Monthly Archives: March 2010

A tale of two processes

(this is NOT transportation related! Skip if so inclined).
During my first year at A Company, I worked with one other developer, who, although in Austin, wasn’t physically co-located. Because we didn’t have an office. There were 2 of us in Austin; he worked in his house; I worked in my garage. (Like the Fonz!).
How did we manage to communicate? Well, on IM, mostly; sometimes on the phone if time-critical or hard to explain; once a month or so in person (we’d ride our bike to the other guy’s ‘office’, actually). Other tools we used? Bug reports; emails; the typical slate. With the other two developers at the company (in Virginia)? Same story, although less often (didn’t work as closely with them): IM most of the time, phone when necessary, in person when no other choice (once or twice a year to do some heavy whiteboarding, perhaps). Who told us to work this way? We did. The other guy and me.
Lately, at A Company, there’s guys insisting on a new process. It mandates a meeting, in person, every single morning, at the same time each day, in front of a big section of wall with a bunch of post-it-notes. It as a matter of practice basically requires that communication be done in-person (heavily disparaging the use of tools – even IM and bugtrackers). It requires that people work pretty much at the same velocity all the time – no matter how inspired you might be one day or blocked the next. It requires a fairly non-flexible work schedule. It heavily encourages the same level of documentation on all features (index cards). Who told us to work this way? They did. (Not me, obviously).
Which one of these processes do you think calls itself Agile? Which one claims to respect self-organized teams? Which one supported flexible work environments – where the other developer (not me) would sometimes take off and hit Barton Springs, where I (me) would often take the laptop other places with wifi and work? Which one’s self-image better fits with the idea of being stuck in an office from 9-5 every single day? Which one actually does, in practice?
Yep.

Red Line Round Up

1. Boardings Monday were in the low 900s, roughly in the area I predicted when Roger Cauvin finally dragged one out of me. Still too early to judge much, though; the numbers could easily go either way depending on how many of Monday’s riders were displaced joyriders from the free-ride stage (all else being equal, I’d expect paying ridership to drastically drop after the novelty wears off, then go back up a little bit as some more people experiment with it over time).
2. The 51st/Airport intersection is trending locally: KXAN, News 8, KVUE all reporting recently on the changes made so far and the continuing problems there. Gosh, it would be neat if somebody had warned everybody about this many months before the line opened. That would have been cool. Unfortunately only one media outlet even bothered to report on this before the line was about to open – the winners in this case are the fine folks at KUT who actually interviewed yours truly and some others on this subject months ago.

Transit Field Trip: Houston 2010

So for Spring Break I took the family down to Houston to do a bunch of museums – and we stayed at the Holiday Inn Medical Center, which is close-ish (not real close) to the Main Street light rail line. My only condition for the trip was that we had to ride the line once; which we did.

Thursday we drove to the Hermann Park Zoo on this route. As it turns out, we had to park slightly further away than the light rail station actually was (and even that was a very long walk). The close-in lot that we could otherwise have used was difficult to approach since the road that apparently would have taken us there was closed by the cops (I have a handicapped plate thanks to the reactive arthritis). So we parked about a block and a half away from the train station, and paid $12 for the privilege. Hooray. Streetscape in the Medical Center is very nice and very busy – in a good way. Pointed out to the family that the basic layout here matches what we would have had in front of UT with the 2000 light rail proposal (and now can probably never have).
During the time we took just to cross the street, a train in each direction went by – each one standing-room-only. Headway this time of day is every 6 minutes. Turns out it takes long enough to cross the street there that you’ll always see a train either coming or going.
Leaving the zoo on the long walk, once again saw a couple of trains; once again standing-room-only.
Friday was the train day. Got a late start thanks to sleeping in and a late breakfast; then walked about 1/2 mile (remember, this was the point of the day for me) and boarded at the Dryer/TMC station. Bought our single-ride tickets (really a 2-hour pass) from the vending machine without incident – although couldn’t take pictures as the train was arriving fast enough we just had to board immediately. We went only three stations up the line to the Museum District station and then took another longish walk back to the Museum of Natural Science (which sucked). The train this time was about half full – we actually got to sit down.
Left the Natual Science Museum (which sucked) and took the train back at about 5:00. Standing room only again; again no wait for the train; pointed out to the 16 year old that Texans won’t ride public transportation; walked back to the hotel. The end.
On this drive, saw a good instance of TOD (brand new block-spanning apartment complex advertising proximity to the train; parking garage not readily apparent – doubtlessly THERE, but the complex is clearly oriented to the train, not the drive – unlike the joke at Crestview Station).
Saturday was wet and cold, and our destination (Downtown Aquarium) was way too far from the train to do that way; so we drove; but I made sure to drive next to the train most of the way. Even on a wet sloppy day, the trains were relatively full; frequent; and uneventful. Pointed out to the family that the cross-section in the Museum District on the one-way streets matched what we would have had on Guadalupe/Lavaca downtown between MLK and 9th-11th-ish on the 2000 light rail proposal. Second half of the day we spent at the Childrens’ Museum which was a workable walk from the train station, but we already had the car, so we drove.
Sunday was NASA. No train, obviously. 6 year old would have spent the entire time in the giant playscape had we let him.
Overall conclusions:

  • Houston’s still a sprawling mess, which is depressing. They’ve also got a good urban core which has gotten a lot better in the Medical Center area, which is also depressing, since they did it by just following the easy recipe for light rail success that we’re ignoring.
  • The CityPass is a good deal only if you’re not that much into the Natural Science museum. Everything that was interesting there was a separate charge. Ugh.
  • The Downtown Aquarium is OK but a half-day event. The restaurant is expensive but really worth it; the kids (and the adults) LOVED the fish while we ate. Even the baby was enthralled.
  • NASA: Would be nice if you didn’t have to have an adult or adult-like substance sitting next to the playscape all friggin’ day.
  • The rail line is a success. Period. 36,000 daily trips. And they’re actually paying money to ride. They’ve fixed most of their safety issues; it’s very hard to interact with the train now and not know exactly what you’re supposed to do – and interactions are kept to a minimum; unlike the current debacle at 51st/Airport which I warned you about in November and the city/CapMet are just starting to take seriously.

No more time. Trainin’, trainin’, trainin’. Not that kind of train, sadly.

Hold Your Horses

So a train started running today, for reals. Know what? Right now is the time for the uninformed on both sides to have their day – it’s too early to say anything really useful.
In the meantime, I spent the 2nd half of Spring Break in Houston, and yes, rode the train. Was gonna write a TFT post but baby had other plans involving the being sick of and on and all over; am now in work, late, on 2 hours sleep. Maybe tomorry.

Ticketing isn’t much better than just yelling

Heading out to Houston for the weekend. Yes, I’m gonna ride a real light rail train.
The Statesman and every other media outlet in town, it seems, have been played for suckers again by Capital Metro – as has the City of Austin, who apparently thinks the answer to the bad intersection at 51st/Airport is just giving out tickets. Not one outlet has responded with even an ounce of critical thinking to the contention that the intersection hasn’t changed (I’d say running trains 10 times a day at 60 mph is a change from a 5 mph freight train once a week) or the idea that education can substitute for engineering.

Austin police, beginning with Monday’s MetroRail startup and for the following two weeks, will be staking out a worrisome intersection on Airport Boulevard, where the track is just a few car lengths from a traffic light and cars often illegally stop on or near the railroad.
Despite new signal gate technology meant to clear waiting traffic near the tracks, Capital Metro officials are concerned that some drivers might flout posted signs and railroad signal lights and find themselves in the path of a fast-moving train.
Police officers, at Capital Metro’s request, will be monitoring 51st Street near Airport Boulevard and will issue citations immediately to motorists who stop on the track or under the four crossing arms that Capital Metro has installed where the track crosses 51st Street.

My response in comments to the Statesman article:

I covered this intersection on my blog a long time ago and have spoken about it on KUT several times since. The idea that we can avoid problems here through education and ticketing is just ludicrous – it only takes one person who missed the media coverage out of the thousands of people driving through here to make it all for naught.
The intersection actively encourages drivers to stop on the tracks, albeit briefly, if they want to ever have a chance to make a light – and this isn’t just one direction of travel; it’s people trying to turn off Clarkson; people just trying to go across Airport to the east; and people trying to turn left onto Clarkson from the east.
But let’s just yell and ticket. That’ll work, right? As long as we can make sure that 100.0% of all drivers who ever go through here will comply.
The far better policy, of course, would be to fix the intersection, but it doesn’t play into Capital Metro’s narrative that this was a cheap and easy rail start on all existing tracks.

It only takes one driver not to get the message, or to try their luck to avoid getting stuck for three more red lights to cause a disaster here. Capital Metro needs to be held accountable for their failure to re-engineer this intersection – and nobody in the media appears willing to do anything but repeat their PR about how silly it is to stop on the tracks. Shameful.

