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!

A Christmas wishlist for Austin’s next City Council

Austin’s new city council is shaping up to be the most development-friendly Council in recent memory. What kind of agenda could we expect or hope to see from the new City Council? Here’s what’s on my holiday wishlist.

Reform before Rewrite

CodeNEXT is dead. One reason it failed is that it combined two separate but related goals: increasing density and improving design. How dense different parts of Austin should be is a subject of intense debate. By contrast, the best ways to design Austin given a certain level of density is debated mostly by professionals. To the extent that the public debated design elements at all, the arguments sounded an awful lot like the only thing most people cared about is how these design elements affect yield. Looked at it this way, CodeNEXT was doomed to fail. It’s impossible to write coherent design guidelines when the public takes intense interest in them but evaluates them solely based on how much housing (or other buildings) they produce.

We must at least try to separate the issues of density and design. Improving the presentation of the code, the process of getting building permits, improving our streetscapes; all important issues that need a collaborative process informed by technical know-how. On the other hand, the question of whether we build a city that sprawls outward or soars upward is one with a lot of public input from the kinds of people who vote in municipal elections. It’s a question that has divided the electorate to the point of dividing communities like environmental groups and neighborhood associations. This is not an issue we can hope to just keep talking about until we find common principles. We don’t need to be nasty in how we debate the issue but we need to recognize that dumping these political questions on to staff and community engagement is doing more to cause rifts than heal them, without providing meaningful benefit. So, for my Christmas wishlist, I hope that our City Council takes a bold leap of faith and does the job they were elected to: settle political issues. That means making real movements on density even without the comfort of a completely undivided city. My real wish here is that come next Christmas, Austin can stop debating whether we are a place that welcomes new residents and start moving on to debating how we welcome new residents.

How could we do that? Here are some ideas:

Build up commercial streets

Austin has seen a number of new apartments (usually built on top of new shops or restaurants) on commercial streets like Burnet, Lamar (North and South), and South Congress since it first started allowing such buildings in 2004. They’re not my personal favorite housing style; I prefer to live on side streets with less traffic noise and pollution. But there’s no doubt that they’ve been a very popular type of new housing. They produce new homes for a lot of people who need them and they’re very easy to serve by transit, as streets with shops are already our most common bus routes. The new buildings are required to follow design guidelines that make the city more walkable, by doing things like limiting the number of driveways that interrupt sidewalks.

Here are three items on my wishlist to build on the VMU program’s success:

  1. Allow apartments on more streets. If a bus goes there, it should allow VMU.
  2. Allow apartments on all parcels on a street. Austin’s VMU ordinance made a political deal where it agreed to limit the program to certain parcels, which well-informed members of the public willing to sit through long meetings got to decide on. But that was 10 years and $1000/month in rent increases ago. It’s time to fill in the missing teeth and allow more properties to rebuild.
  3. Apply it to “Centers” as well as “Corridors.” This was an idea from the city of Austin comprehensive plan “Imagine Austin” that envisions a few more neighborhoods not dissimilar to West Campus with fewer undergraduates or Seattle’s Ballard (click through on the tweet to see the whole walking tour):

Allow more missing middle housing

“Missing middle” is the idea that there’s not a lot of ways to live in Austin that fall between a house surrounded by yard on all sides and an apartment complex with a leasing center with little bowls of candy in the waiting room. In other cities, you get lots of housing types in between: triple-deckers in Boston, greystones with up to 6 apartments in Chicago, or row houses in virtually every city the entire world over. Missing middle housing types can be employed on busy commercial streets; many cities have rowhouses interspersed with shops. But it really shines as a way of allowing more people to live on the calmer, quieter side streets where adults and children both are safer walking.

