Austin & Texas Transit & Mobility Policies Are Failing – New Solutions Needed

COST Commentary: Below are three charts with convincing data as to the huge degradation and failure of public transit in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, the four major Texas cities. This is consistent with other major U.S. city regions, similar to these Texas city regions. Note: The term city in this posting includes the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for each city.

Below the charts is a confirming article by Joel Kotkin published in The Autonomous Future magazine relating national trends which confirm COST Commentary below.

This story will be extended in the near future. We thought it important to post this important key information now.

The first chart displays the total bus and light rail ridership in each of the four major Texas regions. As shown, the total bus and light rail ridership in 2016 is less than in 1999, 17 years ago. This was prior to the introduction of significant light rail which mostly occurred in the second half of this chart, primarily in Dallas with the longest light rail system in the nation and in Houston with much less rail. Austin has a small commuter rail with insignificant ridership included in the Austin data. San Antonio remains the most cost-effective system and has no rail transit.

The total 8% reduction in transit ridership occurs during a period when the average growth of the population of these cities was 47%. Austin was the poorest performing city in that its ridership reduction is 16%, double the average of the four cities, and Austin’s population growth of 71% was significantly greater than the other cities.

The second chart depicts the population trend of the four cities over this same time period. Growth continues to be very consistent.

The third chart shows the total ridership and total population of the four cities during the period.

These data present very poor performance of the cost and effectiveness of the past and current approach to public transit and mobility in general. These cities have spent many billions of dollars to increase public transit ridership and have all failed at the great expense of all taxpayers. Public transit has declined as an adequate mobility alternative for those who have no alternative and it serves few who do have an alternative. The wasted expenditure of billions of dollars has also decreased available funds needed to address true mobility improvements for the vast majority including private, shared, public transit, commercial, emergency, school, government, etc. vehicles which provide mobility encompassing about 99% of daily passenger miles in these regions.

As an example of Austin’s misguided mobility approach, the City proposed a second light light rail in 2014 which was touted to remove 10,000 cars from the highways and cost $1.4 billion. Both of these estimates are highly optimistic, likely fewer cars removed and much higher rail costs. As a comparison: Three major, recent road improvements, including MoPac, 290 East and 183A, have a combined cost (in current dollars) about the same as this 9.5 mile, dual track (19 track miles) rail. However, these improved roads create approximately 135 new toll and non-toll road lane miles and greatly relieve traffic on parallel, major existing lanes of almost 160 miles. This significantly improves the daily transportation/mobility of more than 500,000 people whether they choose the toll road/lanes or the non-tolled lanes/roadways. The capacity of these new road lanes provides the ability to better serve more than 700,000 daily travelers in the future and will be much greater capacity for the approaching driverless vehicle era. This is cost-effective mobility, resulting in greater quality-of-life for most.

Following the voters defeat of light rail in 2014, the Austin City Council presented voters a $720 million, so called, transportation bond referendum in 2016. This referendum was one of the most deceptive and destructive referendums in history. The City’s distortions and deceptions resulted in voters passing this largest transportation bond in Austin’s history. While presented to improve mobility, it is highly likely to degrade mobility and increase congestion for a majority of those affected by the bond. More than one-half of the bond’s funds are for projects which have a negative impact on motor vehicles using the streets. Several vehicle lanes will be removed in favor of increased, wider bicycle lanes and dedicated bus lanes to serve Austin’s declining transit ridership. In addition there are bicycle and pedestrian trails, and sidewalks which are disproportionately higher costs compared to the number of bike riders and pedestrians using them. The answer for the self-serving few seems to be: If we build much more, the use will increase. Meanwhile, all taxpayers highly subsidize these, mostly, non-mobility projects while reducing their own mobility on the roads.

Contrary to Cap Metro and Austin City rhetoric, public transit and congestion are not strongly related. The number of people using transit is so small, and reducing for 20 years, that it has almost no impact on road congestion. However, better roads, including the use of toll roads and “managed” toll lanes will significantly improve public transit, providing improved mobility to those without alternatives and those who chose to use transit as an alternative.

We are proud of the key role COST played in the voters’ defeat of the two rail referendums in 2000 and 2014, saving taxpayers billions of wasted dollars on long outdated technology and preventing even greater congestion. These ill-advised rail proposals by Austin and Cap Metro leaders were not overall transit or mobility improvements. There are no cities in the nation, similar to Austin, which provide a success example for these outdated rail systems. Perhaps the greatest failing of our mobility planners is to propose these rail “mass transit” approaches and ignore the reality of rapidly advancing transportation/mobility technology. The Uber/Lyft revolution and the introduction of driverless vehicles, by Google and others, is predicted by almost all to further reduce the use of public transit and increase the capacity of current roadways.

One of the key positive aspects of the light rail defeats is that is it has forced Capital Metro to to focus more of its resources on improving bus transit to increase mobility for a greater portion of citizens needing this alternative. Time will reveal their success. Disappointingly, Cap Metro has ignored evaluating Cellular Mass Transit (CMT) conceptsas a major step in Transit Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness. CMT is a locally developed bus transit concept over more than 20 years and based on several of the most successful transit approaches implemented throughout the world.

