Let’s Go To The Movies: Also: Why Nobody Takes The Bus There!

In a happy coincidence, this twitter thread came to me as I was about to take the family over to our go-to theatre; the Alamo Drafthouse at Mueller, to watch a bougie family entertainment (I have kids, sue me; Christopher Robin was good). When I posted some details about our upcoming trip, friend-of-the-crackplog Hunter S Thompson Caleb Pritchard was appropriately dismayed.

More importantly, it’s worth exploring this trip from my house a few blocks on the interior of Hyde Park as an example of how even ‘better’ transit service has a long ways to go, but stay tuned after that; because there’s a little more to it.

Let’s talk time!

From a long time ago, you may remember cheezy minimalist graphics like the ones below, which made their first appearance in the best-est “Why Rapid Bus sucks” post that still holds for a little while longer until the two infill stops are fully integrated. In this case, you can see the components of the trip from my house to the Alamo Drafthouse in Mueller, as follows:

DRIVING TRIP (what we actually did): 7 minute drive, 1 minute to park, 1 minute to walk from the garage to the front door of the theatre.

TRANSIT TRIP (what we could have done): 9 minute (0.4 mile) walk down to 38th and Guadalupe; typical wait of 7.5 minutes for the 335 bus (15 minute frequencies on this route! Best we’ve got!); 14 minute bus trip to the closest stop in Mueller (Berkman and Simond); and an 8 minute (0.4 mile) walk to the theatre’s front door. 1

Now here they are combined on the same graph2.

See a problem yet? Hint: When just the walk to the bus stop from my house (the first part of four on the transit trip) is essentially as long (in time) as the entire driving trip, counting parking the car in the garage and walking from the garage to the theatre, you might not be competitive overall.

Well, you might be tempted to reply, surely the bus is cheaper!

Let’s talk money!

I have bad news for you. The Alamo Drafthouse at Mueller validates parking (which would have been $3.00 for us); but not bus fare. So here’s the way those trips cost out, and note that this is temporarily cheaper for the bus trip as my 2 kids that would normally have had to pay are actually riding free for the remainder of the summer.3

The driving trip costs around 60 cents, thanks to this handy but minimalist commute calculator, originally designed for bike commutes but usable for this purpose, that helpfully excludes bullshit like depreciation and insurance.4. The transit trip would have cost $5.00 (two day passes for the two adults).

So what?

Now for the interesting parts. What would we expect in a better world?

Let’s imagine for a moment that being “transit-oriented” in Austin actually meant what it means in the rest of the world. How would the equation above be different?

For one, the parking garage would have to be less convenient than the transit. This means that the transit needs to drop off in front; and the parking needs to be at least a short walk away (move the transit stop directly in front of the business; leave the parking garage where it is for now, I guess).

For two, the parking can’t be free while the transit costs money. But do you think a business in Mueller as it exists today would be willing to make this trade? Of course not; each and every business in Mueller would die without the influx of cars from neighbors like me. They are nowhere near dense enough (by orders of magnitude) to get the clientele they need from people within walking or biking distance. And don’t forget to remember this when people credulous of the grid redesign cargo cults think they will be great for ridership – the places you’re reorienting service to serve better (your ‘secondary centers’) all have free parking, meaning the competitive transit-versus-driving value proposition is horrible compared to the traditional downtown.

For three, also, the realignment of service for Mueller focused on running things down Berkman, which might be better for the residents, but definitely not for anybody trying to get to the Town Center [sic] from outside the area. If Mueller’s reality matched its promises, transit would go straight to/from the Town Center, and residents would be within a short enough walk that they would want to go there to board buses. The actual reality isn’t that great; Mueller is too spread out, as discussed ad nauseum, so the transit has to run on Berkman.

So the real answer gets to an even more fundamental flaw in Mueller: It tries to be a “center” a la “centers and corridors” from Imagine Austin, but the density it has is nowhere near large enough to justify free transit and expensive parking, so it ends up in the uncanny valley of density. Difficult to drive in, unpleasant and expensive to take transit to, and with a tiny fraction of the people within walking and biking distance that would be required to keep their businesses in business without those drivers and their necessarily subsidized parking.

What’s the solution? Centers have to be orders of magnitude denser than this, so that parking doesn’t have to be free to keep businesses alive, or, you know, stop trying to pound a square peg into a round hole and just resume densification of our existing center where parking already doesn’t have to be free. Either way.

