You can’t have TOD without good T

Don't gimme no crappy transit, fool!
So the Statesman and the good folks at Austinist are falling prey to the hype about the TOD around the new commuter rail line. Let’s see how attractive the “T” component of the “TOD” will be for Crestview Station, the one the Statesman most recently covered. Remember that without high-quality transit, you don’t achieve the true benefits of TOD.

First, let’s consider Paula Professor. She lives at Crestview and works at UT. The first map below (click for expanded version) shows her ride on the commuter rail train. So far so good! She’s able to walk to the train station, and even though the trains only run every half-hour, that’s not that big a deal on this end of the trip; she just plans ahead. The train ride is quick; and is not held up by traffic.

But wait! Why is the train stopping out here off of MLK, way out in East Austin? Paula wanted to go to UT; her office is between Guadalupe and San Jacinto near 24th street. Well, the signs at the station inform her that this is the UT stop, so she gets off. Ah, here we go: a shuttle bus marked “UT”. Well, she’s rather committed now, so might as well get on and see. Here we go:

The shuttle bus took 15 minutes to travel about two miles. Stuck in traffic behind the cars of all the people that drove to work. “What a pain in the ass,” thinks Paula, “if I was going to be stuck in traffic on the bus anwyays, why didn’t I just take the #1, or better still, the #101 express, which go straight where I want to go? Or better yet, just drive. Maybe in 2006 2007 2008 2010, I’ll just take the Rapid Bus there”.

On the way home from work, Paula missed her shuttle bus by five minutes, and ended up having to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which again took her back through heavy traffic, very slowly, to the commuter rail station. “What happens,” Paula wondered, “if my shuttle bus misses the train departure because it’s stuck in traffic? This thing only runs every half-hour during rush hour and not very late into the evening”

Paula ain’t gonna ride this thing again, folks.

Now on to a worker at the Capitol, who I’ll call Steve Staffer. Steve does the same thing as Paula; he walks to the train station. So far, so good! He rides the train, just like she did. Great! But at this station off MLK way out in east Austin, he sees that Capitol workers are supposed to depart, just like UT workers. Hmmm. Well, on to the shuttle bus:

“Wow,” said Steve, “I didn’t believe Paula when she told me how lame this ride on this slow, jerky, stuck-behind-cars shuttle bus was. Now I do.”

What’s Steve’s better option?

Wow. Looks just like the 2000 light rail proposal, doesn’t it?

Finally, Larry Lawyer, even after hearing the complaints of Paula and Steve, decided to ride the train anyways and catch up on his paperwork. “Wow,” he thought, “this is a lot more comfortable than the bus – and easier to work, but why the heck have I gone so far out to the east only to loop back here to this corner of downtown where there’s nothing but bums and the blank wall of the Convention Center?”

“I got off the train,” Larry explained later, “and there was a shuttle bus there that said ‘downtown’, but I already was supposed to be downtown, since that’s what this station is called! So I just started walking. I walked. And walked. And walked. By the time I got to my office on Congress Avenue, I had walked half a mile. More than I ever wanted to walk from the train station. I thought this thing was supposed to be right in the middle of downtown? On the way home, I took the shuttle bus instead. Not much better – a ten minute tour of downtown on a herky-jerky bus just like that Dillo that I tried once a few years ago and never went back to. I think tomorrow I’ll just take the Lexus straight in. Isn’t there a better way to do this?”

The common thread in all three of these “direct” pictures, in case you missed it, is that they all precisely match the expected route from the 2000 light rail proposal, which is now impossible to build thanks to commuter rail. We may get higher-density development at these spots simply because City Council upzones them to closer to what the market would like to provide in Central Austin, but it’s pretty darn clear that most “choice commuters” (people who can afford to drive to work, and, obviously, afford to live in these developments) will just be driving to work as usual unless we deliver transit service which doesn’t require a stupid shuttle-bus or even streetcar transfer. Go back to the the link from VTPI about the difference between TOD and “transit-adjacent development”, and pay particular attention to this item:

Transit service is fast, frequent, reliable, and comfortable, with a headway of 15 minutes or less.

Even if we run commuter rail trains more often, a trip which relies on a shuttle bus travelling through mixed traffic for the last two miles or so will never be reliable or comfortable. This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes. Here in Austin, we’re likely to get at least medium-density development at Crestview Station, but the residents still aren’t going to be enjoying the true benefits of TOD, and neither is the city.

7 Replies to “You can’t have TOD without good T”

  1. “This is why our friends at Tri-Rail have egg on their faces year after year after year as the promised TOD around stations never materializes.”
    Large TOD projects are currently well under way around the Leander station. The recently announced ‘Villages of Messina’ development, to be located adjacent to the Leander station, is exactly the sort of development that ‘urban planners’ claim to want, with the nice benefit of not being planned by ‘urban planners’.
    “Once the development is finished it will include around 750 residential lots, 45 acres of commercial lots and 70 acres of greenbelt. In line with the TOD vision, the Villages of Messina will create a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Ideally, residents will not even need a car, as groceries are delivered to their homes, children attend a walking-distance elementary and the rail station provides an Austin commute. ”
    That’s only one of several similar projects going up near the Leander station.
    Clearly if we were going to build a rail line from scratch it would use a different route. But that would cost the earth. Just look at the King’s Ransom CapMetro is spending just to put rail on an existing tracks. Imagine how much they would spend if they had to buy right-of-way, lay down new tracks, tear up roads, and destroy many local businesses.
    The tracks are there. Many thousands of people live close to the stations. Many thousands of people can probably live with a short walk, bike ride, or bus trip at the end. To me it would be crazy to NOT run passengers trains on these tracks.
    I suspect that I will live to see something like the old rail trolley cars running up and down Congress and east to west on one of the low numbered downtown streets. Something like that makes no sense without commuter rail, and imminent sense with it. The invisible hand is very strong, maybe even strong enough to convince the People’s Republic of Austin to do something sensible.
    Sometimes you have to go with the infrastructure you have, rather than the infrastructure of your dreams.

  2. Jim,
    Leander can call that TOD all it wants, but so far, there’s nothing but standard subdivisions going in there. I really recommend you follow that VTPI link to understand what TOD really _is_.
    And the trolleys make sense with or without commuter rail – in fact they don’t remotely help commuter rail passengers, since they won’t be any faster or more reliable than the shuttle buses which will be the initial circulators. The advantage streetcars present is the perception of permance and a slightly more comfortable ride – that’s it; none of the speed or reliability boosts you get with light rail.

  3. I should have put in: I don’t think those advantages that streetcars present over buses help daily commuters in the slightest – they primarily help tourists and real-estate developers (customers see the rails in the street and understand that they’re ‘on the line’, i.e.) and is therefore not worth much public subsidy.

  4. I’m so glad that all the “progressive” persons living in Hyde Park and Crestview killed the light rail line. What we got in return is so much better. All you ever here from those people is how we shouldn’t be like Houston. Now those rednecks have a world-class LRT that’s about to go through it’s first major expansion. Oh well, what might have been. Can we still do monorail; that would keep it weird.

  5. mdahmus,
    You are right about Crestview and Wooten. When I was at Station 9 right before the election; it seemed to me that a lot of the people in HP I had contact with were suddenly against the LRT on Guadalupe. I don’t know if they were swayed by all the money the other side dropped just before the vote?

  6. At the time I had a friend in Crestview who ‘s backyard was right on the tracks and was very much against light rail. I tried to convince him that it would be good for his property values and good for his life, but I couldn’t make headway. I think you really have to live with a streetcar in your backyard before you realize the advantages it has over freightrail.

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