The Austin Suburban Childrens’ Museum

Sorry for the long break. I’ve been on business trips to Jebusland for 3 of the last 7 weeks, malady about it and had a vacation in the middle, angina and very busy even when here. Although I’m still busy, order I at least have a minute (not enough time to grab any good pictures; since my google-fu was too weak to get something quickly).

I took the family on a short vacation to visit family in State College, home of Penn State (where I went to school and spent the first 9 years of my life – my grandmother still lives in the same neighborhood as the Paternos). On this trip, since my wife is still recovering from Achilles surgery, we didn’t spend much time walking through campus as we normally would – we instead spent our time driving around the edges of campus. This was an interesting contrast for me, since I spend quite a bit of time driving around the edge of another major university’s campus right here in Austin. Let’s compare.

Penn State:

There’s a signed and marked bike route which starts on the north end of campus (which is bounded by the old residential neighborhood in which my grandmother lives). This bike route says “Campus and Downtown”. It was added shortly before my college years but has been improved since then on each end and consists mainly of off-street paths (sharrows on the street in the neighborhood north of campus, although done poorly). Automobile traffic can still enter the campus from the north in several places, but is then shunted off to the corners – you can no longer go completely through campus from north to south by automobile. Pedestrian accomodations on this side of campus haven’t changed for decades – a pleasant cool walk under tons and tons of trees.

On the south side of campus is the downtown area – the area most analogous to The Drag; fronting College Avenue, part of a one-way couplet which carries State Route 26 through the area (other half is two blocks away, called Beaver Avenue). College Avenue has two through lanes of traffic. Shops line the road at a pleasingly short pedestrian-oriented setback, except for a few places (one a church, one a surface parking lot). Pedestrians, counting both sides of the street, get a bit more space than do cars – and cars have to stop almost every block at a traffic light. The speed limit here is 25; you can rarely go that fast. There is plenty of on-street parking. Again, there’s places where cars can penetrate campus a bit, but they can’t go through campus this direction. Bicycle access from the south comes from a major bike route (with bike lanes that end short of campus) on Garner St. – which then allows bicyclists to continue while motorists have to exit by turning a corner towards the stadium. Two images of the corner of Allen and College from different angles:
College and Allen; shot by ehpien on flickr
From WikiMedia commons

East and west at Penn State aren’t as important – the west side fronts US 322 Business (and a major automobile access point was closed; a classroom building now spans the whole old highway!). The east side is primarily for access to sports facilities and the agricultural areas. Ped access from the west is mediocre unless you feel like going through that classroom building, but not very important if you don’t since there’s not much other reason to be over there. Access from the east is the main future area for improvement – although it’s still of a caliber that we would kill for here in Austin; with 2-lane roadways and 30-35 mph speed limits; traffic signals everywhere pedestrians go in reasonable numbers; etc.
Penn State and the town of State College have made it inviting to walk to and through campus, and have made it at pleasant as possible to bike there. Some students still drive, of course, but most cars are warehoused most of the time.

UTier2-West
On UT’s west side, Guadalupe is a wide choking monstrosity (4 car lanes with 2 bike lanes – one of which functions pretty well and the other of which was a good attempt that fails in practice due to bad driver behavior). On-street parking exists but is rather difficult to use for its intended purpose; but the merchants will still defend it tooth and nail. Despite having even more students living across this road that need to walk to UT than the analogous group at Penn State, there are fewer pedestrian crossings and they are far less attractive; and there is no bicycle access from the west that indicates any desire at all to promoting this mode of transportation. Although you can’t completely get through campus from west to east, you can get a lot farther in than you can at Penn State, and the pedestrian environment suffers for it. The city won’t put any more traffic signals on Guadalupe even though there’s thousands of pedestrians; and the built environment on Guadalupe is ghastly, with far too much surface parking and far too little in the way of street trees. This shot is about as good as it gets on Guadalupe:

(note: reformatted in 2015 and noticed the shot from 2008 is no longer available. Try this streetview for a representative sample).

On the east side of campus, there’s I-35. You’d think this would be much worse than the Guadalupe side for everybody, but at least bicyclists can use Manor Road, which is pretty civilized (better than anything on the west side). Pedestrians are pretty much screwed – noisy, stinky, and hot is no way to walk through life, son.

UT’s north side is similarly ghastly. A road clearly designed for high-speed motor vehicle traffic and then gruesomely underposted at 30 mph; way too wide and lots of surface parking. For pedestrians, this edge of campus sucks – for cyclists, it’s OK to penetrate, but then UT destroyed through access for cyclists by turning Speedway into UT’s underwhelming idea of a pedestrian mall (hint: this is what one really looks like). I could write a whole post on that (and may someday), but the short version is that years ago, UT came to our commission (UTC) with a master plan that crowed about how much they were promoting cycling, yet the only actual change from current conditions was destroying the only good cycling route to and through campus. Yeah, they put up showers and lockers – but that’s not going to help if the route TO the showers and lockers is awful enough, and it is. You’ll get a lot of cyclists at almost any university just because a lot of students won’t have cars and because parking isn’t free and plentiful, but if you really want to take it to the next level, I’m pretty confident that eliminating your one good bike route isn’t the way to go about it.

Since I went to Penn State (1989-1992), access for pedestrians and bicyclists has actually gradually improved, even though it already was much better than UT, and the campus has become more and more livable. More people walk and bike; fewer people drive; and it’s a more enjoyable place than it was before. Since I moved to Austin (1996), the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists travelling to and through UT has actually gotten worse – they’re still coasting on the fact that a lot of the area was developed before everybody had a car. Almost every decision they have made since then has been hostile to bicyclists and at least indifferent to pedestrians. As a result, a much larger proportion of students in the area have cars that they use much more often. (Just comparing near-campus-but-off-campus residents here). The recent long-overdue developments in West Campus are a start, but the built environment on the edge of campus has to dramatically change for UT to be anything more than laughable compared to other major college campuses’ interfaces with business districts.

Bonus coverage: The area I was staying in in Huntsville, AL is right next to the ‘campus’ for Alabama-Huntsville. The least said about that, the better – the area in general is like US 183 before the freeway upgrades, except even uglier (if that’s possible); and their campus has literally nowhere to walk to – my guess is that every student there has a car, even though the place is clearly not a commuter school.
A note I just sent to the morning show guys at KLBJ after I got to work late from the car dealer:

Ed and Mark, grip
I heard your conversation with Lamar Smith while coming late to work today from the car dealer. While his figure of 20% for ANWR’s possible increase to US oil production is higher than anything I’ve ever seen anybody say, that’s not the most relevant thing: the more important point is that oil is priced on the world market (it’s ‘fungible’), so it doesn’t matter whether the US produces 1% or 99% as much oil as we consume; what matters is the world supply and demand (unless we were to nationalize our oil industry and force ‘our’ oil to be sold to us at a discount).
I wrote a short post on this a few weeks ago; finding it ironic that the party that has stood for supposed economic literacy and against nationalization is proposing a plan that can only work if you ignore one or both. Here’s the link: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000515.html
Regards,
Mike Dahmus
mike@dahmus.org

Quick hit: About to leave on a business trip to Yuma, sickness and have to hit a discount store on the drive from Phoenix to pick up some stuff. Guess what, rheumatologist RG4N? information pills +Phoenix,+AZ&daddr=7409+W+Virginia+Ave,+Phoenix,+AZ&hl=en&geocode=&mra=ls&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=33.901528,72.861328&ie=UTF8&t=h&z=12″>The Target I’m going to hit is NOT “on the freeway”; nor is the mall across the street.

Since I’m stuck driving 200 miles a day in the desert here in Yuma with no internet access except at hotel at evening, sildenafil please go over to Austin Contrarian’s take on Austin rail – to which I’ve commented a few times already.

