I tweeted about this yesterday and due to time constraints will just copy it here via storify.
I tweeted about this yesterday and due to time constraints will just copy it here via storify.
Earlier entries in the series:
So there was a flurry of activity two weeks ago on the Capital Metro front, thanks to our friends at KUT. First, a story titled “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“, and then following the next day one titled “After Ridership Drops, Where Does Cap Metro Go From Here?“.
I found both efforts by Terrence Henry to be good, fair, articles overall (I was quoted for neither); and thought it would be a nice test-run of the (in progress) Honesty Agenda to evaluate the statements in these articles based on the “What is Honesty?” points.
First, from “Austin’s Growing Fast, But Why Isn’t Its Public Transit?“:
“There’s a few reasons to explain the dip we seem to be looking at in 2014,” saysChris Riley, Vice-Chair of Capital Metro’s board and former city council member. “First, continued reductions in UT ridership.” The University of Texas at Austin has cut funding in recent years for its share of the Capital Metro system, reducing shuttle service. “And partly because of changing transportation patterns among the students,” Riley adds. “You have more students living in West Campus today and not riding the bus.”
Next, Todd Hemingson:
“Of the overall percent in reduction [in 2014], what we found was the UT shuttle system accounted for a full 2 percent of that ridership decrease,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development with Capital Metro.
Hemingson and Riley say there were several other factors that led to last year’s drop in ridership: fare increases and restructuring as well as some extreme weather events. But even all those factors together don’t account for the entire drop. And when pushed a little further, Hemingson says the problem goes deeper.
“Really, any analysis of transit ridership begins and ends with how much service you provide,” Hemingson says. The actual number of hours of service Capital Metro provides per person in Austin is down, and so ridership is down as a result. “Unfortunately, the reality is we’re just not keeping up. Our service hour, as we call it, has been declining since 2004.”
Riley did not support his claim that UT’s ridership has dropped, and Henry has recently posted this tweet which indicates that the jury is still out on whether that is true. Additionally, Riley left out the fact that the Guadalupe/Lamar and Burnet corridors have seen large vertical-mixed-use developments opening up which should have resulted in increased ridership but have not done so. (I have my theory why this is the case, from “Rapid Bus Has Degraded Bus Service Overall“).
Rating: Technically true – possible but unsupported so far. The whole truth? NO. He did apparently at least mention ‘restructuring’ (see paraphrase in Hemingson’s section), but obviously did so as a second or third cause, which dramatically understates that it was the most significant, already observed and proven, ridership drop explanation shown to date – something that should have been the lead, not the footnote! Nothing but the truth? OK. No obfuscation or disingenuousness here. Riley’s quote I’d rate as “sort of true”. Not the whole truth, but not laughably false.
This Riley section gets a C+.
And also, Capital Metro as an agency gets their first F of the year here for not publishing ridership data like good transit agencies do, so we could independently verify the claim. Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano shows an example from Phoenix here. I’ve referred to others in earlier posts in this series.
Hemingson, so far, comes off OK. He at least mentions that service hours are down (contrasting to John-Michael Vincent Cortez, who insisted throughout the Red Line debacle that it wasn’t happening and doubled down on the false claim as recently as Halloween). But weather? I call that an obfuscation. It may have dropped ridership a couple of days, but Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano’s recent series of charts shows that weather events are an excuse at best, not a cause. Hemingson so far: also truthy. Not the whole truth, and the twitterati largely laughs off his weather excuse for good reason.
Hemingson gets a B- here. Mostly true but the weather thing is ridiculous.
Now on to Jace Deloney, recently elevated to chair of the UTC:
But despite those reductions in service hours, ridership has increased during that time. Deloney with Urban Transportation Commission thinks that the 2014 drop was due to something more specific to that year.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the changes that took place in 2014. Lots of changes,” he says. “We had Metro Rapid launch, which caused a lot of issues for some people.”
Deloney is talking about a very well-documented cut to the city’s most popular bus route last year. When Capital Metro launched it’s first rapid bus line, the 801, it also cut the local bus service (the 1) along the same route in half. Up until then, the 1 was the most popular bus route in the city.
There is literally nothing bad you can say about this statement other than that it may be understating the problem. Notice he doesn’t shy away from reality here. He doesn’t put the #1 cause at #5. He doesn’t do what Hemingson does next, which is belittle the honest concerns of people who are trying to get places as mere preference. Jace is an excellent example of being honest about transit. Jace gets our first A of the season.
“One of the things we knew going in was that not everyone was going to like that,” Hemingson says. “And that’s what we saw, a drop in ridership in the corridor, that’s undeniable. But since we’ve launched MetroRapid, we’ve seen that trend in the right direction, which is positive.”
