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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
WHEREAS a “rapid bus” line does not and cannot provide the necessary permanent infrastructure to encourage mixed-use pedestrian-oriented densification along its corridor
WHEREAS the vast majority of Capital Metro funds come from residents of the City of Austin
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.
About two weeks ago, I had business about two miles north of my house1, at “Happy Hybrid”2, to pick up our old car3. I came home from work early, left my company car parked at the house, and thought about how I would get to the auto shop to pick up the old car and bring it home.
In the old days, before MetroRapid, this would definitely have been a bus trip. Here’s what that trip would have looked like, in the “show up and go” model where the wait time is assumed to be “half the headway”…
Walk 4 minutes a block south and two blocks west to the #1 stop. Wait there for a 13-minute headway frequent local. Get on. Ride to Happy Hybrid. Get off. (0 minute walk there).
The 801, though, is a different story. My house and the destination are both (each) about halfway between two MetroRapid stops! So the 801 trip looks like this: Walk 7 minutes west and south to the Hyde Park station. Wait 10 minutes (runs every 20 minutes midday). Ride 10 minutes to the station north of Happy Hybrid. Walk 6 minutes back south. (Yes, this is what Google Maps recommended; so the alternative stations must be slightly longer walks, even!). Total time: 33 minutes.
The current 1 is the same as the old 1, except it runs half as often (26 minute headways mid-day). So I didn’t bother. What did I do instead?
Walked the whole fucking way there on my athritic toes, and paid severely for it for the next few days.
Here’s what the decision looked like:
This is what AURA did for urbanism – they supported a rapid bus plan that made the most logical option for somebody who had to travel 2 miles on our best transit corridor to the auto shop to WALK THE WHOLE GODDAMN WAY THERE4. (No, changing the fare back to parity doesn’t affect this. Only restoring true local service on this corridor does). And I, on this trip, showed that the service Cap Metro is now providing on this corridor has degraded drastically – to the point where it’s unreliable and unusable except for those who have no other possible option.
I’ve been describing it as “activist flypaper” for years – and am sad to state that may have been overly optimistic. My quick reading of the code makes it look even worse than what we have today. I don’t think many, so far, disagree at a high level, too. It basically zones the entire city outside downtown and corridors to a maximum of 2 stories (even the parts where the new transect code applies, much less the huge swaths of the city which still get essentially the old code) and adds additional restrictions on ADUs compared to current code. It adds code obstacles for even downtown redevelopment by promulgating stupid ideas about minimum lot width and floor plates. The plan, folks, is a bad plan. Even if you like planning, it’s a bad plan. For a freedom urbanist, it’s horrible.
This is not a step forward; it’s a step back. My strategic take is going to be to try to support those making individual recommendations for change1 but to also urge everybody to look at the plan as a whole and remember “worse than nothing”, which this thing is. Rather, it’s worse than doing nothing. Current code, as suburban as it is, is still better than this piece of garbage.
register on the site linked above, then wade through hundreds of pages of code through a bad internal scroll window to make comments that will doubtlessly be used as evidence of a public input process but not be taken seriously ↩
So I went to a Project Connect 2.0 presentation on Tuesday night, organized by Friends of Hyde Park. As is my wont, I also asked some pointed questions. You can get the original notes and detailed tweetstorm in yesterday’s post. Today’s is about the general things I noticed. “Javier” is Javier Arguello, “Jackie” is Jackie Nirenberg. So, here we go:
Their top ‘lesson learned’ from 2014 was: “we didn’t have long enough to convince people that the Highland/EastRiverside line was good”.
(My paraphrase). I did pointedly and directly ask this question and was unsatisfied with the response. A member of the CAG has confirmed to me in private that they keep asking this question and keep getting this deeply unsatisfying response, so it is clear to me that Capital Metro will admit to no wrongdoing in Project Connect 1.0 despite the vast majority of transit activists eventually agreeing that their process was corrupt and, in the end, publicly opposing their proposal. (I interrupted at one point and reminded them how unprecedented that was – I’m not aware of any other case in the entire country where a major transit proposal was so publically opposed by such a large group of transit activists from that city).
They keep claiming nothing is decided, but it’s clearly decided in some ways.
