A New Balance for Austin Transportation Policy

[This post is intended to serve as background reading for my portion of the upcoming transportation session of the 2014 Leadership Austin Engage Series. For best results, please review “Austin Transportation in 20 Slides” before diving into this post. And remember, these are my views, not those of the fine folks at Leadership Austin or the other panelists joining me.]

Congestion is a daily aggravation for too many Austinites. Our region’s business leaders worry that our commuter traffic woes undermine productivity and competitiveness.  And leading social scientists consistently find that the happiest communities implement policies that help their citizens avoid being stuck in cars.  Our region’s status quo approach is not making progress fast enough; hoping for dramatic increases in regional highway capacity won’t do and might eventually make things worse.  So what can we do that will work? Here’s one strategy to achieve a new, more effective balance in transportation policy.

B: Behavior Change

Jack McDonald, the 2014 Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman, recently called on Austin to boost its telecommuting rate from 6% to 15%.  He also called on businesses to deploy more flexible schedules and staggered hours to spread out peak-time traffic volumes. These are wise policies.  If you are a business owner, manager, or influential employee (especially in Austin’s fast-growing professional services sectors) you should move to experiment with these policies and expand them as much as feasible.

While employers are essential to large-scale change, individuals can also build one key habit: trip planning. Getting into the habit of trip planning (simplified by the abundance of smartphones with mobility-focused applications) can make it much easier for Austinites to better use public transportation, as well as cars and bikes provided through the emerging sharing economy.  And once you get good at it, you can be an evangelist for the tools and services that can help your friends and family adopt trip planning that works for them.

A: Algorithm Accountability

As much as many of us would like for vast new resources to materialize for public transportation and/or roadways, the reality is that substantial changes in the amount of dollars available at the Federal or State level are not likely. Hence, it becomes critical we use top-notch statistical algorithms to power our decision-making as we allocate resources.

The consequences of a poorly calibrated algorithm can be devastating.  For example, noisy population projections can lead us to build roadway capacity too soon, inducing sprawl.  Or we build a low-ridership rail line that requires wasteful subsidization.  Many of us believe our current transportation algorithms for population growth estimation, consumer responses to fares, and the growth-shaping power of transit lack sufficient rigor. Without rigor, we risk the destruction of significant amounts of public value simply because we didn’t take the time to properly evaluate how we analyze data.

Anyone can support a culture of algorithmic accountability.  The key step is for businesses and institutions in civil society to ‘adopt’ an algorithm and associated public data set; this is similar to how groups ‘adopt’ roads or parks and some aspect of their maintenance.  An algorithm’s stakeholders must ask for continuous, publicly-available validation (Is the algorithm accurate? Is it at risk of losing its explanatory power?).  Stakeholders can report to the public on the quality of the algorithm; inevitably, they will want to push for an API (application programming interface) that makes data easily available both for independent validation and creation of new software applications.

L: Land-use Reform

Our most recent comprehensive plan captured our community’s aspiration of creating a compact and connected region. This requires Austinites live close to their work, their kids’ schools, the businesses, and the institutions they like to go to.  Unfortunately, Austin’s existing zoning and development regulations overwhelmingly favor the preservation of the high-in-demand core as suburban-style neighborhoods filled with single-family detached homes.

Our aspirations and our existing policy are not compatible. Aligning them is not a technical problem. It is a political one.  Sensible land-use reform requires investing new dollars to build grassroots-focused advocacy organizations that can persuade and mobilize voters for land use reform and field viable candidates that appeal to those voters.  Further, it requires supporting media outlets that excel at objective, data-enhanced journalism to ensure there’s a local information marketplace that illuminates the mismatch between our policy and aspirations to the common voter.

These are difficult but achievable changes in Austin’s approach to transportation.  We are lucky to have a quality set of tools available.  What is needed is leadership; not a single, larger-than-life leader, but a symphony of committed citizens and employers taking charge in their own corner of our community.

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