Teaser graphic

In the “Why do I keep calling Tri-Rail a failure, and why do I keep saying the Red Line is going to match its record” department; this graphic below is from this spreadsheet, which is a work in progress on developing some metrics from the national transit database.
There are those who think that any rail is good rail; and there are those who think that any rail is bad rail. Then there are those like me who recognize that some rail systems do a much better job than others in a “new rail city” at delivering new riders – and it’s frustrating how few seem to recognize intuitively the difference between a city like Houston, where the trains are packed and voters overwhelmingly approved a massive expansion as a result, and an area like South Florida, where after 20-25 years and a massive investment in double-tracking a very LONG route through a very heavily populated area, no community support for rail has developed despite a much more supportive population when the service started.
The metric I have here is basically “how much of the metro area did they get to ride the train, adjusted for mile of track”. Here’s why that’s a good starting point: You should have the goal of maximizing return on your investment – your investment is basically miles of track; and your return is how many people ride – but to compare metro areas against each other, you should also consider how many people are IN that area to begin with (delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Portland is a far greater achievement than delivering 20,000 riders per weekday in Manhattan).
Light rail systems are being used everywhere here except South Florida and Austin, obviously. (In both our cases, unlike the other cities here, commuter rail has effectively precluded light rail – and is being sold as a light rail analogue anyways).
After the break, the picture…

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Days of Reckoning, Part Three

Today, thanks to skepticism from those who think my position solidified over six years on this subject is because of predetermined bias rather than actual study, I’ll switch from my original plan of doing use cases by “estimated level of commute interest” and instead hit what I would guess are the two best possible cases for the Red Line.
Since shuttle-buses are obviously a problem, and since even in the commute to UT (you know, the obvious primary destination for people riding transit in our area, that unimportant little spot) from the furthest out station in Leander, the speed of the train can’t make up for the time lost to the shuttle-bus, let’s try to assemble one of the few commutes that might not require a shuttle-bus, although that’s relatively hard to do.
Frost Tower is just on the edge of the 1/4 mile circle that most transit planners view as the maximum distance people will walk to work from a transit stop. It’s also the ONLY major office building within what’s commonly considered acceptable walking distance from the ‘downtown station’. (Me, I might actually have to take the shuttle even on that trip some days due to my feet, so I’ll plan that out too). Let’s run there from both Leander (far out park-and-ride) and Crestview (supposed TOD which will supposedly provide the only real walk-up traffic for Austin).
This case also benefits the Red Line disproportionately because both the express bus route from Leander to downtown and the #101 limited first run past UT, and then past the Capitol, then through the rest of downtown; so we’re at the very end of the slowest part of that route here. IE, we’ve picked the destination that makes the bus look its absolute worst.

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Days of Reckoning, Part Two

Today’s entry: Somebody who fell for the “TOD” hype and moved into Crestview Station so they could walk to the Red Line and take it to work at UT. Morning commute this time around; assume they want to get in comfortably before 9:00AM. Note that the Red Line shuttle drops off on San Jacinto; the two bus options here drop off on Guadalupe; the typical UT office is, if anything, closer to Guadalupe than San Jacinto.
Spoiler: Even the local bus beats the Red Line, because of the shuttle-bus trip. Yes, even though that local bus travels through half of the congestion on the Drag.

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Days of Reckoning, Part One

Using the new schedules on Capital Metro’s spiffy new MetroRail site; this afternoon in the 5 minutes I could spend, we now know that, according to schedules, if you’re leaving UT for Leander and want to take the first available trip after 5:00, the express bus that currently takes you 68 minutes is on tap to be replaced by a shuttle-bus plus Red Line option that will take you either 71 or 76 minutes, depending on if you feel like taking your chances on maybe not fitting on the second shuttle bus for the 5:40 trip heading up to Leander.

Trip Pickup at UT Arrive MLK station Leave MLK station Arrive Leander station Total travel time
#987 express bus 5:04 PM N/A N/A 6:12 PM 68 minutes
Red Line with #465 shuttlebus (first one) 5:16 PM 5:28 PM 5:40 PM 6:32 PM 76 minutes
Red Line with #465 shuttlebus (second one) 5:21 PM 5:33 PM 5:40 PM 6:32 PM 71 minutes

I wonder if there was anyone who predicted way back when that the Red Line would be slower, thanks to its reliance on shuttle-buses, than existing express bus service? Nah. Couldn’t be. Nobody could have predicted this debacle way back in, say, 2004.

July 15, 2004:

The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

More references: