Density and Trains Do Not Make Austin a City.

COST Commentary: Following this COST commentary is a great article about Minnesota’s Twin Cities and trains. It is a superb description of what is taking place in Austin and has occurred in other cities regarding rail transit. This writer displays excellent insight based on substantial research and experience; tying this “system” issue in a nice bow for delivery. She makes many of the key points we in COST make frequently in connecting the “dots” of transportation, mobility, freedom, density, congestion, affordability and quality of life.

Density and trains are not the answer to any Austin problem, but, some seem to believe a major focus is required on greater population density and a massive, disproportionate allocation of tax dollars to light rail which is the least effective, with the poorest cost-effectiveness, of possible transit solutions. Throughout the industrialized world, greater density results in greater congestion. While density may result in a small drop in driving per capita, there is a significant increase in driving per square mile, producing congestion and pollution. Density results in higher housing costs and does not result in wide reduction in automobile use.

As covered in “U.S. Public Transit is Small and Stagnant, for 57 Years,” six pre-automobile urban areas have about 65% of the daily U.S. transit passenger miles. The principle cities in these urban areas are Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC and New York. These cities’ Central Business Districts (CBD) have from 3.3 to 7 times the 71,000 CBD employment in Austin’s CBD. They also have about 55% of those commuting to a U.S. CBD and they range from 35 to 78 times (New York has 414 times) Austin’s miniscule 3,665 daily transit commuters to its CBD.

The highest population density among these six urban areas is New York which is only 1.6 times the density of Austin’s urban area. The Austin urban area has a 32% higher density than the Boston urban area, one of the top 6 transit cities. However, Boston has 3.4 times Austin’s CBD employment. Austin can probably never achieve this Boston level and thankfully-so for the good of our citizens.

These simple comparisons should make one think much deeper about transit, its role and its configuration. Some are trying to focus billions of dollars on a spoke and central city “hub” transit system to bring people downtown even though this is, for many years, a decreasing percentage of the work force across the nation and is now less than 9% in Austin. Work commuting remains the single largest use of transit in the U.S. and in Austin, excluding the ‘UT only’ part of the transit system which is partially funded by UT to support students and employees in a contract with Cap Metro.

Austin’s urban area density of 2,900 per square mile is slightly below Dallas, Houston and San Antonio at 3,000, 3,100 and 3,200. So, the Austin urban area could increase its population several times, spending billions on transit trains and still have very low demand for transit and little density increase as demonstrated by these larger Texas cities. The total transit ridership in these Texas cities (regions) and Austin is less today than it was 15 years ago. (See chart below these comments), while all these major Texas cities (regions) are among the fastest growing in the nation; Austin’s (region) population grew 60% during these 15 years of transit stagnation (see chart below). Seattle is the same urban density as San Antonio, slightly higher than Austin. Austin could implement more draconian land use and costly development regulations as Portland did, driving its density to 3,700, leaving it with 30% less affordability compared to Austin, even after Austin’s rapid loss of affordability in the past 7 years. Portland also lost more than 40% of its public school enrollment (from over 80,000, as currently in Austin, to about 47,000 today) due to high housing costs forcing many families to move resulting in the closing of many schools. An ominous warning is that Austin has lost almost 1,500 students in the past 2 years. I hope there are few in Austin wanting to follow this Portland failure in city management strategy.

Austin’s CBD employment is 8.6% of the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and has a slightly higher (significantly due to non-taxpayers: UT and Texas government which house a portion of their employees in the CBS) percentage of employment than the national average of 7% for the 52 MSA’s with more than 1,000,000 population. All six of the large transit cities discussed above have higher percentages of CBD employment than Austin.