Aaand here we go. This is technically true, if you define “some people in North Austin had to change jobs or get cars” as merely “disliked the change”. It’s highly misleading; it’s obfuscating (the ‘trend in the right direction’ is that current ridership is almost back up to the level it was before the change was made, which is a very low standard given that population growth and development on the corridor should have resulted in large boosts in ridership). This statement is not the absolute worst I’ve seen, but is a good solid example of Capital Metro’s lack of honesty on transportation.
Hemingson gets a C- on that quote. Technically true but too much spin.
Next, back to Riley:
There are also several factors that are out of Capital Metro’s control. Land use and density, for starters. Much of the population growth in Austin is happening outside of the city itself, or along its periphery. That development typically consists of large lots with single family homes that are difficult to make work with transit.
“If we had a code that allowed for more development along our corridors, in places that are easier to serve with transit, then I think you’d see a healthier rise in our transit ridership,” Riley of the Capital Metro board says.
Riley’s worst quote. It’s true that development on the periphery stinks. But it’s also true that even good development there would not result in large transit ridership given office sprawl.
What’s undeniable is that the VMU ordinance was specifically designed to encourage dense, walkable, midrise development along our best transit corridors on the theory that there would be self-selection going on for people who wanted to ride the good transit that was on those corridors; that development is actually happening as envisioned (N Lamar/S Lamar/Burnet), but the local bus service that would best support those new residents was cut drastically (in half for the 1, not quite as bad for the 3, but the 3’s frequency wasn’t as high to begin with). You now get a local once every half hour during peak on the #1 route and about every 40 minutes on the #3 route. That’s not development-supporting levels of transit.
Note that the benefit provided by Rapid Bus (801/803 which are basically just express service like the old 101 was) over local service diminishes the closer you get to the core; and once you’re about halfway in, the extra time spent walking will overwhelm the time savings the actual bus ride gives you (almost entirely due to fewer stops). This should have led to a transit plan where local frequencies were high and express service was gradually improved; that’s not what we did – we made the locals infrequent and the express relatively frequent, which again, is useless to residents of the VMUs that are about halfway out from the core.
Riley’s statement here is obfuscating and disingenuous, and does not tell the whole truth. We’ve added enough development along Lamar and Burnet to generate significant new ridership on transit, but the transit service those corridors have now is significantly, objectively, worse than it was before, especially in the sections a few miles from the core where most of the development is happening. In other words, the 803 makes things better compared to the 3 (even with the extra walk) once you’re past 183 on Burnet or near Ben White on Lamar, but all the new development is happening much closer in – near 2222 on Burnet or around the Alamo on S Lamar, or around North Loop on N Lamar. All of those places are seeing equal to much worse transit service now. Capital Metro punished its best potential future customers. That’s the real development-related reason we’re seeing ridership drop and not rebound.
Riley gets a D- on that quote.
“I think we are on the cusp of making a significant step in the right direction,” says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development at Capital Metro. The agency has laid out several goals for the years ahead, and one of them is adding frequency to some of the city’s most popular bus routes.
“What we have is a proposal to take five of the busiest routes in the system and upgrade those so they operate every 15 minutes or better, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., every single weekday.” It’s called a Frequent Service Network, Hemingson says. The initial routes being proposed for higher frequency are the 7, 20, 300, 325, and 331.
Hemingson left out the elephant in the room. The route which, even after being crippled by having its frequency cut in half and being paired with an incompatible express, still has the top ridership in the system.
Let’s take a closer look at the left side of that graph.
F for truth. Leaving out the most important fact of all gets you an immediate F. No way back from that.
Back to Jace Deloney:
“It makes no sense that they’re talking about the frequent service in 2015 while they took away that frequency on the highest ridership route,” says Jace Deloney, Chair of the Urban Transportation Commission, which advises the city on transit issues.
Deloney is talking about Route 1, which runs along the main arteries of the city: North Lamar, Guadalupe and South Congress. Capital Metro says they will not restore Route 1 frequency to where it was before the launch of the rapid bus service along the same route, even though the rapid bus costs 40 percent more, and the stops are much farther apart in many areas.
“They’re going to have to look into restoring the Route 1 frequency,” Deloney says, “or else we’re going to be hurting our best corridor going forward.”
A+ for truth. No arguments here.
That’s about it, apart from some minor quotes that aren’t controversial about real-time information being useful (but what’s more useful is frequent service so you don’t have to check).
Oh, and overall? Terrence Henry and KUT gets a solid B+, which is about the highest grade I’ll give the media in the last couple of years. It would have been nice to make Hemingson get on the record about why the #1’s frequency can’t be restored, and why we should consider Metro Rapid to be part of the new frequency network when its fares are not compatible – you can’t buy a day pass on one of the new frequent locals and transfer to the 801 or 803, so they aren’t part of the same network, man.
Note a pattern here. The Capital Metro planner gets very low grades; the Capital Metro board member gets medium to low grades. The real citizen gets high grades. KUT scores well overall compared to other, much more credulous, local media. The agency itself doesn’t provide the transparency that would actually help; just the transparency that makes them look good to state lawmakers.
