Austin’s draft transportation plan is moving but needs to know where it wants to go

City of Austin staff are in the process of putting together a grand strategy for transportation. These kinds of documents can range from foundational texts that set the stage for city-wide transformations to activist flypaper that channel interested citizens’ attention away from the political process that bring change and toward the construction of very expensive paperweights. This one has the potential to be transformational but in its draft state, it falls quite a bit short.

First, the good. It touches on a number of issues that are huge problems:

  • Sidewalk improvements Austin’s sidewalk coverage is abysmal; this document recommends improving it.
  • Dedicated bus lanes Mayor Adler and other city leaders like to portray Austin as a progressive climate leader. We’re not. We are a leader in driving (and I emphasize the word driving) the world into catastrophic climate change. In the most important way a city can fight climate change — driving less — Austin is bad and getting worse. This document describes some ways the city can improve it. For example, both immediate and long-term fixes to get buses out of traffic and into the fast lane.
  • Land Use The document also recognizes another way Austin can start to get more progressive environmentally: putting more new development where our public transportation is best. This is a no-brainer but we don’t do it very well so glad it’s getting recognition.
  • Fire trucks One weird issue most people don’t know about is that final veto over our street designs comes from the Fire Department. It’s a wag-the-dog situation where city streets are designed to fit our fire trucks instead of the other way around. This document recognizes that there are tradeoffs between the goal of designing streets for large fire trucks to get somewhere as fast as possible and other goals.

With all these improvements, this could be a transformational document. But strangely for a strategy document, it doesn’t do a ton of actual setting of strategies. Let’s go back to the issue with fire trucks. This is how the draft policy reads:

Manage public safety needs supported by the transportation network including street safety, emergency response, flood risk, disaster resiliency, and public health for the best outcome.

This is an improvement over the existing unstated policy where we don’t even recognize the tradeoffs. But recognizing tradeoffs isn’t a strategy for managing them! Here’s my version:

Wide streets have significant downsides due to impervious cover, maintenance costs, heat island effects, encouraging dangerous driving speeds, and discouraging pedestrian connectivity. Align the transportation criteria manual, emergency response vehicles, and other city resources toward a goal of narrower, safer, streets.

This isn’t super detailed. What’s narrow in one situation may be wide in another. But it sets up a broad goal and strategy toward achieving that goal. The next time the city purchases fire trucks, writes its street design manual, or has any other tradeoff question, staff will have a clear directive on what kind of outcomes they should be going for.

This is only one policy point in one subchapter. But the same is true of the document writ large. Sometimes I summarize documents I’m writing into a single sentence, losing vital detail but gaining insight into broader themes. My summary of this transportation strategy right now is “Improve all transportation modes.” Just like with the fire trucks, this represents a real improvement over the status quo where private cars are prioritized by default with other modes accepted only in exceptional circumstances. But while it elevates other goals beside automobile throughput, it doesn’t provide much of an actual policy or strategy for choosing between these goals except in very narrow circumstances.

Here’s my updated version:

Improve mobility, safety, and environmental outcomes by substituting other transportation modes for car trips where possible.

The document as a whole wouldn’t have to change that much as it already contains many good strategies in the sidewalk, public transportation, land use, and bicycling sections that could be useful for achieving such a substitution. But it would require adding sections that explain how to resolve conflicts between different goals. For example, the first strategy when a street has maximized vehicle throughput shouldn’t be to widen streets but to find ways to get more people per vehicle.

The deadline for public comment on the document is January 13! Please add your comments!

A Christmas wishlist for Austin’s next City Council

Austin’s new city council is shaping up to be the most development-friendly Council in recent memory. What kind of agenda could we expect or hope to see from the new City Council? Here’s what’s on my holiday wishlist.

Reform before Rewrite

CodeNEXT is dead. One reason it failed is that it combined two separate but related goals: increasing density and improving design. How dense different parts of Austin should be is a subject of intense debate. By contrast, the best ways to design Austin given a certain level of density is debated mostly by professionals. To the extent that the public debated design elements at all, the arguments sounded an awful lot like the only thing most people cared about is how these design elements affect yield. Looked at it this way, CodeNEXT was doomed to fail. It’s impossible to write coherent design guidelines when the public takes intense interest in them but evaluates them solely based on how much housing (or other buildings) they produce.

We must at least try to separate the issues of density and design. Improving the presentation of the code, the process of getting building permits, improving our streetscapes; all important issues that need a collaborative process informed by technical know-how. On the other hand, the question of whether we build a city that sprawls outward or soars upward is one with a lot of public input from the kinds of people who vote in municipal elections. It’s a question that has divided the electorate to the point of dividing communities like environmental groups and neighborhood associations. This is not an issue we can hope to just keep talking about until we find common principles. We don’t need to be nasty in how we debate the issue but we need to recognize that dumping these political questions on to staff and community engagement is doing more to cause rifts than heal them, without providing meaningful benefit. So, for my Christmas wishlist, I hope that our City Council takes a bold leap of faith and does the job they were elected to: settle political issues. That means making real movements on density even without the comfort of a completely undivided city. My real wish here is that come next Christmas, Austin can stop debating whether we are a place that welcomes new residents and start moving on to debating how we welcome new residents.

How could we do that? Here are some ideas:

Build up commercial streets

Austin has seen a number of new apartments (usually built on top of new shops or restaurants) on commercial streets like Burnet, Lamar (North and South), and South Congress since it first started allowing such buildings in 2004. They’re not my personal favorite housing style; I prefer to live on side streets with less traffic noise and pollution. But there’s no doubt that they’ve been a very popular type of new housing. They produce new homes for a lot of people who need them and they’re very easy to serve by transit, as streets with shops are already our most common bus routes. The new buildings are required to follow design guidelines that make the city more walkable, by doing things like limiting the number of driveways that interrupt sidewalks.

