Don’t Kid Yourself: Commuter Rail Precludes Light Rail

A lot of the effort to mollify center-city people like me who are disappointed that Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan does nothing for the densest residential neighborhoods of the city and doesn’t deliver passengers to the two largest potential attractors (UT and state capitol) has gone into two messages:

The first message is “commuter rail is just like light rail” – relatively few people have bought this, outside the suburbs, since they know that rail going down Airport Blvd. isn’t going to do anything for any corridors where there’s any real density today or where density in the future is even remotely attractive. This has morphed into “once we double-track and build more stations, you center-city folks can just catch a quick bus to or from the commuter rail station” which I have a hard time believing is fooling anybody, but you never know. I’ve talked a bit about this and plan on doing more in a later article, but not today.

Capital Metro’s words are:

Commuter Rail
Urban Service
Operating on existing freight tracks, this line from Leander to Downtown could provide convenient service for both suburban and central city passengers.

The second message, and the one I’ll talk about today, is the idea that we can get light rail in the urban core “later” if we approve this plan now. The genius of this message is that it does a fairly good job of lumping opponents like me in with kooky pie-in-the-sky non-pragmatists who are unwilling to get something running on the ground because of the pursuit of the perfect solution.

The problem is that this message is misleading at best, and a lie at worst. The reason to oppose this plan is because it’s deadly to future transit operations in this city. IE, not just because it doesn’t do enough right away, but because it will actively prevent more effective solutions from ever happening.

Two of the strongest constituencies for ridership in the original (2000) rail plan (which was destroyed primarily through legislative manuevering by Mike Krusee) were state workers and university people. With the 2000 plan, the state workers who live anywhere in the northwest corner of the metro area could have driven to a station, boarded the rail, and rode it straight to the Capitol. Roughly the first 2/3 of the length of this trip would have been on what is now the commuter rail line; i.e., completely separate right-of-way. The remaining third would have followed the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor with prioritization far exceeding that which the new Rapid Bus will get.

The university was going to be a huge attractor for ridership in two ways. Like state workers, university workers (or students) could board anywhere along the route and get delivered directly to the destination (at least, on Guadalupe St., which is close enough to walk to anywhere at UT). A second group of riders would be travelling to the UT satellite campus on Burnet Rd. north of US 183. The mere fact that a rail link would exist between the two campuses (again, walking distance on both ends) was going to provide a powerful core of riders on day one.


The current commuter rail plan, for reference, requires both of these constituencies to transfer to shuttle buses to reach their final destination. This, as I’ve pointed out before, means that anybody who has a car and can afford parking will never ride this route.The shuttle transfer kills the performance of the transit trip to the point where only people who don’t own cars or have difficult parking situations would consider it, as is the case with today’s express bus lines.

So what about a future light rail line, as Capital Metro winks and nods might someday fill this gap? There are at least three obvious reasons why this won’t happen (at least, in a way which solves these constituencies’ travel problems).

  1. A new light rail line down Guadalupe/Lamar, if commuter rail is built, cannot follow the original 2000 path northwest on the current rail right-of-way. The two vehicles have completely incompatible trackage, even if scheduling issues could be resolved. In fact, I have a hard time believing it’s feasible to even have a light rail line on this corridor cross the commuter rail line, making even transfers an incredibly difficult proposition. Thus, the areas where we were counting on the most long-distance residential travel cannot be served even if we get a new light rail line down the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.
  2. The operation of the commuter rail line, in my opinion, will swamp Capital Metro with enough additional operating costs that they will be unable to resume saving even 1/4 cent of their sales tax money (as they could today). See previous articles by me for why I think this system is not going to attract significant ridership compared to the light rail model – in short, no area like us in the last ten years has started with commuter rail for a very good reason: they saw what happened in South Florida.
  3. The investment in the so-called rapid bus vehicles is going to be difficult to abandon, both financially and politically. There aren’t many corridors in Austin where these vehicles could be shifted (physical constraints). The pressure to keep this crappy part of the system running is going to be very very hard to beat.

So, I think anybody who’s tempted to vote for this plan with the ‘understanding’ that we can come back later and solve the needs of actual Austin residents rather than pandering to Cedar Park ought to think twice.

Bus Reliability

This morning, after I finished a short interview with KLBJ-AM’s morning news show (despite being well-meaning in their attempts to cover local issues, the format isn’t very helpful – I only spoke about ten sentences total), I rode my bike to the bus stop at 38th and Medical Parkway. Since I was up extra early, my choices were to take the #3 bus at 7:16 (arriving up near my office at 7:44) or take the more comfortable and quicker express bus at 7:48 (arriving near my office at 8:08).

I arrived at the bus stop about 5 minutes early (late for me), and waited. And waited. And waited. The bus finally showed up at about 7:30.

It’s now 8:03 and I’m finally at my desk. And by the way, thanks to the motorists on Jollyville who were relatively understanding of my slow cycling due to the water. I didn’t get splashed once.

The bus wasn’t late because it makes a lot of stops. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus wasn’t late because it travels on city streets instead of the freeway. That’s factored into the schedule.

The bus was late because of unpredictable traffic downtown. And because there’s no transit priority (bus lanes or other) anywhere downtown, the bus suffers when cars jam the streets.

Now, compare and contrast to Capital Metro’s so-called “rapid bus” proposal. Their bus would run through downtown in shared lanes with cars, just like today’s #3 did. In downtown and through UT, it is unlikely that it would have been able to hold any lights green (without destroying the sequencing of the lights on that corridor). It would have been able to hold a few lights green outside downtown (but, when I got on the bus at 38th/Medical, we didn’t hit more than 2 red lights all the way up to my stop at Braker and Jollyville – and at one of those, we had stopped to pick up passengers anyways).

In short: the “rapid” bus wouldn’t have been any more reliable than the city bus I took this morning. And that’s not good enough for the taxpayers of Austin.

Rapid Bus Fact Sheet

Over lunch today, I produced this Rapid Bus Fact Sheet which attempts to (before the conclusion) analyze some common BRT treatments and objectively specify which are being used in Capital Metro’s proposal, and what impact they might have on competitiveness with existing bus service and with the car.

It’s Rapid Bus, Folks

Short entry: I went down to Cap Metro at 11 for a briefing on the new different long-range transit plan (they’re not ready for open-records stuff yet so they were only willing to talk to 4 people from our commission at a time) and yes, the urban core of Austin is getting screwed. Rail for people in the densest parts of town is now gone; replaced with “rapid bus” lines, which do not include plans for any knd of prioritization beyond the “keep the green light a few seconds longer”.

In other words, the far suburbs, many of whom don’t pay taxes to Cap Metro, are getting commuter rail; and the urban core, where most of the money comes from, is getting a slightly better version of the #101.

Cap Metro just got a new worst enemy. I don’t expect to have any influence over the outcome, but I can and will make the people responsible for this decision as miserable as possible.

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.