A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Shuttle Buses

Here’s what those of us who live or work in Central Austin are getting out of commuter rail. Stations in far east Austin and the Convention Center, with a handy transfer to a slow, stuck-in-traffic shuttle-bus to get you to where you might actually want to go. Image below is from one of two new documents up at the Future Connections Study site:

Capital Metro is starting rail service here in Austin in a couple of years NOT by doing what success stories like Portland and Dallas did (light rail straight through and to the densest parts of town) but what South Florida did (commuter rail where tracks already exist, requiring transfers to shuttle buses to actually get anywhere). Fifteen years later, Tri-Rail in South Florida is an unmitigated disaster: no choice commuters despite heavy promotion by an enthusiastic community, no transit-oriented development despite heavy subsidization (below-market attempts at land sales around stations and the like). Unlike in Dallas and Portland (and Minneapolis and Houston and Denver and Salt Lake…), drivers in South Florida aren’t trying Tri-Rail because they know that transferring to shuttle buses every day for your commute overwhelms any speed advantage the train might have bought you up to that point.

In short, commuter rail as your starter line just plain doesn’t work. And the picture ought to make it clear why – even the nominally downtown station is too far from the 6th/Congress intersection for most people to walk, and all other major activity centers in our area will require people to say hey, I’ll drive to the park-and-ride, board a train, get off the train, get on a bus, wait in traffic with all the other cars, get off the bus, and walk to my office. Even promotional images used in the pro-commuter-rail campaign show that they expect downtown workers to have to transfer to shuttle buses, as seen below.

Notice in the handouts that they’re still pretending that all options are on the table. But believe me, there is zero chance that light rail will end up as the circulator, and near-zero chance that streetcars will make it, not that streetcars would work anyways. It’s going to be shuttle-buses in mixed-traffic. Mark my words.

Future Connections Has Started

Capital Metro’s Future Connections Group is now, finally, up on the web. This group was tasked with figuring out how to get people from the commuter rail stops, which are far away from where people actually want to go, to the places they, those wacky commuters, actually want to go. Like, say, their office. Or the University. Or the Warehouse District.

This is basically going to be a waste of time, since those of us who operate in the reality-based community all know Capital Metro’s going to end up delivering shuttle buses in mixed traffic. The streetcar guys like Jeff are holding out hope, but I don’t see Capital Metro going that way, and even if they did, streetcars are only marginally better than mixed-traffic buses for those choice commuters. Streetcars might help make downtown redevelopment even more palatable, in other words, but they aren’t going to fix the speed and reliability problems of the All Systems Go route for people who live outside downtown.

Terminology lesson: In most cases, “streetcars” means “vehicle on rails in a traffic lane which shares its lane with cars, or is otherwise ‘sharing traffic’ with other vehicles and stops at a lot of red lights”. “light rail” in this case bumps you up to “has its own lane; always gets a green light”. So a streetcar is basically a Dillo on an embedded rail – it still is stuck in traffic just like your car or other buses are.

History lesson: The 2000 light rail plan, or any one of ten easily passable scaled-back versions thereof, would have delivered passengers (in ONE train trip) from their dense center-city residential neighborhoods or from their suburban park-and-rides, directly TO the University of Texas, the Capitol Complex, and downtown, without requiring a transfer to anything else, bus or streetcar in a reasonably fast and very reliable amount of time. Capital Metro didn’t even try to bring something like this back before the voters, and most of the pro-transit people here in Austin didn’t have the guts to tell them otherwise.

It’s Not Light Rail

Many people, including Lyndon Henry (who of all people ought to know better) are continuing the misleading practice of calling Capital Metro’s All Systems Go plan “light rail” or “light rail like” or “light ‘commuter’ rail”, etc. This has done its job – most laypeople continue to call what ASG’s building “light rail” even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.

