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Tuesday, March 19, 2019 by Jack Craver
Planning commissioners push for more transit-oriented mobility plan
City Council is scheduled to take up the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan at its next meeting on March 28. In recent weeks, various city commissions have offered comments on the plan, which aims to shape city transportation policy over the next 20 years.
Last week, members of the Planning Commission offered input on the plan and heard comments from members of the public. While commissioners and citizens offered a number of critiques, both major and minor, the dominant theme was a call for the plan to be even bolder in encouraging alternatives to cars.
ASMP’s chief goal is to get a larger share of the population to embrace alternatives to cars. Currently, 74 percent of Austin residents drive to work alone. The plan calls for reducing that to 50 percent by 2039, while increasing the public transit share from 4 to 16 percent, bike share from 1 to 4 percent, and walking share from 2 to 4 percent. The plan also envisions roughly doubling the percentage of teleworkers to 15 percent and maintaining the carpool share at 11 percent.
Several activists from urbanist organization AURA showed up to demand more ambitious action from the city to move away from cars.
Dan Keshet said that while the current plan is an improvement over the status quo, it does not reflect the gravity of the planet’s climate crisis. There is no reason, he said, for the plan to call for reduced parking requirements in some places and not in others. Mandating parking spots never makes sense, he argued.
“(T)here’s never a place where we should be trying to push people to drive more, and that’s exactly what our land use code does,” he said. “So there’s a little bit of cognitive dissonance if you start trying to figure out where does it make sense for us to push for more fossil fuel infrastructure.”
Commissioner Greg Anderson similarly advocated for more metered parking and the elimination of the residential permit parking program in favor of parking benefits districts, in which parking meters raise revenue for sidewalk and bicycling infrastructure. He suggested the city hire a parking czar, ideally “Austin’s version of Donald Shoup,” a longtime UCLA economist who is best known for his arguments against parking mandates.
Anderson also bemoaned the fact that the ASMP map included the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to extend State Highway 45. Although it’s a state project, he would like the city to put up more resistance to the project, which he said would simply lead to more sprawl in Hays County.
Commissioner Conor Kenny expressed concern that the plan was not prioritizing transit enough to meet the goal of quadrupling transit use. He highlighted a number of the corridors that the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has targeted for “bus rapid transit (BRT) light,” as part of Project Connect, its long-term transit plan.
Unlike the two top corridors cited in Project Connect (Lamar/Guadalupe/South Congress and Red River Street/Riverside), the city and Capital Metro have not committed to providing dedicated right-of-way to transit on the lower-priority corridors, but ASMP encourages infrastructure that prioritizes transit, such as transit-priority lanes or stoplights that offer priority to buses.
Kenny said he would like to see a more specific plan for making the BRT light routes as productive as possible, including eventually providing dedicated pathways that will make them an even more attractive alternative to cars. For the plan to achieve its goals, he noted, the number of drivers would have to remain flat even as the metro area’s population is projected to double over the next two decades. Therefore, he said, the plan should state that investment in other modes over car-based infrastructure is the priority.
ASMP was already well underway by the time electric scooters hit the streets last year, but Assistant Transportation Director Annick Beaudet said that their emergence has “just put another angle on the emphasis of the bicycle system and the urban trail system that we’ve been building for decades.” Indeed, she noted, some have suggested renaming the “bike network” to account for scooters.
Not everybody who testified agreed that the city needed an aggressive shift away from cars.
Janis Reinken, who raised concerns about the prospect of new medians on Burnet Road, suggested it was misguided for Austin to look to other cities around the country, such as Portland, as models. It may be unrealistic to expect people to adopt other modes of transportation in the heat of a Texas summer, for example.
“You tell a 4×4 pickup driver that he’s not really going to have a choice of taking his car to work,” she said. “He’s going to have to get on a bus or a bicycle to go,” she said. “You try telling a mom that’s got a kid, and they’ve got a carrier in the back seat so they can keep the kid safe, that they’re going to have to go to work on a bike or a bus, and if the kid gets sick they’re going to have to call an Uber … these things aren’t very workable for people who aren’t agile.”
The commission will take up the plan again at its meeting next Tuesday, when it will likely recommend changes for Council to consider when it takes up the plan the following Thursday.
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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.