Redesigning Austin around missing middle housing is going to take a lot of work. We have effectively destroyed so much of our missing middle heritage that Austin’s Historic Preservation Officer proposed landmarking a fourplex as a rare example of a bygone housing type. But there are some items on my Christmas wishlist that are ready to ship today:

  1. Remove restrictions on subdividing buildings. If you’re allowed to build a mansion for one family to live in, you should be allowed to build that same mansion split into multiple apartments. This wouldn’t affect the health and safety regulations, nor would it affect regulations that affect the form of a house. It would simply take advantage of the fact that many of our houses are built too large and could accommodate more people with an extra stove and a wall between two sides of the building.
  2. Reduce minimum lot sizes. Austin requires unusually large amounts of land, measured in both area and width, in order to build a house or apartment building. Austin’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods were built before that rule and have many lots with housing on smaller lots. Requiring so much land was a mistake and we should drop it sharply.
  3. Treat missing middle like houses not mega-complexes. Austin has a different set of rules for getting permits to build houses versus getting permits to build large buildings. While both types of buildings are required to follow zoning rules, large ones have to go much further in proving that they’re following the rules. This doesn’t have a huge effect on mega-complexes, which are always going to require complex permitting. But the additional paperwork can make it simpler to build an upscale mansion than a simple fourplex.

A hideous four-unit house from before Austin mandated only beautiful single-unit houses.

End Parking Requirements

Requiring that every house, apartment, store, school, daycare, and bar have its own parking places is crazy stupid. It encourages people to get an extra car even if they could get by without it, it adds crazy large expenses to everything we build, and it makes the city ugly as heck. Once you realize how much of a city is built the way it is just to provide huge amounts of parking, you’ll feel like you’ve just put on the goggles from They Live:

Parking requirements aren’t one of those “we just disagree on the right amount” ideas. They’re always wrong and the best thing we can do is eliminate them entirely. But if that isn’t on the shelf at the mall, some good alternatives could be:

  1. Eliminate parking requirements near buses and trains.
  2. Eliminate parking requirements in special districts like TODs and West Campus.

Expand Downtown and West Campus

The downtown/UT campus area is a special place, different from any other part of Austin and in some ways any other part of Texas. Austin has one of the largest percentages of jobs in its central business district, understood in this case to extend all the way up to UT. Although this can cause problems with car traffic when many people commute in from around the city surrounded by their steel cages, it’s a huge advantage for running transit. These areas are both doing very well but threatening to run out of room as they get built up. So what would I love to get to fix this?

  1. Rezone more of downtown to CBD or DMU, the two zoning districts special to downtown.
  2. Expand West Campus’ special zoning to more parts of West Campus.
  3. Expand the “inner West Campus” zoning district that allows taller buildings to more of West Campus.

Start working on Comprehensive Zoning

Design and density go best together. A comprehensive rewrite of our land development code could be far easier to achieve once the Council has set the policy direction clearly. But no matter what, it’s going to be a long process. When CodeNEXT died, many people from within the development and homebuilding industries actually let out a sigh of relief as they felt many of the areas outside the public interest weren’t well-enough examined. Outside of the pressure cooker of setting the city’s direction on density, real progress can be made on the more technical aspects of the code. Let’s start.

West Campus’ remarkable growth, charted

This blog has something of an obsession with West Campus. It’s the neighborhood that lives by upside-down, inside-out rules and it’s a window into the Austin that could be. So when we got a hold of data about West Campus’ growth, we pretty much had no choice but to put it in charts.

Part 1: Understanding the scale and speed of West Campus’ growth

West Campus has grown fast

Since the creation of the University Neighborhood Overlay in 2004, there has been a pretty steady growth of new homes with a brief financial-crisis-induced break in 2009-2010. The numbers are really quite stupendous: over the course of a decade, essentially a new town of 10K people has been added to what was already one of Austin’s denser neighborhoods.

In this chart, I show two equivalent axes: bedrooms (on the left) or % of UT undergrads those bedrooms represent (on the right). I chose to use bedrooms rather than units because of my intuition that student housing is typically occupied by one person per bedroom, so a 4-bedroom unit really does house twice as many people as a 2-bedroom unit. (In other housing, a 4-bedroom unit may mean that one or more bedrooms are being used as a study or guest room.) The blue line shows the number of new bedrooms created in the UNO overlay, while the red line hugging the bottom shows the number of new bedrooms created by new dorms on the UT campus itself. Numbers after 2017 are projections based on city filings rather than completed units on the ground. At the rate UNO is growing, approximately half of UT undergrads will live in new units created under UNO by 2023.

A lot of investment

How much does it cost to build out a neighborhood? Using 2017 tax valuation, the UNO buildings alone (not counting the land they sit on) were valued at a bit more than a billion dollars. For comparison, Austin’s last affordable housing bond was for $65m and the capital costs of Austin’s proposed 2014 light rail bond was about $1.5 billion. Each year, the buildings in UNO contribute more than $25m in property tax revenues to the various local government taxing entities: the city of Austin, Travis County, Austin Independent School District, Austin Community College, and Central Health.

