This post is part of a series on Imagine Austin's priority programs, in light of Austin's current CodeNEXT rewrite process. View the entire series here.
Prior to Imagine Austin, it was clear that this city had a long way to go before it could be considered to be even a little bit "compact and connected." Outside of the few square miles of old Austin, much of this city had been laid out as though it was one massive suburban subdivision—with low-density housing and disconnected streets dominating the landscape.
When Imagine Austin was developed, the idea that our city might be at all compact and connected seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. We’ve gone so far down the road of building a sprawling, disconnected car-based suburb, it’s hard to imagine how to get better. Since 2012, there have been a few really positive developments:
Completion of the Ladybird Lake Boardwalk: The hike and bike trail along Ladybird Lake has long been one of the nicest things about downtown Austin, and filling in the boardwalk has re-connected two sections of this trail that have long been disconnected, turning it into one large, continuous loop around the center of town.
Re-connecting the Grid West of Downtown: With the Seaholm Development and the 2nd Street District, the western part of downtown is on its way to having a connected grid for the first time in decades. Though the bike and pedestrian access along Cesar Chavez west of Lamar could be so, so much better, it has already improved tremendously in the past four years. Once the Seaholm development is completed and West Ave goes all the way through to Cesar Chavez, we can expect that to get even better.
Various Infill Projects: The city’s Compact and Connected team cites several infill projects that demonstrate a significant effort to build compact and connected infrastructure. Either by improving the sidewalk, or building densely close to transit or other amenities, these projects have helped make our city easier to get around.
At the same time, we have a great deal to improve in order to reach the goal of growing as a compact and connected city, where getting around by car isn’t the only option.
First of all, way too much of our city’s growth is occurring in places with no transit, sidewalks, or really any kind of accessibility outside of single occupancy vehicles. From 2000-2010, the population in the most central neighborhoods declined while those neighborhoods on the outskirts essentially exploded—and there’s very little reason to expect that this trend has reversed itself in the last five years.
Additionally, though Austin proper is the fastest-growing big city in Texas, its growth rate is actually being outpaced by growth in San Marcos, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, and Georgetown. Though we can’t necessarily stop development in the suburbs, we have to admit that all the population going there isn’t at all good for us—and it’s certainly disastrous for compact and connected. It’s not hard to imagine that some percentage of the people moving to Pflugerville would rather be in Austin. We need to find a way to get those people closer to downtown if we want to do anything at all about decreasing vehicle miles traveled. Many people in the suburbs are still driving into Austin every day, using our streets but not paying taxes for them, and increasing traffic congestion and pollution at the same time. Making it easier to build urban infill projects in parts of town that are already well-served by infrastructure and transit is a start.
Also, we need to stop building gates on public streets, and we need to stop fighting street connections. A connected street grid is absolutely essential if we’re going to have any hope of making this city more accessible on foot or on bike. We can’t keep relying on high-traffic roads to get people from point A to point B and expect that anyone will voluntarily choose to do anything other than drive. This means building street connections in neighborhoods wherever we can, and making those connections peaceful, safe, and inviting for pedestrians and cyclists.
Which street would you rather be on with your elderly grandmother? With your children?