Austin doesn’t have a traffic problem

Tomorrow is voting day for Texas and Austin, there is some excitement over the new 10 district system in Austin among the political classes, but not much among the voters. One of the big issues, at least for me and the general media has been the traffic, and more specifically congestion. Up for vote is Prop-1. a mixed rail and roads bond with a cost of $1.4 billion. It has become a total political football, although either way it is a win/win for the urbanists who either get rail and can pursue density; or don’t get rail and can use that to drive calls for faster and more density.

I’ve posted numerous times on the rail topic, but just lately I’ve been tracking my commute times. I live in the central downtown and work in Round Rock, a 20-mile drive. I try to work at home Fridays, and every now and again I bike home from work and then the next day, bike back.

What at least for me has become obvious over the last month, is that yes, Austin has heavy traffic from time to time, but really it doesn’t have a traffic problem, it has a commute problem.

I’ll tackle this topic in more detail in a number of short(er) follow on posts, which address both the problems but also some of my view how we could deal with the problem. They are in summary

There are no $1.4 Billion do-overs

There is a better choice and it’s worth the wait, Austin’s strongest and densest corridor: Guadalupe-North Lamar.. Communities want light rail on that route and have written it into the neighborhood plans. The FTA has said it would consider funding a MetroRapid bus-to-light rail conversion in that corridor.

Draft only (for comment_review by Chronicle printad staff)

Prop-1 The Wrong Rail for Austin

From where I see it, this was never about rail, it was always about developing an under-developed corridor of central Austin. A previously undesirable corridor because of it’s proximity to I35 and the noise and congestion associate, along with specific properties, which, without rail wouldn’t be nearly as viable or valuable.

One reason I have not posted to my blog recently is the fact I’ve been spending my time lobbying, writing an posting on why this is the wrong solution. Since my last blog a lot of additional material and discussion has happened. Also, long overdue I’ve joined AURA, a number of their members have produced some great information. I was also impressed with Roger Cauvins’ calm, logical argument at the recent KUT Views and Brews. You can hear the whole Views and Brews here.

From where I sit, this was never about rail, it was always about developing an under-developed corridor of central Austin. A previously undesirable corridor because of it’s proximity to I35 and the noise and associated congestion, along with specific properties, which, without rail wouldn’t be nearly as viable or valuable.

An AURA blog post nails where the funding for much of the pro prop-1 support is coming from, and by doing so also confirms what I thought, and had previously heard about the route for the rail in Prop-1.

It’s also well worth listening or watching the following City of Austin Central Corridor Advisory Group. For those that are short of time, use the menu to skip to the citizens communication section and listen to the first speaker, Mike Dahmus. Having been surprised by the direction and format of the meeting, that basically rubber stamped the route, Mike discussed  what was wrong with the selection and the proposal. If you can, continue to listen through the Mueller developers, to Linden Henry and David Dobbs, possibly the two qualified people in Austin on transport.

If you can’t be bothered to listen, Mike has written this elsewhere on the Prop-1 rail proposal.

Project Connect has ignored public input in favor of misrepresentation and obfuscation to justify the predetermined route preference of UT and speculative development interests. Please don’t fall for the premise that this somehow represents good transit planning; so far, most knowledgeable Austin transit activists oppose the plan, and every national transit advocate/expert who has spoken up about it has been amazed at how badly the process was run and how stupid the recommended plan is.

Prop-1 route was decided and heavily influenced by developers, and then a justification sought. It’s easy to see that those in the urban sprawl areas, will vote against this because they’d never use it, and will add circa $300 per year to their property taxes yet many of them commute into the central business district.Meanwhile, those, especially long term residents in the central districts, Zilker, Bouldin, Travis Heights etc. who have seen huge property tax increases as the property value increased, face another $400 per year for a system they can’t use and for which for the most part won’t help with traffic congestion.

It’s worth remembering that unless you die, or move out, an improved property value is worth zero, nothing, nada. However, the tax burden is real. The elderly, retired and those barely surviving now due to increased costs, will now be further penalized by the increased taxes which are proportionately much higher, due to their higher per sq foot property value, which will ultimately force more people to sell their properties and move out, further gentrifying those neighborhoods.

