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Growth Spurt Forces Austin to Rethink Its Transportation Path

Like so many other rapidly growing cities, Austin, Texas, is dealing with considerable congestion and a daunting outlook for the future. But, new recommendations are reframing the conversation and offering officials options.

To relieve its increasingly congested highways, Austin officials are hoping to change behaviors and encourage more residents to use public transit, or at least take other steps to stay off of freeways during rush hour.

The Austin Department of Transportation offered recommendations to the City Council as items to consider as it moves forward with crafting citywide strategies to stem single-occupancy trips. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) predicts vehicle use in the region could double by 2040, while highway capacity would only grow 15 percent.

A recent report drafted by the department, in partnership with Capital Metro and the Austin Innovation Office and the Austin Equity Office, compiled a series of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies, designed to serve a range of different users and their various transportation needs. Ultimately, 15 recommendations were considered, with six of those highlighted for Council consideration.

“We wanted to make sure that we were being holistic and not being so prescriptive, to say, 'Here’s the one strategy you should fund,'” said Tien-Tien Chan, TDM program manager for the Austin Transportation Department.

Some of those approaches include changes to parking policy, such as “unbundled parking,” where the cost to purchase or rent a parking space is separate from the cost of an apartment or office space. The move would underscore the financial incentive of staying car-free.

Another recommendation — this one with a technology component — would create a digital mobile platform that would offer individually crafted commute options. The service would present these options, often a mixed bag of transit and other forms of mobility, complete with timelines and cost.

The concept is to nudge workers away from daily car trips and toward other forms of transportation. The idea is based on a similar pilot project conducted in Durham, N.C.

“The idea was, let’s not bombard these downtown Durham employees with 10 different options. We can give them just one,” said Chan. 

“It’s like, you work here and I’m not going to tell you to bike, but I will say if you ride to a park-and-ride and then take transit to your work destination, this is how much it would cost. This is everything you need to know to do it,” she explained.

The pilot tested whether that level of information was in itself enough to change commuter behavior. Then, layers of incentives, such as initial free transit passes, were added on to also move the needle toward getting more commuters off of the roadways.

Austin's effort has an estimated cost of $240,000 to $540,000, which would fund technology development, staff time for the planning and implementation as well as marketing and outreach, and purchasing the incentives.

Another proposal would create a rewards program attached to transit passes. For example, fliers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport who use transit could be given an expedited security line, or earn credits when using sustainable first-mile, last-mile options like the city’s bike-share network.

All of the six recommendations sent to the City Council were unique in that they did not call for big-budget capital investment, or yearslong planning and implementation approaches, but were the sort of initiatives that could be taken on relatively quickly.

“I think this is in the minds of City Council. It’s in the minds of staff and residents. I think all stakeholders in Austin consider traffic and traffic congestion, and all the things that impact it, like our population boom, is top of mind,” said Chan.

The team focused on “projects that could be implemented in the near term,” said Chan, explaining that the team intentionally avoided calling for more infrastructure. 

Austin is similar to other rapidly expanding mid-size cities in the country, which are grappling with the growing pains of a bustling economy, population growth and slowing traffic. And like other cities on the move, Austin does not have a deep to connection to public transit. In fact, some 73.8 percent of commuters drive alone, according to the 2017 American Community Survey cited in the recommendations. By comparison, only 48.8 percent of commuters drive alone in Seattle.

Austin’s goal is to get single-occupancy vehicle trips down to 50 percent or less, said Jacob Barrett, public information specialist for the Austin Department of Transportation.

“Every study we have done, for the past five years, indicates either housing affordability or traffic as No. 1 or 2,” said Barrett.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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