Rapid Bust: The R Still Stands For Un”R”eliable

Metablog: I’m now posting entries on the temporary location for this blog, maintained by a friendly cow orker, until I get my hosting situation resolved.

After dropping off my wife’s old car at the Jiffy Lube, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. I had planned on picking up the 983 (express) bus if I made it in time for the 7:48, since this is a much more comfortable ride than the other option (the #3 herky-jerky).
This 983 bus has some of the characteristics of the proposed Rapid Bus solution which is all that the urban core of Austin is ever going to get out of the All Systems Go plan (longer article on last weeks’ happenings coming possibly later today or tomorrow).

So I got there at 7:42 and noticed that the usual suspects (2 other bikers who ride this bus every day , far up the 183 corridor, as far as I can tell) were still there. Good sign. A #3 showed up right about then (the 7:36 running late). l passed.

7:55 rolled around and the next #3 showed up. l passed again (if the first #3 was running late, maybe the #983 was stuck too).

8:15 rolled around. No next #3. 8:30 rolled around. No #3 or #983. The first cyclist waiting for the 983 gave up and pedalled away, to where I have no idea (both of these guys stay on the bus long after I disembark, so the #3 isn’t an option for them).

Finally at about 8:40, I got on the 8:36 #3 and herky-jerkied my way (late) up to work. The 983 never showed. The other biker had called somebody on the phone but was still stuck there.

Need I say: This Doesn’t Happen (Well, Hardly Ever) With Rail?

Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

A lot of the effort to mollify center-city people like me who are disappointed that Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan does nothing for the densest residential neighborhoods of the city and doesn’t deliver passengers to the two largest potential attractors (UT and state capitol) has gone into two messages:

The first message is “commuter rail is just like light rail” – relatively few people have bought this, outside the suburbs, since they know that rail going down Airport Blvd. isn’t going to do anything for any corridors where there’s any real density today or where density in the future is even remotely attractive. This has morphed into “once we double-track and build more stations, you center-city folks can just catch a quick bus to or from the commuter rail station” which I have a hard time believing is fooling anybody, but you never know. I’ve talked a bit about this and plan on doing more in a later article, but not today.

Capital Metro’s words are:

Commuter Rail
Urban Service
Operating on existing freight tracks, this line from Leander to Downtown could provide convenient service for both suburban and central city passengers.

The second message, and the one I’ll talk about today, is the idea that we can get light rail in the urban core “later” if we approve this plan now. The genius of this message is that it does a fairly good job of lumping opponents like me in with kooky pie-in-the-sky non-pragmatists who are unwilling to get something running on the ground because of the pursuit of the perfect solution.

The problem is that this message is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. The reason to oppose this plan is because it’s deadly to future transit operations in this city. IE, not just because it doesn’t do enough right away, but because it will actively prevent more effective solutions from ever happening.

Two of the strongest constituencies for ridership in the original (2000) rail plan (which was destroyed primarily through legislative manuevering by Mike Krusee) were state workers and university people. With the 2000 plan, the state workers who live anywhere in the northwest corner of the metro area could have driven to a station, boarded the rail, and rode it straight to the Capitol. Roughly the first 2/3 of the length of this trip would have been on what is now the commuter rail line; i.e., completely separate right-of-way. The remaining third would have followed the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor with prioritization far exceeding that which the new Rapid Bus will get.

The university was going to be a huge attractor for ridership in two ways. Like state workers, university workers (or students) could board anywhere along the route and get delivered directly to the destination (at least, on Guadalupe St., which is close enough to walk to anywhere at UT). A second group of riders would be travelling to the UT satellite campus on Burnet Rd. north of US 183. The mere fact that a rail link would exist between the two campuses (again, walking distance on both ends) was going to provide a powerful core of riders on day one.

The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

So what about a future light rail line, as Capital Metro winks and nods might someday fill this gap? There are at least three obvious reasons why this won’t happen (at least, in a way which solves these constituencies’ travel problems).

  1. A new light rail line down Guadalupe/Lamar, if commuter rail is built, cannot follow the original 2000 path northwest on the current rail right-of-way. The two vehicles have completely incompatible trackage, even if scheduling issues could be resolved. In fact, I have a hard time believing it’s feasible to even have a light rail line on this corridor cross the commuter rail line, making even transfers an incredibly difficult proposition. Thus, the areas where we were counting on the most long-distance residential travel cannot be served even if we get a new light rail line down the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.
  2. The operation of the commuter rail line, in my opinion, will swamp Capital Metro with enough additional operating costs that they will be unable to resume saving even 1/4 cent of their sales tax money (as they could today). See previous articles by me for why I think this system is not going to attract significant ridership compared to the light rail model – in short, no area like us in the last ten years has started with commuter rail for a very good reason: they saw what happened in South Florida.
  3. The investment in the so-called rapid bus vehicles is going to be difficult to abandon, both financially and politically. There aren’t many corridors in Austin where these vehicles could be shifted (physical constraints). The pressure to keep this crappy part of the system running is going to be very very hard to beat.

So, I think anybody who’s tempted to vote for this plan with the ‘understanding’ that we can come back later and solve the needs of actual Austin residents rather than pandering to Cedar Park ought to think twice.

The Reason To Fight Globalization

(the bravest man I’ve seen in my lifetime, presumed dead).

We shouldn’t have opened our trade relationship with these bastards, and they arguably aren’t any better now than they were then, putting the lie to the theory that trade inevitably leads to freedom. Much of the Chinese goods sold at places like Wal-Mart is produced by prison labor, not middle-class factory workers.

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.

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.

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.

Proof of Yesterday’s Entry

Yesterday, I gave a hypothetical example which showed why suburbanites might only see empty buses, and incorrectly assume that all buses are always empty.
It took exactly one day to prove the hypothetical.

This morning, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway intending to take the express bus into work as usual. However, I got there a bit early due to green lights, and the #3 bus showed up right as I pulled in. I thought I’d give it a whirl, since it ends up arriving up here at about the same time as the express bus, and has the added advantage of dropping off at Braker rather than Balcones Woods, which allowed me to more easily deposit some rent checks at the ATM.

There were 24 people on the bus, including me, when we pulled away from the bus stop. Note that this stop is about a quarter of the northbound length away from downtown, i.e., if you rode from the central point of the route to its far northern end, this stop is about 1/4 of the way up.

We puttered up Medical Parkway and Burnet, stopping at about 60% of the stops, usually to let people off; occasionally to pick people up. By the time we got to US 183 and Burnet, there were about 10 people still on the bus.

At Braker and Mopac, there were 4 people left, includng me.

At my stop on Braker between 183 and Jollyville, one other guy left the bus with me. That left 2 people to go to the end of the northbound route at the Arboretum (actually a loop end-point; it’s technically south of where I got off, but still before the layover point).
So if you had seen the bus between downtown and Burnet at 183, you would have thought: “that’s a pretty full bus” (nearly every seat was taken). If you had seen the bus at the Randall’s on Braker, on the other hand, you would have said “that bus is empty”.

And if you were as stupid as most suburbanites, that would be ammunition for you to run around and claim that Capital Metro wastes your money because all they do is run empty buses.

PS: The ride stunk. Bumpy and jerky. Hard to read. Not worth the 50 cent savings. I’ll wait for the express bus next time.