Archive for September, 2013

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Back to “art galleries”! Project Connect reneges on community meetings

25 September 2013
Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

Community meeting (left) vs. art gallery (right)

In our article of Sep. 17th, If you support urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar, attend these community meetings! Austin Rail Now reported that

… Project Connect has scheduled some upcoming meetings (and a “webinar”) between Sep. 4th and Oct. 2nd (details below) that seem to offer a bona fide opportunity for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another.

Unfortunately, the prospect of bona fide public meetings “for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another” no longer seems valid.

In a sudden reversal — and what appears to be a breach of trust and a breach of a de facto agreement with many in the Austin community — Project Connect has abruptly stopped describing the forthcoming Urban Rail Central Corridor public involvement events as meetings, and instead is now promoting them as so-called “Open Houses”.

The Sep. 23rd edition of the Austin Mobility Go! Email newsletter from the City of Austin’s Transportation Department now describes the activities this week as “open houses”, not meetings. This was confirmed in Email comments from Capital Metro/Project Connect community outreach specialist John-Michael Cortez:

It is labeled as an Open House because that connotes that people are free to show up at any time, unlike a public meeting or workshop, which usually has a set agenda and starting time, thus limiting full participation to those who are able to show up at the start of the meeting. These meetings will be more of a hybrid open house/workshop. Participants can come at whatever time they choose and be able to see exhibits and speak directly to agency staff to have their questions answered, and formal input will be gathered through questionnaires and encouraging participants to draw and make comments on sub-corridor maps.

This is a crucial point, and one that many community activists involved with the urban rail planning process thought had been settled — in favor of community meetings.

Meetings are fundamental to truly democratic process. They allow for community interactive input, i.e. community discussion along with the project personnel. They bring members of the entire community together, allow them to hear ideas and views from one another, allow them to interact on the public record (or at least with public witnesses) with officials present, force official representatives to deal with and respond to difficult questions and issues, and allow officials and participants to get a sense of community attitudes expressed in a community manner. One person’s question or comment may give ideas or motivation to other participants.

This community interactivity is lost in the individual, one-on-one format of “Open Houses”, which have no set agenda, no community public speaking, and involve agency personnel displaying graphics of their pre-determined plans and chatting individually with the occasional community members that might attend the event. Transportation consultant Lyndon Henry (an Austin Rail Now contributor) has compared these events to wandering through an art gallery, with the chance to chat individually with the gallery guards (agency personnel). There’s no opportunity for real interactive community involvement.

In the view of local Austin researcher and transportation activist Roger Baker,

The major problem I see is that while Open Houses usually have lots of big impressive maps, these meetings commonly tend to evolve toward little unstructured conversation clusters, with an official at their center, near a map, and with others standing around, trying to hear, waiting to ask their own questions. Every citizen can come in and ask the same question as those who came earlier, and these exchanges are essentially rambling private discussions that tend to go on and on without clearly answering certain important policy questions. Usually there is no record of the questions asked, nor the responses given. These events tend to become a succession of unrecorded one to one exchanges.

In a comprehensive explanation and analysis of public involvement, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) explains that

Meetings provide a time and place for face-to-face contact and two-way communication-dynamic components of public involvement that help break down barriers between people and the agencies that serve them. Through meetings, people learn that an agency is not a faceless, uncaring bureaucracy and that the individuals in charge are real people. Meetings give agencies a chance to respond directly to comments and dispel rumors or misinformation.

Far from being passive gatherings, meetings are interactive occasions when people discuss issues of consequence to them and their neighbors, listen to opposing viewpoints on the issues, and work together for the common good. Agency staff people who handle public meetings need to be trained in skills that encourage interaction and also keep the process focused and productive.

In contrast, says FHWA,

An open house is an informal setting in which people get information about a plan or project. It has no set, formal agenda. Unlike a meeting, no formal discussions and presentations take place, and there are no audience seats. Instead, people get information informally from exhibits and staff and are encouraged to give opinions, comments, and preferences to staff either orally or in writing.

Is the planning and decisionmaking process really that important to the kind of plan that emerges? You bet it is.

Vigorous, authentic community involvement is absolutely critical, particularly in injecting new ideas and perspectives, raising special concerns, scrutinizing and evaluating official approaches and decisions, safeguarding the project from the influence of special interests and extraneous political issues, and generally keeping the official planners and decisionmakers “honest”.

Furthermore, voters are far more inclined to support ballot measures for major rail projects if they have a sense of ownership through opportunities for bona fide participation in the process.