The Austin CBD (Downtown) employment is substantially lower than recent, widely presented data by individuals, primarily rail supporters, in numerous forums. The statements often heard were similar to: “Austin’s center or core has 28 %, or almost 30%, of the region’s (MSA) employment and is projected to remain at this percentage as Austin grows.” These data were created from people misinterpreting or misrepresenting data sources and publishing incorrect information. These folks also expanded the traditional definition of “core” and confused the presented data further by adding three adjacent zip codes in addition to the CBD which is zip 78701. These actions fictitiously doubled (approximately) Austin’s central (4 zip’s) employment and significantly oversated 78701 employment. This misleading, incorrect information is used by some people to encourage light rail which does not serve the greater-good of the community and its citizens. Note: Zip 78701 includes the Capital and north to MLK. The University of Texas is in zip code 78705 just north of MLK and is one of the 4 zip codes included by some in a “core/central” area

Austin’s CBD is small (geographically, employment and residents) and will be for a very long time; as the city/region will continue to grow with some 95% of the new jobs being outside the CBD. This is consistent throughout the nation and is a good outcome to support enhanced quality of life of all citizens. Austin’s CBD area of 1.6 square miles is slightly larger than Dallas’. Austin’s CBD resident population is similar to Dallas’ and the two CBD workforces are about the same; resulting in Dallas having a very low 2.3 % of its MSA workforce in the CBD. The Dallas MSA has 3.6 times the population of the Austin MSA and it will take Austin at least 50 years to reach the current Dallas MSA population.

Billions of dollars spent by Dallas on light rail transit to produce a city centered hub and spoke transit system with the longest total light rail system in the nation has achieved little in increasing Dallas’ CBD workforce or population.

In the article below is a paragraph (shown in quotation marks and italics) of COST comments regarding an “Affordability Index” which indicates Austin continues to exacerbate the degradation of citizens’ quality-of-live and does not seem to understand the implications of its actions. Rail is, perhaps, the greatest gamble of future Austin citizens’ quality-of-life and degradation of the current generations’. The greatest gamble is for lower income citizens; as wasteful spending of limited dollars will have a greater impact on these citizens.

Ultimately, the free choices of people, considering all factors and selecting mobility modes which most effectively meet their needs, provides the basis for responsible allocation of finite transportation dollars. Citizens’ decisions have established the basis for sound transportation planning and should be supported by those responsible for funding allocations. More than 99% of the regional passenger miles traveled are on roadways including private, public transit, emergency, school, commercial goods and services and other government vehicles. Less than 1% of the region’s passenger miles traveled are by public transit, roads and rails.

Austin’s only passenger rail has much lower capital cost than the proposed urban rail, primarily due to the track already existing on Cap Metro right-of-way. However, its operating costs per passenger ride is $20 or 5 times bus rider costs. Capital/construction costs of urban rail will exceed a billion dollars and this is clearly advertised as the “starter” segment (or segments) as its ridership will be very low passing through low density living and working areas. This translates to billions of dollars in rail extensions. As in Dallas and other cities, the farther one extends light rail, the less cost-effective it becomes as ridership per mile decreases.

If, as rumored by some, the City combines roads and rail in a single bond referendum for voters, the community should hit it head-on and defeat the entire bond as the city is unfairly holding taxpayers hostage to support their massive wasteful spending on an ineffective rail system. This is just the beginning of wastefully spending many billions of tax dollars on the largest project in the history of Austin in an attempt to increase transit ridership which has decreased over the past 15 years. This train approach has never succeeded and will not succeed in Austin. It will result in greater congestion and the tax “bank” will be emptied. All citizens, taxpayers and local travelers will suffer as the quality of life of current and future generations is degraded with the heavy burden of city debt.

It is a huge “Vegas-like” gamble to “second guess” development patterns, ridership and future transit technology in an adolescent city like Austin. The recommended rail route has changed each time, over more than 20 years, that a committee or planning group has evaluated it. It has changed several times in the past 10 years including last month. Flexible bus transit systems should be used till transit patterns are established and ridership potential demonstrated for the possible conversion to rail. Using rail to guide development patterns is not supported by experience and is not a responsible gamble of taxpayer funds. There are many more losers than winners.

At the bottom line: Transit must be cost-effective or it is not sustainable. The best way to make it cost-effective is to share a user-paid road infrastructure with the 99% of the passenger miles being traveled each day on the roads. This provides major increases in origin and destination access for all transit riders at reasonable and sustainable costs; resulting in maximum access to opportunity for transit dependent citizens and is an effective way to raise them to higher incomes and quality of life.


