This is how to do transit advocacy

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On Sunday we were walking around downtown Valencia when we came across a crowd of people making its way down one of the city’s main boulevards. Some were holding signs. My first assumption was another rally of public sector employees, in a similar vein to the firefighters protest I’d witnessed a few days before in front of City Hall.

But as we reached the boulevard we realized that this was hardly a niche cause for one group of disgruntled employees. The sea of people as far as the eye could see recalled the 2017 Women’s March in Austin. The generational diversity –– from children to the elderly –– also suggested the cause had a broader base of support than the typical labor grievance. What the hell were they demonstrating for?

Many of them held signs that read, “Teruel Existe,” or “Teruel Exists.” I had no idea what Teruel was. But in smaller font on the same sign read, “#NoPierdaselTren,” or “Don’t Lose the Train.”

It turns out that Teruel is a small city (pop. 35,000) about 95 miles northwest of Valencia. I’m not clear on all the details, but based on my very likely flawed reading of the local paper, people in Teruel and some other small cities are pissed because the European Union just announced that they will not be included as part of a long-awaited rail line connecting the northern and southern coasts of Spain. Their exclusion from the rail network will exacerbate ongoing population decline in the area, protesters argue.

The organizations that organized the protest claim that 50,000 attended. The police estimate 15,000. The newspaper claims “tens of thousands.” Whatever the figure, it’s exponentially greater than anything I could imagine in the U.S. surrounding rail advocacy.

Can transit advocates in Austin figure out a way to organize a similar display of passion in support of public transportation? Austin is very different from Teruel, and urban transit is completely different from a long-distance railroad. But the fundamental argument in favor of both is similar. In both cases the argument is an existential one. Teruel needs to reverse years of declining population that is a result of its isolation from the regional economy. Austin needs to halt an affordability and mobility crisis that threatens to drive the middle-class and creative economy out of the city.  The overarching existential crisis, of course, is the one faced by our warming planet.

Ora Houston’s departure big improvement for progressives/urbanists

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The other day the Austin Monitor hosted a forum for the (sigh) seven candidates running for the spot on City Council being vacated by Ora Houston, the enigmatic East Austin activist currently holding the seat.

The one thing that is clear is that Houston’s departure is a loss for Austin conservatives. For instance, everybody in the District 1 race disagrees with Houston’s opposition to Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. If Republican Frank Ward prevails in District 8 (a big “if”), he will undoubtedly be the only true conservative on Council, and he benefit from the occasional support that Houston lent to the likes of Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman on taxes, bike lanes and the appointment of gun fanatics to city commissions.

The much bigger impact of Houston’s departure will come on housing policy, notably in the divide between urbanists and neighborhood preservationists. Houston has been a consistent opponent of increased density. Although she has framed her opposition as aimed at preventing gentrification in East Austin, she will often join West Austin colleagues in voting against developments opposed by West Austin neighborhood associations.

Considering the fact that Houston and some other anti-growth folks endorsed District 1 frontrunner Vincent Harding, it would be reasonable to expect him to be a preservationist. However, his answers thus far have been vague but have generally indicated that he is more urbanist-curious than Houston. Note the bolded part:

Harding: “It should be simpler and should not take a consultant to know how to fix up your house. If there are conflicts, we should write in which part of the code supersedes other parts of the code.” He added that he supports a fast process to moderate disputes, allowing smaller lot sizes, and creating community land trusts to preserve affordability.

Meanwhile, at least three of the other candidates –– Natasha Harper-Madison, Mariana Salazar and Reedy Spigner –– are vociferous supporters of density (both market-rate and income-restricted) as an affordability tool. For what it’s worth, write-in candidate Misael Ramos also appears to be urbanist-friendly.

Even Lewis Conway Jr., who said at the forum that they shouldn’t be talking about density without discussing the environmental implications of growth, would be an improvement over Houston from the perspective of left-wing urbanists, since the avowed socialist is a big supporter of increased public housing.

The only candidate who really seems to be pushing the anti-development line is Mitrah Avini, who the Austin Chronicle described as a “recent Oxford University graduate.”

While preservationists are pulling for Harding and urbanists are pulling for other candidates, notably Harper-Madison, my sense is that the outcome of this race will almost certainly represent a loss for preservationists and a gain for urbanists.

The same is definitely not true in neighboring District 3, where Pio Renteria and Susana Almanza represent polar opposites on development issues. District 8, the seat Troxclair is vacating, could produce three very different outcomes: Frank Ward (Republican), Bobby Levinski (preservationist-leaning progressive) or Rich DePalma (urbanist-leaning progressive).