A lot of new income-restricted apartments

West Campus is home to one of the largest concentration of developments in Austin with apartments specifically for people below certain income levels. There are two reasons for this: 1) as part of the new rules for building apartments, developers are required to set aside a certain number of units for eligible people, and 2) there has been a lot of development in West Campus.

Part 2: How UNO has changed over time

Buildings are getting bigger

Buildings are getting bigger overall, as expressed by number of bedrooms per project. I’m not sure why this would be; perhaps easier-to-finance mid-rise buildings have proven the way for larger high-rise projects. Perhaps the most easy-to-build sites were in the lower height districts and investors are moving on to the more difficult-to-build sites in high-rise districts.

Parking by bedroom

Over time, the number of parking units added per new bedroom built has dropped precipitously from a high of nearly 0.9 parking spaces per bedroom to 0.5 in 2016 and an anticipated 0.36 in 2019. Apparently, when we build places near other places, more people can get around without a car. There’s a number of ways these change might be explained:

  • Developers and financiers have become more comfortable with building less parking as earlier buildings saw less parking used than anticipated.
  • As more commercial amenities have moved into the neighborhood like the Fresh Plus grocery store, fewer students have needed cars.
  • Younger people more generally have lower preferences for having cars with them at school than they used to.
  • Developers have gotten better at managing city rules to find ways to avoid expensive required parking. (More on this later.)

Bedrooms per Unit

The number of bedrooms provided per unit is a major way that West Campus departs ways from the rest of Austin. Developers typically build studios and 1-bedroom apartments to accommodate the many 1- and 2-person households the city is adding. In West Campus, developers have always built more bedrooms per unit, probably because students are more willing to share a suite with unrelated roommates than many non-students. Of late, though, the  number of bedrooms per unit is going even higher. Why? I have a hunch.

Parking by Unit Size

This is a trickier chart than the others. On the bottom axis, there’s bedrooms per unit. On the left axis, there’s parking spaces required (not built) per bedroom. The dots and the blue trend line both show that, generally speaking, the more bedrooms provided per unit, the fewer parking spaces a developer is required to build.

Based on the trend toward less parking per bedroom and more bedrooms per unit, my hunch is that developers have figured out that parking is not an amenity that enough students want or are willing to pay for to justify the fairly high costs of building it. So now they’re trying everything they can to avoid the expense of building unwanted parking garages, including build bigger suites for which they aren’t required to provide as much parking. If this is true, it’s another example of a remarkable property of zoning codes: they always have unintended consequences. Zoning code didn’t set out to decide how many college students should group together into a suite, but it might well have decided it nonetheless.

[Edit: A dissenting view comes in from friend-of-the-blog Tyler Stowell.  See below.]


This has been a fun romp through a little dataset. Let’s reiterate some of the conclusions I’ve drawn:

West Campus shows little signs of slowing down

There are sometimes worries that when a part of town allows denser housing, there will be a big bang as all the most likely sites get developed and the ones that remain all have special problems. If that’s the case with West Campus no effects are obvious. New sites come on to the market all the time and there are still surface parking lots or low-rise buildings that are prime targets for redevelopment. We could well see new West Campus buildings account for 50% or more of the undergrad population before long.

The city still requires too much parking

The trend we observed toward fewer and fewer parking spaces being built — and especially the trend toward weighting the unit mix toward parking-light high-bedroom units — tells me that developers are seeing little use and little market for their parking. With Bcycle rideshare taking off on top of the existing walking, biking, and bus routes, most students in West Campus just don’t want or need cars. Eliminating parking minimums would also allow developers to be more creative in other areas, providing different amenities or lower costs.

The city regulates way more private investment than it makes public investment

So far, rebuilding West Campus has been a $1B project, far dwarfing the amount of money the city has spent directly or indirectly on housing development. Most of the time, we don’t think of it as a single “project” because there is no one single coordinating entity controlling what buildings get built in what order. But it was created as a result of a city policy change. Even the smallest changes to city policy, in this case only affecting a single neighborhood, can end up affecting far more private investment than direct municipal spending affects.