So a couple of days ago, a story showed up in Kansas City extolling the virtues of what turns out to be a similar “Rapid Bus” plan to the one being foisted on Central Austin as our reward for rolling over for Mike Krusee. The lightrailnow.org site which is at least somewhat affiliated with Lyndon has often published vigorous attacks on efforts to sell “rapid bus” schemes as “as good as rail” to the public. Lyndon was angry at this Kansas City effort, and I replied with a reminder that the politicking of himself and Dave Dobbs helped get the same exact thing for central Austin by his support of the ASG plan. Lyndon replied with his typical ASG cheerleading, and I just sent this in response:

— In LightRail_Now@yahoogroups.com, Nawdry wrote:
>Instead, it passed, and we have a rail project under way and
planning for additional rail transit installations now under way.
What we have underway is a commuter rail line which doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major activity centers of the region, doesn’t and will NEVER go near the major concentrations of residential density in the region, and doesn’t and will NEVER get enough choice commuters out of their cars to provide enough public support for expansions of the system.
What we have underway are some lukewarm half-hearted plans for expanding that rail network if Union Pacific can be convinced to leave their freight line behind, but, of course, it will all be moot, since the original line will be such a debacle that we’ll never get to the expansions.
This is a “one and done” line.
It skips the Triangle. It skips West Campus. It skips Hyde Park. It skips North University. It skips the Capitol. It skips the University. It skips most of downtown. It does not provide any service to the neighborhoods in Austin that most WANTED rail in 2000, nor will it EVER do so (even if the entire ASG plan is built).
It is NOT ANYTHING LIKE LIGHT RAIL. I don’t know how you can sit there and claim that it is. I know you’re not stupid, and had hoped you weren’t a liar.
_HOUSTON_ built light rail. _DALLAS_ built light rail. _PORTLAND_ and _DENVER_ and _SALT LAKE_ and _MINNEAPOLIS_ built light rail.
This plan is NOTHING like what they built. For you and Dave Dobbs to continue to call it light rail is dishonest, bordering on maliciously false.
What DOES it do? It goes past suburban park-and-rides (as the light rail plan would have). It allows fairly easy access to stations for the far suburbanites who LEAST wanted rail. It requires that all of those passengers, who are the MOST SKEPTICAL about transit, to transfer to SHUTTLE BUSES at the end of their journey if they want to go anywhere worth going.
There is zero chance that this line will garner substantial ridership, and thus, voting for this plan doomed Austin to no additional rail for a very long time, since it will have been ‘proven’ that rail ‘doesn’t work’.
As for your claims that Rapid Bus isn’t being sold here, bull. It was featured in the paper just a week or two ago, and is the ONLY service improvement being provided to the parts of Austin that want, and in any other city, would have gotten rail.
Mike Dahmus
Disgusted At Lyndon’s Dishonesty

I’m a Goner

Today when I came home, my wife showed me the mail, and there was a letter from Councilman Slusher which noted that my term on the UTC has expired (it did on 1/1/05) and that he did not wish me to continue serving until I was replaced. No further information was given.

This is not a big surprise; although the timing is at least a small surprise. Many months ago when I first spoke on the commuter rail issue, one of my fellow commissioners told me that Councilman Slusher was apoplectic with rage over the idea that I’d say the things I was saying (and this was before I really got going; at this point all I had done was write one letter to the Chronicle). He supposedly said that he was mad enough to remove me from the Commission, but didn’t want to provide more attention for my supposed cause by doing so.

I was very shocked by this information at the time (and still am) – first of all, the idea that one couldn’t publically be against the commuter rail plan (but still be rabidly pro-rail and rabidly pro-transit) and still serve on the Commission is quite offensive to me even today. Second, the idea that a commissioner on the UTC could have a large enough public effect to be worth such spiteful comment as was supposedly given is just ludicrous – in other words, I can’t believe that I was ever big enough to be worth any bile from a City Council member at all.
At that time, I asked (quite nicely, I thought) for a meeting with him to discuss what he’d like me to do (implicitly offering to resign from the Commission if that’s what he wanted – to be honest, there’s little point in continuing to be on the Commission without support from your appointer). He never responded.

To this day, Councilmember Slusher has not spoken to me at all since we met a couple of years ago (when he indicated that he was fairly happy with the status of the UTC).

After the election, I missed the two remaining 2004 meetings of the UTC due to vacation and illness. The January 2005 meeting, which I had planned to attend, was canceled for lack of a quorum. The Februrary meeting is next Tuesday, and I had planned on attending.
I don’t know why the decision was made (suddenly) to remove me from the Commission. Councilmember Slusher is being term-limited out of office – elections are in May. I had assumed that the fact that he didn’t bother to replace me with another appointee meant that I would probably last until the new councilmember took office.

Anyways, for those reading this blog who knew I was on the UTC, that’s the full scoop as of now.
To my fellow commissioners – thanks for serving with me for all these years. Your dedication to improving the transportation situation for the public at large is an inspiration, even when I disagreed with you. I hope you’ll continue to do the great job you have been doing.