700 student apartments: A historic compromise

The main reason that UT bus ridership has declined so dramatically in recent years has been the big increase in residential development in the campus area. More students now live within walking distance of class.

A proposed development that I profiled in the Austin Monitor is a fitting display of the trend.

A developer seeking to build a 700-unit, 17-story apartment building targeting students on West 22nd Street can’t proceed with the project unless City Council agrees to remove historic zoning from part of an adjacent property, known as the Kenney House.

It sounds like the developer has a pretty cool concept to build a shitload of apartments into a glass tower that will wrap around the historic home, which will also become a coffee shop.

“The tower is all glass wrapping around the historic building … so people on all sides will be able to see it,” explained Little.

I can’t even imagine what that means, but I look forward to seeing what it looks like. And my guess is that it will become a reality. City staff has recommended the zoning change and the Planning Commission overwhelmingly approved it, with only the ultraconservative Karen McGraw in dissent. It still needs Council’s approval. The only three

I wonder what would have happened with this project if it had had to go before the Zoning and Platting Commission, which is dominated by anti-density ideologues. I would bet good money that ZAP would have recommended against the project.

 

Thoughts on public transit from Spain

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If you haven’t already figured it out, I’ve been hanging in Valencia, Spain for the last few days. It’s part of a month-long trip that Jen and I are taking in October. We’re spending the first two weeks here and working remotely. The last two weeks we’ll spend doing legit vacay in Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Vienna. The perk of being able to work remotely the first two weeks is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that I won’t be getting paid during the last two.

A few things on transportation here in Valencia, which is very similar in population to Austin (780,000 city/1.7 million metro area).

First off, there are quite a few electric scooters around, although they all appear to be privately-owned or rented. It’s not straight-up dockless ride-sharing. Same thing goes for the many different private bike-sharing operations around town. There is no Uber/Lyft but there are a lot of taxis.

Public transit is beyond what is imaginable in Austin. The bus system includes more than 50 routes and at least 30 of them offer frequency of at least every 15 minutes during peak hours (between about 7 am and 10 pm). Many of those routes offer far greater frequency –– between 5-8 minutes. All of the major boulevards appear to have dedicated lanes reserved for buses and taxis.

On top of that there are nine metro lines that carry over 65 million passengers a year; they are largely geared towards commuters coming in and out of the suburbs.

What is the downside? None! Well, unless you’re determined to drive a car. In the historic city center where I’m staying you can’t exceed 30 kmh (19 mph). Then there’s very little parking. And the parking that exists isn’t exactly Escalade-friendly. The cafe I’m at? No parking. The restaurant next door? No parking. The government building across the street: not a parking stall in sight.

I’ve spent good chunks of my life relying heavily on public transit, but I never gave much thought to the matter until recently. For instance, between age 10-14, I lived  in Paris, France. As a kid I walked or took the metro everywhere I wanted to go, which granted me much greater freedom of movement during my middle school years than I think the average tweens and teens in Austin have until and unless they have access to a car. I walked or took the metro to school everyday. I didn’t need a ride from mom to go to the mall; almost every weekend I took the metro to the Champs Élysées to look at CDs at the Virgin Megastore (RIP).

As I look forward to parenthood, I hope that my kid(s) will not grow up dependent on adults with automobiles to get around. While the steep decline in the number of kids walking/biking to school is no doubt partially the result of a cultural shift in favor of helicopter parenting, it is also the logical result of a car-based transportation system. The more that cities are oriented toward cars, the more dangerous it becomes for kids to get around without their parents.

UT gives KUT reporters major pay cut

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The bad news is that UT has abruptly stopped paying overtime to KUT staff. The good news is that KUT folks are speaking out:

Unfortunately, while employees at NPR and many of its affiliates are unionized, KUT staff are most likely barred by Texas state law from engaging in collective bargaining. No, NOT because Texas is a “right-to-work” state (strong unions can and do exist in RTW states) but because public employees in Texas who are not from GOP-favored constituencies (police/fire) generally do not have collective bargaining rights.

However, a collective voice on the job is extremely useful even in the absence of a formal collective bargaining process. Management can ignore a few individuals complaining. It’s much harder for them to ignore an organized group of people who make a series of demands. Austin teachers don’t have collective bargaining rights but they do have a union that makes sure that teachers’ interests are always heard by members of the school board.

