Austin Rail Politics Thesis

Following up on yesterday’s excitement where I got involved in the McMansion debate on an austin neighborhood planning email list, angina infertility pointing out that the rationale used to justify adding MORE rather than LESS regulation of what people do with their property is shoddy, epilepsy
and in which I accidentally mailed something to the whole list which I meant to send offline to one person in particular, for which I then had to apologize, to which I then received a snarky, obnoxious, rejoinder that I might want to read the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan (which I printed out and have had on hand for 3 or 4 years now, as I’ve done with all center-city neighborhood plans, since, heck, I was a committee chair on one back in the day),
to which I then wrote this mean, mean, mean retort

Today, I call your attention to the Planning Commission recommendations for the issue. Note how few of the items listed have anything to do with drainage.
Here’s a radical idea: If the problem being addressed here really is “drainage”, i.e. storm sewers, and it MUST be, since the center-city neighborhood associations who pushed this through used the DRAINAGE EMERGENCY as the justification for their immediate moratorium, why not attack the actual problem? Here’s a simple idea. (Using single-family here; multi-family fees would require another formula).

  1. “Normal” drainage fee on monthly utility statement = X (today’s amount).
  2. Adjust for size of single-family lot. Larger lot = bigger fee.
  3. Adjust for amount of impervious cover, by percentage. More greenspace = smaller fee.
  4. Adjust for on-site detention such as rain barrels.

That’s all it would take. Anybody who wanted to live in a McMansion would be faced with a higher drainage bill. Anybody who lives in an existing house which has similarly large impervious cover ALSO pays. Make these multipliers high enough that they generate enough money for the necessary drainage facilities, and you then have a way to harness the power of development to solve the actual problem.
I wonder how interested in this actual solution to the DRAINAGE!!!!!! EMERGENCY!!!!!! the center-city neighborhood associations will be. Any guesses?
I should probably start adding this disclaimer: M1EK hates McMansions more than you do. M1EK just doesn’t like punishing property owners who don’t want to build a McMansion but might want to build a bigger house. M1EK is especially pissed off by people who use bogus excuses to hide what they really want, which is to keep ‘those people’ out of ‘their neighborhood’. M1EK is even more especially pissed off by neighborhood associations whose leaders bleat about keeping housing affordable, yet have resisted every multifamily development in and near their neighborhood for years..

After discussions with a few like-minded folks, drugstore I’ve created a group on yahoo called austin_urbanists. Some of the readers of this crackplog might be interested in joining.

Jeff Wood, information pills in the middle of a thread on lightrail_now where I’m trying to once again prevent Lyndon from wriggling off the hook, this site just posted a link to his thesis on Austin rail transportation politics in which I’m quoted a few times. A good summary for those still interested in the issue.

“Stick the renters in high-rises”

The past position of essentially all central-Austin neighborhoods (and, impotent stomach unfortunately, current position of many, including my current one and the last one) regarding high-density development was “none, never”.
Now, there appears to be, in some of the more enlightened neighborhoods, a position which they believe to be sufficient which is certainly BETTER than the old “none, never”, but still has some problems. I call it “stick ’em in high-rises downtown”, and it goes something like this:
“Preserve our single-family character by banning all apartments in and near our houses – instead, support more density downtown. Apartment dwellers want to be where the action is, anyway, don’t they?”
Unfortunately, in my response to a thread along these lines in one neighborhood’s yahoo group, I completely forgot the economic argument – namely that condos like my unit in Clarksville are affordable, but neither the high-rise downtown nor the single-family house in Rosedale ever will be.
Here’s what I wrote in that last response to that group. (I’ve paraphrased the quotes I responded to in parenthetical double-quotes below).

(“Central Austin is still desirable because most people want to live central in houses”)
I prefer to live on Congress Avenue in a mansion. There appears to
only be one way to do that, though, and as Tony Sanchez can tell you,
being rich doesn’t necessarily cut it.
There is a lot of unfilled demand to live central. When all other
things are equal, the majority of people would prefer to live in close
proximity to their job or other frequent non-home activity center.
When all other things are equal, the majority of people would prefer
to live in single-family housing on big lots. Where things get
interesting is where we are now, when those two forces come into
conflict (i.e., there is no possible way to satisfy both to their
fullest degree).
(“The multi-family building, not the tenants, being the problem” – part of this discussion centered on renters being bad neighbors, to which I responded with my theory about rental houses being much worse for neighbors than apartments or condos)
With all due respect, I do not think this is a strawman argument at
all, given how many people in this very discussion have complained
about the behavior of renters (usually packed into HOUSES). It’s
fairly obvious to me that if you restrict the development of
multifamily buildings in the central city, you will get more people
living together in rental houses, and that those tenants are more
difficult to control when they are renting from one landlord each
without the oversight of a HOA (as in a condo building). What about
this is difficult to agree with?
(“Center-city neighborhoods restrict multi-family housing; leads to downtown becoming like Vancouver; and I’m OK with that”, implication being that this satisfies the ‘problem’).
This leaves no room for moderate-density housing, which, for most of
US history, was the development style which the market provided for
most people. The fact that, before zoning restrictions and many of the
governmental economic activity that affects housing development today,
the market tended to provide mostly townhouses, rowhouses, etc. shows
to me that this style of moderate-density housing IS the sweet spot
where the demand for central living and the demand for space are best
For instance, the condo unit I lived in for 6 years (and still own) is
one of 14 on Waterston Avenue (Clarksville) which takes up the space
of about 3 single-family houses. I slept with my windows open at
night. Can’t do that in one of those high-rises. On the other hand, I
can’t walk to the grocery store from my single-family house. Frankly,
if we had rowhouses here in Austin in a walkable neighborhood, that’s
where I’d be. We don’t have them, not because there’s no demand, but
because neighborhoods have forcibly kept them out.
To say that there’s no place for anything between (single-family
house) and (high-rise) seems to me to be not much better than saying
that everybody must live single-family.

