Untapping an Austin Asset

10 11 2010

For backround information on the proceeding post (which builds upon Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity), please refer to these great summations provided by Mike Clark-Madison in the Austin Chronicle on October 4, 2002:

The Great Streets 2025 Plan

Dark Blue: Pedestrian-Dominant Street; Green: Rapid Transit Street; Red: Commuter Boulevard; Orange: Commuter Street; Light Blue: Bicycle and Local Access Street; Yellow: Mixed-Mode Street; Purple: Pedestrian and Bikeways

NearTerm Downtown Transportation Plan

The Devil in the Details; Downtown Great Streets Plan stalled by commuter roadblocks (same canards used by opponents of 2010’s Prop 1)

William H. Whyte: “The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.”

(Please note that the following was born to fruition on 4/29/2010, thus before a lot of relevant stuff happened.)

Transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any urbanized region breathes while its Downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality.  They are inextricably entwined and, if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other until soon the whole system begins spiraling downwards towards inevitable collapse.  According to the City of Austin, their Great Streets Master Plan “is founded on the vision set forth in the Council-adopted Downtown Austin Design Guidelines of a dense, vibrant downtown with a strong sense of place and strong concern for the public (that also)integrate(s) all modes of transportation into a balanced system of streets and sidewalks.” Yet ten years later one of the main underutilized infrastructural resources in Downtown Austin remains its streets, our most important and pervasive public space and common ground.

Today, with only a handful of exceptions, they are neither balanced nor active nor destinations, nor are they being used in a manner that manages congestion – All of which violates Austin’s very own guiding principles for Great Streets design. Furthermore, the City is currently in a state of flux regarding the need to broaden its transportation modality away from extreme auto-centricity. This ongoing debate of how to best implement such infrastructural improvements as Urban Rail, bicycle boulevards, transit transfer facilities, rerouting/eliminating certain bus lines and implementing Bus Rapid Transit and a Transportation Management Association, provides Austin with a tremendous opportunity to synchronize its efforts and leverage existing underutilized and undervalued resources in an efficient manner so that the most optimal end possible is achieved.

It is argued here that incorporating Great Streets into any and all of the infrastructural improvements cited above would be an excellent investment, one with comparatively low short-term costs but very high long-term benefits that would permeate throughout the Region.

The key component of Great Streets is promoting mobility and accessibility, and the complete street concept has been embraced by an increasing number of cities, from Los Angeles to St. Louis and Chattanooga to Washington D.C. By moving beyond just viewing streets as concourses for cars and opening them to cyclists, pedestrians, and loungers, converting one-way streets back to two-way streets and sometimes even into car free public plazas, these cities are instigating and accommodating diverse street environments, which as you know are integral to sustainable urban economic development strategies. While there has been no study of the economic benefits of the Great Streets program per se, the value of improving walkability has been quantified by several researchers.

In his Economic Value of Walkability, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s Todd Litman states: “Walking and walkability provide a variety of benefits, including basic mobility, consumer cost savings, cost savings (reduced external costs), efficient land use, community livability, improved fitness and public health, economic development, and support for equity objectives. Current transportation planning practices tend to undervalue walking. More comprehensive analysis techniques, described in this paper, are likely to increase public support for walking and other nonmotorized modes of travel.” Other studies have proven that walkable communities not only have higher housing values and cost taxpayers less but reduce commuting costs and attract tourists and “new economy” workers as well; they also function better than auto-centric communities at capturing emerging “lifestyle” retail markets and, thus, they have become a relocation incentive for businesses. One case in point: Downtown Lodi, California, which launched a $4.5 million public-private pedestrian oriented project, including a retrofit of five main street blocks from building face to building face. The City credits these improvements for 60 new businesses, the drop in the vacancy rate from 18% to 6% and 30% increase in Downtown sales tax revenues.

