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?

Can Streetcars Save All Systems Go?

Today’s Statesman finally has an article on one of the improvements being floated to the All Systems Go plan which attempts to address the vast gap between the commuter rail line’s terminus east of the Convention Center and the actual destinations of center-city workers (Congress Ave, State Capitol, University of Texas).

So would this plan, assuming they could get Capital Metro to go for it, work? I generally evaluate transit competitiveness on three simple metrics: comfort, reliability, and speed.

Comfort: Streetcars win out over shuttle buses big-time. However, they’re still not as good as staying in the same seat the whole trip (as 2000’s light rail route would have allowed, and as commuter rail extended to Congress Avenue could theoretically do). Transfers are uncomfortable – there’s no way around this; even transferring from one great ride to another great ride is a pain.
But again, compared to shuttle buses, streetcars win.

Reliability: No difference. Some people think there’s some magic in those rails, but unlike light rail, these railcars would be sharing a lane with cars. Stuck in traffic, just like the shuttle buses would be. Both the streetcar and the shuttle-bus lose out here to light rail (or a more sensibly routed commuter rail). What that means is that one day, your trip from the commuter rail station to your office might take 5 minutes, and the next day it might take 25 minutes. A transit alternative that is more reliable than the car (easy to do if it has its own right-of-way) is fairly attractive even if it has a small deficit in speed.

Speed: Worse (with proposed routing). If they were running in a street with higher average speeds, the streetcar might actually have an acceleration advantage, but the Dillo doesn’t have much trouble keeping up with cars now on downtown streets. The problem, of course, is that both the Dillo and this streetcar will be stopping very very very frequently. Both light rail and more sensibly routed commuter rail would win here. For transit to be competitive on speed does not mean that it must be faster than your car, especially downtown, but the overall trip must not be much slower than your car. This route fails that metric, especially if you’re going to UT or the Capitol.

So it looks pretty bleak, right? Well, actually, I like streetcars. Cities which have already developed a high-capacity high-performance transit “spine” (like Dallas and Portland) can get additional distribution benefits from a streetcar. (The key, though, is that the high-performance transit spine must be an attractive choice in and of itself, which the commuter rail line Cap Metro is pushing is definitely not). And the streetcar as a downtown distributor (ignoring the linkage to commuter rail) is more attractive than the Dillo, because the psychological effect of seeing rails in the street is more likely to make dense residential and commercial development attractive. As a matter of fact, one could argue that Cap Metro should build a streetcar like this on a couple of streets where there’s little possibility of light or commuter rail first and then go for light rail.

So in conclusion: Streetcars are neat. They’re good for Austin. But they can’t really make the All Systems Go plan any more competitive. Sorry, folks.
(modified May 2006 to account for streetcar route as indicated in Future Connections Study).

Jeff Ward, Fred (Gilliam?) and Commuter Rail

Yesterday’s Jeff Ward show which I caught about an hour of was a predictable frenzy of transit-bashing, with a cameo by Fred, a Capital Metro board member who I assume is Fred Gilliam.

Some easy softballs to whack which were pitched by both sides on that show:

  1. (from a caller) “The 986 express bus already takes about 50 minutes to get downtown, so why would we need a rail line?”. Answer: First of all, it takes a lot longer than 50 to get from Leander to downtown even in non-rush-times. The route the caller mentioned only runs at 6, 6:20, and 6:30 AM, by the way. According to the 986 schedule, in those severely off-peak times it takes 62 minutes to reach downtown.
    A more representative line, the 987, which doesn’t hit the inner park-and-rides either, takes 75 minutes to reach downtown (Guadalupe and 8th). The 983, which is the only route which has a departure time from Leander after 7:20ish, takes 85 minutes to reach downtown.

  2. (from Fred): (paraphrased): “Well, Jeff, you’re a genius for noting that people won’t walk 5 miles from the drop-off at the Convention Center to get to their job at the Capitol or UT, so we’ve designed this great distributor service which will run at very high frequencies and take you straight there”. This “high-frequency distributor” exists today; it’s called The Dillo, and it’s dog-slow.

