Tag Archives: horrible ideas

Keep It Simple, Stupid

I almost made this response on the twitter but thought it should be more permanent.

Trying to figure out where to put a rail line in a city where you have lots of unmet transit demand and an inadequate funding stream to do everything you want to do? IE, you live in the real world?



It’s just that simple.

Don’t talk about disrupting traffic. Don’t talk about TOD. Don’t talk about bridges or tunnels.

If you put your rail line where it requires a very large operating subsidy, you end up having to cut bus service to make up the budgetary impact. This is what Capital Metro had to do during the early days of the Red Line. Both the best 98x buses and the 9 bus were cancelled to make up for operating subsidy overruns from the Red Line. Only today is the operating subsidy anywhere close to the original budget (and it’s still monstrously high – something like $20/ride). We’d have more buses running more routes today if the Red Line had never been built, in other words. The presence of the Red Line means fewer people have less transit today than they otherwise would have. This is how you can tell it was a BAD RAIL LINE.

If you put your rail line where it requires a very small operating subsidy (ideally less than existing bus service1, you end up having MORE money to spend on more buses elsewhere, or on the next rail line. The best way to find that corridor is to find a corridor where a ton of people ride the bus, and where research indicates even more people would ride the train (because it’s more comfortable and reliable than the bus is today).

Anybody who wants to make it more complicated than that is trying to confuse you and get you to support a rail line that you should not support.

Hey, you ask. What about my second rail line?

Go back to the beginning of this post and repeat. The same, simple, formula works for every single rail line your city will ever build. Pick the corridor where the rail line will have the lowest possible operating subsidy. Rinse. Repeat.

Third rail line? Is it more complicated yet? NO. GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THIS POST AGAIN.

Fourth? Fifth?

NO. NO. GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING. This simple process works for every rail line – it tells you which one you should do next.

This is how you build an actual network instead of a struggling disaster like we have in Austin. Again, anybody who tells you it’s not this simple is trying to fool you into supporting something that’s not in your best interest. They have ulterior motives, like, for instance, being on the board of a community college which took over a decaying mall2. Or wanting to make a medical school look shinier.

By the way, if you follow this process, you don’t need to lie about your conversations with the Federal Transit Administration either. Hint.

Now I’m off to Germany. Where they actually use logic like the above. Which is why their rail networks actually, you know, work.


  1. One way you can tell whether your city is ready for rail at all is whether you can find a corridor where rail would lower the operating subsidy compared to existing bus service. If you have no such corridor, you might not be a good candidate for rail, yet! []
  2. Hello Highland Mall!). Or, for instance, not wanting to be politically embarassed about previous bad decisions ((The real reason for no G/L is this embarassment. Future blog post will show comments about the Federal Transit Administration are misleading at best; lies at worst []

Project Connect Phase 1 Document Revealed!

I discovered this today, and it clearly shows Project Connect did, in fact, rate the top four options against each other (and some others we hadn’t heard of) in a tournament, of sorts, to get to where we are now. It’s a shame it took this long for this proof to be revealed; I regret all my complaints up to this point. Click on the image for the full-size version.


MetroRapid: What you REALLY need to know

A comment I posted to this PR fluff piece by Movability:

What you need to know is that this REDUCES frequency for current 1/101 riders north of the river, because the 1L is being eliminated along with the 101. If you’re boarding at a stop served by both the 1 and 101 today, the same total number of 1 and 801 buses will stop there in the future; the mix will just change to fewer 1s. If you’re boarding at a stop served only by the 1L/1M today, you’re going to lose half your buses.

What you need to know is that this was projected to be no faster than the 101 in early plans, and now data sent to google maps actually shows it being slower than the 101 (not sure if this is legitimate or a hiccup, but it’s not a good sign).

And finally, what you need to know is that this will cost riders a lot more to ride. Despite the fact that the 1 route was quite likely the least subsidized bus route in the city before this change, fares are going up due to this change (the 801 will cost quite a bit more than the 1 did).

Great responses to John Langmore

On days like this where I have no time it’s so nice that others have picked up the slack. I’m just going to republish their comments to Langmore’s disingenuous and mendacious letter to the Chronicle. It is just horrible that a guy like Langmore, a rail consultant responsible for many horrible projects that have set back transit for years due to low ridership and huge operating subsidies, has this kind of soapbox and power.

First, from Chris Lazaro:

One of my biggest problems with Mr. Langmore’s letter is not that he misinterpreted our call to consider Lamar/Guadalupe as a call to pull the plug on MetroRapid (which is not true, by the way). Rather, my biggest issue here is this data that he and others are so quick to trust, despite warnings from trustworthy professionals in the transportation field that the data is both flawed and incomplete.