Here are three items on my wishlist to build on the VMU program’s success:

  1. Allow apartments on more streets. If a bus goes there, it should allow VMU.
  2. Allow apartments on all parcels on a street. Austin’s VMU ordinance made a political deal where it agreed to limit the program to certain parcels, which well-informed members of the public willing to sit through long meetings got to decide on. But that was 10 years and $1000/month in rent increases ago. It’s time to fill in the missing teeth and allow more properties to rebuild.
  3. Apply it to “Centers” as well as “Corridors.” This was an idea from the city of Austin comprehensive plan “Imagine Austin” that envisions a few more neighborhoods not dissimilar to West Campus with fewer undergraduates or Seattle’s Ballard (click through on the tweet to see the whole walking tour):

Allow more missing middle housing

“Missing middle” is the idea that there’s not a lot of ways to live in Austin that fall between a house surrounded by yard on all sides and an apartment complex with a leasing center with little bowls of candy in the waiting room. In other cities, you get lots of housing types in between: triple-deckers in Boston, greystones with up to 6 apartments in Chicago, or row houses in virtually every city the entire world over. Missing middle housing types can be employed on busy commercial streets; many cities have rowhouses interspersed with shops. But it really shines as a way of allowing more people to live on the calmer, quieter side streets where adults and children both are safer walking.

Redesigning Austin around missing middle housing is going to take a lot of work. We have effectively destroyed so much of our missing middle heritage that Austin’s Historic Preservation Officer proposed landmarking a fourplex as a rare example of a bygone housing type. But there are some items on my Christmas wishlist that are ready to ship today:

  1. Remove restrictions on subdividing buildings. If you’re allowed to build a mansion for one family to live in, you should be allowed to build that same mansion split into multiple apartments. This wouldn’t affect the health and safety regulations, nor would it affect regulations that affect the form of a house. It would simply take advantage of the fact that many of our houses are built too large and could accommodate more people with an extra stove and a wall between two sides of the building.
  2. Reduce minimum lot sizes. Austin requires unusually large amounts of land, measured in both area and width, in order to build a house or apartment building. Austin’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods were built before that rule and have many lots with housing on smaller lots. Requiring so much land was a mistake and we should drop it sharply.
  3. Treat missing middle like houses not mega-complexes. Austin has a different set of rules for getting permits to build houses versus getting permits to build large buildings. While both types of buildings are required to follow zoning rules, large ones have to go much further in proving that they’re following the rules. This doesn’t have a huge effect on mega-complexes, which are always going to require complex permitting. But the additional paperwork can make it simpler to build an upscale mansion than a simple fourplex.

A hideous four-unit house from before Austin mandated only beautiful single-unit houses.

End Parking Requirements

Requiring that every house, apartment, store, school, daycare, and bar have its own parking places is crazy stupid. It encourages people to get an extra car even if they could get by without it, it adds crazy large expenses to everything we build, and it makes the city ugly as heck. Once you realize how much of a city is built the way it is just to provide huge amounts of parking, you’ll feel like you’ve just put on the goggles from They Live:

Parking requirements aren’t one of those “we just disagree on the right amount” ideas. They’re always wrong and the best thing we can do is eliminate them entirely. But if that isn’t on the shelf at the mall, some good alternatives could be:

  1. Eliminate parking requirements near buses and trains.
  2. Eliminate parking requirements in special districts like TODs and West Campus.

Expand Downtown and West Campus

The downtown/UT campus area is a special place, different from any other part of Austin and in some ways any other part of Texas. Austin has one of the largest percentages of jobs in its central business district, understood in this case to extend all the way up to UT. Although this can cause problems with car traffic when many people commute in from around the city surrounded by their steel cages, it’s a huge advantage for running transit. These areas are both doing very well but threatening to run out of room as they get built up. So what would I love to get to fix this?

  1. Rezone more of downtown to CBD or DMU, the two zoning districts special to downtown.
  2. Expand West Campus’ special zoning to more parts of West Campus.
  3. Expand the “inner West Campus” zoning district that allows taller buildings to more of West Campus.

Start working on Comprehensive Zoning

Design and density go best together. A comprehensive rewrite of our land development code could be far easier to achieve once the Council has set the policy direction clearly. But no matter what, it’s going to be a long process. When CodeNEXT died, many people from within the development and homebuilding industries actually let out a sigh of relief as they felt many of the areas outside the public interest weren’t well-enough examined. Outside of the pressure cooker of setting the city’s direction on density, real progress can be made on the more technical aspects of the code. Let’s start.

Election reflection: three big changes that have affected the makeup of Austin City Council

With the completion of the runoffs, Austin’s next City Council is set. Although it falls short of the densificatron the Austin Chronicle mused about, it is being widely hailed as the most urbanist-friendly council in recent memory. How did we get here? Well, I’d like to believe it’s because the world is coming to understand that building awesome, compact cities is the only way for humans to prevent catastrophic global climate change. In fact, I do believe that. But there’s also some structural, political reasons. Let’s listicle.

1) Higher turn-out elections

It’s no secret low-turnout elections favor Republicans and development skeptics. In 2016, development-friendly candidate Sheri Gallo led development-skeptic Alison Alter on election day 17,569 to 12,943, coming within just 634 votes of winning the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. But by the time the low-turnout December election came around, Alter won out 9,481 to 5,339. It’s possible there were some voters who changed their minds but more likely development-skeptic voters were just more motivated to turn out in December. Development-skeptic candidate Laura Morrison said her strategy was to force a runoff, where the smaller, more development-skeptical electorate would favor her.

