2024 Austin Policy Wishlist

I apologize for the short five-year break in posting! I’ve been keeping busy with a job that now requires me to work during the hours they pay me for, a volunteer gig at Texans for Housing, and a full-time parenting gig. But let it never be said I abandoned you for more than five years, so here goes my list of top Austin urbanist policy targets for 2024!

Unfinished business

City Council has already laid out a ton of plans for 2024. Here are some of the ones I’m most excited for.

HOME Phase 2

Leslie Pool with lightning surrounding her.
Dark Leslie gathering her powers.

Leslie Pool has evolved into the most influential and far-seeing Council Member in quite some time. Her HOME Phase 1 allowed more duplexes and triplexes, rolled back limits on roommates, and fixed a handful of other issues in code. HOME Phase 2 builds on this, allowing more small houses on small lots.

Address the lawsuits

Desk as seen through flaming hoop.
Artist’s rendering of procedures Travis County judges believe Austin should follow to allow new housing.

Recently, a Travis County judge decided Texas’ procedural rules should be interpreted differently than they ever have been before or than they are interpreted anywhere else in the country. This oddball logic threw out three city ordinances: one reducing the distance that single-family houses can interfere with other zoning districts, one allowing more apartments near shops, and another allowing more apartments near shops but in a different way.

Fortunately, all of these measures remain popular with the vast majority of Austinites and Council Members so we should be able to jump through whatever hoops the judge says we need to jump through. And, hey, we have a couple years of data on their usage, so we might even be able to improve on them. Thanks Judge!

New business

More and Better Student Housing

An apartment complex with a large bike rack in front.

AURA and the University Democrats have drafted a nifty request for City Council to bring the myriad benefits of UNO, Austin’s student housing district, to the rest of the student housing areas in Austin. UNO has been super awesome so building on something that’s already working would be super double awesome. One thing that hasn’t been super awesome in UNO, though, has been that some folks figured out they could build and market rooms without windows to students, many of whom rent their room sight unseen and then find out that windowless bedrooms suck. So let’s fix that while we’re at it.

Bigger -plexes in Central Austin

One of the brilliant pieces of HOME was that, rather than doing artisanal, parcel-by-parcel planning around small pieces of the city, it created rules for the city as a whole. Anybody who wants can build a triplex or two in a standard lot. But everywhere in the city isn’t the same, or else people wouldn’t pay more for a dirt lot in Bouldin than they do for a brand-new house in Circle C.

I’m not particularly fussed if City Council wants to allow, say, 8-plexes on any lot in the city. But lots of people are. So let’s target 8-plexes to the places where dense housing would have the biggest effects, where land costs are highest (and need to be split between more people) and amenities like jobs, shops, parks, and transportation options are plentiful.

Quiet Zones

When we think of zoning, the first thing in many people’s minds is along the lines of “no smokestacks next to houses.” But there’s a lot of distance between “no smokestacks” and “nothing but long-term residences.” And while living near smokestacks isn’t very nice, living near a bakery can be really nice! I would like us to move back toward first principles here, and start reintroducing less disruptive shops and offices near where we live.

Safe Routes for Children

Safe Routes to Schools is a great way of prioritizing sidewalks and bike routes. After all, kids can’t drive, so they’re a captive market for sidewalks and bike lanes. And kids walking or biking to school can fix a huge traffic problem: the school pick-up and drop-off lines. But kids need to go many more places than schools! Libraries, parks, friends’ houses, ballet classes, soccer practice, corner stores, and more! Let’s start thinking about our next steps to make Austin a place any kid can get around without Mommy or Daddy Chauffeur.

E-bikes and Families: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky

Mary and her bike

With the ongoing pandemic, the normal fare for this blog has been shut down. So we’re branching out into a new kind of content: an interview with Mary Pustejovsky, Board Member of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, former Board Member of AURA, and Someone who Bikes for Transportation and Loves to See Other People Do It Too. This is the first interview I’ve done for the blog and I failed to get my audio equipment working, so the below is from my notes. All apologies to both Mary and my readers for anything I mess up!