As usual, help the Chronicle’s coverage of commuter rail, diagnosis this time the Elgin branch, website basically ignores(*) the most pressing issue of all, which is NOT “how will people get to the train station in Elgin” or “are there enough people out there”. It’s “do they work at the Convention Center, and if not, how will they get to their offices?
The residential end (Elgin or Leander) of these trips is obvious. People will drive to the train stations, which will have lots of parking. (The Leander station already does, as does the “Austin” station which will really be serving mostly Cedar Park, who of course don’t even pay Capital Metro taxes). (All the supposed transit-oriented development along the first line is really just transit-adjacent-development taking advantage of political cover to get the density that should already have been granted for locations that close into the city, of course – Leander’s TOD, by the way, is on hold due to bankruptcy proceedings for one of the developers and was never anything more than a joke as far as I’m concerned.)
So what about the office end of the trip? Are people going to walk to their office from the train station? NO. This is obvious for UT and the Capitol, but there are some naive folks who think that since they currently walk a long distance to ride a train, that everybody will. Not gonna happen here.
The key here, folks, is that these commuter rail lines are targetting “choice commuters” – and in the actual case of Leander and Elgin, they’re way down on the skeptic end of the “choice commuter” spectrum. What “choice commuter” means is that they have cars, and are using them right now – so they will have to be convinced to CHOOSE transit. In Leander’s case, excellent express bus service already exists which will take passengers straight to UT, the Capitol, and the parts of downtown in which office workers actually work – nice, comfortable, touring buses with internet connections; we’re not talking normal city buses here. In Elgin’s case, not as much. And what this also means is that they’re precisely the people who will NOT be willing to walk 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the train station to their office – these are exactly the people for whom the 1/4 mile rule was devised. People who are so in love with taking public transportation that they will take extra-long walks to do so are already riding the express bus, in other words.
So how, Chronicle writers, are the passengers on these 2 commuter rail lines going to get to work? Shuttlebuses. Yes, the same people who (in Leander’s case at least) can’t be convinced to take relatively luxurious express buses straight to their office today are somehow going to be convinced they enjoy getting on and off much more spartan, jerky, shuttlebuses each and every day to get from the train station to their final destination.

While the 2008 TWG proposal may improve things slightly, it’s still going to be a transfer, and, repeat with me: choice commuters hate transfers – you’re asking them to give up a 1-seat ride (their car) for a 3-seat ride (car, train, bus/streetcar). Even if the last 2 seats are reserved-guideway, you’re going to turn off a huge proportion of your potential audience with that transfer – it happens even in Manhattan, where an investment of over six billion dollars is being made to move the LIRR just a bit farther into the core to allow more LIRR passengers to walk to work instead of having to transfer. They’re not doing this just to make things nicer for existing riders, people; the Bush administration doesn’t play that game – they’re doing it based on recovering a bunch of choice commuters who are now driving. And, people, we’re not Manhattan, nor will we ever be – we will never have parking so expensive or traffic so difficult that many people will be willing to take the extra transfer if they can just drive.
Christof in Houston put this best quite a while back, emphasis mine::

Notice a pattern? Passengers don’t want to transfer to a circulator service to get to work, even a high-quality circulator like Denver’s. And serving suburban employment densities with rail transit is just about futile: 80% of Houston’s bus routes have higher ridership than Denver’s suburb to suburb rail line.
Trains aren’t vacuum cleaners. You don’t just put them next to a freeway and hope they suck people out of their cars. People will ride transit if it gets them where they want to go conveniently. If we want to maximize the number of people who will take transit (which should be the goal) we need to find places where transit will serve as many people as possible as conveniently as possible. That means serving density, particularly employment density, directly.

What’s the solution? Tear up commuter rail, right now, and go back to the 2000 light rail plan, which served all the same suburban northwest commuters in precisely the same locations as does commuter rail, but also hit the major residential density in Austin itself, and went straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown. Until then, the best we can do is try to support the salvage effort in that 2008 CAMPO TWG plan which makes noise about distributing commuter rail passengers but unlike Capital Metro’s stupid proposal, can also serve as a modest start to an urban rail system that actually serves Austin residents without relying on the commuter rail line itself. And, of course, the 2000 and 2008 rail plans would actually serve more of the transit-positive population of the city that would be willing to take a longer walk just to ride transit, but that’s just a bonus.
* – there is brief mention of the TWG proposal in the final paragraph along with a mention that it will enable the commuter rail line to “really work” – I don’t believe this qualifies as serious consideration given the points above – the work end of the trip is by far the most important aspect of any rail start, and even reserved guideway streetcar won’t save commuter rail thanks to the fact that it’s, repeat along with me: still a transfer. If brand-new rail lines are to succeed in cities with mostly choice commuters, they have to serve a large proportion of their ridership with a one-seat ride; transfers can build ridership from there; but any city which is trying to start from nothing while relying 100% on transfers is dooming themselves to failure (see Tri-Rail, South Florida).