But while our two-part runoff system means we have some low-turnout ballots, it used to be much worse. Prior to 2014, we elected City Council in May elections rather than November ones. The transition to higher turnout elections has brought out a broader group of voters with a broader set of issues, less animated by opposition to development. This trend could accelerate if Texas, like Maine, adopted instant runoffs, in which voters state their second (and third and fourth, etc) choices at the same time they select their first choice, allowing a runoff without forcing voters to come out twice. However, Ed Espinoza on Twitter tells me it may take a change to state law in order for this to happen:

2) 10-1 gave more representation to underrepresented populations open to development

Both before and after Austin switched from seven at-large Council Members to ten single-member districts and one at-large mayor, the vast majority of votes in Austin have come from the richer, whiter parts of town. Here, for example, are the total number of voters in each district in the 2014 city council elections, as well as the racial / ethnic group of the Council Members who have represented that district:

All districts were made to have roughly equal numbers of people living in them. But not all of those people vote! There were more than three times as many votes cast in 2014 in wealthier, whiter District ten than in poorer, more Hispanic Districts two and four. This difference is driven both by the number of eligible voters and by voter participation rates. When all Council Members were elected at large, this meant that the votes of the areas and populations that turn out at lower numbers were diluted among the votes of the areas that turn out at higher numbers. Since 10-1, these areas are represented at a proportion to their populations, not to their voting rates.

Of course, it isn’t a given that “population that votes in great numbers” or “white” are anti-development or “population that votes in lower numbers” or “non-white” are pro-development. Ora Houston of District 1 was a consistent development skeptic, while Jimmy Flannigan of District 6 and Sheri Gallo of District 10 have been more development-friendly. But generally, the electeds and the electorate in the less white districts have proven to be more open to development than the whiter, more voter-rich districts–and this is true in other places outside Austin as well. Indeed, if you look at the five districts with the fewest votes in the 2014 election (one, two, three, four, and six), these districts will be represented by some of the most development-friendly Council Members on Council in 2019.

3) 10-1 created new, geographically based sources of legitimacy

Prior to the 2014 switch to a district-based council, all Council Members were elected by an electorate from across the entire city. When we were considering the switch from at-large Council Members to geographical districts, there was something of a debate on what was likely to happen between two of my friends and fellow bloggers, Chris Bradford of Austin Contrarian, who feared that this would create a system of ward privilege, and Julio Gonzalez of Keep Austin Wonky, who was a bit more sanguine. At the time, I leaned closer to Chris’ argument but so far, Julio’s predictions have turned out to be more accurate. On issues that affect a single council district, Council Members definitely defer to the district Council Member in some ways; often, the Council member whose district is most affected will speak first and longest on a case. On cases where other Council Members don’t have developed opinions, they may choose to vote with the district Council Member. But Council Members have also shown a lot of willingness to vote their consciences.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which geographical districts have actually reduced ward privilege. When the Council was elected at large, they often gave a significant amount of deference on zoning cases to leaders of the nearest neighborhood associations. While neighborhood associations are unelected, they were still often seen as a good pulse of what voters thought in that district. Now, with single-member districts, some neighborhood associations still have a large amount of sway where voters elected a Council Member that agrees with them. But in other Council districts, anti-development forces have had to handle a diminution of their authority as they put their preferred candidates to the electoral test and lost.

Nowhere has this been clearer than District 3, where Pio Renteria has won two straight elections over his sister Susana Almanza. The siblings have been on opposite sides of neighborhood politics for decades; Council Members trying to get the pulse of East Austin sentiment sometimes used extremely imperfect proxies like how many people showed up to debate an issue at City Council. Now, with voters choosing Renteria twice, there is little reason for other Council Members to value Almanza’s voice over Renteria’s.

Where from here?

Politics has a way of going through pendulum swings. It’s possible that norms of ward privilege will emerge over the course of years. It’s possible that I’m overreading the factors above and luck has played a large role in the formation of the Council. After all, the same District 1 that elected development-friendly Natasha Harper-Madison also elected development-skeptic Ora Houston. But it’s also possible that these changes in Austin’s electoral system have led to a real structural shift in politics that could have big implications as Austin becomes closer to a big city.

Three versions of Austin’s next transit map

This blog cut its teeth analyzing Project Connect’s light rail vision in 2014 but I’ve stayed relatively silent on the current iteration of Project Connect. Largely, this was because Project Connect did pretty extensive but not super sexy analysis in their preliminary reports and I didn’t have much to object to in it or add to it. The one time I chimed in was to encourage new CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke to make the easy call that Austin is ready for trains and maybe give a caveat that if new technologies emerge during the process, we can change our mind.

In the six months since I wrote that piece, Hurricane Randy has blown the process in some completely unexpected directions. In a carefully orchestrated Austin Chamber of Commerce conference presentation that more closely resembled a Steve Jobs product reveal than a city hall briefing, Clarke doubled down on new technology, revealing a map with Austin’s highest ridership transit routes labeled “Autonomous Rapid Transit,” a constellation of technologies like machine vision and vehicle-to-vehicle communications that he sees as changing the cost / benefit relationship on steel rails (i.e. trains) vs concrete lanes (i.e. buses or new tech-augmented vehicles). Since this whirlwind presentation, Austin’s transit activism has been scattered in new configurations, with different camps forming largely based on how they feel about the relative merits of tried-and-true trains vs betting on newer, cheaper technology.