I can tell you that, as a transportation planner myself, garbage in absolutely equals garbage out–and that is precisely what is happening here. Frankly, some of the metrics used by the Project Connect team to evaluate the transit sub-corridors is laughable and, at the least, should not have been given nearly as much weight as they were. The team can pretend that they altered weights and still identified Highland as the #2 route, but when some of the appropriate datasets are ignored altogether, how can we trust that we have been given the complete picture?

And, beside all of that, Langmore and other Council members have spent all this time defending the Highland sub-corridor that East Riverside (a corridor that we all agree makes sense) is quickly falling by the wayside. It is becoming evident that the Mayor wanted Highland to move into the Phase 2 study, regardless of what else was going on.

At the very least, Langmore, Leffingwell, and the rest of City Council needs to come clean about their intentions for Austin’s next transit investment. If it is to serve the interests of ACC and the Seton Medical Center, then they need to admit that. Hiding behind threats of lost funding and lost support from the FTA will not suffice.

Last, but not least, cities across this country sell Bus Rapid Transit to its residents as an interim solution until rail is affordable along a particular corridor. In other words, cities invest in BRT because they believe it is viable for fixed rail (streetcar, light rail, etc.) and that the system can later be upgraded. If Austin instead wants to argue that its pseudo-BRT system actually precludes future rail investment, then we MUST stop using this upgradability as a selling feature. Period.

It’s time that Langmore, the Mayor, the rest of Council and the Project Connect team be honest about what is happening.

Second, from Cory Brown:

t’s not the least bit unreasonable to question the institutional support of organizations that brought us MetroRail, and its expensive rider subsidies.

It’s also not unreasonable to question the claims of Mr. Langmore, who has chosen to publicly ignore the truth. The next person Mr. Langmore can name as suggesting we “pull the plug on a $48 million investment the month before it opens” will be the first.

If Mr. Langmore & CapMetro can’t be truthful regarding advocates who merely disagree with one facet of their proposal, how can we trust them when it comes to operational costs & ridership estimates?

Third, from Niran Babaloa:

John Langmore’s willingness to misrepresent the arguments of the folks he disagrees with is insulting. Who said we should “pull the plug on a $48 million investment the month before it opens”? The message he has heard from the citizens who disagree with him is clear: do not build a rail line to Highland before putting rail on Lamar. Either start with a line on Lamar and move MetroRapid when the rail line opens a decade from now, or start with East Riverside so Lamar can come second.

As an exercise for the reader, how often do you find yourself needing to head to places on Guadalupe and Lamar? How often for Red River? If you’re like most of the Austinites that are forced to waste their time stuck in traffic on the Drag each day, it’s clear that there are tons of people who want to go places along the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor. We should put rail there.

The question before us is timing. Ideally, we’d start with Lamar, which has the jobs and housing that make it the highest transit ridership already. A good plan B would be starting with East Riverside, where ridership is high, and the zoning allows for enough density for the ridership to be even higher. Highland, however, doesn’t have the density of people or jobs to make for a blockbuster first line, which endangers our chances of building a second and a third.

The biggest issue with Highland is that there is no way voters will approve rail down Lamar once there’s a line to Highland. A second line through Hyde Park before the rest of the city has seen any rail won’t seem fair to most people, and I don’t blame them. Rail to Highland means rail on our best transit corridor won’t happen until the middle of the century. If the places that people want to go can only be reached by buses stuck in traffic, people will stay in their cars, traffic will stay terrible, and we won’t become a city where it’s normal to take transit for decades.

This is the future that the citizens who have been paying attention are trying to avoid. We’re not trying to “pull the plug” on MetroRapid. We’re trying to avoid making the mistake of allowing the backbone of our transit system to remain slow for decades. Join us, and tell city council that if they put a rail line to Highland on the ballot, you’ll vote against it.

Finally, Mark Cathcart expresses his concerns in a separate post

Oh, and I’m giving John a rare Worst Person In Austin award. Well done.

The FTA and last night

if you parse Langmore’s comments it makes me think he was asking them about cancelling the project now (rather than moving the middle third in 8 years); and Project Connect staff were vocal and public at the beginning of the process that Lamar/Guadalupe was on the table and that we should not act as if rapid bus precluded urban rail there.

They either lied then or they’re lying now. Personally, I believe they lied then in order to try to get more buy-in for this process (I myself believed Rapid Bus effectively precluded urban rail and was convinced to believe it might not by those staff members); but it could be now, too; the mixed messages last night about the FTA maybe considering Rapid Bus ‘permanent’ versus what the City Council eventually threw in as a fig leaf is just one obvious indicator.

The fact that the guy who ran the Rapid Bus project at Capital Metro came up and spoke in favor of Lamar and said he doesn’t buy the FTA argument should tell you something.

No sir, I don’t buy it.

