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 

Red Line Death Watch Part 1

No, not like the GM Death Watch at my favorite car blog; this is a “how long before somebody’s killed” series. Today, some pictures of the intersection I talked about on KUT last week.
First, the overheard. Imagine you’re headed west on 51st across Airport because you just went to Home Depot and are headed back to Hyde Park or points south. (Hint: Red River starts just south of this image as a turn off of Clarkson; turning on Clarkson is thus by far the best way into or around Hyde Park by car).


Not a lot of room there to queue up for that left turn, huh. Let’s zoom in with google’s streetview:
Continue reading “Red Line Death Watch Part 1”

Hybrid FUD

The meme “hybrids don’t save any money” has been flying fast and furious as of late; originating with people trying desperately to defend GM for having missed this boat entirely. When people of a certain (conservative, usually) bent saw the Prius, they complained that more of the electric power ought to go into performance (even though for a good-mileage car, it accelerates perfectly well, i.e. I’ve not been frustrated with it when getting on the highway). Toyota complied, and now they get dinged for a less impressive mileage boost in the Highlander Hybrid.

This unidentified individual while generally liking his hybrid SUV, repeated one of the most often heard bits of hybrid FUD. To be more accurate, you can replace his comment:

As I’ve said before, if you just want to save money, a hybrid isn’t the way to go, yet.

with:

As I’ve said before, if you just want to save money on an SUV, a Highlander hybrid isn’t the way to go, yet.

Because when you compare the Prius to the Camry (same size class), it’s very easy to save money over the life of the car. Same to a lesser extent with the Civic Hybrid. The worst comparisons out there (Edmund’s) find a small savings with (Prius over Camry) and a loss everywhere else due to the questionable claim that the hybrid will have less residual value and require more maintenance, both of which are proving to be false. The Prius won best one-year residual value AND most reliable honors this year. The previous-generation Prius (nowhere near as good of a car), the oldest of which are pushing 6 now, are also very highly priced on the used market.

Hybrid Car Blog and the Prius Owners Group both
cover this FUD frequently.

Finally somebody else gets it

I’ve been arguing for a long time that the “commuting calculators” pushed by cyclists to convince people to ride their bike to work are skewed, since they assume that you can effectively divide the total cost of owning a car by the number of days in a year, then get credit for each of those days you leave it in the garage.

Capital Metro’s example, for instance, assumes depreciation as one of the costs you save. (To be fair, they have now allowed you to zero out this field, which is quite a concession for them). I’d argue it should be zero or at least very low, since most of the cost of depreciation is a function of time, not miles. I’ve previously argued that a more rational accounting of costs shows that it’s unlikely that a large number of suburban commuters would begin using the bus to get to work due simply to the cost of gasoline (which is why we need a real urban rail system that provides a time incentive to use transit; not this Austin-screwing transit-killer foisted on us by Mike Krusee).

Now the Washington Post has done an analysis which, although it still includes depreciation, correctly mentions other fixed costs which don’t go away. In DC, as it turns out, you might not save anything by leaving your car in your driveway. Whatever you think of the merits of subsidizing public transportation, surely even the most reactionary of road warriors would admit that something’s wrong there.

What could be done to help fix this problem? One obvious answer is to pay for all of the costs of road use through the gasoline tax, instead of through a variety of non-user-fees as we do today (property and sales tax especially). The suburban regions of DC, like Texas, pay for a lot of their roads this way – meaning that you pay the same (hundreds to thousands of dollars a year) whether you drive 100, 10, or 0 miles a day. Anything which increases the variable cost of driving while leaving the fixed cost alone (or even decreasing it) can only help people make more efficient decisions about how to travel on each trip. Another obvious answer would be forcing insurance companies to deliver on mileage-based insurance (and, no, despite publicity, they really aren’t doing this today – or I’d be jumping all over it).

Ben White and I-35

This somewhat annoyingly self-conscious piece reiterates frustration many people have with the pace of interchange construction here in Austin, yet, as usual, nobody mentions the real problem.