From experience with other areas which have tried the approach of building a rail line where it happens to be convenient to lay tracks (or use existing tracks) and then distributing via shuttle buses, most people won’t be willing to take this transfer. In Tuesday’s posting I noted that the city is as skeptical as I am of Capital Metro’s idea that this won’t drastically hurt ridership.

For comparison, the 2000 light rail plan would have taken passengers from the same park-and-rides up in Leander and NW Austin, but it would have dropped UT passengers off at Guadalupe (without a transfer). It would have dropped state passengers off within a block of the Capitol (without a transfer). And it would have dropped downtown office workers off within a block of Congress Avenue (without a transfer).

This plan is nothing more than Capital Metro’s attempt to build what they think Mike Krusee will let them get away with. It serves only far suburban passengers, and it serves them poorly.
3. (from Jeff and others): (paraphrased): “people won’t leave their cars behind for transit, or they’d be doing it now”. Baloney. Cities which develop rail systems which are competitive (not even faster, just close) on time with the automobile and are reliable (same time every day) always siphon away a lot of car drivers. This has been the experience in Portland, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, etc. Rail does things that buses can’t, namely, get out of traffic, and provide a comfortable ride. None of those cities were experiencing any success with getting people out of their cars with their bus systems (which were more extensive than ours), but all of them are now (with rail) delivering people to their jobs via transit who actually had the choice of driving and chose not to.

The problem is that this rail plan won’t do it. Capital Metro, again, is building what Mike Krusee will let them build rather than building what needs to be built.

City confirms: No connection to Seaholm with initial commuter rail line

Another wishful thinking balloon has been punctured, this time by the CIty of Austin in a semi-public transit update. Focus on pages 4 and 5:

  1. The initial line from Capital Metro will not make it to Seaholm. No way. It won’t even make it to Congress. And the eventual line going to Seaholm has some serious problems navigating the transition from 4th to 3rd streets which are going to be expensive to solve.
  2. The city agrees with me that requiring a transfer to distribute passengers to destinations other than the Convention Center (where the proposed line terminates and where nobody actually works) is going to be the kiss of death for ridership.


It’s time for center-city people to wake up and smell the coffee. This commuter rail line does not serve the needs of downtown workers, state workers, or university workers. And modifying it so that it serves the needs of downtown workers is going to be expensive enough that it will absolutely NOT happen on the initial line. When you combine that with the fact that it doesn’t go near any of the densest residential neighborhoods, it’s clear that this plan is a huge loser. Running empty trains from Cedar Park to satisfy Mike Krusee might make it easier for Capital Metro to fend off attacks from the state legislature, but it’s not going to do anything for downtown Austin.

And for those who say “build it now and improve it later” – you’re being incredibly foolish. Areas which followed this plan (San Jose, South Florida) by developing “easy” starter systems that were unattractive ended up with a much tougher row to hoe with expansions than did areas which made sure their starter lines were going to be a success (Dallas, Portland, Denver, etc.). You run the risk of the “build half a bridge” syndrome – building a bridge halfway across a river is often half as cheap as building the whole bridge – but it doesn’t provide half the utility, does it?

Additionally, this system, as I discussed earlier, eliminates the possibility of rail lines which could service the UT and Capitol areas which are the two largest pockets of possible transit riders in the city.

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.

Libertarians and Public Highways

Yesterday, local pseudo-libertarian Jeff Ward was speaking out on his show against the recently passed toll road plan. I’m not going to talk about whether the plan is good or bad (In my role on the Mostly Ignored Transportation Advisory Commission, I voted for it as a lesser of two evils myself with some amendments to handle some things I didn’t like), but about something which is increasingly common these days – that being Libertarians Who Love Them Some Good Old Fashioned Government Pork As Long As It’s In The Form Of Suburban Highways. (LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSH for short).
And just a minute ago, two winger-leaning cow orkers came over to get an education on toll roads. They also fall into this category.

So, one would assume that libertarians would be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, gas taxes (and worse, property taxes) are a very blunt instrument. People pay who don’t even use the facilities that get the money (for instance, people who drive on major arterials in the city of Austin are usually not on roads that get any state gas tax money, which by state law can only go to state highways). The money isn’t even remotely related to the facility you’re on (drive on I-35 and you’re funding construction of Mopac North). And with our own dysfunctional funding scheme here in Austin, you pay (via property and sales taxes) for not only major arterials such as Lamar Blvd, but also for right-of-way for state highway expansions even if you don’t own a car.

