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Mayors talk mobility at SXSW

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

South by Southwest’s claim to fame is its rich offerings for fans of technology, film and music, but this year it also offered a healthy smattering of civics for the so-inclined wonk.

The Interactive portion of the festival featured a handful of panels that gave several mayors of U.S. cities the chance to opine about issues facing their communities, not least of which was one that is near and dear to the hearts of Austinites: transportation.

On Monday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tag-teamed with his Washington, D.C., counterpart, Muriel Bowser, on a panel called “Metro Mobility Revolution.” The panel also featured Gabe Klein, a “renowned thought leader in urban mobility” according to his SXSW bio, and Gizmodo’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker.

Although Atlanta and Washington are both hundreds of miles away, they share key similarities with Austin. Atlanta, a fellow Southern hub of economic growth, is the vast core of a sprawling metropolitan area. Meanwhile, although Washington’s city limits are more constrained, it struggles with adding more density under laws that limit building height in order to protect the treasured views of its Capitol building.

Both Bowser and Reed touted their cities’ new streetcar lines. Atlanta began its service in late 2014, while Washington opened its initial 2.2-mile segment, branded the DC Streetcar, just last month. Bowser explained that her city ultimately plans to build out a 37-mile network at an estimated cost of $1 billion.

In its first full week of service, the DC Streetcar averaged 2,260 riders per day, approximately 500 fewer than Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s six-year-old, 32-mile commuter rail service, which saw an average of 2,738 riders in spring 2015.

Bowser also talked about the steps Washington’s planners are taking to make buses more attractive to commuters. “Our bus priority signalization system is going into effect where signals will be sent from the bus to the traffic light to get our buses moving in a priority queue ahead of traffic,” she said. “And we think that’s going to change some decisions for many who might want to use the bus.”

Reed acknowledged that spending large sums on innovative transportation projects can be a tough sell politically. He stressed that officials can make it much easier on themselves by ensuring that fundamental services are taken care of. “Voters understand as long as you give them the confidence that they need,” said Reed.

Bowser emphasized the need to approach transportation planning with an open mind toward using every tool in the toolbox, be it bus, rail or bike infrastructure. She said that she strives to convince voters that Washington’s existing transportation network won’t be able to accommodate an automobile-dominant policy in 20 years. Reed explained that he has a different approach to convincing his constituents of the worth of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA.

“I have to sell transit by saying, ‘Vote for MARTA: More room for your pickup truck,'” Reed said.

Reed also talked about the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles and how that technology could transform cities. He warned that parking garages will soon become obsolete.

“So as more folks want to live in cities, if you’re really talking about dealing with equity, you’re going to want to get rid of those parking decks and replace them with housing,” said Reed.

Klein picked up on that idea and added to it. “We have an affordable housing crisis in most American cities, right? And yet we have no problem subsidizing the storage of vehicles,” he said.

Reed also addressed the issue of safety as more people choose to ride bicycles or walk in cities. He explained that he recently appointed a bike czar to promote cycling and cyclists in Atlanta.

Reed said, “When I announced that, people laughed” – an illustration, he added, of the difficulties facing progressive urban leaders in the largely conservative South. He said that that opposition has to be overcome through sheer force of will.

“Find you a mayor that plans on leading until the last minute of the last hour of the last day,” Reed urged.

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