Statesman on board?

Today’s Statesman featured a sidebar on page 1 of the Metro section which picked up on the “running a poorly designed commuter rail system to suburban areas which don’t pay Cap Metro taxes may increase operatng costs to the point where the urban core will never be able to get rail service” meme I’m working so hard on.

relevant excerpt:

A figure of $1 a ride, identical to what it costs now to ride express buses, has been kicked around but is by no means certain. But the train line probably would create a new operating deficit to add to the red ink.

With all that in mind, the Capital Metro staff has been looking at its entire fare structure. Staff members, with the aid of graduate students from the University of Texas, have been running economic models to see how higher fares might affect services, looking to find the number that optimizes revenue. The staff will make a recommendation to the Capital Metro board in July.
What emerges will no doubt still be a bargain. The board will not want to give its mostly urban bus riders — and rail election voters — the impression that they are subsidizing suburban train riders.

Cap Metro update

My motion last night failed for lack of a second. This is less than I expected (I thought I’d likely lose 6-2 or 7-2). Like I said, long uphill battle (most people are willing to take Cap Metro’s word on performance rather than thinking critically and/or looking at peer cities).

Oh, and even though Cap Metro didn’t bother to send somebody to talk about the long-range plan, not one other commissioner had the guts to go out on a limb and call them on this plan’s lack of support for Austin’s needs. Rather disappointing.

I’ve now finished a rough draft of some Qs and As about my opposition to this plan. More to come when I get spare moments.

Bus Reliability

This morning, after I finished a short interview with KLBJ-AM’s morning news show (despite being well-meaning in their attempts to cover local issues, the format isn’t very helpful – I only spoke about ten sentences total), I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. Since I was up extra early, my choices were to take the #3 bus at 7:16 (arriving up near my office at 7:44) or take the more comfortable and quicker express bus at 7:48 (arriving near my office at 8:08).

I arrived at the bus stop about 5 minutes early (late for me), and waited. And waited. And waited. The bus finally showed up at about 7:30.

It’s now 8:03 and I’m finally at my desk. And by the way, thanks to the motorists on Jollyville who were relatively understanding of my slow cycling due to the water. I didn’t get splashed once.

The bus wasn’t late because it makes a lot of stops. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus wasn’t late because it travels on city streets instead of the freeway. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus was late because of unpredictable traffic downtown. And because there’s no transit priority (bus lanes or other) anywhere downtown, the bus suffers when cars jam the streets.

Now, compare and contrast to Capital Metro’s so-called “rapid bus” proposal. Their bus would run through downtown in shared lanes with cars, just like today’s #3 did. In downtown and through UT, it is unlikely that it would have been able to hold any lights green (without destroying the sequencing of the lights on that corridor). It would have been able to hold a few lights green outside downtown (but, when I got on the bus at 38th/Medical, we didn’t hit more than 2 red lights all the way up to my stop at Braker and Jollyville – and at one of those, we had stopped to pick up passengers anyways).

In short: the “rapid” bus wouldn’t have been any more reliable than the city bus I took this morning. And that’s not good enough for the taxpayers of Austin.

Rapid Bus Fact Sheet

Over lunch today, I produced this Rapid Bus Fact Sheet which attempts to (before the conclusion) analyze some common BRT treatments and objectively specify which are being used in Capital Metro’s proposal, and what impact they might have on competitiveness with existing bus service and with the car.

Game On

Today’s Statesman (registration required) contains the first non-gushing comment about Capital Metro’s plan to screw the center city in favor of Cedar Park and Round Rock (who don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes) in order to curry favor with Mike Krusee.

But the agency will have to win over some lukewarm Austinites.
“I absolutely reject it on its own merits because of the benefits for people who don’t pay and the lack of benefits for people who do pay, said Mike Dahmus, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission, an advisory board for the Austin City Council.

He said the plan would shortchange the large number of city residents who provide the agency’s tax base in order to serve residents of the suburbs. Plus, he added, “the commuter rail doesn’t go anywhere near the University of Texas or the densest urban core.”

The bulk of Capital Metro’s budget comes from a 1-cent sales tax levied in Austin and a few surrounding communities that are part of the agency’s service area.

News 8, on the other hand, interviewed current bus passengers. Even Capital Metro isn’t quite stupid enough now to think that the opinions of current bus users should shape a rapid transit line, although they’re still attacking the issue from the angle of cost, which is not a winner with rail or bus.

Today during lunch, I hope to get the first fact page up (this one about the proposed rapid bus line). This will be an uphill struggle at best.

Redevelopment and rapid transit

In today’s Salt Lake Tribune, the most explicit explanation yet of why rail is far superior to buses in urban areas seeking redevelopment:

“Unlike buses, rail transit can have tremendous land-use impacts,” D.J. Baxter, Anderson’s transportation adviser, said Tuesday. “Since a bus can be rerouted at the drop of a hat, no savvy investor is going to make development decisions based on bus routes. But streetcars are fixed, permanent. And a streetcar, combined with the right kind of land-use policies and zoning, can lead to very aggressive private investment in urban development — particularly in terms of housing.”