When I go back and analyze Project Connect, this pattern will keep coming up again and again.
Austin deserves better.
Citations to other sites referenced above and some other suggested reading from other Austin bloggers:
This is going to seem a bit disjointed because I ended up writing the main draft in the middle, very cramped, seat of a very delayed flight to Atlanta for a business trip; and
Made With Notepad because paying for wifi for an hour of personal use seemed unwise. So here we go.
Honesty is more than simply “technically telling the truth”. A good place to start, but just to start, is the oath people take when testifying in court. So let’s at least look at those three parts:
Don’t say something which is obviously false. This is the easiest thing in the world to do, yet Capital Metro has gotten this wrong in the past (ref Todd Hemingson’s claim about the projection he made and then tried to claim he didn’t make, about first year Red Line ridership). The simplest attention by the media ought to catch our transit agency and city in this one, yet they rarely do (KUT being one very rare exception here).
Don’t say something which, while true, leads people to think they now know what’s going on, when you’ve actually kept a portion of the ‘whole truth’ behind so that they come to the conclusion you want them to. For instance, Capital Metro claims we’re going to have a new, exciting, frequent transit network (buses arriving at least every 15 minutes). If Capital Metro knows we used to have that, at least on the #1 route, and they don’t say so, they haven’t told the whole truth. Or, let’s say, if Capital Metro says ridership on MetroRapid is growing! (comparing 801 ridership six months ago to 801 ridership today), but overall ridership on the corridor is significantly below what it was before MetroRapid launched and staying stagnant since the initial drop, have they told the whole truth? Put another way:
Would “the 801 is doing better” be enough information without “but the overall 1/801 ridership is going nowhere and significantly below the old 1/101 ridership” for our elected leaders to make smart decisions?
Those aren’t even the most important examples though. During transit planning, this is far more critical. When the 801 was proposed, Capital Metro talked about how much faster it was going to be than the 1, while hiding the fact that it wasn’t going to be much, if any, faster than the existing limited-stop 101. It’s technically true that the 801 is faster than the 1. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s not useful in making decisions; the far more useful fact is the difference compared to the 101’s speed when it ran (and it turns out, there’s no difference except for that attributable to the downtown transit lane, which made the 1 faster and would have made the 101 faster too).
Don’t add things that might (misleadingly) shade people away from the truth. Don’t talk about highway subsidies to try to mislead people away from a serious discussion on transit operating subsidies (the subsidy on a given highway might be higher than the Red Line, but it is irrelevant to a discussion of whether we can afford the Red Line subsidy as it currently exists).
But that’s not enough for me. Public agencies, funded by tax dollars, should meet a higher standard even than the above (which, after all, is just the oath people take when in an often adversarial relationship in court, to which the punishment for noncompliance is charges of perjury). Public agencies should educate taxpayers – in a way which does not lead taxpayers to a given conclusion, but allows them to make their own educated judgements. By this I do NOT mean the opinion pieces often approving cited, referenced, or retweeted by Capital Metro employees which are actually in direct conflict with their own actions without ever noting the problem. That’s fundamentally DIShonest.
I also don’t mean Project Connect’s “data theater” exercises. “Showing your work” via PDF files, with ‘zones’ chosen and then changed, arbitrarily, by the people running the project in ways transparently obviously designed to make some projects rise to the top and others, uh, not; is not honest. Project Connect should have functioned as an open data source by which decision-makers (and the public) could make educated choices, but none of us who participated in that effort would describe it as anything except the exact opposite. In most other cities, Project Connect would have been a straight-up comparison between a few corridors (not this ‘subcorridors which are really zones which were purposefully drawn to make the route they knew they had to compete against look bad’ nonsense). Then, once a corridor was chosen, phase 2 would have been a straight-up comparison of ROUTES.
This is a big one. It happens all the time. Most of the time you know your audience and you know what they know, so don’t pretend they’re talking about something they really aren’t (don’t oversimplify or misrepresent their argument).
For instance: “There are winners and losers with any change” is not an honest answer to a detailed explanation that points out that the frequency of the combined 1/801 is no higher than the frequency of the 1/101 was – which if honestly addressed, leads to the conclusion that every single local bus rider on the MetroRapid corridor is much worse off now that the new service came along, and the old express riders are for all intents and purposes paying a little more for a little more frequency, the same speed, and the same reliability (i.e. best case = no better off). The person making that statement about ‘winners and losers’ knows it’s not honest; but they know it’s technically true also – it’s just that the ‘winners’ were Capital Metro themselves, and the losers were, uh, all the riders. The public who pays your salary deserves better than being purposefully misled. Likewise, when Project Connect published ‘data’ from a ridiculous model that was essentially predicting almost three million daily transit riders in East Riverside alone and then tried to pretend it didn’t matter because it was just sort of a starting point, that’s disingenuous. If it didn’t really matter, throw that model out of the equation completely and use something that everybody agrees on (common basis). Because when it was left in, it provided significant confirmation for the theory among participants in the process that the data were being cherry-picked and/or made up to support a predetermined plan.
