Lessons from the Shoal Creek debacle

Michael Bluejay, who runs the largest and most comprehensive site on bicycling in Austin, wrote a letter which appears in this week’s Chronicle. The letter refers to the infamous Shoal Creek debacle.

Lessons can be learned here.

Lesson 1: Don’t bet against Mike Dahmus. He’ll lose, but he’ll be right. :+) This comment comes from an anonymous contributor whose missive is stored for posterity on Michael’s site on the Shoal Creek debacle:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I’m still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck.
Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process — however slight — was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his “solution” would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don’t feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others — except Dahmus — were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it’s clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an “expert,” and clearly he is not.

Lesson 2: Don’t negotiate away your core positions. On Shoal Creek, car-free bike lanes should have been non-negotiable. (They were, for me).

Lesson 3: Don’t dig yourself in a hole. The Shoal Creek neighbors successfully (against my vote) got Shoal Creek downgraded to a residential collector (from a minor arterial) which then made it easier for them to make misleading claims like “this is a residential street so we have to have on-street parking on both sides of the street”. (“residential collector” is not the same thing as “residential street” in technical terms – the former is expected to maintain traffic flow and access over parking). Shoal Creek is, by objective measures, a minor arterial (it’s almost 5 miles from 38th st to Foster, the length which was downgraded; and has no intersections where cross-traffic does not stop or have a light). So in an effort to be nice, the UTC supported the downgrade, which made it easier later on to mislead some people into thinking that restricting parking on the road was an unreasonable imposition.

Applications to the current commuter rail situation:

1. Obvious. :+)

2. Non-negotiable positions should be that at least one and preferrably two major employment attractors should be reached within walking distance without a transfer. IE, no change to shuttle-bus; no change to streetcars. Center-city folks should have fought Capital Metro when it came to running rail down corridors where people wanted it in ’00 rather than where Mike Krusee wants it in ’04. This is the most critical error in my estimation – people who really want rail to succeed in Austin got snookered into thinking that they could negotiate it with Capital Metro when Capital Metro already had its own non-negotiable position (i.e. do what Mike Krusee wants). The result was: no rail to Mueller; no rail to Seaholm; transfers to all major attractors; no service in the center-city residential areas.

3. Mike Krusee won here, big-time. Capital Metro’s allies should have fought the early election he forced in 2000 (making CM go to the polls with a rail plan they weren’t really ready to discuss – they hadn’t even figured out what streets it would run on downtown yet; they were clearly shooting for a timeframe of May 2001 or so until Krusee wrote the infamous bill).

Now, for the big finish:

What damage was done?

This isn’t a silly question. There are those who think that the Shoal Creek debacle didn’t do any harm, since we started out wth parked cars in bike lanes and are ending up with parked cars in marked shoulders.

Damage in the Shoal Creek case: Precedent was set that car-free bike lanes can be vetoed by neighborhoods. The previous bike coordinator had already made it city policy not to build new (or support existing) bike lanes on residential streets; and it was commonly understood BEFORE this debacle that any city changes to collectors and arterials would, while soliciting neighborhood INPUT, NOT be subject to an implicit VETO. IE, collectors and especially arterials serve the needs of far more than the immediate residents.

Now, not so much. Notice that Michael correctly points out that the media now thinks the SCB process was a model of new consensus-based charette-including everybody-holding-hands everybody-won neighborhoods-centric bike-friendly delicious-candy-flavored planning that resulted in sunshine and butterflies for all.

In addition, at the city level, because so many smart people in the bicycle community were part of this process (snookered by it, you might say), the city thinks that the end-result was what the cyclists and the neighbors wanted. Basically, the cycling community (except yours truly) is now implicitly linked to this plan, in the minds of the people who matter.

In short: their names are on this piece of garbage.