So when I turned on the radio, I would logically have expected Jeff Ward, he of the “show me the business plan for transit” theory, to be strongly in favor of toll roads. After all, the funding is more directly related to the use (you use, you pay; you don’t use, you don’t pay). Ths is Libertarian 101.

You can guess, however, from where this is going that he doesn’t believe that way.

No, Jeff, like most self-identified libertarians I’ve met, loves our Socialist Highway System. Because, you see, he uses it every day, so it must be an example of Good Big Government. And he never gets to talk to any of the people who use Capital Metro every day, so that’s obviously Bad Big Government.

Those LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers love to complain that transit is bad because it gets most of its money out of a tax that most of us pay which is not related to our use (zero, some, or lots) of the system. They like to point out how little of the cost of one trip on the system is paid for at the time of boarding by the rider. Well, guess what, LWLTSGOFGPALAIITFOSHers? The same damn thing is true for road funding, at a much larger scale. I pay property taxes and sales taxes to Austin, which uses them to build and maintain most of its major arterials with no contribution from the gas tax. I get no rebate on the days I don’t drive. When I do drive, I drive most of my trips on those roads that Austin pays for; so my gas taxes go mainly out to the ‘burbs, where a much higher percentage of their major infrastructure receives gas-tax funding.

You know, I don’t like these roads being built either way. But I know damn well that having them built and having the people who chose to live out in the hinterlands pay some of the costs of their destructive choices is far superior than having them built and having us all pay out of generic gas taxes and property taxes and sales taxes. At least this way, when Joe Suburbia goes looking for houses, he’ll have to think of the cost of his choice.
I guess that makes me a better libertarian than Jeff Ward.

And please don’t talk to me about any of the following winger talking points on either side:

  1. We paid for them already. (No, you didn’t. Mostly, people in the urban core paid the bills for you).
  2. Double-taxation is wrong. (I don’t care. From an efficiency perspective – i.e. moving the most people for the least cost, you absolutely must use some form of congestion pricing, even if it’s the blunt instrument of tolls which don’t change by the time of day).
  3. You’re paving the Springs (Yes, but the other alternative was building these same roads as free roads, which would have been even worse as an incentive for sprawl over the aquifer).

Addendum

This morning I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway (near Lamar). I boarded the 983 express bus, and paid a “toll” of $1.00 (actually 50c since I bought discount tickets a while back). I was “double-taxed” since I also pay for Capital Metro with my sales tax dollars. Oh, the humanity.

Cap Metro Almost Lies

This presentation incorporates some responses to people (including myself) who have yet to swallow the “building commuter rail for people who don’t pay into Capital Metro while giving the center city a rapid bus line” plan.

The most egregious is on this page, where Cap Metro makes this claim:

“Could serve central city passengers, as well as suburban passengers in our northwest service area”

WRONG. No “central city passengers” will live anywhere near a station proposed for the initial route of this line, by the accepted definition of “central city”. Airport Blvd. is not “central city”. Hyde Park is “central city”. Rosedale and North University and West Campus are “central city”. Only somebody living out in Round Rock would look at the 1960s era neighborhoods of Crestview that the line slices through and consider it “central city”.

This line does not go anywhere near the densest residential parts of Austin, unlike the 2000 light rail route. Nobody living along Lamar or Guadalupe is going to hop a bus to go north to the commuter rail station (if one is built anywhere between Mopac and I-35) only to ride the commuter rail back downtown only to hop a shuttle bus to their ultimate destination.

And then, they make this claim:

“Over time, more stations and service in urban areas”

MISLEADING. This rail line isn’t going anywhere it doesn’t currently go. Yes, Capital Metro could knock down a bunch of businesses and homes to build more stations in the ‘central city’ by their generous definition, but even then, not enough residential density exists near those stations to make them feasible.

Commuter Rail #48: It’s Not Light Rail, No Matter What You Say

I had a good lunch with Dave Dobbs about two weeks ago. Dave’s a stand-up guy who is really working hard to get more mass transit on the ground in Texas cities, including Austin. So, any disagreements exposed in this article are honest ones; both Dave and I want more mass transit, not less. In fact, we both want more rail transit, too.

