Category Archives: Subsidies to Suburban Sprawl

Ben Wear article on bike bridge misleads

Just sent to the Statesman in response to Ben Wear’s article this morning

There are a few key facts that Ben Wear left out of his article on the South Mopac bicycle/pedestrian bridge which paint a very different picture:
1. There used to be a shoulder (available for use by commuting and recreational cyclists) on the Mopac bridge until a few years ago (when it was restriped to provide a longer exit lane). When the shoulder existed, it was frequently used.
2. The 15% figure cited by Wear is misleading – when you run the same comparison on total transportation funding in our area, about 1% (last time I ran the figures) went to bike/ped projects.
3. Urban residents, even those who don’t drive, are subsidizing suburban commuters through the toll-road ‘donations’ he mentioned (remember; the city has to repay those bonds from sources like sales and property taxes; not the gas tax) and in many other ways. When you add up the flows of dollars, it would take a couple of bridges like this every single year just to begin to make up for the money flowing out of Austin towards the suburbs, from drivers and non-drivers alike. Perhaps THAT would be a better focus for an article in the future. I’d be happy to help.
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission, 2000-2005

I spoke on this exact same 15% issue a few years ago on KLBJ’s morning news show but it keeps popping up as if we’re in a bad game of Whack-A-Mole. In this case, the 15% applies only to city funding, and includes pedestrian infrastructure which was never built back when saner cities would have done it (i.e. when the road was constructed in the first place). When I ran the numbers a few years ago, bike/ped funding for the whole area ended up at something like 1%.

Don’t get excited about Mopac changes…

I’m still not sure if it’s willful ignorance or childish spite (because their grand plan to do the huge rebuild was rejected), but TXDOT still isn’t answering the most important question of all with the managed lane proposal for Mopac, which is:
Since the managed lanes do not have dedicated on/off ramps,
when the 3 regular lanes are stop-and-go, how is a car or bus in the managed lane going to manage to get over to its exit without having to also come to a stop, and thus make all the other cars or buses in the managed lane have to stop too?
Note that I’m the only guy even talking about this; the local media, unfortunately reduced to just rephrasing press releases, just reports this as “hey, a new lane in the middle, hooray!” without bothering to think about how it will actually work.

Managed Lanes: Good Theory; Will Suck Here

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.

Why frontage roads are bad for transit

Here’s two frankly awful drawings I just threw together in the five minutes I could spare. Better versions are gratefully appreciated if anybody’s got some. I’m just an awful awful artist, but this satisfies a promise I made a few crackplogs back.

This first image is roughly what you face when you need to get to the destinations on Riata Trace Parkway on US 183 in northwest Austin. Imagine you’re coming from the left – your bus runs down the frontage road on the opposite of the highway, and you get off the bus. (This stop in this picture actually represents the Pavillion Park and Ride – i.e., this is what really happens up here – no, the good buses don’t stop at Duval either). Even though your destination is directly across US 183 from your stop, you need to walk the better part of a mile down to Duval Road, turn around, and walk the same distance back up the other side. (This is even more odious since there used to be a city street crossing US 183 here before the road was upgraded to a freeway).
For those who think this is an unlikely example, this situation is exactly what I faced when trying to take transit back home from an office I had (at Riata) a few years back. In my case, I was using the #982 bus as a boost for a bike commute, so at least I was only riding my bike this far out of the way – a walk like that would have been out of the question for a daily commute. Had I been trying to take transit both ways and intended to walk, in other words, you could have added about a half-hour walk each way just to get to/from my office from the bus stop, even though it was right across the freeway – and again, would have been a simple 2 minute walk before the freeway’s frontage roads severed this crossing.

The second image represents the area around Northcross, on which runs a bus which I have also used frequently (the #3). Note that all you need to do here is, worst case, walk across the street (since you’ll always have a stop at a light), and walk a few blocks from the light to your destination on the other side – a matter of a couple hundred feet at most.
It’s not an accident that the routes which travel on city streets like the second picture above are feasible for people walking to work, while the routes which travel on frontage roads like the first one are only feasible for unidirectional suburban park-and-ride users (who drive to the park and ride and take the bus downtown). But somehow, people over and over again think that we need to keep building these stupid frontage roads AND keep putting our major retail and office destinations on them. Frontage roads kill the ability to travel by everything except the private automobile. They destroy existing street networks – so even if your city, like Austin, tries hard to maintain alternate routes, they’re still drastically affected by this abyssmal roadway design.