As for commuter rail – the same lesson holds. The groups who lobbied so hard to work WITH Capital Metro before the final ballot proposal was set were fighting very hard for some minor improvements to the ASG plan, but made it clear from the beginning that they’d support it anyways. Now, these center-city groups are linked to this plan irrevocably – if I’m right, and it doesn’t attract riders, then they’ll have been on the record as supporting a plan which will have been found to be a stupid failure. Do you think that’ll affect their future credibility?

Don’t sign on to something you can’t support. The end.

Response to naive person

A well-meaning but critically naive person wrote in response to a post on one of the many local discussion groups that the attacks on Capital Metro were not fair. I’ve posted my response there and here:

In ANCtalk@yahoogroups.com, (Cap Metro defender) wrote:
I think it’s great that there is so much discussion going on around
the commuter rail proposal. but the information included in Tom’s
message is not accurate […]

In fact, most of Tom’s information was fairly accurate.

Ridership it will serve: estimated 17,000 by 2025 based on the
federally required and created ridership model that does not account
for reverse commute,

This will only happen if the system is drastically expanded, which it
cannot be without an additional election. Our leadership have declared
“let’s ride and then decide” – so if the initial line doesn’t do well,
there will be no expansions, because the voters have been instructed
to watch the performance of the first route (with only rush-hour
one-way trips ending in shuttle-bus distributors).

Length of time for the trip: 55 minutes (it takes over an hour in
the car during peak time according to a friend that makes the samem
commute daily during peak commute time)

This does not include the shuttle-bus transfer, which will be highly
unreliable (some days it might be fast; others quite slow). It also
does not include drive-time to the park-and-ride and waiting time at
the station.

Will people ride it if it takes this long? the ridership model takes
into consideration length of trip, as well as many other factors

Capital Metro has not modeled ridership on this route in the way that
most people would consider appropriate – that being a direct
comparison to an individual’s car trip.

Number of riders to break even: fact of life – all transportation
modes are subsidized, including roads, buses and rail
Will fares cover the operating costs? see above

One needs to ask this question, and not accept the answer glibly given
above. Note: I’m a strong supporter of light rail (i.e. a starter
system which delivers passengers where they actually want to go
instead of to a shuttle-bus), so the typical response won’t work
against me.
The subsidy per rider on Tri-Rail’s South Florida commuter line and
Seattle’s commuter railroad is huge compared to that on recent
successful light rail systems. Guess which one this ASG plan is more like?

Also, there are 9 stations, 8 of which are IN THE CITY OF AUSTIN.

This is true but extremely misleading. There are no stations in the
urban core of Austin; and most of the stations within the city limits
will function as drop-off only (i.e. there aren’t a lot of people
within walking distance of the station, and they won’t have big
parking lots for drive-in commuters).
Realistically, the major stations where people will get on in the
morning are at the big northwestern park-and-rides. Since this ride
doesn’t go near any dense residential areas such as West Campus or
Hyde Park, virtually nobody will be walking to the station – and
nobody who can choose to drive will accept taking a bus to the rail
station just to ride the rail a couple of miles back around to
downtown only to get on ANOTHER bus to get to where they’re going.
And remember that reverse commutes aren’t going to be an option
without further expansion of the system (i.e. the initial line only
runs inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening).
This line is nearly useless for Austin, especially for the urban core.

And yes, I hope that people from Cedar Park and Williamson county
ride it in droves, less people on 183 and MoPac (no matter who they
are) is good in my book.

This is a good thing if those people are willing to get back into
Capital Metro and pay the sales tax. If they’re not, I don’t think
it’s appropriate to subsidize their transit at the expense of the city
of Austin, which has always been a strong supporter of transit both
economically and at the ballot-box.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Neighborhood Plans: Threat or Menace?

I just sent the following to the City Council. Not much time to blog lately; but this is some relevant content at least.


Mayor and councilmembers:
My name is Mike Dahmus and I currently serve on the Urban Transportation Commission. I was also the chairman of the transportation committee for the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan.