If I forget, I’m counting on my three devoted readers to please remind me to expand on the rental house vs. apartment/condo issue in the future. OK THANKS BYE.

On bicycle lanes, and dense areas

So the end-result of the Parlor problem appears to be that the neighborhood isn’t going to budge on the parking variance, cardiologist check which means that another local business is in danger of going under unless the notoriously neighborhood-friendly Board of Adjustment suddenly becomes more responsible.
The end of the thread on the hydeparkaustin mailing list occurred when a member of the “Circle C in downtown Austin” party commented that a plan (in the works now for a long time and seemingly not close to fruition) to arrange for parking at the State Hospital (across Guadalupe) to be used for employees of businesses on Guadalupe would be the only way out of this mess.
I replied that it was unlikely that any customer or employee of those businesses would find it attractive to park at the state hospital, thumb rx walk out to Guadalupe, psychiatrist wait a long time for the light at 41st and Guadalupe to change, walk very quickly across the street, and then and only then arrive at their destination (as compared to parking on a side street or Avenue A).
The person replied (and was supported by the moderator, who then ended the discussion with the attached unpublished rebuttal in hand) that “the boss can make the employee park whereever they say”. This may be true in an abstract sense, I replied, but it’s unlikely that any such boss would want to spend the energy enforcing a rule which prevented employees from parking in PUBLIC spaces such as on Avenue A, even if they did want to keep employees out of their own private lot.
This goes back to thinking of a type which is unfortunately prevalent here in Austin and among many other progressive cities – that being that people will do things that are good, as long as we provide opportunities to do them. IE, build it and they will come. What you build, given this thinking, doesn’t have to be attractive compared to the pre-existing or forthcoming alternatives; its mere existence will suffice.
For instance, in this circumstance, they think that simply providing available parking in an inconvenient and unpleasant location will get people to park there who would otherwise park on neighborhood streets. Likewise, Capital Metro thinks simply providing any rail will get people to use it, even if the individual incentives are pretty awful, given the shuttle bus transfers.
I have a whole blog category analyzing ‘use cases’ which I think is a far more useful way to look at the problem. In this case, for instance, put yourself in the shoes of that potential parking consumer a few paragraphs back and remember that your boss probably (a) isn’t going to be able to stop you from parking on Avenue A, and (b) probably couldn’t catch you even if he tried.
But like with the naive pro-transit suckers that bought the MikeKrusee ScrewAustin Express, it’s unlikely that it’s possible to get through to these people. And so, the consequence is that another local business which probably would have improved Guadalupe as a place we actually want to be is thwarted. Good work, geniuses.
This is not to say that we should never build transit or highways. What it does mean is that somebody ought to spend at least a few minutes figuring out whether the thing you’re going to expect people to use is actually attractive enough for them to choose to use it. By that metric, light rail in 2000 was a slam dunk, despite the lies spread by Skaggs and Daugherty. But in this parking case and with this commuter rail line, nobody seems to have bothered to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective user.
my sadly now never-to-be-published response (remember, this is to somebody who said “But the Heart Hospital doesn’t let their employees park in their lot!” follows.

Those cases have some clear and obvious differences to the one
we’re talking about here — one being that the employees are being prohibited from parking in a private lot (which is still difficult to enforce, but at least defensible). You’re asking that these business’ employees not only refrain from parking in the business’ lot (private) but ALSO from the public spaces on Guadalupe and the street space on Avenue A. And nobody’s ‘requiring’ those state employees to park in Siberia – if they could find an open metered space somewhere else, for instance, they’re free to take it. Likewise, the Heart Hospital can’t force its employees to mark at the MHMR pool.
So it’s easy to prohibit people from parking in a given private lot. Unless you’re going to turn Avenue A into RPPP as part of this, though, they’d still park there instead of across Guadalupe. And any boss who tried to force them otherwise would probably be experiencing the fun world of employee turnover.

I’ve been on an HSA for about six months now (only choice at current job). Ironically, angina the primary reason I had to leave the last job, pestilence which I liked a lot, ophthalmologist was a benefits cut that hit our family very hard, with no accompanying increase in salary. They (previous company) left us with choosing between a “high” plan which was ALMOST as good as the previous-years’ plan, except a couple hundred bucks more a month; a “medium” plan for a few bucks more in which all copays were nontrivially hiked and coinsurance cut; and a “low” plan which was basically a HSA, too.
The HSA works pretty much like an FSA (which we were already using), except a bigger pain in the butt, since the years’ money isn’t all available on day one, like in an FSA. (In fact, I ‘bounced’ payments-by-mail twice because I mailed in the bill response without double-checking to see how much had flowed in, each time with a delightful $20 charge tacked on). You also get to enjoy looking like a deadbeat to doctors’ offices as you quite frequently fall into the “31-60 days overdue” bill categories since they first have to file with insurance, then insurance tells them what they’re supposed to charge you, and then you get sent a bill. The tax savings are no greater than with an FSA, which is to say that they depend on your marginal tax rate, which for most of the people who were having trouble with health care before isn’t likely to be high enough to be worth the difficulty of setting aside this money in the first place.
Now, for us, it still makes sense (even though unlike most people on HSA’s, we actually hit our deductible last year; i.e., we actually use health care). And it makes a hell of a lot of sense for a high-earning person that doesn’t use health care. But it doesn’t do squat to help out people who are unable to afford insurance today – the benefits disproportionately accrue to those with the highest marginal tax rates, not the poor. The poor, sadly, probably remain better off going to the emergency room than using this thing.
Even libertarians who have been exposed to single-payer or socialized medicine seem to finally get it, as I got it a few years ago. Medicine is not a case where the market works like it does in computers or groceries or whatever else; nor will it ever be. It’s more like providing a police force and firefighters.
And no, switching to an HSA has not given us any incentive to reduce our usage of medical care at all, because, like pretty much everybody who works for a living, I only go to the doctor when I need to because it’s such a pain in the ass. The theory that we can save money on healthcare with this “ownership society” crap rests on the questionable premise that most money is being spent by people who can use HSAs, when, in fact, most money is spent on the elderly, the premature, and other heroic interventions.
This is really becoming an issue in which the center is ready to move, and only the far, far, far right balks. There’s just no sensible reason not to pick the best socialized system (appears to be France or maybe Germany) and just get it over with.