[Note from friend-of-the-blog Tyler Stowell:] I’d disagree with one of your points though Рmy observation is that the higher bed/unit ratio isn’t a way around parking requirements, it’s a cost cutting measure. Bedrooms are cheap and pay rent. Kitchens and bathrooms are expensive and don’t pay rent. Diluting the cost of kitchens/baths over more beds equals higher profit for the developer. And this works in west campus for college students who might’ve lived in Jester last year. Not so much in other markets. The parking is always a target percentage of bedrooms and truly is market driven (eg. my last project the developer wanted to provide a space for 80% of bedrooms). Some projects take the full reduction allowed by UNO, but some go higher.

Can CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke hit the Project Connect softball out of the park?

Project Connect, the government group responsible for proposing big ideas for the future of Austin transit, has unveiled their latest vision (shown below). I haven’t dug into the details as much as I will over the coming months but from 10,000 feet, I’m impressed. Their analysis confirms that water is wet, the sky is blue, and the three corridors where light rail makes sense are Guadalupe/Lamar, East Riverside, and South Congress, with Guadalupe/Lamar being the very best. Additionally, the analysis identifies two more high-quality transit routes (South Lamar and Manor) where great bus service could work well and one medium-quality transit route (ACC Highland via UT campus and Red River) where pretty darn good bus service is possible. There’s also an interesting thought for a future connection to the Domain.

Although I haven’t done an extensive survey of transit advocates in Austin, most of the talk I’ve seen about this plan has been extremely psyched. This isn’t just one expensive but low-ridership rail route for the point of having rail, but a system of interlocking lines that make sense with one another. The plan may not be perfect but it does look very good.

So why mention Cap Metro CEO Randy Clarke?

Astute observers may have noted a difference between my description of the Project Connect system and the map they released: I referred to three lines as being designated for light rail, whereas the Project Connect map refers to them as being “high ridership and cost.”  Project Connect staff had mapped what mode (i.e. bus vs rail) makes sense for each corridor but CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke asked them to hold off on including it in their Phase Two report. Project Connect has set up Randy Clarke with a perfect softball pitch: come in to a new city and put a stamp on the most ambitious long-term plan to create a city with first-class transit. The question is: why is he not swinging?

Don’t gaslight us, Randy!

I’m still recovering from a bitter campaign on Austin’s last transit proposal, Proposition 1 in 2014. I rely on transit to get anywhere outside my immediate walking radius so it was extremely difficult to make my debut in local politics by opposing a major transit plan. But it was something I felt I had to do and to this day, I resent the fact that staff placed transit advocates in that position. It wasn’t just that most of the advocates had come to a different conclusion than the planners about route choices. I actually felt like through the course of the route selection process I was being gaslighted. I dug deeper into the 2014 route choice model than I ever wanted to. Every time I found a bizarre choice, I was told that no, the sky has always been red and it makes perfect sense to, say, assume students would be as likely to walk more than a mile from their home to a train station as they would be likely to walk half a mile. Or that it makes perfect sense to count potential homes as twice as important to ridership than actual existing homes.

When I look at this latest Project Connect map, I feel not only excitement for Austin’s future but a definite sense of relief and vindication for having argued that the sky was blue. Project Connect has confirmed that the non-professionals like myself who were skeptical of the 2014 process shared the same thought process with many professionals in the industry. That while some folks called myself and friends “transit trolls” and literally told us to “shut up” and listen to the experts, I wasn’t being naive to question, say, whether tunneling underneath the Hancock Center was really the best use of scarce transit funds. (It was then and remains a bad idea.) The conclusions that the professionals have drawn this time around are completely in line with the conclusions the amateur advocates drew last time and a fairly sharp repudiation of the 2014 proposal. But this sense of relief isn’t unlimited. The longer that any part of the Project Connect effort ‚ÄĒ staff or leadership ‚ÄĒ go without being willing to state obvious facts, the more that I worry that this effort, like the last one, will be derailed by bad choices.

Are autonomous vehicles the answer?

So reading Randy Clarke say things like: “We are not that far along from having maybe a (bus rapid transit) type of system that is autonomous, connected and electric that in a lot of ways may meet a lot of the desires and outcomes that modern-day (light rail transit) delivers because you may be able to connect two, three or four vehicles and separate them in a much different way, similar to how light rail system works today but with a lot less cost structure,” I get nervous.

