Category Archives: Urban Design

Blandburbs and ‘choice’

Continuing my recent theme of pointing to other works that explain my thinking, here’s a quite good explanation of why suburban sprawl isn’t natural; isn’t the result of consumer ‘choice’; and isn’t healthy. Highly recommended. The only thing I’d add is the role of irresponsible inner city neighborhoods in preventing cities from doing responsible things to promote infill.
The idea that suburban sprawl is just a natural ‘choice’ ignores the reality that without the massive subsidies and regulatory restrictions which prevent anything ELSE from being built, a large minority of current suburbanites would actually live in neighborhoods like mine. All you need to do is see how cities developed before WWII, i.e., before the advent of both zoning and automobile subsidies (when there were plenty of cars, just not massive subsidies for their use by suburbanites).
I promise I’ll get to my Pfluger Bridge stuff next week.

The Casbjorksen Has Landed

Steve Casburn is finally online in Portland and is telling a familiar story – the bad bicyclist tale of woe. What I hear on the libertarian sites that I spend an unhealthy amount of time on is that Portland is a hellhole on the verge of collapse. Hopefully Steve, (who somehow got deluded by the liberal media into moving there without even having a job in advance) will survive the post-apocalyptic urban-planning wasteland. At least there’s fewer fat people there.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Shuttle Buses

Here’s what those of us who live or work in Central Austin are getting out of commuter rail. Stations in far east Austin and the Convention Center, with a handy transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus to get you to where you might actually want to go. Image below is from one of two new documents up at the Future Connections Study site:

Capital Metro is starting rail service here in Austin in a couple of years NOT by doing what success stories like Portland and Dallas did (light rail straight through and to the densest parts of town) but what South Florida did (commuter rail where tracks already exist, requiring transfers to shuttle buses to actually get anywhere). Fifteen years later, Tri-Rail in South Florida is an unmitigated disaster: no choice commuters despite heavy promotion by an enthusiastic community, no transit-oriented development despite heavy subsidization (below-market attempts at land sales around stations and the like). Unlike in Dallas and Portland (and Minneapolis and Houston and Denver and Salt Lake…), drivers in South Florida aren’t trying Tri-Rail because they know that transferring to shuttle buses every day for your commute overwhelms any speed advantage the train might have bought you up to that point.
In short, commuter rail as your starter line just plain doesn’t work. And the picture ought to make it clear why – even the nominally downtown station is too far from the 6th/Congress intersection for most people to walk, and all other major activity centers in our area will require people to say hey, I’ll drive to the park-and-ride, board a train, get off the train, get on a bus, wait in traffic with all the other cars, get off the bus, and walk to my office. Even promotional images used in the pro-commuter-rail campaign show that they expect downtown workers to have to transfer to shuttle buses, as seen below.

Notice in the handouts that they’re still pretending that all options are on the table. But believe me, there is zero chance that light rail will end up as the circulator, and near-zero chance that streetcars will make it, not that streetcars would work anyways. It’s going to be shuttle-buses in mixed-traffic. Mark my words.

Commuting To Riata

I had a nice conversation with Jonathan from Another Pointless Dotcom while doing some work last night, and it came to light that he works in the same complex I did for about a year and a half. This reminded me to share with him my old slideshow of that commute, which I’ve probably never mentioned on the blog. I also then chatted about it this morning with my current cow orker who has a lot of experience in the area. Since this might be of general interest to people who work in the area, I’ll initiate this new Bicycle Commuting category with this oldie-but-goodie.

Riata is a cautionary tale of any number of my hot buttons, including the problems that frontage roads cause transit and pedestrians, neighborhoods being irresponsible, developers getting to claim credit for being ‘near’ transit when it’s not feasible to actually use, high tech offices and apartment complexes metastasizing along sprawl corridors rather than being downtown where they ought to be, etc. There’s at least a few thousand employees of various companies in there now – probably still down from the pre-bust peak.
The key things to remember about commuting to Riata, which is halfway between Duval and Oak Knoll on the north/east side of US 183 are:

  1. Use Jollyville. Now with bike lanes!
  2. When transitioning to Riata Trace Parkway, your choices are to go all the way up to Oak Knoll and come in the back way, or go over on Duval to the 183 frontage, and go in that way. In the morning, the northbound 183 frontage is very civilized and not a problem.
  3. When going home in the afternoon, you’ll want to use the TI/Oak Knoll back way. Don’t mess with 183 then.
  4. Think about using the bus for a boost uphill in some mornings, if you’re like the (old) me and commuting from central Austin.
  5. Decide whether you want to cross Mopac on Spicewood or Steck. My current cow orker prefers Steck all the time; I prefer Steck uphill and Spicewood downhill. Depends on your tolerance for the stress of the crossing at Mopac/Spicewood versus the speed you’ll give up at the 4-way stop on Steck.

(Technical details: I wrote the crappy slideshow script which reads pseudo-XML a long time ago and have never touched it since; it BARELY works; don’t look at it cross-eyed or you might break the internet).

Future Connections Has Started

Capital Metro’s Future Connections Group is now, finally, up on the web. This group was tasked with figuring out how to get people from the commuter rail stops, which are far away from where people actually want to go, to the places they, those wacky commuters, actually want to go. Like, say, their office. Or the University. Or the Warehouse District.
This is basically going to be a waste of time, since those of us who operate in the reality-based community all know Capital Metro’s going to end up delivering shuttle buses in mixed traffic. The streetcar guys like Jeff are holding out hope, but I don’t see Capital Metro going that way, and even if they did, streetcars are only marginally better than mixed-traffic buses for those choice commuters. Streetcars might help make downtown redevelopment even more palatable, in other words, but they aren’t going to fix the speed and reliability problems of the All Systems Go route for people who live outside downtown.
Terminology lesson: In most cases, “streetcars” means “vehicle on rails in a traffic lane which shares its lane with cars, or is otherwise ‘sharing traffic’ with other vehicles and stops at a lot of red lights”. “light rail” in this case bumps you up to “has its own lane; always gets a green light”. So a streetcar is basically a Dillo on an embedded rail – it still is stuck in traffic just like your car or other buses are.
History lesson: The 2000 light rail plan, or any one of ten easily passable scaled-back versions thereof, would have delivered passengers (in ONE train trip) from their dense center-city residential neighborhoods or from their suburban park-and-rides, directly TO the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and downtown, without requiring a transfer to anything else, bus or streetcar in a reasonably fast and very reliable amount of time. Capital Metro didn’t even try to bring something like this back before the voters, and most of the pro-transit people here in Austin didn’t have the guts to tell them otherwise.

Free Parking Kills Cities

I’ve known this for a long time, but for most people living in the ‘burbs, this is highly counterintuitive. Here’s the latest article on why, if you want to have a city you actually WANT TO DO THINGS IN, free parking is the worst possible of all land uses.
Unfortunately, most of Austin’s irresponsible inner-city neighborhoods (including the two in which I own property) still push for exactly the opposite – suburban-style off-street parking which end up killing street life and (gradually) the center-city in which we all live.
(An aside – my current neighborhood apparently pushed for increased parking requirements in mixed-use development on Guadalupe. It doesn’t get any more brazen than that.)