No, the Riley fig leaf last night changes nothing – it does not commit to a fair evaluation of the Lamar/Guadalupe ROUTE against whatever is shat out for Highlandmall or Highlandmueller; and it does not force a real answer about the FTA’s opinion about moving Rapid Bus in 2020 or 2022 or whenever (instead of John Langmore’s claims that made it pretty clear he implied to them he wanted an opinion on cancelling it today, in 2013). Its only tangible effect would be an attempt to delay opposition until it’s too late.

I’m continuing to urge all transit advocates to vote AGAINST the bond referendum in 2014.

I endorse this product and/or service

My work situation is going to prevent me from making much effort on this today so please assume I endorse this product and/or service 100%.

A bird in the hand should be worth ten in the bush.

I may add some links and pictures to this later; trying to get this out before I start work.

You may see a lot of people talking about how it’s important to serve future growth with rail transit – and what that means in Austin is that we’re doing that instead of serving current density. No, you can’t do both.

So they want to make it a decision about serving one current person in existing density versus one future person in future development. But is that reasonable?

Consider the fact that the speaker after me a couple of Fridays ago was from Catellus, and bragged that with rail, Mueller can add 5,000 new residents. Sounds like a lot. That 5,000 would be a good start to getting 15,000 riders on the train (30,000 boardings/day, which would make it a success).

And hey, the #1 corridor only has like 15,000 boardings/day today (7500 riders), so Mueller’s almost going to be as good today and much better tomorrow, right?


Let’s take those 5,000 people and look at them analytically.

Some of those people will be children, who will not take the rail (except maybe to downtown on the weekend, but, oops, we moved the Childrens Museum to Mueller, so maybe not). Cut out 25% of the original total and we’re down to 4,000 non-children.

Some of those people will be stay-at-home-ers. Especially in Mueller where the proportion of young families is relatively high. Let’s say 5% of those who remain, as a conservative estimate. We’re down to 3800 potential transit riders.

Some of those people will work in the core, but many will not.1  Last I recall the employment share for the core versus the rest of town was something like 20 or 25%. Let’s be optimistic and say 25%. So we’re down to 950 potential transit passengers.

Then, finally, we have to adjust for those who will be willing to take transit. No, not everyone will be; many of the people living at Mueller who work downtown or at UT are driving today instead of taking the bus, and will continue to drive instead of taking the train; so many of the newcomers will be the same way. Let’s be incredibly optimistic about transit here (for such a low-density, suburban, area) and say that 50% of the people for whom transit is a reasonable option will decide to use it. So we’re down to 475 potential transit passengers.


If we build rail to Mueller, we can get 475 more people to move in and take rail.

Feel free to run the same kinds of calculations on the additional expected population in Mueller (the amount yet to move in with or without the extra rail bonus). You’re still not going to get up to a ton of potential transit passengers.

Meanwhile, remember that statement upstream about the #1 ridership? Let’s apply the same filters to it.

Approximately 15,000 boardings/day (7500 people) on this corridor today (existing bus service which would logically be folded into light rail there if we built it).

Do we have to adjust down for children? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; those children are already factored out before we got to that 7500 number.

Do we have to adjust for stay-at-home’ers? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; those people staying at home are already factored out before we got to that 7500 number.

Do we have to adjust for where they work? No, these are people who are already taking the bus to work or UT; people who work in the suburbs are already factored before we got to that 7500 number.

Finally, do we have to adjust for “willing to use transit”? Yes, we doeven more people than the original 7500 would be willing to use rail. We’d have to go back to the population figures within a given distance of the line to calculate how many new riders we could reasonably expect – but it’s pretty much a given that you can exceed the baseline bus ridership in a corridor with a decent rail line. (Note above with Mueller where I said optimistically 50% of people who could reasonably ride transit might take it? On the #1 corridor it’s nowhere near that high today even though the buses are pretty good. Take it up to 50% with good rail and you’d see thousands more riders every day).

What’s the lesson here?

A proven bird in the hand (actual riders in corridor A) should count for more than ten future birds in the future bush (people moving in to corridor B).

  1. I happen to know for an anectdotal fact that many Muellerites work all over the place – from personal experience with them – they don’t all work downtown or UT; far from it; many moved there to get a nice house, relatively cheap, NOT because of where they work []

Why shouldn’t we just say we’ll play along if they come clean about Rapid Bus?

This meme has been floating around the tworterverse. The words below were sent by me over Thanksgiving in response to an email from a CCAG member who sought insight from us (a selection of pro-Lamar/Guadalupe people) on why we thought we should pursue this corridor despite the implied conflict with Rapid Bus (a post on which I owe the community but am less motivated to do so every day – suffice to say it’s not a major improvement, and certainly not worth delaying good rail over).

