One year ago this week, AURA released its Transit Vision for the city of Austin. It recommended a set of small, incremental improvements that collectively would have a greater effect than a multibillion rail line or set of rail lines. For transit, we recommended frequent bus routes and transit priority rather than a single magic bullet. We recommended disincentivizing parking and driving to work by reducing parking minimums across the city, enacting parking maximums in downtown, and creating cash-out programs at major employers instead of free parking. Other steps like finishing the sidewalk and bike network, increasing connectivity, and allowing more housing near transit corridors set up an urban space where walking, biking, and using transit is encouraged rather than discouraged. AURA still believes that these steps are critical to enabling a more multimodal transportation system. The rest of this post steps back from the day-to-day grind of transportation planning in Austin to evaluate how the major transportation agents have achieved or not achieved these goals.
CapMetro: Grade: A-
Capital Metro, for all its problems, has been the most successful at implementing the transit vision.
Step: Implement a Frequent Network:
Most critically, In March 2017, the CapMetro board approved the framework for Connections 2025, a long-range plan that will create a network of frequent routes across the city. This is a very encouraging step that will go a long way to providing improved bus service for CapMetro’s customers. Although there were concerns that some riders would lose access to their current jobs, a joint analysis by AURA and Farm & City showed that the new network would provide frequent access to transit and, with it, greater economic opportunity to 10,000 low-income households. AURA urges CapMetro to implement Connections 2025 as quickly as possible.
Step: Fare parity between MetroRapid and Local Routes:
In January, Capital Metro eliminated the fare differential between the MetroRapid routes and its local routes. The higher fare for MetroRapid had long created a two-tier system where wealthier riders could choose a better service. This step has already caused ridership to increase on the MetroRapid corridors. Some riders are switching from the locals to the MetroRapid, but the change has likely attracted new bus riders as well.
Step: Improve Bus Shelters
Currently, far too many bus shelters in Austin are totally bare bones with no shade or even no bench. This makes them practically unusable in the hot summer months, as well as unwelcoming to those with mobility challenges who cannot stand for long periods of time. Capital Metro has a new, cheaper design for bus shelters, which will enable the agency to deploy them at many more stops. Unfortunately, these new shelters still do not consistently provide shade or protection for the elements. AURA calls for CapMetro to find a shelter design that can be widely implemented and actually provide basic shelter.
Going forward, Capital Metro’s major initiative right now is Project Connect 2.0, which is concluding its first phase in June. The first phase recommended 16 different corridors for future study, including 3 commuter routes, 10 “connectors” on major arteries through the city, and 2 downtown circulators. AURA is concerned that the process may end up committing too many limited transit dollars to low-value suburban commuter projects, but we are also encouraged by the inclusion and high scores of many high ridership bus corridors, especially the strong result for the Lamar-Guadalupe connector corridor.
City of Austin: Grade C-
The city of Austin has made halting steps towards a more multimodal city, but they let themselves be hamstrung by forces that would maintain a suburban status quo.
Step: Fully fund the Bicycle Master Plan and High Priority Sidewalks
The city of Austin half-accomplished this step with the Go Big Mobility Bond, passed by voters in November 2016. That bond commits $137 of its $720 million to local mobility projects, mostly sidewalks, urban trails and bike lanes. It is true, as the mayor says, that this is the largest investment the city has ever made in active transportation. Unfortunately, it is still woefully inadequate, since it allocates only a quarter of the estimated $400 million to implement the bike plan and high priority sidewalks. It is also peanuts compared to regional highway funding: the US 183-A expansion will cost $650 million; the cost overrun alone on the MoPAC express lanes was $200 million.
The largest part of the mobility bond is reserved for the corridor plans: seven existing plans for major roads in the Austin area. The city is still determining which projects identified in the corridor plans it will fund, and those decisions will determine whether this effort is a success for transit or not. Projects range from excellent—like the transit priority lanes on Guadalupe, to the misguided—like bus pullouts on major corridors, to the disastrous—like the $110 million plan to widen and speed up FM 969 east of 183, creating yet another sprawl accelerator to the periphery of the city. The ultimate success of the mobility bond will depend on the city choosing projects wisely.
Step: Allow and Promote Abundant Housing near existing transit.
The major driver here is Austin’s land development code, currently being rewritten as CodeNEXT. The goal of CodeNEXT was to enact the Imagine Austin plan and “promote a more compact and connected city” by enabling more missing middle housing in the urban core and upzoning the corridors identified for future density. At these tasks, it has thus far failed completely. The new code is more complex than the current code, does not enable abundant housing, and may in fact make it more difficult to build small-scale infill housing. Inexplicably, the new zoning map largely replicates our existing housing map rather than supporting Imagine Austin’s mandate and goals.
