24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility

by Jim Skaggs, Coalition on Sustainable Transportation, first posted May 29, 2013 – revised July 13, 2014 – updated January 2, 2015

This article was first written and posted more than a year ago. It is remarkable how few changes were necessary to bring it up to date.

We often hear glib, vague, politically secure comments regarding road congestion and the region’s transportation including: “We need all modes of transportation to address congestion including roads, buses, trains, and bicycles.” Or: “We need to offer alternatives to the car for citizens so they have choices for their trips.” Or: “Our growth rate will require trains someday.” Or: “We cannot solve our problems with roads alone.” Or: “We need trains because people will not ride buses.”

While most of these are unfounded statements, some of them and similar comments may have grains of reality and sound all-inclusive, considerate, caring and ‘politically correct,’ with a “feel good” resonance to them. Actually, they are shallow, superficial, mostly incorrect comments regarding a complex subject. These comments, too often, support biased, ideological or self-serving interest of people and lead to the ineffective prioritizing of transportation funds.

Then, there are frequent situations which Wendell Cox encapsulates neatly with this quote:

“Why is it that people have not abandoned their automobiles to switch to transit? Commentators often talk of America’s ‘love affair with the car,’ without recognizing a similar attachment to refrigerators, the Internet, and other modern conveniences. The attachment is to convenience and (affordable) products that enhance our lives.”
—Wendell Cox, “Transit Policy in an Era of the Shrinking Federal Dollar,” Heritage Backgrounder, Jan. 31, 2013.

According to the, Federally required, ‘Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s’ (CAMPO) 25 year transportation plan for the Austin region, almost 50% of the plan’s transportation dollars will be spent on public transit, primarily rail, to serve transit’s less than 1% of the region’s passenger miles traveled. Projections from CAMPO, Austin City, Capital Metro or any other organization do not indicate or support total transit ridership exceeding 1% of the regions passenger miles traveled. Therefore, public transit can have only minimal positive impact on congestion and significant negative impacts if implemented improperly.

It is not rocket science to project: If 50% of the transportation dollars are spent to serve 1% of traveler’s ‘passenger miles’, the remaining 99% of travelers will suffer increasing gridlock and congestion.

The simple truth is: There is not enough money in the region to provide “all modes” or “non-auto alternatives.” for everyone. It is possible to make dramatic improvements in constraining congestion by well-planned road improvements and other cost-effective actions, as already proven in this region.

The greatest positive impact on Austin transportation, public and private, can be achieved by improving road systems which were neglected for many years during strong population growth. Road improvements provide effective auto alternatives as well as substantially improving cost-effective regional transit alternatives which can better and more flexibly meet needs of today’s dispersed population and job markets.

The following guiding principles are intended to be used as guides in more effectively prioritizing the allocation of taxpayer transportation funds to better serve all citizens and the community as a whole. These principles are key but are not intended to be all inclusive. More can be found regarding each of these ‘Principles,’ and others in articles throughout this web site’s ‘News Articles’ section. e.g. – Recent posts include:

Austin Citizens Should Reject Urban Rail – 6 Major Reasons
If You Think Austin Needs Urban Rail, Read This Report
Project Connect’s Proposed Austin Urban Rail is Misguided.
12 Reasons Austin’s Urban Rail is Off-Track
Austin’s Urban Rail has Many Unanswered Questions
Auto Access to Jobs is Vital for Better Quality of Life
Austin Transportation Status and Policy Recommendations
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24 Key “Guiding Principles” for Austin Area Transportation and Mobility

1. An overarching principle is: Greater Mobility Provides Greater Quality of Life.
Throughout history, better human mobility has been associated with higher quality of life as mobility creates time efficiency and access to desires, opportunities and life’s offerings.

2. Private, motorized, road vehicles offer maximum freedom and mobility.
Ultimate mobility freedom and flexibility to go where and when desired is provided by private road vehicles; without competition for the vast majority of travelers and trips.

3. Overwhelming economic evidence links personal mobility with prosperity.
Freedom and prosperity benefits of the automobile have been substantial, enabling modern suburbia and powering a century of economic prosperity.

4. Increased road congestion is the primary cause of degraded human mobility.
Congestion constrains and degrades quality-of-life by limiting one’s ability to go where and when they wish/need to experience desired, quality-of-life outcomes.

5. Increased population density creates increased road congestion.
The promotion of “mixed-use” and greater density ignores the fact that, in general, greater population density produces greater roadway congestion and air pollution.

6. Roads should be primarily funded by users of the roads.
More effective funding and transparency is promoted if all roads are fairly funded by all users to the greatest extent practical.

7. Austin’s, and other Texas cities,’ commuting by public transit has been trending down for many years.
Work trips are transit’s greatest use, but, Austin region’s transit is the 5th highest percentage of work trips at 2.5%, and, has been declining for many years.

8. Public transit must be cost-effective to be sustainable.
Taxpayers highly subsidize all US transit which must be cost-effective; or, it cannot serve the maximum riders, who need it, with the most trip origins and destinations and it cannot be financially sustainable for the long run.

