From 300 to 100,000: Making Transit Oriented Development Normal

The Burnet Road rezoning case I’ve been following (1, 2) is over. City Council voted not only to approve the apartments, but passed Greg Casar’s proposal to increase the number of allowed apartments from 225 to 300. The developer correspondingly upped his pledge to 45 rent-reduced units and committed to a certain number of those having 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms.

This is great, because 300 households will soon have the option of living in nice, new homes right along one of the city’s prime bus lines (the 3/803). But 300 might not be enough to handle the people moving here in a week, let alone a month or a year or burning off the backlog of people who already live in Austin, but want to live more central. In his state of the city, Mayor Adler set a target of 100,000 new units over 10 years. I don’t know if that’s enough! In the end, we as a city should set our goals based on vacancy rates, rents, and home prices, not arbitrary round-number targets. But we already know that we have to build a lot of new homes in central Austin. I’ll use the notional “100,000” though to mean “enough units to reach price stability.”

So, how do we get to 100,000?  No one idea is going to be enough. Brennan Griffin has kicked off the discussion with a list of things already getting built in Austin’s core: downtown, Mueller, VMU, ADUs.  I’d throw in UNO as well. But today, I’ll focus on one option to get us further: making transit-oriented development normal.

Transit Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development is just a name for homes and offices and other places designed for people to get to without cars. Of course, it should be near good transit (whether buses or trains or streetcars or whatever). It should also have fewer amenities oriented around cars, like parking spots, and instead have amenities oriented around walking, like a front door you can take onto the sidewalk without traipsing through parked cars.

Austin has three plans for TOD, centered around the Crestview, MLK, and Plaza Saltillo MetroRail stations. These TOD districts are a kind of small-batch, artisanal zoning district, crafted painstakingly over the course of years, for small groups of customers to truly love. As it says on Page 97 of the Plaza Saltillo Station Area Plan:

Planning for the TOD Districts has been a lengthy and complex process. It has involved numerous stakeholder groups, including the City, private developers, and affordable housing advocates. DMA’s recommendations are the result of careful consideration of all interested parties with an eye toward the creation of a vibrant, diverse, and affordable community.

Detailed Glazing Rules
The Plaza Saltillo regulating plan has extraordinarily detailed design requirements hand-crafted by specialist consensus-builders to meet the specific needs of a relatively tiny area of the city.

However well you think these plans have accomplished their goals within their borders, they just don’t add up to much. Austin as a whole is getting less affordable, less diverse, and in many ways less vibrant. Most of Austin’s growth is in traffic-oriented subdivisions along the edge. We are a city with more than 800,000 residents, gaining more new residents than almost any city in the United States, convening stakeholder processes with dozens of people planning a couple hundred homes for years. It just doesn’t scale up.

Map of 801 + 803 bus stops
Frequent bus service already covers a lot of the city. Imagine a 10-minute walk radius around each of these stops.

Meanwhile, in many areas that are pretty good for living without a car (far better than MLK station), we have to fight tooth and nail for every new transit-friendly home! Build a side house in West Campus? Not without car parking, you don’t! We need to pull some of the simplest elements for TOD out of the realm of the exotic, craft-zoned district and into the realm of the ordinary. People who want transit-oriented development shouldn’t be limited to tiny patches of the city, each with their own special rules. Ordinary home-builders should be able to follow  standard, city-wide design documents and end up with transit-friendly homes in transit-friendly places all over.

I have no issue if the city wants to keep experimenting with extensive transit-oriented regulations in small places, but in order to see real, sizable effects, we need to update the code in general to be more transit-friendly. I’m not going to get deep into the weeds, but the basic ideas aren’t complicated and could be implemented immediately: anywhere within a 10-minute walk of a good transit line is “transit-friendly.”  In a transit-friendly area, you should be allowed to build transit-friendly homes without expensive car amenities.  You should tweak our density-limiting code in these areas so that you can build more homes close to the transit stops–distance matters a lot when you’re walking to your bus stop. Perhaps also make these areas more mixed-use, whether in the same building (vertical) or on the same street (horizontal), to provide more destinations for people to walk to. We must not worry so much about making each new transit-oriented area have the perfect feature set if it means years of delays on the most important feature: existence.

Because these transit-friendly buildings will be built spread out around the city, wherever there’s decent transit, rather than clustered in a single area, they may go pretty much unremarked. They won’t fix all the problems of a city code built up for decades around the paradigm of a-chicken-in-every-pot, a-car-in-every-garage. But to build a more affordable city with more transit-friendly options we need to make “affordable” and “transit-friendly” simple, ordinary, and widespread, and iterate from there.

16 thoughts on “From 300 to 100,000: Making Transit Oriented Development Normal

  1. Posting this without mentioning the 1/3 cuts is disappointing bordering on irresponsible. Why on earth should we trust that transit-supportive density will result in service increases when the transit-supportive density the city allowed over the last ten years has gotten service cuts?