The framework for discussion has been set in a way that heavily disfavors Guadalupe/Lamar rail. There are three ‘segments’ of travel they put up on the screen; as well as a slide which shows “previous HCT studies”. Guadalupe/Lamar is not in the top slide (most important service), nor is it listed in “previous HCT studies”. It is instead consigned to the second group, called “connector corridors”, implying that Capital Metro has already decided that it cannot be the spine of the transit network. The images they chose to prove that they are ‘mode-neutral’ are, in order, a bad modern streetcar stuck in traffic, a bad BRT system that has proved far less than advertised (Cleveland), and a bad freeway BRT proposal (Minneapolis). I directly asked Javier why they chose these images, and he claimed it was just random chance. Sure it was.
They keep claiming they’re not going to waste a ton of time on more planning, because “the plans are already on the shelves”
yet they are ignoring the 2000 light rail plan, as shown above. In fact, later in the night, Javier tried to claim we didn’t know what people would or wouldn’t support, so I asked him directly “what corridor got the most support in Project Connect 1.0”, and to his credit, he finally answered directly: “Guadalupe/Lamar”.
They really want to triple down on the Red Line.
Javier claimed at one point that reputable people believe they can get 32,000 boardings per day by making more investments in that corridor. Not actual extensions of the line, mind you. He claims that they believe they can get as many riders as a below-average light rail line by simply adding more double-tracked segments and buying more train cars. This is, of course, complete bullshit.
They really want to play up investment in freeway transit.
Javier talked up Mopac express lanes on numerous occasions, which are sort-of OK in my book (many riders of express buses actually pay taxes to Capital Metro, unlike the median Red Line rider). But they’re not actual transformative transit in the land use perspective, for sure. I-35 BRT is a different animal. They envision stations in the freeway corridor – and then, see the next point, they envision circulating passengers off that presumed spine with another bus trip, ignoring the fact that people with actual choices don’t typically take 2-bus rides to work every day.
They have learned that “last-mile problem” is a get out of jail free card for bad transit.
I blame every other transit advocate in Austin for continuing to enable this excuse. As I often say, if your transit provider spends a lot of time talking about their last mile problem, you have a bad transit system. No, not every location can be served without lots of transfers. But when the majority of your passengers on your theoretical ‘spine’ have to transfer, YOU HAVE A BAD SPINE, DAWG. Spines need to go down the middle and get to the good stuff. And especially on the ‘work end’ of the trip (not the ‘home end’): if a large percentage of your riders have to transfer off the spine, you’ve chosen poorly.
For Houston, the strategy meant building a light rail through the city’s primary urban corridor, where lots of people already live and work.
Cities often shy away from that approach because it’s more expensive and disruptive to lay tracks in such populated locations. But the factors that make it difficult to build light rail there were exactly the things that made it the right place to have light rail.
“Often, light rail is driven by people saying, ‘we need light rail somewhere,’ and the political process will tend to put it where it doesn’t upset anyone, where it isn’t in the way of anything,” said Spieler, who is also the head of planning for Houston-based architecture firm Morris. “That is generally not a high ridership corridor. The congested places are the places people are trying to go.”
And since transit riders are almost always pedestrians on each end of their trip, you can only expect riders to walk to destinations within a quarter mile of a station. That makes it especially important to have stations right in the center of the action, not just near it.
“If you propose transit and no one is against it, it’s a bad project,” Spieler said. “Do you build it where it’s needed, or where it’s easy? That’s the central tension in U.S. cities, and too often they make decisions based on what’s easy.”
They have also learned that “we have to fix land use” is another get out of jail free card for bad transit.
They are still treating public input as a charade.
Both Javier and Jackie asked me to keep participating and keep giving input, and Javier expressed frustration at how many times he has heard versions of “you guys lied during Project Connect 1.0, why should we trust you now”. There was also one unsubtle dig during the Q&A period. The most fun part of the night for me was when Javier tried to turn around my “so what did you learn from the 2014 election loss” question at me and asked me why the 2000 rail plan lost. I think people around me saw my eyes turn to saucers and drool start to drip from my mouth at that spicy meatball, which I of course answered with a 60-second version of this old post1.
Oh, and also: I didn’t have the presence of mind to remind them of a pretty important part of the public involvement process that one of their predecessors accomplished…