Highland Score

The inclusion of the Highland sub-corridor in Project Connect’s (PC) initial recommendation to the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) made me curious about it.

After examining the released data and documentation, it is clear that Highland’s score is the result of speculative assumptions about the nature of development in the sub-corridor. This has implications both for CCAG and Council as they debate which sub-corridors are worthy of further study.

Now let’s turn to the data.

hs_overview

For those not closely following the PC recommendation, it utilized a set of synthesized indices to differentiate the sub-corridors. The main index had a set of ‘problems’ it covered and each sub-corridor got a set of points for that problem. As the chart above illustrates, Highland got the bulk of its problem-level points in two problem areas: (1) ‘Constraints & Growth’ and (2) ‘System’.

If we delve into these and examine the criteria-level scoring, we find that Highland accumulated its criteria-level points lead over Lamar in just one  index.

hs_criteria_level

So, what exactly is in the Growth Index? It is outlined below in a screenshot from the released PC documents.

hs_growth_index

The use of both population and employment density growth projections is problematic.  It is unclear from the released documentation if the PC team scored either the rate (“32% growth from the 2010 base”) or the count (“1377 more people per square mile than in 2010″) of density growth.  Either way, this leads to points being scored by a metric that is tangential to transit success.

The actual density of population and employment is relevant as it is a proxy for demand.  The rate of growth might be relevant as a way of anticipating future growth past 2030. But that is such a noisy projection (it’s actually projection built on top of a projection based on a subjectively compiled allocation of growth!) that it is not useful in this type of decision-making. If we exclude the problematic density growth estimates, the chart below reveals what the sub-corridor density data looks like.

hs_sc_density Remember that the Project Connect staff chose to remove West Campus from the Lamar sub-corridor as a way of indicating that ‘the University would be served as part of the Core’. That choice, however, obscures that a real-world Lamar alignment would serve high density West Campus.  Even with that suspicion-arousing omission, Lamar is still presently competitive with both Highland and Mueller on population density and dominates on employment density.

It turns out that the estimate of the 2030 population density is where Highland really earns its points both because of the expected growth in density and the double-counting-like nature of the growth rate points criticized above.  So, why does Highland grow so quickly? Well, this is where things get interesting and quite murky.

The demographic allocation methodology begins by looking at the expected CAMPO growth totals across the region’s counties for 2035 and then allocates it across Austin parcels. Each parcel  in the study area is rated on ‘attractiveness’ and placed into a bin of similarly attractive parcels. The precise methodology for the attractiveness calculation is not fully clear as the released explanatory document for the first attractiveness algorithm – there’s a second one subsequent to this one – has some quirky notes in it:

hs_attractiveness_methodology

The total growth from CAMPO projections was then divided into the bins and subsequently allocated to the parcels. The parcels in each bin received growth up to their capacity until the growth increment in the bin was depleted. ‘Capacity’ for 2030 – and this is absolutely key – was determined by the likely maximum household count for the parcel as a result of the rules below:

hs_maxhous_algoFor those not familiar with the zoning jargon, ‘FLUM’ stands for ‘Future Land Use Map'; ‘UPA’ means ‘units per acre'; MU means ‘mixed use’.

That ‘likely maximum’ household count was then multiplied by a household size coefficient that gets smaller as the units per acre increase. For example, a household on a parcel with 45 and over units per acre is expected to have a household size of 1.6.  A household on a parcel with 4 or less units per acre is expected to have a household size of 3.

The bottom-line is that the methodology awards points to larger parcels that are relatively undeveloped and (seemingly?) car-dependent based on an optimistic outlook on future land-use entitlements being granted. It is not a prediction of how parcels will behave in the future given what similarly-zoned parcels have done in the past.  It is not a sophisticated statistical model of what is likely to be that uses historical data to forecast. Instead, it is scoring based on where the methodology-designers would like development to go that uses a proven statistical technique to classify the parcels into different bins based on parcel attributes. The methodology has not been validated, so we don’t know if it actually predicts anything.

The public reasoning presented to CCAG by the PC team for Highland’s score is ‘significant future development’.  Obviously, projects such as the ACC Highland Mall redevelopment and Austin’s evolving medical scene will have an impact on employment and residential density in the sub-corridor.  But it also appears that the methodology selected assigns significant points to the type of parcels available in the sub-corridor.  Needless, to say, the presence of certain types of parcels we’d like to see developed in a sub-corridor does not mean development will happen.  Worse, it doesn’t mean they exist in a contiguous stretch that make sense for a transit route.

The growth index issues are all compounded by the use of a 2030 endpoint.  A long-term end point makes total sense when we write the FTA New Starts application as it will allow us to put down the largest trip and Vehicle Miles Traveled numbers given our continued growth in the future.  The goal in the New Starts application is to put forth the best argument for the selected route.

But when contemplating the actual route selection, we should prioritize the likelihood of success instead of prematurely engaging in gaming of the FTA New Starts application.  Leaning on observable data about development and known patterns about transit ridership is a more solid foundation for successful route selection than a scaffold of rushed projections.