To city staff – please understand that I (and my fellow commissioners) appreciate the hard work you do even when we disagree. Thanks for all the night hours you had to put in to be at our meetings, and thanks for doing your part to make Austin better.

Mike Dahmus
Got Another Free Night Per Month Coming Now

Plans for the blog

Well, now that the election is over, and I waited a week to cool the electrons, here’s where this blog is going to go:

  1. More emphasis on other transportation-talk (I had a bit of this sprinkled through the early articles here – see these categories for some examples). I took up the pro-transit but anti-commuter-rail flag because nobody else would, not because it’s my only interest). I have a couple of long articles ready to write once I get some time – one about TXDOT’s pedestrian-hostile highway construction, and one about the Jollyville Road severing.
  2. I’ll be evaluating any proposals made to “fix” the commuter rail line. Some mumblings in the press right now indicate that they think they’re going to get a proposal or two before the voters for the 2006 election. I sincerely doubt this will happen – there was far too much political capital spent on the “let’s build this one and then see how it does” position, and the kind of studies they need to do in order to get to the ballot-box are not likely to be quick.
  3. I’ll be commenting on the election results if and when the Chronicle does a precinct analysis (like they did for the 2000 light rail election).

Evaluating my campaign and my predictions: I thought the rail plan would pass, but I did not think the margin would be this great. I’m surprised at the margin in unincorporated Williamson County (according to today’s Statesman, it was fairly large). As mentioned before, I don’t know how it did in the central city compared to light rail.

I had hoped that I would get enough traction with the press that it would be difficult to forget (in 2010) that there was at least one guy who knew what he was talking about who predicted that the starter line was fatally flawed (to shorten the rail transit interregnum that will occur when the line fails). I don’t think I met my goals here – got some early coverage, including a good spot on KXAN where I was able to articulate the main failure, but most of the other press coverage misrepresented my position to “it doesn’t go far enough” which is too easy to counter with “well, we’ll just build streetcar or go to Seaholm” which only solves one of the ten or so problems with this line.

The success of the starter line is now in the hands of people in Cedar Park and far northwest Austin. If they enjoy riding shuttle buses every day from the station at MLK (crossing I-35 on MLK to get to UT and the Capitol) or from the Convention Center to 6th and Congress, then the plan will survive long enough to build extensions and expansions. Note, however, that none of those extensions or expansions provide rail service for the residents of the center city – they are other commuter rail lines headed from shuttle-bus stations out to other suburban areas.

I’m prepared to make a limited number of ridership bets for more steak dinners (hi Patrick!). You know where to find me. Otherwise, I may have the sidewalk article up in a week or so.

My final pre-election note

(Thank God, say the readers)

Sent by me a moment ago to the austin-bikes email list:

David Dobbs wrote:

> At 08:25 -0600 11/1/04, pills Mike Dahmus wrote:
>> So I don’t buy the argument that the money’s only going back if the election fails. I think the money’s also going back if the election succeeds but the starter line fails.
> Well, clearly we can be virtually certain that, save for a half-cent bus system, Capital Metro’s funding will be gone if commuter rail doesn’t pass tomorrow.

No, clearly we can’t be virtually certain of that.

I expect the 1/4 cent diversion to local governments to continue if Capital Metro were to lose the election. This diversion is easily rectified, unlike the permanent diversion that would happen if they win the election and build the virtually guaranteed failure of a commuter rail stub.
The fact that the ROAD guys aren’t fighting this very hard should tell you all you need to know about their feeling on the matter. But if you don’t believe THAT, consider the fact that this plan comes from Mike Krusee, no friend of Austin and definitely no friend of public transportation. He and Fred Gilliam have come up with the cheapest possible way to show once and for all that rail “doesn’t work in Austin” – at which point I’m sure their common cause evaporates as Krusee seeks road funds and Gilliam seeks bus rapid transit. Either way, central Austin in particular gets nothing but the back of the hand.
There is no way I can see in which urban rail can be salvaged if this election passes. David is parroting the dubious party line that this commuter rail line can be turned into “light rail” by running the trains more often and through TOD – ignoring the fact that TOD won’t occur if nobody is riding the line when it opens (real estate developers will shy away from such development if the line looks like a failure AS HAPPENED IN SOUTH FLORIDA). And NOBODY has explained how Austin is going to be SO DIFFERENT from South Florida that the shuttle-bus liability won’t be a huge problem here for building choice commuter ridership. High-frequency shuttle buses waiting for you when you get off the train? Check. Speedy rail portion of commute? Check. Cheap because they used existing track? Check. Now planning on shifting emphasis over the next decade to a much better rail corridor after 15 wasted years? One down, one to go.

