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Collaborative Project Promises Equitable Transit in Austin

Part of the National Science Foundation's Civic Innovation Challenge, the Community Hub for Smart Mobility in Austin, Texas, aims to improve public transit options to underserved areas, broadening economic opportunity.

connecting a disconnected community, austin, texas
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities.

In a special series, the  Innovation of the Month is currently focusing on the award-winning and innovative projects championed by MetroLab’s member universities and civic partners that advanced to Stage 2 of the NSF Civic Innovation Challenge, a multi-agency, national research and action competition that aims to fund ready-to-implement, research-based pilot projects that have the potential for scalable, sustainable and transferable impact on community-identified priorities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s first installment of the CIVIC Stage 2 Innovation of the Month series, we highlight a project called “Co-Creating a Community Hub for Smart Mobility: A University-Government-Nonprofit Partnership” from Austin, Texas. The project seeks to advance transportation equity and mobility justice in under-resourced transit deserts by building a low-cost community hub for smart mobility.

MetroLab’s Josh Schacht and Elias Gbadamosi spoke with Junfeng Jiao from the UT-Austin School of Architecture; Kenneth R. Fleischmann from the UT-Austin School of Information; Sherri R. Greenberg from the UT-Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs; and Jason JonMichael and Jordan “Alex” Payson from the city of Austin Transportation Department about their implementation plan as they advance to Stage 2 of the challenge.

Josh Schacht: Can you explain the objective of this project and how the project was conceived?

Junfeng Jiao: The spatial mismatch between housing affordability and jobs causes commuter traffic congestion, resulting in an annual $29 billion loss to the U.S. economy. Hence, the main objective of this project is to develop, implement and evaluate a Community Hub for Smart Mobility as a model to solve the job/housing disparity in U.S. cities. Specifically, the community that we are working with is Georgian Acres, a historically under-resourced neighborhood in northeast Austin, Texas, and we are working with multiple civic partners to address the neighborhood’s unique transportation needs.

Alex Payson: The aim of our Community Hub for Smart Mobility is to provide affordable transportation options, so community members can get from their door to the hub, the hub to work, and back again. We want these trips to make sense for them, while also being affordable, timely and comfortable.

Ken Fleischmann: In terms of our project’s origin, in many ways, it is a product of a broader collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin and the city of Austin. Sherri, Junfeng and I are all members of Good Systems, a UT Grand Challenge. The goal of Good Systems is to develop ethical human-AI partnerships that benefit society. The three of us collaborated with partners at the city of Austin, particularly Charles Purma III, Ted Lehr and Sara Smith, to co-organize a workshop to build collaborations between the university and the city. During my term as founding chair of Good Systems, we developed and funded seven collaborative city-university research collaborations; Junfeng succeeded me as chair and oversaw executing these projects. One of these projects was selected as the MetroLab Innovation of the Month for July 2020. This collaboration helped lead to the signing of an interlocal agreement between the University of Texas at Austin and the city of Austin; the lead negotiator for the university was Deputy Vice President for Research Jennifer Lyon Gardner. The interlocal agreement provides a model for other cities and universities to follow and helped to make this collaboration possible.

Elias Gbadamosi: Who are the stakeholders involved and what perspectives do they bring?

Payson: This project is a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin, the city of Austin and a local nonprofit, Jails to Jobs, as well as numerous community organizations. The university offers valued perspectives on the research and development of efficient and sustainable transportation technologies. The city prioritizes providing safe and livable places that serve the needs of community members, while emphasizing the voice of the neighborhood in the project process. Jails to Jobs, which is located in Georgian Acres, fosters a sense of belonging and ownership within that community.

Jiao: This project also is one of 17 winners of the Civic Innovation Challenge, or CIVIC, which is a collaboration between the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and MetroLab.

Fleischmann: In particular, through the multiple stages of review and project execution, we have benefited significantly from the guidance that MetroLab has provided, including workshops on stakeholder analysis, community engagement and data strategy. MetroLab brought a wealth of experience in fostering productive collaborations among universities, local governments and community organizations.

Schacht: Equity is an important focus for this project. How does the team conceptualize equity in the purview of this project and how will it be measured?

Jiao: People who are underserved by transportation in U.S. cities face the joint challenges of structural inequities as well as transportation that does not currently meet all of their needs. Tackling this issue requires listening to the community.

Sherri Greenberg: Absolutely. We are co-creating the Community Hub for Smart Mobility with the people we are serving, and we cannot create equitable, smart mobility without listening to community members. We cannot assume that we understand the transportation needs of people in the Georgian Acres neighborhood, or residents in any other underserved neighborhood. Using human-centered and community-centered design principles is critical. This includes robust, grass-roots community engagement and outreach, and interviews, surveys and workshops to ascertain peoples’ needs, and to co-design and implement transportation solutions based on their values and input.

Gbadamosi: How will the project narrow economic and social gaps across social classes in Austin?

Jiao: Transportation is an important facilitator of social inclusion, which can affect economic and social outcomes, and therefore inequity. Not everyone can afford a personal vehicle; we must provide geographically extensive and affordable multimodal mobility options.

Payson: Indeed, the transportation options available at the community mobility hub will improve access to public transportation by addressing first/last-mile issues, allowing people to travel more freely to access economic opportunities. Offering access to various transportation options also increases community choice, thereby empowering community members to make transportation choices based on their needs.

Schacht: Do you see potential for this project to apply to other communities across the U.S.?

Jiao: This project provides both a general and detailed framework for development of a Community Hub for Smart Mobility, including a multimodal transportation system that can be applied to other U.S. cities through partnerships with local entities and transportation agencies.

Fleischmann: Specifically, here in Austin, in November 2020, voters approved funding of over $7 billion for Project Connect, which will revolutionize transportation in Austin. Project Connect has funding allocated to building circulator routes, which is one of the approaches that we are piloting in this project. Through Project Connect, the city and Cap Metro could scale this project citywide, and then these innovations could provide a model that could be transferred to many other cities nationwide.

Jason JonMichael: Meaningful innovation has the potential to help transform how people move through the city in safe, efficient and affordable ways. By encouraging the community to be a part of this conversation, we can harness the power of innovation to help address the community’s transportation-related challenges. It needs to be a collaborative process that values the input of those it is being designed to serve.
Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.

Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization's communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.