Mall Man – A ode to Northcross Mall

I’m indebted to Dan Keshet for tweeting the following:

This short film with just a few-hundred views, was made in 2007. It’s a story come pseudo-documentary made about the declining Northcross Mall here in Austin, which was a few years later replaced by yet another suburban Walmart.

This film, captures everything about Austin that bought me here. A massive piece of Americana, a throwback to the 50’s in many ways. It’s well written, well narrated, and contains many spoken gems, including this one

we are trading quality for quantity. When you trade quantity for quality, you are trading you dignity.

In some ways, the main characters, somewhat “Fonzy” like represent an iconic character type, James Dean, Rebel without a cause. It’s 15-minutes, a great watch. Catch the disappearing Austin before it’s gone forever.

Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

Rail isn’t about Congestion

It's not going to fix congestion.
It’s not going to fix congestion.

Prop.1 on the Austin November ballot is an attempt to fund the largest single bond in Austin history, almost half the $1 billion going to the light rail proposal.

Finally people seem to be getting the fact that the light rail, if funded, won’t help with the existing traffic. KUT had a good review of this yesterday, the comments also some useful links. You can listen to the segment here: Is a Light Rail Line Going to Solve Austin’s Traffic Problems?

Jace Deloney, makes some good points, what no one is saying though, and what I believe is the real reason behind the current proposal. There is a real opportunity to develop a corridor of key central Austin and, some unused and many underused land, West of I35, and from Airport all the down to Riverside Dr.

This is hugely valuable land, but encouraging development would be a massive risk, purely because of existing congestion. Getting more people to/from buildings in that corridor, by car, or even bus, into more dense residential accommodation, a medical school, UT Expansion or re-site, more office, whatever, will be untenable in terms of both west/east and south/north congestion. So the only way this could really work, is to make a rail corridor, with stations adjacent the buildings.

The Guadalupe/Lamar route favored by myself and other rail advocates wouldn’t add almost any value to that new corridor. It’s debatable that it would eliminate congestion on the west side of town either. But with a rail transit priority system, the new toll lanes on Mopac, the ability to get around at peak times, and the elimination of a significant number of cars in the central west, and downtown areas would make it worth the investment.

Voters need to remember this when considering which way to vote in November. If the city, UT, and developers want to develop that corridor, they should find some way of funding rail from those that will directly benefit. City wide economic impact; new tax revenues, new jobs is a slight of hand, a misdirection.

It’s not acceptable to load the cost onto existing residents for little benefit, just so you can developers can have their way.

Pray for rain?

I’m completely baffled, and offended by this. Anyone who has jumped aboard the knowledge train about water in Texas, and doesn’t see why this is a bad thing, just hasn’t thought it through. If you believe in God, I can’t see how you can pray for rain. The amount of rain needed to make a real difference would be gargantuan.

A major news item in the last 24-hours has been the announcement by the TCEQ that “Dozens of Texas communities have less than 90 days of water“. The report was carried far and wide, and included a video segment, see the Shreeveport Times version here.

Then there was last weeks’ HBO Vice. It carried a 15-minute segment called Deliver Us From Drought, on the drought in Texas. Unsurprisingly for a show with Bill Maher as Executive Producer, it included a focus on the religious types Praying for rain.

We should already have a permanent ban on watering lawns, even with reclaimed water. There are plenty of reasons why that reclaimed water could be used elsewhere. However, how anyone who is a Christian can pray for rain is beyond me. For it to rain enough to make a difference, we are going to need to a major hurricane. How can anyone pray for something that would cause misery and possibly death to thousands of people?

Perpetuating the myth that God can solve this problem, just means that the people, religious or otherwise are being denied real information.

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.

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.

Parking Madness

Nothing demonstrates the failure of the current City of Austins approach and transportation policy than these two pictures. We are constantly being told than density is key to Austins future, the central neighborhoods are ripped left right and center for opposing unrestricted growth, either through bogus PUD applications which for the most more about raising the lot property than actually doing something useful.

This week, Michael King in his point Austin column makes some great points about affordability, but then takes the easy way out by blaming the central neighborhoods for opposing multi-family development.

Finally, the City recently agreed to support the Project Connect proposal to go with the cities second rail line to somewhere which might need it, by the time its built, if the city can give developers sweet heart deals to actually build something that people won’t want to drive to/from. All this rather than tackle the very real problems we have now.

20131223_125757

So, whats wrong with these pictures? They are two huge parking garages on the same1/2 mile square area, on the east side of the Congress Ave. bridge. The recently finished Hyatt Parking completely overshadows the other buildings on the lots. It has 8-stories, and has lights on 24 hours a day.

Diagonally opposite just behind the old RunTex store lot is another monster garage under construction prior to the build out of the RunTex lots.

Given the urbanist outlook, this is simply to be considered a total failure of both planning, transport policy and building regulation. Where are the cars coming from to fill these garages, how are they going to get here? How are they going to get out?

20131227_075431

If land in downtown is so valuable, how come we can afford to give so much up for massive parking garages? For me this represents the worst of Austins problems. I live less than a mile from these monsters. I’m not anti-development, not anti-urban, but what this shows is for the most part Austin is clueless where it comes to urban efficiency, effective development standards, and most of all, can’t see beyond it’s increasingly long nose when it comes to transportation policy.

Sure, go ahead build the buildings, eliminate the parking requirement. I’d go further than this, we should actually ban the construction of these parking garages, or force them underground. Yep, there’s that pesky floodzone and the waterfront overlay. Hey, why give people unrealistic expectations that they are going to be able sensibly drive, by providing parking garages? Texas and Austins biggest asset, it’s size and available land, is also it’s biggest detraction when it comes to transport policy. Hey, if you can drive, fly, oh yeah and feel free to drive to the airport.