Austin’s new bus routes appear to be working

The view of my bike on the 803 MetroRapid route.

This is great news that I missed when I was shivering in Northern California the other week. I see that a few transit geeks were tweeting about it a week ago, but I haven’t seen any account of it in the media.

Anyway, the June ridership figures for Cap Metro are in and they suggest that the agency’s new routes (Cap ReMap) are having the desired effect: MORE PEOPLE ARE RIDING THE BUS!

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The crux of the ReMap was increasing the number of frequent routes (where buses come at least every 15 mins) from six to 14.

However, the gain we see in June comes almost entirely from a major increase in ridership on the two MetroRapid routes. Both of those routes were already frequent, but under the ReMap, they became even more frequent.

MetroRapid consists of the 801 and the 803, which began in 2014 and run down Lamar/Guad/Congress. They’re the sexy WiFi-equipped red buses with the sexy (albeit useless) bus shelters. In their first years of operation, they suffered from low ridership due to a number of boneheaded decisions by CapMetro, including charging riders 50¢ more for tickets (and thus forcing people transferring from another route to buy another ticket) and spacing the stops way too far apart.

Cap Metro ditched the higher ticket prices for MetroRapid at the beginning of 2017 and its fortunes began to reverse. In June of 2017, MetroRapid ridership was 37% higher than it was in June of 2016. In August of 2017, Cap Metro sought to further boost MetroRapid ridership by increasing the frequency to every 10 minutes during weekdays (thanks for reminding me, Caleb). Beginning in June, those buses now come at least every 15 minutes on weekends and run until 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Well, whattaya know? If you improve the service, people might just use it.

So what are we to make of the 1% decline in the use of the other routes? Hopefully we start to see those numbers improve, but the 1% decline is already much better than those routes were doing in the previous months. In May, fixed route ridership was down 6.6% from the May ’17. For April, March, February and January ridership was down 6.2%, 9%, 5.3% and 10.7%, respectively.

These figures strike me as pretty encouraging. It’s important to remember that the ReMap didn’t go into effect until June 7, so we have yet to see a full month worth of post-ReMap numbers. In addition, the behavioral change that Cap Metro is hoping to deliver through increased frequency will take time. Not everybody who now lives near to a frequent route is yet aware of it.

Let’s cross our fingers for the July numbers. It will be interesting to see how the new routes fared amidst last month’s godawful heat.

Precinct-by-precinct: How did Trump do in Austin?

I remember in the days and weeks following the 2008 election poring over the county-level results on the New York Times’ interactive election map. It was pretty impressive stuff for the late aughts. It allowed you to compare how each county had voted in the four prior elections (going back to ’92). In Wisconsin, where I lived at the time, Obama carried 60 of its 72 counties, seemingly making a mockery of its status as a “swing state.”  Despite all of the racially-tinged vitriol that had emerged during the campaign (remember Sarah Palin?), the first black major-party nominee performed better than any recent Democratic nominee could have expected. He carried Indiana for Chrissake!

Suffice it to say, I felt less motivation in the days and weeks following the 2016 election to pore over the results. But now that we’re more than 18 months removed from that fateful, sleepless night, I’m prepared to digest the cold, hard truth. Luckily the NYT recently came out with this awesome map of every precinct –– an unprecedented level of analysis.

The good news is that I don’t live in Wisconsin anymore. I live in Texas, where things are actually trending in the right direction. Trump only won the Lone Star State by 9 points, down from Mitt Romney’s 16 point margin in 2012.

The GOP’s decline in Texas is almost entirely due to their loss of ground in the state’s major metro areas. In another post, we’ll take a look at those other cities, but for now let’s focus on Austin. Here’s the precinct-by-precinct map of the election results.

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In 2012, Obama got 60.2% of the vote in Travis County to Romney’s 36.2%. In 2016, Clinton got 65.8% and Trump came away with only 27.1%.

From the looks of it, Trump did not carry one precinct that was wholly located in the city of Austin. One of those two islands of pink that you see in the west is located in West Lake Hills. The other one appears to mostly consist of a bunch of wealthy subdivisions located outside of the city, although I think part of that precinct is located in the city.

The map shows, unsurprisingly, that Clinton performed best in East Austin precincts. She got 90% in three of the largest precincts east of downtown and north of the river, all of which are characterized as majority black/Latino but with a steadily rising population of white gentrifiers.

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, Clinton did not do so well downtown. Only about 3,000 votes were cast in the main downtown precinct (not that many people live there), but Trump came away with 26% of that vote.

I’m sure that Trump did not do nearly as well as Romney did in the wealthiest West Austin neighborhoods (Tarrytown, Old West Austin etc), but there were still enough country club Republicans to keep the precincts only light blue. It was a tight race in West Lake.

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The Central Austin neighborhoods both north and south of the river were solidly Democratic; Hillary carried more than 80 percent in most of them. As you get out closer to the edges of town, things start to get lighter blue.

Correction: This post was updated to correct an embarrassing typo in the headline. Thank you to Chronicle reporter Michael King for suggesting that I correct my headline. Thank you to Bill Childs for helping me understand what King was talking about. 

The problem with Austin’s runoff elections

The Austin City Council is a far more democratic institution now than it was four years ago. Not only are there members who represent individual, geographic districts, but the members compete in November elections, which generate far greater participation than the low-turnout May elections of the bad old days.

However, the benefit of the increased participation goes out the window if an election is forced to a December runoff. That happens whenever no candidate garners more than 50% of the vote in the first round. In the 2014 elections, nine of the 11 Council races (including the mayoral race) were determined by December runoffs where the voter turnout was significantly lower than in the November election.

In theory, runoff elections make elections more democratic. First, they ensure that whoever wins has actually won a majority of the electorate. That’s in contrast to the “first-past-the-post” system in most federal or state elections, where a candidate can win with a simple plurality (the abominable Electoral College is a separate issue). For instance, right now in Wisconsin there are a billion candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor; the eventual victor could triumph with as little as 20% of the vote. Second, runoffs are supposed to encourage more long-shot candidates to run and more voters to support them. You can vote for Nader in the first round and Gore in the runoff.

But in practice, runoffs lead to less democratic outcomes, simply because the turnout in December elections is so low. The 2016 election for District 10 was the perfect example. Incumbent Council Member Sheri Gallo won 48 percent of the 36,434 people who turned out to vote on Election Day, far ahead of top challenger Alison Alter, who finished in second with 35.5 percent. However, in the head-to-head runoff on Dec. 13, Alter won 64 percent of the 14,757 people who showed up.

Runoffs almost certainly benefit neighborhood preservationist candidates, who can typically count on a small but dedicated following of older homeowners who are far more likely to vote in low turnout elections than younger and poorer voters.

Similarly, runoffs make it much more likely that Republicans will triumph in Democratic districts. I highly doubt that Frank Ward, a Republican candidate for City Council in Southwest Austin District 8, stands much of a chance to win in a November election amidst what is likely to be a strong Democratic year. But if he gets into a December runoff, which is very likely given the crowded field of liberal candidates he faces, I think there’s a good chance he could prevail.

One has to wonder if preservationists have this dynamic in mind with the recent announcement by Susana Almanza that she will once again challenge her brother, Council Member Pio Renteria, in District 3. Renteria was already facing what appeared to be a strong challenge from James Valadez, who has attracted support from the preservationist crowd. Her candidacy makes it much more likely that the election will go to a runoff, one in which there will be at least one preservationist candidate. Granted, Renteria prevailed relatively easily over Almanza in a 2014 runoff, but I still think her chances are much better in a runoff than a general election, especially given the name recognition that her brother has gained over the past four years.


What did the Austin Chamber offer Amazon?


A photo of Council Member Leslie Pool graces the top of a New York Times article on the hush-hush offers that cities all over the country are making to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to town. Pool is highlighted as one of many local officials who are concerned about the incentives that Chambers of Commerce are offering on behalf of cities behind closed doors. It’s a really bizarre system that I was completely oblivious to until just a few months ago. Says the NYT:

A primary reason for the information blackout is that, in many cases, the bids were handled by local private Chamber of Commerce affiliates or economic development groups that aren’t required to make their negotiations public. Many of the groups are also not covered by Freedom of Information Act or state open-records requests.

I’m not clear on the legalities, but I can’t imagine that the city would be on the hook to provide Amazon incentives unless it was publicly approved by City Council. The mayor said as much back in March.

“The chamber, they do this all the time for businesses big and small,” Adler said. “The chamber continues to have to give advice (to Amazon), but the chamber doesn’t get to make any offers. The City Council can’t authorize any offers without public notice. I think that when it’s appropriate to have those conversations, the city needs to get involved if it reaches that level.”

What is also encouraging is that Adler, who is the only member of Council privy to the offer’s details, has said that the city is not offering financial incentives. But I suppose that depends how one defines “financial incentives.” Adler could be using a relatively narrow definition that refers to property tax exemptions or direct subsidies but that leaves the door open to other indirect subsidies, such as infrastructure projects aimed at serving Amazon or fee waivers that would exempt the company from paying for the thousands of man-hours that city staff will spend reviewing its development.

Whatever Adler and the Chamber offered, however, they hopefully have enough sense to know that they are going to have a very hard time presenting any major giveaway that is supported by the public and Council. Amazon subsidies would generate far greater outrage and opposition than the overblown opposition that doomed CodeNEXT. Opposition would come not just from Pool and others in the anti-density/anti-growth bloc. For instance, in March, Council Member Greg Casar signed onto Richard Florida’s “mutual nonaggression pact” that called on cities to “reject massive subsidies for Amazon.” I can’t think of one Council member, besides Adler, who I would bet good money on supporting it.

Austin may get denser without CodeNEXT


It’s hard not to interpret Mayor Steve Adler’s announced surrender on CodeNEXT as anything but an unmitigated failure for the Council majority’s aspirations of a more compact, connected and integrated community.

On its face, the mayor’s message announcing his idea to abandon CodeNEXT doesn’t make any sense. He bemoans the “misinformation, hyperbole, fear mongering and divisive rhetoric” surrounding the process but then seems to concede victory to the misinformers. He then seems to suggest that by starting a new process, those who torpedoed the previous process won’t be as effective the next time around.

For a national analogy, do you really believe that if Obama had surrendered on Obamacare that there could have been another health care bill that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would have accepted?

Obamacare and CodeNEXT are similar political tragedies. Neither were in fact radical overhauls, but they were cast as such by their opponents, who largely appealed to the fears of older people who have a (relatively) good deal under the current system, be that Medicare or a single-family home in Central Austin.

The key difference, of course, was that Obama actually believed in Obamacare. It’s not clear what Adler believed about CodeNEXT, except that he desperately and naively wanted to achieve a “consensus” that his opponents were not interested in seeking.

In recent weeks I’ve remarked to a number of people that most of the goals of CodeNEXT could have been much more easily realized if the city simply hadn’t made such a big deal out of it. Many of the biggest zoning changes could have simply been achieved through relatively discrete code amendments. The usual cast of neighborhood activists would have come down to oppose them –– just like they opposed the accessory dwelling unit (garage apartment) reform in 2015 –– but there would have been at least 7 votes to approve them.

As for the technical parts of the code –– the stuff that regular people don’t notice or care about –– that could have been overhauled separately and probably with relatively little controversy. In fact, my sense is that it is commonplace when cities overhaul their codes to do the zoning and technical parts separately.

But for some reason we decided to try to swallow the whole elephant in one bite. And by one bite I mean Austin-style, so six years of public engagement/task forces/consultants/boards and commissions. The first draft of the code, which was released in spring of 2017, included many of the principles that the process was supposed to achieve (more housing, compact & connected, blah blah blah). But in response to neighborhood association opposition, the consultants and staff steadily watered down the product in the two subsequent drafts, leaving it up to the Planning Commission and Council to add meaningful reforms.