Let’s recap:

  • This line delivers rail + shuttle-bus commutes to Leander and far northwest Austin. It does not deliver ANYTHING to central Austin. It does not deliver rail service to ANY OF THE THREE major attractors (downtown*, UT, Capitol). It will be relying on far-out suburbanites to form the bulk of the daily ridership – and those are PRECISELY the people who are LEAST likely to accept a shuttle-bus as part of their daily commute. The progressive parts of town where residential density is at its highest get nothing but bus service under the LONG-RANGE plan (NOT just being skipped by the starter line, but SKIPPED ENTIRELY).
  • The idea that the plan can then be saved by streetcar is also naive and foolish. While streetcars are more attractive than buses for a single transit trip:
    1. The transfer penalty still applies. A three-leg trip (car, train, shuttle-bus) is much much worse than a two-leg trip (car, light rail) or a one-leg trip, as a Hyde Park resident could have had with 2000 LRT.
    2. Unlike light rail (and the rail portion of the ASG commute), streetcars are stuck in traffic just like shuttle buses. You lose so much speed and reliability that the private car becomes competitive again.
    3. Streetcars (and any other rail extensions or expansions) must be voted on under the same rules – only in November, only an even-numbered year, and they won’t be ready to take it to a vote in 2006 since they’ve committed to a long study process. November 2008 would be the first chance to VOTE on these saviours, at which point the daily ridership numbers of the initial line WITH SHUTTLE BUSES will be public knowledge.
  • The reason we’re not getting to vote on light rail this time around has NOTHING to do with light rail’s viability. EVERY CITY THAT HAS SUCCEEDED WITH RAIL IN THE LAST 20 YEARS HAS DONE SO WITH A LIGHT RAIL STARTER LINE, NOT COMMUTER RAIL. Light rail in 2000 was forced to the polls early by Mike Krusee, and still only narrowly lost in an election where suburban turnout was disproportionately high. The idea that we couldn’t have taken out some of the objectionable parts of the 2000 LRT proposal and gotten a winning result is just a COMPLETE AND UTTER LIE.

I can’t believe so many intelligent people fell for this snow-job pulled on you by Krusee, who hates Austin with a passion, and Fred Gilliam, who wants bus rapid transit and is pushing commuter rail as a way to get it. If I’m still living here in Austin in 2008, I expect to see many more comments a la Shoal Creek of:

” I am dismayed that Mike Dahmus was so damned right about this whole debacle from the very beginning.”
– MD

* – by the 1/4 mile rule, no major downtown office buildings are within walking distance of the “downtown station”. Nearly every major office building downtown, as well as the Capitol, UT, West Campus, most of North University and Hyde Park, and 38th/Guadalupe would have been within 1/4 mile of a light-rail station in 2000.

If “not going far enough” was the only problem…

I wouldn’t be campaigning against this thing.
This entry is good for people seeking back-story; the linked articles form a “best of” collection from this blog explaining various supporting arguments for the Pro-Transit But No vote on Capital Metro this time around.

Today kicks off with another Chronicle mention in which they say:

Opponents like Mike Dahmus, a member of the city Urban Transportation Commission, say the current commuter rail plan does not go far enough.

The real problem here, as I’ve covered again and again and again, is that this line (unlike light rail) will require shuttle-buses for all commuters every single day and will thus fail miserably at attracting passengers from the suburban (non-bus-riding) population. Since this line, unlike light rail in 2000, doesn’t run anywhere near the areas of central Austin where transit enjoys high use and overwhelming popularity, it can’t make up the difference with progressives either.

Simply not going “far enough” could be fixed with some hard work. But this plan not only goes the wrong way, it precludes light rail from being built to “fix” it. Additionally, it’s SO INCREDIBLY CRAPPY that it’s going to “show” pretty conclusively that Austinites “don’t want rail”. Which, I think, is what Mike Krusee and Fred Gilliam had in mind the whole time….