Why doesn’t Capital Metro publish their ridership numbers – and on the rare occasions when they do, why never in a form that can be processed by the public? The MTA in New York does.
Why don’t they publish their operating subsidies by mode (or even by line)? They haven’t done this at all since September of 2013, and if you think it’s because the Red Line subsidy figures would have damaged the public case for Proposition 1, you’re probably right! Yes, there’s arguments over methodology that would come into play in either case – but those arguments could be had in the open light of day. Instead, we assume that Capital Metro hides behind the firewall of freedom-of-information requests because they have something to hide (in many cases they do – for instance, recent word on the fare recovery ratio of MetroRapid is pretty awful). While I appreciate Ben Wear’s efforts in seeking this information (most media outlets don’t even try), it should be published every month on Capital Metro’s website so guys like me can analyze it. No excuses. If the data tells a bad story, then have a conversation about it with people who understand how transit works instead of hiding behind meaningless platitudes that prevent any transit project from ever being declared ‘bad’.
In future chapters I will explain in more detail, with many more specific examples, where we have fallen short on these metrics; and then what an honest Project Connect would have looked like. What an honest Capital Metro would look like. And what an honest City of Austin would look like. Because if we’re ever going to see real progress, that’s what we all need.
In yesterday’s post, I showed that transit service along our best VMU corridor (Lamar/Guadalupe) has been significantly degraded by the introduction of Rapid Bus. Along this corridor, you used to be able to count on “show up and go” local service, but now you absolutely cannot.
The vast majority of tracts directly abutting the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor are eligible for VMU development like the one I used as an example in yesterdays post, based on an ordinance passed back in 2008.1 The arguments in favor of VMU on core transit corridors, made by people including yours truly, rested on the premise that because there was frequent, useful, transit there, we should allow denser development and reduce parking requirements for that development. Since we could assume that a larger percentage of tenants of those buildings would be willing to use transit than for the city as a norm, in other words, we would not listen to the complaints of the nearby neighborhoods that they’d all be driving on Lamar and Guadalupe every day making their lives more miserable.
Now it’s 2014, and this statement:
On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful
is NO LONGER TRUE.
If we were debating the set of attempts by neighborhoods along Guadalupe and Lamar to opt-out of the VMU ordinance today, in other words, it would not be honest to make the statement above.
So what, you say? Well, remember, the VMU ordinance and the approval/rejection of the opt-in and opt-outs were not unanimously done by committed urbanists. The council at the time had one committed urbanist, one urbanist with some checkered history, one anti-urbanist, and four moderates.
Do you know what sold those four on VMU? Over the objections of neighborhood associations that tried to opt out of almost everything? After all, Hyde Park’s neighborhood association attempted to opt out of essentially all of Guadalupe!
So what worked with those four moderates? It was this:
On this VMU corridor, transit is frequent and useful
Note that we do not need to count how many people in apartments on Lamar/Guadalupe use transit to understand this point. Politically speaking, the presence of useful frequent transit allowed those moderates to make what we urbanists consider the “right decision” and not only pass this ordinance but expend political capital to reject attempts by Hyde Park and other neighborhood associations to wiggle out of it.
So now that the useful, frequent, service is gone, what happens? Most VMU projects along Lamar/Guadalupe are still very attractvie, of course; developers will pretty much build to the maximum entitlements on these corridors today given the vast demand for rental housing. But when neighborhoods find pretextual objections (and they will; nothing is ever cut and dry), future councils will be more likely to side with the neighborhoods than the urbanists, because, once again, transit service on Lamar and Guadalupe is no longer ‘frequent and useful’.
What are we likely to see instead, assuming the neighbors win more of those battles, and since we’ve decided to destroy local bus service on Lamar/Guadalupe in favor of more expensive but less useful express service? Hello, Steven Zettner’s vision of density ONLY near the major intersections (where the rapid bus stops happen to be located). No longer will we see 4 or 5 story VMU buildings along the entire corridor; instead, we’ll see 4 or 5 story buildings near the Rapid stops, and decaying single-story strip malls in the rest.2 The ‘moderates’ in the future city council will vote the neighborhood association’s way when in doubt, because, again, useful and frequent transit is no longer part of the equation.
To the right is the “Core Transit Corridors” map used to kick off VMU planning back in 2007. Note the complete absence of Highland, by the way. Honestly, only the two Rapid Bus corridors have seen any significant VMU development (East Riverside is starting to show some signs, with major flaws).
Thus, this affects not only Lamar/Guadalupe, but also South Congress and Burnet/South Lamar (which were the other corridors that got nearly completely zoned VMU mostly over neighbors’ objections).
Does that sound important to you yet? Well, we’re getting there. Next up: Urban rail.