These are very important questions but the thing that really struck me was not the mode but the map itself. Earlier, Project Connect spent $3.5m conducting a corridor study. The study didn’t produce a map of transit lines but what we might call “transit segments,” straight-ish lines where we might consider putting transit. It assessed each segment for how many people would benefit from transit service there and therefore how much transit capacity should be planned for. The result of the study was voluminous documentation on each segment, summarized in this map:

This is not a route map; how the segments fit together into transit lines isn’t specified yet. At the Chamber product rollout, CapMetro revealed their first cut at combining these segments into lines:

In this map, CapMetro has chosen two high-capacity lines: an Orange Line that connects the highest ridership orange and brown segments, and a Blue Line that connects the highest ridership blue segment with the medium ridership gold section.

A few questions jump out at me when I look at this map:

Why do the high-capacity Blue Line and the high-capacity Orange Line not connect?

These two lines come tantalizingly close to one another! In downtown, they are separated by no more than a few blocks. At the Capitol, they literally have stations named Capitol East and Capitol West. Yet, if you want to transfer from one to the other, you’ll have to walk, even if it’s raining or blistering hot. There’s another way of configuring the lines that adds the possibility of a transfer, for little cost, just by switching up which segment south of the river connects with which segment north of the river:

The next question is: Why did the medium-ridership gold segment get slated for high-capacity service?

Everybody would love high-investment transit service everywhere. But we have limited funds to build and run the system. That’s why we spent $3.5m studying which segments are most useful to invest in. That study found that the gold segment was only a “medium” priority behind not only the three high-ridership segments but also two other segments. So why invest heavily in this gold segment? I don’t know. Maybe even though this segment isn’t a great idea from a ridership perspective, CapMetro think its necessary from a political perspective. If so, they’ve learned nothing from the 2014 referendum when voters rejected this exact segment.

Finally, there’s a related question: Why do we split ridership on our core transit spine into two parallel lines running pretty close to one another?

Austin has a pretty definite spine of population density from north to south. This makes running transit easy because a single line with excellent service can serve a lot of the population. People will walk 5, 10, or maybe 15 minutes to a local bus line, but our central spine is wider than that. So when we build a high-capacity, high-investment service, we hope that it’s going to draw people from a wider area than a local bus line. It’s going to be fast, frequent, unobstructed, and comfortable with expensive things like platforms for level-boarding and off-board payment systems to keep it going fast, as well as politically expensive things like dedicated lanes. As a result, some people will go further to ride. Maybe they’ll walk further, or maybe they’ll bike or scoot to the station, or maybe they’ll get dropped off, or maybe they’ll take a cross-town bus. Because the service is so much better, it’s worth it. A virtuous cycle gets started, where improved service encourages more people to use the service. This happens both from within the normal 10-minute walk zone because the service is more competitive compared to driving or taking a Lyft and from outside the normal 10-minute zone, because the service is more competitive versus taking the local bus. 

But the CapMetro plan to split those improvements over two segments running parallel to one another threatens to nip that positive feedback cycle in the bud. For the same costs, some of the vehicles that would be running on the central spine will instead be running on the parallel line. Neither line can run as frequently. In the companion piece to this blog, I’ve gone in more depth on an example. The extra construction costs of running more miles of track (whether steel or concrete) will also mean that we will have to save money somewhere else. What if, instead, we doubled down on a golden mile high-frequency transit spine? It could look something like this:

The Blue Line, instead of running parallel to the Orange Line, runs on the same track as the Orange Line up to Crestview. If the Blue Line is running 6 vehicles per hour and the Orange Line is running 6 vehicles per hour, then there will be 12 trains per hour between Crestview and Auditorium Shores — transit service of the likes Austin could only dream about right now. We would have six golden miles of transit-first city from Auditorium Shores to downtown to UT to the Triangle to the state office complex to Crestview. What was the northern segment of the Blue Line instead becomes the Gold Line, a medium-investment line as envisioned in the original Project Connect study. The money saved by not building parallel high-investment lines in the central city could be reallocated by extending the high-investment orange line from North Lamar Transit Center to Rundberg, improving the equity and usefulness of the route.

Is this the One True Austin Transit Map? I mean, I think it’s a pretty damn good one but I hope that our decision is backed by a little more research and analysis than this blog post. What I really hope happens is that the same project team that came up with such an excellent study of the segments is invited back to finish off the job and produce one or two final options for routes. CapMetro says that this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning and they’re open to changes. I hope that’s the case because this map needs more than a couple tweaks.

How splitting transit can hurt everyone

This is a companion piece to our post on Austin’s next transit map explaining in more detail how running two parallel lines can hurt both.

In our example, you live at 46th and Avenue F in Hyde Park and need to go downtown on a Sunday night. Today, you have two good options:

[table id=1 /]

I would walk to the #7. Wifi isn’t a big deal to me, especially on a random short trip. But when we build the Orange Line, the variables change:

[table id=2 /]

Walking an extra four minutes isn’t a big deal, because you make up the time with a faster, more reliable ride, plus extra frequency.

There’s a positive feedback cycle here: the better the service on the trunk line, the more people will ride it, and therefore, the better, more frequent you can make the service. Some of the people who ride the service will be shifting over from other routes; some will be shifting over from other modes. When you split the trips across multiple routes, you undo that feedback cycle. Some of the people will take one route; some the other. Neither route will be as frequent, so you’ll lose some people back to other modes. Of course, if you just spend more to make both routes excellent, that cycle would be different. But if we’re imagining a world of unlimited budgets to spend on transit, there’s lots of other things we could do better than provide parallel routes.

