Like many Austin residents, I'm quite familiar with our city's alternative transportation system. I cross the rails at MLK or Manor Road or 45th Street - often several times a day. However, I'm always in my car. But a full day of presentations at the Austin Convention Center provided the perfect opportunity to test the train. I've posted my thougths on Austin's transit system in a previous blog
and it was time for an update. I decided to give MetroRail
The day before, I brought the car and parked in the Convention Center garage. It isn't the nicest, and it's several blocks from the Center. And I shelled out twelve bucks for my car to sit in a garage all day. It was time to ride the train.
The closest station is at MLK, just west of Airport Blvd. It was easy enough to pull up the schedule online. The trains ran on roughly 30 minute intervals, and there were several I could take in order to arrive before the start of my first meeting at 8am.
I saw three options for getting to the train - I could take a 20-minute walk from the house. This necessitated walking across Airport Blvd at rush hour; not a very desirable prospect. I could have my wife drop me off on her regular commute. But she leaves so early I'd have to take the first train and wait for an hour-plus once I got downtown. I opted for a short drive to the station and hoped for some on-street parking nearby.
I left home with enough time to make the 7:14 train. But I hadn't planned on the MLK and Airport Blvd intersection. I got stuck at a long light with three lanes of car commuters coming in from the suburbs. By the time I got through the intersection, I could see the crossing gates were down in front of us. The train was arriving and I was stuck on the wrong side. When the crossing gates rose, the train was pulling out of the station.
Oh well, at least I'd have plenty of time to find parking. As it turns out, the adjacent streets offer a fair amount of free parking. Perhaps these spaces will fill up in time, but for now, it looks like only a few people had the same idea. I pulled behind two cars already parked at the curb.
I walked over to the platform, crossing the tracks as I did so. The signage was pretty clear, I could see the 7:44 to Downtown was on time. I picked up a flyer with information on the trains, and a printed schedule. I looked for the ticket machine, but only saw one for validating tickets. I don't know why you can't buy a ticket on the platform. I finally located the machines back at the street. So I re-crossed the rail tracks to get my ticket.
The ticket machine looked daunting, with lots of options on display. But the screen said "Press any button to get started." By following the prompts on the screen, the transaction was actually pretty simple. All I needed was to insert my dollar and I had a ticket with a note that it was already validated.
The entire time I rode the train, I never saw anyone ask for or check for tickets. I guess someone could jump on without a ticket and no one would ever know.
I still had ten minutes more to wait. The platform was empty, but well-lit. I sat on a comfortable chair and in no time, four or five more riders appeared on the platform, including a young man wheeling his bike. A recorded voice announced the arrival of the downtown train and chiming bells warned us as the vehicle pulled up to the platform.
The MetroRail cars are impressive. The interiors are clean, bright and inviting. There were seats available, though several riders were standing, including several with bikes. I settled into a very comfortable seat and enjoyed picture-window views of some very nice streetscapes of new buildings and older neighborhoods.
The downtown rail stop is adjacent to the Convention Center. We arrived on time and I had plenty of time to get settled into my first session of the day.
The ride home was even more impressive. The ticket machines downtown are closer to the platform. The train arrived early so everyone on the platform took their seats in the comfortable cars while waiting for the 5:26 departure.
My best memory of the day was the view out the window within a minute of departure. I was leaving downtown Austin during rush hour on a Friday afternoon. As we crossed I-35, I could see complete gridlock. All the cars in both directions on the highway were barely moving. Looking towards 7th street, I could see that all the side streets were packed. No one was leaving downtown quickly -- except us. The train gained speed and whisked past the gridlocked cars. The MetroRail, on Friday afternoon at least, trumped all other modes of transportation.
Imagine a world without any gas stations - none on the roadway, none in the neighborhood. Imagine a stoplight with waiting cars and no smell or fumes. Imagine a busy street without the rumble of engine noise. Don't just imagine these things, get ready for them. Electric cars are coming and there are big implications. Avoiding the high cost of gasoline is just the beginning. The electric car implications are big. This revolution will have a lasting impact on the built environment.
A remarkable documentary on electric cars aired recently on PBS. It inspired me to take an electric car for a test drive. A collection from Ford was on display at the Mueller development, giving neighbors an up-close look and feel for the car of the future. I can't claim I'm a car expert, but the drive in the electric Ford Focus
Watch It's Baaaaack! on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.
The best thing about the electric was that in every way it was just like a gas-powered vehicle. The pick-up and responsiveness was sharp and immediate. The car handled beautifully. I could honestly say that if I got behind the wheel without knowing the Focus was electric, I would have no idea there was any difference. Well, I might have sensed that there was no obvious gear shifting, or missed the engine rumble, but that's not generally noticeable anyway in a high-end car.
