, at all times except two three-hour commuting windows on others, and on Sundays on one stretch to accommodate church parking.

At least they expressed the view of the Leage of Bicycling Voters pretty well:

On Tuesday, LOBV President Rob D’Amico said, “The idea of a bike lane is to promote safe bicycle travel at all times … especially at night when riding is most dangerous.”

That is the only sensible view, people. We don’t park cars in (normal) traffic lanes (streets with on-street parking have either marked parking or unmarked lanes – the latter being the case on residential streets where most parking occurs). We shouldn’t park cars in bike lanes either. And as Rob D’Amico points out, nighttime is the time you need the bike lanes the most.
Exposition isn’t a residential street. It’s an arterial roadway – the road all those people go to from the residential streets (and collectors). Even though it has some residences on it, “residential street” has a very distinct meaning here, and Exposition is not one but TWO classifications higher on the food chain. If visitors to these churches or to the residences on Exposition are having trouble finding enough parking, there are options available a short walk away which don’t require that we risk cyclists’ lives.
I don’t envy city staff – who knows what the right thing is to do and yet has to defend this ridiculous policy decision anyways. Place your blame squarely at the foot of city council members who would rather pander to the selfish interests of neighborhood reactionaries than take a stand for public safety (or, even, a stand for parking – marked on-street parking spaces on Exposition without bike lanes would at least be a consistent and reasonable traffic marking).

Getting to the ACM on transit

Here’s some examples to back up the previous post about the ACM. I’m picking major intersections near some neighborhoods in the news the last couple of years. I am granting the Mueller Town Center a stop at Aldrich and Airport – which isn’t really IN the Town Center, but as close as you can get today (and, I believe, the closest you’ll get in the future except perhaps on the streetcar). Using times of 11:00 AM arrivals on a weekday.
Note: I had to use Capital Metro’s Trip Planner instead of Google – since the Google planner defaults to “closest time” rather than “minimize transfers” or “minimize walking”. This actually didn’t make any difference for trips to Mueller, but it did lead CM to propose trips with transfers to downtown which arrived 5 minutes closer to the desired time than a much shorter non-stop would do (most parents would choose the non-stop that arrived at 11:05 over the longer trip-with-transfers that arrived at 11:00 on the dot). The irritating thing about CM’s planner is that each and every time, you have to say “yes, I meant Congress, not South Congress” – it still won’t let you say “North Congress” to avoid this. Guh.
I also had to limit walk to 1/2 mile to avoid some ridiculous options like dropping off at Hancock Center. No parent with child, not even ME, is going to walk that far to go to the ACM. Sorry.
Those who will blithely reply that buses will be rerouted to run past or through Mueller should please reconsider. The major bus routes in this city have run on essentially their current paths for decades now – none of the major N/S routes are going to move miles out of their way to run down Airport Boulevard. The most likely transit improvements as Mueller builds out are the streetcar (just improves access to downtown and the UT area, which already have a direct bus to/from Mueller) and improved frequency on the routes that currently serve Mueller – like the #350; meaning you’ll still see options like the ones Capital Metro gives you below, just more often.
Remember, the point of this exercise is to think about whether this is a good long-term move for the ACM. If you are confident that gas will be cheap 10 years from now, then this is clearly a good move, except for those who don’t own cars, but if you think gas might be 8 or 10 bucks a gallon by then, maybe it’s worthwhile to think about how realistic it will be to get there by other means, wouldn’t you say?
Additional suggestions welcome.
1. From Burnet/Koenig:

To downtown: Direct, 32 minutes on the #3; 39 minutes on the #5
To Mueller: 49-73 minutes, with 2 of the 3 transferring at Northcross; the other up on St. Johns

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Republicans Still Heart Hugo

A local radical ‘winger has gotten on board my McCain/Chavez ticket suggestion, although like most of them, he doesn’t understand it yet. Who’s going to tell Palin the bad news?
Meanwhile, my favorite car site covered the issue and I have hope again for the world, after some relatively right-wing guys came up with comments like:

I’m not a particularly smart guy, but what is the value of exploiting a LOCAL resource when the price is going nowhere but up? If “we” have oil under our territory, and “they” have oil under theirs, shouldn’t we BUY THEIRS now while it is still relatively cheap?
Think ahead 25 or 50 years. If all of “theirs” is gone, but we still have “ours” in the ground, won’t we be WAY better off?
If I were a leader, or somebody who has oil under their feet, I’d hold mine and buy theirs, because mine will be worth orders of magnitude MORE when theirs is gone.
Or am I just a far too strategic thinker for the average American?

and

This idea the US can drill itself into control of the price of oil makes the Saudi’s, the Canadian’s and Hugo Chavez laugh.
The USA simply does not have enough oil to meaningfully influence the price from a supply point of view.
This will be remain true at any price of the stuff.
Honestly, you’ll do a hell of a lot better on the demand side.
But I guess nostalgia is an even more powerful force than the laws of the nature when it comes to politics.

Some of them get it, at least.

The Austin Suburban Childrens’ Museum

The Childrens’ Museum, of which we are members, announced today that they plan to move to Mueller after previously pulling out of a plan to occupy part of the ground floor of one of the major downtown high-rises now under construction (which would have, like Mueller, given them a lot more room to work with). Many people wondered why they pulled out of what seemed like a sweetheart deal back then – and now we know: they intended to move out of downtown all along.
Obviously, I believe this is a horrible move. Today, it’s a lot easier to drive to Mueller than it is to drive downtown, and most families drive (even we usually do, although I have gone with my 4-year-old on the bus once or twice). But this isn’t a move for today – it’s a move for ten years from now; and ten years from now, Mueller will be, at best, a medium-density node of homes and a few shops with mediocre transit access; and downtown will still have everything it does today PLUS a ton more homes and retail (far more than Mueller adds), and vastly superior transit access. Additionally, if you think ten years from now the average family will still be driving everywhere, you are far more optimistic about fuel prices than the facts on the ground would seem to warrant.
The other main benefit of having the museum downtown is that it can be one among many attractions that can form a nice day-trip, even if you live out in the suburbs and even if you drive. In Mueller? It’ll be an easy drive – and given what they’ve built so far, there will probably be plenty of surface parking. But even if the streetcar line comes together and doesn’t suck, Mueller will still have relatively poor transit access compared to downtown (except from downtown itself) – and once you get there, there will be exactly one thing to do before you go home. In other words, everybody can get to the current location downtown and almost all of them can get there on one bus ride. Getting to Mueller, even ten years from now, is going to require two or three rides for most people (unless you live downtown!).
As with the library and with the courthouse, there will doubtlessly be plenty of apologists who claim that Capital Metro will be serving the new location with some bus routes – and that buses can always be moved. Newsflash: major long-haul bus routes aren’t moved miles out of the way for one new attraction in a medium-density area. Ten years from now, Mueller will have basically the same transit it does today – more frequent, likely; but no major new routes, except the aforementioned streetcar (maybe).
Folks, there’s a reason that everything tended to be located downtown back when driving was an expensive privilege afforded mainly to the rich: it simply works better to group major destinations together so they can be served by transit. Decentralizing at this point in history when the affordability of driving appears to be heading back that direction is just incomprehensibly stupid – yet that’s exactly what the ACM is doing here.
At the same time our own city shows signs of thinking ten years down the road (or re-learning lessons from a hundred years ago), the ACM is thinking ten or twenty years in the past. The new location will be a nice amenity for the many families that have moved into Mueller, but it might as well be Round Rock for the rest of the city.
Update: Other coverage of note at the muellercommunity.com forums where you can probably watch me get slammed mercilessly, and at skyscraperpage.com for a more downtown-friendly view.

TWITC: They get to the Convention Center. Then what?

As usual, the Chronicle’s coverage of commuter rail, this time the Elgin branch, basically ignores(*) the most pressing issue of all, which is NOT “how will people get to the train station in Elgin” or “are there enough people out there”. It’s “do they work at the Convention Center, and if not, how will they get to their offices?
The residential end (Elgin or Leander) of these trips is obvious. People will drive to the train stations, which will have lots of parking. (The Leander station already does, as does the “Austin” station which will really be serving mostly Cedar Park, who of course don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes). (All the supposed transit-oriented development along the first line is really just transit-adjacent-development taking advantage of political cover to get the density that should already have been granted for locations that close into the city, of course – Leander’s TOD, by the way, is on hold due to bankruptcy proceedings for one of the developers and was never anything more than a joke as far as I’m concerned.)
So what about the office end of the trip? Are people going to walk to their office from the train station? NO. This is obvious for UT and the Capitol, but there are some naive folks who think that since they currently walk a long distance to ride a train, that everybody will. Not gonna happen here.
The key here, folks, is that these commuter rail lines are targetting “choice commuters” – and in the actual case of Leander and Elgin, they’re way down on the skeptic end of the “choice commuter” spectrum. What “choice commuter” means is that they have cars, and are using them right now – so they will have to be convinced to CHOOSE transit. In Leander’s case, excellent express bus service already exists which will take passengers straight to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown in which office workers actually work – nice, comfortable, touring buses with internet connections; we’re not talking normal city buses here. In Elgin’s case, not as much. And what this also means is that they’re precisely the people who will NOT be willing to walk 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the train station to their office – these are exactly the people for whom the 1/4 mile rule was devised. People who are so in love with taking public transportation that they will take extra-long walks to do so are already riding the express bus, in other words.
So how, Chronicle writers, are the passengers on these 2 commuter rail lines going to get to work? Shuttlebuses. Yes, the same people who (in Leander’s case at least) can’t be convinced to take relatively luxurious express buses straight to their office today are somehow going to be convinced they enjoy getting on and off much more spartan, jerky, shuttlebuses each and every day to get from the train station to their final destination.

While the 2008 TWG proposal may improve things slightly, it’s still going to be a transfer, and, repeat with me: choice commuters hate transfers – you’re asking them to give up a 1-seat ride (their car) for a 3-seat ride (car, train, bus/streetcar). Even if the last 2 seats are reserved-guideway, you’re going to turn off a huge proportion of your potential audience with that transfer – it happens even in Manhattan, where an investment of over six billion dollars is being made to move the LIRR just a bit farther into the core to allow more LIRR passengers to walk to work instead of having to transfer. They’re not doing this just to make things nicer for existing riders, people; the Bush administration doesn’t play that game – they’re doing it based on recovering a bunch of choice commuters who are now driving. And, people, we’re not Manhattan, nor will we ever be – we will never have parking so expensive or traffic so difficult that many people will be willing to take the extra transfer if they can just drive.
Christof in Houston put this best quite a while back, emphasis mine::

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.
Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

What’s the solution? Tear up commuter rail, right now, and go back to the 2000 light rail plan, which served all the same suburban northwest commuters in precisely the same locations as does commuter rail, but also hit the major residential density in Austin itself, and went straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown. Until then, the best we can do is try to support the salvage effort in that 2008 CAMPO TWG plan which makes noise about distributing commuter rail passengers but unlike Capital Metro’s stupid proposal, can also serve as a modest start to an urban rail system that actually serves Austin residents without relying on the commuter rail line itself. And, of course, the 2000 and 2008 rail plans would actually serve more of the transit-positive population of the city that would be willing to take a longer walk just to ride transit, but that’s just a bonus.
* – there is brief mention of the TWG proposal in the final paragraph along with a mention that it will enable the commuter rail line to “really work” – I don’t believe this qualifies as serious consideration given the points above – the work end of the trip is by far the most important aspect of any rail start, and even reserved guideway streetcar won’t save commuter rail thanks to the fact that it’s, repeat along with me: still a transfer. If brand-new rail lines are to succeed in cities with mostly choice commuters, they have to serve a large proportion of their ridership with a one-seat ride; transfers can build ridership from there; but any city which is trying to start from nothing while relying 100% on transfers is dooming themselves to failure (see Tri-Rail, South Florida).

Austin Contrarian on Austin Rail

Since I’m stuck driving 200 miles a day in the desert here in Yuma with no internet access except at hotel at evening, please go over to Austin Contrarian’s take on Austin rail – to which I’ve commented a few times already.

RG4N: Still wrong

Quick hit: About to leave on a business trip to Yuma, and have to hit a discount store on the drive from Phoenix to pick up some stuff. Guess what, RG4N? The Target I’m going to hit is NOT “on the freeway”; nor is the mall across the street.