Of course, driverless vehicles that connect multiple cars and carry a lot of people have existed for decades. Here’s one in Vancouver:

And if it’s true that radical new technologies change the cost equation at some point in the future then by all means nobody thinks we should ignore that. But for the sake of the collective sanity and confidence of Austin transportation advocates, Project Connect should come out and say “Barring anything paradigm-changing, these three routes are ripe for rail and the others should use some combination of enhanced bus measures.”

Why I requested Leslie Pool recuse herself on deciding the Grove

I was one of twelve community members to write a letter to District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool requesting that she recuse herself from deciding the future of the Grove, a mixed-use neighborhood planned in District 10, extremely close to CM Pool’s residence.

CM Pool has made the case that this decision for her is much more than a disinterested balancing of the interests of the entire city; it has personal implications which weigh heavily on her mind:

‚ÄúI have a lot invested in this effort and its outcomes … I also happen to live within a 1‚ĀĄ4 mile of the land. I also played a key role in assembling the neighborhood consensus…‚ÄĚ

‚Äďemail from CM Pool to Mayor Adler

Recusals were invented precisely for cases when a Council Member has “a lot invested.” If CMs do not recuse themselves, we may never know whether she is acting in the best interests of the city or her own best interests. CM Pool has already unsubtly reminded her colleagues exactly how much she has riding on this decision. Her continued presence in the Council debate puts her colleagues in the awkward place of balancing the best interests of the city against the best interests of their colleague. Elected officials should be strong enough to manage this awkwardness, but rules should be strong enough to prevent it.

CM Pool has made ethics a centerpiece of her campaign. But ethics, if the word has any meaning, cannot merely be a weapon you use to attack; it must be a mirror you use to examine yourself. CM Pool, from her own words, should have recused herself from this case long ago.

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Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the most important center of¬†US technology development. Its¬†cluster of tech workers, financiers, and services are light years ahead. There was no¬†special natural resource that made¬†Silicon Valley the only place for a tech boom, but once it got started, Silicon Valley built a strong First Mover Advantage–any place that wants to compete has to not only duplicate Silicon Valley’s ecosystem, but it has to do it in a world¬†where Silicon Valley is already here. Silicon Valley also has strong network effects–each new techie¬†that¬†moves to¬†Silicon Valley makes it an even more attractive place to build a company, which makes it a more attractive place for techies to move, which…

But in tech,¬†there’s sometimes¬†a¬†Second Mover advantage. New companies can learn to navigate around the market leaders’ failures and steer straight for¬†the successes. Big companies can get sclerotic and bureaucratic, unable to appreciate the problems they have or unable to fix them even if they know. Success breeds¬†complacency–famously, Microsoft struggled after its¬†employees became¬†millionaires by virtue of owning stock options at the right place and the right time.¬†Company culture becomes backward looking, focused on preserving the successes of today, rather than building toward tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s Achilles Heel is Terrible public policy

To many residents of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the dangers of being First Mover are very familiar–not from their workplaces, but their local politics.

  • The bureaucratic ordeal in¬†getting a new software development project started¬†at a large company¬†is legendary, but pales in comparison to¬†getting a¬†land development¬†project off the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • Silicon Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco¬†years ago and¬†became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become¬†less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have.
  • Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city¬†has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they¬†will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely¬†proving they¬†will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.

Housing could be¬†Austin’s¬†Killer App

Building the best product isn’t enough to compete with¬†a network effect.¬†If it were, a few more of us¬†might be using Google Plus or Google Wave today.¬†The new product or platform has to be close to¬†comparable in the current feature set and, crucially, it has to have a Killer App that makes people not just like it, but want it and¬†need it.¬†For Austin and our platform of functional public policy, the Killer App can be walkable, bikable, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

While the construction technology for building housing at low-cost is not something new, the political technology of a functioning municipal governance platform that facilitates its creation through times of poverty and times of prosperity is something that the United States as a whole lacks. In addition, improving on current governance and providing housing to meet demand would be a difficult act to match. There are few cities outside Silicon Valley that have the right ingredients of a startup economy as well established as Austin does. All of them have had housing cost problems for far longer than Austin has had, yet none of them have adequately addressed the issue.

