A Former Public Transit Whore Gets Religion

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

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I used to be such a mass transit whore. I had this post-'60s idea that cars and highways are bad, which they are, so that must mean trains are good. I examine that reasoning now, and I think, "So if smoking crack is bad, does that mean meth is good?"

Two days ago I had the pleasure of talking to Joe Nick Patoski, famous author and former Texas Monthly writer, in town working on a book about the meaning of life (can't tell you more, spoiler alert, but, man, did I ever have it wrong), and we talked about South Congress.

South Congress is the oh-so-cool area of Austin across the river from downtown where seedy old motels have been repurposed into expensive hip redone seedy old motels. It's very cool. My wife makes us stay there. I always wish we could stay across the river in downtown, where the big tall fancy hotels cost half as much, but there you have it. Why let me decide?

Patoski, who has written about South Congress, told me something fascinating -- that the salvation and reclamation of South Congress began when small business owners banded together to defeat a light rail line. He said their reasoning was: The transit agency will come in here, tear up the street for two years so we can't do business, and then, if we do survive, the values and the taxes and the rents will go up so high we'll all get put out of business anyway.

Yeah. So what's good about that? They defeated rail and built a really cool organically developed neighborhood and community in exactly the kind of terrain where big public works projects typically destroy everything in their paths.

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Patoski and Schutze, together for the first time
Isn't it more realistic to look at light rail and just see one more big public works boondoggle coming at your neighborhood like a herd of flying pigs to screw up your life, pick your pocket and then blow town with the boodle?

To which I would add: Then you'll have a huge fat transit regional agency, responsive to no one, run by a board of anonymous hacks, bandits and morons who are totally sold out to the construction lobby. By the time they're done spreading the money around, it'll cost the tax payers about 10 bucks every time a passenger steps on a train. And the train line alignments will be so screwed up and gerrymandered that light rail will accomplish nothing, nada, zip in terms of encouraging smarter development patterns.

And the payoff, again, is what?

There's a guy named Bill Ceverha around town, a former six-term legislator who was involved in an anti-DART group called SMART in the late '80s, about whom I have said a lot of unpleasant things over the years. But he had a critique of DART on The Dallas Morning News op-ed page not long ago that raised what now seem to me like some very salient and challenging questions -- among them, why has DART's budget and staffing increased hugely while ridership is stagnant?

Oh, no. Am I going to have to put Ceverha on my apology debt list too? I'm thinking I may have to do some kind of apology bankruptcy thing and renegotiate.


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46 comments
BTS
BTS

I guess the defeat of light Rail was good for a small strip of stores in Austin, but what about the rest of the town. I know the area well there in Austin. Dart didn't tear up much putting in the light rail here because of following existing railroad right of ways. That may have not been the best way of getting to where the riders are, but it was the affordable way. Dallas like many other cities, are where the population spread out because of cheap gas made it possible to do. Without cheap gas the suburbs don't make much sense. Trains running out to the suburbs keep them viable as gas prices increase. As far as DART's management is concern, Jim your absolutely right.

Bobcrowley
Bobcrowley

Oltorf at Congress was the center of my universe for many years. I'd pedal down Congress at 3:00 AM to get to work, then at noon put the bike on the front of the bus and ride back up the hill. Unfortunately, I had to leave. The house I paid $94k for in '94 is now appraised at $350k. I can't afford the taxes. Joe-Nick is right about one thing. Light rail would have wiped out the free street parking. They already took away the free lots at City Coliseum. But on South Congress, the Richard Jones barbecue is gone. The Walgreens left, along with the Radio Shack. It's changing and yuppifying, rail or no.

Sanders Kaufman
Sanders Kaufman

The problem isn't public transit - that's still a good thing.The problem is corruption.

Getting rid of public transportation, education or healthcare won't fix the corruption.It just passes the cost down to those least responsible for it, and least able to pay for it.

Bigjondaniel
Bigjondaniel

I love Austin. But the town is full of people who will tell you it was better 10 years ago (no matter when you are there) and full of people who love it when business owners work hard to build their businesses then bitch about them being too crowded

space2k
space2k

Transit! It's not always good! Of course, it's also not ALWAYS bad!

"Isn't it more realistic to look at light rail and just see one more big public works boondoggle...?" No, it's just more simplistic.

PS: I liked South Congress better when they still had "Just Guns" and flophouses anyway.

scottindallas
scottindallas

I'm not against cars as someone noted, they have an important role. I'm not for forcing streetcars where they aren't/weren't indigenous--the pre WW2 neighborhoods that used to enjoy greater density than they do today. Sometime back, some appraisers/market analysts reported that 20-35% of the population would like the dense urban experience. Yet, we have less than 5% of our housing stock that could be said to fit that description. It makes sense to in-fill and support gentrification and urbanization. I don't like the way we do it. Frankly, mass transit is cheap compared to some of the TIFs that go to private firms to encourage them to move into the CBD. Finally, I agree with the comments that the demand for mass transit will grow into the future. Gas prices, increased demand to live in the CBD, integration of Mass transit and entertainment/dining will further add to it. The Green line seems quite empty up along North 35E, but the Red and Blue lines were similarly under utilized, where now they are pretty busy all the time.

Anon
Anon

Wait, so nothing is perfect? Oh, wow, what a revelation.

richard schumacher
richard schumacher

Bloated bureaucracies, check. As for the rest, let's check back in five years after gas has gone permanently north of $6 per gallon.

Do people really enjoy spending an hour and more per day commuting in cars? And all that sitting shortens our lives.

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

I'm for monorails. It worked for Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

Rixtex
Rixtex

Too bad I cancelled my subscription to the Morning Snooze years ago. I don't want to breach the paywall for someone's opinion. Hard news, maybe, but opinion? Especially when I can Jim's for free.

elbueno
elbueno

I use the rail to get to work from my home in Oak Cliff. Its highly effective.

It will be an indispensable asset in the next 25-30 years. As Patrick Kennedy puts it, the city just doesn't have the right bones for it yet.

Also, Austin is aching for public transit solutions. Their light rail model is currently as worthless as it gets. DART is FAR more efficient than MetroRail and will be for a very long time.

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

JS, as fossilized as you sometimes represent yourself to be, I think you're actually commendably open minded. And I've had my mind opened by a great number of things you've written. But as Scott points out, you're really not arguing against mass transit, just against the incredibly corrupt and inefficient way we've chosen to do it.

For your next open mindedness project, may I suggest that you reexamine your first premise that cars are bad. Really? The mode of transportation that allowed Americans to determine on a family by family basis where they would live and work and which everyone still prefers is bad? There better be a mountain of proof to counter the idea that we're all wrong and have been for 100 years. I propose that cars are good and getting better all the time. Their progress on emissions still doesn't meet your standards? Electrics are coming (here already if you count the tax subsidized snooze mobiles; I don't). Hate traffic? Let's spend mass transit money on roads. Have nowhere to be at any particular time? Fine, you can ride a bus.

The success of mass transit is always and everywhere a function of density - the kind of density we don't have in Dallas and are not expecting within my lifetime. No matter how many of its planners we hire, Dallas is just not going to become Portland.

Bezoulou
Bezoulou

So what's the solution? Is it impossible to have responsible growth when it comes to mass transit? Surely not every bit of rail sunders a neighborhood.

JimS
JimS

I still like trolleys. And, uh, Daniel, are you suggesting that our symphony and museum add up to our having a more vibrant cultural life than Austin? Did you pay any attention to the recent SXSW, in which Austin reasserted its international cultural presence on a level with L.A. and Chicago? Do you really think we are ahead of Austin?

Trey
Trey

Wind beneath my wings, JS.

Daniel
Daniel

They don't have a decent museum in Austin either, or a symphony. Dallas should demolish the DMA and send the orchestra packing. QED

Andy Nold
Andy Nold

Quick, someone get Jim some Kool-aid. He seems to be out.

scottindallas
scottindallas

these arguments are less fitting to streetcars/trolleys; and to the Dallas example. Dallas' use of existing RR Right Of Ways has minimized the destructive part of your Austin example. Street cars similarly use existing roadways. But, your argument about bloated and compromised bureaucracies is certainly relevant.

Bill Holston
Bill Holston

thanks Jim, very thoughtful post. I was thinking of that area. Mi esposa y mi went to see the Red Hot Patriot play at the Zach Theater in Austin a few weeks back (about Molly Ivins, what a great play).

We walked all over that area around the river. It got me to thinking about the area around the Magnolia Cafe, the food trucks, all the vintage stores. It's always teeming with people.

My favorite watering hole in the city is Meridian Room. That expo park are is the coolest area in Dallas I think. It's right on a rail line, but that seems to do nothing for the businesses really. People like me love the big free parking lot. I love to use mass transit in DC, NYC, San Francisco, Chicago. But it's still darn hard to use here. it's worth revisiting.

busterkeaton
busterkeaton

Same as Dallas...just change "10 years ago" with "10 years from now".

TimCov
TimCov

Do people really enjoy sitting 3-4 hours a day on buses and trains? At least when you are driving a vehicle you are doing something and don't have to deal with the smells and nattering of the other commuters.

Montemalone
Montemalone

Max Goldblatt for Mayor. (so what if he's dead, could he do a worse job than the current one?)

elbueno
elbueno

Cars are not bad, neither is mass transit. Transportation must be multimodal to be effective. Bikes, rail, cars, pedestrians...

Austin is a perfect model for this argument. The city has outgrown itself and has no mass transit solution. Traffic is literally the worst in the country.

New roads are not the solution. The only thing new roads do for traffic is create more traffic.

Think of trying to stop a bleeding wound by creating a new one...