Absent substantial changes between the current draft and the final product, the timidity of the CodeNEXT result ensures that Austin’s most desirable, most transit-friendly neighborhoods will fail to provide housing sufficient to meet demand and will persist as low density enclaves for the wealthy. Scarce and unaffordable housing in the central city will also continue to drive young families to the suburbs, where transit options are limited and driving is required for almost every trip.
Step: Transit Priority
Transit priority is arguably the single most important thing Austin can do to help Capital Metro provide effective bus service. The city has made some strides here, with some signals getting transit priority treatments, but there are many lost opportunities and very little political will to enact change.
Center for Transportation Research study table showing Scenario 1 - with a transit lane in each direction on Guadalupe - reducing travel times
The Guadalupe corridor is illustrative. The city started a study of the Guadalupe Corridor, i.e. the Drag, in 2014. Almost all of Austin’s major bus routes use this corridor, where they get caught in significant traffic going past the University. An AURA study showed that at rush hour there are nearly as many travellers riding buses as in cars, despite the buses taking up a tenth of the space. In Spring 2015, modeling from the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas showed that implementing transit priority lanes on Guadalupe would accelerate buses and cars (see table above). In 2016, the City's draft corridor report recommended transit lanes.
The case could not be clearer. And yet, at a recent urban transportation committee (UTC) meeting, Austin Transportation Department’s director for strategic planning refused to commit to transit priority on Guadalupe, awaiting the results of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP). While it is good to have a strategic mobility plan, and AURA has provided feedback on transit priority in the ASMP, transit priority lanes, especially in a corridor where they are as badly needed as they are on Guadalupe, should not have to wait four years and multiple planning cycles for implementation.
Other Steps: Connectivity, Cash-outs, Parking Requirements
AURA recommended several other steps to reduce car dependency and promote alternative modes of transportation, like increasing grid connectivity, giving an option for employees to take cash instead of a free parking spot, and reducing requirements for parking at new developments across the city. The city of Austin has made halting progress in these areas. Connectivity is a part of the Mobility Strategic Plan. The city does not have a cash-out for parking program yet, but it has started offering paid time off for employees who don't drive every day. Unfortunately, parking minimums have not been reduced. The minimum number of parking spots required has been slightly decreased for some uses in the draft version of CodeNEXT, but they remain untouched or even increased in other areas of the proposed code. In particular, AURA is concerned about the persistent high levels of parking required for bars and cocktail lounges, which is just an invitation for people to drive to alcohol, and then to drive home drunk. The city needs to seriously consider the effect requiring so much parking has on our city, and the behavior of its citizens.
In the next year Austin will finish its strategic mobility plan and its new land use development code. These major projects must make serious commitments to transit priority on our streets and more housing in our neighborhoods. It may be unpopular with some, but it is the only step forward to make a multimodal city.
Other Regional Partners: Grade F
TxDOT, CTRMA, and CAMPO continue to pay lip service to alternative modes of transportation while greenlighting and building major highway projects all over the city, spending billions of dollars to swallow more land for cars.
Even these organizations’ meager efforts towards multimodality are undone by the harm their highways do. CTRMA is committing to build park-n-rides connected to the city of Austin by express bus lines. But park-n-rides are not an effective way to get people out of their cars. To move even 100 commuters a day requires a parking lot an acre in size. To make a substantial dent in the percentage of single occupant vehicle commuters, then, would require paving over 10 or 20 square miles, or building expensive multi-story garages, neither of which is cost-effective.
These organizations aren’t even succeeding at providing decent car mobility because of induced demand, the phenomenon by which new highway capacity is rapidly absorbed by new highway drivers, resulting in even more congestion than before the capacity was built. An example in Austin is 183-A, a toll road built to the rapidly growing suburbs of Cedar Park and Leander. 183-A was one of CTRMA’s first highway projects; it opened as an empty, brand new road in 2007. Less than ten years later CTRMA has proposed building two express lanes at a cost of $650 million, equivalent to funding both Austin’s bicycle plan and the high priority sidewalks. CAMPO, the agency in charge of responsible transportation in the Austin area, was not consulted.
183-A also directly competes against CapMetro’s Red Line to Leander, crippling its effectiveness.
As they look to the future, these agencies must admit that geometry is against them. They cannot provide enough highway capacity to satisfy the demand their highways will generate, nor can they build enough parking lots to accommodate meaningful transit commuters. Instead of paying lip service to transit, they must make meaningful commitments. For instance, rather than build highways that compete with commuter transit, CTRMA could fund the operating costs of Express Buses or the Red Line.
A year after its publication AURA’s transit vision still charts necessary and important steps to creating a city where alternatives to a car dependent lifestyle are more widely accessible. Some of these steps will require hard choices that disrupt Austin’s status quo of a city built for cars. But they are desperately needed as we seek to become a more sustainable city. The region and the planet simply cannot keep up with a vicious cycle of suburban housing leading to highways, feeding even more suburban sprawl, leading to more highways. Some progress has been made in the last year, but the focus for 2017-2018 for the city and its regional partners must be to really commit to a future where transit is viable.