Austin just hosted our largest annual conference / festival, SXSW. This festival brings in many out-of-towners, as well as concentrating locals in central Austin. I think it can serve as a basic stress-test on our city’s infrastructure, to identify what issues we are like to see as our growth continues. The future will not look exactly like SXSW (I hope!), but it may well involve more and more people in our downtown. Here are my first-glance takeaways, based mostly on impressions from being downtown, rather than numbers:
- The belle of the transportation ball at this year’s SXSW was Austin Bcycle, the new bike-sharing program deployed mostly in downtown, but scheduled to expand later. They have released more exact numbers, but impressionistically, there were a lot of these bikes downtown and yet it scaled very well. I passed tons of the bike racks and didn’t see any full (i.e. it can’t accept bikes parking) or empty (i.e. no bikes to rent). I do fear that as this program expands outside of downtown, it will hit the zoning straitjacket around downtown, as pretty much every direction around downtown is surrounded by neighborhoods where zoning is unwelcoming to new development, and therefore, the possibility of expanding to new residents or workers. Bike-sharing worked so spectacularly because of the short distances between dense destinations. It may have difficulty expanding to a longer “density-only-on-the-corridors” development model, of riding bikes on either large arterial streets or small, un-dense streets. Within downtown, the planned bike lanes will help a lot.
- The other great winner was the Great Streets Program of, among other things, expanded sidewalks. This is the first year that I felt like downtown was a true walking city and the Great Streets program was a huge part of that. In part, this is simply because there’s more room to walk on the expanded sidewalks. But another of it is that there are so many more people out on the sidewalks at restaurant tables and the like, creating a much more pedestrian-friendly environment.
- The downtown transit-priority lanes were overall a positive, but with some serious downsides. The positives:
- They really do work at getting buses moving faster. I definitely saw buses moving past stopped traffic. Car-drivers really did follow the rules. This is only one item, but it’s a doozy.
- By putting the buses together on one street, it gives them a “presence” they never had when spread out among many streets. Waiting at a bus stop with 40 other people, you really do get the feeling that taking the bus is a normal and accepted activity, rather than the weird activity it may have been perceived of in the past. It also simplifies catching the bus and gives people who can take multiple routes much better frequency.
- The negatives:
- Putting them on Guadalupe/Lavaca instead of Congress was a fundamental and large mistake. During the urban rail planning process, the mayor has repeatedly emphasized that the center of downtown is moving east, meaning that it’s moving away from the transit-priority lane. One simple and cost-free way the city could ameliorate this is simply expanding CBD (Central Business District) or DMU (Downtown Mixed-Use) zoning to the rest of downtown. Just blocks from one of downtown’s two transit stops, there’s a large corner of downtown that looks pretty much like a suburb. More residents and workplaces there will mean more people able to take advantage of walking to those stops.
- Putting them on Guadalupe/Lavaca instead of Congress was a decision made to help automobile traffic on Congress, not to help buses. In the process, this has also made Congress a much worse pedestrian street. The buses may have slowed traffic on Congress, but slowed traffic was a positive for pedestrians. Congress is a very wide street at 6 lanes of traffic plus two lanes of parking. Without any buses to slow it down, walking along it felt less like it used to of walking along Austin’s front door and a bit more like walking along a highway. Running more transit (buses or urban rail) along the street and expanding the program to rent the current parking lane to local businesses would both make it more comfortable for pedestrians.
- Putting all the bus lines together may have helped route simplicity and created a more intangible presence, but it also created serious bus bunching problems. In just a few visits to the area, I saw buses backed up 6 deep. I saw buses blocking intersections for a full walk cycle, preventing any pedestrian crossing. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and fast, if the buses are all to move to Guadalavaca.
- Parking infrastructure Austin’s parking infrastructure held up well. With tons of surface parking lots converted into concert spaces, people still managed to park. The cost of parking rose quite a bit, and this, along with the traffic, definitely induced some people to take public transportation instead of driving a car downtown. Downtown does not need more parking and, to the extent that prices rose, the private market will surely be able to decide to provision more if needed.
- The real-time signage for both the 801 and the MetroRail were major failures. I heard story after story from friends of seeing signage that was wildly wrong for both. I myself decided to pass up taking the 801 because the real-time sign said the next bus would come in 22 minutes, only to have a bus pass me walking on foot 3 minutes later. I don’t see much of a policy issue, but c’mon, Cap Metro, get your act together. If you can’t get it right, then turn the signs off; putting out wrong information is 10X worse than putting out no information.
- The MetroRail was a mixed bag. On the positive side, it ran more full than ever, including running an extra train. On the negative side: 1) the major issues that it has always been there remains: it’s just very expensive to run per passenger. In addition, it seemed to have scaled fairly poorly. The train ran late through most of the festival and many passengers at the closer-in stops were passed by as trains were already filled by the time they reached central Austin. The beauty of public transportation is supposed to be that, as more passengers ride it, it gets better, but the opposite seems to have happened with MetroRail.
- The downtown automobile lanes were pretty much a failure. They came to a standstill during many hours of the festival. Unlike the public transportation, however, the car lanes seem like pretty much a lost cause. There is no way for them to expand easily and as we hit SXSW-style densities, they pretty much fail. Seeing how colossally they failed, highway expansions seems like a very questionable goal. The idea of spending gobs of money to revamp I35 in order to speed more cars into a downtown that can’t handle them seems like true folly. Much better to focus on cross-town connectivity, so that people can make shorter bike and transit trips from the East side across I-35 and the West side across MoPac. In addition, as the city expands, it seems that we are going to need to devote a greater percentage of our downtown roads to more efficient lanes that can carry more people than the current automobile-dominated lanes, such as transit-0nly or bike-only lanes.
Admittedly, many of these impressions are not far from what I believed previously, so perhaps I only saw what I wanted to see. What was your impression? What did you see?