This VMU on Lamar at North Loop (google maps link; as of 9/5/2014 the streetview picture is from construction) is open now. I like it. It has a bus stop right in front of it! Streetscape is good. There’s actually a new Taco Cabana across North Loop from it, unfortunately with a drive-thru, where the pretty image to the right has a grassy field1. The property to the south of the Taco Cabana appears ripe for redevelopment soon as another VMU; I’d be surprised not to see it go that way within a couple of years.
Let’s imagine the resident of one of these new apartments wants to take the bus to Wheatsville Co-Op, an urban grocer located at about 31st and Guadalupe. Lots of people used to ride the bus to Wheatsville last I checked.
For background, the VMU ordinance was enacted as a quid-pro-quo for the McMansion ordinance – the logic was that we would build tall apartments (for Austin, anyways) over walkable retail on corridors where transit frequencies and usefulness was high. Lamar/Guadalupe definitely fit that bill, at least originally.
Before the implementation of “Rapid Bus”, the #1 ran about every 13 minutes during peak periods on this route. Google maps says that the bus portion of this trip takes 8 minutes on the #1. Note that Google doesn’t even consider the 801 a viable option for this trip, unlike Capital Metro themselves. We’ll get to that in a minute.
We can use the same “show up and go” calculations from this post to come up with this graph. Short summary: If transit service is to be truly useful as a replacement for the car, it needs to be frequent enough that you don’t bother to check a schedule; you just show up at the stop and a bus comes pretty soon (and by the way this was one of the big marketing points for the #801; so this isn’t just a condition I’m placing on them to be mean). Note that the walking time on either end for the #1 trip is essentially zero – there are bus stops for the #1 (but not the #801) directly in front of the VMU building and the grocer.
Originally, when frequency was every 13 minutes, a trip to the grocery store would involve a 0 minute walk, an average 6.5 minute wait (half of frequency), and a 8 minute trip on the bus, for an expected trip time of 14.5 minutes. Not bad.
However, in the world we live in now, Capital Metro has cut half of the #1s and imposed instead the #801 in place of the #101, stealing the local frequency for the express. How does that service work for our apartment resident?
Same calculations as above – we end up with an expected wait of 13 minutes (it runs every 26 minutes during peak)2. Total trip time is now 21 minutes, if you can get a seat on this bus, which has been a problem ever since the 801 change happened.
But surely the 801 made up for this drop in service, right?
Again, Google won’t even give this as a trip; but Capital Metro’s trip planner does.
Huh. Cap Metro expects the user of this ‘service’ to walk about a half mile north to the “Brentwood Station”, wait (12 minute frequencies during peak), ride the bus to the “Hyde Park Station” (7 minutes), then walk about a half mile south to Wheatsville. Hey Google, how long will those walks take? Google says 8 minutes each, roughly.
So let’s graph those new trips, shall we?
The results show that, and all of this is compared to the conditions before the #801 started (“old #1″ in the graph), a resident of this apartment building can now either pay the same amount of money for a much less frequent service (#1) that will now take about 50% longer to get where they want to go, or they can pay double the price for a reasonably frequent service (#801) that will take more than twice as long to go where they want to go. People boarding a bus at this stop and travelling to Wheatsville have seen a significant degradation in quality of bus service.
What’s the conclusion? Well, even if you are foolish enough to think a 26 minute frequency local service still qualifies as “show up and go”, the residents of this VMU and many others in the area are unquestionably much worse off after the implementation of MetroRapid. And what’s worse – the developments resulting from the VMU ordinance were sold to surrounding neighborhoods as less of an impact on their daily lives because we all assumed many of its residents would ride the bus.
Still true? Doubt it.
More to come.
I ripped up one of the copies I had and gave a short excoriation of the lack of meaningful public input, as this KUT story indicates. Here’s the outline of the speech I was going to give (4 people had donated me time; I’m not sure I could have fleshed this out to 15 minutes if I tried).
Unlike some people who spoke with most or all of their time, I thought it more important to indicate that we didn’t agree with the decision to limit testimony (at the only real public hearing this thing was ever going to get).
a. Member of AURA (founding member of the new version; supporter of the old)
b. UTC 2000-2005
i. Mention PG, modern UTC opposition in JD, MDG
c. Writing on transportation since 2003
d. On corner in 2000 supporting LRT with Eric Anderson (LAB)
e. Opposed Red Line in 2004 due to high operating subsidy and low benefit to Austinites
i. (mention this has borne out – operating subsidy ‘down’ from 35 to 18 after cancelling buses; census from rider at Lakeline showing 80% Cedar Park)
2. PC Process
a. In it since beginning.
b. Assured LG on table. No obstacles. (Also assured of this years ago when Rapid Bus was pushed).
c. Process clearly designed with thumb on scales
i. Subcorridors instead of routes
ii. West Campus into Core
iii. I35 ridership into Highland but neither I35 nor 183 ridership into Lamar
iv. Various ‘errors’ all of which hurt GL
v. Bad flier – canvassed at my house with flier designed to fool old people into dropping opposition to plan. No real plans for rail on Guadalupe!