from that liberal rag “The Economist”, information pills an article on our health care dilemna, more about including this tidbit on why HSA’s won’t do squat to control costs:

To an administration that believes the answer to every problem is lower taxes, the appeal of these ideas is obvious. Many health experts, however, are deeply sceptical, both about whether the shift to higher-deductible plans will actually reduce health-care inflation and, even if it does, whether the government should encourage this trend with more tax cuts.
The logic of consumer-driven health care assumes that unnecessary doctor visits and procedures lie at the heart of America’s health-care inflation. And it assumes that individual patients can become discerning consumers of health care. Both are questionable. Most American health-care spending is on people with chronic diseases, such as diabetics, whose health care costs many thousands of dollars a year, easily exceeding even high deductibles.
Instead, critics worry that greater cost-consciousness will deter people, particularly poor people, from essential preventive medical care, a trend that could even raise long-term costs. A classic study by the Rand Corporation in the 1970s showed that higher cost-sharing reduced both necessary and unnecessary medical spending in about equal proportion.

In other words, somebody who already has diabetes isn’t going to save you any money when you stick him on an HSA, but somebody who might GET diabetes without preventative care will be even less likely to get that care, since now he’s got to pay for 100% of the cost himself.
This backs up what I said yesterday – that the people who think HSAs will make people spend less on health care are fooling themselves. People who can get HSAs are primarily the employed, and those with a fair amount of money. None of those people are likely to go get unnecessary medical treatments – most of the money we spend in this country is on heroic interventions and on inefficient health care provided to the poor at emergency rooms. We clearly aren’t going to stop spending so much on the elderly, and they clearly still have plenty of time to sit in doctors’ offices anyways. The poor who clog up emergency rooms either aren’t going to be able to get insurance at all (just like today), or won’t be able to afford to contribute anything into the attached HSA anyways. No change, except that the wealthy employed get a bigger tax break.

Continuing my oddball string of non-transportation rants, cialis there’s an analogy which has been bugging me for a while now, ed and I just finally figured out why it’s so crappy.
There’s a lot of folks out there who argue that old-style health insurance really isn’t ‘insurance’ because it pays first-dollar stuff (i.e. you get coinsured on essentially everything after you meet a small annual deductible). Car insurance and home insurance, these people say, don’t pay for oil-changes and gutter-cleaning. They only cover catastrophic conditions. Fair enough. (Google on “health insurance” and “oil changes” to see how widespread this meme has become).
But then you take a look at their proposed solution – HSA’s (paired with high deductible plans). You have to meet a large annual deductible, and then most stuff is covered. Sounds like a better match, right?
Except for this little problem: in both car and home insurance, the deductible is per-event, not per-year. By that metric, traditional insurance actually maps better to car and home insurance!. Hint: the ‘copay’ is sort-of a per-event deductible. If you visit the doctor and it costs a hundred bucks, and your copay is $20, then your insurance covers $80 (although unlike car and home insurance, it probably doesn’t cover 100% of that $80). Likewise, if my roof needs a $2000 repair, and my deductible is $1000, you could call that my co-pay.
Maybe a table is a better way to present this. I’m using what I remember of my old PPO, my current HSA, and my automobile insurance as examples here.

Plan Per-event deductible Annual deductible Coinsurance after reached
PPO $25 $250 80%
HSA / high-deductible plan NONE $4000 Almost 100%
Auto $1000 NONE 100%
Home $1000 NONE 100%

Clearly the high-deductible plan isn’t any more like “insurance” if you define it as “how homes and autos are covered”, despite the rhetoric you hear. A PPO isn’t perfect either, due to coinsurance rarely being 100%, but one could imagine a similar auto/home policy being floated and still being called “insurance”. On the other hand, I have yet to see an automobile insurance company ever offer a policy where you had to meet an “annual deductible” in addition to a “per-event deductible”.

I just made this comment to this post on Jamie’s site which made my morning bright. I rhyme! Thought it deserved its own entry, check to at least put some transportation back at the top.

Wow, nurse thanks for the endorsement! That made my morning!
Kyle, pill
I’ve spent a lot of time in Seattle for work and for a wedding, and my wife lived there for about 7 years. One thing’s for certain: Austin has much higher speed roadways in general than Seattle does – or, put it another way, the part of Austin where the roads are like “all of Seattle” only extends out from 6th/Congress about a mile and a half. And in that part of town, I usually advocate against bike lanes (one of my fellow commissioners at the time pushed for bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca downtown, for instance; I pushed against).
There are other reasons to support bike lanes even on roads with slower traffic. For instance, the primary bicycle arteries heading to UT are a block and three blocks away from my house (Speedway and Duval). Each has so many cyclists that without the bike lanes, the road would probably not be able to function for motorists – in that sense, the bike lanes help manage high levels of bicycle traffic. Likewise, the whole Shoal Creek debacle is a mess because the bike lanes are needed due to both high volumes of cyclists and high volumes of child cyclists (for whom the speed differential rises to the normal ‘justifies bike lanes’ levels, I think).

and my second comment once I realized I hadn’t read his closely enough:

Upon reading my comment it seems to be responding to an implication which wasn’t there in your comment. I’m way too tired this morning, so please treat mine as an expansion of yours rather than as an attempt to refute, since it’s obvious upon further reading that you weren’t saying Austin’s level of bike lanes were too high, but rather that our area of town where bike lanes aren’t needed is too small. Couldn’t agree more.
Things are glacially improving on that pace, set back by bad neighborhoods who prefer suburban parking codes. And there are a lot of cyclists heading down Speedway and Duval each day, at least.