The Childrens’ Museum, ailment of which we are members, bronchitis announced today that they plan to move to Mueller after previously pulling out of a plan to occupy part of the ground floor of one of the major downtown high-rises now under construction (which would have, surgery like Mueller, given them a lot more room to work with). Many people wondered why they pulled out of what seemed like a sweetheart deal back then – and now we know: they intended to move out of downtown all along.
Obviously, I believe this is a horrible move. Today, it’s a lot easier to drive to Mueller than it is to drive downtown, and most families drive (even we usually do, although I have gone with my 4-year-old on the bus once or twice). But this isn’t a move for today – it’s a move for ten years from now; and ten years from now, Mueller will be, at best, a medium-density node of homes and a few shops with mediocre transit access; and downtown will still have everything it does today PLUS a ton more homes and retail (far more than Mueller adds), and vastly superior transit access. Additionally, if you think ten years from now the average family will still be driving everywhere, you are far more optimistic about fuel prices than the facts on the ground would seem to warrant.
The other main benefit of having the museum downtown is that it can be one among many attractions that can form a nice day-trip, even if you live out in the suburbs and even if you drive. In Mueller? It’ll be an easy drive – and given what they’ve built so far, there will probably be plenty of surface parking. But even if the streetcar line comes together and doesn’t suck, Mueller will still have relatively poor transit access compared to downtown (except from downtown itself) – and once you get there, there will be exactly one thing to do before you go home. In other words, everybody can get to the current location downtown and almost all of them can get there on one bus ride. Getting to Mueller, even ten years from now, is going to require two or three rides for most people (unless you live downtown!).
As with the library and with the courthouse, there will doubtlessly be plenty of apologists who claim that Capital Metro will be serving the new location with some bus routes – and that buses can always be moved. Newsflash: major long-haul bus routes aren’t moved miles out of the way for one new attraction in a medium-density area. Ten years from now, Mueller will have basically the same transit it does today – more frequent, likely; but no major new routes, except the aforementioned streetcar (maybe).
Folks, there’s a reason that everything tended to be located downtown back when driving was an expensive privilege afforded mainly to the rich: it simply works better to group major destinations together so they can be served by transit. Decentralizing at this point in history when the affordability of driving appears to be heading back that direction is just incomprehensibly stupid – yet that’s exactly what the ACM is doing here.
At the same time our own city shows signs of thinking ten years down the road (or re-learning lessons from a hundred years ago), the ACM is thinking ten or twenty years in the past. The new location will be a nice amenity for the many families that have moved into Mueller, but it might as well be Round Rock for the rest of the city.
Update: Other coverage of note at the muellercommunity.com forums where you can probably watch me get slammed mercilessly, and at skyscraperpage.com for a more downtown-friendly view.

13 Replies to “The Austin Suburban Childrens’ Museum”

  1. I wish the museum would have stayed part of the block 21 development as well, but I believe that saying Mueller might as well be Round Rock for the rest of the city is incorrect. Mueller is centrally located, more so than downtown in reality, and way more than Round Rock. Also, Mueller is served by mass transit now, unlike Round Rock, and will be improved as Mueller continues to develop. I am also of the belief that Mueller will be a fantastic community once it is built out, and the museum will be another great amenity. Lastly, while there are certainly differing ideas on what constitutes urban and suburban, in my opinion the Mueller development at build out will certainly be an urban neighborhood. 10,000 residents and 10,000 jobs on 711 acres three miles from downtown is hardly suburban.

  2. I’m disappointed, too. We’ll rarely go all the way up to Mueller for the ACM. But since central Austin is shedding families with children, I understand their desire to move farther north. I also imagine they’re looking around downtown and figuring it’s becoming a playground for the rich, stuck-up yuppies who are ruining Austin.

  3. Nicolas, I think you should have read the entire post. At their current location, essentially the entire city can arrive to the museum on a one-seat transit ride (almost everybody who has Capital Metro service at all can get to downtown on one bus). At their new location, even if streetcar gets up and running in reserved guideway, most of the city would require two bus rides to get there – and that’s not going to change – Mueller’s density is not going to be great enough to justify more than frequency improvements on existing routes (and the streetcar, which doesn’t really hit any residential area EXCEPT Mueller).
    This move was, I believe, all about making things easier for the far suburbanites to drive in. Which is somewhat defensible if we think gas will be back to $1/gallon ten years from now. Anybody want to make that bet?
    As for Mueller being suburban – it is; at some point in the distant future it might be a bit more dense, but I get more pessimistic about it each and every day. It’s significantly less dense even at projected build-out than the Triangle, for instance.

  4. AC, ironically, there’s a mini-boom in my area now of kids, it seems from walking around.
    I get the sarcasm about the rich stuck-up yuppies, but I bet most don’t.
    Even if you’re an inveterate driver, I find it really disenheartening how many suburbanites don’t understand the appeal of driving in, parking ONCE, then walking around to more than one point of interest rather than moving the car every time you do something. Have we really fallen that far?

  5. I think suburbanites have to relearn the benefits of parking once and then walking around. The ACM would have helped draw them to downtown for sure, so it’s a shame it’s leaving. I was just pointing out a benefit I’m sure played a big part in ACM’s decision.

  6. Ironically, right now there’s starting to be a nice nucleus of child-friendly stuff to walk to around the ACM – with the gelato (ice cream!) down the street; nicer walking environment down on Cesar Chavez (lake, bridges), etc.

  7. I project lots of babies downtown in the next few years. Those condo buyers are all gonna start reproducing with one another! I envision a lot of one-child families in downtown Austin. 🙂
    *wishes she could buy a downtown condo*

  8. I can see both sides of the arguement on the ACM move. I took genetic carrier #1 there two weeks ago and had just a lovely time, especially after stumbling over to the famer’s market for lunch a few blocks away. And true, a one stop bus ride would have been pleasant had we chose to ride the bus, rather than drive. However, I think the Mueller move is a good one (despite the fact that I already live in Mueller). First, with the children’s hospital right there, the access for kids to make the ACM is a very nice gesture to potentially kids who could really use a good day. Secondly, with the open spaces that Mueller can provide the mueseum, it will be able to offer outdoor activities, especially in conjuncture with an already built amplitheatre (I’m crossing my fingers for nighttime observatory functions!), a hike and bike trail and very easy access to two playgrounds and a duck pond. Thirdly, I would think that any suburban family would drive down (or up) to either the downtown location or the centrially located Mueller area. I’m assuming that these suburban families, when they picked out where to live, understood that they would live a considerable distance from central Austin. Fourthly, and this point could be complete bupkis since I don’t have the numbers, but I would suspect that there are going to be a lot more children in the Mueller, Cherrywood, Delwood, etc area, than the condo area of downtown. I’m sure I’ll get called out and not change any opinions, but I just wanted to point out that I feel that a downtown location is great, but I feel a Mueller location would be better because the only people affected by the move would be the families travelling downtown by bus and having to endure a transfer, the families living in downtown condos, and the families who have children with the patience to make a full day to visit the downtown sites.

  9. Well, Aaron, it’s hard to respond seriously to “I’m sure I’ll get called out and not change any opinions” (how many of YOUR opinions have been amenable to change?), but I’ll try.
    We’ve already seen some folks elsewhere (AC on his blog; one or two commenters at Statesman) who say they drive to the current location but won’t drive (as much?) to Mueller. So there’s that.
    I think you’re absolutely right about the number of kids who will be REALLY close to the museum (like biking distance).
    However, the bus thing is obviously a much bigger issue to me – looking forward, I don’t see the typical suburban family driving everywhere ten years from now. If/when gas is a lot more expensive than now (and I believe that day to be coming), places that aren’t on the major transit ‘spines’ will basically only serve local residents.
    So the question is: are there enough REALLY close kids to make up for the fact that most of the city won’t be able to get there (cheaply, at least)?
    See my post today for examples of some bus trips to ACM versus downtown – especially the Pavilion Park and Ride one, which can be extended all the way up to the Leander Park and Ride (similar express bus service from all on the 98x series buses, which really are a nice ride).

Leave a Reply