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.

Andy Cantú and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are dishonest, ignorant, or both.

Chamber says land reform is top transportation priority

That interest in return on investment opens the chamber up to critics who drubbed the 2014 light rail proposal as a suboptimal choice of projects. Its huge price tag and relatively low ridership projections – due in part to a route that bypassed some of the city’s densest neighborhoods – could have drastically cut into the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s operating budget, which could in turn have hurt the agency’s bus service, those critics argued.

“I don’t think I would characterize the 2014 bond proposal as a bad plan or a bad investment,” Cantú said in the chamber’s defense. “It might not have been the perfect plan. And I think a lot of people and groups in Austin are looking for perfection, and perfection is the enemy of good enough.”

He either doesn’t know the concept “worse than nothing” or knows it and doesn’t care. Ignorant or dishonest. You pick.

And, yes, this is important. The Chamber essentially picked that disastrous route for us, because the Mayor didn’t know anything about transportation and listened to their (bad) advice.

If the Chamber’s ‘new approach’ that identifies sprawl as bad does not include radical honesty about how bad the 2014 light rail plan was (instead extolling I-35 ‘improvements’ and more state highway ‘investment’), then they have learned nothing; we are all dumber for having listened to them. I award them no points; and may god have mercy on their souls.

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Shame on Commissioner Weatherby and Mayor Adler

As a former proud member of the city’s Urban Transportation Commission, I am disgusted with Cynthia Weatherby’s transparently obvious water-carrying for Mayor Adler in making clearly false statements about the CACDC rail plan. Shame on you.

Had my sponsor asked me to say anything that was this dishonest to the public, I would have immediately resigned my position in protest. It’s to his credit that he never did ask for anything like that when marketing a transportation issue, unlike Mayor Adler (this is the second time it has become clear that Adler has sent his appointee to a commission with less than savory instructions).

Urban Transportation Commission talks rail, sidewalks, bond dismay

Please read CACDC’s comprehensive, detailed, response to her claims.

Hey KUT, wha happen?

An awful lot of people parroted the same talking points supported by your cards (i.e. the large print) in your ‘explainer’ article and ignored statements from uber and lyft to the contrary (only stated as “The companies say they cannot operate […]” in the small text).

What do I mean?

Here’s one example of your explanation of what a yes/no vote would mean:

Prop1YESNO_tradedress

Note that both side of the card start with Uber and lyft (will/must). Meaning that surely KUT meant to tell their readers/listeners that if they voted NO to the proposition, psychiatrist that uber and lyft would do some things that we wanted them to do while continuing to offer rides here, approved right?

Huh. Here we are immediately after the election, and what happened?

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uber

But wait. That can’t be right! Let’s look at KUT’s card again. Maybe we read it wrong.

Prop1YESNO_tradedress

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Wait, it still seems to say that if we voted NO, Uber and lyft drivers would be forced to do the things that we want.

If only some internet crank had warned you the language was misleading ahead of the election, I’m sure you would have done the right thing.

Wha’ happen, KUT?

Checking in

I don’t post very much, as the state of urbanist and transit advocacy in Austin has depressed it out of me, but as a reminder, I’m still alive, if barely, and you can get a lot of updates on facebook in #atxfreedomurbanists or on twitter.

Two important facebook comments in a thread fighting against a member of the establishment I thought it worth copying here and cleaning up before I go. Blockquotes (italics in most themes) are my words; things in quotes are the guy I was responding to).

The first:

I have my honesty and my integrity, which are worth a lot. It means that in the future, when I say something, people don’t have to think “does he really mean that?”. Or “is he exaggerating for the benefit of somebody or something else and doesn’t really know what he’s talking about?”

And the second (most of it):

“At least you have ideological purity in snaky Facebook posts, that is even better than a seat at the table for sure.”

Playing along with the bad guys is what the Alliance for Public Transportation did. They got nothing out of it. I fought them. I won. I beat a bad project which would have made things worse. And the people who were dishonest and disingenuous in service of Proposition 1 have to live with that. People should take what they say in the future with many grains of salt, as they were willing to be dishonest in the service of power. I’m not.

Show me why it’s worth my while to change. Show me an example of somebody like me who played along and was able to change the power structure instead of getting subsumed by it (or just having nothing good happen). Then I might listen, if the example is good enough and compelling enough. Until then, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.

“but no one in a position of power or authority gives a rats ass about what you say, because of how you present your opinion and maintain your relationships. ”

is a personal attack, by the way, and it’s also dishonest. The people who say substantively the same things but in a nicer way also get nowhere. The people who modify their message enough to get heard in this political environment are modifying it to the point where it is no longer substantively *true*. IE, the A4PT may have gotten listened to, but they did by basically lying to the public and to themselves. What good did that do anybody?

And of course remember again that the A4PT got listened to by lying to the public and to themselves, and then LOST. Don’t forget. Never forget.

Know how you can tell they’re not honest?

Capital Metro edition

Yes, it’s been a while1.

In a recent twitter thread, Karl-Thomas Musselman posted the tweet below. I am making this blog post to capture it so that this well-made point is not lost in the twitter memory hole.