What makes for awesome public transportation

I don’t drive. When I arrived in Austin, I learned this was a hard city to get around in without driving but I didn’t know exactly why. This search to understand what makes Austin so hard to get around without a car is what got me all mixed up in this world of blogging and advocacy. I still don’t have all the answers today but I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned on one specific topic: what makes for great public transportation.

Public Transportation Needs to Go to Great Places

Public Transportation needs to go where lots and lots of people need to go

Not every one needs to go to the same place. So the best public transportation doesn’t go absolutely everywhere, but it does go to places many people need to go: places where oodles of people live nearby or oodles of people work or shop or visit or ideally places where oodles of people do all of these things. In different places and social circles, public transportation has a reputation as being only for poor people or only for rich people, but  the best public transportation isn’t limited to only poorer areas or richer areas.

The Polar Express winds through large buildings on either side. via GIPHY

Public transportation needs to go to walkable places

Great transit isn’t like taking a taxi. You can’t expect it to carry you straight to the door of where you want to go. This means that when you get to your stop, you have to have a safe, comfortable, accessible way of walking (or using your wheelchair or scooting or biking) the rest of the way to your final destination. Bonus points if there’s easy bike or scooter shares right at the transit stop for you to take the rest of the way. Extra bonus points if you can pay for both with the same fare payment system. Connecting transit to cars by putting parking lots at transit stops or transit stops next to a highway usually makes transit worse not better. Cars take up a lot of room, they’re loud and emit noxious gases and they hurt a lot if they hit you.

Public transportation needs sensible stop spacing

The best stop spacing for a route depends on the rest of the services offered. For example, trains running underground will be better off with larger stop spacing, for the most part, than a bus running in mixed traffic. Walking long distances to a station is more acceptable when the payoff is a fast and reliable ride once you get there! 

Public Transportation Needs to Get You There Quickly and Reliably

Straightforward lines

Great public transportation connects great places in logical and straightforward ways. A single bus line could hit every great place in a city but if it takes you hours to wind through the city, that’s not very useful.

Exclusive lanes

Great public transportation doesn’t get caught in traffic. A vehicle filled with 30, 130, or 300 people should never be made to wait behind lines of vehicles with 1 or 2 people in them. That means it needs its own transit-exclusive lanes that individual vehicles can’t use. Transit-priority lanes (e.g. lanes that non-transit vehicles can only use if they’re turning) are better than buses or trains running in normal traffic but still way worse than transit-exclusive lanes.

The Knight Bus doesn’t need exclusive lanes.

Grade separation

Getting stuck behind a car isn’t the only way to slow a bus or train down; you can also get stuck waiting for cars to clear an intersection. That’s why the best public transportation runs either below-ground or above-ground. If public transportation vehicles and private cars are both running on the ground, a second-best solution is to give transit vehicles “signal priority” — the ability to turn lights in front of them green before they get to the intersection.

Frequent service

Time waiting for the ride to start is time wasted. Looking at timetables is an annoying hassle. The best service is the one you can just show up for, secure in the knowledge that there’s a vehicle coming for you soon.

Good communication

Having said that, it’s still useful to know when the next vehicle is coming. Signs in the station, apps, and APIs for third-party apps should all have real-time updates on when the next vehicle is coming through.

Fast boarding

Transit shouldn’t take forever to load and unload. One way to speed up boarding is to provide platforms, so that stepping (or even more so, rolling your wheelchair) on to and off of the bus or train can happen quickly. Another way to speed things up is to have people pay while they wait at the stop or station, rather than as they board. This can be done many different ways, like turnstiles that control access to a station or ticket-vending machines providing receipts that randomly get checked. Imagine how much less useful an airport tram would be if every passenger had to board one at a time and pay at the front!

Transit should be safe and comfortable

Clean, well-lit stations or stops with comfortable places to sit and shelter from the elements

This is almost too obvious to mention yet many transit agencies don’t even provide the bare minimum. At the end of a long work day, the last thing anybody wants to do is wait in the rain or the blistering heat or sometimes even stand up longer than they have to.

Everybody needs shelter from the elements.

Comfortable ride

Comfort doesn’t stop once you get on the vehicle. One big difference-maker is how smooth the ride is. Trains generally offer a smoother ride than buses, which depend more on both the quality of the vehicle and the quality of the road. Another difference-maker is engine noise. In this aspect, electric vehicles are better than diesel ones, which again is an advantage more trains have over most buses.

Some bus rides are magical in all the wrong ways.

Public transportation should be cost effective

Almost every aspect described above costs something. Building shelters and platforms is more expensive than putting up bus stop signs. Ticket vending machines cost money to install and operate. Building subways is more expensive than running trains at street level. The art of making good transit is figuring out which of the items are essential for the service you’re running and which can be sacrificed. But there are also some more general principles toward keeping transit cost-effective.

Vehicles should have enough capacity to handle ridership

While there’s no sense deliberately running an overly large vehicle, almost all of the operations costs of running a bus is paying the driver. Running an empty bus costs a similar amount of money whether it’s a large bus or a small bus. Small buses is everybody’s favorite naive solution to saving money on transit, but often the extra operations costs of maintaining more types of vehicles actually makes this more expensive. But costs can really pile up when your vehicles aren’t large enough. Running 30 vehicles an hour with 40 passengers per vehicle is much more expensive than running 10 vehicles per hour with 120 passengers per vehicle. Classically, this has been one of the key tradeoffs of buses vs trains. Trains cost much more to install but their greater capacity per operator can yield lower recurring costs for high-ridership lines. 

Three-month returns for CapRemap look very positive and what is happening to the UT shuttle?

