The mad geniuses at Reddit’s r/SubwaySubway page — a community that, somewhat inexplicably, creates imaginary maps of subway systems for different cities where every Subway sandwich franchise represents a station — have set their sights on Austin. But this time, creator Epicapabilities used the city’s Taco Bell locations, rather than Subway restaurants, to represent the 34 stations of an imaginary metro system covering the transit needs of the Austin area.
Just roll with it, okay? Domino’s is filling potholes now, this is the world we live in. As both a closet Taco Bell fan and occasional dabbler in advanced pedantry, I figured it’d be fun to take the above map completely seriously for a minute. It’s certainly got its fair share of flaws, but the route’s not entirely without merit. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to think about the not-impossible-but-unlikely dream of an Austin subway system — you know, the underground kind!
Here’s my attempt at placing all 34 Austin-area Taco Bell stations from the metro route above into a real-world map for a better understanding of its layout and context:
(Stations where multiple lines converge are represented by the black star markers in the above map. Trust me, it’s much less confusing this way.)
Modern fast food corporations increasingly rely on data-driven approaches to determine the optimal locations for new restaurants, using methods that appear at least superficially similar to those of urban planners designing transportation networks. Both transit stations and Taco Bells are placed, at least in a perfect world, with consideration of their proximity to regions with high foot traffic, major employment hubs, dense residential growth, and demographics amenable to public transportation and/or fast food.
Whether we’re talking about tacos or trains, that amenable demographic is generally of average-to-lower income — but unlike mass transit, fast food locations are often poorly-suited for the densest of urban environments, with higher land values and a lack of space for drive-thrus leading chains to develop upmarket permutations of existing brands for penetrating high-density markets.
This phenomenon is visible in the Taco Bell transit map, with its only truly downtown station — the Grand Central of Austin, it seems — located at the West Campus Taco Bell Cantina, a brand riding the fast-casual wave with shareable appetizers and alcoholic beverages in a trendy space alongside the traditional Taco Bell menu, while also eliminating the drive-thru. Looking further at the map, it’s pretty obvious that its station placement favors access to areas less dense than the central downtown region, with the heavily suburban neighborhoods south of Highway 290 and north of Highway 183 receiving a staggering number of stations compared with the relative few found in the urban core.
Outside of downtown, the most visible absences are located in higher-income central Austin neighborhoods like Barton Hills, Tarrytown, Hyde Park, and Northwest Hills — along with a complete absence of Taco Bells in the 78702 ZIP code of East Austin, with the only eastern locations found in lower-income tracts south of the river and north of MLK Jr. Boulevard. The lack of Taco Bells in affluent West Austin is predictable, though not complete — there’s still one near Rollingwood, for example.
But enough about location. How much would it cost to actually build this thing? Ben Wear, our city’s venerable transit reporter, already kinda did that math back in 2011 when another fun fantasy subway map for Austin made the rounds — this one, though far more logical in its layout, was inferior simply because it didn’t have anything to do with Taco Bell. Wear, stating that the fragmented limestone beneath the Austin area was actually much easier to tunnel through than the solid rock you’ll find somewhere like New York City, concluded that hypothetical subway system would only cost us $400 million per mile — a low figure compared to projects elsewhere, which push the billion-per-mile mark and in some cases blow right past it.
I’m perhaps a little less of an optimist than Wear, especially after getting a big load of how efficiently we constructed the Waller Creek Flood Control Tunnel, so I’ve decided to bump that per-mile number up to $500 million. The rough map I’ve made up there of the Taco Bell Metro route clocks in at something like 120 miles of tunnels, which at my estimated rate rings up to $60 billion — that’s 143 years of Capital Metro’s entire 2018 operating budget, or 372 Waller Creek Tunnels.
However, if Taco Bell is building this thing, the numbers get a little different. In the classic 1993 film Demolition Man, Taco Bell is stated to be the only remaining restaurant in the entire world by the year 2032, after winning the unexplained “Franchise Wars.” In 2017 alone, the U.S. restaurant industry made an estimated $799 billion in sales — and that’s just one country, not even the whole world. With Taco Bell as a monopoly, perhaps even a nationalized state brand, $60 billion for the Austin subway wouldn’t hurt so bad, especially since they already own the land for the stations. We could build one in every city!
Still, until someone with my shared passion for Crunchwrap Supremes and mass transit ascends to an office higher than dogcatcher, we’ll have to deal with the MetroRail Red Line, which manages to include all of the bad things about the Taco Bell Metro’s layout — poor downtown access, too many far-flung stations out in the sprawl, and too few in the central city — with none of the good things, like stations south of the river, a stop at the University of Texas, and trains that run under the ground. Alas.