Urban Design

Houston and Zoning

For a long time, Houston has been the thorn in the side of those who, like I, claim that suburban sprawl is not a natural preference of the market, but rather, the result of market distortions in the form of zoning and other anti-urban regulations and tax policies.

Houston, as anybody who’s travelled through it knows, is a gigantic metastisizing suburban sprawl which takes an hour to get through and which makes even Cedar Park look attractive. There’s no density outside downtown; and the rest of the city is about as pleasant to walk through as a pit full of angry scorpions. You have to be particularly stubborn or perhaps particularly brave to live there without a car. Those of us who like to believe that removing those anti-urban regulations would lead to the market providing more traditional urban living are often stymied with the reply, “well, Houston has no zoning, and look at it”.

Now, somebody’s finally written a paper which addresses the question of Houston head-on. As expected, they’ve found that Houston’s lack of zoning is more than made up for by a combination of other regulations and tax policies (which in Houston’s case more than make up for the lack of formal zoning in effectively outlawing new urban development). Not just restrictive covenants, but a host of other policies which effectively outlaw urban development and force all residential construction into a couple of standard suburban forms (single-family houses on cul-de-sacs and three-story apartment buildings clustered around a ring of parking lots).
A good read for anybody who wonders why we have so much of the same crap in so many places.

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Buttheads at Capital Metro still calling it Urban Commuter Rail

Capital Metro’s On The Move E-Newsletter is still calling this thing “urban commuter rail”.
It’s not urban. It’s arguably commuter. It’s definitely rail. One and a half out of three is not enough to justify this misleading terminology. This thing goes nowhere near the urban parts of Austin. Even its just-barely-inside-downtown last station is in the part of Austin where surface parking lots are more common than buildings.

Cut it out, you buttheads. Just cut it out. It’s commuter rail, not “urban rail”, and adding more stations in 2020 isn’t going to make it any more urban.

If it doesn’t go anywhere near the densest residential neighborhoods or anywhere near the densest employment centers, it isn’t urban, by any stretch of the imagination. If your stations are only in locations to which you have to drive, take a bus, or be dropped off by somebody who drove, it’s not urban; not even close.

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Can YOU spot the right corridor for rail?

A photographic exercise by M1EK. All pictures obtained from the 9/24/05 Future Connections steering committee presentation.

This is a bit misleading since it makes it look like Hyde Park and the neighborhoods around Airport Blvd are equally suitable for rail transit – the problem is that you can’t walk to stations along Airport from any residential developments of consequence; the area is fairly pedestrian-hostile.
Note that all of the existing and future high-density residential and employment centers are going to be served by “high-frequency circulators”, i.e., shuttle buses stuck in traffic. While the incredibly important Airport Boulevard corridor gets rail. Here’s one example of a circulator movement they envision; this one is planted right on Speedway near my house. Note: there’s already high-frequency bus service to campus and downtown on this street, so it’s doubtful they’ll be doing anything here other than publicity:

Now, for comparison’s sake, I took the two 2017 maps, and using my awesome drawing skills, drew the 2000 light rail proposal, in blue. The jog from the Guadalupe corridor over to Congress Avenue might have happened as far north as 11th; I chose 9th as a compromise. Some versions even had it running around the Capitol on both sides — but this is a simpler drawing that still hits all the same major spots. A short distance north of this map, the 2000 light rail line would have converged with the red “All Systems Go” line and continued northwest on existing rail right-of-way towards Howard Lane, so this picture captures most of the “difference” between the proposals.

Gosh, which one would have a better chance at delivering ridership? I really can’t tell the difference. I guess Lyndon IS right – this commuter rail plan IS just as good as light rail!

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More on Tri-Rail and why shuttle buses matter

The current brou-ha-ha with Lyndon reminded me to go check if anything’s up with Tri-Rail in South Florida. As I’ve previously written, they’re the best example out there of the kind of rail line Capital Metro is going to build here in Austin, in that

  • they don’t run trains very often
  • most destinations require a shuttle bus ride
  • they chose to run on a cheap existing track rather than building lines closer to those destinations (like light rail systems usually do)

Well, in the process I found an updated version of an old article I think I already used, but I hadn’t noticed one important paragraph before. The context is that they’re finally talking seriously about moving to the FEC corridor – which is where the service should have been built all along, since it allows passengers to walk to a non-trivial number of office and retail destinations. We’re even worse off here, though, since building this commuter rail line basically prevents us from building anything like the 2000 starter line. Here’s the quote:

Without a FEC/TRI-Rail alliance, McCarty sees the need for continued subsidy because of the “inherent fear of feeder bus reliability.” The buses “are often late,” she explained.

Since Tri-Rail trains only run about every half-hour during the commute peak and less often the rest of the day (like Austin’s commuter rail trains will), missing your train on the way home from work is a big deal. The “feeder” buses they’re talking about are the same kind of shuttle buses we’re going to be stuck with here in Austin, if you work downtown, at the Capitol, or at UT. And guess what? They’re going to be unreliable too – they’ll be stuck in the same traffic as your car.