The problem was, Council, specifically Adler, had already let the process drag on for so long that election season was already underway by the time Council took up CodeNEXT. Adler didn’t want to do anything controversial and Kitchen wanted to make sure that her candidacy remained unopposed.  Renteria, facing a well-funded opponent backed by neighborhood preservationists, may have also been getting a little nervous.

The next problem, of course, was the petition. I’m pretty sure that Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen –– the other moderate when it comes to development –– were not expecting a judge to side with the anti-CodeNEXT folks. And frankly, it’s not clear that their expectation was wrong. But they also put themselves in a box by saying that they wouldn’t appeal a decision if a judge ruled in favor of the petition. Now you have a decision (or lack thereof) that has many legal observers scratching their heads, but Adler and Kitchen don’t want to take another swing at keeping the matter off the ballot.

I think Adler finally decided that his efforts would be better-spent running his re-election campaign alongside the $250 million housing bond that is on the ballot and taking the CodeNEXT issue away from Laura Morrison and preservationist candidates in District 3 and District 8.

What must be monumentally frustrating to Adler, the lawyer, is that he knows that it’s very likely that a judge would have ultimately ruled that CodeNEXT –– at least its zoning portions –– could not be subjected to a citizen initiative. But the process of getting that ruling might have been very painful politically.

From a policy perspective, it makes sense to do a comprehensive code re-write every once in a while. But politically, more discrete routes that do not lend themselves to yard signs and petitions might be more effective at actually accomplishing the goals.

What will kill light rail? Bad rail projects


The Red Line, Cap Metro’s single rail line that travels all the way from Leander to downtown, Austin, has been an unmitigated disaster. Ben Wear explained last fall:

Back when the proposed 32-mile rail line from downtown Austin to Leander was on the ballot in 2004, the agency and the people pushing for MetroRail’s passage emphasized that the project would cost $60 million to build. And this modest investment — in passenger rail terms — would produce, we were assured, 2,000 boardings a day initially, 6,900 a day by 2017 and 16,700 a day by 2025.

…The weekday average boardings between July 2016 and this June was 2,900 a day, most of them commuters making two boardings each day.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that is a smidgen below the original 2017 projection. In fact, it is about 42 percent of the projection. As for the 2025 estimate, well, the calendar does require some prudence. No one knew in 2008, for instance, that the GOP would nominate a New York real estate developer and reality television performer for president eight years later. And that he would win. Anything could happen, I suppose.

The Red Line has gobbled up a stupendous amount of money that could have been invested in far more productive bus routes.

OK, mistakes happen and they can be forgiven. All we ask is that you learn from them. But I’m worried that Cap Metro hasn’t learned its lesson. Exhibit A: the Green Line, a proposed suburban rail line that would run from Manor to downtown, cutting southeast through the eastern crescent of the city. It’s one of a number of projects that Cap Metro is considering as part of Project Connect, the long-term plan for introducing high-capacity transit to the area.

Jay Crossley explains:

Many fewer people live or work near the proposed Green Line stations compared to all other Project Connect proposals. From an estimated cost per rider perspective, it is the worst proposal on the table of all the Project Connect proposals. It has the the most expensive cost per user, coming in at a total cost of $42.31 for every single trip on the main green line proposal and $33.55 for every trip on the proposed 2nd phase extension.

Crossley, mind you, is not anti-rail. There’s one rail project he likes a lot:

Surface light rail along Guadalupe / Lamar is the most fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, coming in at a total of $4.65 a trip. The initial build out of the Green Line is the least fiscally responsible of all proposed investments, both in terms of capital cost per rider and operating and maintenance costs per rider. We won’t get very much bang for any public bucks invested in the Green Line – as it is proposed.

Crossley points out that anti-rail activists have seized on the failures of the Red Line as evidence that rail in general is a boondoggle.

So why would Cap Metro even consider a project that offers so much less promise? Perhaps because the upfront cost would be much lower and it appears to be serving those who are most in need, at least according to the traditional West-East mentality of Austin politics, which has recently been supplemented with a focus on the  “suburbanization of poverty.” Crossley suggests that that has largely been overblown: 85% of families living in poverty in Travis County live in Austin.