Crackpot Letter, Part XXIV

Yet more proof from yet another city that panhandlers aren’t the ones who need the help, pulmonologist sale yet it’s like pulling teeth around here to get an ordinance that the cops can enforce against the bums that infest the Drag and downtown Austin. The homeless that deserve help are, web for the most part, phlebologist getting it from charities. These bums on street corners, on the other hand, just don’t want to work.
The same type of expose ran on one of the stations in Miami about fifteen years ago with similar results – except even more appalling; they GAVE food to one of the “Will Work For Food” guys, and he threw it away. Then they came back and gave him money and watched where he went – which, of course, was the liquor store.
I remember one time when I was walking down 6th Street from my condo to a show and was accosted by a bum for money. I ignored him; and he started following me and yelling at me. At that time, even I was rethinking my decision to be on the sidewalk at night instead of in my car, and those who know me know that doesn’t happen easily.
One of the biggest obstacles to restoring downtown Austin into a place where people want to live, work, and play is these obnoxious bums. I can’t believe that any executive thinking of moving a company’s offices downtown is going to enjoy running the gauntlet of beggars that render certain corridors stinky and barely navigable. This hurts our city’s economy as companies stay away from the center-city, where the infrastructure to support them already exists, and stay out in the burbs or leave Austin’s city limits entirely. A weak economy means less money available for the groups that really DO help the homeless.
There’s nothing noble about begging; and those who try the hardest to help the homeless actually discourage the public from donating at streetcorners; but this doesn’t stop professional protestors like Richard Troxell. I don’t know how this can be solved until people who want to help the homeless can stand up and distinguish between those who want help, and those who just want a hand-out.

This was going to be a comment at infobong to his entry about another local business biting it on the Drag, this web but I realized it was getting way too long and probably way too wonkish for that venue.
It’s a simple but sadly misunderstood formula:
# of potential customers in area has been going up (more students; more residents).
Amount of retail space has been staying the same (stupidly limited by zoning regulations which effectively prevented any redevelopment along the drag which has way too much single-story car-oriented retail and even surface parking.
Result? Higher demand (from customers); stagnant supply; more demand (from businesses) for static space = higher rents = more national chains
Solution? No parking requirements and very very very generous height limits along the Drag. But even the recent West Campus rezoning didn’t go far enough down that path – there’s still way too much emphasis on parking minimums. Properties right along Guadalupe as far north as 38th and possibly 45th should have NO required parking, online in my opinion. If you think this gives them too much of a leg up (even given the much higher rent they’ll pay than their suburban competitors), consider having them pay an “in-lieu parking fee” dedicated to mass transit and pedestrian improvements along the corridor.
That’s another piece of the formula of course, which ends up leading to a few big tenants being healthy because they can lock up access to a lot or a garage; while the little individual (usually local) tenants blight out – like what’s happening up on Guadalupe between 29th and 45th. Properties can’t redevelop because change of use between one type of commercial business and another make the grandfathered variance go away, which means they’re suddenly subject to suburban-style parking requirements.

About 3/4 of the way through the subcommittee meeting and it looks like the 3 council members are falling back into a “let’s get a consensus plan together which meets all stakeholder interests” mode which, remedy in case anybody’s forgetting, is what ended up giving us this abomination and all of the nightmare since then.
This is not a situation where compromise works. This is a situation where the Council has to CHOOSE between:
1. Parking on both sides of the street, and the elimination of Shoal Creek Boulevard as a safe and useful link in the bicycle route system for Austin (no alternates exist which come close to the length and right-of-way advantages of SCB).
2. Bicycle lanes on both sides with no parking (in the bike lanes); and on-street parking restricted to one side of the street (also known as “Option 2”).
But instead, it sure as heck looks like they’re ignoring the advice of the TTI (which was absolutely clear about what other cities do in cases like this – they do #2) in favor of kow-towing to the neighborhood yet again; inevitably ending up with some stupid combination of Option 3 and the Gandy debacle.
The worst part is Brewster’s gang of “stakeholders” which includes nobody credible from the transportation bicycling community (no, the ACA doesn’t represent these folks) and has come up with a plan to try a BUNCH of different things on the road, all but one of which (option 2) are heartily discouraged by modern roadway designers.
This is so depressing…

Councilmember McCracken wrote me back, diagnosis defending his successful attempt to draw this out further, viagra order by claiming that there was “no data about any of the options”. This is true, generic if you restrict the question to “what are the motor vehicle speeds on a roadway with bike lanes and on-street parking on one or both sides with various treatments”. However, as I noted above, the TTI was quite clear about the safety recommendation from peer cities – that being, do option 2 and do it now.
The other things McCracken wanted to put on the road in test sections, if I’m remembering correctly, were:

  • Current design (with curb extensions) – there’s really no point in doing this, unless your ONLY goal is to measure motor vehicle speeds – it’s a well-known safety hazard for all road users.
  • Painted bike lane (presumably this is in the original Gandy 10-4-6 configuration which doesn’t provide enough space for a driver to pass a cyclist who is passing a parked car)
  • Bike lane with raised markings next to either parking lane, driving lane, or both (I’m unclear whether this treatment would include parking on both sides or on one side only – the raised markings would take up enough space that it would seem to rule out the Gandy configuration, but at this point who knows).