Given Highland’s questionable value, short-term actions for policymakers are clear.  Further discussion of Lamar should restore West Campus within its boundaries. I don’t personally care if they put it on the official map as long as policymakers get an ‘alternative’ map that includes it. Hopefully, Lamar will continue to be evaluated in the next phase of study.  Additionally, more detailed and intelligible documentation around the demographic allocation tool should be released. Both CCAG and Council should begin to scrub the evaluation methodology for high-noise/low-value elements such as the density growth rate elements.  Finally, Council needs to examine what land-use policy in the Highland corridor would actually be needed to actually meet the speculative ‘maximum capacity’ future implied by the demographic allocation methodology.

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10 Responses to Highland Score

  1. These are great points. Additionally, we know that without subsidies, this corridor won’t develop to maximum build out that they hope for. That proof is in research of recent light rail lines put together by the Center for TOD. Ultimately, what matters is proximity to employment as to whether denser transit oriented development will happen.

    http://ctod.org/pdfs/2011R2R.pdf

    If you look at page 60 of the report, you’ll notice that development doesn’t go past the Scaleybark station. This is important because Charlotte has been trying to redevelop Scaleybark parcels they own for a while. But developers won’t seem to bite. The distance from the employment center is an important factor to development. This shows up in Minneapolis as well as in Denver. The rail line extends existing market gravities, but it does not create new ones.

    See also the charts on Page 25, 45, and 64. The development corresponds with proximity to major employment. The major employment is along Guadalupe Lamar.

  2. austinrailnow says:

    Julio — Absolutely superb analysis. Corroborates much of what I also have been saying. We’re definitely on the same page. You’re a lot kinder to Project Connect than I have been,

    In my view, it’s been advantageous to the de facto objective of top PConnect poilicymakers to rely as heavily as they’ve done on these longterm projections. De facto objective: install urban rail in preconceived Mueller & East Riverside alignments to mainly to fulfill political aims, meet commitments to developers, and appease UT admin.

    Two problems with longrange projections, especially in transportation planning: (1) very risky, unpredictable, unreliable, as you point out; (2) highly vulnerable to subjective manipulation, which is also implicit in your comments.

    Let’s keep in mind both the “self-fulfilling prophecy” syndrome and the “Build it & they will come” principle. Wherever urban rail goes, it will undoubtedly attract & stimulate a certain degree of development. However, where it has the greatest ridership potential is where it will attract the strongest development — developers tend to go where the public goes. A line on Guadalupe-Lamar would probably (on the basis of precious analyses) attract well in excess of 30K ridership/day. A Mueller line was forecast to attract 11K/day, and a “Highland” proxy line to Hancock would perhaps attract perhaps 50-60% of that. An ERC line was forecast to attract about 15K/day.

    The proposed “loop” plan (Guadalupe-Lamar plus conversion of eastside Red Line to urban rail plus spur into Mueller) is projected to attract 40K/day.

    As you know, I continue to insist that PConnect’s exercise has NOT been a corridor study — they’ve avoided studying any single de facto actual travel corridor. Instead, it’s been a kind of inventory of specially gerrymandered sectors (portrayed as “sub-corridors”), allowing them lots of room for manipulation such as allocating heavy I-35 traffic to adjacent sectors (including Highland and ERC) and obscuring the actual potential of a bona fide corridor like Guadalupe-Lamar. And, oh yeah … they’ve severed and segmented it to eliminate its viability as an intact corridor.

    A corridor study also needs to consider physical OPPORTUNITY — where are relatively open rights-of-way available that also align with major heavy traffic flow and appropriate adjacent development? Guadalupe-Lamar meets this criterion admirably, with a relatively wide arterial alignment and no necessity for major civil works.

    LHenry

  3. Dan Keshet says:

    Regarding the “large lot” bias, this just popped through my facebook feed: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2013/11/25/the-fool-proof-city.html

    “You take 14-acres and build a Big K, you’ll have a site worth $5.4 million. You take 14-acres and build in the most basic increment of the traditional development pattern, an approach embodied in Jimmy’s pizza, and that same area is worth $48.3 million.”

    The plans for Highland are not Big K or Walmart; the latest large-parcel plans in Austin have all made attempts to use planning to emulate the success of the traditional small-parcel development model. But the ability for large parcels to generate that same kind of productivity is a real question mark, and the idea that it’s /more/ conducive to success runs counter to evidence.

  4. mdahmus says:

    One key point about the uncertainty of future development which I’ve not seen any of you guys make (I’ve made offhand references to it) is that we have no way of telling how many people moving to Mueller are going to work downtown or at UT. (I happen to know a few people living there and can tell you their commuting patterns are for the most part typical for Austin – the high tech people work out in the burbs, unfortunately; the lawyers work downtown).

    So when we let them get away with “5,000 new residents in Mueller” and people hear “5,000 new rail passengers”, remember to discount each figure by the following:

    1. Quite a few of those 5,000 new people will be children and stay-at-home moms.
    2. Quite a few of the commuters will work outside the core.
    3. Quite a few of those who work inside the core will still want to drive.

    The “discount factor” for this speculation against existing bus ridership on either corridor (bus riders are already demonstrating they are leaving the house to go to the core and are willing to take transit) should be huge. But I’m not seeing many make it huge.

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