FRONTAGE ROADS SUCK

Without the frontage roads and ancillary suburban metastasis, this interchange could have been upgraded in many different ways which would have been far cheaper and far quicker than the 5-level spaghetti bowl we’re ending up with here. Other states build freeways mostly without frontage roads, which also destroy the ability of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users to actually get anywhere.

The argument in Texas is usually that access to existing properties must be preserved – which flies in the face of reality considering that when most of these roads are upgraded to freeways (long before interchange debacles like this one), most of the strip malls don’t exist. On the rare occasions when access to existing properties simply must be preserved, other states do so either by shorter sections of frontage roads (noncontinuous) or by perimeter roads (examples along US101 in Santa Clara spring to mind). Neither of those choices, of course, allows the guys who own the land next to the freeway to cash in quite as readily.

Ironically, most Texans, when asked, seem to prefer these stupid things. While I can understand the layperson not getting it, it’s pretty hard to understand how responsible leaders in our area outside TXDOT’s cronysphere continue to support them, given the repeated examples of intersections which completely fail at moving traffic due to the stripsprawl their frontage roads generated (Braker/183, for instance, or Parmer/Mopac).
(Note to self: remember to write item about frontage road highway design severing existing connections across US 183, esp. northwest Austin).

More on the gas tax

Been posting to the blog Hammer of Judgement in comments, but thought I ought to excerpt the last comment here too:

#1: It doesn’t matter WHY they drive less, if you’re just measuring the regressivity of the gas tax. Whether it’s because they don’t have to, don’t want to, or CAN’T is irrelevant.
#2: Texas “highway system” comprises only roads with route shields on them, and even then, substantial donations in the form of property and sales taxes are required these days to get anything built. In addition, in Texas, most major arterials inside cities are NOT part of the state highway system, and thus get ZERO gas tax dollars.
This is not something you want to dispute me on, it’s the closest thing to a specialty I have. Here’s some starter links for you:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000173.html
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000164.html
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000122.html
pictures:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000117.html
entire category:
http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/cat_funding_of_transportation.html
#3: On anectdotes – the studies I cited aren’t available in their full form on the web (to me or you), but they go WAY beyond anectdotal data, since there are real studies behind those quotes, unlike most of the people who assert the gas tax’ regressivity.
#4: I don’t know where the 15% figure comes from; but even if true, the STATED REASON most people harp on the supposed regressivity of the gas tax is concern for the poorest people, not the middle class. Thus, showing that it’s regressive across middle and high incomes but NOT low incomes serves to refute the essential point.

Note that I cover the topic of roadway funding extensively in this category, including “what roads get gas taxes and what don’t”, “how do we pay for major roads”, “why does the state effectively subsidize the suburbs through the gas tax”, etc.

CAFE versus gas taxes – which works?

Kevin Drum likes CAFE. He believes that gas taxes are highly regressive. He’s wrong. But which one ‘works’ better? His argument rests on the last 5 years of generally rising fuel prices versus vehicle sales.

The problem is that the rise in fuel prices recently has been seen by most Americans as the result of gouging, or the result of storms, or hippie environmentalists or <insert other crazy reason>. Key here is that all of those things are temporary. Now, if you’re one of the few people who follows the real oil situation you know that we’re probably in for a period of ever-higher spikes and plateaus (with intervening drops due to recessions, perhaps), but most people don’t know this stuff.

If you think the last couple of years are an anomaly, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a fuel-efficient car. Therefore, using that period as an example of how higher fuel prices don’t affect vehicle choice as much as CAFE did is foolish. Better to look at Europe, where CAFE-like standards don’t really exist; but at the time of vehicle purchase, it is understood that gas taxes are very high and likely to stay that way.

Anyways, CAFE doesn’t work half as well as a high baseline for gas prices does. The real reason? Once you buy your car, if gas prices/taxes are low, there’s no real incentive to leave it in the driveway on any given day. With higher gas prices/taxes, however, there is an incentive to leave it at home and take the bus, or carpool, or whatever.
Addressed as a quickie since so many people around the interweb keep repeating this canard.