d. At end, people still didn’t know what was best for them!
i. Repeated, strong, unbending preference for Lamar ‘subcorridor’
e. So we brought up the FTA out of the blue
i. Disputed by the guy in charge of Rapid Bus!
ii. Either lying now or lying at beginning.
iii. Getting mixed messages – we’ll do LG right after election but LG can’t ever be done because of traffic but we’ll do it next anyways.
f. Nobody in Austin should trust the output of a process this corrupt. You’re being fed a line about transparency that doesn’t hold up. None of our local transit activists who aren’t connected to the machine believe this.
i. National commentators:
1. Christof Spieler: "It's amazing: Austin, the self-proclaimed progressive city, could have had the best rail system in Texas but has the dumbest."
2. Steven Smith: "Austin light rail is becoming more of a joke by the minute. Textbook example of politics getting in the way of good transit planning."
3. Jeff Wood, Reconnecting America: "I'm going to use this as a bad transit planning example forever"
4. Others at the time ranging from “What A Sham” to “What A Shame”.
5. Honestly have not seen a single national transit person approve this plan.
3. The output
a. High operating subsidies even WITH assumed out of reality growth at Highland Mall
b. No way to tell whether new residents around Highland will work along rail line
i. Mention Mueller – people work all over the city
ii. Birds in hand on a good bus line are worth more than ten birds in bush (working all over city)
c. Theory pushed by Chamber of Commerce that people will hop off I-35, go to park and ride, look for space, walk to station platform, wait for train, ride slow meandering train downtown instead of riding
i. Park and rides DO work but only at far end of quicker, straighter, lines.
ii. Or like in Houston where parking is very very expensive.
d. Urban rail should be urban.
i. Walk to stations from dense residential areas, not apartments in a sea of parking
ii. Entire Airport Blvd segment a waste – only one side can ever be developed; no good crossings to other side and low-density over there
iii. Hancock area – residential only, not as walkable as we need; no opportunity for redevelopment more urban.
e. Respond to density instead of create it
i. Christof Spieler – density wants to be near other density (fill in gaps rather than greenfield)
ii. Most of our supposed TODs underperform compared to background conditions
iii. Remember the TOD up in Leander that was going to help the Red Line?
iv. Crestview Station <<< The Triangle
v. Not going to get high quality development in the planning straitjacket around Highland Mall (also remember birds in hand argument)
f. Even with their bogus assumptions
i. 18,000 boardings/day would be a bad light rail line. BAD.
ii. Houston around 35,000/day. Phoenix above 40,000.
g. Precludes expansions ANYWHERE else if line isn’t packed
i. Operating subsidy argument
ii. Horrible spine – slow, windy makes bad backbone.
h. Precludes expansions on GL forever even if line is good
i. We don’t trust you now after Project Connect Phase 1
ii. FTA reluctant to fund two early lines in ‘same’ area
iii. Local politics makes funding 3rd line apparently in NCentralAustin a nonstarter
iv. Are they promising Guadalupe or “Lamar subcorridor”?
1. Ridiculous longrange map proposes Guadalupe served after MLK but we suspect grade too high on MLK; doesn’t go south into core of downtown. Why not just stay on Guadalupe/Lavaca?
2. We don’t believe you anyways.
a. Bad rail line can end system rather than start it
b. Don’t mischaracterize our arguments. Highland is not just not our favorite line; it is a BAD line. Never get a chance to build system if you use up all your capital on a second high-operating-subsidy line.
“We can’t ask the Federal government to fund urban rail on Lamar/Guadalupe because they already paid for Rapid Bus, and they told us they wouldn’t pay for it, and would instead demand all the BRT money back” or variations of same.
This one has legs. I even believed it myself to an extent, once. It’s a little complicated, because nobody at the FTA is truly going to go on the record, but there’s a couple of angles here that are clearly about Project Connect misleading the public (i.e. misinforming; even lying).
In 2004, though, the project was originally marketed to voters as a “possible placeholder for future urban rail”. Unfortunately, this was before I learned I needed to save images of anything put up by Capital Metro, so you’re going to have to trust my memory on this one. Suffice to say I didn’t find it compelling back then as I believed this was an attempt to get central Austin voters to support the plan but that Capital Metro had no interest in actually following through with the “first rapid bus, then rail” angle. They took down that language right after the election, by the way.
Fast forward, then, to Project Connect in 2012.
At the beginning of the Project Connect process, we were told that Lamar/Guadalupe was on the table and would be fairly evaluated. We were also told for years, in no uncertain terms, that Rapid Bus should not be stopped because it was not an obstacle to urban rail there. Now, granted, I didn’t always believe this myself – note that in this very blog, back in 2006, I approvingly linked to a Statesman article about Leffingwell and McCracken halting (for a time!) Rapid Bus because they correctly determined that wasting our best rail corridor on buses no better than current #101 service was incredibly stupid.
