You Idiots, You Blew It Up

I posted this link on twitter with the caption: “Austin Urban Rail Goes To Hell”. Note entry number for giggles.
I really don’t have time for this, more about salve with the 60 hour workweeks, shop young family including baby that still doesn’t sleep nights, and impending back surgery, but I have to say something, so I’ll be brief.
I offered a year or more ago to become involved with Leffingwell’s team on the urban rail project. I was ignored. (Note: I offered quite nicely.)
Recently, the plans have crystallized – and it’s bad. Shared running almost everywhere – except for one (admittedly long, but not really relevant) stretch from I-35 to the airport, the trains will be stuck behind cars – or at best, buses (including local buses). No, a ‘possible future transit lane’ on Guadalupe/Lavaca doesn’t mitigate; unless it’s reserved for ONLY Rapid Bus and the train – and I don’t see that happening; it’s going to be stuffed with locals too, and that’s if it even happens.

Unlike Brewster McCracken, who talked up reserved guideway everywhere except the leg out Manor to Mueller, Leffingwell’s team has relented and the plan now calls for the trains to be stuck in traffic almost everywhere important. McCracken talked about “time certainty” being a big deal on a trip to/from the airport (or to/from work, of course). You don’t get that without your own lane – period. No amount of Rapid [sic] Bus technology is going to get you there.
This rail plan, in its current state, is not worth fighting for. In fact, it’s probably worth fighting against, as was the 2004 plan that so many of the “why don’t you just stay civil” folks failed to affect in any way, shape, or form.

Be ready for a lot of the same people who claimed from 2004-2010 that car drivers would switch in droves to a train that required them to ride shuttlebuses to claim that the fact that these trains are stuck in traffic won’t keep people from switching to them.
Remember who was right before, and who’s been wrong the entire time. Or just be lazy and maintain access to the gladhanders to stay “civil” – and hold hands as we all ride the train off the cliff together – your choice.
And Not a done deal, you say? The engineering docs look pretty much done-deal level to me; as do the interactions with the media (note: the ONLY media outlet to cover the issue of guideway AT ALL was “Impact Central Texas”; their story here – good job guys; and shame on everybody else).

The urban rail system route is expected to follow Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, San Jacinto Boulevard and Congress Avenue. It will travel with traffic and may potentially receive signal priority at traffic lights, similar to Capital Metro’s buses.
An urban rail system in Austin is expected to cost $200 million in its first phase of development. The track will be 33.8 miles in length and extend from Mueller to downtown to the Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Photo by Bobby Longoria/Community Impact Newspaper. Click for a larger image.
“Big difference between this and a bus is that it can fit 170 people, mostly standing, where a bus caps out at 60 or 80,” Spillar said.

Hey guess what another big difference between this and a bus is, Rob? The bus that’s stuck behind somebody double-parked can change lanes. A train sharing a lane with cars is the worst transit possibly imaginable in a city where most people drive – it has the worst aspects of buses and the worst aspects of trains with almost none of the good parts of either.
More background on Why Streetcars Suck courtesy of Jarrett Walker here: streetcars: an inconvenient truth
So I guess I need to update my “IT’S NOT LIGHT RAIL” chart:
If your train runs on freight tracks, can’t run in the street, and requires shuttle buses – IT’S NOT LIGHT RAIL. Know what else? If your train doesn’t have its own lane – and relies on the same crap Rapid [sic] Bus uses to get a leg up, IT’S ALSO NOT LIGHT RAIL.
Summary: If you want to live in a city with good urban rail, your best bet now is probably to move away. Seriously.

spreadsheet behind this image coming sometime down the road, maybe.

9 Replies to “You Idiots, You Blew It Up”

  1. Summary: If you want to live in a city with good urban rail, your best bet now is probably to move away. Seriously.
    This is by far the saddest realization I’ve made regarding my (otherwise) beloved Austin. I’d long hoped that 2012 would bring a referendum worth fighting/staying for. Now? Well, we know the answer to that question.

  2. I understand the level of ‘bile’ behind this post and I know there are people it is directed at- though I wish I didn’t feel like I’m included in that group every time you write something Mike. I posted this note earlier this week before the story came out with the shared guideways.
    Dear City of Austin leaders developing the 2012 Urban Rail proposal: Showing off the snazzy looking rail cars is great, but the thing that really matters is the routes you want them to take. For the sake of all that is good in this world, please do not compromise on the route map by doing something stupid like running the line east of campus or opting for tons of shared guidelines instead of dedicated lanes. We are a decade behind on this and we’ve got one more shot at going this right. I do not want or plan on giving you cover for a crap proposal because you think that is necessary for it to pass. Shoot for the Moon like Kennedy instead of giving us some middle of the road, DOA roadkill like Obama.
    I guess what my real question is here- is what should or can we do as advocates to still change the discussion. I don’t get a sense that the city feels all that confident about the plan or even having it ready in a final form in time for the 2012 election. That’s sad on a couple of different levels given that it was already pushed back once. Politically, November of 2012 would be a good year to pass an aggressive plan when you look at the underlying electoral advantages.

  3. Karl,
    You’re not really the target – although my other jibe was to get in on some of the previous discussions we’ve had about “I know he rubs people the wrong way… but” kind of stuff. I did see your post and do appreciate it; but it’s worse than you say – it’s not just a crap proposal (that implies it can be fixed later – it can’t; just like how the Red Line cannot be improved).
    You can’t upgrade shared runningway to reserved guideway. Doesn’t. Ever. Happen. (except in cases where a whole road is turned into a transit mall).
    Way forward? Tell Leffingwell’s camp they fucked up – and they ought to come crawling back for guidance.

