Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid, June 2005 Update

Today’s Statesman article continues their tradition of blindly accepting whatever Capital Metro says about the transit plan (which was, not coincidentally, innocuous enough not to piss off the real estate interests who largely shape the Statesman’s editorial content).

For background on what Rapid Bus really is, and why it’s a rip-off for central Austin taxpayers (who get nearly nothing out of the commuter rail plan but pay most of the bills) check the links at the bottom.

Short summary: The people in the densest neighborhoods (including the about-to-open Triangle) who actually WANT to use transit are getting nothing more than a lousy stuck-in-traffic slightly-fancier version of the #101, i.e., a BUS which is MUCH SLOWER THAN THEIR CARS. NO, holding a green light for a couple of seconds ISN’T GOING TO MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE. It’ll be the cars IN FRONT OF THE BUS, sometimes stacked up through several intersections up ahead, that most affect its speed, not the traffic lights.
The people out in the suburbs who don’t really want transit and don’t pay most of the bills anyways are getting a commuter rail line which, as long as they don’t mind changing to a SHUTTLE BUS at the end of the trip, will take them downtown. Oh, and if they’re lucky enough to work directly at the Convention Center, it’ll be competitive with their cars.
All this instead of a scaled back version of the 2000 light rail plan, which would have served BOTH suburban AND urban residents with transit which was competitive with their cars AND dropped them off directly at UT, the Capitol, and downtown.

The Statesman Loves New Construction

The Statesman has long been reviled by environmentalists as the RealEstatesman, with an apparent bias towards new greenfield construction (whose purveyors consume a substantial majority of the advertising space in the paper). This weekend’s fluff piece on the AMD development is no exception.

As SOS points out in an email today:

Then there’s the classic error by omission: the Statesman has been pathological in failing to report opposition to AMD’s move by Austin Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, Liveable City, and Texas Clean Water Action. Instead, their reporting has only listed SOS Alliance as opposing.

This is extra special since the Statesman has been giving Livable City plenty of coverage over the last year or two.
also:

AMD’s proposed move would increase traffic over the Barton Springs watershed, as over 60% of AMD’s employees here don’t live in Southwest Austin. If AMD moves to Stratus’ land, 100% of AMD’s employees would be commuting over the Barton Springs watershed.

Personally, I think both SOS and the Statesman have dropped the ball on the transportation analysis – it’s fairly likely that a site downtown would reduce employees’ commutes even more, since it’s at dead-center for the region. IE, if 58% of AMD’s employees live within 10 miles of the Southwest Parkway site, it’s hard to imagine that a smaller proportion live within 10 miles of downtown, given the geography of the area. There simply isn’t enough residential development farther south of AMD to account for enough trips to make that true. All of the employees who live southeast, central, east, west-central, and especially north and northwest would be closer to work downtown. And employers who locate downtown put far less of a burden on the infrastructure than employers in the suburbs — more people bike, ride the bus, walk to lunch, etc.

So it’s crystal-clear to me at least that reducing EMPLOYEE commutes has nothing to do with AMD’s decision. Reducing the CEO’S commute, on the other hand, is likely part of the reason for AMD’s site selection…

TOD isn’t going to help ASG

This weekend, the Statesman (link coming later if I can locate the story online, which so far is not happening) ran a story summarizing the current state of the TOD (transit-oriented development) ordinance(s) centering around the stations for the commuter rail line being built by Capital Metro in their ASG (All Systems Go) plan.
Summary:

  • Neighborhoods are against it in every case.
  • Up north, where there’s a ton of space around the station, neighborhoods mainly just want the area covered by the ordinance to shrink.
  • Down southeast, they want affordable housing targets which are going to be too onerous to be practical, AND they want reductions in height and density.
  • Nearly all mandates or requirements in the ordinance, other than affordable housing set-asides, have been watered down to suggestions and incentives.
  • Maximum height and density levels originally proposed around stations will likely be drastically reduced in the final ordinance.

Remember what I told you last month – unlike the light rail plan in 2000, this commuter rail line operates down right-of-way which runs through neighborhoods that don’t want any more density (and there’s not enough political will to do it against their wishes). And, of course, they don’t have (much) density now either. Compare to the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, where neighborhoods that do irresponsibly fight density end up losing anyways — because there IS political will to stand fast and tell them that single-family-only low-density sprawl doesn’t belong in the central city. And, of course, substantially more density currently exists there than anywhere along the commuter rail corridor. Hyde Park and North University and West Campus already have the kind of density that TOD would bring to these commuter rail line neighborhoods.