Tech needs long-term, Quality Public Policy Engagement

How can the¬†technology community in Austin help with local governance? For starters, the community¬†needs to engage with public policy at a much deeper level than it has to date. Politics is not a company to buy or¬†a video game to win. Sometimes throwing money into politics without understanding things hurts your position¬†more than helps.¬†The companies and communities¬†that have a lasting impact on politics don’t just show up when there’s an issue that directly affects them. They¬†develop deep relationships so that when issues affect them, they understand how their proposals will affect others in the community and vice versa.

Technology companies need a supportive environment around them to succeed–angel and venture for¬†funding, consultants to help navigate situations other companies have seen before, IP lawyers, board members, complementary companies.¬†A good company takes advantage of all the resources they have available to them. The same is true of a smart¬†participant in public policy. The¬†most effective¬†ones don’t go it alone; they¬†have an ecosystem of allies and advocates, consultants and collaborators whose advice they listen to and cherish.

This is important for anybody who wants to participate in politics, but it’s especially important for tech. Tech, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, does not share a background with everybody in the community. The common experiences that bring tech people together can divide us from everybody else. A¬†company that lets its¬†programmers do design will end up with an interface designed for programmers but¬†clunky for everybody else. When the tech community designs its own political messaging, we end up with¬†arguments, imagery, and optics that look¬†good¬†in the board room and clunky–or even offensive–to everybody else.

Learn to Listen and Not Just Lecture

When Uber and Lyft decided on putting their case to the Austin voters, they¬†did not lack for a voice. They brought more money to the campaign than the city has ever¬†seen spent in a race. In a campaign that will be studied for years, voters received dozens of pieces of direct mail, text messages, app alerts, and in-person messaging. Uber and Lyft did not have trouble getting heard.¬†Indeed,¬†many people reported¬†having heard so much from Uber and Lyft that¬†it got in the way of their ordinary life, soured them on Uber and Lyft’s message, and fed into the narrative Uber’s opponents campaigned on (Uber as¬†corporate bully).

While Uber’s money succeeded perhaps too well at getting its voice heard, Uber failed at some of the basics of campaigning. Despite a large number of people and organizations that supported their cause in general, they failed to¬†build a coalition working for them.¬†Many of their allies dropped out of official events and organizations while others failed to rally an effort. For those familiar¬†with the campaign, this wasn’t a surprise; Uber as a company¬†didn’t come to this campaign with any willingness¬†to listen to allies and understand¬†what they wanted and needed out of a campaign.

For those who have been involved in tech, the listening deficit shouldn’t be¬†surprising. The mythos of technology startups says that visionary¬†founders and young startups are a special breed of people able to see what the broader society cannot.¬†But building effective political coalitions is very different from building technology startups. If the technology community wants to participate effectively in local politics, it must bring¬†the skills appropriate to¬†the problem.

Not Every Problem can be solved by tech

Technology can be applied to any problem. Sometimes in the technology world, this gets combined¬†with a frustration about the difficulty of involvement in public policy,¬†and comes out¬†as “every problem can be solved by technology.”

There are numerous housing technologies today being developed to improve construction techniques, from cross-laminated timber to prefabricated apartment blocks. But the technologies to resolve San Francisco’s housing crisis were developed in the early 20th century and before. The reasons that San Francisco and the Bay Area lack the housing supply to accommodate the people who want to work there is definitely not because the area lacks the technical know-how to construct housing. Developing new technologies¬†can reduce costs, but it cannot create new housing when the¬†purpose of the¬†regulations that prevent new housing is precisely to prevent housing. There is no technology short-circuit to public policy engagement.

How to get involved

Where to? The biggest effort¬†to reform Austin’s public policy right now is CodeNEXT, a rewrite of the extensive set of rules governing everything from the height of buildings to¬†which streets can be used for offices and which streets for homes–a reform with the potential to shape Austin’s competitiveness for¬†decades to come.

The author has worked in technology for 15 years and engaged with Austin politics for a few.

9 things people always say at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats

If you watch enough zoning hearings, the testimony begins to sound pretty repetitive. That novel argument you’re making? The Council members have heard it a million times before. Here are 9 of the things we hear most often at zoning hearings, illustrated by cats.

1. I’m not opposed to all development. ¬†Just this development.

Those 1,000 times you sat on your couch to support developments far away from you surely counterbalance that one time you came out to oppose your neighbor’s development.

