Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Austin Route Choice Part 3: The Guadalupe/Lamar Alignment

In the previous two posts we discussed the history of Austin's quest for rail transit and the possible political reasons behind the current urban rail alignment.  Finally we're getting to what I feel is the most important part of this series which is making the case for the first urban rail alignment that Austin should undertake.

The reason why I believe that the Guadalupe/Lamar alignment should be the first one is for political and practical reasons.  Many pro-rail folks have written about this issue in the past 8 years so this ultimately is my way of putting more data behind those pushes. Let's go over why-

Political Future

Since 1995 Austin has had a hard time pushing forward with rail because of the politics.  Most of the time the state or rail opponents were trying to take money from Capital Metro and put it into roads.  Currently the city hasn't been able to drum up enough support to decide how to fund expansion or to have another election since the 2004 win.  Given it took 6 years to build the Red Line through fits and starts as well as technical issues, it seems like it will continue to be a hard road until a blockbuster line is constructed.

We saw this in other cities as well.  In places like Houston, the opponents such as Rep Culbertson and others have hammered away at the agency, trying to stop rail expansion at all corners.  However, because the initial line was so successful (40K Riders a day) even the ouster of a General Manager and a house cleaning at Houston Metro has not delayed expansion and three extensions are currently under construction.  In the Twin Cities, Charlotte, and Phoenix, initial lines were successful as well and extensions are pushing forward even through tough political climates.  This is the reason why a first line with killer ridership is important.  If you can silence the critics with a quality product, neighborhoods will be asking for extensions instead of opposing them.

Mining Existing Success 

According to Metro's 2010 Service Plan 2020 report, the three highest ridership bus lines in the city are the #1 (14,912), the Forty Acres UT Campus Route (8,027), and #7 (7,725).  The #1 and #7 are north-south routes that run from dense North Austin neighborhoods through UT, the State, and Downtown Austin.  The #1 specifically and its express bus compatriot the #101 garner over 17,000 riders a day.  That is a respectable number on most major corridors in medium size cities around the United States but at over double any other corridor in the city, it should stand to reason that a dedicated right of way rail line would be a great success.  The map below shows line ridership from this report.  It also shows the living density of downtown workers.  The red lines are the 1,7, and Forty Acres Loop.  Employment data was obtained from LEHD's On the Map program which uses 2010 data.

Where the People Are

Another thing the map above shows is where people who work downtown, at the University, and at the Capital Complex live in greater densities.  The dark purple areas are those which house higher concentrations of Austin's core employees.  Many of the people who are working in the densest employment center in the region are coming from North of the employment cluster, not east where the Urban Rail Line would run.  Additionally, if we're looking for additional ridership, the gross intensity of residents plus workers is highest along the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor as seen in Orange below.  Census tracts in dark green have more than 20 people per acre. This is ridership gold.

Congestion Issues on Guadalupe/Lamar

The corridor I believe should have a dedicated right of way also has a congestion issue. Given the limited number of direct north-south arterials that go through the center city, this is a significant problem. A TTI presentation on congestion made at the February 2012 (Item 3 19:45 into the presentation) transit working group meetings intimated that Guadalupe/Lamar from 6th street to 45th street is the most congested arterial in the city.  In that same meeting, Dave Dobbs mentioned the fact that NEPA documents stated that the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor was at capacity for the last two decades. The same can not be said for the east corridor leading towards the Mueller redevelopment.

But why plan a non-dedicated right of way Rapid Bus for a corridor that has extreme congestion, especially at rush hour when people are leaving work and campus? Anyone who lives in Austin can tell you that Guadalupe from MLK to Dean Keaton is a nightmare at rush hour, moving at a snail's pace.  Data from the Service Plan 2020 report suggests that the #1 bus already suffers from some of this congestion itself.  In fact it is only on time 49.4% of the time.  49.4% That ranks the line 51st out of all the bus lines in Austin in on-time performance.  Most of the time the line is too early.  But if you look at the data, the bus is late almost 20% of the time.  This is certain to affect a Rapid Bus, even with signal pre-emption and fancy stops.

And there's this problem, as much as road warriors would like to, you can't expand the road.  None of the North South arterials are going to magically expand.  With mixed use VMU coming down the pipeline bringing much needed densification, the need to move more people efficiently on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor is going to be necessary, and welcome.  Putting more buses on the corridor isn't going to help anything other than create bunching.   Giving people an alternative that takes about the same amount of time every day is an important way to raise transit ridership as well as urban densities that create livable communities. The City of Austin seems to understand what Urban Rail would do for a corridor as shown below, however they seem to be ignoring the best corridor for this type of intervention.Why isn't Guadalupe/Lamar the target for this type of intervention?

