Self Driving Cars and Transit in Austin

Self driving cars are a hot topic these days.  They are especially intriguing to Austinites who are fed up with the city’s traffic, and who have possibly seen Google testing their self driving cars on the city streets.

One essay that’s gotten a lot of attention is by Lyft’s CEO John Zimmer on Medium in which he boldly predicts that “By 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities”.  There is a lot to agree with in his post.  He addresses the effects that building for cars has had on cities like leveling housing for highways, and building for cars instead of pedestrians or cyclists.  He suggests that autonomous cars will lead to a change in the built environment in our cities, something that most urbanists are probably looking forward to.

The only factual issue I would point out is that his timelines are probably optimistic, and some prominent transportation engineers have suggested that “the hype [around self driving cars] has gotten totally out of sync with reality.”  That said, it’s very likely that the technology for self driving cars will be at least somewhat widespread in the next 20 years.

So let’s examine the future Zimmer describes.  He paints a very rosy picture, and I hope it’s one that comes to fruition.  But there are a few things to keep in mind when reading an optimistic post about the future from the CEO of a multimillion dollar company:

  1. Lots of people have private cars, and they are not going to give them up for free.  If private car ownership is truly going to end before those cars are literally falling apart, the government is going to have to pay them to get off the road.  Maybe that will be worth it for the safety benefits of self driving cars, but maybe it won’t.  Again, the technology isn’t ready yet, so counting on an ideal future with perfect technology to save us is misguided.
  2. Lyft and other ridesharing companies operate on public roads.  Relying on them to handle any significant portion of a city’s transportation needs means that the city is constructing transportation infrastructure and letting private companies profit from operating vehicles on that infrastructure.  This is not unheard of.  The UK privatized it’s rail infrastructure in the 1990’s and the results are best described as mixed.  Whether privatization worked a continual debate in British politics, with debates lining up along predictable lines: leftist parties want public ownership to return, conservative parties say privatization worked.  There are also possible similarities to how airlines operate in the United States.  But the fact remains that private companies will be profiting off of the use of public infrastructure.
  3. Related to the point above, most public transit agencies currently operate at a loss.  They don’t make a profit, and public transit riders are  generally lower income than the population as a whole (.pdf warning).  Bus riders are even more so.  Switching to a system in which privately operated autonomous ridesharing companies provide a large portion of a city’s transportation means relying on those companies to operate more efficiently and extract a profit while maintaining lower prices than a public transit agency could.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, autonomous cars don’t solve traffic.  Yes, they will someday be better drivers than humans, so the parts of traffic that attributable to human error could someday be solved.  But self driving cars are unlikely to be perfect any time soon: any software developer will admit that bug free software is basically unheard of.  So, we’re left with a situation in which we may have just as many cars on the road at rush hour as before, and as this great post from Jarret Walker shows, the problem with cars is space:
    stolen from Jarrett Walker sorry Jarrett
    stolen from Jarrett Walker sorry Jarrett

    Cars take up a ton of space.  They do not fit in walkable, bikeable cities, and even in a world of all autonomous cars, that will still be true.  If your answer to the issue of space is “autonomous buses” then great!  That’s my answer too.  Uber has already recognized the benefits of shared, fixed route transportation as it’s started testing smart routes in San Francisco.  As Jack Smith pointed out on Twitter, Uber’s smart routes sound a lot like a bus route: screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-02-47-pm

    There’s another technology that runs on fixed routes, and the autonomous technology has already been perfected: rail.  Vancouver, BC has a rail system that carries nearly 400,000 people per day in trains that are fully automated.

My point here is that the arrival of autonomous vehicles is going to be complex.  In Austin’s case, many people seem to pin their hopes for solving traffic on driverless car technology, but the specifics of how exactly that will work are often lacking.  Again, it’s worth noting that driverless car technology is being developed by private companies for profit, while public transportation agencies are currently run for public benefit.  I’m going to say this over and over on this blog, but public transportation is a form of redistribution of wealth right now.  Changing that will be a significant change working against public transit riders, who are overwhelmingly low income in a place like Austin.  It’s easy to get lost in a vision of the future in which you have a coffee and read the morning news on your smartphone while getting shuttled to work in a comfortable private autonomous vehicle, but that vision will likely never be a reality for a large slice of the population.  That vision will not be cheap.

I hope driverless cars come soon, and I hope they save some of the thousands of lives that cars take every year.  I also hope that they aren’t used as an opportunity to eliminate public transportation.  Because that vision of coffee and the reading the news on your way to work?  Plenty of public transportation riders are already living it.  It’s called the bus (or train).