JimS
JimS

Heavy rail, subways, small dense clusters, create a zone where people can live, work, and not have to turn the ignition on in their cars once during the work week.

Daniel
Daniel

Of course I don't think that. We are way, way ahead of Austin in what's known as "cultural amenities." That's sort of an on-paper thing, as just about anybody would acknowledge. We are certainly, and probably terminally, behind them in cultural vibrance. (Hell, you can't even sell a vibrator here without you get that dreaded knock at the door from the vice squad. Trust me.)

And, uh, are you really suggesting that that the defeat of a light-rail referendum sparked a cultural renaissance in Austin?

scottindallas
scottindallas

It needs streetcar lines to take the transit into the neighborhoods.

Jim
Jim

Wow, busterkeaton. Well done. I don't think that distinction is going to leave my vocabulary for a very, very long time. There's this city -- in four words.

anon
anon

You're right, because I can't put on mu makeup, or shave, or read the paper, or play around with facebook, or check stock quotes, or read a book on mass transit. Two hands on a wheel listening to am radio is "doing something"?

elbueno
elbueno

I take the train about twice a week. I bike to the station and then spend 20 minutes on the train. I can read. I can stare off into space. I can listen to music. There is a whole lot of freedom that I don't have when driving. In fact, when I drive, I damn near fall asleep by the time I've reached my office. The only benefit to driving is the convenience of being able to leave when I want to.

Its much more rewarding and relaxing for me to do the bike-rail commute. Even better is bike alone. But we don't have showers so that makes it hard to do.

Scottie
Scottie

We're twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville! Just tell us your idea, and we'll vote for it!

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

I can get on board with multimodal, but the scholarship on traffic supports the obvious idea that more and better roads reduce congestion.

And your point about Austin is still right, but it applies to roads, too. Austin is 30 years behind the curve on road building in addition to the lack of other modes you mention.

md
md

That's called your house. Do you work from home? You could. Even if you lived in Frisco.

JimS
JimS

Light rail was hijacked by the 'burbs and is now used as a super-expensive bauble used to promote sprawl --the exact contrary of what rail should be.

jleonwright
jleonwright

Streetcars are expensive, they need entire roads to be dug up to build tracks, and they can't be adopted to changes in the city. They're also expensive to maintain. I'm all for mass transport, but the streetcar movement needs to quit fawning over Portland. There are other forms of transport, like trolleybuses, which are used in Athens, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Bejing, and Vancouver. They're much more cost effective for a broke city. While we're at it, regular buses are more cost effective, but they're not very cool, I know. Neither am I, and I'm sick of hearing about expensive streetcars being the answer for anything.

TimCov
TimCov

I remember when I had no choice but ride DART. I was taking DART rail from near Meadow to downtown then switching to an "express" bus from there to Carrollton (I imagine it is a bit better now with rail to Carrollton). One way was 1.5 hours if the traffic was good. I rarely got to read because other people taking DART seem to automatically assume that if you are reading you must want to talk to someone, and quite a few people could do with more bathing and less perfume/cologne. Once I got a car, my commute went down to 20 (45 if traffic was at its worst) minutes. Until DART realizes not everyone needs to go downtown, it will never be a good option for me.

JimS
JimS

You are allowing yourself to be a victim of odorism.

pezhuevon
pezhuevon

You cannot be more wrong on the literature. More roads do not always reduce congestion. Neither are they the most cost-effective way to reduce congestion. The literature CONSISTENTLY shows that you get more congestion reducing bang-for-your-buck through:1 - reducing trips (duh, if you don't have to make the drive, you aren't in the congestion)2 - better use of roads (variable tolls, busses, etc)

Don't get me wrong, I love cars. BUT, I would rather live closer to work than have to drive 75 or LBJ every day!

elbueno
elbueno

Thats exactly right. They don't have the space to build highways.

scottindallas
scottindallas

You say they're 30 years behind, perhaps this isn't disagreeing, but the natural topography and admirable restrictions on development of sensitive aquifer recharge zones seriously limits how Austin can develop. I HATE driving in Austin.

cp
cp

Not true. There's a video at MATA's little library called "The Streetcars That Built Our Cities". Check it out. In Dallas, the streetcars built our very first suburb, Highland Park. They were used to get people OUT of the dense city and into a suburban home miles away. Streetcars is most cities heralded sprawl; cars only enhanced sprawl.

md
md

Ever notice how the people who were around when streetcars existed haven't clamored for them to return? They outgrew them. They made sense when people had one income, one car, a big family and lived closed to town. Now they're just an expensive toy.

scottindallas
scottindallas

Hey, I just know what streetcars did for Dallas, before the oil companies paid to rip them up. What "changes" are you talking about? Gaston hasn't changed, Lemmon hasn't changed, Main St. hasn't changed. You exaggerate. We had greater density with streetcars inside of Mockingbird Ln. in 1945 than we do today.

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