Project Connect’s seemingly abrupt decision to downgrade the format of these public events from meetings to “art galleries” (“open houses”) suggests more of a desire to minimize, or squelch, rather than maximize, public involvement and dialogue in the urban rail planning process. This would also appear corroborated by Project Connect’s rather puzzling lack of publicity for these public events.

As Lyndon Henry recently warned, in comments Emailed to a list of community transportation activists,

The consistent and steady pattern by local public agencies (particularly involved in public transportation issues) of degrading the bona fide democratic public participation process over the past period has been alarming, and I did speak out about this when I worked at Capital Metro. Individual chats between individual community members and official personnel do not represent a democratic process of community participation, and I’ve personally seen the level of such participation decline significantly over the past couple of decades. It’s very troubling to see this same policy now being carried forward and rationalized despite assurances made otherwise.

Despite these efforts by Project Connect to discourage public participation, Austin Rail Now continues to urge supporters of a Phase 1 urban rail starter line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor to attend these events and vigorously express their views.

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Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”

22 September 2013
Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro’s MetroRapid bus project received its $38 million of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding through its designation as a “Bus Rapid Transit” project under the FTA’s Small Starts program. But calling a bus operation “rapid transit” that will run predominantly in mixed motor vehicle traffic seems either rather fraudulent, self-deceptive, or a branding effort that has descended to the ridiculous. Yet some local officials, planners, and enthusiasts of the officially promoted downtown-to-Mueller Urban Rail route have been vigorously singing the praises of MetroRapid as a viable and equivalent substitute for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Even LRT, which typically runs entirely or predominantly in reserved or exclusive alignments, and (for comparable levels of service) is faster than so-called “BRT”, isn’t called “rapid transit”.

The un-rapid drawbacks of CapMetro’s MetroRapid have been cited by other analyses. For example, Austin American-Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, in a February 2012 article titled MetroRapid bus service not so rapid, not expected until 2014, noted:

Despite an agency goal of offering time savings of 10 percent, in hopes of attracting more people to buses, the two lines would mostly offer minimal time savings, according to a Capital Metro presentation on the MetroRapid bus system, now scheduled to start operating in 2014.

In one case, a MetroRapid bus running from Howard Lane in North Austin to downtown would make the trip in 47 minutes — the same as an existing limited-stop bus that runs the same route. Trips between South Austin and downtown on that same line would offer time savings of just two to three minutes.

Community public transit activist Mike Dahmus, in a blog entry titled Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid, 2011 Confirmation, provided schedule evidence from CapMetro’s own website indicating that travel time differentials between the proposed Route 801 service (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) for atypically long trip lengths were minimal — time savings of 0 to perhaps 3 minutes even for such unusually lengthy trips as journeys between far-flung transit centers.

And in another article titled Rapid [sic] Bus Fact Check: Will It Improve Frequency? Dahmus offered a cogent argument that headways (thus waiting times for passengers) would be increased, not decreased, with MetroRapid service in the Route 801 corridor. Assuming the most likely operating scenario, Dahmus figures the number of scheduled bus trips in an average hour would be reduced from 9 to 8 — i.e., an increase in service headways and concomitant increase in waiting time for passengers.

Wikipedia provides a useful definition/description of Rapid Transit:

A rapid transit system is a public transport system in an urban area with high capacity, high frequency not needing timetables, is fast and is segregated from other traffic…. Operating on an exclusive right of way, rapid transit systems are typically grade separated and located either in underground tunnels (subways) or elevated above street level (elevated transit line). … Modern services on rapid transit systems are provided on designated lines between stations typically using electric multiple units on rail tracks, although some systems use guided rubber tyres, magnetic levitation, or monorail.

Numbered citations were omitted from the quotation above, but the Wikipedia article’s references included:

• “Rapid transit”. Merriam-Webster.
• “Metro”. International Association of Public Transport.
• “Glossary of Transit Terminology”. American Public Transportation Association.
• “Rapid Transit”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

In the USA, the term “rail rapid transit” has a de facto meaning of such an urban electric metro or subway/elevated system, running entirely (with rare exceptions) on its own, exclusive right-of-way, with no grade crossings or other interference with street traffic or pedestrians.

It would seem reasonable that the public, political and civic leaders, and transportation professionals should hold “bus rapid transit” to the same standard. Certainly, “bus rapid transit” should not be applied to bus operations running merely in reserved traffic lanes, or in and out of mixed and reserved or exclusive lanes, etc. — yet these are precisely the kinds of operating applications that FTA, and several major BRT advocacy organizations, have been blithely characterizing as “BRT”.