Also, though, please note that for a single person, this particular trip would still have been a dumb financial decision, but not quite as dumbererer as for the whole family. Consider that you have to pay a bus fare for each person (including the kids when the free summer ends), but a car full of 4 dinguses costs the same as for a single dingus driver.

Also also, though, please check out Caleb’s new gig – we expect great things!

(I’ll try to fix this up and flesh it out over the course of the week to make it a little less bare-bones but had to get this out there in case I run out of time. Remember this isn’t my day job and I don’t even have time or the cost-benefit ratio for it to be a frequent hobby anymore. Fuck AURA.)


  1. I’ve used the common practice here of assigning half the ‘headway’ to ‘wait time’ as in – the average time we’d have to wait for the bus if we just show up is 7.5 minutes. The minimum ‘wait’ time for the bus if you plan on a scheduled departure is typically 5 minutes – you’re supposed to give that long in case it’s early. The ‘wait’ time for your car is ALWAYS zero, of course. 

  2. updated on 8/14/2018 to make the phases the same across the bars, but the color scheme is still gonna suck because there’s only so much of my work time I’ll spend on making this pretty for y’all 

  3. details: two day passes at $2.50 each, kids are currently free. 

  4. Note here that even though my company car gives me gas for free, I costed out this trip as if I had to pay for it 

What a great favor done for me by the heroic journalist

The story

Cap Metro Hangs Hopes on “Connections 2025”

The quote, with the emphasis added by me

Mike Dahmus, a transit blogger who is known for getting into heated online spats with fellow urbanists, argues that the plan tries to do too much for those outside the core. He highlights a reduction in service to Hyde Park, one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, as well as the already implemented extension of the 801 rapid route to Slaughter Lane, as flawed attempts to address the suburbanization of poverty, a phenomenon he says is “largely a myth used by suburbanites to gain access to services they aren’t paying taxes for.” The most obvious example, he says, is MetroRail. The money Cap Metro spends to bring commuters into town from as far away as Leander dwarfs the revenue it brings in through fares.

Note the emphasis.

Not “Former member of the Urban Transportation Commission known for making controversial but correct calls on transit”.

It maps to “Crazy Person”.

What merited such a description? It must have been the e-mail conversation. Let’s go to the tape!

The background (the unpaid labor):

(Stick with me as I reformat this):

First email


Jack,

Sorry for short disjointed email. All I have time for today is dictation and some phone clean up.

Of the changes going in in the first round soon, the ones that are the most problematic for me are the elimination of the Hyde Park section of the five, and the 21/22 changes. If capital metro were using the more standard quarter mile walking distance, it would leave large sections of Hyde Park with no frequent service whatsoever. However, in a very dishonest attempt to make things look better, they use a half mile walking radius for rapid bus stations, even though that's not an excepted practice in the industry. The original connections 2025 proposal actually called for eliminating all of the one and three runs that remain, which right now is about every half hour.

So, capital metro is out there selling this plan as if it's a ridership over coverage redesign, which tends to put an image in peoples mind that walkable places with density like Hyde Park should be gaining service, when the reality in our case is that we're losing service. The people gaining service in this plan are actually in more suburban areas, especially those on the far reaches of the rapid bus routes, where are the benefits of the fewer stops approach actually outweighs the longer walks.

The 21/22 are a slightly different story. Those areas are definitely walkable and urban, but medium ridership. Low by the standard of our more successful bus routes, to be sure, but also have lower subsidies than the redline, for instance. There's a major political and equity problem with those routes. They tend to have two types of riders disproportionately: number one is students transferring into the West Austin elementary middle and high schools, and number two, people living east taking the bus west to work at places like Randalls or Tarrytown pharmacy. It's true that the residence in Tarrytown really use the services, but that's not the only metric that should matter in a case like this.

So on equity grounds, the plan fails. That would be OK if it was a pure ridership play, but you can see from the Hyde Park example that it doesn't meet that metric either. A true ridership over coverage play would have restoring all of the locals on Lamar and Guadalupe to the way they used to be as the number one priority, given the demonstrated high demand for ridership and walkable focus of those neighborhoods.

Let me know if any questions. And again I apologize for the poor formatting, I was dictating this outside my son's Boy Scout meeting.

Thanks,
Mike

The second e-mail


That was supposed to be Tarrytown residents RARELY use the services. Sorry.