 

Austin’s Impervious Cover Regulations Force Residents to Subsidize Businesses’ Runoff

I’m not a fan of Austin’s impervious cover regulations.  To me the obvious way to reduce pollution and keep impervious cover on a macro scale is to reduce sprawl.  The best thing the City could do to to mitigate water pollution right now is stop all greenfield development outside of the current developed area and leave it to nature.

For various reasons, that will never happen.  People like single family homes, and they want to be able to buy new ones.  It would also maybe drive housing prices up even more, but also maybe not if it were paired with a loosening of development laws inside the city limits.  As crazy as it sounds, the State of Oregon actually sets an Urban Growth Boundary for every municipality in the state including Portland.  You can see the urban growth boundary in some places as you’re driving out of the city – single family suburbia will end abruptly and turn into farmland or state parks.  The growth boundaries are somewhat contentious as it restrains developers and landowners and possibly increases housing prices (although I don’t know if that’s been shown as significant by any studies), but so far they have held up politically.  Again, Austin could do this, but it’s very unlikely.

So, we are left with Austin’s current regulations that attempt to maintain some of the benefits of natural world in an urban area by imposing maximum impervious cover regulations through zoning.  In short, “impervious cover” refers to anything that won’t absorb rainwater like roads, buildings, and parking lots.  Austin sets a maximum percentage of impervious cover for any piece of zoned land, meaning that you cannot build housing

However, if you look at the impervious cover regulations for each zone in city’s zoning guide, it quickly becomes apparent that the regulations really only apply to housing and not businesses.  The absolute densest residential development, MF-6, only allows 80% of the lot to be impervious cover, meaning that developers of an apartment building have to devote 20% of their land to grass that no one will ever use instead of building more housing:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-13-40-am

20% may not seem like a big imposition, but the lost revenue from more housing is probably enough to stop would-be housing developers to not take a risk on developing a multifamily property.

The impervious cover laws for other zones are even more insane.  The regulations for SF-6, what the city describes as “Townhouse and Condominiums”, allows only 55% impervious cover and 40% of the lot to be taken up by a building:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-19-34-am

This means that if you own a lot that happens to be zoned SF-6, you have to do nothing with nearly half of your land by law.  And realistically in Austin, that land is going to be grass lawns, which will need to use the region’s scarce water to stay green.  Not exactly a win for the environment.

However, looking at the zoning for businesses in the zoning guide, something jumps out.  The baseline maximum for businesses is 95%, much higher than any residential zone in the whole guide:

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So what should be made of this and what are the consequences?  The first thing is that it guides the building practices you see across basically the entire city:  every house must have a lawn, and many of them are massive even in central neighborhoods (shoutout to the 12,000 sq foot lot in Allandale).  Businesses, on the other hand, can pave over massive swaths of land with basically no mitigation.  Impervious cover has been one of the many complaints by neighbors about the Grove at Shoal Creek development, which will add much needed housing to Central Austin, but meanwhile nearby businesses on Burnet Road like HEB or even Burnet Road Self Storage have no obligation or incentive to not pave over as much of their land as possible.

As I said at the beginning, I think Austin’s impervious cover regulations are actually fighting a battle that will never be won.  Rather than trying to maintain natural ecology in our urban areas, we would be doing much more for the environment by limiting the spread of urban (or suburban) areas entirely.  Most of New York City is concrete, and even calling the beautiful parks like Central Park and Prospect Park “nature” would be a stretch.  But the average New York City resident’s lifestyle is much, much better for both the water and air than the average Austinite, and it’s almost entirely due to a) living in multifamily housing where heating and cooling is shared, and b) not driving cars.

If Austin does keep the impervious cover regulations, businesses should be required to participate too.  One option common in Portland is streetside bioswales, which are basically normal gardens that are intentionally planted with plants that will help filter pollutants from runoff.  They have generally been successful, and have even helped the City avoid replacing expensive sewer infrastructure for controlling runoff.  You can see them here around a grocery store in the Hawthorne neighborhood in Central Portland:

Bioswales at Fred Meyer on Hawthorne in Portland
Bioswales at Fred Meyer on Hawthorne in Portland

In typical Austin fashion, the city’s impervious cover regulations are probably well intentioned but are ill-suited to the large city Austin has become.  Austin is no longer a town of single family homes where land is cheap.  Devoting large portions of land in the Central City to grass or rocks contributes to the city’s affordability crisis, and the city should look at changing how this issue is approached entirely.

 

Leslie Pool Says Residents Like That Children Can Bike Safely, but doesn’t Support Bike Lanes on Shoal Creek

Austin’s District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool gave an interview to KUT News in which she “rolled her eyes” at her opponent Natalie Gauldin’s position’s on urban growth and said residents of her district “like the fact that their children can ride their bike in safety”.

