Austin’s draft transportation plan is moving but needs to know where it wants to go

City of Austin staff are in the process of putting together a grand strategy for transportation. These kinds of documents can range from foundational texts that set the stage for city-wide transformations to activist flypaper that channel interested citizens’ attention away from the political process that bring change and toward the construction of very expensive paperweights. This one has the potential to be transformational but in its draft state, it falls quite a bit short.

First, the good. It touches on a number of issues that are huge problems:

  • Sidewalk improvements Austin’s sidewalk coverage is abysmal; this document recommends improving it.
  • Dedicated bus lanes Mayor Adler and other city leaders like to portray Austin as a progressive climate leader. We’re not. We are a leader in driving (and I emphasize the word driving) the world into catastrophic climate change. In the most important way a city can fight climate change — driving less — Austin is bad and getting worse. This document describes some ways the city can improve it. For example, both immediate and long-term fixes to get buses out of traffic and into the fast lane.
  • Land Use The document also recognizes another way Austin can start to get more progressive environmentally: putting more new development where our public transportation is best. This is a no-brainer but we don’t do it very well so glad it’s getting recognition.
  • Fire trucks One weird issue most people don’t know about is that final veto over our street designs comes from the Fire Department. It’s a wag-the-dog situation where city streets are designed to fit our fire trucks instead of the other way around. This document recognizes that there are tradeoffs between the goal of designing streets for large fire trucks to get somewhere as fast as possible and other goals.

With all these improvements, this could be a transformational document. But strangely for a strategy document, it doesn’t do a ton of actual setting of strategies. Let’s go back to the issue with fire trucks. This is how the draft policy reads:

Manage public safety needs supported by the transportation network including street safety, emergency response, flood risk, disaster resiliency, and public health for the best outcome.

This is an improvement over the existing unstated policy where we don’t even recognize the tradeoffs. But recognizing tradeoffs isn’t a strategy for managing them! Here’s my version:

Wide streets have significant downsides due to impervious cover, maintenance costs, heat island effects, encouraging dangerous driving speeds, and discouraging pedestrian connectivity. Align the transportation criteria manual, emergency response vehicles, and other city resources toward a goal of narrower, safer, streets.

This isn’t super detailed. What’s narrow in one situation may be wide in another. But it sets up a broad goal and strategy toward achieving that goal. The next time the city purchases fire trucks, writes its street design manual, or has any other tradeoff question, staff will have a clear directive on what kind of outcomes they should be going for.

This is only one policy point in one subchapter. But the same is true of the document writ large. Sometimes I summarize documents I’m writing into a single sentence, losing vital detail but gaining insight into broader themes. My summary of this transportation strategy right now is “Improve all transportation modes.” Just like with the fire trucks, this represents a real improvement over the status quo where private cars are prioritized by default with other modes accepted only in exceptional circumstances. But while it elevates other goals beside automobile throughput, it doesn’t provide much of an actual policy or strategy for choosing between these goals except in very narrow circumstances.

Here’s my updated version:

Improve mobility, safety, and environmental outcomes by substituting other transportation modes for car trips where possible.

The document as a whole wouldn’t have to change that much as it already contains many good strategies in the sidewalk, public transportation, land use, and bicycling sections that could be useful for achieving such a substitution. But it would require adding sections that explain how to resolve conflicts between different goals. For example, the first strategy when a street has maximized vehicle throughput shouldn’t be to widen streets but to find ways to get more people per vehicle.

The deadline for public comment on the document is January 13! Please add your comments!