I think KUT workers are in a strong position to get UT to reverse course. First, in contrast to, say, the Statesman, they aren’t dealing with owners who are desperate to make a quarterly profit. UT is much more likely to be sensitive to accusations that it is degrading a beloved community resource than a for-profit media company. Furthermore, KUT doesn’t just have listeners or subscribers –– it has “members.” There are thousands of people who contribute simply because they want to support an important community institution. Many of them will want to know why the product that they have supported is going downhill.

I would encourage KUT reporters to go beyond tweeting about the issue and actually report on the matter, both online and on the radio. That will light up the phone lines at UT and put whoever made this decision in the hot seat. Second, I would encourage KUT reporters to begin having meetings where they discuss workplace issues and try to come up with a formal strategy to advocate for their interests.

Autonomous buses, huh?

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For nearly a year, Cap Metro leaders have emphasized that the focus of Project Connect, the long-term plan to bring high-capacity transit to the Austin metro area, should not be on the mode (trains, buses etc) but on the routes. Last month, they doubled down on that narrative, stressing that whatever mode(s) is put in place, what really matters is whether it has dedicated right-of-way that prevents it from interacting with car traffic.

Yesterday, Cap Metro finally released a plan that proposed certain kinds of modes. It includes four Bus Rapid Transit lines, a new commuter rail line and two Autonomous Rapid Transit routes.

What is Autonomous Rapid Transit? Err…

From Austin Transit Blog:

What is Autonomous Rapid Transit? I don’t know actually, and neither does anyone else. It’s some kind of bus that uses bluetooth to talk to other buses, which apparently our transit agency thinks sounds like it will solve our transit issues better than something like light rail, which carries millions of passengers per day around the world.

UPDATE: Somebody who knows more about technology than me says that the characterization of ART as depending on bluetooth is inaccurate.

Local wonk (and AustinPolitics.net power user) Julio Gonzalez has a helpful list of technology around the world that may resemble what Cap Metro envisions. The key takeaway from Julio’s analysis, however, is that nowhere has the concept actually been implemented on a wide scale. The closest thing we’ve got is a pilot project in China.

The transportation players in Austin have been hinting at this approach for a while. Sen. Kirk Watson suggested a couple months ago that transit supporters shouldn’t get hung up on rail, and stressed the importance of putting in place modes that are “future-proof.”

But I don’t really understand what makes autonomous buses much better or more “future-proof” than rail or even conventional bus rapid transit. It’s still going to demand dedicated right-of-way. What are the future innovations that would render BRT or light-rail obsolete but would leave ART unscathed?

Also, while labor costs are a big deal for transit agencies, I don’t think that that the appeal of reduced labor costs is as high when it comes to a high-capacity system. The appeal of driverless buses, for instance, is that we could deploy smaller ones more frequently, even on a route that is not heavily-trafficked, without having to pay a bunch of drivers. In contrast, high-capacity transit is aimed at transporting a lot of people at once.

It also seems strange to think that Austin, a city that has never had high-capacity transit, should be the place to implement an unproven transit technology. For some reason the Cap Metro leaders seem to think that this will be more politically palatable than rail, which was twice failed at the polls, but I can’t imagine why Austin voters would be friendlier to an idea for which no evidence of success exists.

Of the handful of dedicated transit tweeters in town, most of them appear downright furious about the proposal. Julio suggests that ART might be a worthy idea, but that rail is probably a better bet for Austin’s most-trafficked corridors:

If the promise of ART is used by CapMetro and Austin elected officials to secure better amenities and right-of-way for corridors that are a good long-term fit for conventional BRT, then the ART concept will enhance the productivity of transit system when it eventually arrives. However, if ART is used to preclude light rail in corridors that can benefits from rail’s operational efficiency at scale, then the ART concept runs a substantial risk of permanently undermining CapMetro’s system-wide productivity.

 

What local pols are saying about Kavanaugh hearing

Most city/county elected officials and candidates haven’t been saying much online about the Kavanaugh hearing. But there are some exceptions.

Mayoral candidates:

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Council Member Leslie Pool:

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Council Member Kathie Tovo (District 9):

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District 9 Candidate Danielle Skidmore:

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District 8 candidate Bobby Levinski:

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District 8 candidate Paige Ellis didn’t explicitly reference the hearing, but it’s hard to ignore the context of the hearing in this FB update:

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Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez:

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County Commissioner Brigid Shea had some thoughts on Kavanaugh. And she retweeted these thoughts about Lindsey Graham:

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Update: This post has been updated to include Kathie Tovo’s comment, which I missed at first.