Thrive MSP 2040 plan: The Met Council will burden you now

Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN, Updated: April 11, 2014

This unelected body would play disruptive games with the daily lives of Twin Cities residents, favoring rail over roads and driving up housing costs.

The Metropolitan Council sees economic storm clouds on the Twin Cities’ horizon. We are in danger of losing jobs and creative young professionals to more enlightened metro areas, like Portland and Seattle, the council warns.

Its proposed solution? “Thrive MSP 2040”— the council’s new 30-year comprehensive plan for development in our seven-county region. The council has released a draft for public comment and will vote on the plan in May.

In fact, Thrive will likely do the opposite of what the council promises. It will raise our cost of living, lower our quality of life, and drive people and jobs to less-regulated regions, like Atlanta and Houston, which are already growing much faster than the Twin Cities.

Thrive MSP 2040 will give the unelected Met Council the green light to play “Sim City” with the lives of Twin Cities residents. Its unprecedented, top-down controls will transform many neighborhoods; push us increasingly into “stack and pack” high-density housing, and reorganize our region around mass transit. The plan will pour huge sums into light rail, increase congestion, and limit parking to push us to give up our cars and take public transit, walk or bike to work and leisure activities.

Intrusive, expensive change imposed from on high by unelected bureaucrats is a tough sell in a democracy in which people believe they have a right to govern their own towns with their neighbors. Perhaps that’s why the council and its allies are framing this power grab as the price the Twin Cities region must pay to remain “economically competitive” with peer regions. We’re all in favor of prosperity, right?

Thrive’s premise is that in the future, social planning by super-smart unelected bureaucrats will be the key to economic growth. But the facts on the ground tell a different story.

One of the best measures of a region’s economic vitality is domestic migration: the number of people who move there from other parts of the country vs. the number who leave. People don’t move to a metro area for light rail. They move for opportunity.

Which metro areas are attracting people today, and which are not?

Between 2000 and 2010, Met Council data indicate that 132,000 more people moved away from than moved to the Twin Cities seven-county region. By comparison, the Census Bureau indicates that Los Angeles lost 1.3 million and New York City lost 1.9 million. At the same time, people flocked to other metro areas: Atlanta gained 415,000; Dallas-Fort Worth, 318,000; Houston, 241,000, and Raleigh, N.C., 190,000.

What do “people magnets” like these areas, mostly in the South and West, have in common? Less burdensome government regulation and fewer land use restrictions. Both are strongly correlated with greater economic growth.

If we aim to compete with the nation’s most economically dynamic areas, the Thrive plan will push our region in exactly the wrong direction.
• • •
Thrive’s first pillar is increased densification. It will require much more “compact” development in both developing and mature suburbs, with a special focus on cramming people into tiny areas around train stations in the urban core and first-ring suburbs.

If the plan follows typical “smart growth” ideology, it will place significant restrictions on land use beyond the urban fringe, though details are not yet clear. This will artificially restrict the supply of buildable land and drive up housing prices well above historical norms — along with the costs of retail and commercial development.

The measure of housing affordability is the median multiple — the median house price in a region divided by the median household income. In the Twin Cities, the median multiple is 3.1, while in Atlanta and Indianapolis — both thriving metros with little land use regulation — it is 2.7.

On the other hand, in Portland and Seattle — which have stringent urban growth boundaries and strict densification policies — the median multiple is 4.8 and 5.3, respectively. In San Jose, Calif., it is a breathtaking 8.7.