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Way Too Early Ideas for Austin to Prepare for the End of Corona

For all of you reading this shortly after it’s been posted, no context is necessary. But in case anybody ever goes back and reads this months or years from now, here’s the situation as I write this. Most folks in Austin are working from home on account of the global pandemic COVID-19. Dining areas in bars and restaurants are closed. Yesterday, 18 positive tests for the virus in Austin were added to the 23 existing ones. 2020’s edition of SXSW was cancelled and a large chunk of SXSW, Inc’s workers were laid off. So many other workers are being laid off in Austin and around the country and world that people are starting to ask whether the economic collapse will look more like the Great Recession or the Great Depression. Cap Metro has reported a nearly 50% drop in ridership and has dropped service to mostly Sunday-levels. I could go on and on but suffice it to say the situation isn’t looking good.

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How Big Should Project Connect Go?

Last week I had the privilege of attending an open house for Project Connect, the planning effort to build a high-frequency, high-capacity, fast-running base for Austin’s transit system. Although the in-person open houses for the Orange and Blue lines are over, you can still review the materials and get your feedback heard at the virtual open house. CapMetro didn’t come forward with one fully-baked proposal, but presented a number of choices with tradeoffs: do we go big or go small? Below are my choices and I hope y’all let me know yours!

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Checking in on CapMetro Ridership

It’s been a while since I last checked in on Cap Metro ridership. CapMetro has released a snazzy performance dashboard, but it didn’t completely visualize the data how I wanted it to so I put together a dashboard of my own using CapMetro’s data to help me understand the dynamics affecting bus riders in Austin. I’ve found some continuation of existing stories and some stories that are completely new.

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The regulations we need to #parktheplinth

Last post, I talked about physical alternatives that would let us #parktheplinth. Or in normal terms, ways to build downtown towers that don’t have giant parking plinths. Before that, I also discussed the regulatory reasons why large parking plinths are common downtown, but much less so in West Campus. So, today, let’s combine the two thoughts: what regulations could we have downtown that would encourage people building towers downtown to use some of those alternatives to parking plinths?

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Five Alternatives to Giant Parking Plinths

Last year, I sketched out why downtown has so many huge parking plinths. But another world is possible! Today, we’ll check out alternatives to the plinth. Then, coming soon, we’ll have a look at how regulations could finally #parktheplinth.

The Independent (aka the Jenga Tower) under construction. The open floors are parking, the one with windows above are where the residences start. Photo by Dan Keshet.

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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.

Three versions of Austin’s next transit map

This blog cut its teeth analyzing Project Connect’s light rail vision in 2014 but I’ve stayed relatively silent on the current iteration of Project Connect. Largely, this was because Project Connect did pretty extensive but not super sexy analysis in their preliminary reports and I didn’t have much to object to in it or add to it. The one time I chimed in was to encourage new CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke to make the easy call that Austin is ready for trains and maybe give a caveat that if new technologies emerge during the process, we can change our mind.

In the six months since I wrote that piece, Hurricane Randy has blown the process in some completely unexpected directions. In a carefully orchestrated Austin Chamber of Commerce conference presentation that more closely resembled a Steve Jobs product reveal than a city hall briefing, Clarke doubled down on new technology, revealing a map with Austin’s highest ridership transit routes labeled “Autonomous Rapid Transit,” a constellation of technologies like machine vision and vehicle-to-vehicle communications that he sees as changing the cost / benefit relationship on steel rails (i.e. trains) vs concrete lanes (i.e. buses or new tech-augmented vehicles). Since this whirlwind presentation, Austin’s transit activism has been scattered in new configurations, with different camps forming largely based on how they feel about the relative merits of tried-and-true trains vs betting on newer, cheaper technology.

These are very important questions but the thing that really struck me was not the mode but the map itself. Earlier, Project Connect spent $3.5m conducting a corridor study. The study didn’t produce a map of transit lines but what we might call “transit segments,” straight-ish lines where we might consider putting transit. It assessed each segment for how many people would benefit from transit service there and therefore how much transit capacity should be planned for. The result of the study was voluminous documentation on each segment, summarized in this map:

This is not a route map; how the segments fit together into transit lines isn’t specified yet. At the Chamber product rollout, CapMetro revealed their first cut at combining these segments into lines:

In this map, CapMetro has chosen two high-capacity lines: an Orange Line that connects the highest ridership orange and brown segments, and a Blue Line that connects the highest ridership blue segment with the medium ridership gold section.