The first response


Thanks Mike!

What are examples of suburban areas gaining service? Are you referring to one of the rapid routes going down to Slaughter etc? Anything else?

Also, most of the complaints I've heard have been the opposite...that low income people on the outskirts (where they've been forced to live as Austin prices go up) are getting shafted. Do you see any evidence of that?

Also, what is your theory for why Metro's ridership has dropped in recent years amidst record population growth?

The third e-mail


Main example of suburban areas gaining service is additional frequency on the 80x routes and Red Line.

And why Cap Metro lost ridership is the same reasons - Red Line requires huge op subsidies which led to cuts in local urban bus service. Rapid cut locals on corridor by half and ridership still hasn't recovered.

The fourth e-mail


Finally, the "suburbanization of poverty" theme is largely a myth used
by suburbanites to gain service they're not paying taxes for. A few
poor people move out, sure, but the median income in Pflugerville is
higher than East Austin. Most of the poor people who were in Austin
ten years ago are still in Austin today, paying taxes to support Cap
Metro but losing rides to pay for rides at the edges of the service
area for nontaxpayers. (Note location of park and rides obviously
tends to attract people from outside the service area - majority of
Red Line riders don't pay Cap Metro taxes, for instance).

The fifth e-mail


I had a contest last week trying to get people to identify a stop
losing service (I was dumb and included enough detail for it to be
easy). Laundrette, Holly & Robt E Martinez, is slated to completely
lose service.

Here's a zoom-in of the new world if CM gets their way - 1/4 of a mile
at least to the closest LINE, much more than 1/4 of a mile to the
actual stops. This is in an urban medium-density area with a good grid
which still has very high transit usage.

https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1QWIxCZeZPRRN15GkB0z8QcRQXn0&ll=30.254114230537375%2C-97.72539144874577&z=16

(in the new plan, #22 is being shortened and now runs mainly N/S along
Chicon; #17 runs CC, nothing runs on Holly or REM).

CM's overall strategy on the plan seems to align with good practice
from other regions about reducing winding routes and increasing
frequency at the expense of transfers. But when you zoom in to areas
of concern, you see that something's not quite right - even the areas
that you would expect to get better service or at least keep it,
pretty much aren't. (CM hides this by moving to "1/4 mile from LINE,
not STOP" or even "1/2 mile from stop" metrics which are bullshit).

Hope this is enough,
MD

The second response


Here's another question:

John Laycock tells me that the plan will double the number of households with access to frequent transit and increase by 75% the number of households in poverty w/access to frequent transit. Do you believe that is true?

The sixth e-mail


No, I do not. They are using sketchy metrics like "distance to the
LINE instead of to the STOP", and using 1/2 mile instead of 1/4 mile,
just like I pointed out Cap Metro was doing earlier. They're also
using "people within X distance of rapid bus lines have access to
frequent transit" which is even worse - many households whose closest
'frequent' transit is rapid bus face an even longer walk to the bus
stop from their home (and sometimes on the destination end) than 1/2
mile.

The seventh and final e-mail


And I know you can't use this in your story, but bear in mind that
both Laycock and Crossley are public-sector folks who appear to (in
the medium-term) be angling for contracts that might come from Capital
Metro. Their independence is highly questionable given that their
financial prospects may depend on not angering those folks.

I have a day job at a horrible corporate cube farm and don't use
transit regularly now - every dumb opinion I give you is legitimately
my own with no possibility of personal gain ;+)

- MD

Letter to Cap Metro board: OPPOSE Connections 2025

Dear board members,

I am writing as a former member of the city’s Urban Transportation Commission and a frequent author on the subject of transit to urge you to vote NO on Connections 2025.

Despite efforts to portray this as a standard “ridership over coverage” redesign (which is defensible on its merits), Capital Metro is actually using this opportunity to double-down on the last decade of redirection of service from the dense urban core to low-density suburban areas. In the process, they are abandoning their most loyal riders to longer walks and longer waits so that they can provide service to people who live in areas that don’t pay for the services being provided.

Capital Metro is engaged in sleight of hand when promoting this redesign. Switching from the standard quarter-mile walkshed to half-mile distances is the most obvious example (also, using half-mile distance to LINES rather than to STOPS tends to hide the drastic effect of long distance between stops on lines like MetroRapid). They are using the right style (claiming ridership over coverage), but the substance is lacking, and often in direct contradiction to the stated goals of the redesign.