The meme I refer to above is this: Project Connect is now halfheartedly threatening that if we keep pushing Lamar, who knows what might happen with the FTA? Some have responded with “prove that the FTA would punish us severely and we’ll simply give up and move on”. To that I point you to some key parts of the email below - a lot of people (myself included but by no means the most) spent a lot of time on the word of certain staff members involved in this process that urban rail on Lamar/Guadalupe was IN NO WAY precluded by Rapid Bus, so we should join the team and play along and it would definitely get a fair shake. I don’t know about the rest of the gang, but now that I know my time was spent under false pretenses in order to lend some political capital to Project Connect, it’s going to take a lot to get me to not reflexively oppose whatever variant of Highlandmueller they end up crapping out.

Huge, effusive, public apologies, preceded by humble admissions of wrong behavior, would be the bare minimum it would take to even open that conversation.

The email (most of it, anyways), responding to the question “Could you please share with me your opinion of what would happen with regard to the upcoming 801 and 803 routes & resources if we try to add rail to Lamar or Burnet, and how that would affect Austin’s relationship with the FTA regarding funding the rail and other future projects?”

(CCAG member),

The simplest answer is that we don’t know – the future is hard to see.

The next simplest answer is that we were never able to get anybody who could get a reliable answer to be willing to ask the question. This is an important point; I myself spent many years arguing that we couldn’t put our first rail investment on L/G because the FTA would put the kibosh; but this becomes less of an issue as the years pass, and nobody’s willing to get a real answer. (No, this is not an answer a guy like me or even (pal) can get with any certainty, but people at the city and at Capital Metro certainly could). Why haven’t they?

(Other pal) makes a lot of compelling points, but the lack of a real desire to get a real answer from the actual people with that actual responsibility speaks volumes to me. I was a skeptic about this process at the beginning, and became somewhat less skeptical as we went along thanks to the incredible hard work of (list of pals). Those people invested a hundred times my effort, which was still substantial enough to cause me some degree of friction at home and at work. Importantly, at the beginning of this process, they were told by (staffer mentioned by name) and other PC staff that Lamar was not off the table; that Rapid Bus did not preclude urban rail there.

The problem is that they then invested that incredible time and effort, granting PC a degree of legitimacy through their own efforts and hard-earned political capital. If that contention turned out to be false, as I now believe it to be, then Rapid Bus got some free time without opposition (remember in 2006, then council members Leffingwell and McCracken voted against it precisely because they were told it would preclude urban rail!). And Project Connect got a bunch of people involved in a process which was never legitimate to begin with.

IF rapid bus factually precludes urban rail at the FTA, that last paragraph or two are not opinion; they are fact. Sad facts; facts I moved away from believing at one point, which is one reason why I found myself surprisingly ticked when the ridiculous Highlandmueller recommendation came out (unlike our mutual acuaintance (other pal) who never wavered from the cynicism and skepticism many thought I shared in equal or greater degree).

IF rapid bus factually precludes urban rail at the FTA, PC owes a lot of people a lot of apologies, and I don’t know if we can get behind whatever rail recommendation ends up happening after being used to this degree to support a process which was never open to our preferred route to begin with.

Now if rapid bus DOESN’T preclude urban rail at the FTA, then we still have some degree of working relationship to preserve. At that point we have to give Lamar/Guadalupe a fair reading, unlike the ridiculous nonsense it’s gotten so far.

So go back to why nobody wants to ask. Two possible reasons come to mind:

1. They know the FTA will say it precludes urban rail, and they don’t want to have had that answer because of what I said above.

2. They suspect the FTA might say it does NOT preclude urban rail, and they don’t want to get that answer. Why not? I’ve believed for many years that many people in the establishment here don’t want to admit what a pig in the poke we got with Rapid Bus. I still believe that now; I think this is the most likely answer.



The outline of the speech I didn’t give

Back when I thought the order was communications, THEN decision; the speech I was going to give in outline form:

  • Introduce self, name, AURA supporter, UTC, blog
  • Mention letter from AURA & agree with points but here to talk about…
  • Is Rapid Bus really an impediment to rail on Lamar?
  • KK says so sometimes in public
  • AURA and others trusted claims made by staff of Cap Metro and Proj Connect that everything was on the table
  • Why shouldn’t rapid bus be in the way?
  • Others have made points: Depreciation, timeframe, movable ‘investment’
  • Mine based on QUALITY of improvement – all points apply only to 801 north of river
    • If you ride a 101 today:
      • No faster
      • More expensive
      • Couple more trips per hour (shift from local to express)
    • If you ride a 1 today:
      • Lose half frequency or have to walk much further & likely pay more
    • You may gain: GPS (next bus). Not that useful considering argument in favor of MR is that you won’t care about the schedule.
  • NOT BRT – refer to ITDP standards and Jace’s scoring; not even close.
  • Circle back – used Cap Metro’s OWN DATA which trumps marketing / soft features
  • Just today? Linda Watson called it “Austin’s densest corridor”.
  • Conclude