City of Austin via Downtown Austin Alliance

This is why a dedicated right of way light rail line with significantly greater capacity is necessary on this corridor.  It would be nice to have out to Mueller but outside of the density bonus, why do it?  There's no congestion there.  There's not as much demand for service there.  And you're not going to get a ridership bang there that will give the region the political capital to build extensions fast.  My guess also is that more people have ridden the #1 bus for its utility in Austin than have ridden the #20.

The map below looks at the areas where downtown workers live and boardings.  Again using LEHD On the Map data and shapefiles from Capital Metro showing 2012 weekday boardings (Thanks JMVC and Capital Metro).  You can see that the Guadlupe/Lamar corridor has heavy boardings all the way up as do other parallel corridors moving north.  This is where the demand is coming from for trips. Riverside looks pretty good as well. 
Another thing you can spot from this is that where the dark purple is located, the boardings are heavier.  This is because the density of people that work at UT, Downtown, or the Capital is higher in those places.  Since downtown is constrained, more people are going to opt for the bus.  The same can't be said for other areas that are easily accessed. 

Goals for the System

A memo outlining goals and evaluation criteria for selecting the first segment of the Urban Rail system sent to the City Manager discusses the goals that the line should accomplish.  Mueller certainly is pointed out as the goal corridor but let's go over some of the points here and reference back with what we discussed in this and earlier posts. 

Evaluation Criteria

Provide Greater Mobility Options
1.1 Serve Existing Ridership - I hope we made the case with the maps and analysis of Capital Metro's ridership data that existing ridership is on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.  The number 20 Manor bus gets 1/3rd of the ridership that the #1 corridor does.  Additionally, the segment extensions from the edges of UT are approximately the same length from Cresview to 27th as the Mueller alignment (4 miles)  The current ridership on those segments is ~3,300 on the Lamar Guadalupe Corridor to Crestview and only ~600 between San Jacinto and Mueller. 

1.2 Serve New Ridership - New Ridership at Mueller is likely since the project hasn't been built out completely.  However ridership on the #1 will go up because a rail line is a much more attractive option now for downtown commuters, especially in a dedicated right of way.  UT students are already on the hook, but those who would use the line to go to the State or downtown would increase.

1.3 Support Other Modes -  Nothing will support walking and biking more than building greater densities on the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor.  The problem with the Mueller Corridor is the freeway barrier that exists. Once passing under the great wall of former East Avenue, any connections via bike or walking to the major destinations on the West side are lost to novice cyclists and walkers.

1.4 Provide Park and Ride Opportunities - If you take the Lamar/Guadalupe line north to the North Lamar Transit Center, you already have an existing park n ride.  No need to buy new property and it could serve as a place for the maintenance bay as there is industrial land approximate.

Provide Access and Linkages Between Major Activity Hubs

2.1 - There are more activity hubs on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor north of the core than east of it.  This is proven by the existing ridership.  People have places to go.  Mueller is a wonderful place I'm sure but unlikely a major destination for students or Austin residents who don't live in the neighborhood.  However on Guadalupe there is Amy's Ice Cream, HEB's Central Market, and Changos.  Not to mention all those Hospitals, State Offices, and the Triangle.  Those seem less important than good food to me. ;)

You can see how this works from this route rendering from aerial photos from Austin's skyscraper page

But we're not even mentioning the core route, which on the first posts maps show all the parking garages and stadiums the line will pass.  Not the actual buildings people work in or attend classes. I'm not really opposed to either of the alignments downtown, though west is likely faster through the core, but north and east of UT is what we're concerned about the most.  Again I have no quibble with the Riverside segment as it works pretty well.  There probably isn't a need to go to the airport but whatever helps people coming in for SXSW, ACL, or Texas Relays helps.

Improves Linkages Between High Capacity Modes

3.1 Connect to Red Line - Do it further north so there is no backtracking and people can get to more destinations.  A commuter line that only runs every 30 minutes can't possibly be termed high capacity.  It does have a high capacity vehicle.  But if it doesn't go very frequently, then it isn't carrying a high capacity on that corridor.  But you could connect with the rail line further north at say Crestview station. Then people won't have to backtrack and will have a two seat ride (while not ideal, it is better) to anywhere on the great Lamar/Guadalupe corridor.

There is a proposal to connect to the Red Line at Hancock Center.  This would probably be better than the MLK or downtown alternatives, but Red River is a fairly narrow street which makes it difficult.  Ultimately students would love to use the line to go to Freebirds and HEB but outside of commute times its not much of a destination corridor.

3.2 Connect to Lone Star Rail -  Is that going to get done in anyone's lifetime?

3.3 Connect to Metro Rapid. - You'd be replacing most of Metro Rapid because there is a better mode for the corridor, urban rail.  Metro Rapid was just a trick to get the FTA to pay for colored buses and new stops with fixed guideway funding.  This type of purchase is happening around the country and is really starting to bother me as I believe this funding in the New Starts funding pot shouldn't be for Rapid Bus, it should be for actual fixed guideway projects like BRT, Streetcars, and Light Rail.  Agencies should be building Rapid Bus lines, but there are funds for that as well.