For instance: Neighborhoods like Hyde Park and North University, which are walkable grids with high transit ridership, are losing service. The #5 is being eliminated in this area; the #21 and #22 are to be eliminated in this area; the #1 remains non-frequent (was originally slated for complete elimination!); the #801 remains non-local. Large swaths of our most historic transit-supportive areas are being effectively abandoned (to 1/2 mile or greater walking distance, which tends to make people resort to their cars). I have also heard from patrons of the southern portions of the #5 route that similar actual service reductions to the densest areas are proposed.

I am available to answer any questions you may have. Please do the right thing and require an honest service proposal to replace this dishonest one.

Thanks,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

A sustainable transit plan for Austin – outline and introduction

If this is sufficiently well-received I may fill in more later.

This post is in response to a request from Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, an organization of which I am a member, for some transit talk leading up to a position / plan from them. My key elements follow, in outline form, with links to old writing where feasible. I expressed my concerns that this would be a waste of time due to the alliance of FAN with AURA and Evolve Austin but was assured this was not an issue, so here we go.

Above all else, be skeptical of Capital Metro

Cap Metro’s record for honesty is bad and not improving. Lately, they mislead people about Connections 2025 (selling it as a “ridership over coverage” redesign, but in reality, it’s cutting service to our densest areas and rebalancing towards more suburban service). Under this we have details like conflating Rapid Bus with local service; using 1/2 mile or larger catchment zones when 1/4 mile is the industry standard, etc. Project Connect 1.0 was an unmitigated disaster due to a lack of honesty about constraints and aims by the people leading it, and they have never been held to account for it. We will not make any real progress for transit in Austin until these agencies act with transparency and honesty. FAN should demand better governance of, and leadership at, Capital Metro. My basic recommendation would be that board members need to at least ride transit sometimes and have a deep fundamental understanding of what actually raises and lowers transit ridership; and top leadership must be honest and ethical. Neither of those standards is met today by any board members or anyone in top leadership of the agency.

Background:

Watch the diversion of service dollars to the suburbs

Even AURA is on board with the Red Line being a bad investment, and I-35 BRT being a horrible idea. But that’s not where it ends.

The service just introduced for Round Rock is a horrible deal. Cap Metro is being misleading about it being a “contracted service”. Round Rock doesn’t pay overhead that supports Cap Metro’s structure in general, and their passengers can continue onto mainline routes despite not having paid taxes to support them. They’re getting a sweetheart deal in return for not paying into the system. This is bad for Austin.

Likewise, park and rides placed near the edge of the city limits or the edge of the service area are obviously going to tend to attract patrons from jurisdictions that don’t pay to support the agency. While you might want to supply them with transit anyways, this is a zero-sum game or worse. Every $25 operating subsidy paid so somebody from Cedar Park can ride the train despite not paying taxes to support it results in 5-10 Austinites not getting to ride a bus that their city did pay taxes to support.

We should not be subsidizing the suburbs’ road network and also subsidizing their transit. If we don’t get to cut one, cutting the other is not only good but necessary. Again, in Austin, transit is a zero-sum game; we have no ability to increase operating funds, so every dollar we blow on somebody in Cedar Park is taken away from a prospective rider in Austin. Friends of Austin Neighborhoods should be about supporting Austin’s interests first against so-called predatory regionalism.

Background:

Specifically watch for land use claims that fall apart under scrutiny

In 2014, I made this warning about Rapid Bus: Rapid Bus Has Degraded Bus Service.

We were told continuously by people more credulous than I that Rapid Bus was a great deal. I went to a lot of trouble to show that its benefits accrue disproportionately to those who live the furthest out, while those who live close in suffered service degradation.

The Panglosses kept at it, assuring us that infill stops would be added any day now. It’s now looking like 2018 or later for two infill stops, and even with those infill stops, Hyde Park will still have worse service than it did in 2011. Connections 2025 will make it even worse than that!

Rapid Bus is also a suburban subsidy although it’s more of a subsidy to the worst land use INSIDE Austin (i.e. low-density sprawl inside far north and far south Austin gets better service now, by speed, than does Hyde Park). AURA hasn’t opposed Rapid Bus primarily because their president lives close to an 803 stop and saw personal benefit from the service change that screwed thousands of others. I think FAN needs to be more honest and transparent than that, and hope you agree.

