Making the good parts of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan a reality before 2039.
The following was transmitted to Council Member Tovo as a constituent email on February 28th, 2019.
Dear Council Member Tovo,
I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to offer feedback on the draft Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP). My hope is that the perspective expressed below will be useful to you and your staff as the ASMP makes its way through Council.
The importance of Car Independence
First and foremost: the ASMP’s “Primary Plan Objective” is the correct one. A shift towards 50% sustainable mode commutes by 2039 is a well-understood and measurable outcome that properly and realistically reflects Austinites’ wishes for our shared future.
The primary objective matches (1) our practical desire to suffer less as we move around town with (2) our desire for our community to lead on environmental sustainability and economic fairness.
In the past, I’ve urged Council and its appointed bodies to adopt a target of 51% for sustainable mode commutes and to target 2030 for its achievement. I still believe that my particular formulation of a mobility primary objective makes it clearer that we are trying to work towards a car-independent “majority” and that we need urgency in the coming decade to cut the car-centric gordian knot we are presently tightening.
While it may not be feasible to achieve consensus on Council towards those two slightly more aggressive targets for the primary objective, I will be severely disappointed if the primary objective is modified to be less ambitious. This is an objective of fundamental importance to the policy future of the city, as well as the legacy of all of the existing Council Members. It is worth explaining to disgruntled constituents why our existing mode share is not financially, socially, or environmentally responsible.
Getting Better Directions
Nearly all of the “Policy” and “Indicator” items are aligned with the plan’s mode shift goal. Some are tangential. The first four of the “Policy” items in the “Roadway System” sub-section of Chapter 3 could easily be implemented in a fashion that undermines the plan’s primary objective.
Even though the policies and indicators are largely directionally correct (e.g. “reduce” something bad, “increase” something good), as a whole they are quite fuzzy, making it hard to confidently ensure that the plan’s primary objective can be met. Similarly, the hefty 272-item table of “specific” actions is more a task reminder list and not a clear blueprint of the concrete funding shifts and regulatory changes necessary to meet the primary objective.
As we all know, attempting to re-write a document of this breadth to develop a more crisp plan forward would be tedious and require an extraordinary amount of staff, consultant, and Council Member time. In all likelihood, the document is embracing fuzziness as a way of avoiding intractable policy fissures on Council.
So, let’s work with the fuzziness, then!
Please consider appending the following seven additional non-controversial “actions” that can help the implementation plan match the scale of the primary objective.
Capital Spending Scenarios. Council should request a set of options that outline the size and sequence of capital projects (e.g transit, bike, sidewalks, maintenance) required to meet the primary objective by 2039.
Transit Operating Spending Scenarios. The shift to greater transit utilization will require new operating funding streams in order to provide the needed frequency and capacity envisioned by the primary objective. Realistically, this means that the City, County, and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority need to allocate new funds towards transit operations. Council should request a set of scenarios featuring all 3 entities to ramp up operating funding to meet the primary objective. These scenarios complement should the capital plan and fully utilize the existing revenue options available to each entity.
Fiscal support. Mode shift is enabled by land use that de-prioritizes car speed and car storage. Our municipal fiscal policy – how we raise money and how we prioritize spending it – should support those communities that make the tough choices to enable land use that supports the primary objective. Staff should develop a set of cash-based relief/incentive programs (e.g. deeply subsidizing electric bikes instead of cars) and spending prioritization policies (e.g. parks and pools near transit-supportive density get superior funding) that support achieving the primary objective.
Mode shift right-of-way policy. This is partially included in the existing action table, but it has been perpetually postponed and redefined, so it’s important to clarify the need for an actual policy around “dedicated pathways” that is not just ad-hoc, road-by-road decision-making. While the focus should be primarily transit, it should also include bike lanes. The policy should include the expected sequence of transformation of the Transit Priority Network and relatively clear triggers based on a mix of congestion metrics and deployed transit service hours.
Official Housing Entitlement Model. As Council discusses how to spatially allocate housing entitlements to support mode shift, it will likely have more productive discussions if it has a transparent and well-explained model of how providing entitlements matches housing demand and impacts mode choices.
Parking Reform Ordinance. Council should request the City Manager draft a parking reform ordinance that implements all of the parking “Policy” items that are not covered in the land development code. It seems the word “Omnibus” is popular with some on Council. This would be the “Parking Modernization Omnibus”.
Trip Surveying Plan. While monitoring our progress on the primary objective will be made easier by existing Census Bureau surveys, it may be beneficial to develop a local surveying capability to survey mode choices in a more granular fashion and at a higher tempo.
Finally, there are two additional Council choices that are somewhat outside of the direct scope of the ASMP but will have a powerful impact on the City’s ability to meet the plan’s primary objective.
It will be imperative that the project selected by Project Connect for the likely ’20 mobility bond has a “per passenger cost” that helps reduce the overall system’s “per passenger cost”. Otherwise, given the limitations on available operating funds, it is simply not possible to meet the ASMP’s transit mode share goal. The primary plan objective is incompatible with high-capacity transit projects that reduce the operating productivity of the system (e.g. the Green Line, the ’14 Highland light rail proposal).
Similarly, Council should strongly re-consider the direction and designs of the corridor-focused spending from the ’16 mobility bond. Simply put, with the possible exception of East Riverside, those designs were not conceived to optimize for mode shift away from single-occupant-vehicle car trips. Transit should play a much bigger role in the non-East Riverside designs. It might also be more supportive of the ASMP’s primary objective to shift funding towards the Bike Master Plan, as well as supporting “dedicated pathways” for buses throughout the Transit Priority Network.
Thank you for time and attention to this topic.