One of the things being floated in the face of center-city opposition to Cap Metro’s new long-range plan is the idea that commuter rail is practically the same thing as light rail, except cheaper, so why would any of you light-rail guys oppose it anyways. Dave, in particular, was exasperated by my insistence in calling this plan “commuter rail” and comparing it to other commuter rail lines, such as Tri-Rail’s disaster in South Florida. Let’s analyze the things that were good about light rail, and see if that holds up:

The primary positive aspects of the 2000 light rail proposal, in my opinion, are (were):

  • Very short headways (initially only moderately short; but double-tracking the entire length of the corridor meant it would be easy to go to very short headways).
  • Opportunity for dense transit-oriented redevelopment in the Robinson Ranch, the Burnet/Metric corridor, and the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
  • Electrified runningway (means that the vehicle can accelerate and stop fairly well, runs fairly quietly, and does not pollute at source).

In addition, the light rail route would have alloed for pickup and delivery of passengers via pedestrian arrivals (i.e. less than a ten-minute easy walk to or from the station) at all of the following major attractors (north-south):

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Central Market / Central Park (38th/Lamar)
  • 38th St medical complex
  • University of Texas main campus
  • State Capitol complex
  • Congress Avenue
  • City Hall / CSC
  • South Congress

Evaluating the commuter rail proposal on the same metrics, we have:

  • Very long headways initially (every 30 minutes). Most bus routes in the city operate this frequently or more frequently, and yet one of the most common complaints from passengers is that they have to wait too long for a bus. This is unlikely to improve without double-tracking the whole corridor, and even then, I doubt whether headways could be improved beyond 15 minutes due to the performance characteristics of commuter rail vehicles.
  • Dave thinks the same opportunities for redevelopment exist (of course, in different corridors in some cases). l disagree – in no city in the USA has commuter rail ever resulted in the type of transit-oriented redevelopment you see with light rail, and it’s not a simple terminology difference. I’ll address this component in a later article. Even if Dave is right, the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor (and hence the near-UT areas which would be most obviously ripe for transit-oriented development due to their demographics) are not served by this plan.
  • These vehicles are going to be diesel locomotive-driven. At best, they might be similar to the RegioSprinter which was run around town a few years ago for a demonstration. These vehicles are likely to be far noisier, more polluting, and have worse acceleration and deceleration characteristics than would a typical light-rail vehicle.

And for pickup/delivery, we have:

  • Park and Rides in far northwest Austin and suburban areas
  • Robinson Ranch
  • Metric Blvd / Burnet Rd tech employers (including IBM)
  • University of Texas Pickle Research Campus
  • Huntsman site (near Airport/Lamar)
  • Convention Center

Some might argue that Cap Metro’s map shows this line going to Seaholm, and that a station at 4th and Congress is likely. I disagree:

  • Adding commuter rail trackway in the street is much more difficult than it would have been to built a LRT runningway. It will also interfere with plans for the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. Expecting this rail to be built anytime soon is a fool’s hope. And if reasonable headways (less than 30 minutes) are to be delivered, this will require double-tracking the entire downtown stretch. Keep in mind that this rail will be wider than the light rail trackway would have been.
  • Even when built, the idea that downtown can hang its hopes on a station that will definitely be at 4th and Congress is foolish. That’s too close to the station at Seaholm to be feasible (ironically, this is true even though the station at Seaholm is too far away to make pedestrian access to Congress feasible for most – IE, it’s too close for the vehicle but too far away for people).

Unfortunately, instead of opposing the plan on its (lack of) merits, most of the center-city people are wasting their time pushing for a quicker path to Seaholm (again, on the questionable principle that they can get a station on Congress by doing so). They then make this extraordinary claim:

“A rail line through the middle of downtown would allow a high
frequency circulator to quickly and efficiently carry commuters north,
to the Capitol complex and the University of Texas, and south, to the
South Congress District.”

We have that high-frequency circulator already. It’s called the Dillo, and nobody who has free or cheap parking ever uses it, because it’s dog-slow, because it’s stuck in the same traffic as your car would be.