The Gas Tax Ain’t Regressive

Dave Fried talks about the supposedly regressive nature of gas taxes in response to Andrew Sullivan, and uses my blog to make a point about public transportation, but he’s barking up the wrong tree.

The supposed regressive nature of the gas tax is a fallacy – in fact, poor people spend far less proportionally on gasoline than do the upper-middle-class.

The gas tax isn’t purely progressive; though; the very rich actually spend less proportionally than do the upper-middle-class, due to their tendency to be either in the few healthy downtowns, or less need to drive overall.
Poor people as a rule simply DON’T drive as much as you middle-class people think. The people you think are poor who you see driving everywhere are actually the lower rungs of the middle-class; and they’re doing it in much more fuel-efficient vehicles than their upper-middle-class SUV-drivin’ non-neighbors. Even the poor people who own cars (and most do, around here) often leave them parked during the day. Drive around East Austin at 10:00 on a weekday and you see a lot of driveways with older Japanese cars parked in them (with a few 80s-vintage American cars which still get much better mileage than do SUVs). Now drive around Great Hills and see how many cars you see parked which aren’t for stay-at-home moms.

Poor people, in every metropolitan area with which I have a passing familiarity, are also concentrated in urban areas or the oldest (inner-ring) suburbs. (Don’t bother me with anectdotes about the rural poor; we’re talking macro scale here). Guess what that does to the number of miles they must drive?

Ride the bus sometime if you want to see real poor people. Trust me on this one.

The other problem with this analysis is that it ignores other sources of roadway funding, such as property and sales taxes, which in this state are a huge portion of revenues for roads (even state highways). Due to the fact that poor people here live in areas which still proportionately get taxed at a higher rate than due the exurbs, they’re ALREADY being taxed regressively. The gas tax evens it out a bit, in fact.

Some supporting articles:

The Folly Of Buses, Part XII

Yesterday, I dropped off the car I use on the days I drive to work (my wife’s ancient Honda Civic) so the squeaky brakes could be looked at. I figured I’d take the bus from work to the brake shop.

I work directly on the route of the 383 (Research Blvd) and the brake shop is pretty close to a 383 stop (10 minute walk). No problem, right?

Problem 1: This bus runs every half-hour. Not a big deal when I thought the brake shop was open until 6; but then I called and found out I had to be there by 5. This meant I had to hop on the 4:16 (actually a few minutes later, since that timepoint was for the Pavillion Park & Ride a mile up the road).

So I walk out of the office at 4:10 and walk along Research (US 183) looking for the stop. First problem: no stop until Braker – a ten minute walk. But no bus passes me, so we’re doing all right so far.

I get to the bus stop at about 4:20, which is about when I figure an on-time bus would arrive there anyways, given the 4:16 timepoint before. I wait.

4:25 comes and goes. A number 3 bus goes by. As it turns out, this would have been a good one to hop on (a longer walk at the other end plus a layover at this end of the route made me pick the 383 originally).

4:30 comes and goes.

4:35 comes and goes.

4:40 comes and goes. Another number 3 bus comes by. At this point, I’m out of options. I get on and request a transfer, anticipating that I won’t be able to get the car and I’ll just have to bus it all the way home (not that bad since at the shop, I could pick up the number 5 stops a block away from our house).

The bus gets to the layover point and waits for 5 minutes; then starts heading south again. I go by my old workplace and arrive at Anderon and Burnet at 5:00, ready for the (15 minute) walk to the brake shop, which was supposed to close at 5. Note for suburbanites: the number 3 never had fewer than 5 people on it, even at the end of the route where I got on; and people got on or off at about every quarter-mile, despite this being the far suburban section of the route (it continues all the way to downtown, getting much more crowded as it does).

I hoof it quickly to make it in 15 minutes. One guy is there holding the shop open for me. I apologize profusely and look like a big sweaty ass while doing so.

Anybody else think more investment in the bus system is better than building rail? I don’t know for sure what happened to the 383; but here are some possible reasons it didn’t show up through 4:40:

  1. Got stuck in traffic (local buses don’t have any priority over cars; even so-called rapid buses rarely do)
  2. Broke down (buses are much more likely to break down than trains)
  3. Operator unavailable (buses require substantially more human operators per passenger than do trains)

Unless you’re being served by a route a bit more frequent than the number 3 (and there are only a handful that are), the unreliability of buses makes them untenable for commuters who have any choice in the matter. (If a bus is arriving every 5-10 minutes, one being late or missing doesn’t kill you, but otherwise you’re in really bad shape).