So this rail line relies much more heavily on future development around stations to produce its intended passenger load than did the more traditional light rail line proposed in 2000 (that line had enough current residents within walking distance of stations to make the Feds very enthusiastic about its prospects – TOD would have just been an added bonus there).
Thus, the additional ridership generated by TOD is a critical piece of the ‘business case’ for this commuter rail line. Unfortunately, thanks to the Council basically rolling over and dying for these neighborhoods, there won’t be much TOD at all when the thing’s finally done. Capital Metro can only hope that the Feds ignore the technical wording of the ordinance which eventually passes and instead responds to the meaningless empty words promoting it. Unfortunately, the Feds have shown little willingness to get this deep on other projects around the country (meaning that they give money to projects that don’t merit it, and don’t give money to projects that do).

Letter in Chronicle

Letter from me in today’s Chronicle. Text at the end of this dispatch.
and today’s Statesman takes up the same subject (Transit Oriented Development – commonly abbreviated as TOD) again – using East Hillsboro Oregon (suburb of Portland) as their model. When are the cheerleaders going to get it – you get TOD IF AND ONLY IF your rail line has demonstrated a year or three of high ridership from people who CHOSE to ride rail, not from people who HAD to ride public transit?
For the I Told You So watch:

A fight is looming: The neighborhood plans that already exist for Plaza Saltillo and the areas around the Lamar and MLK stops don’t call for the kind of intense density city leaders want around rail stations.

As I pointed out several times during the run-up to the election, one of the many problems with the routing of this commuter rail line is that it runs through neighborhoods that don’t want any additional development, rather than down Lamar/Guadalupe where additional development is regarded as inevitable (although my own wildly irresponsible neighborhood does their best to counteract city-wide sanity on this regard).

(Chronicle Letter):

Cold Water on TOD
Dear Editor,
I hate to throw cold water on the frenzy over TOD (transit-oriented development) [“Here Comes the Train,” News, Jan. 28], but it’s worth remembering that no commuter rail start in the U.S. in recent memory has generated any transit-oriented development worth noting. In fact, all of the TOD that has occurred in the U.S. in most of our lifetimes has been around light rail starts which had to first demonstrate a high level of ridership from new transit customers (i.e., not just those who used to take the bus, but new customers to transit).

This is how Dallas, Denver, Portland, Salt Lake, and Minneapolis have gotten and are continuing to get great new urban buildings around their light-rail lines.

The key here is that thanks to Mike Krusee and naive pro-transit people in Austin, we’re not getting a rail line like those cities got (which goes where people actually want to go from day one); we’re getting one like South Florida got (which requires shuttle buses to get anywhere worth going). South Florida’s commuter line has yet (after 15 years) to generate one lousy square-foot of TOD.

Regards,
Mike Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission

Commuter Rail Is Not Light Rail, Part 851

Or: A letter I just wrote to the Statesman which they probably won’t publish:

Many of your readers and a significant number of public boosters of the commuter rail proposal on the ballot November 2nd appear to be confused as to the nature of the project. Referring to cities such as Salt Lake City and Portland as rail success stories is misleading in this context, ince those cities are succeeding with LIGHT RAIL (like we narrowly voted down in 2000), not COMMUTER RAIL. The only recent example of a system like the one we’re voting on comes from South Florida – it relies exclusively on “high-frequency circulators” (shuttle buses) while all the success stories mentioned have stations within walking distance of existing offices and shops. South Florida’s line has been an unmitigated disaster that after 15 years still carries only 12,000 passengers a day on a far longer corridor than the one we’re contemplating building.

Letter to Editor

This letter was just sent today to the Statesman (registration required to view):

In Monday’s column, Ben Wear places the population in two categories – those who oppose rail transit in general, such as Gerald Daugherty, and those who support Capital Metro’s current plan. However, it’s my experience that a growing number of urban Austinites, after taking a look at the plan, are realizing that it’s a poor attempt at a starter system that will be, as a colleague on the Urban Transportation Commission aptly described it, a “finisher” system rather than a starter line.

Any first attempt at rail transit for a metropolitan area must deliver passengers to stations within walking distance of their office in order to attract a non-trivial number of people who can choose whether or not to use transit. Capital Metro’s plan requires nearly all riders to transfer to shuttle buses for the final portion of their journey and will therefore, like South Florida’s Tri-Rail line, doubtllessly be a huge disappointment from day one.

The Urban Transportation Commission at its last meeting unanimously voted to ask Capital Metro to include a referendum on the rail ballot asking the voter to indicate their preference among a set of 4 options, including several plans which solve the “circulator” problem.

In the future, please do not pigeonhole the entire area into the categories of “against all rail transit” and “for Capital Metro’s ‘finisher’ system”. The residents of the city of Austin (who voted FOR light rail in 2000, by the way) deserve better.

Regards,
Michael E. Dahmus
Urban Transportation Commission