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Council members agree: Cars are not the solution

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 by Jack Craver

If the Thursday meeting was any indication, every member of City Council believes that the key to fixing Austin’s transportation problems is reducing the population’s reliance on automobiles.

Council members peppered city transportation staff with questions and critiques in response to a presentation at Central Library about the city’s long-term mobility goals. None of the Council members, however, have a problem with the city’s stated goal of getting people out of cars and onto their own two feet, bikes or public transit.

Council Member Paige Ellis, who was elected in December to represent the largely suburban District 8 in Southwest Austin, said that her own constituents favor cars due to a lack of options, not a lack of interest.

“I think people are interested in trying other modes of transit but they’re just not there yet, so we don’t even have the option to try it,” she said in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “The truth is, the city of Austin can’t keep adding many more lanes. We’re running out of space. We’re all going to have to look forward into the future and realize that single-occupant car trips are not solving our problems, they’re making it worse.”

New Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison similarly bemoaned the fact that many people “are car-dependent” due to a lack of alternatives, “but they can’t afford cars.”

Her predecessor, Ora Houston, was not opposed to public transit, but was reliably dismissive of city efforts to improve bike infrastructure. Harper-Madison, in contrast, is an enthusiastic bike advocate.

The meeting at the library focused on a proposed new “mobility” outcome to Austin Strategic Direction 2023, the wide-ranging vision document adopted by Council last year that is aimed at guiding city policies and programs over the next five years. ASD23 includes five other strategic outcomes related to affordability, environmental sustainability, safety, culture and education, and effective, transparent government.

Mobility, of course, overlaps with all of the strategic outcomes. City staff and Council members all seemed to agree that reducing car dependence in Austin will make the city cleaner, safer and more affordable.

Currently, said Liane Miller, a senior business process consultant for the Transportation Department, 74 percent of city commuters get to and from work by driving alone. If the city can reduce the drive-alone share to 50 percent, she said, “We can actually manage our growth that is forecast in 2040.”

Alternatives to driving include public transit, biking, walking, carpooling and telecommuting.

The proposed mobility strategic outcome drafted by staff includes five key indicators:

  • System efficiency and congestion
  • Cost of transportation
  • Accessibility to and equity of multimodal transportation choices
  • Safety
  • Condition of transportation-related infrastructure

All of those indicators have a number of metrics by which to measure the success of the vision, from number of traffic fatalities to percentage of the population living near high-frequency transit stops.

Council members suggested tweaks to certain metrics or adding others. Staff will make some changes to the draft and submit the revised draft to Council for approval in March.

The mobility amendment to ASD23 coincides with and overlaps with the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, a proposed overhaul of the city’s guiding transportation plan, which staffers plan to submit to Council for approval at the end of March. In the preceding weeks, various boards and commissions will weigh in on the proposal.

Asked by staff to display their level of enthusiasm for the proposed ASD23 mobility metrics, every Council member raised at least three fingers and most raised four or five (five demonstrates the highest enthusiasm).

After the meeting, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan cautioned that good metrics would hardly solve the city’s transportation woes. The big test will come next year, when voters will likely be asked to approve a major bond linked to high-capacity transit.

“Transportation’s main issue is money. It’s good to do the measurements, it’s good to do the metrics. It’s important that we do them so that when we have the money, we can spend it correctly,” said Flannigan. “It will be nice to get past this and on to what our next big investment is, which is what I think we’re all thinking about for 2020.”

Photo by Todd Morris made available through a Creative Commons license.

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