3.4 Connect to ABIA - Again, no problems with the riverside segment

Improve Person Moving Capacity

4.1  Break Through Ring of Constraint Intersections - Mueller is better than the most congested arterial in the region as a destination for creating new corridor capacity?  A Guadalupe/Lamar alignment would do this better than any other corridor.  And if downtown streets have been at capacity since 1992 as this Statesman Article suggests, then why are planners shying away from the corridor that the most downtown workers are coming from as shown in the maps?

Additionally, looking at a Downtown Austin Alliance presentation from City of Austin Transportation officials, it's clear that the ring of constraint intersections broken through by the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor are more than the Mueller Alignment.  There is proximity to three of the gateway intersections as seen below (38th and Guadalupe, 38th and Lamar, 24th and Guadalupe) while the Mueller alignment has one. And given the congestion on the corridor and existing ridership, it doesn't make sense to leave it out.  Again, the Rapid Bus plan adds more seating capacity, but that doesn't mean travel time savings if the road is congested, the buses can't go anywhere.

 Support City's Planning Goals


Encourage Investment and Economic Development

6.1 Maximize Return on Investment and Development Opportunities. - Outside of Mueller I'm not sure where this applies more than on the North Lamar/Guadalupe corridor.  There are so many opportunities to the north to change land uses and fix existing development patterns to support rail.  Just north of the Triangle is a perfect example. That area could become a huge example of neighborhood redevelopment. 

6.2 Maximize Economic Activity - No better place to raise sales tax receipts than to give people access to Amy's, Central Market, Chango's, Toy Joy, Mangia, Trudy's etc etc. Again, this is a destination corridor, unlike Mueller which has some opportunities, but not enough to be a first blockbuster investment.

6.3 Maximize Partnership Opportunities - Another metric for a small segment of right of way that will be used in Mueller.  There's also a greater chance of joint development opportunities in the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor because there are more development opportunities period and likely a greater market for redevelopment.  We are already seeing dense development taking place up through 32nd street.  The expansion of the line will extend the mixed use possibilities.

6.4 Access to Jobs -  There is no way that the Mueller corridor has more jobs than the North Lamar/Guadalupe Corridor.  Additionally, we showed above in the maps that the corridor that will serve the most downtown workers is to the north, not to the east.  For refreshment:

6.5 Potential for Job Creation - This goes back to the politics post.  If they want to redevelop the parking lots, and get a UT Medical school, then the east alignment is what will help them do it.  However if this is going to be a criteria, they should ding it for not connecting existing jobs and classrooms along the norther corridor.

Practical Considerations

7.1 Cost Effectiveness - The alignment through Mueller is approximately 4 miles.  The Guadalupe/Lamar alignment to Cresview station is approximately 4 miles straight.  Less curves less cost.  Also, because more people will ride the corridor to the north, the cost effectiveness is going to be much higher on that 4 miles than it will be sending it to Mueller.  We know this because of existing ridership on the corridor.  Boardings between the University at San Jacinto through Mueller currently stand at ~600 as mentioned above.  Boardings between the University at 27th and Crestview currently stand at ~3,300 .  The North Corridor has over THREE TIMES the amount of boardings already.  This means more riders and greater line productivity for the cost.  Again the ridership map:

7.2 Maximize Competitiveness for FTA and Other Funding - The north corridor already got a high rating the last time it was sent to the FTA (albeit it went to Howard Lane), why is the city afraid of submitting it again?  This is what I don't get. Why is everyone in Austin so afraid of the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor for light rail.  It WON in 2000 inside the city of Austin.  Not only did it win voters, in won the FTA.  What makes the city think an inferior corridor will do better?  And why isn't the city following Houston's lead and running the line right through the center of its major employment districts???

Here's Houston's alignment that has garnered so many riders:

And here are the alignment choices from Austin, again from skyscraper page

So after all of this what are the key points that should be made in regards to a Guadalupe/Lamar vs Mueller alignment?

1. Higher ridership and more useful lines have a greater ability to build political will for extensions.
2. The Guadalupe/Lamar Corridor has the highest ridership in the city of any bus by 2x.  The boardings on the upper segment is much higher than the current Mueller segment.
3. Greater densities of UT, Downtown, and State workers live along the north corridor than live out the Mueller alignment.  Greater densities overall follow the Guadalupe/Lamar alignments.
4. The North Guadalupe/Lamar Corridor is the most congested arterial in the region and needs more people moving capacity.
5. The North Guadalupe/Lamar Corridor addresses a greater number of constrained intersections.
6. The North Guadalupe/Lamar Corridor connects more destinations.

We know from the politics that there are reasons for pushing certain alignments.  But the raw data should prevail over politics when discussing the first Urban Rail corridor.

Ultimately the reason I wrote these posts is because I've seen a lot of cities go down the wrong path to start these multi-year transportation projects.  I've done this post on Austin specifically because it is a place that I love even though I've moved to San Francisco, sold my car, and already have my light rail half a block away from my house.  Ultimately I didn't need to spend a week breaking all this down, but people have been pushing this corridor for decades and I felt like there needed to be more facts and realistic numbers tied to the process.

I'm not sure why Austin elected officials are so scared of the corridor.  It did pass a vote in 2000 within the city of Austin and if it weren't for a certain GWB on the ballot the 1,800 or so votes might have gone the other way.  But as my college track coach Bubba used to say, "You gotta dance with who brung ya" and now after pushing on these lines for so many years, its time to make the right decisions based not on feelings, but on cold, hard evidence.


M1EK said...

The only GOOD reason not to choose this corridor is because the Red Line screwed us.

In 2000, we could justify the extreme disruption (bringing Guadalupe down to one lane - not one lane each way, but one lane TOTAL from 27th to 30th) by the fact that we'd be getting 30-40,000 boardings/day.

Now that the Red Line exists? Maybe 25,000 boardings, tops? Because, remember, the suburban riders that were a big chunk of that original number now have to transfer - and transfers turn off suburban drivers more than they do urbanites.

My picture here:


This is what was on the wall of the UTC's meeting room for a couple of months in 2003. This is what would have had to happen to support reserved-guideway rail in this stretch of Guadalupe.

And this is why we can't have it now. Because the Red Line was built.

Dan Keshet said...

Regarding serving new ridership, it isn't just the case that Mueller isn't fully built out, whereas the Guadalupe / Lamar route is. Development in west campus slowed down somewhat during the recession, but there are at least four large construction sites there right now and as the economy picks up and the zoning remains permissive, I imagine even more will be coming. Rents are high and vacancies low in West Campus and there are plenty of undergraduates living elsewhere left to move in. Plus, as the millenial generation is walking away from car ownership, a larger and larger percentage of West Campus residents will be showing up without cars and thinking of transit as the natural form of transportation.

Anonymous said...

I realize the numbers don't compare quite yet, but S Lamar is currently adding about 2,000 new apt units to the half-mile stretch between Barton Springs and W Mary. Also planned are some 700 apartments on either side of Chuys, 300+ at Manchaca and Lamar, and another 700 adjacent to the Broken Spoke. South Lamar is going to become an all-day parking lot by 2014 and no one's proposing any kinds of pedestrian or transit improvements to it. This city likes to pretend to be so 21st century but still plans like it's 1973.

el_longhorn said...

Bravo. More than any other issue, this has held Austin back. The lack of a strong public transport system. And it is obvious which one they should choose. Although I would include a Riverside branch to the airport w the proposal. Riverside is ripe for density and the airport connection will add votes.

Susan Pantell said...

Great post, Jeff, thanks. I just want to add that FTA is in the process of changing their criteria so that ridership will be more important in evaluating projects.

Mike, I think you underestimate the willingness of people to transfer, especially if the trains are timed correctly. There is less resistance to transferring between trains as opposed to a bus. Also, there is the potential to electrify at least a portion of the Red Line in the future, so the light rail cars could ride on it.

M1EK said...

Susan, the Feds, in 1997, predicted that double-track electric rail on the Red Line corridor would produce ridership that was unacceptably low for their cost participation.

People who currently drive will, in aggregate, not accept transfers as part of their daily commute. You are thinking like a transit-lover; not like somebody who has to be convinced to ride.

James said...

Great post, many thanks. I would include a riverside branch to the airport the proposal.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two opportunities that should be considered as we discuss possible train routes in the center of Austin. The first is the unfortunate sea of wasted space between I-35 and the Capitol Building. The State has indicated that they would like to sell some of that land to allow for redevelopment and urban infill. Right now, it is politically feasible to route a train up Red River or Trinity, but after that is built out, it will be much harder.

The second opportunity is Airport Boulevard. It is being redesigned right now, Highland Mall will be redeveloped before long, and there will be thousands of people living and working along that corridor. Again, putting a train along Airport Blvd. now is feasible, but it will be much harder to do so after all that redevelopment takes place.

I think it would be very cool to have a loop that would --

- Start Downtown aligned with 7th Street (allowing for spurs out to Bergstrom in the future)
- Go up Trinity through campus on San Jacinto (or jog over to Red River if UT is too hard to deal with...)
- Go out Dean Keaton / Manor east to Airport Boulevard
- Go north up Airport Boulevard to Lamar
- Turn south down Lamar / Guadalupe back to Downtown