To call a modestly enhanced bus operation “rapid transit” while denying this designation to a streetcar/light rail operation with much or most of its alignment in exclusive or reserved ROW seems like branding gone haywire — particularly so when the buses depart from the totally exclusive alignment and meander on routes in mixed traffic. Why should a bus coming down the street, waiting in traffic jams, etc., be called “rapid transit”? This would seem to make a mockery of the term.

In effect, the term Bus Rapid Transit is being applied to service/capacity mode configurations that are significantly inferior not just to Rail Rapid Transit but to Light Rail Transit — and that would seem highly misleading, especially to the general public. For these modestly improved bus services, a term such as Bus Premium Transit would appear more accurate and appropriate.

The section below provides a brief photo-summary distinguishing among bona fide rail rapid transit and bus rapid transit, and Bus Premium Transit operations erroneously (and widely) characterized as “BRT”.


♦ This is rail rapid transit (RRT)

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.


♦ This is bus rapid transit (BRT)

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.


♦ This is NOT “bus rapid transit”

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as "BRT"). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as “BRT”). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.


Bottom Line: With MetroRapid bus service, Capital Metro does seem to be modestly upgrading current bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and elsewhere with spiffier station facilities and newer buses — improvements that most bus riders, and probably the public in general, would welcome.

But an acceptable substitute for urban rail … it ain’t.

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How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall

19 September 2013
LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…

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MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

18 September 2013
View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

Some local officials, favoring the City’s long-preferred Urban Rail plan from downtown through the UT East Campus to the Mueller development site, have been presenting Capital Metro’s MetroRapid juiced-up-bus-service project as a barrier to alternative proposals for implementing urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor.

As Austin Rail Now will discuss in subsequent analyses, this argument is fatuous and fallacious. Instead, MetroRapid can and should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to urban rail, not a competitor and obstacle.

This concept of MetroRapid as a precursor to rail was first presented in a 27 April 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (technical consultant for Light Rail Now) to the Transit Working Group:

Rapid Bus can be a precursor to Urban Rail in Lamar-Guadalupe corridor!

Here are excerpts (adapted for Webpage format) from that commentary that may be useful to the discussion of such a possible role for MetroRapid as a precursor to urban rail (using light rail transit technology) in the G-L corridor:


♦ Useful reference: BRT as a Precursor of LRT? (TRB conference paper, 2009)

Paper presented by Dave Dobbs and [Lyndon Henry] to 2009 Joint International Light Rail Conference sponsored by Transportation Research Board [TRB] provides research and guidelines for BRT as rail precursor:

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Title and author lines from published paper.

Title and author lines from published paper.

[Link to proceedings]

http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Examples where “BRT” has been precursor to rail – including with FTA approval

Various U.S. examples exist where both technically and policy-wise, a RapidBus or BRT-type system can function as a precursor to rail transit service – and with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approval!

• Dallas – BRT-like express bus service, operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) on North Central Expressway, served as a precursor to DART’s LRT extension to Plano.
• Miami – Miami-Dade Busway has been serving as precursor to extensions of MetroRail rapid transit.
• Los Angeles – Wilshire Boulevard MetroRapid service, operated by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), has served as precursor to extension of MTA’s rail rapid transit metro system, a project now under way.
• Seattle – In Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, BRT-type bus service functioned as precursor to Link light rail (now operating jointly with buses – see photos below).

♦ In 2009, Capital Metro’s MetroRapid was envisioned as precursor to rail

As recently as 2009, MetroRapid project was being designed for eventual conversion to light rail:

Excerpt from section of paper.

Excerpt from section of paper.

♦ Conclusion: BRT or RapidBus must be originally designed as light rail precursor!

Paper concludes that best-practices approach to plan for BRT or RapidBus as precursor to rail is to design it for eventual conversion from the start. This means keeping infrastructure investment minimal and designing for modularity (i.e., designing station components, communications, etc. so they can be easily relocated or reconfigured for the rail mode during conversion).

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

If the transit agency can demonstrate that the BRT or RapidBus investment won’t be lost, but can be upgraded into a higher and more effective use (e.g., Urban Rail), FTA has approved such conversion.

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If you support urban rail for Guadalupe-Lamar, attend these community meetings!

17 September 2013
Map of so-called "Central Corridor" study area.

Map of so-called “Central Corridor” study area.


Project Connect, the consortium of the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other public entities to pursue coordinated transit planning for Central Texas and the Austin metro region, has ostensibly pulled back somewhat from the previous emphasis on urban rail in the downtown-East Campus-Mueller corridor, and has a project under way to vigorously study (at least nominally) alternative corridors for a Phase 1 urban rail starter line — and one of those corridors is Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L).

There’s some debate over just how serious local officials and planners are about breaking from their fixation on the previous Mueller route (which would install urban rail in a very weak non-corridor), but in any case, Project Connect has scheduled some upcoming meetings (and a “webinar”) between Sep. 4th and Oct. 2nd (details below) that seem to offer a bona fide opportunity for the public to meet in a community fashion, both discussing the issues and interacting with one another.

So Austin Rail Now strongly encourages supporters of an urban rail Phase 1 starter line in the G-L corridor to attend these meetings (and participate in the “webinar”) — and voice their support for the G-L corridor.

The current project is specifically focused on a so-called “Central Corridor” — actually, a huge square study area extending as far west as Loop 1 (MoPac Expressway), east to roughly Springdale Rd., north to Crestview and the Highland/ACC area, and south to roughly Oltorf St. (see map above).

Since it’s not really a “corridor”, but an entire city sector with potential routes running in all directions, Project Connect planners have had to rename the actual travel corridors under study as “sub-corridors”. While the downtown-East Campus-Mueller route is designated as one of these “sub-corridors”, so is Guadalupe-Lamar, as well as a route out Riverside to the ABIA Airport, a route south on South Congress, and routes out Lake Austin Blvd. and West 38th St. to the Seton-Medical Center area.

While just about all these routes might make sense for urban rail at some point, obviously there must be a prioritization process that can select one for the first line to start with. Austin Rail Now believes a line in the G-L corridor makes by far the most sense in every way, and has the best chance of attracting community-wide voter support for bonds to help fund installation.

Here’s a screen capture from the City’s Austin Mobility website giving details — dates, times, locations — of the upcoming community meetings and the “webinar”:

ProCon_aus-txt-Central-Corridor-mtgs-2013-Sep-Oct_COA

If you want urban rail to go where it makes the most sense, and will have the best chance to win voter support — i.e., the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — you have a major stake in this. Please plan to attend at least one of these meetings (or participate in the “webinar”)!

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Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

9 September 2013
CACDC's Central Corridor urban rail plan (blue), with MetroRail (red) and various bus links (grey). Map: CACDC

CACDC’s Central Corridor urban rail plan (blue), with MetroRail (red) and various bus links (grey). Map: CACDC

Within the Austin community, momentum continues to grow to re-orient the officially promoted Urban Rail project (downtown-East Campus-Mueller) into a focus on the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor as the primary spine for a Phase 1 (i.e., starter line) project. Much of this effort is coming from businesses, neighborhoods, and community groups within the G-L corridor itself.

Besides the “loop” proposal (one line through the G-L corridor, the other formed by converting the eastiside Red Line to electric urban rail) proposed a year ago by Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT), suggestions for other possible routes serving the G-L corridor are forthcoming from the community.

One of the most thoroughly developed is a 7-mile-long Central Corridor urban rail plan designed by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), led by Scott Morris (see map above).

From Crestview south to 4th St., the CACDC plan is virtually identical to the west branch of the TAPT “loop”, following Lamar and then Guadalupe. However, CACDC extends the line further up Lamar to the North Lamar Transfer Center, where it would provide connectivity to various bus routes at this major transit interchange, and then make a loop beneath the US 183 freeway to return south on Lamar. Also, at its southern end, it includes a spur east to the Seaholm development site.

The plan also proposes a short spur from the existing MetroRail Red Line (“commuter” light railway) into the Mueller development site. (The TAPT plan similarly includes an urban rail spur into Mueller from the eastside urban rail branch formed, as previously noted, by converting the Red Line to electric urban rail.)

Both of the CACDC urban rail extensions (the extension up Lamar and the connection to Seaholm) are similarly proposed by TAPT for a subsequent phase of urban rail development. However, if public and political sentiment can be shifted in the more rational direction of supporting an urban rail Phase 1 (starter line) route in this extremely heavy, productive G-L corridor, perhaps a “melding” of plans, incorporating the best features of these and other proposals, will be possible.

According to CACDC’s website, “This 7 mile phase one alignment serves the greatest number of riders, forms the expandable backbone of a much larger future system, and satisfies all public benefit criteria ….” The proposal also presents a long list of “communities, centers, and nodes” — almost entirely in the G-L corridor — that would be served

What the Austin-area public — especially voters — will prefer and accept can eventually be sorted out. What’s critical now is for all those who favor primary emphasis on the G-L corridor to work together to reallocate local planning focus away from the absurd downtown-East Campus-Hancock Center-Mueller non-corridor, and onto the G-L corridor — a real corridor (which also includes the fourth-highest residential density of all major Texas cities) — where it should have been in the first place, over the past 8 years of local planning.