Decaying Texas

It’s been an interesting month. I live in Austin Texas, boom town USA. Everything is happening in construction, although nothing much in transport. In many ways Austin reminds me of rapidly developing cities in China, India and other developing countries. I’ve travelled some inside Texas, but most on I10 and out East. I’ve tended to dismiss what I’ve seen in small towns, mostly because I figured they were unrepresentative.

Earlier this month I did my first real US roadtrip. I had my Mum with me for a month and figured a week or so out of the heat of Texas would be a good thing. We covered 2,500 miles, most up from North West Texas, also New Mexico, and Colorado. On the way back we went via Taos, Santa Fe, and Roswell and then back through West Texas.

There they were small town after small town, decaying. Every now and again you’d drive through a bigger town that wasn’t as bad, but overall massive decay, mostly in the commercial space. Companies had given up, gone bust, or got run out of town by a Walmart 30-50 miles away. Even in the bigger ones, there was really no choice, there were Dollar Stores, Pizza Hut, McDonalds or Burger King, Sonic or Dairy Queen, and gas stations. Really not much else, except maybe a Mexican food stop.

It was only just before sunset on the drive back through West Texas, with my Mum asleep in the backseat, I worked out that my camera and telephoto lens rested perfectly between the steering wheel and the dashboard and I started taking pictures. These are totally representative with what I’ve seen all over Texas. Just like the small towns out near Crockett and Lufkin in East Texas; pretty similar to anything over near Midland; outside El Paso; down south towards Galveston. Decaying Texas.

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What there were plenty of, in the miles and miles of flat straight roads, were oil derricks, and tankers, hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s not clear to me what Governor Perry means when he talks about the Texas Miracle, but these small towns, and to some degree, smaller cities have more in common with the towns and cities in China and India, slowly being deserted, run down in the rush to the big cities.

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Interestingly, while writing and previewing this entry on wordpress, it suggested the mybigfatwesttexastrip, which ends with the following

The pictures above tell the story of a dying West Texas town and the changing landscape of population movement away from the agrarian society to the city.

Austin, divided by roads

Austin Business Journal Editor Colin Pope published an op-ed on the future of I35 through downtown Austin. In the op-ed he was basically saying that any attempt to sink and cover I35 was a waste of money, and they should just add lanes.

I added a biting comment pretty quickly on the dependency on cars, the division of the downtown area. Later in the morning, ABJ added a poll to the article, and in the process, my comment disappeared. I re-wrote a comment and posted it last night. Just in case it vanishes again…

You want growth in downtown, but don’t appear to care how that growth occurs, or what the cost is in terms of noise, dirt or visual impact. You’ve suggested the socioeconomic barrier is being addressed by the private sector, but it really isn’t. Where are the big impact developments, east/west transportation initiatives?

There no real towers on the east side of I35? They are all small scale developments because, I would suggest, developers know [they can’t] there is a real future risk because of the separation I35 creates.

While it wouldn’t be my choice, cut-and-cover would allow buildings to be built right over the Interstate, thats one kind of growth. You though seem to prefer to just add lanes, if your objective is just to move traffic through downtown Austin, then lets stop people exiting from I35 between say Oltorf and maybe Airport. Most of the delays are created by people trying to get on/off I35, and people shortcutting driving through the city by getting on and jumping off. Seem draconian ? Not if your objective is just to move traffic through downtown Austin?

Is the downtown future really linked to cars? A 10-lane highway/frontage makes a pretty formidable barrier for anything except cars/buses. IF you live on East-anything except Riverside, you can forget rail, walking and or biking under a 10-lane highway?

How do you see the two cities of Austin developing? Again your passionate plea to just build lanes offers no view on how the increasingly segregated city would develop?

That’s the difference, the cut-n-cover advocates actually have a view of re-uniting the city, instead you are proposing that in 2020 we are still slaves to the car.

 

I must admit, 24-hours on, I’m left wondering if Colin was just acting as a troll to get opinions for follow-up articles; or worse still, a shill for the Texas roads, car and gas companies.