Watch out for things that don’t pass the BS test

Don’t ask a transit rider if the grid redesign’s requirement to add transfers will increase or reduce ridership. They have no idea; they’re already riding. Ask somebody who has a long history of being right about service changes’ impact on ridership. Ask somebody who is transit-positive but has to drive to work.

The fact is that the Connections 2025 redesign cuts local service even further for the areas of Austin with some of the highest modeshare, and yet, Evolve Austin and AURA have bought into the Big Lie from Capital Metro. I shouldn’t have to keep explaining this, but in 2011, you could pick up a #1 on Guadalupe in Hyde Park every 10-12 minutes during peak and a #101 every 20 minutes or so. Now there is a local every 30 minutes, and the distance to walk to ‘rapid’ (fancy 101) is too long to make up for the increased frequency. Actual riders are worse off today; and yet Connections 2025 proposed making that even worse under the guise of improving things. (Eliminating local service on Speedway, and originally proposing eliminating the remaining locals on Guadalupe too!)

Friends of Austin Neighborhoods generally promotes urbanist ideals. Having a transit agency which cuts service to the areas that buy into urbanism inevitably leads to pushback in the future for land-use changes as people become justifiably skeptical that new residents of infill developments will use transit at non-trivial levels.

If you say you want ridership over coverage, be serious about it

Ridership, ridership, ridership. This is a public investment; we need our transit dollar to go as far as it possibly can.

That’s all the time I can spend now. Let’s see if FAN was serious about taking this seriously before I invest any more.

AURA hagiography makes M1EK surface to post comment

No further news.

In case AURA succeeds in eliminating the comment; here it is for posterity:

Article: https://nextcity.org/features/view/austin-yimby-movement-city-hall

Comment:

Very disappointing to read this hagiography of AURA, which has diverged from its original principles and become nothing but a platform for vainglorious semi-employed dishonest people to seek public spotlight so they can get seats on commissions that end up producing no tangible movement towards urbanist goals.

AURA has tried to grow towards tenants-rights groups and as a result has become anti-landlord; anti-property-rights; and effectively anti-urbanism. General story here: http://m1ek.dahmus.org/de-endorsement-of-aura/

They started out as a “cut the BS” transit advocacy group and have pivoted towards credulous support of Capital Metro initiatives that cut local bus service on our most productive transit corridors and support future plans that eliminate the rest (supporting suburbanism over urbanism; not coincidentally due to the fact that the AURA president lives at the end of one of these ‘rapid’ bus lines). They now fully buy into a line from Capital Metro that transit ridership has dropped due to poor land use despite the facts on the ground being entirely the opposite (transit service was slashed on the corridors with the most supportive land use). More on that here: https://restoreourlocals.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/how-urbanists-talk-about-transit/

Please don’t buy into this rewriting of history. AURA is nothing more than a vanity group led mostly by people working (if you can call it that) in the public sector. This is not the urbanism Austin needs.

Austin Bus Service

It’s super neat that people are suggesting doing the right thing. In 2017.

It’s also super neat that the guy who claimed to be supporting this for years was on the UTC. In 2004. When I made the motion below. Which died for lack of a second.

WHEREAS the City of Austin does not receive adequate mobility benefits from the currently proposed Long Range Transit Plan due to its reliance on “rapid bus” transit without separate right-of-way

and

WHEREAS a “rapid bus” line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor

and

WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin

and

WHEREAS the commuter rail plan proposed as the centerpiece of this plan delivers most of its benefits to residents of areas which are not within the Capital Metro service area while ignoring the urban core which provides most Capital Metro monies

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Urban Transportation Commission recommends that the City Council immediately reject Capital Metro’s Long-Range Transit Plan and begin working towards a plan which:

A. delivers more reliable and high-performance transit into and through the urban core, including but not limited to the University of Texas, Capitol Complex, and downtown
B. requires additional user fees from passengers using Capital Metro rail services who reside in areas which are not part of the Capital Metro service area
C. provides permanent infrastructure to provide impetus for pedestrian-oriented mixed-use redevelopment of the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor
IF CAPITAL METRO will not work with the City of Austin on all items above, THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the UTC advises the City Council to begin preparations to withdraw from the Capital Metro service area and provide its own transit system in order to provide true mobility benefits to the taxpayers of Austin.