Capital Metro and Project Connect employees went to great pains to tell people (in person) that Lamar/Guadalupe was not precluded from the urban rail corridor selection process by the presence of Rapid Bus. This is the only reason I bothered to get involved with the process! People like Jace Deloney were told by people like John-Michael Vincent Cortez that there was no obstacle to Guadalupe getting trains on it. Cortez spent the better part of an hour dissembling at an Urban Transportation Commission meeting to Deloney’s questions about Rapid Bus – saying variants of “well, we could put urban rail there, but why would you ever want to, because Rapid Bus is going to be so great”.
Put a pin in this – we’ll get back to this later.
Project Connect Phase 1 went through their ridiculous, contrived, process which was obviously designed to produce justification for the predetermined rail route to Hancock. I think most of us have finally settled on that characterization by now. But one of the most irritating things, at least to Project Connect, about this process was their failure to convince the public to abandon the Guadalupe corridor as their #1, by far, choice. Despite the flawed (on purpose) design of the study; despite all the shenanigans, people still preferred Guadalupe by large margins to either of the corridors Project Connect wanted them to prefer. People still weren’t choosing the corridors Project Connect had been designed to get them to prefer! Those ungrateful wretches!
So at the very end of the phase, Project Connect and their lapdogs went on a full-court press to explain to people why, despite massive continuing public preference, we would not be studying Lamar/Guadalupe in Phase 2. The claim was made that they had back-channel correspondence with the FTA that indicated they would not look kindly on ripping out MetroRapid right as it was starting just to put in urban rail. Which is where we get to the next angle. But first:
This is where I really got pissed off.
A lot of people spent a lot of time on the premise that our best rail corridor was, in fact, on the table. I took time away from my job and my family to do so. Many others took much more time away from their jobs and their personal lives. So it’s incumbent on Project Connect to tell us why they lied at the beginning, or why they’re lying now, because it has to be one or the other. Either Guadalupe was on the table, in which case they lied at the end; or it was never on the table, in which case they lied at the beginning. We are owed an explanation for this. I explained that last bit in a note I sent over my Thanksgiving holiday, for god’s sake, and nobody ever even attempted to resolve this at Project Connect or at the CCAG.
Any urban rail project won’t be tearing up streets right away, even if it passes in November of 2014. The first time you’d see jackhammers and bulldozers would be at least 3 or 4 years further down the road – so let’s say 2017. Additionally, as pointed out by numerous people on both sides of the issue, the proposed alternative urban rail alignment (starter) for Lamar/Guadalupe only overlaps the middle quarter or third of the Rapid Bus alignment. Finally, nobody proposed eliminating Rapid Bus immediately, although I think we can all agree that running buses like that through a construction zone on the Drag would really suck. Slightly worse than running them through normal Drag traffic!
So did they ask the FTA “What would you do if we started upgrading the middle part of the Rapid Bus corridor to urban rail in 2017 or 2018?”
Nope. According to their public statements, they asked the FTA “How about if we immediately stop Rapid Bus1 and start working on urban rail here. How would you guys feel about that?”
Of COURSE the FTA said “you’d have to pay us back our Rapid Bus money”. To that question, why would you expect anything else? But even if we had to pay back the Rapid Bus money, it’s still peanuts compared to how much money we’re going to spend on Urban Rail, both Federal and local.
To equate “Can we just immediately stop Rapid Bus right now” with “Would you mind if we started upgrading the middle part of the corridor 3 or 4 years after service begins, probably continuing to run Rapid Bus as-is on the north and south ends of the corridor” is disingenuous. Misleading. Dishonest. Some might even say – a lie. To say nothing of the fact that during this phase of planning, we’re supposed to be talking about ‘corridors’, not ‘streets'; and some people like “OurRail” are proposing running urban rail a block off the Drag anyways, further reducing the area of supposed conflict to just a mile or two.
Finally, we heard from the guy at Capital Metro who planned the whole Rapid Bus project. Surely he’d set all of the Lamar/Guadalupe partisans right. Surely he’d line up with the fine leaders of the political machine on this one. Right?
I watched a CCAG meeting where Surinder Marwah spoke, and have been on a lot of email threads where he was CC’ed. He responded in onethread to a question by me of whether John Langmore had ever been forced to explain why the Rapid Bus project manager would support rail on Guadalupe (this is an edit from early versions of this post – I missed it the first time around). His response had a bunch of good technical detail about the FTA, useful life of bus projects, the definition of “permanence”, etc. which I’d have to go seek permission to repost.
However, Lyndon Henry has already done the legwork on this one. From an article in Railway Age:
Indeed, Surinder Marwah — the Capital Metro planner who originally designed the MetroRapid project and helped secure FTA Small Starts funding — corroborates MetroRapid’s role as a precursor to urban rail, and disputes that the project was ever intended to block rail in the G-L corridor. Marwah ranks as a strong and knowledgeable advocate of urban rail in the corridor.