The Crappy Is The Enemy Of The Good

Jeb Boyt throws back one of the most effective sound bites on commuter rail. I’m disappointed he didn’t have the guts to link to me; I will certainly allow you to read his own words directly and make up your own mind.
I responded in his comments with:

Again, I disagree. Rail systems which attempt to provide starter line service by requiring shuttle bus transfers are universally failures at pulling people out of their cars (unlike light rail lines in the last two decades).

And Guadalupe/Lamar was completely feasible – the 2000 election lost by such a small margin that any number of minor changes to the plan, or heck, even a more concrete plan (remember we voted without knowing the downtown routing!) could have put it over the top.
The spin that Guadalupe/Lamar is impossible comes straight from Fred Gilliam, who DOESN’T WANT RAIL AT ALL. Hint: He’s teamed up with Mike Krusee here to build commuter rail because it’s the cheapest way to show that it “doesn’t work”.
And it “won’t work” because it doesn’t run through neighborhoods where people actually want to use it, and the only people who COULD use it are precisely those who would be the LEAST willing to take shuttle buses every day.

The real problem here, folks, is that a starter line which is this horrible will be, as one of my colleagues on the Urban Transportation Commission put it, a “finisher line”. It will end rail transit in this area for decades. Please don’t fall for this baloney that the commuter rail line is good enough for a start, and that we can work on improving it later. As Jeb’s entry points out, Lamar/Guadalupe is not even under consideration as one of the possible “improvements” anyways, even if I end up wrong and suburbanites eagerly flock to daily shuttle-bus trips as part of their Leander-to-Austin commute.

Commuter Rail Is Not Light Rail, Part 851

Or: A letter I just wrote to the Statesman which they probably won’t publish:

Many of your readers and a significant number of public boosters of the commuter rail proposal on the ballot November 2nd appear to be confused as to the nature of the project. Referring to cities such as Salt Lake City and Portland as rail success stories is misleading in this context, ince those cities are succeeding with LIGHT RAIL (like we narrowly voted down in 2000), not COMMUTER RAIL. The only recent example of a system like the one we’re voting on comes from South Florida – it relies exclusively on “high-frequency circulators” (shuttle buses) while all the success stories mentioned have stations within walking distance of existing offices and shops. South Florida’s line has been an unmitigated disaster that after 15 years still carries only 12,000 passengers a day on a far longer corridor than the one we’re contemplating building.

A Yes Vote for this plan kills Light Rail, Part XII

In early versions of the All Systems Go literature, the Rapid Bus line on Lamar/Guadalupe was described as a “placeholder for possible future urban rail”. This corridor is the only one in our area which has sufficient existing residential density to support urban rail (light rail or otherwise).

Many of the people who are holding their nose and voting yes on the commuter rail plan appear to still think that they can get light rail on this corridor even if this commuter rail plan passes. I’ve discussed on several occasions the technical problems with that idea – in short: the original 2000 route would be out due to vehicle/track incompatibilities, and a route continuing north on Lamar instead of bending northwest would be out due to speed and demographics (far fewer northeast Austin residents work at downtown/UT/capitol than do northwest residents).

More simply, though, one can simply look at the language of Capital Metro themselves. The current version of the ASG plan drops the “placeholder” phrase entirely – and recent quotes from Fred Gilliam are particularly damning:

What Capital Metro does not intend to do, at least in the foreseeable
future, is have lanes of city streets dedicated solely to bus traffic. When
that occurs, the system is called “bus rapid transit.” Lacking those lanes,
Capital Metro calls its proposal rapid bus. But Gilliam made it clear he’d
like to reverse those two words in the long run.
“My hope is that . . . eventually we will get to bus lanes,” Gilliam said. “But
our plan is not designed around having to have them.”

Back when Fred took over from Karen Walker, he made some pro-BRT and anti-LRT statements which I have been unable to locate. Thankfully his recent comments remove the need for me to do so – it’s pretty clear which way Fred intends to go for Lamar/Guadalupe, and it’s going to be Bus Rapid Transit.
What is Bus Rapid Transit, you ask? Well, it’s Rapid Bus with bus lanes. You get most of the reliability and speed of light rail, but you get none of the comfort, perceived quality (suburbanites don’t like buses, remember?), and perceived permanence. Studies in this country have shown pretty conclusively that you get redevelopment and infill with rails that you don’t get with buses – even Rapid Buses. If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider what it takes to move Rapid Bus service to a different road versus moving rail service.