A few questions jump out at me when I look at this map:

Why do the high-capacity Blue Line and the high-capacity Orange Line not connect?

These two lines come tantalizingly close to one another! In downtown, they are separated by no more than a few blocks. At the Capitol, they literally have stations named Capitol East and Capitol West. Yet, if you want to transfer from one to the other, you’ll have to walk, even if it’s raining or blistering hot. There’s another way of configuring the lines that adds the possibility of a transfer, for little cost, just by switching up which segment south of the river connects with which segment north of the river:

The next question is: Why did the medium-ridership gold segment get slated for high-capacity service?

Everybody would love high-investment transit service everywhere. But we have limited funds to build and run the system. That’s why we spent $3.5m studying which segments are most useful to invest in. That study found that the gold segment was only a “medium” priority behind not only the three high-ridership segments but also two other segments. So why invest heavily in this gold segment? I don’t know. Maybe even though this segment isn’t a great idea from a ridership perspective, CapMetro think its necessary from a political perspective. If so, they’ve learned nothing from the 2014 referendum when voters rejected this exact segment.

Finally, there’s a related question: Why do we split ridership on our core transit spine into two parallel lines running pretty close to one another?

Austin has a pretty definite spine of population density from north to south. This makes running transit easy because a single line with excellent service can serve a lot of the population. People will walk 5, 10, or maybe 15 minutes to a local bus line, but our central spine is wider than that. So when we build a high-capacity, high-investment service, we hope that it’s going to draw people from a wider area than a local bus line. It’s going to be fast, frequent, unobstructed, and comfortable with expensive things like platforms for level-boarding and off-board payment systems to keep it going fast, as well as politically expensive things like dedicated lanes. As a result, some people will go further to ride. Maybe they’ll walk further, or maybe they’ll bike or scoot to the station, or maybe they’ll get dropped off, or maybe they’ll take a cross-town bus. Because the service is so much better, it’s worth it. A virtuous cycle gets started, where improved service encourages more people to use the service. This happens both from within the normal 10-minute walk zone because the service is more competitive compared to driving or taking a Lyft and from outside the normal 10-minute zone, because the service is more competitive versus taking the local bus.

But the CapMetro plan to split those improvements over two segments running parallel to one another threatens to nip that positive feedback cycle in the bud. For the same costs, some of the vehicles that would be running on the central spine will instead be running on the parallel line. Neither line can run as frequently. In the companion piece to this blog, I’ve gone in more depth on an example. The extra construction costs of running more miles of track (whether steel or concrete) will also mean that we will have to save money somewhere else. What if, instead, we doubled down on a golden mile high-frequency transit spine? It could look something like this:

The Blue Line, instead of running parallel to the Orange Line, runs on the same track as the Orange Line up to Crestview. If the Blue Line is running 6 vehicles per hour and the Orange Line is running 6 vehicles per hour, then there will be 12 trains per hour between Crestview and Auditorium Shores — transit service of the likes Austin could only dream about right now. We would have six golden miles of transit-first city from Auditorium Shores to downtown to UT to the Triangle to the state office complex to Crestview. What was the northern segment of the Blue Line instead becomes the Gold Line, a medium-investment line as envisioned in the original Project Connect study. The money saved by not building parallel high-investment lines in the central city could be reallocated by extending the high-investment orange line from North Lamar Transit Center to Rundberg, improving the equity and usefulness of the route.

Is this the One True Austin Transit Map? I mean, I think it’s a pretty damn good one but I hope that our decision is backed by a little more research and analysis than this blog post. What I really hope happens is that the same project team that came up with such an excellent study of the segments is invited back to finish off the job and produce one or two final options for routes. CapMetro says that this isn’t the end, it’s the beginning and they’re open to changes. I hope that’s the case because this map needs more than a couple tweaks.