Transportation leadership failure

On Tuesday I wrote about “Austin and Alcohol tourism” and speculated on the lack of an alternative transport policy as a leadership failure. I said:

Rather than rally behind what most transport conscious users and urbanization advocates believes would be hard, but right choice to put a rail line of some sort, straight down Lamar from North West Austin, [Mayor] Leffingwell used his last state of the city to rally behind the current rail proposal.

Bml2iMaCEAAchZX[2]And today Leffingwell lived up to that speculation. The outgoing Mayor is reported by the Austin Statesman as saying in relation to making space on the vital East Riverside corridor, the 2nd phase of the current proposal he

wasn’t on board with eliminating [Car] lanes.

Susana Almanza, president of Southeast Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood Association and a candidate for the City Council District 3 seat in this fall’s election, said:

the city, if nothing else, will need to rethink how wide to make the bike lanes and sidewalks.

What is wrong with these people? Doesn’t anyone brief them on the real world. The traffic all over the city is backed up at peak times. Offering a viable alternative transport which can make real progress is the only option to get people out of their cars.

But my post from the other day was off the back of Ben Wintles anger over the death of his friend Kelly. So, our Mayor doesn’t want to reduce the lanes for cars, a candidate for City government wants to rethink the width of bike lanes and sidewalks. For the clueless here are a few things to remember:

  • There are 4,000 pedestrian deaths every year in the USA [if anything else had death rates like that, we’d ban it]
  • In the last 10-years (2002-2012), the share of pedestrian death in the USA has gone from 11% of traffic fatalities to 14% [ie. for the clueless, things are getting worse]
  • 73% of those pedestrian deaths occur in cities [USA like the rest of the world, and Austin especially is getting increasingly urbanized]
  • Pedestrian death rates in the USA are far greater than in Europe
  • Europe has a different hierarchy of needs for streets, they put equal or greater priority on pedestrian, bikes and alternative transport than they do cars
  • Pedestrian and bike safety is not a random series of actions, it is a direct result  of policy, approach and influences
  • These combinations of policies and funding allocations, engineering and enforcement set Europe apart
  • Streets are for cars! No, streets are for the movement, delivery, transportation of people and goods

So, while the Statesman might call Leffingwell “urban rails primary political champion”, that doesn’t mean he has shown leadership. Rail or fail indeed Mr Mayor? One line going nowhere, connecting to another not getting built.

Footnote: As documented in wikipedia, Mayor Leffingwell is a 32-year airline pilot for Delta Airlines and grew up in the neighborhood where I live.

Lavaca – Off road slalom course

Next week sees the much heralded launch of the “rapid bus” in Austin. That’s a subject of

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huge importance and not to mention, massive debate and possibly deception. In order to prepare for this, the city has been making major changes, especially downtown creating priority lanes for buses, and new bike lanes.

What is abundantly clear is the main in town south north route, Lavaca won’t be ready. While the priority lanes were being created, there has been major sewer work going on, the road surface has been ripped up, not just re-striped, lanes have been out for days just to accommodate a portable toilet.

At least as far as I read it back in August, the city was supposed to have been finished at the end of September. Today it took me a record time to get to 24th/MLK from my street off South 1st, just a mile from city hall. 23-minutes, at a walking pace of 4.5MPH, but sadly, in my car.

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I took this picture this morning while stationary at 10th St. 1-mile traveled, 17-minutes, 6MPH. Prior to the roadwork starting it took just 7-minutes most days to get across the S 1st St bridge, up the synchronized lights on Lavaca to 24th/MLK. There was no point in speeding as you’d just reach a light just before it would change, or just after.

I wrote to the Austin works department asking about this a few weeks back and was told the repairs and upgrades won’t be finished until April. The email helpful included the following reasons for the problems

it is important to note that there is a large amount of private construction taking place on Lavaca as well.  Public Works’ Street and Bridge crews are working diligently to complete the street resurfacing of Lavaca in anticipation of the Bus Rapid Transit kickoff date of January 26; however, due to unforeseen utility conflicts, inclement weather and special events the schedule has had to be revised with an anticipated completion date of April 2014.