Oops. Well, surely the FTA itself can be trusted to back up the leaders of our local political machine?
Posted by the Central Austin CDC and others, this is the actual content of the response from the FTA to requests for information about this issue:
What the FTA says here is that they would consider funding urban rail in this corridor as if it was any other corridor; but they might want some of the BRT money back (because, of course, they were asked the wrong question – listed above).
Even when asked a leading question implying a complete abandonment of the “BRT” investment, the FTA said they’d still be willing to fund urban rail in this corridor. They didn’t promise they would; but for the leaders of our political machine to characterize this, as they have, as “the FTA won’t pay for urban rail there because they already paid for Rapid Bus there” is a LIE.
That’s all the time I have for now. Look for edits as I get more.
Here’s my recommendation for solving the Rapid Bus problem and it matches up with combinations of things suggested by Steven Knapp and Jace Deloney.
1. Make the 801s compatible. Repaint the buses. They’re just 101s. Charge the same fare as for locals. The New York subway doesn’t charge more for local 7s versus express 7s. That’s a fundamentally stupid idea. Continue to charge more for the 98x buses if you want; those have long stretches of nonstop running in the middle which make them more ‘premium’. The 801 is not a premium service. It’s just a brand-new bus.
2. Restore the #1 at its original frequency. If the 801 is so great, it will gradually make the 1s more empty, at which point you reduce frequency on that route through the normal service planning process after customers have demonstrated their preference instead of being force-marched to either incredibly crowded remaining local buses or expensive, incompatible, newer buses.
That being said? It’s too late to do this in a way that would actually help in the long-term. Even if Capital Metro really wanted to, they’re not, logistically speaking, going to be able to make these changes for months. It would have taken people taking my points about Rapid Bus seriously many months ago – and for that, please see the post before this one. Making these changes 5 months from now at the next service change window is too late for riders – they’ll either give up or move on by then, just like how the #9 riders weren’t going to sit around for a year to wait for the replacement service to show up.
Over the last few years, I’ve written many times on this blog that Capital Metro was eliminating half of the local service on the route 1 corridor when the route 801 (MetroRapid, or so-called “Rapid Bus”) started service. Many, many times. Here’s one example from last June. Here’s another from October, 2011.
Recently, hundreds of people have expressed surprise and dismay when the events I’ve been telling you about for years actually came to pass. Richard Whitaker came out of the woodwork and talked to me while I was practically dying of the flu on a business trip in Atlanta, shocked that the locals were being eliminated. Nobody on reddit saw it coming. Nobody in the local TV media saw it coming.
Now it’s here, and again, everybody is surprised and dismayed.
The dismay is obvious. But why the surprise?
Honestly? It’s due, in major part, to the fact that one particular employee of Capital Metro has spent years convincing decision-makers and media-members that the author of this blog is a troll who has no idea what he’s talking about. Yes, I know this for a fact.
The last major exchange that Capital Metro employee and I had is still burned into my mind. It was on the same topic as the blog link featured further down this page, but I have yet to be able to get a twitter search tool to bring up the thread. Basically, I spent a couple of hours while on a layover in the DFW airport a couple of years ago making the fact-based case in that blog post below (about the #9 being cancelled without its planned replacement) in tweet form, calmly and rationally, only to be repeatedly told by that Capital Metro employee that I was wrong; and at the end, to be cut off again and labelled a troll. After that, I lost a considerable amount of access I previously had to some members of the media, city council and staff, and other decision-makers and thought leaders. I observed some activity myself where said Capital Metro employee was undermining yours truly with media members, and heard much more from others.
Today, that same Capital Metro employee was given an attaboy by somebody who I respect for supposedly dealing with constructive criticism well. This doesn’t make me feel happy about that person I respect, and it doesn’t make me happy about trusting the organization he leads. I hope this is just a momentary mistake.
Here’s the post which begins by showing how the Capital Metro employee in question really deals with constructive criticism, and my fact-based rebuttal to his dismissive aside to a third-party. Click the big words right after this.
I’ve been told by the leaders of the organization I mentioned above that I’m wrong for attacking said Capital Metro employee, even after that employee lied repeatedly during the Project Connect process. I’ve let leaders of the organization I mentioned above know that the Capital Metro employee in question made some clumsy threats against another supporter of said organization which were not consistent with the image of that Capital Metro employee that they continue to firmly grasp to. After all this, I find myself wondering what it takes to make those people angry. I know I’ve done so, by taking issue with their strategy and tactics both privately and publically, but apparently actually lying in order to steal political capital to support a hare-brained, mendacious, underhanded political process is just A-OK, as long as they see you a lot and you smile and shake their hand while stabbing them in the back. You’ll still be their chum, and still get lionized for your ability to handle constructive criticism.
Again, I hope I’m wrong. But like them, I’m reading some tea leaves.
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).