Cost of driving to driver

So in Tuesday’s Cap Metro briefing, one of the points I made is that an attempt to encourage people to use transit based on cost savings is doomed to failure, because the bus really isn’t any cheaper than the car for most people. Assumption here is that you won’t be able to completely get rid of a car, i.e., you ride the bus 4 days a week, or even 5, but can’t reduce your family’s number of cars.

The two downtown lawyers looked at me as if I was crazy. Well, I’m used to it.

Here’s the problem: Most of the people who pay a lot of money to park work downtown. Almost none of the new buildings there are underserved with parking, though; so the average cost per employee to park is dropping, even in the one place in town where it isn’t free. Free is a good assumption to work on (I suspect that most employees in those new buildings are getting free parking from their employers).

Then, we hit the “well, the IRS claims 27.5 cents per mile”, or whatever they’re saying now.

Yes, the IRS does in fact allow you to deduct business-related driving at that level in most cases. A big chunk of that is not gas, or tires, or maintenance – it’s depreciation, which makes sense for a business (which usually must depreciate assets like that as a matter of accounting principle).

But I went over this with my bicycle cost comparator. The fact is that unless you can get rid of a car completely, this depreciation number is not applicable to using your car for personal use (and yes, commuting to work is personal use).
I have never gotten one more dollar for a car on a trade-in for having disproportionately low mileage. Anectodal evidence exists of a few people who got an extra hundred bucks or two on a ten-year-old car for low mileage, but even that figure is trivial compared to how much of the original value of the car depreciated as a function of time, not mileage.

So, if you’re talking about taking the bus to work even every day but you live in the suburbs, you ain’t getting rid of that car, and thus, you ain’t saving 27.5 cents per mile. Gas and tires are about all the consumables you can treat as a mile-based expense; most maintenance is necessary every N months even if you drive the car a tenth as much as the typical user. Insurance is not mile-based (even though there were a flurry of press-releases about it supposedly being offered in Texas, it hasn’t materialized). Neither is registration.

So, a comparison for me:

I drive my wife’s old Honda Civic to work (when I drive). I take my bike on the other days, using the express bus for a boost in the morning. Let’s suppose I took that bus both ways.
From my calculator on my trip:

  • Car cost: $1.20, of which $1.10 is gas.
  • Bus cost: $2.00 ($1.00 each way).
  • Note that the following bus savings can be used:
    1. You can buy pre-paid tickets at half price, thus bringing the bus cost down to $1.00.
    2. You can buy a monthly express bus pass for $17 ($0.84 per day if you used it 25 days a month).

    Even in the most optimistic scenario, I’d only save $0.16 per day by taking the bus. That’s never going to be compelling enough to get me to vote for any transit proposal whatsoever, which was the point to begin with.

    For comparison, Cap Metro’s calculator says it costs me $184 a week if I drive all 5 days.

    Cap Metro doesn’t understand “choice commuters”. The things that could get them to vote for more money for transit are:

    1. Reliability – my trip down Mopac takes 20 minutes to 1 hour depending on traffic. A guaranteed trip time of 45 minutes on which I could read would be worth something.
    2. Performance – 45 minutes, OK. 1 hour, no way.

    Unfortunately, their rapid bus proposal does next to nothing on either metric above.

bus hilarity

(17:10:34) mdahmus: oh, forgot to tell you about my dillo experience
(17:10:39) mdahmus: 3 HIGHLY drunk guys on 4th and congress
(17:10:47) mdahmus: scaring the crap out of the white chick sitting next to me on bench
(17:10:54) mdahmus: as I waited for red dillo to go back to park-and-ride
(17:11:06) mdahmus: and then one of them DROPPED HIS FRIEND’S LIQUOR BOTTLE and it BROKE
(17:11:12) mdahmus: the apologies were flowing like cheap liquor
(17:11:22) mdahmus: man, did they smell stinky
(17:11:36) (coworker): there is no defining the amount of class it takes to drink liquor from a bottle on the street
(17:11:42) mdahmus: every time a bus came up, the drunker and stupider one would go up to the bus and his friends would yell “that’s not the right bus man, we’re looking for the 26”
(17:11:53) mdahmus: apparently he was not only illiterate but illnumerate as well
(17:12:08) (coworker): you should submit “illnumerate” to something
(17:12:14) mdahmus: yes
(17:12:24) mdahmus: I will submit it to my crackpot blog
(17:12:32) (coworker) logged out.

It’s Rapid Bus, Folks

Short entry: I went down to Cap Metro at 11 for a briefing on the new different long-range transit plan (they’re not ready for open-records stuff yet so they were only willing to talk to 4 people from our commission at a time) and yes, the urban core of Austin is getting screwed. Rail for people in the densest parts of town is now gone; replaced with “rapid bus” lines, which do not include plans for any knd of prioritization beyond the “keep the green light a few seconds longer”.

In other words, the far suburbs, many of whom don’t pay taxes to Cap Metro, are getting commuter rail; and the urban core, where most of the money comes from, is getting a slightly better version of the #101.

Cap Metro just got a new worst enemy. I don’t expect to have any influence over the outcome, but I can and will make the people responsible for this decision as miserable as possible.