  4. Oh I figured as much- I was making my remark mostly in jest, though reading back over it I recognize it doesn’t quite come off with that tone. Alas, the failings of the Internet with emotions.
    But on your point- I certainly agree. By the time that I came to Austin it was fall of 2003 for college and even in 2004 my focus was on the UT turnout operation for the general election. There was no May municipal election in 2004 and as a result, my relationship with city politics and the council were largely non-existant. As such, I remember being part of the crowd that was responsible for giving the All Systems Go plan a pass (and even naive promotion as a ‘necessary step towards true urban rail’). Mea culpa but I didn’t know better at the time and my love for transit and planning was still awakening. I was transitioning between being an Economics and Sociology minor at the time and it wasn’t until another year later that I made Urban Studies/Geography my eventual focus and minor. Semi-related, I’m looking at going back to UT in 2012 for grad school with GIS/Planning in mind.
    Anyways- as to the political strategy here, that’s something I can do that I couldn’t do in 2004. I will fight tooth and nail and make it my life’s cause to pass the right urban rail plan in 2012 BUT ONLY IF it is worth fighting for. This isn’t.
    I lived in Cambridge/Boston in 2007 and have experienced all aspects of that system. No one want to end up in traffic behind a railcar and rail riders don’t want to be stuck behind cars. It is in both parties interest to minimize shared guideways.

  5. Apparently this city has learned how to do anything it can in regards to transport other than effective public transit. First MetroRail, then the Rapid Bus, and now the city giving in on urban rail, which I had had hopes for.
    Totally agree that this is something that advocates in Austin need to give a pass. If this is all that anyone can come up with any more, why bother? Even trying to justify it as a “streetcar” doesn’t work, as most of the roads this line will follow are higher trafficked and wider than any along say the [current] Portland Streetcar line.
    Urban rail with separated lanes, but lack of true grade separation is one thing, but an almost completely in-traffic line is unacceptable as the backbone of a major transit network.

  6. Sharing the lane with buses doesn’t seem that bad *if* buses can pull out of that lane for the local stops, letting the train and express/limited buses pass.
    This would mean eliminating some street parking, which isn’t shown in the engineering docs, and which would be another battle with the car interests.
    The only other way I can see it possibly working is by significantly limiting the stops that buses using the lane make through the stretch.
    If the buses aren’t stopping more often than the trains, and the stops are staggered so they’re not bunching up trying to stop at the same place as each other (which could be an issue even if parking is taken for local stop pullouts), it shouldn’t slow the train down much, as long as the lane’s capacity isn’t exceeded.
    Speaking of parking, how are cars going to get in and out of the “street parking to remain” if the access is from a lane that is supposed to be “transit only”?

  7. Well, at least they are making this an easy decision. Must oppose. Like northcomm says, this is unacceptable as the backbone of a major transit network.
    We need to move back toward the 2000 rail plan after a decade of mistakes. Refashion the Red Line as a regional line going all the way to Llano. Get those communities to chip in. But we have to revive the 2000 light rail plan.

  8. The photo on the right is from Toronto. I’ve used the streetcar extensively and it’s wonderful. Would it be better if it had it’s own tracks away from cars? Yes. Does that mean it’s just as bad as a bus or even worse. No!
    The streetcar is SO MUCH BETTER THAN A BUS, even running with cars, for several reasons.
    Most of these could be classified as highly subjective, but I’d argue that most people would agree after riding the streetcar a few times.
    Basically it comes down to that the streetcar FEELS BETTER, and is MORE CIVILIZED. Scoff if you want! Go ahead! Then get your passport ready and go spend some time in Toronto.
    You say it’s a good thing that buses can change lanes. As a frequent bus rider who suffers from back problems, I curse every time this mammoth lurches to the left or right at top speed. Ouch!
    A vehicle with that much inertia and that poor peripheral vision also creates intense safety hazards for cyclists. I bike more than a bus, and have on several occasions been forced off the road by buses lurching INTO THE BIKE LANE with no warning. How much more civilized would it be to pull a school bus stop, pop open the flashing Stop Sign, and I could gently come to stop for my bus riding brethren? The streetcar stops in the street, and so does all traffic behind it, giving the folks boarding the car the very civilized opportunity to step into the street, which is a public space anyway.
    Streetcars are quiet. Diesel engines are not. You can sit and read a paper on the streetcar in relative peace. I get nauseous reading on the bus, and can’t concentrate anyway from all the noise.
    Streetcars are de facto a traffic calming device. Cars tend to avoid roads with streetcars and where cars are on the road with streetcars, they are forced to slow and drive the speed limit. This makes it safer for everyone! Cars in Toronto’s core just cannot go fast because of all the streetcars picking people up and dropping people off in a civilized manner. It would be as if we had one on Red River, Guadalupe, S. 1st, Congress, Lamar, Chicon, Exposition… Sure it slows down at rush hour, even a bike slows down at rush hour, but at least you could not worry about driving, read a book, strike up a conversation with a stranger, have some sort of spontaneous interaction… and if you and 40 other people did that, traffic might actually move faster at rush hour.
    I appreciate your zeal in wanting the very best for our fair city. Please don’t oppose what would be a great improvement for Austin’s public transit system just because it’s not the best.

  9. The more I hear about this plan the more concerned I get. Question to anybody that knows, who are they trying to pacify with watering down the plan? I understand rail has its critics, but who are the convincing to come on board by making it shared running.
    I really don’t see the benefit of spending millions to essentially electrify the buses. Has anybody see that “Straddle Bus” from China? I have posted about a couple times on the Cap Metro blog. I know it’s really new and untested, but I think it could really work here. You wouldn’t have to worry about shared guide ways.

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