Austin has long been known as a cultural center built around the University of Texas. Over the past 10 years, its digital talent pool, social and entertainment scene, and lower cost of living helped make it one of the fastest-growing cities in the US.
Austin’s transformation from a college town to a center for high-tech, civic technology, new mobility, and R&D has attracted businesses and residents from across the country. The influx of new residents has accelerated since the pandemic as remote workers looked to find a better lifestyle.
“Decision-makers want Austin to become a next-generation, smart, global city, the best in its league,” says Sharmila Mukherjee, executive vice president for planning and development at Capital Metro, the regional transportation agency.
Coping with these profound changes has become essential as Austin rethinks what it needs to become a truly future-ready city. Currently, says Mukherjee, there is a big gap between the digital and physical infrastructure in Austin, a city with a small downtown surrounded by areas with a suburban feel.
“In certain areas Austin has made significant strides—in attracting businesses and creating a knowledge and technology-based economy,” she says. However, the city lacks some urban basics–such as sidewalks. “Before we become a smart city, I think we need to have continuous sidewalks and better pedestrian infrastructure along our streets in our urban core and in the neighborhoods,” she says.
Transition to multi-modal transport
To remedy its transportation problems, the city has taken some bold steps. It is currently implementing a $7 billion transit expansion—Project Connect—which was approved by a referendum in November 2020.
With this big strategic mobility plan, Austin is transitioning from a car-dependent approach to a more effective multi-modal transportation system, says Mukherjee. It includes four bus rapid transit routes and two new light rail lines, along with more than four miles of subway tunnels through downtown and South Austin. Project Connect is now reviewing the program for feasible and viable phasing and implementation of the rail lines in light of higher projected construction costs and inflation.
In addition, Cap Metro, in partnership with the City of Austin and the BCycle company, recently took over Austin’s bike share program, renamed Metro Bike. It is phasing out older bikes and replacing them with a fully electric bike fleet over the next three years. “It will serve as a first and last mile mobility solution in some areas and expand the network for more equitable distribution of bikes and associated facilities,” says Mukherjee.
Austin is building a full mobility-as-a-service program. Its transit app permits users to pay for bike share, light rail, and bus service as one continuous journey—with an open-loop credit card payment system and fare-capping slated for the future.
Equitable transit development
To make the transport expansion viable, says Mukherjee, transit customers need to be able to live near stations and have housing choices available for all income levels. The city is looking to build less-expensive, higher-density housing along the major transportation corridors while avoiding displacement.
The city has also set aside $300 million in anti-displacement funds at its disposal from the Project Connect referendum. However, the effort is facing some regulatory headwinds. Zoning in much of the area is for single-family housing, rather than for apartment buildings and offices.
“There is a huge disconnect between land-use regulations and housing and transportation needs that is felt on the ground,” says Mukherjee. “If Austin is looking to truly be a global and equitable city, land use changes absolutely need to take place so as not to widen the housing and economic divides even further.” Mukherjee is hoping for council approval of the needed land use changes in the first half of 2023.
While waiting for the disposition of the land-use question, Austin’s housing and planning department is buying properties along the transit corridors for affordable housing, targeting areas where low-income residents are at high risk for displacement. However, in some instances private developers have moved faster than the city, which is hampered by archaic regulations, and the necessity for multi-layered community consultations embedded in the neighborhood level planning process, Mukherjee explains.
Looking to go bigger
The city is poised to think more globally in its planning process—but that is not always easy in Texas, she says, where there is a strong demarcation between urban, suburban, and rural areas. That has made it politically difficult to extend innovations beyond the city limits—including the new transport options—to neighboring areas that also are experiencing ripple effects from tremendous growth in Austin and Central Texas.
“It took tremendous efforts on part of Capital Metro and the City of Austin to get the transport plan to be approved by the voters” she says, “and now it is incumbent upon the city, the transit agency, and the Austin Transit Partnership, the new entity created to build the light rail, to make it happen for all Austinites.”