This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. For the major routes, private work needs to be totally coordinated with public works. Major lanes and blocks of the major north/south route should NOT be out for this long, let alone with lanes closed for a whole block just to accommodate a porta potty. Anyway, whatever Mike thinks, whatever the truth, RapidBus won’t be rapid on Lavaca anytime soon.

Travelling for your job: Survival Tips

I wasn’t sure which blog to post this on, in fact I thought I’d already posted in to my more work related blog, turns out I hadn’t. I’ll be heading back to Texas A&M again next month to give a talk on career and personal development, and these were the slides I used to guide the talk last time.

Anyone that hasn’t traveled much for business, when you list the countries you’ve been too, think it’s something like Matt Harding, I doubt this represents his real travel experience.

If I remember this time, I’ll record the talk and transcribe the points into something more consumable. In the past I’ve had my talks video recorded, but I think being able to post in here text format would be useful. During the talk, which is mostly focussed on the pluses and minuses of corporate travel, I also discuss, How to handle person life issues (family leave, eldercare, illness, accidents, reoccurring illness) professionally; Thinking about and preparing for mid-career and long-term career prospects; The joys and expectations of working in a large company.

If you are interested in a more technical presentation, you can see the slide and lecture notes from when I gave the distinguished lecture at Texas A&M, 2011, here.

Mor on parking

I got some interesting responses on twitter about my parking madness post. Yes, if was writing a critical analysis, I should have covered all those points, but then the blog entry wouldn’t have been as catchy and would have taken too long to read. Here are some more serious observations.

@mdahmus aka M1EK is someone whose opinion I can almost always appreciate, and mostly always agree with. Mikes point here is that the garages are not such a bad thing. It assumes that people own cars, put them in the garages and use them less as they live downtown and have no need for them. Right Mike?

That is a reasonable position. However, it doesn’t make the building of these garages on valuable land within 1/2 mile of city hall. If we restrict parking, forcing up prices, there will be either an uproar or push for alternate transportation solutions, or the prices will rise to what the market will bear.

This was my experience living on the central east side in Manhattan. I owned a car, but simply couldn’t afford to overnight it in Manhattan. Had I worked in Manhattan I wouldn’t have needed a car for the most part, but I worked some 28-miles outside the city. Driving to work was quicker than taking the train, sometimes the traffic delays getting home would push the time beyond taking the train, but for the most part it was quicker. The problem was the overnight cost, and on those days where I wasn’t at work, it was next to daylight robbery.

Solution? Rather than pay $40 to park in Manhattan, I paid $4 to park at Goldens Bridge Metro station, I’d take the train up and drive the rest of the way. At weekends if I needed the car, I’d either get up early, or drive the car home Friday evening. You rarely ever see them building dedicated parking garages in NY City or other major metropolitan cities anymore. The likelihood of these ever being torn down is remote and they with the others will remain as temples to the folly of the lack of usable transportation policy outside of the car.

Dan’s tweet was rather trying to understand WHY the garages were being built, and there are three possibilities:

  1. The city requires that number of parking spaces for the development that it goes with. If this is the case, then it’s the city that is at fault, Certainly in downtown and the central corridor between Lamar, I35, Barton Springs Rd, MLK this needs to be changed, the developments are either too big requiring too much parking, or the parking garages are wasting valuable land, especially since they are not integrated into the building.
  2. The developer feels the property/development won’t be viable without all those spaces. There are two answers to this, one the city needs to revise it’s transportation policy to make these potential buildings viable without huge parking garages; or the developer should scale back the building. If that means he development isn’t viable, so be it. We don’t need to waste the opportunity to redevelop these lots with oversize buildings, subsidized by inflicting additional car journeys, noise and air pollution, as well as the inevitable light pollution as in the Hyatt garage.
  3. The garages are not really required either to support the development, or are required by the city. In this case the developer has calculated that these are money makers, it’s a land grab, literally.

Still, as far as I can see, despite some sage commentary on twitter from people much more knowledgeable than I, but it remains these garages/carbuncles simply should have never been built. The city needs to act now to stop further parking madness.

For the record, I live in a single family home, less than a mile from here, I have a detached garage where I keep a car. I ride my bike around town as much as I can, even for meals and nights out. I also use car2go when I can, and Dadnab was one of my original Austin friends.