A few months ago, Austin revamped its bus system, making a sweep of changes to routes known as CapRemap. The new system made a number of bus routes run more often, at the expense of longer walks to some bus stops, more transfers required, and some infrequently used routes being rerouted altogether. How has it been going? CapMetro employees say that a thorough analysis will require at least six months of data but I decided to take a sneak peek because we’re impatient and because I want a chance to gain some context about what CapMetro is, does, and how it got to here.

So let’s start! Early returns look positive. Very positive. Each line in this chart represents one year. 2014 only has one data point (December), so it doesn’t get a full line; just a single dot. And of course, I only have data through August for 2018.

To assess CapRemap, look at the purple 2018 line. For the first five months of 2018 (pre-Remap), it hugged the bottom. CapMetro carried fewer riders in January 2018 than January 2017, 2016, or 2015. Same for Februrary, March, and April. Almost the same for May. Starting in June, when CapRemap went into effect, CapMetro mostly reversed the trend, carrying more riders in each month in 2018 than in the previous few years. There are good reasons to not celebrate yet. June, July, and August are low-ridership months for CapMetro, so CapRemap hasn’t been tested in the busy season.

So let’s look a little bit harder at some background information, so we know what to look for as we continue to evaluate CapRemap’s performance in upcoming months.

Some things that jump out to me:

1. CapMetro Ridership is highly seasonal!  In addition to the summer lull discussed above, there’s a December lull (probably, again, because students and others take time off from work). There are also spikes in March and October, the two major festival seasons.

2. Until Cap Remap, ridership has been trending down each year. The highest ridership December was in 2014, with each successive December having lower ridership. 2015 was the highest ridership complete year, with 2016 and 2017 far behind. Before Cap Remap, 2018 was the lowest ridership of the lot. Cap Remap may have reversed this trend, but three months may not be enough to tell.

Let’s break these numbers down another way. Instead of breaking out years by month, let’s break them out by what type of service people rode: bus (local, express, or rapid), UT shuttle, train (MetroRail), Special Event, or paratransit (MetroAccess). This chart only shows the three years I have complete information on:

What do we learn?

  1. CapMetro ridership is overwhelmingly riding buses. The non-bus services like MetroRail and MetroAccess are vital services to the people who use them (MetroAccess especially), but to the extent CapMetro has a systemic effect, it’s overwhelmingly through providing buses.
  2. UT shuttle Ridership is dropping hard.

Let’s filter out the non-UT buses so we can see the rest of the categories better.

Again, the major plot point here is that UT shuttle ridership is plummeting. I’ve heard four theories why:

  1. Students are moving from bus-centric places like Riverside and Far West to walkable, bikeable, scooterable West Campus.
  2. Service cuts! Most routes have been either eliminated, combined, or had their frequency cut.
  3. More indirect service. As part of UT’s emphasis on making the core campus less of a place for motorized vehicles, UT shut down Speedway to cars and buses, making many of UT’s shuttle routes slower and less direct.
  4. UT shuttles used to be hop-on, hop-off. Today, they require UT students to swipe their ID and non-UT students to pay. This slows buses down and makes them less convenient.

How much do each of these hypotheses explain the ridership drop, if at all? That’s beyond the scope of this blog post. But just to confirm that this is an ongoing trend, here’s a picture of ridership of the UT shuttle on its own:

Yup, 2018 has continued that trend. Even the August number’s relative resurgence is probably more of a blip than a comeback, as August 2018 had more shuttle service days than 2017. Okay, we’ve looked at shuttle ridership enough. What happens if we look at total ridership again, but this time we look at all ridership except UT shuttles?

This changes things! 2017 goes from being the second-worst year to one of the best. Comparing this chart with the first, we can see the majority of CapMetro’s recent ridership losses have been from the UT shuttle. There’s a similar story to show regarding special event (mostly festival) service, which has also been declining in the last few years.

There are different ways of looking at this. On the one hand, we can say that CapMetro has actually been far more stable than some people (myself included) have given it credit for over the last few years. While nobody should feel satisfied with Austin’s levels of transit ridership, most classes of passengers aren’t leaving bus service even in drips and drabs.

On the other hand, UT students should be some of the easiest students to serve! They have less money to drive cars, they pay literally nothing for each bus ride they take (UT pays CapMetro a lump sum), they live in dense neighborhoods and travel to dense job / academic centers. CapMetro and UT have made some changes to this service over the last few years and ridership has dropped sharply! Did these changes cause the ridership drop? Were they worth it? If ridership is changing because more and more students live in West Campus, is it not time to look at improving service in West Campus? These questions haven’t got nearly the public hearing that they ought to have considering how dramatically UT shuttle service has declined.

I hope to make these charts a regular feature as new data is released. I will update some of the core charts above, enhance some of them with some more nuanced analytical techniques, as well as supplementing them with new charts to explain any interesting features we see in the data. Are there questions you’d like to see answered? What do you see in today’s charts? Let us know in the comments!

9/26 Update!

I have added some charts but it didn’t seem worth a new post.

Something jumps out here! Sunday ridership is way, way up since CapRemap! This isn’t surprising as CapRemap increased Sunday frequencies. When the bus runs more often, people ride it more.

Finally, I’ve put together a bit of a more abstract chart. Two reasons why the other charts bounce up and down from month to month and year to year is that each month has a different number of days in it, and then even beyond that, each month has a different number of weekdays and weekends in it from year to year, depending on where it falls on the calendar. So I’ve created a notion of a composite month, which always contains 30 days, and which 1/7 of the days are always Sundays. This leads to a chart in which, instead of seeing ebbs and flows of which month has more weekdays in it from year-to-year, the ebbs and flows of ridership are based more strictly on how many people chose to ride the bus.