Even if streetcars are used for the “high-frequency circulators” which will take you from your office to the train station, the same problem exists – since streetcars won’t have their own lane and won’t be given green lights over cross traffic. The chance that light rail will come out of the Future Connections Study is zero, since commuter rail precludes it from being built in the 2000 alignment, which is the only one good enough to merit Federal funding.

So just like in South Florida, people will experience a couple of missed trains and then, if they have any other options, will stop riding. Nobody wants to sit around for even a half-hour waiting for the next train home. And if all you’re doing is catering to riders who don’t have a choice, you might as well just dump the money into more buses.

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Lyndon loses it

Lyndon Henry just called me “anti-rail”. I’m so mad I could chew nails.
His “bend over for Mike Krusee side” has destroyed any chance at urban rail here in Austin for a generation, since the starter line implemented by Capital Metro will not be able to garner significant ridership due to its reliance on shuttle buses to get anywhere you might want to go.

After this failure, predicted by South Florida’s experience with a commuter rail plan which is almost identical to Capital Metro’s, Austin voters will not be willing to vote up any more rail for decades.
If anybody’s “anti-rail”, it’s him and his ilk; since their collaboration with Mike Krusee will prevent urban Austin from seeing rail until my children are middle-aged.
Update: my cow orker pointed out that lightrail_now doesn’t have public archives. Here’s the offending opening paragraph of Lyndon’s comment:

Let me just point out that, if Mike Dahmus’s anti-rail side had won last
November’s vote – i.e., the rail plan had failed – the Road Warriors would
be celebrating the “final” demise of rail transit in Austin and picking the
bones of Capital Metro for more funding for roads – highways, tollways,
etc. – in this area.

he then goes on to tell people how wonderful the commuter rail plan is, how it might be upgraded to electrified LRT (continuing his misleading crap about how sticking an electrical wire on it makes it “light rail”), and mentions the people trying to get streetcars running through downtown and an unnamed bunch of “rail advocates” trying to get light rail to run on the Rapid Bus corridor, failing to say anything about the fact that this commuter rail plan effectively precludes running light rail down that stretch of Lamar/Guadalupe.

Driving in Austin

Finally somebody else gets it

I’ve been arguing for a long time that the “commuting calculators” pushed by cyclists to convince people to ride their bike to work are skewed, since they assume that you can effectively divide the total cost of owning a car by the number of days in a year, then get credit for each of those days you leave it in the garage.

Capital Metro’s example, for instance, assumes depreciation as one of the costs you save. (To be fair, they have now allowed you to zero out this field, which is quite a concession for them). I’d argue it should be zero or at least very low, since most of the cost of depreciation is a function of time, not miles. I’ve previously argued that a more rational accounting of costs shows that it’s unlikely that a large number of suburban commuters would begin using the bus to get to work due simply to the cost of gasoline (which is why we need a real urban rail system that provides a time incentive to use transit; not this Austin-screwing transit-killer foisted on us by Mike Krusee).

Now the Washington Post has done an analysis which, although it still includes depreciation, correctly mentions other fixed costs which don’t go away. In DC, as it turns out, you might not save anything by leaving your car in your driveway. Whatever you think of the merits of subsidizing public transportation, surely even the most reactionary of road warriors would admit that something’s wrong there.

What could be done to help fix this problem? One obvious answer is to pay for all of the costs of road use through the gasoline tax, instead of through a variety of non-user-fees as we do today (property and sales tax especially). The suburban regions of DC, like Texas, pay for a lot of their roads this way – meaning that you pay the same (hundreds to thousands of dollars a year) whether you drive 100, 10, or 0 miles a day. Anything which increases the variable cost of driving while leaving the fixed cost alone (or even decreasing it) can only help people make more efficient decisions about how to travel on each trip. Another obvious answer would be forcing insurance companies to deliver on mileage-based insurance (and, no, despite publicity, they really aren’t doing this today – or I’d be jumping all over it).

metablog Personal PS: I am not a crackpot Terms I Have Coined

I officially coin the term

crackplog – short for “crackpot blog”, i.e., have you read M1EK’s crackplog?

The evil google machine indicates today that I am the first person in the universe to use this term. Feel free to use it from here on out, but credit me.