According to these estimates, the initial Green line project would be used by only 991 people of color every day, while Guadalupe / Lamar (surface light rail lower-cost version) would be used by 4,965 people of color every day and the higher-cost elevated Guadalupe / Lamar light rail line would be used by an estimated 8,369 people of color every day. The Green Line is expected to serve the least people of color of all the proposals included in Project Connect.

Are there any numbers to suggest that the choice isn’t painfully clear?

What do Council candidates spend on?

When the campaign finance reports come out, the first and most important question is, how much did they raise? But it’s also interesting to take a look at how much the candidates are spending.

The most recent campaign finance reports include all activity during the first six months of the year, meaning there were still four full months of campaigning left (July, August, September October) before the November election.

It’s funny looking at how differently candidates spend money. Some spend generously on food for themselves and their staff/volunteers. Some spend a lot of money on website stuff.

District 9: 

So far the only Council candidate in the city who has spent significantly is Kathie Tovo. She raised $41.5k and spent $25,000 in the first half of the year. About $15,000 of that was spent on consulting from Y Strategies, a firm run by Mykle Tomlinson, a prolific adviser to local Democrats. Ironically, among its portfolio of clients is former Council Member Chris Riley, who Tovo beat in 2014.

Tovo also spent about $3,200 on paid canvassers because she had to collect about 3,000 signatures in order to be allowed to run for a third term (without the signatures it’s a two-term limit).

Tovo’s challenger, Danielle Skidmore, has raised $47k and spent just over $7k. Most of that went to Intrepida Strategies, a consulting firm run by her campaign manager, Alicia Weigel. She also spent about $900 on Wonk Consulting, a firm affiliated with longtime City Hall insider Heidi Gerbracht (former aide to Council Member Bill Spellman, former lobbyist for the Real Estate Council of Austin).

District 3: 

Incumbent CM Pio Renteria raised $26k and has spent $6.1k. Of that, $2,710 went to pay Nic Solarzano, who is still working full-time at City Hall as a staffer, for campaign work. He also paid $350 to Edna Arellano, a city employee, for some campaign work.

James Valadez raised $26k but has thus far only spent $77 on advertising and printing.

District 8: No significant spending yet in District 8. Nobody is spending on staff/consultants yet.

Paige Ellis raised $6,2k and spent $1,4k, including $300 to Brittne Walker for consulting, $550 on Facebook ads and $88 for a meal at Snooze with consultants.

Bobby Levinski raised $26k and spent $1,3k, including $11.37 to Capitol Rubber Stamp for a name badge and $270 for email distribution.

Rich DePalma raised $28k and spent $2,8k, including $322 on campaign collateral.

Frank Ward declared his candidacy the other day, so we have no records of his finances yet.

District 5: 

If anybody wants to run against Ann Kitchen, they need to file before Aug. 20. It’s looking increasingly likely that Kitchen, whose enthusiasm for an excruciatingly slow CodeNEXT process is widely rumored to be driven by her desire to make it to the filing deadline without drawing an anti-CodeNEXT opponent, will indeed be the only name on the ballot in District 5. She has nevertheless raised $32k and spent $5.5k, roughly half of which came from the $2.8k she spent on her campaign kickoff at Matt’s El Rancho in March.

District 1: 

Vince Harding raised $25k and has only spent $1.1k, all of which was on credit card processing fees or something.

Natasha Harding-Madison has raised $10.2k and spent $2.9k, including $500 on t-shirts and $100 on Facebook ads.

Mariana Salazar has raised $7k and spent $2.3k. She spent a whopping $14.36 on Facebook ads and $16.98 on business cards and $214 on “fold cards.”

Lewis Conway raised $5.2k and spent $1.8k, including $41.11 at GameStop for “video game for volunteers to play while relaxing on break at office.” He also has numerous meetings listed at restaurants with consultants (e.g. $6.50 on 2/26 at Burger King) but has not paid any consultants yet.

Reedy Spigner just declared his candidacy the other day and hasn’t filed a report yet.