(COST Commentary: Austin has risen very quickly to become Texas’ most unaffordable city. In seven years, It has leaped from affordable (Below 3.0 index) at 2.8 (similar to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio) to 3.7 in 2013 and I see no evidence of recognition, understanding the cause or taking actions to contain rising costs. We are not being the creative, leading edge city which many give us credit for, but, are following in the footsteps of and mimicking the failed Portland, and others’ strategies, which are disasters. This is not the Austin many desire and that we are capable of. These affordability index numbers are contained in: 10th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2014 )

Over time, the Met Council’s densification crusade will likely drive up Twin Cities-area housing prices, reducing discretionary income and the standard of living for all. Our region will become less attractive to businesses, which will have to pay workers more to get them to come here.
• • •
Thrive’s second major component is “transit-oriented development,” or TOD, which the Met Council describes as an “enormous undertaking.” The goal is to reduce automobile use by increasing density, funneling public dollars into transit, increasing congestion, limiting parking, and generally make driving more inconvenient and expensive.

Like housing densification, TOD drives up the cost of living. People come to a metro region for jobs. Research makes clear that a key to regional growth and prosperity is how many jobs they can access within a normal commute time of 30 minutes or so.

The Met Council’s obsession with rail transit is problematic in this respect. Rail transit is enormously expensive and heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Rail may make sense in a handful of older cities, like New York and Philadelphia, where a significant proportion of jobs are in the central business district. But in the Twin Cities, as in most regions, fewer than 10 percent of jobs (7 percent) are located in the principal downtown (Minneapolis), and even fewer (4 percent) in downtown St. Paul. The dispersion of jobs across metro areas is a strong historic trend.

In this situation, cars are by far the fastest and most convenient way to get to the vast majority of jobs here, and will remain so. Transit is not time-competitive with automobiles — transit’s average work trip travel time is at least 1.5 times that of driving alone. Thrive’s focus on transit-oriented development, which disfavors cars and favors rail transit, will reduce opportunity and sap prosperity.

In the Twin Cities region, the average employee can reach only 7 percent of jobs by transit within 45 minutes, according to the Brookings Institution. Drivers, on the other hand, get to their jobs in an average of about 25 minutes.

The Twin Cities is now the nation’s 16th-most-congested region. Congestion decreases productivity and increases freight costs. The Met Council’s densification policies will only make congestion worse, since traffic is heavier in denser areas.

Our region is projected to have just $52 million available annually from 2014 to 2022 for highway congestion relief. After 2022, even that funding will dry up. Yet the Met Council intends to spend at least $1.7 billion on the Southwest light rail project alone, with more rail transit to follow. That’s three times more on one rail project than will be spent in 10 years on highway congestion and bottleneck relief for the entire seven-county region.

Rail transit carries only about 0.2 percent of motorized passenger miles in the Twin Cities region. (Even in Portland, which has spent heavily on rail, it carries only 1.2 percent.) Rail costs about $90 million a mile to construct, while adding a highway lane to expand capacity costs just $10 million a mile. Despite this, the Met Council intends to pour a hugely disproportionate share of tax dollars into rail transit.

A transportation policy that so grossly privileges light rail over the personal mobility and freedom of the automobile — benefiting a tiny share of the population, a handful of large companies, and politically connected developers — is economically indefensible.
• • •
The Met Council professes great concern about the economic plight of our region’s low-income households. Ironically, these households are likely to suffer most from its misguided policies.

The council deplores our region’s lack of “affordable housing.” Yet its drive for densification likely will significantly increase housing prices, which will harm low-income residents. Rents will rise, too. In Portland, for example, income-adjusted median gross rents in high-poverty areas rose more than 2.5 times the increase in the rest of the metro area during densification from 1999 to 2009.

The “gentrification” that accompanies transit-oriented development often disproportionately displaces low-income households, driving them from the urban core to more dispersed areas with less transit. Low-income families also suffer disproportionately when bus service must be cut to pay for light rail serving well-heeled suburbanites, as frequently occurs.

In the future, the metro areas that flourish will generally be those where opportunity can grow unburdened by counterproductive government regulation. The Twin Cities region has many assets — a relatively highly educated population, a strong work ethic and an enviable quality of life. But in an era of global competition, we can’t rest on our past. We have a very low rate of business formation and, in recent years, taxes as well as labor, property and energy costs have escalated substantially. And then there’s our frigid weather.

The Met Council’s new plan will add greatly to the challenges we face. If we want to thrive, Thrive MSP 2040 is the last way to do it.

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at
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