If you’re opposed, just tell us why; don’t go on about how you’re not a person that opposes things.

2. Nobody Talked to me!

The city notifies neighbors and¬†registered civic organizations about¬†upcoming permits. Developers seek out people they think might be affected.¬†But¬†it’s hard to know who is going to care and notifications are often thrown out. Don’t feel left out! If you’re at the hearing, you’re being heard. Just say what’s on your mind.

3. Reality is, Everybody Drives A Car.

Usually said while proposing somebody build more parking. If you want that reality to ever change, you have to accept building less car infrastructure.

4. These greedy Developers only think about profits

Land development is a business. Like all businesses, sometimes you make money and sometimes you lose money. You just try to make sure that you make enough money on the winners to cancel out the losers. Focusing in on the fact that the developer is hoping to make money makes your testimony sound more like you oppose out of spite than a particular reason.

5. Let me tell you MY Theory of Economics

If council members¬†haven’t learned economics by now, they’re not going to learn it from your three minute testimony.

6.what this neighborhood really needs is a coffee shop, not more apartments

For all the mean things people sometimes say about developers, a lot of folks seem to fashion themselves amateur land developers, with a keen eye on exactly what types of businesses will succeed or fail. As it turns out, those things coincide perfectly with the things they personally enjoy.

7.¬†I’m 5th Generation! My Great Great Grandfather moved here before This was even on the Map!

That entitles you to one vote, just like everybody else. Now tell us what you came up here to say.

8. We need to respect the hundreds of hours spent crafting this neighborhood plan

Respecting people for volunteering time making plans doesn’t mean those plans should¬†never change. Now tell us your reasons for or against this particular change.

9. This housing Is Too Small for me!

Different people have different needs and desires! Just because you don’t like a particular thing doesn’t mean nobody would like it.

Councilmembers’ approach to zoning, in their own words, part 2

Last month, City Council took up one of their first large zoning cases, a proposed apartment complex near Burnet Road. Many of them used the opportunity to expound not only on the case in question, but some of the principles behind their decision, and I duly blogged those takes. Zoning changes require 3 “readings” (i.e. 3 different votes). If there’s no disagreement, all 3 readings can happen on the same night. But in this case, there was disagreement, so they only passed the vote “on first reading,” and this last Thursday, revisited it. If you’re interested in the background and outcome of the decision, check out Liz Pagano’s take in the Austin Monitor. Me, though? I’m interested in hearing what the Council Members had to say about their approach to zoning.

District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo

Gallo here notes that the majority of Austin rents, neighborhood associations don’t always do a good job representing them, and it’s the responsibility of City Council to look out for all residents, not just the organized ones. Readers of this blog will be familiar with both the renting and neighborhood association ideas.

Here, Gallo gives her opinion that the reason why rents have risen in Austin is an imbalance of supply and demand, and suggests more housing supply is needed to stop price increases. This, again, is familiar territory on this blog.

District 3 Council Member Pio Rentería

CM Rentería, similar to CM Gallo, believes that raising supply will stabilize prices.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar

Casar offers a number of ideas here. First, he discusses a “filtering up” mechanism, where, if new housing doesn’t get built, old (or “vintage”) housing can become more expensive, giving as an example housing his brother lives in in Los Angeles.

Another two ideas that Casar argues for are that: 1) building housing is in and of itself, a “community benefit.” 2) There is an additional “economic integration” community benefit to having some portion of that housing be mandated Affordable Housing.  Neither of these ideas are new to council. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear both of them in the same speech. Frequently, the “economic integration” argument appears on the side of somebody arguing against denser zoning. In this case, though, Casar appeared to be arguing for greater density as a mechanism for making more Affordable Housing economically viable for the developer.

Mayor Steve Adler

I publish this not because Adler offered much background on his approach to zoning here, but because of the previous rarity of seeing a Council Member ask a developer to consider greater density on a site.  (Sorry, I accidentally cut the video short; the developer said yes, he would consider it.)

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza

Garza offers two items of note: 1) delays in the development process add to the costs of housing, and 2) Austin is a high-demand city, and when there isn’t enough housing supply in richer areas, this adds to gentrification pressures in poorer areas.

