Mayor Adler & Logan Green: Two visions for our city

Last night, City Council gave initial approval to Mayor Adler’s $720 Million “Smart Corridor” transportation bond. It now faces a final reading and vote at the Council’s August 18th meeting. On Medium, the Mayor had some interesting things to say about how the bond helps reduce car dependency.

Although well-intentioned, I’m not sure Mayor Adler’s plan will reduce car-dependency at all. If anything, it seems like it’ll increase the necessity of getting around by car since Light Rail was completely axed with the baffling excuse that we haven’t waited long enough for rail in Austin. I just don’t get it.

Personally, I think City Hall’s transportation plans are off-track. It’s already become a lot harder for folks to get around Austin without owning a car this year. I’m a MUCH bigger fan of Logan Green’s vision for American cities.

“My hope was to come up with a transportation solution that didn’t require everybody to own a car like L.A. does.” - Logan Green, Lyft’s co-founder and CEO

I know most folks must think ridesharing drivers like me just care about making money, but people are a lot more rational than we give each other credit for. I started driving with Lyft two years ago, and I continue to drive for them (along the other 250 miles of IH-35 in Texas where they’re still available), because I don’t want to have to own a car. I hate car maintenance, I hate car insurance, and I hate thinking about how much time my car sits without me in it. I believe in Logan’s vision for transportation, and I will continue to fight for innovative technology that Austin deserves. And some glorious day, I’ll sell my car and finally have the option to NOT buy another.

Read Logan’s story. This is why I Lyft:

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Austin only has 3,000 people per square mile in downtown. Manhattan for instance has 80,000. The reason they have subways and we don’t is that the density of the tax base makes it affordable. And the density makes it an absolute necessity to move people around. The best we could possibly do is make light rail along a highway corridor with regular and reliable system of secondary transportation at any stops.

Everyone wants rail but nobody wants to pay for it. I can’t speak for Mayor Adler but he’s right we haven’t waited long enough.

Austin isn’t dense enough for a pure subway solution, but is plenty dense enough for light rail, though. The Feds thought so in 2000, and the only reason we don’t have it now is thanks to dirty pool by Mike Krusee.

And light rail ‘along highways’ is a huge disaster. People don’t want to get on and off transit in the middle of a freeway. People want to get on and off near their home or office, which is almost never on the freeway.

It seems that other cities had plans for mass transit longer before the reached the density they have today. What was the population density of Boston when they built there subway? I rode the commuter train from the suburbs into Boston and then got on the subway in 1986. Boston’s subway was the first in the United States.

History of the New York City Subway:

The first underground line of the New York City Subway opened on October 27, 1904, almost 35 years after the opening of the first elevated line in New York City, which became the IRT Ninth Avenue Line.

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Folks, we have plenty of density in downtown and west campus for a subway; our 24/7 downtown density is now up to about 14,000 per sq. mi., and is going higher, and west campus is at 24,000 per sq. mi. During the day, our downtown density increases to about 100,000 per sq. mi., more than enough to justify a downtown below-grade circulator. The biggest other consideration is capacity. Nothing at grade is going to dramatically improve our transit situation - rail or bus - we don’t have the capacity at grade through the central city, so it will always be a big bottleneck for any system we devise… For these reasons and many others, I have been advocating since 2013 for the beginnings of a rail system that goes below grade through downtown and west campus, and connects below grade to the existing red line at the convention center, so that commuters from along that 32 mile route can easily get anywhere in downtown (or west campus for that matter) by just taking one escalator at the station at the convention center. I have reviewed this alignment with people who have vast transit experience, and the only pushback has been that we have created a hostile political environment. Nothing about the plan=E2=80=99s functionality, or about a perceived lack of sufficient density has ever been articulated. I would suggest that those who are interested in the subway option (in my view the only option that would make a meaningful difference in our transit system) should get together, educate ourselves and discuss. We need to try to include Angelos Angelou (local economist), Tyson Tuttle (CEO of Silicon Labs) and Tom Meredith (former Dell CFO), all of whom have publicly supported the idea that any proposed rail system needs to go below grade in and around the downtown area.