As you can see from the linked items above, to imply that these facilities haven’t been studied isn’t particularly accurate – they have, and substantial safety problems have been noted. It’s true that nobody bothered to measure motor vehicle speed next to these various bicycle facilities – frankly because nobody cared – the speed of a car when it hits you on one of these roads isn’t particularly important – whether that car is going 25 or 35 when it runs over you because you slipped on a raised curb marking, for instance, isn’t very relevant.

I just posted this to the allandale yahoo group but it bears repeating to a more general audience.

--- In, purchase  "kayn7"  wrote:
> Some of the neighbors in HPWBANA tried the nice approach and working
> with them - the students were - to say the least - not responsive and
> some were abusive. The neighbors on Hartford call the police and
> Varisty Properties owners on a regular basis because of parking on
> lawns, ask  loud late night parties, beer cans thrown in yards.

This entire process (and I live next door to a duplex full of UT Wranglers who occasionally cause similar problems) is an unintended consequence of something which your neighborhood and mine probably supports – that being restrictions on multifamily development.
Most of these kids (not all, but most) don’t have any particular interest in living in a house instead of a condo or apartment – but the artificially low-density development around UT for decades has forced them to either live out in Far West or Riverside and take a slow poky shuttle to school, or get together with a bunch of buddies and rent a house (and be able to carpool to school or take a much quicker and shorter bus ride, or bike or walk). I’d probably pick the same thing if I were in their shoes – I’ve seen how long it takes to bus in from those areas; my next-door neighbors can walk the 10 blocks to campus in half the time it takes those other schlubs to bus there.
(I know from my experience in college that when the market provides enough near-campus apartments, far fewer kids end up in rental houses – this was at Penn State, in case anybody cares).
So you can thank the decades of foolhardy opposition to density (height restrictions and moronic suburban parking requirements) in West Campus for a lot of this. Unfortunately, the recent rezonings are too little too late for most of us – it will be another decade or two before the number of new apartments there can begin to stem the tide.

Summary: for decades, inner-city neighborhoods pushed the city to keep building heights low, require way too much parking, and otherwise restrict high-density development near UT despite the fact that students living in this area WALK to class. UT doesn’t provide even half as many dorms as the students would seem to need; the near-campus market doesn’t have enough tall buildings to make up the difference (not even as many as Penn State has, despite having an oversupply of dorms); so students end up in rental houses, even though they have no interest in yardwork and get hassled a lot more by the neighbors (like me) than they would in an apartment in West Campus. Be careful of what you ask for.

Finally somebody in the mainstream press gets it. From the Atlanta Journal Constitution, glands 12/5/2005:

There are two kinds of people: Us and them. And where the line falls between the two depends entirely on context.
Sometimes us and them is a matter of gender — “Men Are From Mars, discount Women Are From Venus, capsule ” as the book title goes. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd asks in her new book, “Are Men Necessary?”
At other times, we define us and them by racial or political differences, or even by something as frivolous as the sports team we follow. In fact, a lot of the appeal of sports is the opportunity to root hard for our side against their side; as a lifelong New York Yankee hater, I can personally attest to the pleasures that can bring.
Then there’s the line we draw depending on how and where we live. To suburban dwellers, the city is often viewed as a corrupt heart of darkness, in more ways than one. To city dwellers, the suburbs are perceived as rather soulless and pale, again in more ways than one.
Those tensions play out in a lot of ways, even coloring discussions about how booming areas such as Atlanta ought to develop. Too often, what ought to be a straightforward, even technical discussion of various land-use approaches can devolve into just another battleground in the ongoing culture wars, just another example of us against them.
For example, one of the Atlanta region’s biggest challenges is controlling sprawl, a development pattern that consumes tax dollars and open land and greatly complicates transportation planning and environmental problems. One of the options available to mitigate sprawl and its impact is an approach called “smart growth” — areas of higher-density development that mix residential, commercial and business uses.
Unfortunately, though, some suburban dwellers hear criticism of sprawl as some sort of a value-laden condemnation of suburban life. They respond by launching a defense of sprawl that can be paraphrased with the following:
“What others deride as sprawl is actually just the free market at work, the result of millions of Americans choosing the lifestyle they prefer. And any effort to control or limit ‘sprawl’ is a misuse of government power promoted by elitists who want to instruct us common folk how to live.”
Well, I’ve covered enough county commission and zoning board meetings to know that’s just romantic mythology.
First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that’s how they make the most profit; you don’t see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre.
Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market’s tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like “smart-growth” policies.
In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers’ property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative’s dream.
The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you’ll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses.
Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect “us” against the incursion of “them.”
That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region’s success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice.
Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.
• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

One thing which has been a minor irritant to me for a long time is this:
If TXDOT truly abandoned plans for the “Outer Loop” around Austin (environmental and economic catastrophe for Austin proper that it would have clearly been), symptoms why have they retained the same route number for SH 45 “S” and SH 45 “N”?
It’s an article of faith around these parts that the Outer Loop won’t be built, yet nobody seems to point out that TXDOT keeps calling the roads which would have formed the northern and southern parts of this loop by the same number. Why does nobody but me find this fishy?
My guess: TXDOT is still keeping the flame of the “Outer Loop” lit against the hated hippies of Central Austin. I can’t come up with any other logical reason why they wouldn’t want to give the two roads different numbers. Any other ideas?

A lot of folks, thumb including an attempted commenter from earlier today whose comment got rejected for some reason I have yet to determine, look think I’m a liberal. Those folks is wrong most of the time.
For instance, this story bugs me, especially this part:

One 70-year-old Maine LIHEAP recipient, who asked not to be named, says that she gets through the winter by keeping her thermostat at 62 degrees.

I keep our thermostat at 60 at night; 65 during the day; and make sure to open blinds to get as much solar heating as possible when the sun is up. If I lived up north, I’d go colder. 62? Give me a break. How about putting on another sweater? For most of human history, people in cold climates would have thought 62 was heavenly warm.