Meanwhile, when asked if she would support adding better bike lines along Shoal Creek, Leslie Pool hedged and said that the decision should be left up to the “people who drive” on the road.  Here’s the video from a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters:

The truth is that Pool’s policies don’t lead to safety for bicyclists, and they don’t to lead to safety for pedestrians.  The only people that are protected both physically and politically under Leslie Pool are people that are surrounded by tons of metal and airbags.

Pool’s disdain for people that want to bike safely in Austin is frankly offensive.  Vote Natalie Gauldin in November if you live in District 7.

Single Family Homes Can Be Walkable: Two Single Family Homes in Two Cities

Several years ago, your two humble authors were living in two single family homes with roommates in two different cities at the same time.  The rent was similar, and both houses were in good neighborhoods but not the absolute nicest (this is subjective of course).  One house was in Austin and one was in Portland, and they illustrate the somewhat mundane differences that can have significant consequences for residents’ transportation, even when you are just comparing different single family homes.

One house was 1981 SE 11th Avenue in Portland’s Hosford Abernethy neighborhood.

there's a front porch under there I promise
there’s a front porch under there I promise

The lot size is 2,614 square feet, which allowed significant front and side yards and a small fenced backyard.  The house has a great front porch, and within two blocks there are three bars, a bagel place, a bbq restaurant and a bodega.  Expand that range a few more blocks and you have multiple grocery stores, a bookstore, restaurants, offices, and two bus lines that came every 15 minutes or less for most of the day.  The house is on the edge of Ladd’s Addition Historic District, a leafy neighborhood of beautiful homes mostly from the early 20th century.  The walkscore for the house is 94.

The other house was 5510 New Haven Court in Austin’s Allandale Neighborhood.  The lot size is 12632 square feet , more than five times the size of the house in Portland (I’ll have to tackle that absurd lot size in another post).  The house is in one of several cul-de-sacs along the stretch of Shoal Creek Blvd. in this stretch.  Despite being in one of Austin’s central neighborhoods, there is nothing within a few blocks of the house.  There are several bars and restaurants on Burnet, but it is at least a 15-20 minute walk to reach most of them, partially due to the cul-de-sac.  Fortunately, the bus is near the Capital Metro 803 bus, which comes every 15 minutes during the day.  The walkscore for the house is 56.

House in Allandale
House in Allandale

So what accounts for the huge difference in walkability between these two single family homes that are both centrally located?  For the most part it seems to be zoning.  Everything except Burnet Road that is within walking distance of the house in Austin is also just single family housing.  There are no businesses on this stretch of Shoal Creek Blvd. or Hancock,  and the nearby stretch of Allandale Road is zoned Limited Office, which means nothing super useful for the neighborhood can be built there.  I doubt that Walkscore factors this in, but it’s also worth noting that the nearest street to walk to the businesses on Burnet also has no sidewalks:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-7-14-44-am
just walk your kids right in the road I guess?

The house in Portland, on other hand, is actually on a commercial corridor.  And let me pre-empt the reaction of “people with kids don’t want to live by bars and bodegas!” with the answer: you are correct.  This was edge of a residential neighborhood, meaning this was a commercial corridor that ran around the outside of historic Ladd’s Addition.  A family with young kids may not want to live there, but for three people in their mid 20s it was perfect.  We could walk across the street to get coffee, bbq, and sit on the patio at the dive bar.  When we needed chips or beer, we went to the bodega.  We also had a vegetable garden in the front and a grill in the back.  It should also be noted that a lot of the commercial buildings had small apartments on top of them, including the bodega:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-03-46-am
wow sidewalks what luxury

The neighborhood follows a zoning pattern typical of Portland in general, where corridors of significant multifamily and commercial zoning surround residential neighborhoods.  The Portland house happens to be on a fairly dense corridor that is zoned Central Employment, allowing a wide range of uses.  Hence single family houses across the street from bars and restaurants.  And again: I get that this particular spot would not be ideal for many people, but all of these businesses are within walking distance of plenty of more typical single family houses.  Here is a zoning map of the neighborhood:

zoning map of Ladd's Addition in Portland
yellow: low density residential, light blue: high density residential, red: storefront commercial, purple: multi-use

The house in question is the white circle at the left, but all of the yellow in the center of the image is single family housing.  All of those homes have a Walkscore of 80 or above because of the surrounding commercial corridors on Division St. and Hawthorne St.  These are some of the most idyllic and beautiful single family homes in the city, and they are in a wonderfully walkable neighborhood.  This is a typical Ladd’s Addition house:

Ian Poellet - Own work via wikipedia
Ian Poellet – Own work via wikipedia

Finally, you’ll notice something else about the bar, restaurant and coffee shop immediately adjacent to the house:  there is no parking lots:

coffe shop in foreground, Firkin Tavern bar in the blue building
coffee shop in foreground, Firkin Tavern bar in the blue building

The City of Portland hasn’t forced the owners of those buildings and businesses to build parking lots, so they haven’t.  They do just fine, and building parking would be expensive.  Local people are the main patrons, and Portland is dense enough that locals can sustain a small business.

