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Thursday, January 25, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Planning Commission takes on transit and CodeNEXT

Two of the great planning processes of Austin’s current age came together under one roof on Wednesday night as the Planning Commission talked both CodeNEXT and Project Connect with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president for strategic planning and development, used the opportunity to make the case for more transit-supportive land use.

He started by showing a list of the eight priority programs of Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan approved in 2012. Along with ensuring environmental sustainability, investing in creative sector jobs, and developing and maintaining housing affordability, Imagine Austin calls for the revision of the city’s development regulations in such a way as “to promote a compact and connected city.”

“At least from the perspective of Capital Metro, public transportation touches almost every one of these,” Hemingson told the commissioners. “Actually, every one of these, and in different and important ways. And effective public transportation is really key to successful cities, especially cities that are growing into the (same) metropolitan scale as Austin.”

Hemingson cited several studies that indicated people who live in cities with more transit-friendly development patterns drive less, walk more, are less likely to die in car crashes and can spend more money on housing rather than transportation. He also emphasized that Capital Metro is not looking to densify the city’s corridors simply for the sake of increasing its own ridership.

“That’s, of course, important, but the real outcomes are the benefits that the community will enjoy if more people are using other modes than driving alone,” he said.

After Hemingson briefly updated the commission on the Project Connect effort the high-capacity transit planning initiative set to reveal its recommended alignments in late February Chair Stephen Oliver asked what tools Capital Metro has available that would help the Planning Commission make a better-informed CodeNEXT recommendation to City Council.

Hemingson replied that the city-identified transit priority corridors need to be realigned with new data culled from the Project Connect process as well as the planning work behind Capital Metro’s new service plan known as Connections 2025. He also called for closer coordination.

“There is a way to say certain levels of density, i.e., jobs and people per acre, generally speaking equate to certain levels of transit service,” he elaborated. “And so if we’re working at Project Connect looking to the future about high-capacity transit here, here, there, etc., then we would want to look to CodeNEXT … to say, ‘Are we working in concert? Is the development intensity corresponding to the proposed intensity of transit service?’”

Hemingson said that Project Connect’s ridership projections have been based on modeling conducted by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. A change in local land use intensities, he reasoned, could change the transit agency’s math.

Commissioner Greg Anderson asked Hemingson how CodeNEXT’s third draft, which is due in April February, should look in order to maximize transit use. Harkening back to his personal experience having lived in Portland, Oregon, Hemingson suggested public and private investments along with a transit-friendly code is “an important part of the equation.”

He also took on parking minimums.

“Obviously, the abundance of parking and the low- or no-pricing of it is a definite discouragement to doing anything other than driving,” Hemingson said.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza suggested that transit is being used as an argument in favor of CodeNEXT by “pro-development” voices. She pointed out that Capital Metro’s ridership has not kept pace with the city’s rapid population growth.

Hemingson answered that one factor is the displacement of low-income, transit-dependent riders to the fringe of Capital Metro’s service area or beyond.

“And quality of service,” he conceded. “We need to better ourselves. So working on our frequency … more reliable service, putting the service where the ridership is most likely to be strong, things of that nature. So some of it is on Capital Metro to do a better job.”

Zaragoza countered that density along South Lamar Boulevard had not led to a large increase of ridership along that roadway, which is served by the frequent No. 803 route that only stops six times in its 4-mile run south of Lady Bird Lake.

Hemingson suggested that one potential solution is improving the pedestrian infrastructure along South Lamar.

Finally, Zaragoza referred to a 2010 study from Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Researchers looked at dozens of rail station investments made between 1990 and 2000 in cities across the country. A majority of the neighborhoods surveyed experienced increased rents and higher car ownership and 40 percent saw reduced transit ridership.

As Zaragoza pointed out, the study concluded with a “toolkit” of recommendations to guide transit investments.

“What it recommended was a really aggressive program of securing new affordable units, of retaining the market affordable units along those corridors, and ensuring that you retain the people that aren’t choice riders but that ride the system by necessity,” she said.

The researchers behind the study also suggested including community development corporations in corridor planning processes, as well as reducing parking requirements, among a surfeit of other considerations.

“I just hope that as we continue these conversations that we don’t just look at unit numbers,” Zaragoza concluded. “Because Austin’s history shows us that has not been enough and that we have to have a holistic vision of what it takes to support transit.”

Rendering courtesy of CapMetro and the city of Austin.

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

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

Project Connect: This project brought together a series of Central Texas transportation agencies looking to build high-capacity transit options in the region in the wake of CAMPO's 2035 regional transportation plan. The City of Austin's much-discussed 2014 Urban Rail plan was part of Project Connect's efforts.

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