Think Like A Passenger

Just sent a moment ago. Links added for reference.

Dear mayor and council members:
My name is Mike Dahmus; I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 to 2005, diabetes and pregnancy pills and still write on the subject of transportation from time to time. Until a medical condition forced me to stop, search I was a frequent bicycle commuter (but, health unlike some others you probably hear from, also continued to own and drive a car as well).
I can’t emphasize enough the points previously made by Jen Duthie from UT that this ordinance may seem like much ado about nothing if you’re used to thinking about bicycling as simply a sporting activity – like the ride Bruce Todd was on when he hurt himself. If you’re going out to ride for fun, a helmet doesn’t make a lot of difference – you’ll probably still ride, and even if forcing a helmet makes you delay your ride until a cooler day, for instance, the overall public health is not significantly harmed.
But for transportation bicyclists, mandating a helmet be used for what is essentially a safer activity overall than driving is a critical error – many marginal cyclists will simply stop riding their bikes and return to their cars. You certainly see this effect at play among children – hardly any of whom ride their bikes to school any more, partly because of the inconvenience and discomfort of the helmet, but also due to their parents belief that cycling must be a very dangerous activity if it requires a helmet.
Every adult cyclist you convince not to ride is one more driver. Every driver is that much more traffic and pollution; making Austin less healthy not only for themselves but for the rest of us as well.
Since the evidence in the real world has shown that there has been no actual benefit from dramatic increases in helmet usage in this and other countries, there ought to be no justification whatsoever for a mandatory helmet law (or even, I’d argue, excessive promotion of helmets compared to more effective measures such as traffic enforcement and education).
Please take this in mind when voting. No serious transportation cyclist (i.e. one who actually uses their bike to get around) has signed on to this effort as far as I’m aware.
Michael E. Dahmus

So I was at my cousin’s wedding on Saturday down on Oltorf and as we pulled in, information pills there was this guy in a full Superman costume waiting for the bus. (This could launch about a million jokes). According to rumor, this guy’s been crashing events – he was supposedly praying in the church before we got there. I was completely embarassed as I had to tell out-of-town relatives that I had no idea about this dude, but hey, do you want to hear about Leslie? So much for my image as The Guy To Ask About Weird Austin Stuff.
So, my two readers, what gives with this new eccentric dude? I needs to know so I can rectify my ignorance.

Since many others are doing a fine job showing how stupid the idea of an adult bicycle helmet law is, this I’m catching up on stuff I was supposed to crackplog about a LOOONG time ago.
Here’s the first of a series about Rapid Bus, now officially branded MetroRapid, which, don’t forget, is the sum total of the transit improvements on tap for the urban core of Austin thanks to the bait-and-switch commuter-rail electioneering. You aren’t getting rail; you’re getting a bus that looks like a train. But does it perform like a train? In each one of these articles, I’ll be looking at another “rapid bus” or “bus rapid transit” city and how the mode actually performs, and compare to Austin’s proposal.
Let’s start with a note that my intrepid cow orker forwarded me some months ago from New Jersey: Bus Rapid Transit – Not For New Jersey. I’ll provide some excerpts, since the whole thing is fairly long.

Study after study has now clearly confirmed what NJ-ARP repeatedly has reported for more than a decade – busways do not attract large ridership, cost more to construct and operate and, where they do operate, have not produced the financial results their promoters have promised. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

In our case, we’re not actually constructing a busway; so the “costs more to construct” is not applicable to Austin. However, the “do not attract large ridership” will certainly bite us here.

Statistics show that busways attract only 33 percent of projected ridership, but rail lines exceed initial estimates by 22 percent. Notwithstanding, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in concert with the highway and motor bus industry, has continued to advocate for BRT. In order to justify continued expansion of BRT, supporters have used rail planning models to predict bus patronage. Even though busway supporters have sponsored trips to places such as Curitiba, Brazil, to view what in their minds is a successful application of BRT technology, nowhere in North America has this mode of public transport attracted such rail passenger boardings.

Curitiba is really starting to become like the infamous (and discredited) 85% head-injury-reduction-for-bicycle-helmets study. It’s trotted out every single time some transit agency is pressured by the Feds into building BRT (or Rapid Bus) instead of railand every single time it’s not even remotely applicable to the United States’ population. Curitiba is a poor city full of people who are, at best, marginally capable of affording automobiles. It doesn’t take much at all to get them to use public transportation – most don’t have a choice, and the remainder are poor enough that even relatively small cost savings are worth large investments in extra commuting time. All their “bus rapid transit system” really had to do was be a smidge faster than regular buses to be a huge success there.
The same, of course, is not true in the US (or Austin in particular). Remember this post in which I estimate that a potential transit user in the suburbs might save a couple of bucks at the cost of an hour or two of time. Not compelling in the least, even if the extra time investment drops by 20% or so.

When one considers that light rail cars have a 40-year life compared with 15 years for buses, LRT is much less costly as well as more attractive and safer.

Hey! Good news for Austin! We’ll only be stuck with these awful articulated buses for 15 years, and then we can get rid of the “but we invested all that money in those fancy buses” argument.

A study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed that light rail vehicle was 15.5 percent less costly to operate than bus, all other factors being equal. Low floor light rail cars have a larger capacity than low floor buses of comparable length. The average capacity of a 40-foot low floor bus is only 37 seated passengers due to space that is taken up by the wheel wells which intrude on interior space that otherwise could be used for fare paying riders. While an articulated two-section low floor bus contains more seats, it will still have less capacity than a low floor light rail car. Unlike BRT, a light rail line can increase line capacity by adding more cars to a train, resulting in an increase in operator productivity. The only way to increase the capacity of BRT is to add more buses, each of which will require another driver resulting in higher operating costs.

Well, Capital Metro is so flush with money that higher operating costs won’t matter at all, right?
Please check out the whole article. BRT and its stunted sibling “Rapid Bus” are nothing more than stalking horses, pushed by the Feds to avoid having to make investments in rail transit. After all, you can convert a busway back into a car lane. Don’t be fooled – folks pushing Rapid Bus aren’t friends of public transit.
Next time: Boston!

Neighborhood groups are crowing over the results of the Capital Metro streetcar workshop which is, endocrinologist frankly, tablets just a load of barely-informed fluff that anybody who’s bothered to ever ride a transit line of any type knew about three minutes after getting on the bus or train. Capital Metro holds these things mainly in order to appear as if they’re accepting input from the community – I’ll write about that someday if it bugs me a bit more than it already does.
As usual, what’s missing from this entire thing is, getting back to the old microeconomical view, why would somebody decide to ride this thing instead of driving their car?
Take as a given that we’re talking about ‘choice commuters’ – i.e. those who could, and today do, drive to work. So look through the series of comments from this workshop and see if you can find even one which addresses, even obliquely, the reasons why people don’t take the bus today (the entire streetcar corridor is served quite well by buses which run almost as frequently as this streetcar would).
See anybody talking about signal pre-emption (a la Rapid Bus)? Nope.
See anybody talking about reserved guideway (a la light rail)? Nope.
There’s about one place where the “why is this better than a bus” question is even asked/answered, and it boils down to what I always say: a modest improvement in attraction due to perception of permanence and a slightly more comfortable ride. It’s not any faster than the bus; nor is it going to be any more reliable. People who try it are very quickly going to figure this out – so you’re left with luring tourists, which is, I suppose, a worthy goal, but then why are we spending all the money to drag this thing out Mueller-ways? Again – people living in Mueller and working downtown are going to figure out after a couple of trips that the streetcar may look nicer than the bus did, but it’s still very slow and still very much stuck in traffic, so might as well go back to driving.
Think about it this way: We’ve got a passenger. His name’s Joe Mueller. He lives in the new development out at the old airport. He drives to work today at the Capitol. Many days, traffic is bad, and he has to either suffer through traffic, or shift a few blocks over and try to make up some time on a different road. Why doesn’t he take the bus today? Well, he sees the buses every day on the same road he (usually) drives. They stop a lot; accelerate poorly; and can’t shift to another street when there’s an accident or congestion on Manor, for instance. What could you do to get this guy on transit? Well, cost isn’t going to work – he has free or cheap parking, and the variable cost of driving is trivial. But taking a big chunk out of the current gap in speed and/or reliability might do it – and in other cities, actually has worked. So, is the streetcar going to be faster than the existing bus? More reliable?
Somewhat depressing is the Chronicle coverage of the session – in which the author conflates light rail with streetcar, and continues the Chronicle’s perfect record of refusing to analyze the difference between “good rail” and “bad rail”. At least they gave my colleague Patrick Goetz some play – but that makes it sound like the only choices are streetcar or monorail, which plays right into the hands of Krusee. Light rail as in 2000 would have run on the ground, for a fraction of the cost of monorail, and provided most of the speed and reliability benefits of truly grade-separated transit. Somehow, I’ve got to find somebody else in the world who can get a bit deeper than “rail bad” or “rail good” to “this rail bad BECAUSE“.
The most depressing thing of all, though, is that TWO CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS are apparently dumb enough to fall for this hype and think it’s going to make any difference. Sigh. I had hoped that McCracken, at least, was going to be pushing for something like light rail for the center-city, but now I see all he’s doing is pulling the same crappy sled as the rest of them.

  • DSK

    If I see one more article in the Chronicle implying that old fashioned in-traffic streetcars will work because Austin once had them before long ago, I am going to scream.
    It would take gas at something like $20 a gallon before people put up with the personal and capital costs of in-traffic streetcars.
    If the MBTA, in Boston with so many car-less people and the MBTA tax levy, can’t even manage to justify reopening the Arborway, there’s no way CapMetro, in Austin, is ever going to operate a traditional streetcar in the black.

  • I tend to agree with most of your arguments on these points — should there be a word for people like me, maybe bileheads? — but just to keep things interesting I’ll play devil’s advocate here.
    Is it possible that a streetcar to Mueller could be successful not because it saves individual riders time or money, but just because it’s cool?
    Austin has other programs that get significant opt-in from people who want to be good citizens. I’m thinking, for example, of curbside pay-as-you-throw recycling and Austin Energy’s renewable energy plans. These programs are sold through slightly exaggerated appeals to only-in-Austin boosterism and consumer pocketbooks. They don’t save most individual participants any money (how many families recycle enough to downsize their trash cans?) but they pay off in warm fuzzies.
    So: might a significant number of people in the Mueller neighborhood actually ride the streetcar out of civic pride? Even people who wouldn’t be caught dead on a bus?

  • Prentiss,
    Thanks for the informed comment. (Had to rescue it from the junk bin due to a malconfigured regular expression I’m trying to use to keep out all the “Good site! Thanks!” commenters; argh).
    The ‘cool factor’ is worth something; but again, I expect that most of the people who are willing to suffer a time penalty to take transit are already doing so. I guess this is the difference between daily commuter and fun traveller (i.e. tourist or bar-hopper or restaurant-goer); I could certainly see the latter group taking streetcar more than bus, but really not the former.