The whole point here is that you don’t have to live in Manhattan to have walkability.  It seems like many Austin residents think there is a choice between a tower downtown or a house with a giant yard and two cars, but there is a lot of in betweens.  That’s why the “missing middle” housing that people talk about is so important: it can actually coexist with single family housing quite peacefully.

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Wastes Time Considering Gondolas for Austin

There’s not much to say about this that isn’t obvious.  For non local government enthusiasts, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) is an agency staffed by appointees of the Governor of Texas charged with finding “innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality”.  They have the power to issue bonds, and are overseeing some of the toll road projects around the Austin area.

The CTRMA Board “gushed” over a proposal for gondolas in Austin recently by Jared Ficklin, a self described “creative technologist and futurist” with what appears to be zero expertise or qualifications in transportation planning.  The online home for the project appears to be a Facebook page, but that’s enough for CTRMA Deputy Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein to say he would bring an item forward to fund a viability study.

Even Ficklin himself says that the line could cost over $500 million to construct and carry 13,342 passengers per day at best, which is far below the 38,000 riders estimated for the far cheaper light rail line on Lamar.

Also, ya know, gondolas aren’t a real form of mass transportation anywhere.  They are typically used to cross difficult natural boundaries like mountains or water that are difficult with traditional rail.  But even what is likely the most successful aerial tram system in the world in La Paz, Bolivia only carries 18,000 people per hour maximum.  It’s also very expensive for riders.  On the other hand, a single subway line in New York can carry up to 60,000 people per hour in each direction.  The capacity of a subway system dwarfs anything that could possibly be achieved by small gondola cars running on wires.

La Paz is a heavily mountainous city with lots of winding roads.  They have a good reason to build a tram system.  Austin doesn’t, and the CTRMA is wasting time and money listening to what sounds more like bad TED talk than a realistic transportation option for the Austin region.

Forbes Used the Red Line to Mislead Readers about Rail Transit

Scott Beyer, a contributor to the popular urbanist twitter Market Urbanism, wrote in Forbes calling Austin’s Red Line “perhaps the nation’s leading transit rail failure.”

At first glance, most Austin urbanists would probably agree that the Red Line is a failure.  It’s Austin’s first experience with rail, and it has not set a good example of what rail transit can achieve.  Ridership is miniscule, per-rider subsidies are much higher than the rest of the system, and the expenses of MetroRail prevent Capitol Metro from spending that money elsewhere, like better bus service.

But Beyer also takes the opportunity to take a dig at public transit systems and suggest that private transit might be the solution:

Data provided by the Federal Transit Administration shows that even the much-ballyhooed systems in Minneapolis, Portland, and Charlotte, while better-located and thus not as bad as Austin, are also funded by high per-trip subsidies.

Basic googling shows that this is false.  Minneapolis’ light rail system is setting ridership records every month, and light rail fares cover significantly more operating costs than the bus system.  Portland’s transit agency, TriMet, has comprehensive reports by month.  The most recent report shows that Portland’s MAX light system has a per-rider subsidy far below even the “frequent service” subset of the agency’s busiest bus lines:

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Portland does have one commuter line that is very similar to the Red Line, and the chart shows that Portland’s line has similarly terrible numbers.  But Meyer uses this to paint all rail transit as wasteful, and takes the opportunity to advocate for privatizing transportation in general:

At the same time, there are private transit solutions within the ridesharing and bus industries that are profitable, largely because, rather than imitating the fixed-route concept, they’ve tapped into the best things about cars, by offering flexibility and on-site demand

It’s certainly true that there are profitable private transportation solutions, but it’s easy to forget that ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft drive on roads that are publicly funded.  They are also premium services that are able to charge a rate that is likely out of reach for a lot of public transit riders.

Urban issues are a rare place where free market or libertarian advocates and traditional left wingers can find common ground:  many growing cities have zoning laws that prevent housing from being built despite clear market demand, and building that housing would likely make housing in those cities cheaper.  It’s a win both for people that prioritize market freedom and people that prioritize affordable housing.  It’s a great alliance and I’m happy to see it gaining ground.

But when libertarians start advocating for the privatization of public transit, that alliance falls apart.  The ridership of public transit is overwhelmingly low income, so it’s mere existence serves as a form of redistribution.  Privatizing transit would be an overwhelmingly regressive move, and urbanists should push back strongly when free market advocates slip into this rhetoric.