This is what some people don’t get about light rail. Even if it was still slower than your car, a reliable form of public transportation would be much more attractive to people who have a choice than the current unreliable bus system or the future unreliable rapid bus line. I’m willing to spend 5 or 10 more minutes getting to work if I get to read a book on the way. I’m not willing to do so if half the time it ends up taking 30 minutes longer, and I never know whether today is one of the on-time days or not.

The next scheduled 383 would have arrived at Pavillion at 4:56 PM.

BRT: The R stands for unReliable

Today, I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway to get on the “express bus” to northwest Austin (there’s a stop near my new office). This works pretty well most of the time. I don’t have a shower at work and am out of shape right now; so I take the easy trip in the morning and then bike home in the afternoon.

There’s a 983 bus every hour (most of the buses on this route run normal southbound and then switch to a different route northbound to pick up people in far suburbia; only a few buses ‘deadhead’ on the reverse-commute – but they are quite full; today’s bus had about 20 people on it).
The bus was supposed to arrive at 7:48. It arrived at 8:02. The interesting thing is that had this bus broken down (as they do constantly, unlike rail), the next one would have been at 8:48. Ever sat at a bus stop for an extra hour?

One of the greatest advantages of light rail over bus rapid transit (to which these express buses are very similar) is reliability. They simply don’t break down; and barring Houston-like idiot drivers, they don’t get into accidents. They don’t get stuck in traffic (90% of US so-called rapid bus installations end up without dedicated runningways, meaning that cars can use the bus lane and therefore the bus can still be stuck in gridlock). EVEN IF THEY’RE NOT A MINUTE FASTER, you won’t be stuck at 8:01 wondering if you’ll be waiting another hour or not.

Unfortunately, BRT is what Austin is going to get, thanks to a local pantload state legislator from a suburb that doesn’t even pay into the system. Why nobody is willing to stand up to this guy is beyond me; Austin itself voted something like 55-45 for light rail even with all of its half-baked problems at the time.

First day biking into work at new job

With new baby and new job, I don’t have a ton of time right now. But today’s combo bike-bus trip into work touched on the following papers I’ll eventually write:

  • Why suburbanites see only empty buses
  • Why frontage roads are bad for cars
  • Why frontage roads are bad for public transportation
  • Why we need to set aside 15% of that one category of federal MPO money for bike/ped projects
  • Auto drivers are nicer than you think
  • Fancy bike locking systems are a good intention gone awry

A few years ought to do it…

The trip went smoothly except for the surprise when the bus pulled up to 38th and Lamar and didn’t have a bike rack in front. Luckily there was another guy there doing the same thing who showed me that on the new fancy buses, they’re supposed to go in as luggage(!).

It’s Hard To Be Both A Cyclist And A Driver

(This entry is over a year old; but somehow it got reposted to austinbloggers.org as a new entry today while I was adding the Shoal Creek Debacle category to my site – apologies; but I can’t seem to fix it).
While driving home this afternoon (switching to working at home part of the day until my wife’s C-section is healed up better), I had the top down and was enjoying a nice (but windy) day travelling east on FM 2222 towards Loop 360 from the office. I came up to the light at City Park Road and caught up to two recreational cyclists (decked out with fancy bikes, fancy clothes, and fancy helmets). The light turned red. I and they slowed down. I stopped. They did not.

As is often my wont, when I caught up to them I yelled out “red means stop, asshats!”. One of them flashed me a peace sign. Hooray! Peace on Earth trumps traffic law.

I’m one of the perhaps 2% of cyclists locally who stops for stop signs and red lights. That’s because of two reasons: 1. I’m both a cyclist and a driver, and 2. I sit on the Urban Transportation Commission and have to fight quite hard for cyclist facilities.

1. As a cyclist myself, I’m occasionally hassled by drivers on the road and more frequently harangued off the road because other cyclists break the law. This is irritating but rarely important enough to worry about.