OK, there will be some trade-offs for embracing electric cars at this time. The range does have limits. The Ford people suggest 75 miles before the next charge. The Nissan Leaf
, a smaller vehicle, boasts a range of 100 miles. While range limits sound scary, the vast majority of car trips are for short distances. How worried are we about jumping in the old gas-guzzler with less than a quarter tank? Over time, better batteries and a proliferation of charging options should make the range constraint go away. As will the cost premium. The technology is quickly becoming more available, and already costs are coming down.
So I drove what I can easily say is a great car, electric or otherwise, and imagined the implications. Why do we need gas stations? I imagined plugging in at the grocery store for a long-ish charge, or at the dry cleaners for a quick one. We could skip the truck stops on our cross-country treks and recharge both car and driver at a rest stop or coffee shop. I thought of all the residential neighborhoods near highways that need sound screening and barrier walls to dampen the noise. Maybe the walls could be replaced by trees and bushes.
I imagined crosswalks near busy streets without the heat and fumes of idling engines. And I began thinking of the best way to feed a charging station in our driveway. It really isn't too difficult, the drive is close enough to the house to just add a receptacle in the wall.
An electric motor needs fewer repairs, and should run much longer than its gas-powered equivalent. So what should be done with all those garages? And the gas stations, what about those? Well, once the old storage tanks are removed, we should have an adaptable structure, ready for retrofit. As an architect, I have begun to imagine all kinds of incredible people spaces made out of those old car spaces. In four or five years, who knows how many other ways the electric car will hasten environmental change?
It's not a scientific study, but the best way to find out whether alternative transportation is worth using is to try it. My car was in the shop this morning. Instead of asking a colleague, or the courtesy car for a free ride (still the best alternative if it is available), I decided to make use of the newest and highly promoted alternatives - MetroRail, Austin's light rail, and the Car2Go program. In previous posts I documented my frustrations with the Car2Go sharing system, but I was willing to have another try.
The result of my morning experiment is surprisingly positive. The rail stop happens to be a few blocks from the shop, so in the waiting room, I easily consulted the schedule on line. Darn, I had just missed the stop. Not to worry, the train frequency is now greatly expanded, another was due in 20 minutes. This gave me just enough time to grab a breakfast sandwich and stroll over to buy my ticket.
For a one-dollar fare, MetroRail was a delight. A number of passengers were in the car, but there was plenty of room. The crisp interiors were bright and comfortable. One rider brought his bike, which hung easily on the rack by the door. The stop closest to the office is still too long to walk on a hot day. I made arrangements for a colleague to pick me up at the exact time of the scheduled arrival. In minutes, we were back at work.
I had noticed a Car2Go vehicle parked near the office yesterday. When the repair shop called to tell me they were done, I strolled up the block to find it. The last driver had thoughtfully parked under a tree, mindful of the shade. I pulled out my card to place it on the windshield reader and saw a new sticker right above the reader. Car2Go reminds you to only use the BLUE card (see my previous post).
The blue card and the reader liked each other this time (see my other Car2Go post), so the car opened promptly. I remembered how impressed I had been when I drove the previous Car2Go. This time was even better. These cars may be small on the outside, but they have roomy interiors. I appreciated the generous headroom and legroom. The car felt very solid on the road. The semi-manual shift felt a little awkward, but I quickly got used to it. I even found KUT, my favorite radio station, on the touchpad screen.
When I got to the shop, I made sure I parked as instructed in a legal space on the street. There was a small spot open in a long row of cars that looked about the right size. Parallel parking was a breeze, and the car is so small that I probably could have fit two cars. I made sure to pass on the favor extended to me. I backed the car far enough to fit completely under the shade tree.
My alternative transportation experience was terrific. Both transportation modes, the rail and the shared car, worked flawlessly. But most of all, the quality of the ride and the overall experience was comparable to my expectations as a car owner. In Austin, alternative transportation has definitely matured. For my needs, it has become a credible choice that I will use at least occasionally or when my primary car is not available.
Transportation has a huge impact on our built environment. Have you tried any alternatives to the single-passenger car? Have they been as positive? We'd love to hear any thoughts or observations.
In a previous post, I documented my frustration when I tried to use the innovative Car2Go program. Within hours of that post, a representative of Car2Go had me on the phone and arranged to deliver a new card within 24 hours. Wow!
So, as I mentioned previously, I'm impressed with the concept of Car2Go, and I'm also impressed with the customer service. Last week, I had a new opportunity to test Car2Go, and even the car impressed me. But the access technology once again proved flawed. I remain frustrated with Car2Go. I'll keep trying, but right now, I can't recommend it as a reliable alternative transportation.
But first, the good experience. With my regular car in for a scheduled part replacement, I looked up the location of several available cars within a short walk of the garage. Once again, the vehicle was easy to find. This time, I placed my BLUE card on the windshield card reader and within seconds the signal was confirmed and the doors unlocked.
The semi-manual transmission took a bit longer to figure out. But it worked smoothly once I understood what to do. I breezed back to the office and proudly pulled up to the front door. I made sure to photograph the event, my first Car2Go drive!
I could have parked in the office lot, and kept the car until I wanted to drive it again. But that would keep the meter going and I didn't know how long I'd be waiting. It could be hours. So as instructed, I parked on the street and followed the simple screen instructions to end the rental.
Later in the day, I was ready to go back to my garage. I was just a bit late for "my" Car2Go vehicle. I stopped to discuss a pressing issue with Eric and we both watched through the window as someone else walked up to the car, got in, and drove off.
But hey, that's the beauty of Car2Go. Everyone shares. So I pulled up my i-phone app and looked for another vehicle. There was one, just one a few blocks away. In ten minutes I was once again placing my card on the windshield reader, ready to start my rental.
The BLUE card triggered the initial response - a text said the signal had been sent for confirmation. But the confirmation never came. After a long wait, a new text appeared on the screen. "No Signal." The note apologized but said the car was temporarily unavailable. But then the screen went right back to the "Vehicle Available" screen.
Which was it? Could I rent the car or not? A helpful 800 number rep found the car, found my account, and said it should be available. I repeated the same action over and over for 15 to 20 minutes. A long check for "confirmation", a short note of "no signal", then back to "vehicle available." The rep even asked her supervisor, but they'd never heard of anything like my problem. Their data showed a car that was ready to rent, but there was no way for them to open or access the car for me. They suggested I call the local office.
At the Austin office, a nice woman went through all the issues again, but couldn't help me. Long wait, no signal, no car, no unlocking to start the rental.
She offered to help me find another car nearby, but sadly, there were no other cars. At the time, that car was, in fact, the only one for miles. I got off the line with Car2Go, and made another call as I headed back to the office. It was time for me to use a more reliable form of transportation. "Hey, can I bum a ride?"
As architects, we're concerned about all aspects of the built environment, and that includes transportation. Here's my first encounter with an innovative idea - Car2Go.
Austin is one of three cities to have a first try at the car of the future. No, it's not the rocket inspired sedans or the sporty muscle cars we all imagined as kids. The car of the future is all about technology, efficiency and economy. But, as I discovered today, it is still subject to some very low-tech and bureaucratic problems.
1950's Car of the Future (Motor Trend)
With my conventional car in the shop this morning, I was a prime candidate for the Car2Go program. Think of all the cars sitting un-used, parked on the street or in lots. What if another driver could use that car when the first driver doesn't need it? And what if that driver only paid for the car during the time they he or she used it? That's the idea behind Car2Go. I see the vehicles all over Austin, and I'm sold on the concept.
I'd signed up at the end of last year. I got a card and was shown how to place it on the windshield of an available car to start the rental. The high-tech part of the program is also pretty cool. This morning, I fired up the Car2Go app on my I-phone and located the nearest car, approximately an eight-minute walk away.
I slung my computer bag over my shoulder and set off on a hike to find the car of the future. I found the vehicle easily, but the car wouldn't cooperate. When I signed up, I'd been given a plastic card to use for each rental. But no amount of holding or sliding or flipping my card would unlock the doors. I even looked at the handy pictures on my I-phone to verify I was doing it correctly. OK, the future may have a technical glitch. I called customer service.
The voice on the phone confirmed my identity and confirmed that we had an active account. I gave him the license plate number and he located the car, confirming it was available. "Well, it says the battery is very low, so maybe that's why it won't open." He suggested I find another car and identified one a block away.
So I trooped to the second car. Still no response. A different customer service rep went through the same routine, and noted that this car was available and should work. I asked whether people ever had problems with their cards. "No," he said, "it should be working."
Then he asked me what was the color of my card. "Well, it's blue and white, just like the pictures on the instructions."
"Is it mostly blue?" he asked.
"No, it's mostly white, just like the picture."
"Oh, you have an old card. You should have gotten a new one in the mail. The old one's don't work anymore, only the new cards work."
Well, I didn't get a new, blue card in the mail. We verified that my mailing address was correct. The customer service promised to mail a new on immediately.
"So can I rent the car?" I asked.
"Not without the blue card."
I gave up on the Car2Go this morning. I called my office and used a very old way of getting cheap transportation - I bummed a ride.
"Hey, can you guys come pick me up?"