Make Austin Roads Great Again

City Council’s mobility bond embraces futile road populism instead of much-needed mode shift.

fm969-50mph-six-lanes

City Council’s mobility bond funds the corridor plan that will expand this section of FM 969 from four to six lanes. The design speed is 50 mph.

This past Thursday, City Council moved closer to placing a $720 million transportation bond on the November ballot.

Council’s proposal prioritizes providing a brief respite in travel times for Austinites that drive to work. The plan does not meaningfully support commute mode shift away from single-occupant car drivers and may even help reduce the overall share of Austinites that commute to work by bike, walking, or transit.

car-independence-mode-shift-by-2030

Austin’s current primary  journey-to-work mode share versus the “Independent Majority” targets.

City Council’s proposal has 3 components:

  1. Expanding suburban road lanes
  2. Road reconstruction in core arterials (“corridors”)
  3. Bike, pedestrian, and safety improvements

Council’s proposed bond mix features $178 million (25% of the bond) for car lane expansion, both in the form of new lanes and intersection loosening. The precise amount for expanding FM 969 from four to six lanes isn’t finalized, but $60 million is likely. The Westlake Drive intersection project on Loop 360 is the next biggest expansion fund recipient, with a $46 million earmark.  Spicewood Springs and Parmer Lane each get a $17 million earmark. Oak Hill Parkway ($8 million),  Anderson Mill ($5.5 million), and 620/2222 ($7.5 million) are also included.  Finally, seventeen smaller roadways will receive $17 million for preliminary engineering and design work.

Obviously, these investments are not intended to enhance commuting choices beyond single-occupant vehicles. Sadly, “induced demand” will obviate any short-lived travel time benefits as residential sprawl accelerates along these roadways.

Arterial road reconstruction and re-design will receive roughly $422 million (59% of the bond total); these are the so-called “corridor plans”.  The “corridor plan” branding conveys an image of what planners call “placemaking“.   That said, collectively, the plans are actually focused on increasing car flow; they add bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure where possible.  A version of the below statement from the Airport Boulevard plan appears in nearly all of the individual plans:

A common theme that emerged throughout the public meetings and stakeholder discussions along Airport Boulevard was the need for adequate movement of additional automobile traffic, but not in a way that would make pedestrian and bicycle travel unattractive to the average user. The horizon year for our design assumed a 20% increase in traffic volumes over current levels.

That’s a tricky balance. With the exception of the East Riverside plan – which actually recommends a reduction in travel lanes from six to four – the plans reflect that “additional automobile traffic” is the priority. You can read the details of the individual arterial plan drafts here.

Unfortunately, there’s no comprehensive, City-conducted analysis of the potential for increased arterial spending to get residents to shift into alternative transportation modes. The table below scores the plans based on whether they (a) undertake a significant lane diet, (b) they currently include bike, pedestrian, and dedicated transit lanes through most of the corridor, and (c) if the corridors form complete travel links from residential density to job density.

corridor-mode-shift-score-matrix

The draft arterial reconstruction designs will certainly increase the count of commuters that switch to a non-SOV mode; however, it’s far less certain that they will contribute to shifting the overall share.  There are three obstacles for even the best plans: land use decision-making allowing car-free/car-lite residential development, availability of transit operating funds to subsidize the ramp-up of additional frequency, and Austin Transportation Department staff choosing to manage the corridor (e.g. traffic signal timing) to support alternative modes.

It’s much more likely that, collectively, these plans will replicate the existing corridor mode shares. And since supporting higher arterial car throughput will accelerate sprawl along the regional roads feeding into them, it’s possible they will deteriorate overall alternative mode share.

The third component is a mix of bike, pedestrian, and traffic safety improvements. Council’s plan allocates a total of $50 million (7% of the total) for on-street and urban trail components featured in the 2014 Austin Bicycle Plan.  This is a significant increase for bike infrastructure. Austin B-Cycle will seek expansion funding from the corridor program allotments.

bike-trail-funding

When combined with the likely cycle tracks in the arterial reconstruction plans, this will leave about 60% of the “all ages and abilities” bike network unfunded.  Bike commute mode share stands at 1.4% currently or approximately 6,500 bike-to-work commuters. Once fully-funded, the master bike plan projects approximately 11,000 bike-to-work commuters. This Council’s proposal could realistically still add a few basis points to the existing bike-to-work mode share once adjusted for the even faster growing share of the Austin population commuting by car on the roadways and arterials included in their bond plan.

In addition, Council’s plan invests $27.5 million (4% of the total) towards the Sidewalk Master Plan (which is prioritized by need). Another $27.5 million for sidewalks will be allocated equally amongst the ten Council districts for Council Member-preferred projects. Currently, 3% of Austinites walk to their job. Walk-to-work commuters are concentrated in tracts near downtown and the University of Texas where the proximity of residential housing and office buildings – as well as ample sidewalks – makes walking attractive. The City estimates a backlog of over $1 billion for a citywide sidewalk network. The “pork”-style allocation of half of the funds deeply compromises the relatively tiny allocation’s ability to noticeably nudge the current 3% walk-to-work mode share.

The plan includes $15 million (2% of the total) in support of the “Vision Zero” traffic safety strategy (PDF).  This will help reduce injuries and deaths caused by Austin’s car-centric transportation infrastructure design and mobility culture. It is important, but does not have any significant effects on journey-to-work mode.

While Council’s proposal has worthwhile components, overall, it is not designed to shift Austin’s mobility strategy away from a +70% SOV commute-to-work share. The bond spending’s capitulation to car-centrism will be compounded by the local policy environment. CapMetro’s regionalization continues to undermine its ability to focus operating dollars on productive routes as it is increasingly asked to provide high-subsidy suburban service. CTRMA is explicitly designed to generate additional road capacity. Austin land use politics remain unfriendly to car-lite residential density, even on arterials such as Burnett. And the bond’s resolution language quietly instructs the City Manager that the arterial reconstruction be compatible with the low-ridership light rail route from 2014.

What Council’s plan does have going for it is that it embraces a politically popular solution for Austin’s transportation ills: “we need more lanes for cars and to get buses and bikes out of the way of cars.”  Yet, as American conservatives are unpleasantly discovering, there is a steep long-term cost to repeatedly choosing what is politically expedient while neglecting to properly inform the electorate about the real tradeoffs of their choices.

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