Leah Gernetzke
New effort launched to crowd-source traffic issues in Austin, Texas

Published in The Oak Hill Gazette

According to recent U.S. census data, approximately 110 people move to the Austin area each day. While the city’s skyrocketing population brings growth for the local economy, it also brings a wealth of frustration for commuters on increasingly congested roads.

But with more people also comes more ideas – That’s why Austin-based non-profit Glasshouse Policy launched MobilityATX, a three-month initiative that invites Central Texans to provide policy solutions and ideas to improve transportation in Austin. The most popular community-generated ideas will be delivered to city and municipal government officials.

To kick off their crowd-sourced campaign, MobilityATX hosted the first of two live-streamed panel discussions on Monday, April 27 from RideScout’s downtown office. Panelists, including District 8 City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser, Downtown Austin Alliance CEO DeWitt Peart, and AURA board member Brennan Griffin, addressed transportation issues and answered viewers’ questions posted in real-time on Twitter and MobilityATX’s website.

The panel’s discussion moderator, Michael Kanin from The Austin Monitor, highlighted the urgency of creating solution-based dialogue around the city’s traffic issues.

“Over the past decade or so, the city of Austin has asked its voters three times to fund a major rail project,” Kanin said. “Two of those three, including the most recent one, a $600 million rail proposal, coupled with a $400 million set of road improvements, failed by a significant margin. With traffic congestion seeming to mount and no apparent significant plan B in sight, Austinites of all stripes are wondering what’s next for the city.”

Panelists discussed short-term solutions to traffic problems that could be implemented in the next six months, including running buses more frequently, increasing the number of bus routes, incentivizing flexible schedules for employees to reduce rush hour traffic, educating the public on alternative transportation routes, introducing a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, and encouraging residents to take advantage of alternative transportation services such as Carma, Lyft, Uber, Car2Go, Zipcar, and Austin B-cycle.

However, panelists agreed that short-term fixes are only part of the solution.

“Transportation solutions, just by their nature, are long term, and tend to be very expensive. So we need to be very careful about what we’re doing in terms of looking into the future,” Downtown Austin Alliance CEO DeWitt Peart said. “What we do need is to try to come up with multiple solutions.”

Long-term solutions discussed on Monday included re-zoning areas to create higher population density and reduce single occupancy vehicle commutes, creating alternative city centers in which people can live and work without traveling downtown, and developing a more extensive rail system.

“I don’t think we should take any options off the table, I think we need to look at everything, and that’s what we’re trying to do here with MobilityATX, is look at all of the options that are available to us, and see which ones make the most sense, and see which ones are data-driven, and then try to experiment with those options,” City Council Member Ellen Troxclair said.

Troxclair also emphasized the fact that any transportation solution the city considers implementing should benefit all tax-paying residents.

“If you’re going to have a major proposal that you’re going to send to the voters, you need to make sure that the benefits outweigh, or are at least equal to, the costs, and that everybody who is going to be paying into it can clearly see the benefit to them,” she said.

Troxclair said that in the recent election, while speaking about and researching transportation issues in the Oak Hill area, she came across a Cap Metro map detailing future plans.

“Where I live was not even on that map. Southwest Austin was not even on that map. So how can you ask voters which, once again, don’t even have bus service, feel like they haven’t seen road improvements, like the ‘Y’ at Oak Hill, how do you ask those voters to buy in to something that they’re not even included on? So I think that would be the challenge going forward, to make sure it’s going to be something that’s going to serve everyone and that the benefits are there.”

According to RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser, changing the public’s mindset is also key to creating change.

“We have to see what it’s costing us in terms of lost time, lost hours, by stepping away. If you’ve been stuck in traffic, or you’ve been in transportation wastelands your entire time living in that community, you don’t even know how bad you have it until you try something else and then go back to it,” he said. “I hate traffic jams nowadays. If people could connect emotionally to what it’s doing to their quality of life, lack of productivity, and just generally pissing them off, I think more things could happen.”

Kopser also added that transportation is inextricably linked to social inequality issues in the city.

“We have to remember that mobility is connected to upward mobility, and the fact that terrible traffic and terrible economic segregation—the two issues really are connected,” he said. “We can work together as the fabric of the city to tie these issues, the cost and the benefits, together. We’ll have a lot better results long term than we have currently right now.”

As part of MobilityATX’s solution-based traffic forum, a second live-streamed discussion will take place on May 18. MobilityATX will conclude with an open town hall meeting on June 23. To receive updates about these online discussions and how to participate, sign up for MobilityATX’s mailing list at www.mobilityatx.com.