You don’t get TOD with buses (or commuter rail)

I still have the RealVideo from the City Council Meeting up (was following the Shoal Creek debacle) and there’s a well-meaning guy from Oak Hill trying to get the Council to approve a TOD out there on a Rapid Bus line. Time to dispel a few illusions:

  1. You don’t get TOD without the perception of permanence. Rapid Bus ain’t it. Even BRT ain’t it. Only rail works. People don’t buy into a development where getting to their cars is expensive or inconvenient UNLESS the transit alternative is clearly going to be there for the long-haul. Buses’ infamous “flexibility” works against them here.
  2. You don’t get TOD with commuter rail. You need frequent headways (which this line won’t have) and one-stop rides to some major destinations (which this line won’t have). So even on our commuter rail line, TOD ain’t gonna happen.

What CAN you put on the ground to stimulate TOD? Something like our 2000 light rail plan (which would have been a one-stop ride from northwest Austin through the center-city to UT, the Capitol, and downtown) works, in city after city after city after city after city. Subways and monorails would work too – there’s no chance those rails are going away next year. Buses don’t. Not even fancy buses with nice signs at their stops which tell you how much delayed your next bus is since it’s stuck in traffic behind everybody else’s car.

It’s Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan “light rail” or “light rail like” or “light ‘commuter’ rail”, etc. This has done its job – most laypeople continue to call what ASG’s building “light rail” even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar “Rapid Bus” plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell “rapid bus” schemes as “as good as rail” to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

— In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
>Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and
planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.
What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn’t and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.
What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we’ll never get to the expansions.
This is a “one and done” line.
It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).
It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don’t know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you’re not stupid, and had hoped you weren’t a liar.
_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.
This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.
What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.
There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been ‘proven’ that rail ‘doesn’t work’.
As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn’t being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.
Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon’s Dishonesty

Lessons from the Shoal Creek debacle

Michael Bluejay, who runs the largest and most comprehensive site on bicycling in Austin, wrote a letter which appears in this week’s Chronicle. The letter refers to the infamous Shoal Creek debacle.

Lessons can be learned here.

Lesson 1: Don’t bet against Mike Dahmus. He’ll lose, but he’ll be right. :+) This comment comes from an anonymous contributor whose missive is stored for posterity on Michael’s site on the Shoal Creek debacle:

I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning. Although originally, I was very hopeful that a community consensus could be reached that could benefit everyone (and possibly even improve relations amongst the diverse users of SCB), I see now that I was completely naive. What we have now is little better than what we had originally: parking in bike lanes. I’m still hopeful that traffic will be a little calmer, but I doubt that drivers will remain in their lanes, and cyclists riding near the stripe will be at risk of being struck.
Any possibility that a mutually beneficial result could emerge from a consensus-based process — however slight — was completely dashed when the whole process was hijacked by Paul Nagy. There was a point where Gandy had hood-winked everyone into thinking a panacea solution existed, when he should have known better that his “solution” would never make it past city engineers. (I actually don’t feel bad at being deceived by this snake oil, as so many others — except Dahmus — were also taken in, including many from the bike community.) I place full blame for that on Gandy for playing politics by trying to please everyone when it’s clear that that is impossible. We hired him as an “expert,” and clearly he is not.

Lesson 2: Don’t negotiate away your core positions. On Shoal Creek, car-free bike lanes should have been non-negotiable. (They were, for me).

Lesson 3: Don’t dig yourself in a hole. The Shoal Creek neighbors successfully (against my vote) got Shoal Creek downgraded to a residential collector (from a minor arterial) which then made it easier for them to make misleading claims like “this is a residential street so we have to have on-street parking on both sides of the street”. (“residential collector” is not the same thing as “residential street” in technical terms – the former is expected to maintain traffic flow and access over parking). Shoal Creek is, by objective measures, a minor arterial (it’s almost 5 miles from 38th st to Foster, the length which was downgraded; and has no intersections where cross-traffic does not stop or have a light). So in an effort to be nice, the UTC supported the downgrade, which made it easier later on to mislead some people into thinking that restricting parking on the road was an unreasonable imposition.

Applications to the current commuter rail situation:

1. Obvious. :+)

2. Non-negotiable positions should be that at least one and preferrably two major employment attractors should be reached within walking distance without a transfer. IE, no change to shuttle-bus; no change to streetcars. Center-city folks should have fought Capital Metro when it came to running rail down corridors where people wanted it in ’00 rather than where Mike Krusee wants it in ’04. This is the most critical error in my estimation – people who really want rail to succeed in Austin got snookered into thinking that they could negotiate it with Capital Metro when Capital Metro already had its own non-negotiable position (i.e. do what Mike Krusee wants). The result was: no rail to Mueller; no rail to Seaholm; transfers to all major attractors; no service in the center-city residential areas.

3. Mike Krusee won here, big-time. Capital Metro’s allies should have fought the early election he forced in 2000 (making CM go to the polls with a rail plan they weren’t really ready to discuss – they hadn’t even figured out what streets it would run on downtown yet; they were clearly shooting for a timeframe of May 2001 or so until Krusee wrote the infamous bill).

Now, for the big finish:

What damage was done?

This isn’t a silly question. There are those who think that the Shoal Creek debacle didn’t do any harm, since we started out wth parked cars in bike lanes and are ending up with parked cars in marked shoulders.

Damage in the Shoal Creek case: Precedent was set that car-free bike lanes can be vetoed by neighborhoods. The previous bike coordinator had already made it city policy not to build new (or support existing) bike lanes on residential streets; and it was commonly understood BEFORE this debacle that any city changes to collectors and arterials would, while soliciting neighborhood INPUT, NOT be subject to an implicit VETO. IE, collectors and especially arterials serve the needs of far more than the immediate residents.