Toll Roads Help Central Austin, Part IV

The city is talking about amending the agreements with TXDOT about right-of-way participation for some local highways which are now, obviously, being rebranded as toll roads. This applies only to US 183 (east of I-35), US 290W, and SH 71 (east of I-35).

Note carefully the following facts:

  1. The city of Austin was on the hook for tens of millions of dollars for these roads, if they were to be built as freeways. The chance that this money would be extracted from Austin is 100%.
  2. The money for these contributions from the city to the state was authorized by the City Council in past cost-sharing agreements with TXDOT, which would require that bonds be floated like these examples in which voters authorized the city to borrow money for other recent highways.
  3. That borrowed money must be repaid by taxpayers in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, and other sources of revenue (mainly utility kickbacks). There is no contribution from gas taxes to the City of Austin budget. None.

What this means, in effect, is that the people in Central Austin who are disproportionately taxed on their properties (due to higher land values, not necessarily higher incomes) are paying these bills, and those are the people who drive the LEAST. Residents of the more sprawling parts of Austin are somewhere in the middle (pay less than Central Austin, get some benefit), and the real winners are people living in Dripping Springs, Bastrop, etc who pay nearly nothing and get most of the benefit of these particular roadways.
Now that the roads are being re-floated as tollways, the city is free (pending this agreement) to use this money (again, property and sales tax and utility dollars, NOT gas taxes) within the city limits of Austin for the needs of actual Austin taxpayers. And the people who most benefit from the roadways will actually have to pay for them.

What a communist idea.

Summary: toll roads are a winner for residents of Austin.

Double Taxation Isn’t Restricted To Roads

The anti-toll zealots, and in particular, Sal Costello like to whine and moan that tolling freeway expansions which are (mostly) paid for with gas tax money is “double taxation”. Left to the reader is the obvious implication that “double taxation” is a bad thing, and is new.

As you might have guessed, I’m here to tell you otherwise. First, a simple example.

Last weekend I drove down to Zilker Park on Sunday morning to play volleyball. (For reasons of time, I wasn’t able to bike, although I do that sometimes too). At the entrance to the loop which meanders through the river side of the park, there was a booth (A TOLLBOOTH!) set up, at which I paid 3 big bucks for the privilege of parking my car at the park.

BUT WAIT! Zilker Park was ALREADY PAID FOR by my property and sales tax dollars! How can this be? This is (organ music) DOUBLE TAXATION!

The fact is that suburbanites whining about toll roads have had it pretty good for a long time. They’ve had their road infrastructure subsidized by the center-city, they pay far less comparatively in property taxes, and they impose most of the negative externalities of driving on us center-city residents. Nobody in Circle C has to worry about an elevated freeway monster wrecking some of their neighbor’s houses and ruining everybody else’s outdoor activities.

Yes, they (but mostly us center-city folks) paid taxes to build these roads already. So toll roads, as designed in this case, are, in fact, (organ music) double taxation.

True libertarians (which many in this anti-toll coalition claim to be) would recognize toll roads as a baby step towards road pricing, which is the evil capitalist concept that the scarcity in road space ought to be managed by charging people to drive on it. These suburban republicans who like to call themselves libertarians instead advocate taxing everybody who drives (and a healthy chunk from those who don’t drive too) to build a freeway where the cost of driving is low, but there’s less incentive for each driver to explore alternate options to single-occupant commuting, so the road ends up crowded, just like, I don’t know, every single highway we build.

Just as in Zilker Park – if parking were free, every single space would be full, and the ring road would be a nonstop parade of cars futilely seeking space. At $3/car, however, there’s at least a small incentive for those whose utility is marginal to seek other solutions to the problem. (I might ride my bike; two of my friends might carpool; a third person might take the bus; somebody else might use the park during the week instead of the weekend; etc.)
So in summary: suburban Republicans like Sal Costello prefer the Soviet economic model – very low prices (subsidies from entire society), scarcity “managed” via long lines.

I hope this helped you understand the concept of double taxation and why we should all be against it.

Your pal,
Mike Dahmus Age 33