This is pretty much how I feel about what Microsoft’s done to the computer software industry. Unfortunately, bronchitis the site for which Julian writes pretty much takes Microsoft at their word and buys the “statists envious of successful corporation” version of the story.
It’s even remarkably timely.
So please imagine a world in which:

  • Meaningful commercial operating system competition existed, thus pushing Windows to actually satisfy customer needs rather than those of its business partners’. IE, what we had from the 80s through the early 90s.
  • Non-trivial commercial office suite competition existed, meaning that Word, Excel, and the lot would have to be GOOD, not just good enough.
  • Commercial browser competition had existed for the last 5 years, meaning IE wouldn’t have been able to take half a decade off after Netscape died.

And, no, open source can’t save us, with the trivial exception of browsers (which just aren’t all that complicated compared to the other things above). I’ve been using linux, on server and desktop, at my last three jobs. I even prefer it for work. That doesn’t make it a competitor serious enough to do much good, even though Microsoft has to say it does so they look good for the media. (In 2005, I couldn’t get sound working on a friggin’ mass-market HP-Compaq box running Red Hat Linux (and later, same problem with Debian) – and I was far from the only one).
The third-grade libertarians out there replied at the time: “the market will save us” – pointing to the transition to the internet, which would supposedly make operating system monopolies a non-issue. Problem is – Microsoft knew that was a threat and fairly effectively (and obnoxiously) killed it.

Round Rock doesn’t pay Capital Metro taxes. They decided a long time ago that they didn’t want to be part of the system. Great. I wish we Austinites could similarly exempt ourselves from paying taxes which build their roads for them, search but here we are.
So where does Krusee and rail come into this, prothesis then?
CAMPO is about to approve using Federal money to build an “intermodal transit center” in downtown Round Rock, which will include a new bus line which connects to a Capital Metro Park-n-Ride in far North Austin.
Let me repeat again: Citizens of Austin subsidize bus rides on Capital Metro by paying a 1% sales tax. Citizens of Round Rock pay nothing to Capital Metro.
These park and rides (and the express buses which stop there) are fairly attractive today for a small subset of commuters who have to pay money to park at their office (mainly UT employees; a few folks downtown). So some people, even when not in the Cap Metro service area, drive to the park and ride and then hop the bus (paying the same low fare as an Austin resident would). Until recently, the main places this ‘freeloading rider’ problem occurred were Pflugerville (which voted themselves out of the system – Cap Metro responded by moving their park and ride what seemed like 500 feet further down the road towards Austin) and Cedar Park (who can freeload on either Leander or Austin).
Now we’ve just opened one of these at the far north fringe of the service area (near Howard Lane).
I have asked Cap Metro in the past (when I was on the UTC) whether they realized that building more park-and-rides at the far fringes of their service area would lead to this ‘freeloading rider’ problem; and they said, yes, it would, and no, they didn’t intend to do anything about it.
So now, to add insult to injury, we’re using area-wide tax revenue to build a project which will make it easier for Round Rock residents to ride Capital Metro, where they will be heavily subsidized (far more than Austin riders) by Austin taxpayers. This will further drive down Cap Metro’s fairly abyssmal “farebox recovery ratio”. And Cap Metro is enthusiastic about this.
Is Round Rock going to institute a 1% sales tax to pay for Capital Metro service? Hell no. They can’t, even if they wanted to; they’re maxed out. Is Cap Metro going to demand that passengers provide proof of residence inside the service area before getting the heavily discounted fare? Hell no. They won’t, even if they wanted to.
But could Capital Metro build light rail for urban Austin where most of their tax revenue comes from? No, that was ‘too expensive’. If you’re appropriately slavish in your praise, Kaiser Krusee might deign to bless you with some streetcars which are stuck in traffic behind his constituents’ cars. Just don’t point out that by the time we’ve built a bunch of worthless commuter rail lines and a streetcar loop, we might as well have just built the 2000 light rail plan – it would have been no more expensive and far more effective.
Anybody see anything wrong with this picture?
More to come.

For the crackplreaders (need a better name!) who were buggin’ me about the lack of updates, orthopedist note this is the THIRD THIRD THIRD! POST POST POST! OF THE DAY DAY DAY!
Don’t know why, but this guy/band really stuck in my head – I got one of their songs in the giant SXSW 2005 torrent and was impressed enough to go grab the other three free tunes off their site. My in-laws gave me a Waterloo gift certificate for Xmas, so I can buy some music for the first time since, uh, last Xmas, but I don’t think I can this there. Oh well.
Check it out. If your brane is wired anything like mine, you’ll like it.
Also check out that torrent. A ton of songs which various bands thought was their best chance at making it – so 99% of them are very good to excellent.

Finally almost caught up on the albums for 2005:

Most SUV drivers, check sad to say, visit web were perfectly happy to drive them when SUVs appeared to be a zero-sum game, seek i.e., if you drove an SUV, sure you killed more people in cars, but your own passengers were safer at about the same proportion. Because, after all, protecting your own family is the only thing that matters – so it doesn’t matter if it happens by making it much more likely that others will die.
And, of course, most people who bother to study the issue always knew they got special treatment allowing them to enjoy more lenient fuel economy, pollution, tax, and safety regulations (pre-1999).
But recently we’ve found out that they’re also more dangerous for pedestrians and finally, the conventional wisdom among those who study the vehicles that they really aren’t safer for their own occupants than would be a sedan has been borne out in a recent study involving kids. Yes, the same kids you claim you bought the SUV for.
I guess you still have that high riding position to hang your hat on. Oh, and the donating of all that excess money to Middle Eastern regimes we’re all big fans of. Way to go, guys.

