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Mobility plan preview raises questions at Planning Commission

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

At a special called Jan. 18 meeting, the Planning Commission got its first look at the beginnings of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, what will be an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin. The plan is still in its early stages, but some commissioners expressed concerns that the forecasts being created to develop the plan’s priorities may rely too heavily on future density as an indicator.

When adopted, the Strategic Mobility Plan will seek to provide a course of action to mitigate Austin’s transportation problems in the same way that the Strategic Housing Blueprint (adopted last April) seeks to address Austin’s housing needs. Today, it is estimated that 74 percent of Austin residents prefer to travel alone in their car over the other transit options.

City staff and consultants have been collecting feedback from the community for the past year and are currently in the process of fashioning three separate plan scenarios that will be shared through an online survey with the public on Feb. 24. Each scenario will represent differing degrees of transportation programming, investment and policy, but Annick Beaudet with the Transportation Department emphasized that the scenarios should not be interpreted as the plan itself, only tools being used to gather information.

Planner Cole Kitten explained how the scenarios would employ the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s travel demand model, which simulates how Austinites go to and from work based on housing and job statistics. If CodeNEXT is adopted and rezones the city’s arterial corridors in a way that increases density, Kitten said that he would expect that the return on investment for transportation improvements would be greater.

The review timeline for the mobility plan is just behind that of CodeNEXT, with the plan scheduled to be drafted over the summer and scrutinized in the fall. Beaudet said that this buffer would allow staff and consultants to adjust the plan based on the final product of the Land Development Code rewrite, if it passes. Of course, there is no guarantee that CodeNEXT will be adopted on time; the third draft, which was supposed to be released last November, is now being published on Feb. 12.

Additionally, Opticos Design is consulting for both CodeNEXT and the mobility plan, and both teams are also sharing the same sub-consultant, Kimley-Horn.

Still, some commissioners posited that the coordination between the two may turn out to be more of a crutch. Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said that an increase in density has not historically translated to an increase in ridership. “Yet that seems to be the only piece we look at,” she said. “I see all these (vertical mixed-use) projects going up, but the bus stop has nobody in it.”

Beaudet said that Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority representatives would be able to describe the other variables used in the model at a future meeting. Even so, Commissioner Conor Kenny said he was still skeptical that the assumed future density would pan out as anticipated, regardless of what the CodeNEXT map ends up looking like, and that the assumption may skew the travel demand model’s projections.

According to an updated schedule discussed at the meeting, the Planning Commission expects to turn in a final recommendation on CodeNEXT sometime in May.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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