Statesman clueless about urban development

Shilli knocks it out of the park: urban is more than a different coating to the building; and it’s more than the number of floors. This Wal-Mart will still be car-friendly and pedestrian-and-transit-hostile; and should be opposed on those grounds alone. As I commented in an earlier item there, I also doubt Wal-Mart’s urban bona-fides compared to Target, who seems to actually walk the walk on this stuff.
Not surprisingly, the Statesman credulously swallowed the misrepresentation of this project as both urban (see above) and central-city (Anderson Lane may be geographically central by some standards, but the area itself isn’t “city”). Also not surprisingly, the typical whines about local businesses have come up – precisely the wrong reason to oppose this Wal-Mart. Let me state this succinctly:
A big box store which engages the street rather than a parking lot, and prioritizes pedestrian arrival over automobile convenience is much better for us in the long-run than a half-dozen ‘local businesses’ in pedestrian-hostile strip malls. Strip mall patrons come and go; but the physical buildings (and parking lots) don’t. If Wal-Mart did what Shawn suggests and plunked down an urban building right on the corner of Anderson and Burnet (right next to a bunch of bus stops), I’d be supporting them whole-heartedly.
Remember: urban and suburban are styles of development, not just designations for geographic areas. You can have a suburban development right in the middle of downtown, and you can have an urban development in the middle of a ton of sprawl.

Chronicle remains credulous

In today’s story about the new effort to align CAMPO dollars to Envision Central Texas goals, not once, in the entire story, was this fact mentioned:
The three biggest “nodes”, now and in the future, by orders of magnitude, are UT, the Capitol, and downtown; none of which are served by commuter rail, and not well by streetcar. If you live at Mueller and work at the Capitol, you can take the streetcar to work, but it’ll be as slow as the bus is today, and that’s the only use case that makes sense. All existing residential density in the city continues to be provided with nothing but slow, stuck-in-traffic, buses (mislabelled as “Rapid” though they may be).
Summary: Until the elephant in the tent is addressed (those three nodes), all of this is just useless ego-stroking wastes of time.

“Please do what we want, or we’ll ask nicely again!”

This group is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my last crackplog: the survey is a complete waste of time; simply gathering support for all of Capital Metro’s long-range plans while never asking “hey, shouldn’t we be telling Capital Metro to build some reserved-guideway transit for the densest parts of Austin”?
There’s a kickoff event happening in October for this group (or another one with the same name; hard to tell) in which the mayors of Austin and Leander will be participating. Note: Leander already got their reserved-guideway transit. The obviously much less important Central Austin got squat.
People will get co-opted by this group, just like they did by the useless public meetings in which critical things like the canopy style for commuter rail stations were hashed out, and as a result, there’s no counterbalance to Mike Krusee telling Capital Metro what to do.
If Mayor Wynn is truly serving the interests of Austin residents and taxpayers, he’ll end this now by using this group’s forum to push for what Austin needs – but I doubt very much that he will; otherwise he wouldn’t be falling prey to the false promise of regionalism here (the note just reeks of it). As pointed out by another blog I read and trust, regionalism is often the enemy of good public transportation. Leander has no real interest in making sure that Austin taxpayers get real rail transit; they already GOT theirs.

Please join me for the kickoff event to launch the Alliance for Public Transportation. The Alliance is the initiative of Mayors Will Wynn and John Cowman of Leander. Several months ago, they asked a group of people to come together and figure out whether we needed an entity that would consider transportation issues from a regional perspective and across the array of interest groups affected by public transportation and its potential in the Austin area. We said we do!
Please come to our kickoff celebration on October 19th at 6 pm at Nuevo Leon. An invitation is attached with all the details, along with another document that describes the Alliance. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite you or your organization to become a member and be acknowledged at the event as a “groundbreaker”.
This is going to be an exciting event, with Mayors Wynn and Cowman present, as well as other elected officials and people who care about transportation and the community. I also think the creation of this organization will provide a valuable voice for neighborhoods as we consider public transportation in our region over the coming years.