Nothing earthshaking here but that’s kind of the point. It’s smoothed out some of the jaggedness caused by February only having 28 days, or an August that has fewer weekdays than normal.

How West 6th Was Accidentally Fixed for the Age of Scooters (and How to Keep it Fixed)

There’s a new development on West 6th Street downtown. A six-story hotel going by the name “Canopy By Hilton” is being built next to Star Bar, between Nueces and Rio Grande (details at Towers). Space being rather constrained next to the hotel site, the developers have rented space to stage demolition and construction on the street itself, temporarily narrowing 6th Street:

Here’s what 6th Street looked like pre-construction from the perspective of the Google Maps street view car:

Let’s take that and simplify it a little in StreetMix:

Now, let’s look at what it looks like today:

Let’s simplify that in StreetMix again:

A funny thing happened on my walk home recently. I noticed that there were no cars parked in the parking spots on the left hand side of this picture and a number of people were using it to scoot in. The blocked-off lane was functioning as a buffer between the scooters and car traffic, thus creating a temporary protected lane.

If the city kept this configuration but made it slightly more permanent, here’s what it might look like in StreetMix:

I’ve replaced the car parking on the left with a two-way bike/scooter lane and updated the buffer so that people can use it to park scooters. Also, I threw in some potted plants as buffers to discourage people from using the buffer, by accident or impatience. The buffered area could not only fit scooter and bike parking, but it could do so and still leave room for a few taxi/Lyft pullouts. Is this the ideal configuration of West 6th? No; I definitely think a professional street designer could do better. But it shows how even a very low-dollar intervention could simultaneously remove some of the many annoying and at times dangerous conflicts on downtown streets:

  • Conflicts between people riding scooters and people driving cars
  • Conflicts between people riding scooters and people walking on sidewalks
  • Conflicts between people parking scooters and people walking on sidewalks
  • Conflicts between people getting picked up or dropped off in Uber/Lyft cars and people driving cars, scooters, or bikes.

Of course, just because this configuration wouldn’t cost much money to execute, it doesn’t mean there aren’t non-financial costs:

  • 13 meter spaces are removed from the street, forcing more drivers to pay market rates to park their cars in parking lots or garages.
  • One car-sized lane has been removed from the street, reducing the peak capacity and slowing the time it takes for drivers to get from downtown to Mopac at rush hour.

Conveniently, Austin has more parking downtown than it has land downtown. (This is true because parking spaces are largely stacked on top of one another).

So, the question becomes not one of finance but one of values and vision. Are we a city that values safe, convenient streets for walking, biking, and scooting, as well as driving, or are we a city that can’t wait the additional two minutes to get on Mopac?

Opportunity Kicks

The hottest political topic in Austin right now is a proposal by the owner of the Major League Soccer franchise Columbus Crew to lease space on a city-owned parcel in North Austin. To see the more colorful side of the debate, browse the #MLS2ATX or #SavetheCrew hashtags on twitter:

I’m not going to rehash the debate, but rather pick out one piece of the “no” side’s argument, led most strongly by CM Leslie Pool: the opportunity cost of leasing the parcel for a stadium. While the lease would be a financial positive for the city compared to doing nothing on the land, that isn’t the only other option. A nearby property owner/developer, for example, has proposed an alternative plan where they buy the land, build a relatively dense mixed-use development, and pay taxes annually estimated at $15m per year. The “opportunity cost” argument is a really good argument. In fact, this argument is so good that I’ve made it a few times myself over things like the immense value to the city of new construction in West Campus, or the potential opportunity cost of a tax-free convention center annex.  (Proud that the proposal I successfully passed in the Visitor Impact Task Force recommended a future convention center annex remain taxable.) In fact, this is such a great argument that I desperately, desperately wish people used it more often. In a previous policy decision, the decision on what a Planned Unit Development agreement would look like for “the Grove,” a plot of land off 45th Street near Mopac, one of the leading opponents of a similar sort of dense mixed-use development was the very same CM Pool and I don’t recall her carefully weighing the benefits of limiting residences there against the tax revenue the city would forego by allowing more construction.

But the point isn’t to discredit the argument by calling hypocrisy. The argument is really good! It’s an argument worth making! While large developments like the Convention Center annex, McKalla Place, or the Grove are relatively visible because they’re covered in local media and debated by City Council, virtually every land use decision that the city makes has a fiscal dimension, yet we rarely ever think about it. (To his credit, Council Member Flannigan frequently invokes the fiscal impacts of development patterns.)

So, let’s talk about fiscal impacts!

Rule 1: Compact development tends to be more valuable

In a fantastic presentation prepared for the Downtown Austin Alliance, consultant Joe Minicozzi compared the fiscal returns to a city from different kinds of development:Comparison of Walmart, downtown, and single family tax yield.

While a Walmart may have eye-popping tax values because it’s such a large single development compared to a traditional low-rise office building or house, a low-rise office building also requires much less space to deliver value. Many of a city’s costs, like building streets, scale by the linear mile not by the person. It costs much much more for a city to provide services to a Walmart than to a downtown city block. For residential buildings, the same rules apply. If a city has 5,000 residents, it’s easier to provide them services if they live in a single cluster of 250 acres than if they spread out to 4,000 acres. In Austin, we see these expenses in items like the five fire stations the fire department has requested to cut down response times on the outskirts of the city. I don’t begrudge people who live on the outskirts fire stations. But I do wish we had denser land development patterns in the central city to better take advantage of our existing fire stations and roads.