The story in Sunday's statesman about Envision Central Texas finally compelled me to write about a subject which has been bothering me for quite a while: neighborhood planning. When we worked on the OWANA plan, ed pilule we were operating under the assumption that we were supposed to be telling the city _where_ we wanted additional density to _go_, NOT _whether_ we wanted it at all. The Statesman and ECT have noticed what I've also seen: that other neighborhoods have not been held to this responsible position.
My current residence is in the North University neighborhood. I've witnessed weeks of self-congratulatory hype over the fact that building height limits will be loosened in West Campus, and that in return, no additional density (in fact, less than currently exists) will be required in NUNA.

However, when I explain to other people that West Campus building heights will be allowed to go as high as 175 feet or so under the new amazing plan, the typical response is not, "wow, they're being very responsible"; rather, it is, "I can't believe they weren't allowed to do that already".

In other words, the best that the current batch of neighborhood plans are able to come up with is restoring West Campus to what it always should have been while allowing nearby roads like Duval and Speedway to maintain a purely single-family pattern, which is ludicrously restrictive.

I've not become involved in this neighborhood plan because I only moved to the area a year ago, and then my wife had a baby; so my time is limited. In my limited interactions with the planning team, it is clear to me that my input would not have been welcome anyways; for this team (and most recent neighborhoods) have clearly been using the planning process as a club to drive out redevelopment (as you have noticed them doing with inappropriate uses of historic zoning).

I urge you to view this plan with a skeptical eye; and please hold this and future neighborhoods more accountable in the future. We will not get where we need to go if we codify restrictive single-family-only-zoning even on major transit routes like Duval and Speedway.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus

Shoal Creek Debacle, Part XXXVII

Well, I rode down Shoal Creek yesterday (I’ve taken to alternating between two routes home – one east on Morrow to Woodrow and then south to North Loop; the other south on Shoal Creek and east on Hancock, then down Burnet and Medical Parkway). This one trip brought up several recent and not-so-recent points:

  1. Debris – Shoal Creek is now effectively a wide curb lane facility from Foster (just south of Anderson) to 45th. The debris is horrible – worse than I remember it. To be fair, the bike lane stretch between Steck and Anderson has one large gravel patch in it as well. This reinforces my thinking that the absence of the stripe does not in fact encourage cars to act as street-sweepers, or at least, that they don’t do a very good job of it.
  2. Parking – at the time we went over the Shoal Creek debacle, some claimed that the criminally negligent design sponsored by the neighborhood would not be a problem since it would rarely happen that you would be passing a parked car at the same time a car was driving past you. This happened six times during my short trip on Shoal Creek yesterday.
  3. Neighbors – during one of those six times, I took the lane as I always do, and a car turned left onto Shoal Creek behind me, and proceeded to lay on the horn. I told her via a charming pantomime that she was number 1 in my book. So it goes; even when you ride legally, sometimes some motorists don’t get it. (This is a bone thrown to my colleagues who disobey every traffic law they find inconvenient on the theory that all motorists hate them anyways).

Years later, Shoal Creek has no stripes and no calming. Read up on this page for more background on why the neighbors won, and why we never should have negotiated away the flow of traffic on a top-5 bicycle route in the city (and in my opinion, why we never should have supported their downgrade of this road from arterial to collector in the CAMPO plan).

Envision Circle C in Downtown Austin

Well, the neighborhood associations of the center city are at it again; this time trying to rally the troops against the clear consensus expressed in the Envision Central Texas surveys.

The Austin Neighborhoods Council, umbrella wing for most of the worst of the lot (the kind of people who opposed the Villas on Guadalupe by claiming that rush-hour traffic would get horrible because of all of the students driving their SUVs to UT) is now fighting the Envision Central Texas project because people voted in huge numbers to direct new development to “infill”, i.e., build stuff closer in to the city so we don’t destroy quite as much of the environment around Austin that we (a) depend on and (b) enjoy. This consensus was overwhelming.