From today’s Chronicle, sale in reference to last week’s 37th street lights / student housing complaint:

More Apartments Near UT

Dear Editor, medicine

Mary-Gay Maxwell’s complaints about houses rented out to too many students strike home for a lot of us [“Are Partiers Dimming the 37th Street Lights?, pilule ” News, Dec. 30]. I live in her neighborhood, next to a duplex full of undergrads who are occasionally a problem despite a landlord who’s more responsible than most.

But let’s be clear: Most college kids don’t particularly want to live in a house. It’s more work than an apartment, you don’t get a pool or an entertainment room, you have more worries about parking and roommates, etc.

So why are so many UT students living in rental houses, compared to cities with other large colleges (such as Penn State)? Well, for one, UT doesn’t have many dorms. Not much we can do about that out here in the community. But there’s another contributing factor here: This area doesn’t have anywhere near enough near-campus apartments to satisfy demand. Some students would doubtlessly still live in rental houses, but a large majority would switch back to apartments, as they do at other big universities. It’s ludicrous that there’s so much low-density development (single-story even) along Guadalupe close to campus.

Living off Far West or Riverside (in low-density apartment sprawl) is a poor substitute to being able to walk (or ride your bike) to class – a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle bus isn’t going to win the battle against close-in rental houses. So it’s clear we need more near-campus high-density apartment development – and the recent rezoning of West Campus is a good start, but not nearly enough. The problem today, though, is that we’re still dealing with the effects of the last 20-30 years of ill-advised obstruction tactics by near-campus neighborhoods to any and all apartment development. Villas on Guadalupe, anyone?

Unfortunately, this lack of near-campus high-density apartment housing was, in fact, created by neighbors like Maxwell through their irresponsible opposition to essential projects like the Villas. Too bad that people like me (living a few blocks from those 37th lights) have to suffer the consequences with her.

Mike Dahmus

Letter to Chronicle about FC

Just sent this:

Many well-intentioned people, including most of the staff of the Chronicle, advised Central Austinites to hold their nose and vote "yes" on the All Systems Go commuter rail plan, despite the fact that it goes nowhere near existing and proposed residential density, and nowhere near minor employment centers like the University of Texas or the Capitol Complex (to say nothing of most of downtown). In fact, the pro-rail-transit but anti-stupid-rail position fell all the way down to me, whose sole qualification was serving on the UTC for a few years. I was attacked quite viciously for daring to suggest that perhaps the right response was to vote No, as in "No, this isn't the right rail plan; come back with something like the 2000 plan, scaled back to get us over the top".

Well, now, the other shoe has dropped. The "Future Connections Study", on which those credulous folks based their hopes for adding back rail for central Austin, has released their draft technology review, which has now ruled out any mode requiring a reserved guideway. Meaning: no light rail; no bus rapid transit. You get either a shuttle bus or a streetcar; but either way you're going to be stuck in the same traffic you would be if you just drove.

More on my blog at: (blog link)

The majority of the pro-transit establishment owes Austin an immediate apology for being part of this snowjob.

More Future Connections Stuff Is Up

The “Library” has a bunch of documents up from the most recent set of meetings for the Future Connections study, i.e., the “let’s pretend like we considered rail to get central Austin off our back for screwing them with a commuter rail plan that doesn’t go anywhere near them or minor destinations like UT and the Capitol Complex” exercise.

I’m only partway through and don’t have time for full analysis now, but I will note that it is disappointing (but not surprising) that NONE of the objectives for this service include the simple one:
make it MORE ATTRACTIVE to ride transit than it is today, i.e., close at least some of the gap between the private automobile and public transportation in one or more of the following: (reliability, speed, comfort).

These guys still don’t get it – you can’t just rest your hopes on build it and they’ll come; you also have to make sure that what you build is GOOD. And shuttle buses operating in mixed traffic aren’t “good” unless you’re somebody who can’t afford their own car. Capital Metro already owns all of THAT market.
Update: One thing I notice is that in the Draft Technologies Report, they have already eliminated light rail and any other technology which uses a reserved guideway. I have to admit I’m not surprised at this decision (which I believe was made before this study even started), but AM surprised at the speed at which they’ve come to admit it semi-publically.

Rail, TOD, etc.

Responding to a comment on this old entry:
Jonathan, that’s not accurate.

  1. There ARE more lines in the “long-range plan”, but NONE of them go anywhere near UT or the capitol or Mueller. There’s one that might go down Mopac to Seaholm, here it will have the same exact problem that the starter line does; namely; that it’s too far away from any destinations for people to walk; they’ll have to take shuttle buses. And the starter line will be such a visible example of rail’s supposed “failure” that no follow-on lines will be built for a very very very VERY long time. The whole reason I opposed the ’04 plan was this danger – if you build a crappy enough starter line, it will become, as one of my UTC colleagues put it, a “finisher line”.
  2. TOD can’t work if the line doesn’t have good ridership without the TOD. Otherwise, real estate investors are going to be leery about spending more money for TOD than they would for traditional development.
  3. These projections DO take into account all prospective density in east Austin, which has generally OPPOSED such projects. In fact, the TOD ordinance had to be watered down to nearly zero because of that part of town’s virulent opposition to what they see as gentrification.
  4. The only other area in this country which chose to run a rail line through a low-density area instead of running one from where the people are to where they want to go is: South Florida, whose 20-year experiment with Tri-Rail has plumbed new depths of failure. Shuttle buses are so unattractive to the “choice commuter” that even most of the transit-dependent in South Florida don’t use Tri-Rail; they just stay on the normal bus; and NOBODY rides it who could have chosen to drive.