District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair

Troxclair offers a bit of a procedural take, arguing that Council’s way of using zoning as a negotiation tool encourages parties to take extremist positions. She appears to have misspoke when she said she couldn’t support MF6; she voted, as she did in the previous reading, for the higher-density MF6 and against the lower-density zoning.

The Developer

Finally, we hear from the applicant, C.J. Sackman, the developer of the project. I’m including this testimony not because his views will have lasting impact on the Council the way that Council Members’ do, but because they’re broadly representative of developers’ views.

The Rest

CM Pool (District 7), CM Kitchen (District 5), and CM Houston (District 1) emphasized that, because there was disagreement between a neighborhood association objecting to the project and the developer and because the two hadn’t fully negotiated, they wanted to pass a lower zoning category on 2nd reading only, to pressure the two sides to negotiate. CM Zimmerman (District 6) thought there had been enough testimony, and moved for the decision to be made for the higher zoning category on 3rd reading. Mayor Pro Tem Tovo (District 9) voted with Pool, Kitchen, and Houston.  In her testimony, Tovo focused on whether the developer could have provided steeper discounts on the Affordable Housing apartments, to target a poorer population.

New Councilmembers’ Approach to Zoning, In Their Own Words

On the City Council meeting on Thursday, 2/12, we had our first major look at the approach that many of the new Councilmembers will take to zoning and land use policy in practice.¬† The Item that I believe gave us the most insight was a re-zoning case.¬† For background, check out the Austin Monitor story. The basic gist of this case is that the owners of an auto repair shop are retiring and want to sell their land to a developer to build apartments.¬† As this was the first major rezoning case to come before the Council, many of the Councilmembers took the opportunity to state their principles.¬† I present to you the Councilmembers’ own words (not in the order they spoke at Council):

Don Zimmerman


Zimmerman views his decision through a lens of competing property rights: that of the property owner to build as they see fit and an implicit contractual expectation of neighbors that the city will not rezone nearby land.¬† As the opponents didn’t frame their argument in property rights, he decided to vote with the applicants’ property rights. CM Zimmerman voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Kathie Tovo


Kathie Tovo, generally more skeptical of new development during her first term, doesn’t speak directly to her approach, but asks questions related to whether development could still be profitable with less housing, as well as arguing that the developer should provide more larger (2 and 3+ bedroom units) units.¬† She also mentions “zoning is always discretionary,” pointing to a larger role for Council to play in deciding the details of what gets built and where. CM Tovo voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Ora Houston


Similarly, Ora Houston asks questions regarding how many guaranteed Affordable Housing and accessible units the complex will have.  CM Houston voted against the motion to signal support for a larger complex.

Leslie Pool


Leslie Pool puts forward a theory of balancing the needs of current members of neighborhood associations and future (Millenial) residents.  She argues for a slower development process in which infrastructure gets built first, followed by more housing.  CM Pool voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Sheri Gallo


Sheri Gallo expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but says she doesn’t “understand the neighborhood thought process” on this particular case. She supports the larger complex in part because it is buffered from single-family homes, and because the housing is needed and desired by younger people. CM Gallo voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Sabino Rentería


Very much like Gallo, Sabino Renter√≠a expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but also for density. He argues that there isn’t enough land to build single-family housing for all the people who need housing. He also adds a different line of reasoning, arguing that further density will lead to higher quality of place, via slowing traffic, increasing viability for restaurants and other retail and increasing “eyes on the street.”¬† Contra Gallo, he argues that housing creates the political support for more infrastructure. CM Renter√≠a voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Greg Casar


Greg Casar asked questions that indicated an interest in finding the way to make the market-rate housing most affordable, as well as asking whether, if this project wasn’t built, whether there would be other places to place similarly dense housing nearyby, arguing that “more people should have the right to live in that area.” CM Casar voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Steve Adler


Adler expresses a lot of process concerns, arguing against ad hoc zoning cases like this one, in favor of more comprehensive citywide plans. Nevertheless, he argues that while these planning processes are going forward, we need to keep moving forward. He also makes a plea for compromise. Mayor Adler voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair, and Ann Kitchen

These three councilmembers didn’t offer enough comment on this case to get much insight into their approach to zoning.¬† CMs Garza and Troxclair voted for the motion to signal support for the project; CM Kitchen voted against.