The graphic comes from Capital Metro’s 2016 approved budget on page 48. The full graphic is after this paragraph. What do you think this kind of choice in axis scaling suggests about Capital Metro’s honesty on rail subsidies?

Page 48, Capital Metro 2016 Approved Budget
Page 48, Capital Metro 2016 Approved Budget

  1. Note: I have not blogged much this year because the actions of Julio Gonzalez-Altamirano and others, especially linked with AURA, have made my investment in public affairs significantly less effective. This lack of content is likely to continue as long as the urbanist community decides his approach and style are preferable.  

Longtweet about courthouse endorsement by supposed urbanists

I don’t have time or the will to blog on anything these days, but this was too long for twitter, really, although I sort of did it there anyways.

One of the many dishonest paragraphs in AURA’s disappointingly dishonest endorsement of the new courthouse bond is:

Others express concern about using a parcel that is unencumbered by Capitol View Corridors. Capitol View Corridors limit the height in some parts of the city so that the State Capitol can be seen from a number of angles. There are ways to mitigate this problem. One approach is state legislative action. A second approach is for the Austin City Council to expand the number of blocks in downtown or near downtown entitled for central business district-style development.

It is true that others have expressed concern about CVCs. And it’s true that getting them modified is very very hard.

It’s also true that if getting the CVC preventing full use of the blocks around the existing courthouse is hard, like, running a marathon hard, getting more blocks around downtown zoned CBD is hard like running a marathon underwater without a scuba tank or snorkel while being attacked by sharks hard.

It’s fundamentally dishonest (in the disingenous) sense to just answer, as Julio has done, “we should expand downtown” as if it’s some kind of answer to the “they didn’t try very hard to get CVCs out of the way so they could use one of the several existing blocks that don’t generate tax revenue and are already owned by the county and already on the transit spine”. It’s basically the equivalent of a repeating gag on one of my favorite new shows, modified here with my favorite tools: google image search, cut and paste, and MSPaint. Nothing but the best thing zero dollars, zero skill, zero talent, and negative five minutes can buy is good enough for the artistic sensibilities of my readers!

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#atxrail classic courtesy of Central Austin CDC

The insiders who messed up Proposition 1 still haven’t come to terms with what they did, so I’m not going to let it sit either. Here’s something not to forget; when certain political actors try to pretend there was some kind of consensus behind the choice that got spanked at the polls instead of the one that was never allowed to be studied:

https://twitter.com/cdcatx/status/585817756165021696/

atxrail1

A short addition to the Honesty Agenda

Saturday while at my son’s chess tournament and writing this article, I also stumbled across an old exchange (pre-election) between some folks in AURA (obviously not myself as I just found this discussion a couple of days ago) and one of the people in the Prop 1 campaign. The Prop 1 person indicated they “don’t do facebook battles” and wanted to set up a face to face meeting (this same person offered once to do the same thing with me).

20141031responsetolangmore

This happened to me other times too. During the Prop 1 issue, I got 5 or 6 offers to meet privately – usually on twitter – from people who would not communicate on the issue publically. I took one person up on it (mine said they didn’t do ‘twitter battles’) and had a lunch at Zocalo, in which no minds were changed. I also saw no serious public response; not even once; to the legitimate concerns raised by myself and other members of AURA. Basically, these folks want to be able to say their piece, and then never answer for it – and they think that if they can only get you one-on-one, they’ll be able to convince you to change your mind1. It’s a fundamentally insulting, and, quite frankly, dishonest worldview – akin to believing that they are the rational adults and you are just a willful child; and if they can isolate you from your peer group, you will bend to their will. Or, another common belief is that people on our side could not possibly believe what we were saying – so maybe face to face we could be convinced to see reason. Perhaps, the goal was to claim to persuadable folks in the middle that “we tried to meet with them and discuss their concerns but they said no”, as if it’s reasonable to expect that a guy with a suburban office job and young kids can get downtown every day of the week for individual meetings.

It’s not only the hangers-on that did this. I’ve seen the same thing from actual Capital Metro employees. And it has to stop. To me, if it’s not said in public where everybody can see, it doesn’t count. And if you lack the courage of your convictions enough to answer your critics, that says that you are not truly being honest. And no, John Langmore, a broadside a day before the election repeating the same talking points you used the whole time does not count.

As it turns out, a local executive tried desperately to fix things at the last minute by getting Leffingwell, Spelman, and a few others together with representatives from AURA and OurRail in which the willful children were asked, finally, by the mediator, what it would take to get them to vote for the plan. The changes offered by the ‘adults’ were meaningless, of course, because even immediately before getting pantsed at the polls, the bubble they put themselves in prevented them from believing that the pro-transit criticism of the plan was legitimate.

And by then it was far too late – the plan could not be changed in any meaningful way; the failure by the self-proclaimed adults to listen to and/or publically address those many legitimate arguments had doomed the proposition to a significant defeat at the polls (which is, granted, better for transit than if the bad plan had actually passed, but nowhere near as good as if the bad plan had been scuttled before being placed on the ballot).

Austin deserves better. Demand better.


  1. I had a typo in here for a long time; thanks, actually, to JD Gins, for inadvertently pointing it out in March 2015