Compare/contrast to light rail, which is what Dallas, Portland, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City did; and what we almost did in 2000. We could easily have passed a scaled down version of the ’00 plan in ’04, but Mike Krusee kneecapped Capital Metro into this abomination instead.
Relevant entries in my blog which you might want to look at:

Possibly The Stupidest Thing I’ve Ever Heard From Capital Metro, And That’s Saying A Lot

I just heard from an acquaintance with the Austin Streetcars group that, at Tuesday’s meeting for Future Connections, the Capital Metro consultant pointed at the ends of the UT shuttle bus line as examples of “Bus TOD” to presumably answer the complaint that I (and nearly everyone else in the world) state about TOD (transit-oriented development) and buses, namely, that it simply doesn’t happen in this country unless you have frequent rail transit, not just buses. In Europe, where gas is six bucks a gallon and there’s no parking anyways, you can get it with a bus station, but even there, the focus is on rail transit.

Good lord. I don’t even know where to begin with this, but I’ll try anyways. While I expect Capital Metro to continue with bogus claims that they can get TOD from the commuter rail line and maybe even the Rapid Bus line, I didn’t think even they would go so far out into left-field as to claim you can get TOD from regular, crappy, city buses.

  1. I’m pretty sure the apartment complexes predate the shuttle bus lines, at least some of them did, and their density is, if anything, lower than apartment complexes elsewhere (some are only two stories instead of the typical three you get in MF-3 zoning, for instance).
  2. Those apartment complexes have just as much parking in just the same places as similar apartment complexes do along Jollyville, or Metric Blvd. In fact, transit coverage of the Far West area is poor, except if you want to go to UT during classtime. Riverside, at least, has decent transit coverage, but you have to walk a long ways to get to them. In NEITHER place is there EVER any incentive to use transit other than to get to class – it’s going to be FAR easier and FAR quicker to use that car conveniently (and freely) parked in the lot next to your door. The very OPPOSITE of TOD.
  3. There’s no mixed-use development of any kind in the vicinity of either ‘student slum’. If you dodge driveways and walk a long ways one direction to get out of the area where there’s only apartments, you get to an area where there’s only single-family houses. If you walk a long ways the other direction, you get to an area where there’s only strip-malls. NOWHERE do you find a place where there are buildings with offices or apartments on top and retail on the bottom.
  4. Neither area is remotely pedestrian-friendly. You have to walk a long ways to get to those strip malls, and then cross a huge surface parking lot to get to the stores. Again, this is the very OPPOSITE of TOD.

Any more? Man, I’m flabbergasted that they could sink this low. It’s one thing to claim that buses can generate TOD (some people claim that BRT, at least, can do it). It’s quite another to point to two student slums as your example.

Can YOU spot the right corridor for rail?

A photographic exercise by M1EK. All pictures obtained from the 9/24/05 Future Connections steering committee presentation.

This is a bit misleading since it makes it look like Hyde Park and the neighborhoods around Airport Blvd are equally suitable for rail transit – the problem is that you can’t walk to stations along Airport from any residential developments of consequence; the area is fairly pedestrian-hostile.
Note that all of the existing and future high-density residential and employment centers are going to be served by “high-frequency circulators”, i.e., shuttle buses stuck in traffic. While the incredibly important Airport Boulevard corridor gets rail. Here’s one example of a circulator movement they envision; this one is planted right on Speedway near my house. Note: there’s already high-frequency bus service to campus and downtown on this street, so it’s doubtful they’ll be doing anything here other than publicity:

Now, for comparison’s sake, I took the two 2017 maps, and using my awesome drawing skills, drew the 2000 light rail proposal, in blue. The jog from the Guadalupe corridor over to Congress Avenue might have happened as far north as 11th; I chose 9th as a compromise. Some versions even had it running around the Capitol on both sides — but this is a simpler drawing that still hits all the same major spots. A short distance north of this map, the 2000 light rail line would have converged with the red “All Systems Go” line and continued northwest on existing rail right-of-way towards Howard Lane, so this picture captures most of the “difference” between the proposals.

Gosh, which one would have a better chance at delivering ridership? I really can’t tell the difference. I guess Lyndon IS right – this commuter rail plan IS just as good as light rail!

More on Tri-Rail and why shuttle buses matter

The current brou-ha-ha with Lyndon reminded me to go check if anything’s up with Tri-Rail in South Florida. As I’ve previously written, they’re the best example out there of the kind of rail line Capital Metro is going to build here in Austin, in that

  • they don’t run trains very often
  • most destinations require a shuttle bus ride
  • they chose to run on a cheap existing track rather than building lines closer to those destinations (like light rail systems usually do)

Well, in the process I found an updated version of an old article I think I already used, but I hadn’t noticed one important paragraph before. The context is that they’re finally talking seriously about moving to the FEC corridor – which is where the service should have been built all along, since it allows passengers to walk to a non-trivial number of office and retail destinations. We’re even worse off here, though, since building this commuter rail line basically prevents us from building anything like the 2000 starter line. Here’s the quote:

Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the “inherent fear of feeder bus reliability.” The buses “are often late,” she explained.

Since Tri-Rail trains only run about every half-hour during the commute peak and less often the rest of the day (like Austin’s commuter rail trains will), missing your train on the way home from work is a big deal. The “feeder” buses they’re talking about are the same kind of shuttle buses we’re going to be stuck with here in Austin, if you work downtown, at the Capitol, or at UT. And guess what? They’re going to be unreliable too – they’ll be stuck in the same traffic as your car.

Even if streetcars are used for the “high-frequency circulators” which will take you from your office to the train station, the same problem exists – since streetcars won’t have their own lane and won’t be given green lights over cross traffic. The chance that light rail will come out of the Future Connections Study is zero, since commuter rail precludes it from being built in the 2000 alignment, which is the only one good enough to merit Federal funding.

So just like in South Florida, people will experience a couple of missed trains and then, if they have any other options, will stop riding. Nobody wants to sit around for even a half-hour waiting for the next train home. And if all you’re doing is catering to riders who don’t have a choice, you might as well just dump the money into more buses.