Rule 2: Value is driven by making great places for the long term

Take a look at the Capella proposal again. In addition to the $15m in annual tax revenues, they will pay other costs: for example, $1m in parkland dedication fees. Additionally, they have offered $22m for the purchase of the land. These types of one-time fees, both voluntary and required, typically dominate policy discussions but they are drops in the bucket compared to the long-term tax revenue from building a great place that could last a century or longer. The financial life-blood of a city is not in one-time fees but recurring taxes levied every year on great places for its residents to live, work, and enjoy themselves.

When a city considers the fiscal impact of a development, the question it should be asking itself is not how much can we extract from this developer today but: is this developer making a place that 50 years from now people will still want to be in and still be willing to pay taxes on? The Littlefield and Scarbrough Buildings, two modest 8-story downtown Austin office buildings that were anything but modest at construction time pay close to $1.4m in taxes year-in and year-out more than 100 years after they were built, after their historic building tax breaks!

Littlefield Building in Downtown Austin.

Rule 3: Taxes are only one of many benefits to consider

Of course, not all of life can be boiled down to profit and loss, tax revenues and maintenance costs. Parks cost taxes to maintain and don’t directly raise taxes themselves, yet most of us love them. Comparing the often difficult-to-quantify benefits with the easy-to-quantify costs can be difficult and frustrating, as both CM Pool and CM Flannigan express here:

There’s no obvious right decision on a given question. Is it worth it to Austin to pay millions of dollars in maintenance and forego even more than that in taxes for things like the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, Zilker Park, or Barton Springs? The overwhelming majority of Austinites would say yes. Is it worth it to Austin to forego millions of dollars in taxes to “bring people together” through a soccer stadium or to prevent dense development on the former TxDOT site? Could it be worth it to create another West Campus, throwing off tens of millions in tax revenue annually to fund things like parks and schools and soccer fields? Austinites are much more split on these questions and that’s why they’re political decisions. But if we want to make good choices, we need to understand the costs and benefits clearly.

Laycock: Jump e-bikes help me get around Austin better

Today’s post is a guest post from friend-of-the-blog John Laycock. He has allowed us to reprint a letter he sent to city staff and City Council.
I am writing to let you know how great the dockless pilot has been for me. I live at the MLK transit-oriented development (District 1), by the MLK Red Line station, and I don’t own a car. I have a mild disability that limits how far I can walk; I can regular bike, but anything more than a small hill is challenging to me. I am accustomed to and comfortable to using the train, the bus, my feet, my own bike, and B-Cycle, but I can say that Jump e-bikes have already changed my life by improving my mobility options. The train is a really good way to get around. But the train has limited hours – it’s easy for me to get downtown or to my job when it’s running, and much more difficult when it’s not. I’m still fairly close to both UT and downtown; the dockless e-bikes are great because they make a trip of 2-3 miles very convenient.  

Jump is a company that provides dockless electric bikes for short-term rentals. It was recently purchased by Uber.

The e-bikes also solve the last mile problem with transit. This is a well-known issue, and I just want to give a few examples: yesterday, I wanted to go to One Texas Center. I took the train to downtown station, and was literally all but the last mile there. I’ve done this many times, and there are four ways to get that last mile: 1) walk 2) walk to 4th and Guadalupe and transfer to the bus; 3) B-cycle, 4) Ride Share. The e-bike is faster than all of them: cheaper than rideshare, easier, faster, and more comfortable than the other three options.  There’s really no comparison. 
Another example is I was at 30th and Guadalupe trying to get home to 1601 Miriam. It’s just under 3 miles, but a difficult journey. Too far to walk, and awkward to bus. (Half mile to and from the 20 or take the 1 and transfer to the 18, and 1/3 mi walk). An e-bike was much better: about an 18 minute ride with no wait and door to door service. There are hills on Dean Keeton, but the e-assist made it easy to traverse them. The dockless e-bike took a trip that was a huge challenge and made it almost as easy as a car ride. 

Some other observations: 
  • I could buy my own e-bike, but it’s really nice to not have to be responsible for a bike all day, especially since I’m using a variety of other modes, like the bus, the train, and rideshare. 
  • I have yet to see any dockless vehicles left in such a way as to impede a wheelchair. I see other obstacles on a daily basis. I’ve been wheelchair bound before, so I’m sensitive to the issue.
  • There’s a family in my neighborhood with a ten year old girl; she’s just starting to learn to ride her bike. Her dad doesn’t own a bike, so he’s been renting dockless bikes so he can ride with her and help her to learn. It’s really cute, and a totally unexpected consequence of having dockless bikes. I’ve also seen parents and kids riding e-bikes together downtown.
  • I love the Third Street protected bike lane and I’ve seen a lot of scooters and e-bikes on it in addition to regular bikes. It’s great, but there needs to be an equivalent north-south protected lane. 

A scooter riders uses the Third Street protected lanes.

Anyway, I’m sure there will be snags, but I see the dockless vehicles as a huge boon to mobility in the city. And not just for the people who ride them: imagine going to an event at the Long Center; you might not take a scooter or a Jump Bike, but every family that does frees up one more parking space for you. 
I would ask that you continue the dockless pilot, expand the study area, and work with the companies to troubleshoot what problems come up. In the long term, please continue to invest in infrastructure solutions that accommodate non-car modes. Implement the Austin bike plan: it will help both cyclists and dockless users. If necessary, free up additional right of way downtown for cyclists and dockless. And finally, promote them; be excited: this could be a mobility revolution. It has already transformed my life; it could transform the city’s if you let it. 
Thank you for your consideration.