    1. More and more frequent service, at a slightly longer walk away, is not a “service cut”.

      1. It’s a service cut. It’s not just a slightly longer walk; the extra walk time overwhelms the time savings from the supposed express service in almost all cases (especially wrt the 3/803 combination, where the anectdotal reports say the 803 is exactly zero faster than the 3 in practice).

  2. I left a lot out; that’s the nature of writing. I deleted a paragraph on how MLK station is not a very transit-friendly place to live, TOD zoning or not, because the MetroRail has a poor service schedule and few destinations. But this column just isn’t about how to construct a good transit system and I don’t say that building more density will allow better service, only that it will allow more people to take advantage of the existing service. Perhaps you’re confusing this column with one Julio wrote recently?

    1. “I deleted a paragraph on how MLK station is not a very transit-friendly place to live, TOD zoning or not, because the MetroRail has a poor service schedule and few destinations. ”

      But it’s not _just_ reliant on the metrorail. It also has bus service, including the 465 directly to campus (and the 350, 18, 464, 6…)

      1. Man if this place serves your needs, more power to you! For me, the thought of living there fills me with utter dread of being cut off from the rest of the city.

      2. Personally I prefer living biking distance to my job up north, but I don’t see how the MLK development has worse transit than anywhere else in East Austin, and better than most (by the addition of the soon-to-be-increasing rail service AND Night Owl Service).

      3. So for reference, neither the 464 or 465 run on weekends, the 18 and 350 run on 38-minute headways on Sundays, while the 6 runs on 45 minute headways. To get to my office on a Sunday, a couple miles from the station, would take me more than an hour each way if I’m lucky. I’d be better off walking.

        Again, if this is a service pattern that works for you, more power to you. And I’m not sure why this needs to be an argument in the context of the piece. I’m not saying we should take away the MLK TOD district, just that all of the other places in the city that are easier to rely on transit than MLK Station should have some kind of basic TOD zoning too.

      4. >>And I’m not sure why this needs to be an argument in the context of the piece
        Hopefully this isn’t coming across as arguing, just an interesting side conversation. But if you really think it’s distracting from the major purpose of this article, I’ll stop.

        If not, certainly Sunday service is a hard compare most places in Austin. I think it would be hard to argue that there’s anywhere in Austin where the transit service makes a car free existence all day/every day (including Sundays) “easy”, because of the almost universal service cuts on that day (even the “frequent” routes, oh I forgot the 20 through here is becoming one of these, well, sorta).

        I think for most people, it’s really going to be a process of baby steps. For instance, couples downsizing to one car, and still using it on Sundays. Or using Car2Go for unexpected office trips on Sunday. That would still result in a substantial improvement in Austin’s transportation system. TOD like here and similarly in Crestview (which also loses a lot of service on Sundays) can support this kind of lifestyle.

    2. Absolutely not. I believe that it’s irresponsible to make the case that our transit service modeshare problems can be placed on the city when the only major change recently having anything to do with density and transit service went the opposite direction from what you and Julio both imply.

      In your case your narrative is that locating more density near existing “decent” transit service will lead to more people being able to (and deciding to) use transit. Without even mentioning that the last time we did this, Capital Metro made big transit cuts such that service on the 1 and 3 corridors is no longer “decent” (30 and 40 minute peak frequencies!). That’s a pretty huge omission that blows a hole in the entire narrative.

      1. Dude…I don’t get it. I seriously don’t get it. I wrote an article about steps we can take to get more housing built in the central core and lower rents, entirely framed around the concept of housing shortage, and you claim the article was about “our transit service modeshare problems.”

        I know you like to say that I’m giving you “the silent treatment”, but usually I don’t engage with you because it just doesn’t seem like us talking leads to anything positive from either end. Maybe you disagree and you get a lot out of our chats, and if so, I’m sorry to deprive you so often. But it just feels like we go around and around in circles and waste both of our time.

      2. I don’t think “framed entirely around the concept of housing shortage” is accurate. Go count how many times you used the word “transit”.

      3. Or this snippet:

        “right along one of the city’s prime bus lines (the 3/803)”

        They aren’t the same line – they’re two different lines; one of which used to be a good local but isn’t anymore; and one of which is an incompatible express service which isn’t very density-supportive.

        Frankly, I don’t get how you don’t get it.

  3. The point raised in the discussions above is that we need better bus service.

    “anywhere within a 10-minute walk of a good transit line” What’s a good transit line or lines? I don’t want to argue about MLK, but it has a lot more than most places. Where I just moved (because the landlord jacked up the rent and I was forced to) has one line in front, the 320, and 2 more within 1/2 mile. There’s already a lot of development along Lamar, Burnet, E. Riverside, and other places with decent service. Dan raises a good point, but I think we need to focus more on improving the service.

    And Mike, I know you think you’re doing that, but we’ve all heard your argument about the 1/3 a lot. Maybe Cap Metro will address that at some point, but I think you should broaden your discussion topics.

    1. Thanks for the comment Susan. I didn’t want to make definitions here (what’s a good service, etc.) because I’m not proposing a particular ordinance, just talking about a direction.

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