Now, not so much. Notice that Michael correctly points out that the media now thinks the SCB process was a model of new consensus-based charette-including everybody-holding-hands everybody-won neighborhoods-centric bike-friendly delicious-candy-flavored planning that resulted in sunshine and butterflies for all.

In addition, at the city level, because so many smart people in the bicycle community were part of this process (snookered by it, you might say), the city thinks that the end-result was what the cyclists and the neighbors wanted. Basically, the cycling community (except yours truly) is now implicitly linked to this plan, in the minds of the people who matter.

In short: their names are on this piece of garbage.

As for commuter rail – the same lesson holds. The groups who lobbied so hard to work WITH Capital Metro before the final ballot proposal was set were fighting very hard for some minor improvements to the ASG plan, but made it clear from the beginning that they’d support it anyways. Now, these center-city groups are linked to this plan irrevocably – if I’m right, and it doesn’t attract riders, then they’ll have been on the record as supporting a plan which will have been found to be a stupid failure. Do you think that’ll affect their future credibility?

Don’t sign on to something you can’t support. The end.

First pro-rail lie of the campaign

I had hoped the pro-rail guys wouldn’t sink to the depths of the ROAD wingnuts from the ’00 election, but am rapidly being disabused of that notion.

From the news page of New Ways To Connect, the pro-commuter-rail PAC:

Q. What does the Urban Commuter Rail Line do for the Central City?
Transit supports pedestrian-friendly communities. Eight of the nine stops are in the City of Austin ; five of these are in the Central City. It provides the backbone of a system that includes nine stations where commuters can connect to fast shuttle service to get to popular destinations around Austin . In addition, Capital Metro’s All System’s Go proposal calls for more bus and express bus routes, as well as the introduction of 133 miles of new rapid bus technology to help get people to popular destinations quickly. There are advantages for the entire community.

Rebuttal:

NONE of the stops are near high-density residential areas commonly referred to as the central city (NO, AIRPORT BOULEVARD IS NOT CENTER-CITY AUSTIN). NONE of the stops are in pedestrian-oriented areas. NONE of the stops are in areas which have indicated through neighborhood planning that they are willing to accept additional infill (in fact, the stations in what passes for dense areas in this plan are in neighborhoods which are vigorously fighting infill). NONE of the stops are within walking distance of the biggest pockets of transit-oriented development in this city both present and future (Mueller, West Campus, Triangle, Hyde Park, 38th corridor).

Rapid Bus is nothing more than modest improvements to existing Limited service on the true urban corridor (Guadalupe/Congress). It’s not what ANYBODY asked for. Shuttles aren’t “quick”; they’re stuck in traffic just like existing buses. And requiring people to transfer in order to get anywhere useful (which this system does) does not attract people who can choose whether or not to drive.

This is almost, but not quite, as bad as the ’00 ads run by Skaggs and Company which misled voters into thinking that Capital Metro was still under a cloud with the Feds (by putting up old Statesman articles while not making it clear how old they were).

Clarifying future of rail

A lot of the people who, like me, are disgusted with the pitiful attempt at a rail network being foisted on ys by Capital Metro have decided, tactically, that their best course of action is to hold their nose, vote yes, and then work to extend and improve the plan after the starter line is built. This basically sums up the positions of the two guys who presented on the panel with me last Wednesday at the Austin Neighborhoods’ Council meeting.

They believe that if this package is supported, that we can then go back and get real urban rail service down the real urban rail corridor – that being Lamar/Guadalupe. And of course we’ll get rail to Mueller (which is being touted as a transit-oriented development). And probably to Seaholm and the Capitol while we’re at it.

I’m going to demolish that idea right now, as if you couldn’t guess.

1. Capital Metro is no longer even pretending that light-rail will ever happen on that corridor. Early versions of the All Systems Go press included comments that Rapid Bus could be a “placeholder for future rail service”. This is no longer being said, not even off the record. I’ve mentioned before that there are practical obstacles to implementing light-rail in this corridor if commuter rail is built, even up the Lamar corridor to northeast Austin, and that’s nowhere near as good a line as the initial 2000 path would have been (and of course THAT path is absolutely precluded by commuter rail).

2. Building the entire ASG network does nothing for urban Austin that the starter line doesn’t already do (that being nearly nothing). The additional commuter line down Mopac won’t have any stations near any walkable residential areas – in fact, it’s even worse than the starter line in that regard.

3. Other proposed improvements such as downtown streetcars will only make a minor dent in the transfer problem. Keep in mind that streetcars don’t get their own lane – so if a lane is full of cars, the streetcar is going to be going just as slowly as your shuttle bus. Some naive pro-transit people think they can solve the “three attractors” problem with streetcar as well as ’00 light rail would have – but you’re still stuck with a 3 (or even 4, if you need to go to the Capitol or UT) seat ride; and it’s still stuck in traffic.

4. None of the proposed expansions or improvements bring rail to any of the high-density residential areas in town. Not to Mueller. Not to West Campus. Not to South Congress. Not to Hyde Park.

Folks, I can’t make this any clearer: if you vote for this plan, you are voting AGAINST rail for Hyde Park, for North University, for West Campus, for South Congress. You are voting AGAINST rail to the University of Texas, to the State Capitol, and to the center of downtown.

What you’re voting FOR is rail from Leander to the Convention Center. If that seems like a good idea to you in isolation, go for it. But don’t hang your hat on winks and nods; the fact is that even if Capital Metro WANTED to help you, they’re not going to be able to do it.