9. Bus transit is more cost-effective than rail in Austin today or 100 years from now.
Modern buses can meet or exceed every major performance characteristic rail for one-tenth to one-fifth the costs with much greater flexibility to meet changing demands.

10. Traditional “hub and spoke” transit routes are inadequate for today’s demographics.
With under 10%, and falling, of regional employment in Austin’s ‘Central Business District’ (CBD); transit should change to “grid” routing to better serve today’s needs.

11. Transit’s most important function is work trips for transit dependent citizens.
Work trips are almost 50% of ridership, but transit serves only small segments of dispersed jobs and population with a small percentage of jobs reachable in an hour.

12. Ineffective, high-cost rail degrades overall public and private transportation.
High cost, low ridership rail raises overall transit costs and taxes; increases fares while reducing service; and, siphons funds from far more effective transportation projects.

13. Many cities have hit a “Financial Wall” with high cost rail.
Numerous rail cities have hit a ‘financial wall’ as their systems deteriorate; requiring billions for replacement/upgrade, for which there are no identified funding sources and unfunded liabilities are increasing at alarming rates in many transit agencies.

14. Variable toll lanes provide maximum people movement on road lanes.
Variable toll lanes with more constant speeds, maximize the number of people which road lanes carry, including: private, transit, commercial and emergency vehicles.

15. Variable toll lanes change driver behavior and reduce congestion.
Free-choice, variable toll lanes are effective in changing drivers’ travel-time behavior; reducing peak traffic period trips and congestion on tolled and non-tolled lanes.

16. Low cost traffic improvements can be rapidly deployed, very cost-effectively.
Numerous lower cost improvements can quickly provide faster, safer and more reliable travel: ramp metering, incident management, signal coordination, shared vehicles, etc.

17. Austin rail doesn’t provide economic benefits commensurate with high costs.
Austin has been a top U.S. growth region for many years and not a single development was due to rail transit: Many cities have confirmed that taxpayers loose “big time” with rail.

18. Trains on busy downtown streets increase safety hazards and sight pollution.
Trains mingling with vehicles and pedestrians on busy, central, city streets create greater congestion, air pollution and safety hazards as well as ugly, sight pollution.

19. Rail will result in major degradation of Austin’s “Social Equity.”
Rail’s high cost and ineffective performance has major negative impacts on low income citizens including: increased taxes and transit fares and reductions in bus service.

20. Two-way streets downtown are more congested and less safe than one-way.
Converting many downtown streets from one-way to two-way provides reduced vehicle capacity with increased congestion while reducing safety for vehicles and pedestrians.

21. Suburbanization reduces driving and helps provide housing affordability.
Increasing suburban living and dispersed job (“sprawl”) have resulted in a long trend of declining ‘daily vehicle miles traveled per capita’ and greater housing affordability.

22. Projections for rail costs are much too low and for ridership are much too high.
Almost all cities have projected much lower costs and much higher ridership than rail achieves and rail offers little advantage over buses, but, has major disadvantages.

23. High cost rail results in all citizens paying higher taxes with little benefit.
High cost rail systems result in higher taxes, directly or indirectly; e.g., commuter rail “bankrupt” Cap Metro and Austin city plans to spend excessive taxes on urban rail without a long-term financial plan.

24. The fundamentals have not changed since light rail was defeated in 2000.
Arguments against Austin’s light rail, defeated in 2014, are much stronger today than in 2000 as many rail cities compiled additional, major, negative experiences; confirming: Austin’s proposed 2014 rail, still: “COSTS TOO MUCH and DOES TOO LITTLE!”

In addition, it would have required many years of Tax Increases which would provide negative benefits for all but a very tiny group of citizens being highly subsidized by all taxpayers. Based on the City’s estimates, the train was projected to attract 6,500 new transit riders and, at the train’s cost, each new rider would have cost taxpayers more than $500,000. This does not count annual operating costs which would be more than $30 million per year.

The resounding defeat of light rail by Austin voters is a major indication they had good understanding of the issue. Major benefits of the light rail’s defeat include: 1) Freeing Cap Metro from a huge, ineffective expenditure for rail operations; allowing the agency to focus on cost-effective improvements to its bus system, serving more people who need transit with increased trip frequencies to more origins and destinations. 2) Freeing bonding constraints on the new 10-1 council; providing flexibility to consider financial trade-offs for city needs without major tax increases. 3) Allowing development of a city-wide transportation plan with financial commitments recognizing 99.7% of vehicle trips: private, shared, public transit, hired, commercial, government/school and emergency will continue to be on roadways.

Future plans will incorporate advancing technologies which are revolutionizing mobility; further outdating rail’s 19th century technology. New technologies include self-driving vehicles, numerous approaches to support efficient vehicle sharing, smart traffic signals and many more. All these will dramatically reduce the cost of mobility and extend mobility benefits to many more citizens. Greater mobility provides greater quality of life.

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