2. As a commissioner, however, you have no idea how often I’ve heard “why should we build (bike lane / shoulder / loop detector / etc) for cyclists when they’ll just jump on and off the sidewalk and run red lights anyways?” – even from the (outgoing) chair of the commission. In fact, we even lost a facility vote once on the commission on those grounds. (It gets hard to fight battles for things like Shoal Creek bike lanes when the racing cyclists piss off all the neighbors so badly that even I’m tempted to smack them).

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, I’m one of perhaps 2% of the cyclists that actually follow the law in this respect. The remaining 98% fall out roughly as follows:

Ignorant of traffic law – about one-third of the total – pretty much everybody around the University, and a lot of people who are clearly biking to work because they lost their license in a DWI conviction, or can’t afford a car. I don’t get angry at these people.

Self-righteous twits – another third of the total – mostly on the far left. The austin-bikes email list is full of people who defend running red lights by claiming that the environmental superiority of cycling justifies any transgression of mere traffic laws. If I point out that they make the job of reasonable cyclists quite difficult, they enter la-la land by claiming that motorists will hate all cyclists no matter what, so why bother being respectful and responsible. Additionally, this group quite often repeats the canard that motorists always run red lights too (what motorists do is often floor it on a yellow or the very start of a red light – this is often referred to as “running an orange” – while this is a serious threat, it’s far less serious than what cyclists do in completely ignoring red lights and stop signs altogether). Oh, and motorists do running stops at stop signs. Guilty. At least they slow down to a crawl first.

Finally, we have the recreational racers – the crowd that think that serious riders must wear certain clothes and drive to a ride start point (very high intersection with the Austin Cycling Association). These folks will tell you you’re going to remove yourself from the gene pool if you don’t wear a helmet, and then proceed to blow a stop light on a road with a 60 MPH speed limit (as in today’s example).

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why it’s difficult being a utilitarian cyclist in Austin. Any questions?

Mike Levy Hates Pedestrians

Mike Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly, is at it again. For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, Mr. Levy’s favorite pastime is finding a local transportation issue (relating to downtown, most of the time) that irks him, and then firing off an angry email to about 100 people around the city (the people he considers movers and shakers). In said email, Mr. Levy’s usual tactic is to find a city staff person whose job it is to implement some policy with which he disagrees and ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to that employee. Said employee is almost always just carrying out the express will of the City Council, with whom Mr. Levy somehow never picks a fight directly.

Today’s example is light synchronization downtown. Mr. Levy admires Houston’s system (in which supposedly all lights on one corridor turn green at the same time – which is a disaster for air pollution and for pedestrians, since the incentive of the driver is to hit the gas and go as fast as possible while he still has greens). Austin’s system is more properly described as sequencing, in which lights are staggered on a major corridor to encourage 25mph automobile travel (better for the air; better for safety of motorists and pedestrians).

Mr. Levy, of course, ascribes this instead to a supposed desire by Austen Librach to ruin downtown traffic so that light rail becomes more viable. (Hence the title of this entry – pick the most awful reason for doing something that your audience will ascribe to your designated villain, and stick it in his mouth no matter what he really says).
Levy’s audience will probably buy it, since most of the people on his list are knuckle-dragging I-can’t-imagine-anything-but-single-occupant-vehicle-travel pedestrians-are-Communist old-school Austin Republicans. But really. If somebody was trying to sabotage commutes to make light rail look better, wouldn’t they instead gum up Mopac and I-35, since at its worst, the downtown part of the typical suburbanite’s commute is 5 or 10 minutes of the hour – 90 minute total trip? And who, dare I ask, would be responsible for the current gumming up of I-35 and Mopac?

Yes, readers, it’s the suburban wankers (assisted by Cap Metro destroyer Mike Krusee who used his power at the state lege to force an early election) who narrowly voted down light rail in 2000. Or, maybe, it’s the guys in charge of TXDOT who built highways to serve real estate speculators rather than actual transportation needs.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s Mike Levy, who, instead of using his awesome powers for good (getting downtownites to understand that nothing but rail can fix traffic there since we ain’t gonna knock down skyscrapers to add more lanes) has squandered them on evil. Yes, folks, it’s all because Mike Levy Hates Pedestrians.

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!