CMT concepts would utilize the existing bus system better using a customer demand driven approach rather than a scheduled route system. CMT combines buses with vans and taxis to serve the entire community with 10 minute maximum wait times and twice as fast trip times which offer the possibility to dramatically increase ridership, resulting in reducing taxpayer subsidies. It can be implemented for a fraction of the capital and operating costs taxpayers will pay for any Light Rail system and for Cap Metro’s current overall systems approach. The CMT concept deserves serious consideration as a replacement for major portions of Austin’s/Cap Metro’s public transit system.

Sadly, major segments of our misguided transportation leadership have continued to promote mobility approaches which are contrary to citizens’ needs as reflected in their daily mobility decisions. The current ‘Draft Austin Street Design Guide’ reflects this fundamental disconnect with citizens with an obvious, shallow “social engineering” objective. Page 9 states Downtown is a Special District and that: “The model hierarchy is pedestrian first, then bicycle and transit, then vehicles.” This fourth priority for vehicles will continue to degrade downtown as a desirable destination for citizens and will degrade the quality-of-life for most. The priority mobility needs for downtown should be safety, ease of access and available, affordable parking. This is a strong characteristic of the Domain which already exceeds downtown Austin as a thriving commercial center.

Austin’s current ‘Imagine Austin,’ ‘draft Street Design Guide,’ ‘Code Next draft,’ etc.’ require extensive re-evaluations to support the greater-good of the entire city and its citizens’ needs and rights to better quality-of-life.

Why is mobility vital? Because better mobility is directly related to better quality-of-life as it has been for thousands of years. Citizens need and deserve this recognition in the design and implementation of mobility infrastructure. They do not need the extension of a long era of ill-contrived, social engineering intended to change people’s habits and decisions regarding their quality-of-life needs, including mobility. Citizens are far better judges of their needs than inexperienced elected officials and their hired hands who have allowed our mobility to continue to degrade so significantly.

Chart Population 2016


The Autonomous Future Magazine

The proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow.

The Shape of Work to Come 2017
By Joel Kotkin

Expanding mass-transit systems is a pillar of green and “new urbanist” thinking, but with few exceptions, the idea of ever-larger numbers of people commuting into an urban core ignores a major shift in the labor economy: more people are working from home.

True, in a handful of large metropolitan regions—what we might call “legacy cities”—trains and buses remain essential. This is particularly true of New York, which accounts for a remarkable 43 percent of the nation’s mass-transit commuters, and of other venerable cities, such as San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Together, these metros account for 56 percent of all mass-transit commuting. But for most of the rest of the country, transit use—despite often-massive infrastructure investment—has either stagnated or declined. Among the 21 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban-rail systems since 1970, mass transit’s share of work trips has declined, on average, from 5.3 percent to 5 percent. During the same period, the drive-alone share of work trips, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has risen from 71.9 percent to 76.1 percent.

Meantime, the proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow. In 1980, 2.3 percent of workers performed their duties primarily at home; by 2015, this figure had doubled to 4.6 percent, only slightly behind the proportion of people who commute via mass transit. In legacy core–metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the number of people working from home is nearly half that of those commuting by transit. In the 47 MSAs without legacy cores, according to the American Community Survey, the number of people working from home was nearly 250 percent higher than people going to work on trains or buses.

The areas with the thickest presence of telecommuters—including cities such as Austin, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Denver, and Seattle—tend to have the greatest concentration of tech-related industries, which function well with off-site workers. In San Jose, the epicenter of the nation’s tech industry, 4.6 percent of people work from home, exceeding the 3.4 percent who take mass transit. Other telecommuting hot spots include college towns like Boulder, where over 11.6 percent of workers work from home, and Berkeley, where the share is 10.6 percent.

Leading telecommuting centers tend to be home to many well-educated, older, and wealthy residents. Communities such as San Clemente, Newport Beach, and Encinitas in Southern California, as well as Boca Raton in Florida, all have telecommuting shares over 10 percent. Perhaps older, well-connected people are more inclined to avoid miserable commutes, given the chance to do so. As the American population skews older, the economy will likely see more workers making such choices.

Another important demographic force contributing to the work-from-home inclination is Americans’ continuing move to lower-density cities, which usually lack effective transit, and to the suburbs and exurbs—where 81 percent of job growth occurred between 2010 and 2014. While most metropolitan regions can be called “polycentric,” they are actually better described as “dispersed,” with central business districts (CBDs) and suburban centers (subcenters) now accounting for only a minority of employment. By 2000, more than three-quarters of all employment in metropolitan areas with populations higher than 1 million was outside CBDs and subcenters.

Home-based work could be the logical extension of this dispersal—and modern technologies, from ride-sharing services to automated cars, will probably accelerate the trend. A recent report by the global consulting firm Bain suggested that greater decentralization is likely in the coming decades. A 2015 National League of Cities report observes that traditional nine-to-five jobs are on the decline and that many white-collar jobs will involve office-sharing and telecommuting in the future. The report also predicts that more workers will act as “contractors,” taking on multiple positions at once.

Some see these developments as ominous, but greens and urbanists shouldn’t: telecommuting will, among other things, reduce pollution. It may be that the shift to home-based work will prove the ultimate in mixed use—albeit for workers in their pajamas.

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Comments are closed.

©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation