Affordability Really is Just a Word in the City Budget…

Let me begin this post by talking about Manchaca Rd. Manchaca is my neighborhood’s “main street,” or whatever you call a hellish highway near your house with far too little pedestrian infrastructure. On Google street view, it looks like this:

Screen shot 2015-09-19 at 7.38.33 PM

From the point of view of someone whose son is presumably going to attend Joslin–that school on the right hand side of the picture–in about 5 years, this street has a lot of problems. First of all, the sidewalks are way too narrow, so that you can’t walk two abreast on them. Second, they’re right up against the curb, putting small children trying to get to school dangerously close to traffic that is regularly going 40 – 45 miles an hour. Third, the sidewalk is frequently blocked by vegetation, or it’s incomplete, or there’s a utility pole on it. Fourth, and perhaps most annoyingly, it’s very difficult to cross Manchaca on foot. The traffic moves so fast on it that, even if you think you’ve got plenty of time to get across, you might find a car right on top of you before you make it. There are only four traffic lights on Manchaca between Ben White and Stassney, and two of them change so infrequently that I’ve frequently found myself waiting 3 to 4 minutes at them just to cross the 30 feet or so to the other side of the street.

Manchaca isn’t really unique, of course. It just happens to be the nearest-to-me example of a phenomenon that really is more common than not in Austin’s streets. Many, many, many of our roads would require significant upgrading to make them even a little bit safe for pedestrians, let alone welcoming or inviting to walk on. I’ve heard it said that it would take around $1 billion just to get our city-wide sidewalk deficit up to zero–that is, everywhere that needs sidewalks will have them–or about the same amount as the latest failed rail bond.

So, anyway, as an engaged citizen and Austin Neighborhood Advocate, I started calling 311 on a semi-regular basis to bring up issues relating to pedestrian safety in my neighborhoods. I asked for more safe ways to get across Manchaca, more and better sidewalks, and so on. And every time I’ve managed to talk to someone who works in the relevant city department, I always end up hearing the same refrain: “There’s just no money for that.”

This brings me to a letter from my council member, Ann Kitchen, that was recently posted on NextDoor (among other places). In it, she says the following:

During this year’s budget process “affordability” was more than a word, it was our guiding principle.

Ok. Fair enough. I understand that lots of people have been harmed by Austin’s sky-rocketing housing costs, and I know it was a big issue in the elections last November. So I guess I’m glad that it’s more than a word. A little lower down, though, she says this:

For the owner of the median value home, the city property tax bill decreased by $14. That means, with a limited total fee increase, the total bill from the city will increase by only about $4/month.

Wait, what? A $14 / month savings is taking affordability seriously? It isn’t an increase, so for people on a fixed income who are stressed by rising assessments that’s probably a good thing–but what about everyone else? Those tax savings wouldn’t cover one extra night out at Torchy’s a month; let alone help keep us in our home if we were so tax-burdened that we were thinking of moving out.

And then, what about renters? I suppose it’s at least theoretically possible that landlords paying reduced property taxes* might result in lower rent. But given the 99.9999% occupancy rate (or whatever it is), I think it’s much more likely that landlords would just pocket the extra savings and treat themselves to some ice cream.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who has a $2 million mansion in Tarrytown, these savings start to get pretty substantial. I’m glad we’re helping those people out–I’m sure they’re hurting. Maybe they’ll be able to use their savings to get another boat.

I don’t know enough about the city finances to be able to say exactly how much this tax cut is hurting city services. But, in the face of the massive need to upgrade and improve safety on our city streets (among many, many other pressing needs), I would have preferred it if council had just kept my $14 / month and used it for something important, because clearly they need it more than I do. How about more traffic signals on roads that used to be rural but are now major arteries? Or how about a few feet of sidewalk here and there? Or subsidized affordable housing? Or even better kolaches for city staff in morning meetings?

This ultimately puts me in complete agreement with Kathie Tovo. Given the meagerness of the tax savings for the average Austinite, it’s hard for me to get on board with CM Kitchen’s assertion that this is an accomplishment worth crowing about. If anything, it makes it seem like affordability really was just a word. You know, like a “what we can do so that we can say we did something about affordability?” kind of thing.

Now, if they could just find $60,000 to get another traffic light on Manchaca…


*It’s worth pointing out here that much of the tax savings are coming from an increased homestead exemption, which wouldn’t even apply to renters at all.

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Drunk Driving in Austin – A Basic Thought Experiment

It’s long been clear to me that Austin has a very serious problem with drunk driving. Back when I used to go out to bars a lot, I remember being a little appalled at how frequently everyone I was out with would drive home from the bar, even if they’d had a decent amount to drink. Even if they were falling-down drunk, in some cases. Before I moved here, I’d never known anyone who’d gotten a DUI. After I moved here, well, it’s almost normal. 

One of the things that I’m most interested in as both a human and an educator is why people do things that everyone knows nobody should do. For instance, everyone knows that doing your homework results in good grades; every disorganized student I teach knows that they should be writing their assignments down in their planners and then not losing their planner. And yet, kids who want to do well in school persist in not doing their homework and not writing down their assignments. Life is full of things like this: things that, on their surface, seem like they ought to be easy to do but that hardly anybody ever does with any consistency. I think drunk driving in Austin is one of those things: nobody thinks they ought to be driving drunk, and yet everybody does it. 

To explore why this is, I’d like to begin by making the tenuous assumption that a drunk person who is deciding to drive home is making a fundamentally rational decision. If you’ll bear with me and accept this to be the case, I think that’ll make this whole thing go a lot better. If you’ll accept that conceit, then the decision to drive drunk or not really comes down to a basic equation*. On the one side of the equation, you have the costs and benefits of not driving drunk, and on the other the costs and benefits of driving drunk. If the two sides are unequal, then you’d expect to choose the side that costs the least and benefits the most. So, let’s see if we can start quantifying those two sides, shall we? 

The Costs and Benefits of Not Driving Drunk

I think we can all see pretty clearly the benefits of not driving drunk. You aren’t risking getting a DUI and all that entails. You aren’t risking a catastrophic accident. You’re doing the “right thing.” But what about the costs? 

To start with, let’s look at what is probably the costliest decision to make, which is where you’re already drunk and you decide to leave your car parked on the street downtown while you catch a cab home. First, there’s the cost of the cab, which in Austin usually runs around $45. Of course, this isn’t even close to the real cost of this decision, as you have to factor in the very real risk that if you leave your car parked downtown it will get ticketed and / or towed. Getting towed is a huge pain in the ass for reasons I probably don’t need to go into too much here; but it’s happened a number of times to friends of mine and it generally sucks. You can end up paying around $300 just to get your car back from the tow lot, and this cost doesn’t even include the hassle of getting out there (most lots are on the outskirts of town, and getting there without a car is a huge pain in the ass). 

Now, when it comes to calculating risk you have to include both the estimated cost of the bad thing that could happen and the probability that that bad thing will happen. This will be very important later. I’m not too sure exactly what the probability that my car will be towed if I leave it overnight is, but I would estimate it to be pretty high. Somewhere on the order of 50/50. Which means if we estimate the cost of getting towed at around $300, plus maybe an additional $50 of pain-in-the-ass costs (your time getting to the lot, the paperwork, the gas money you have to give your friend who drove you there, etc.), the real cost of leaving your car downtown overnight probably tops out at around $150. 

If that’s the most expensive option, there are probably a wide range of cheaper options that all involve planning ahead. Let’s say you plan to go downtown to drink, but you don’t want to drive. For about 1% of the people in this city, that’s easy to do because you live downtown and can walk. For everyone else, our options are somewhat more limited. 

Capital Metro does run a Night Owl service on weekends, and while bus fare is insanely cheap in terms of monetary cost ($2.50 round-trip if you’re not on a rapid line), it’s also pretty expensive in terms of time and inconvenience. I don’t know exactly how to put a value on time spent commuting, but I do strongly suspect that the later at night it is and the drunker you are, the more you value getting home quickly and easily. If you estimate that Capital Metro’s nighttime service can take up to an hour to get you home from downtown after the bars close, and that’s even if you happen to be one of the few people who live in a neighborhood that is served by these busses, I start to wonder if it even makes more sense to take the bus than it does to take your chances that you might get towed. If it’s 2:30 am and you’re drunk and tired, would you be willing to pay $150 not to have to wait 30 minutes at a bus stop and then ride another 30 minutes home? It might not be as ridiculous a proposition as it seems. 

I feel like I ought also to mention the countless times when I’ve taken the bus and it’s been late, or the route had changed and nobody posted a notice, or the bus drove right past me as I was waiting at a stop. I’ve often been frustrated at the unreliability of Austin’s bus service, almost to the point where I don’t even consider it as a transportation option. 

All this leads me to what I think is the cheapest non-drunk-driving option, which is simply to take a cab. Cabs are quick, cabs are convenient. They’re also not especially cheap in this town. At my old place in North Austin, it would cost around $40 one-way to get downtown. $80 round trip gets a little pricey–but it’s still less than the $150 I could expect to pay for getting towed, and way less time-intensive (and more reliable) than taking the bus. So, let’s say that, at minimum, the cost on the “don’t drive drunk” side of the equation is $80, minimum. 

So let’s look at the other side, then. 

The Costs and Benefits of Driving Drunk

It’s a little bit hard to say this, but I think there are at least a few benefits to driving home drunk. It’s quick, it’s convenient, your car won’t get towed, and you don’t have to shell out $80 cash just to get around. So that’s the plus side. I would say that it’s ultimately a wash with the risks; but let’s get to that. 

When it comes to the costs, I really think that there are two big things. First, you have the risk that you might get into an accident and either get badly injured yourself or badly injure someone else. Second (and certainly less) you have the risk that you might get a DUI. For the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to lay aside the first cost, mostly due to the fact that I have no idea how to estimate the cost of potentially killing or permanently injuring somebody. It seems like it ought to be astronomically high–but then again, that’s a risk we take whenever we get behind the wheel, drunk or not. 

So let’s look just at the DUI component of this equation. Everybody knows that getting a DUI really, really sucks. There’s the night (or two) in jail. There’s the losing your license for a certain period of time. There’s the costs of the fines and going to court. I read in a paper once that a DUI costs around $15,000, which is a lot–especially when you consider that the median income in Austin is around $40,000. If you make that much money and get a DUI, you’ll be working for almost half the year just to cover that cost. That’s a big deal! 

What I don’t know about that estimate is what they included when making it. Is that just the legal fees? Does that include the cost of picking up your car at the impound lot, and the cost of not being able to drive legally for a few months? What about the pain and suffering you might experience while in jail? I don’t know how much you’d have to pay me to spend 36 hours in jail, but I know I wouldn’t do it for free. 

So lacking truly complete information and in the interests of simplicity, let’s round that $15,000 up to $20,000. That gives us a nice round number to work with. 

If that’s the cost of getting a DUI, then, the next thing to figure out is the probability that that will happen, keeping in mind that we have to multiply the estimated cost of a bad thing happening by the probability that it will happen. I’m sure I could calculate this by looking up arrest records and finding estimates of the numbers of cars on the road–but when calculating perceived costs, it’s almost more interesting to look at the choices people and deduce their perception of risk. As in, we all know that it’s really, really bad if you get a DUI. But how likely do we think it is that, if we’ve been drinking and decide to drive, we’ll get caught? 

To figure that out, let’s look at our equation. I estimate above that the cheapest non-drinking and driving option in terms of money and time is simply to call a cab, which can cost around $80 round-trip. Let’s assume that $80 is greater than the cost of a DUI times the probability that you’ll get one, and see how likely people think they are to get caught when drinking and driving. So, to set up the equation: 

$20,000 * p < $80

… where p is a number between 0 and 1 representing the probability that you’ll get caught drinking and driving. Solve for p, and you get: 

p < .004

What that means is that the perceived probability of getting caught drinking and driving is less than .4%. To put it more simply, the fact that so many people in Austin drive drunk so often tells me that we generally think that we’ll get caught for it less than 1 out of every 250 times we try. Which seems to me to be about right. Comparing the countless thousands of hours I’ve driven with the handful of times I’ve gotten pulled over, it 1 out of every 250 almost starts to seem high. 1 out of 1000 seems more like it. 

If that latter number is correct, it has some pretty profound policy implications for anyone wanting to reduce the frequency with which people in this town drive drunk. There are some folks who think that the penalties for driving drunk should get stiffer–which is another way of saying that the penalties for getting caught should be worse. The problem with that approach, though, is that with a probability of getting caught this minuscule, increasing the penalties really won’t move the needle when it comes to decision making. If the probability of getting caught for driving drunk truly is 1 out of 1,000, it would take penalties totaling around $80,000 just to outweigh the price of a cab both ways, let alone the price of a cab going home plus the cost of leaving your car parked downtown. If the city were to take that approach–namely, make the fines for driving drunk so astronomically high as to overwhelm enforcement problems–then harsher penalties might work. 

But, I honestly think that it would be much easier to change this pattern by trying to work on the other side of the equation. What if, rather than increasing the costs of drinking and driving, we tried to reduce the costs of not drinking and driving? Free overnight parking downtown after 2 am might help alleviate some of the costs of leaving your car parked downtown overnight, for example.

Even better, though, would be improving Austin’s nighttime public transportation options. A public transportation network that leaves vast areas of the city completely unserved is a network that no one will use–and if you ride the bus in Austin you can see that in the ease with which you can find a seat on any line at any time, route 1 excepted. In writing this post, it increasingly occurs to me that that gondola proposal might go a long way towards solving this problem. 

Or, we could also work to make taking a cab cheaper and easier. Maybe Austin should think about de-regulating the cab business and allowing as many cabs as want to to operate within city limits, especially on weekend nights. It might even be worth it to toss in a weekend subsidy, in which the city diverts some of the money it spends on DUI enforcement towards making cabs cheaper for everybody. 

The thing I like the most about focusing more on this side of the equation is it starts to get at solving what I think is the real root of the problem, and the root of so many of Austin’s problems: the car-centric nature of our city plan. The number of people who are harmed by drunk driving is really just a subset of the number of people who are harmed by driving, generally; and I think it’s high time we started actually confronting that problem head on. 

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*Yes, I know I should be calling this an inequality because the two sides aren’t equal, but most of my math students were confused by this distinction and I don’t want to risk muddying those waters.