Austin Traffic: Poor planning

So prop-1 failed, no bad rail, no gloating from me. We still have a major commuting problem. Repeat after me though, we don’t have a traffic problem.

One of the problems we have, that comes from growth is so many places are having infrastructure work. Google are all over south Austin laying underground conduit for fiber optic cables, mostly though they are not the problem, apart from a half day here or there where the close off a lane.

The RapidBus dedicated lanes have caused some problems downtown, but slowly people have got used to not using the bus lanes, although you still see the occasional complete screw-up with cars stuck in the bus lane, usually turning into the lane too quickly to make a left or right turn, and then along comes the bus.

However, at least as noted before, what we have downtown is a really poor  planning and implementation of the infrastructure work. As I said in this post back in January, This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. Lavaca St a core south/north route has now been effectively reduced to one lane for the most part of 18-months.

Google maps unfortunately has some gaps, but streetview shows last year, with a picture from this morning. I wrote to city planning today, but I’m guessing there will be some plausible reason.

The city needs to take control, there needs to be better coordination, less adhoc, private work, traffic lane planning and so on. I’d even have the city coordinate through the special events office to make sure that even temporary closure of roads to move cranes, scaffolding and other large construction materials in and out are coordinated. Finally, I’d implement a series of fines for companies that over run on repairs, irrespective of whom they are working for, or what the reason was.

Congestion has a very real financial impact, if Austin really wants to be a big city, it has to start acting like one.

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 files 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.

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.

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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?

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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.

More roads agony

The Texas Tribune has a great article reporting on the announcement of a road maintenance program that will convert hundreds of miles from badly damaged road, to a gravel road. The Tribune reports “paving roads is too expensive and there is not enough funding to repave them all, our only other option to make them safer is to turn them into gravel roads”.

Later in the article it quotes Darlene Meyer is a 77-year-old rancher whose property sits along a portion of FM 469 in LaSalle County that is marked for conversion to gravel. She has lived in the county since 1960 and said the current road conditions are the worst she has seen. “Texas used to have the best roads,” she said.

There is so much irony in this story. First up the State found some $225 Million to repair and rebuild roads that have been damaged by the horrendous heavy traffic volumes created by fracking.

Also, Texas has amongst the lowest tax rates in the developed world. There is no state income tax; sales tax is around the median for US States; given the Republican drive to block anything that adds to Federal tax  collection; combined with the fact that multinational companies now contribute less and less tax, while Texas has one of the largest total tax collections in the USA, it’s also bigger than Germany with less people, and that size “drives” up the cost, especially of roads, significantly. I wonder where people think the money comes from for the roads?

In a comment on the Tribune facebook page, Michael says ” I look forward to Texas’ ultimate transition from the car to the horse and buggy. Austin to Houston in 14 days!”

Goodbye Mr Chips

image006[1]This is an open appeal to my Austin Cycling friends and contacts. Please call Austin 311 and tell them to stop laying chipseal on the inner-city roads they maintain.

The cities current double talk is just too confusing. They are heavily promoting a bike share program, they have a roadshow and are asking people to vote for locations to the bike share points. There are seven alone proposed in a strip of South 1st St, that was last night covered in chipseal. If you don’t know about chipseal, I couldn’t have done better than to built this website.

Chipseal is a cheap fix, well thats what the city thinks otherwise why would they do it?

South 1st is a mess today, and apparently more is scheduled tonight. The piles of loose stones, however temporary are dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians. Even the smallest fall on fresh chipseal will take a huge chunk from your hands. Leaving piles of loose stones in strips at the side of the road makes navigation and braking difficult to dangerous.

S 1st is particularly irritating since as I understand it, its a city maintained road unlike S Lamar or S Congress. Please stop this now. Chipseal damages car paintwork, glass, spreads dust and loose stones into the neighborhood and the road surface is noisier. By all means use this on Farm and Ranch roads that are lightly travelled, but urban roads that are heavily used, often by cars easily exceeding the speed limit borders on incompetent.

Please call Austin 311, complain about the surface of South 1st. They’ll ask for a cross street, tell them W Mary or Elizabeth St. Feel free to give your name, or ask to be anonymous, which ever you prefer.

Time to stop this nonsense. There are plenty of alternatives, and like when the city repaved S 1st down by Akins High School, it wasn’t obvious that anything needed doing, let alone dumping 2-ton of loose stones on a bed of hot oil.