And yet, it still doesn’t penetrate these peoples’ heads that perhaps they’d get more support from the public at large if the sum total of the last ten neighborhood plans wasn’t “please don’t build anything new in or around our neighborhood, and please get rid of a bunch of existing multi-family development here, and please spend ten million dollars on these improvements when you’re done with all of that”. Their tack, instead, apparently, is going to be More Of The Same: Obstructionism in the name of “preserving neighborhoods”, as if we’re too unintelligent to notice that “neighborhoods” in real cities consist of more than single-family homes.

Here’s the note they sent:

Continue reading “Envision Circle C in Downtown Austin”

Bad Neighborhood Plans, Part Three

Well, the neighborhood that destroyed light rail’s chances in 2000 (“yes, we moved next to an active railroad; but NO, we don’t think we should live with light-rail for the benefit of the city”) has finished their neighborhood plan.

Big surprise: Calls for a drop in multifamily development.

Once again, the point of this exercise was supposed to be for neighborhoods to tell the city where they want additional density, NOT to tell the city that they want less density.

This is a city. Grow up, people!

Irresponsible Neighborhoods, Part Two

I was watching Channel Six for a bit while waiting for my wife to get ready to go out to a childbirth class, and I saw a zoning case being debated in front of council which has come up in a couple of the Yahoo groups I read. This particular case involves a SF-3 lot with two houses on it, each one fronting a different street (the lot has frontage on two parallel streets – not a typical corner lot) which the owner wants to subdivide into two SF-4A lots, so that each house can be a legally separate property.

A bunch of caterwauling has occurred from the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association over the fact that they explicitly rejected this kind of lot during their neighborhood planning process. The assumption is that the City Council would hear this, and rule against the zoning case because of it. (Note: the City Council ruled in favor of the applicant 7-0 on first reading; displaying what has become their typical pragmatism, but see more below).

This assumes, of course, that the City Council finds banning small lots throughout a neighborhood in the center city to be a reasonable thing to do in a neighborhood plan. I hope they didn’t; but I wonder why the plan passed in the first place.

I worked on the Old West Austin neighborhood plan. We were responsible. We allowed for densification with character throughout the neighborhood. We allowed for some multifamily which wasn’t only on arterial roadways (see future piece on Asshat Neigborhood Clowns Who Think Multi-Family Residents Don’t Care About Noise). We were specifically seeking to satisfy the intentions of the neighborhood planning process, which was NOT “Tell us WHETHER you want density”, but rather, “tell us WHERE you want density”, and we also didn’t think saying “only on Lamar” was a responsible answer.

Sadly, it seems more and more that the City Council has allowed other neighborhoods to get away with joke neigborhood plans which boil down to: Do these 20 transportation projects for us, and prevent any densification from occurring to our neighborhood, OK thanks bye.

Bad Neighborhoods, Part One

Austin’s neighborhood Nazis are at it again. In an article about the current activities of the Envision Central Texas project, an inoffensively driven planning exercise which seeks to lay out in broad brushes whether people all over the place are really against sprawl or not; the Statesman wrote:

Austin neighborhood leaders also are worried the scenarios could hurt the character of their neighborhoods. Bryan King, president of the Austin Council of Neighborhoods, said the type of density envisioned for neighborhoods in Scenario D could be disastrous. “Any scenario that is chosen must respond to neighborhood plans,” King said. “The neighborhood plans come first. Envision Central Texas comes second.”

Back when I worked on the Old West Austin neighborhood plan; it was understood that this exercise was fundamentally a way for central-city neighborhoods to show where additional density should occur; not whether it should occur. And we took that responsibility seriously; advocating additional development (both commercial and residential) on the edges and in a few places in the interior of the neighborhood. Since then, every neighborhood of note in the city, including my new neighborhood in North University, has used this process to try to push all densification out to commercial arterials; and even there in absurdly limited terms. The same people who fought the Villas, a reasonable apartment complex right next to Guadalupe Street within walking distance of UT, are fighting future similarly smart infill projects throughout Austin’s central city. And all of these wankers drive cars with SoS stickers on them. Oh, the irony.