Kindest regards,

(Edited for line breaks - by @alyshalynn )

@harren, I don’t know enough to pick sides on this, yet, but like @carlwebb did spend some time (in my case a year) regularly experiencing the subway system in Boston (which I lived near), and New York (where she was). As he points out there is an important historic lesson to be learned there, “build it and they will come”…

Unfortunately, it might also be worth pointing out that our “build it and they will come” initiatives locally have been widely viewed as a dismal failure here recently, as none address current needs. That is an obstacle to getting local taxpayer buy-in.

** We have a train to Leander subsidized to the tune of $10K per regular passenger per year.
** We have a big, long, expensive toll road running by the F1 track that has had to increase the speed limit to 85, highest in the country, to attract interest, but there is almost none
** We have Mopac toll lanes about to go live, which it turns out will do little for compact and connected, but are intended to speed the commute of long distance commuters. Wrong answer.

I would invite @carlwebb, @mdahmus, and all “rail” advocates to add Seattle to the list of cities referenced above for study. Like Austin, they are an emerging 21st century city, like Austin much of that growth is fueled by “technology”, like Austin, for different reasons, their transportation corridors historically are primarily north / south - with secondary east / west connections. I went out there a couple weeks ago to see what is different, and it is that they have done something about their mobility crisis - and what a wonder to behold it is. Together, we can do this. There is a system called the “link” that starts at the airport at one end several stories above ground, in an area know for earthquake risk, graduates to ground level as density increases, and is below ground though the city center (near sea level). Then it reverses the cycle going north of downtown, and ends several stories above ground next to the University of Washington campus. So above, below, or at grade should not be the question, it should be what makes sense where. While on the link it is obvious you are zipping past cars below on the highway - as they say, no need for one in Seattle.

As I read the tea leaves, I agree with @mbuls paraphrase of Mayor Adler, that we have not waited long enough. In my opinion the Mayor’s bond proposal is brilliant in that the intent is to fix some existing inefficiencies, and box us in from expanding roads there further by way of other mobility infrastructure and adjoining building density. It’s a last hurrah. At some point people will get it, adding more lanes is not the answer. Before then hopefully we will grow up and realize that $720M is a small down payment, and hopefully move to a more equitable funding model than relying on property taxes - which surely would lead to even further if not complete economic segregation.

Let’s consider sending people out to Seattle to study how they did it. We talk ourselves to death and nothing gets done. You must understand, that for many, that is the design point, that is there livelihood, and they are winning.

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Is there one (rail/transportation/link) route we can agree on? Airport to Downtown, Downtown to Airport. Campus is next door to downtown with the state sandwiched in between. As Frank pointed out that easily tops nearly 200,000 daily plus the addition of the medical school. With arrivals and departures breaking through 12M and festivals galore there has to be an effective and profitable route in there somewhere.

The big question is, “Do neighborhoods decide whether or not transportation has eminent domain?”

Proposing rail transit to the airport before we have four or five heavily ridden urban rail lines is a sign the proposer doesn’t understand transit very well.

@mbuls I would say we should probably be looking at transportation as a city wide issue and some people in some neighborhoods shouldn’t be allowed to overrule something that’s best for the city overall. I’d suggest the same thing with housing. I really like the concept that’s part of FAN’s vision statement that says, “In addition to addressing the unique goals of our individual neighborhoods, we as citizens must never place the needs of individual neighborhoods above those of the city-wide community.” Also, if we are looking at the opinions of neighborhood associations in a neighborhood and what the majority of people in that neighborhood actually want, I think those will almost always be opposite views, so it depends on how someone defines who “neighborhoods” are.

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@mdahmus, agree, the airport should not be an early priority, I took the airport flyer bus out there this month, which follows the same route. It had few passengers, and we could triple the number of buses running and triple the number of route options without approaching break even cost vs. building a “rail” - eventually it would be a nice to have, though people point out La Guardia (NYC) never did, maybe because it would disproportionately benefits visitors vs. residents, and Austin policy already leans too heavily in that direction.

@mbuls, there is a proposal to have a starter line running from the Crestview area to Republic Square, approximately on the same line as our only two current express buses travel (801 / 803), so to some extent it is already defined as the primary corridor. There is also a debate going on now on whether portions of that stretch should be considered activity corridors, where density is encouraged, which seems important for a transit starter line. Hopefully the corridor definition will close soon in a positive way. As just a "gut feeling, I would like to see the line extend over the lake, even if not far, as the bridges are a enormous bottleneck (like bridges are), and if you could get people across it quickly, it could open significant opportunities for connecting buses, and thus an incentive to get out of cars. Understand that’s a bigger price per square foot.

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Link light rail

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Thank you @carlwebb for forwarding the wiki. Two points / updates would be helpful if the community there reflected it in the wiki -

(1) When you exit the “link” subway underground downtown, at least for one station, it is to an open air space above, so a feeling of it being integrated. As you exit the “train” underground you are offered what appears to be a broad option of connecting buses - at the same level - underground. I don’t remember seeing that before, so they should brag on it.

(2) Their land development code reportedly has changed since the last wiki update years ago. Everyone is apparently encouraged to use their space to build housing, without carve outs for the affluent, or disproportionate incentives for those areas inhabited by those.less affluent. People are people. Please feel free to “fact check” that.

Since rail was never explicitly to be included in this bond package let’s talk about what was supposed to be
(but if you do want to see more about rail, read Pritchard’s transcribe of a speech linked below).

This bond was sold to transit and bike advocacy groups as having parts of the package earmarked for the kinds of infrastructure that would support multi-modal transportation.

Now just yesterday it seems Adler walked back those ticket items (twice) in speeches to ABoR and CenTex Democratic Forum:

To that end, the mayor claimed, no car lanes will be removed as part of the corridor improvement programs. He dismissed a short-term recommendation in the North Lamar Boulevard corridor plan that calls for a road diet to make room for bike lanes.

To underscore the uncertainties of individual details, Adler noted the East Riverside Drive corridor plan’s long-term vision of converting one travel lane in each direction to parking lanes. “And that question will come back to City Council,” he said. “And I will tell you, as I stand here right now, I’m not prepared to lose travel lanes…

Transit-Twitter is afire :fire: with news of these claims made by Adler:

While in another part of the City, Adler’s Special Assistant was touting these exact transit improvements as part of the Bond:

(see the entire stream here)

I’m sure some bike lanes will still be included, but not likely to the level that got advocacy groups on board with supporting the bond in the first place - that’s just conjecture, but this whole scenario is unfolding much like the 2010 Rio Grande Bike Boulevard plan:

The Speech Transcript

If you’d like to see the full text of Adler’s stump speeches on the Bond, Austin Monitor journalist Caleb Pritchard has transcribed the whole thing on his blog, but here are some key takeaways:

There is nothing in this bond election that takes away lanes for travel lanes for bike lanes. Nowhere in this project. There is nowhere in the corridor studies that have been presented that take away lanes at all, other than on Riverside Drive and in Guadalupe.

^ This is ostensibly because Adler wants no part of short-term plans, only long-term plans (transit/bike lanes are short-term in his mind, despite being explicitly outlined as long-term in the N Lamar Corridor plans ) which also affect some sort of arbitrary metric of “congestion relief” - Adler believes lane removal for transit/bikes does the opposite of relieving congestion:

[W]hat Capital Metro said was, “Those are good, but we would rather have dedicated bus lanes.” And I hear that. And I would rather Capital Metro have dedicated bus lanes too. Dedicated bus lanes are put into this plan where they can be done without losing lanes. But these plans don’t have us acquiring additional right-of-way. It’s making a smarter use of the right-of-way that we have. And it does it in a way that does not lose lanes. Capital Metro will tell you that they do support bus pullouts and queue jumps … But certainly they would rather have dedicated lanes and I have no fault with that. But if they’re not going to get dedicated lanes, this is what Capital Metro wants.

The specific Resolution he proudly refers to in other parts of this speech, which states that only items affecting “congestion relief” will be the things this bond money goes toward was tracked down, also by Caleb Pritchard here:


Mayor Adler also spoke about the calculated $1.5B (obviously much higher than $720M) it would take to fully realize Corridor plans, and alluded to the idea that joint financing and leverage tools other than bonds could be used in the future, like TIF / PID - which are ostensibly just different ways to pass property taxes onto owners within a certain distance of updated infrastructure instead of throughout the City.

Given that I hear a lot of locals argue against density and transit increases, because those would consequently increase property values of residents currently living around those changes, I’m not sure residents would be able to stomach the likely increases in property values and increases in tax rates it would take to fully realize dedicated transit lanes & bike/ped facilities. I’d expect any future “Road Diet” or dedicated transit lane fights will be hard fought in the case that they aren’t included in this bond measure.