Tidbits from Cap Metro’s PR explosion

Capital Metro has completely redone their web site for the All Systems Go project, and it looks pretty darn nice. Here are some relevant tidbits:
1: The MetroRail page: “Regular and special shuttle buses will whisk you to your final destination.”.
Yup, those shuttle buses will whisk you through traffic downtown, just like the Dillos do today. Anybody who rides those things feel “whisked”? The requirement that essentially all riders must transfer to shuttle buses to get to work is why Tri-Rail failed miserably in South Florida. Every successful rail start in the last 20 years has followed the same pattern (including DART in Dallas and MetroRail in Houston): the train goes where the people want to go. People with jobs don’t mess around with shuttle buses. They just don’t.
2. The MetroRapid page (formerly called “Rapid Bus”): “As your Capital MetroRapid bus approaches the uniquely branded Rapid bus stop, you can’t help but think to yourself, “that bus looks like a train.””
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be thinking to myself: a train wouldn’t be stuck in traffic behind all these damn cars and buses. Holding a green light at one intersection doesn’t help clear the clogs from the next ten intersections ahead of you. (Anybody who doubts this is welcome to view Guadalupe near UT during rush-hour). The only way to turn a bus, even if it looks like a train, into something approaching light rail is to give it its own lane, which they are not doing with MetroRapid.
3. The Circulator System page – they’re hyping streetcar, but as noted before: it’s going to be shuttle buses, for a long time; and streetcar only happens if they can con UT and/or the city into paying a good chunk of the bill.
Streetcars are a nice thing to have in the long-run for a variety of reasons, but they don’t do one damn thing to improve speed or reliability of the ‘circulator’.
In summary: Nothing’s changed; the folks in central Austin who pay most of the bills are still getting screwed by Capital Metro. Any questions?

Smaller houses -> goodbye center-city schools

Here’s a tip for my pals at the ANC: If you:

  1. Push an ordinance which will greatly add to existing disincentives for middle-income families to live in the central city
  2. Then, shortly thereafter, hold a radio show on the topic of center-city schools, bemoaning the lack of investment and closing of some urban schools by AISD;

we are unlikely to be impressed with your intelligence.
Next week:
ANC dumps a bucket of water on their own head; then complains that they’re all wet.

Water and micro vs. macro economics

As usual, local leaders (most of whom hail from the environmental side of the divide) want to do something good, but come up with a stupid way to do it.

New rules could force homeowners to make plumbing improvements like removing wasteful showerheads and fixing leaking faucets or sprinklers. It may also include rules requiring watering of lawns and landscapes once every five days.

The City Council appears ready to impose a set of rules which attempt to solve this problem from the top down, via a sort of macroeconomic (for lack of a better word) approach. It will likely work, for given values of ‘work’ – I’m sure they can reduce water consumption to a certain degree with these measures, but it will likely be an inefficient effort which requires additional spending on inspection and enforcement which could be better spent elsewhere.

A far better approach would be a more graduated and progressive water charge – today, you pay a tiny amount per gallon for the first N gallons, and a higher (but still very very cheap) amount per gallon for the remaining gallons you use, where N is an amount which appears to be designed to handle a small family’s typical water usage if they don’t water a lawn. Adding more gradiations to this scale and more drastically accelerating the water cost as you go up would be the smartest way to internalize the incentives you want people to have to conserve water, without the need for a big bureaucracy at the city. (Yes, rain barrels should still be subsidized – there are drainage benefits to them which far exceed the tiny water supply benefits). Some people would xeriscape; others would take more showers instead of baths; others would wash dishes differently.

You don’t really care HOW they do it; the only interest of the city is in delaying the need to obtain more water supply. The additional cost to the city of this solution is basically zero.

This particular approach, which I dub “marketatarian”, uses the power of the market to solve a readily identifiable problem involving what’s commonly referred to as the tragedy of the commons, but doesn’t wallow in the mire of hard-core libertarian nonsense (whose practitioners would go on and on about how the market would solve the water supply issue if we just let it do so, but would then call the pricing strategy above an example of socialist statism run amok). The Sierra Clubbers, on the other hand, typically have such a deep-seated mistrust of capitalism (thanks to those self-identified libertarians, among others) that they can’t even wrap their heads around the simple fact that the market is a really really really good tool to solve problems, as long as you supply the right rules inside which it must operate. In this case, the only rules are “less water supply” and “progressive pricing so we don’t completely cut off poor peoples’ basic water needs”.

By the way, the lack of support from the city for people who want to install “grey water” irrigation systems is another big part of the problem here. Now that we have a small child in the house who likes baths and I spend a couple nights a week soaking my aching legs in hot water, we send a ton of water down the drain which could just as easily be dumped in the yard.

This starts a new category I’m working on – titled “subsidies to suburban sprawl”. This water billing scheme is one of many such ‘user fees’ which total up to massive undercharging of suburbanites for the costs they generate compared to urban dwellers. More to come – next up: garbage collection.

Also found another new Austin blog which seems right up my alley: New Urban Prospect.