Why I’ve barely biked in the last three months

Anybody who found their way to my bike log might have noticed a fairly large gap, like the one I had in 2001-2002. I’ve had a bad flareup and a very slow recovery from another attack of what I now (as of this morning) know is Reiter’s Syndrome. The previous flareup, in 2001, was diagnosed as either Reiter’s or spondylitis. Since then, some new drugs have come out to treat spondylitis, so we were hoping to get at least enough spondylitis apparent so I could try these drugs, since in the 4 years between the 2001 flareup and the 2005 flareup, I never recovered full function in my toes (leading to less volleyball, less biking, and gradually gaining back the 40 pounds I lost in 2000-2001, when I was in the best shape of my life – so much for being in shape preventing disease). After that initial flare settled down to 70-80% function (two courses of steroids), I went on a variety of drugs (mostly Vioxx and Azulfidine, the two of which I took for essentially two years) and got up to 90% function, but couldn’t do any better. I ended up taking myself off the drugs after the long-term effects were becoming apparent – spent a couple of hours in the early morning most nights in the bathroom with severe intestinal pain. After going off the drugs, things didn’t get any worse, so I figured I had reached a new plateau of 90%, which at least I could mostly live with.

Then the 2005 flare hit. Really really bad. Much worse than 2001. Had to do a business trip with what felt like a broken ankle. Two courses of steroids again; the second course barely worked; I was nearly certain I was going to go for the world record of three. Knocked it back to the toes again, apparently, although I don’t have much flexibility in my ankle and knee, so it may still be there too. So I come back a couple months later to the rheumatologist and at the first meeting with the doctor I hear about the new biologics that can treat spondylitis; I go in for a (very expensive) bone scan; and this morning get the results. No spondylitis. Just Reiter’s. And the bone scan shows that it’s still affecting my knee and ankle too – so I’m still much worse off than I was in 2001 at this point.

When these flares hit, I can’t even walk, much less bike. Right knee and right ankle become inflamed and red. This last time I spent two weeks on crutches with a HUGE THROBBING ANKLE!!!1, and spent a few nights unable to sleep until I got me some Vicodin. Sleep was even harder during the first flare, since my elbow was also hit – I had to sleep with my arm over my head in one particular position.

No dice. No new drugs; no new research; chance of recovering full function is zero. Oh, and, if I want to lessen the chance of more degenerative arthritis as I get older, my best course of action is to give up alcohol, red meat, refined sugars, and one other thing I forget now but probably was equally difficult to imagine living without.

I’m currently at about 70% (ironically I biked to the doctors’ office in order to test out the new bike trailer with a load – got some soda on the way back to simulate the weight of my son), meaning I can play a little bit of volleyball very badly, and I can go on very short bike rides. Oh, and keep getting fatter, until I give up what joy remains in life and go vegetarian. Well, I DID have something delicious on Saturday that turned out to be cauliflower…

Excuse me while I go punch a clown. And then I need to drown my sorrows in a bacon margarita. With sugar on top.

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Regionalism as the enemy of urban transportation

I couldn’t put it any better myself. This is how Mike Krusee’s killed Austin’s hopes at getting intracity transit back from the dark ages of slow jerky buses.

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Still At It

The folks who basically wanted us to suck it up and enjoy what crumbs we got from the All Systems Go plan are still at it, even today. On the Austin Streetcars group (for people who are trying desperately to salvage some kind of rail, for central Austin, which is otherwise going to only be served by “high frequency circulators” in the form of shuttle buses and, of course, Not So Rapid Bus), Lyndon Henry just called the ASG starter line an “urban light railway”, to which I just had to respond with this old gem which now that I look back, is probably the best thing I wrote about this whole commuter rail debacle. Unfortunately, it was nine months after the election.
Update: Lyndon responded with:

They’ve ordered non-FRA-compliant light DEMUs for this line. It qualifies
as a “light railway” by all standards I know of within the transit
industry. However, since it’s non-electrified, it is NOT
LRT. Operationally, it will be somewhat similar to the Camden-Trenton
RiverLine light railway and the Sprinter light railway currently under
construction in Oceanside (north of San Diego – which they’re calling
“light rail”).

to which I answered:

Pop quiz:
1. What are the headways it will run at during peak times when it opens?
2. How will the passengers get to their final destination?
The answers to those two questions are:
1. 30 minutes, at best
2. Shuttle buses
Neither of those answers is compatible with the concept of “light rail”. As you know. It’s a pretty shoddy effort to claim that it’s light rail because it’s using a slightly less heavy, but still non-electrified, locomotive.
This project is commuter rail, and not a very good one at that (most commuter rail lines at least penetrate a major downtown area; this one does only by the most generous definition of the term, and doesn’t come remotely close to any of the 3 or 4 other activity centers of the region).
Your insistence on applying the adjective “light” to it as frequently as you can suggests to me that you might be uncomfortable with your role in selling Mike Krusee’s Austin-screwing transit-killer to the citizens and are trying to convince yourself that this pile of garbage really is a stack of roses.
Again, I refer you to this:

and then I inserted the original blast that this isn’t light rail by any reasonable definition of the term.
Lyndon is one of the “good guys” which is why I hate so much that he’s helped, as I mentioned, sell Austin down the river for Mike Krusee (whose constituents by and large aren’t even Capital Metro taxpayers).