Another powerful example of how Great Streets can redefine a place by incorporating principles of walkable sustainability and building from the spirit of the place itself is the unquestionable success of Austin’s own Second Street District. Once a virtual land use vacuum, now this premier, mixed-use retail spine serves as a wonderful predicate for what the rest of Downtown can become; Great Streets is the only variable that distinguishes it as an economic catalyst. This paradigm should be the impetus for City of Austin leaders to begin both designing and implementing more Great Streets in order to help fulfill its goal of drawing new residents to Downtown (as portrayed in the aforementioned Downtown Austin Design Guidelines). While the Caesar Chavez Conversion, 23rd Street, and Brazos Streetscape Improvement & Reconstruction Projects are underway, other integral projects are languishing, including most particularly Third, Colorado, Congress (note: targeted for update, revitalization!), Guadalupe and Lavaca. All five of these underutilized streets are in some way being studied as prime transportation corridors for implementing everything from Urban Rail and a Transit Transfer Facility to bicycle boulevards and Bus Rapid Transit – Yet since 2002 there has been virtually no mention of Great Streets whatsoever (of course with the exception of, among several others, Katherine Gregor [for one example, please read her Gone and Quartered]).

This is an oversight that must be rectified before a tremendous opportunity to make Austin a much more Livable place in a relatively cost-efficient manner is lost. As such, this proposal for research funding includes the following scope of work:

  • Examining relevant pre-existing research reports (as cited above)
  • Applying the knowledge gained from these pre-existing research reports into the City of Austin’s urban context
  • Determining the economic impact of Second Street versus that of non-Great Streets
  • Generating a quantifiable number or, better, scale of numbers that will be applied to the tax-base of non-Great Streets in a “what could occur” economic development projection scenario
  • Determining the job creation impact/multiplier effect of implementing Great Downtown Streets
  • Establishing how those economic development benefits will impact the surrounding environs
  • Suggesting changes to the Great Streets Development Program’s Reimbursement Cap Criteria
  • Helping coordinate construction timelines so that Great Streets are incorporated into any and all of the potential congestion-mitigation strategies (as cited above), reducing inefficient overlaps and ensuring achievement of the most optimal results
  • Creating a Great Streets Transportation Plan that maximizes the extant street grid’s capacity in a manner that improves mobility and accessibility with a relatively minimal capital improvement outlay

In the current sociopolitical environment, endeavoring to maximize value-capture of such a vastly underutilized if not outright forgotten infrastructural resource as Downtown’s existing street grid should be considered a no-brainer must win-win situation for all involved. And, if the City of Austin does invest in this modest research proposal, it, like the Great Streets Strategy itself, will prove to have very low short-term costs that instigate many quantifiable long-term benefits – As well as those so beautifully unquantifiable:

(Addendum: Although The Placemaking Institute is on record as to the many mistakes made during the City’s campaign for Proposition 1, needless to say, thankfully it was approved by voters…The multi-modal ball has begun rolling, and from here on in its momentum must continue to be instigated. How? Again, by quantifying regional benefits, learning from past mistakes, and working to forestall the opposition’s arguments.)



4 responses

10 11 2010

The only problem with all this excellent rhetoric is that Great Streets falls into a typical trap of assuming that everybody wants to go slow, and they just need to be convinced of that with pretty street treatments. Transit service as envisioned in this plan would be like Congress Avenue is today for buses.

You can tell when somebody has this blind spot when they seem to view transit’s role to slow down cars (rather than being worried about whether the cars in a shared lane are slowing down the transit).

12 11 2010

More rhetoric:

Great streets define great cities.

And the underlying foundation to this proposal is that congestion is part and parcel with a growing, vibrant city. Thus, trying to “solve” the problem is, for all intents and purposes, a wasted endeavor; managing it is the much more cost efficient way to go. In order to do so, we must build on existing strengths (such as Downtown’s grid), identify areas of change (like all the underused land owned by the State [for example, what was done with The Triangle]), versus areas of stability, add mobility choices and connections/accessibility and, finally, most importantly, reshape future growth patterns.

Cars should be present, but controlled so as not to dominate. There should be a mixture of uses all smashed together — housing, retail, offices, recreation — so as to create convenience, security, and round-the-clock activity.

To promote great urbanism, Austin needs to start looking forward 100 years.

15 11 2010

I agree – congestion is a sign of demand – BUT remember that New York isn’t able to get by without FAST transit that delivers people to within walking distance destinations in the core without requiring transfers (in many cases). Likewise with all major cities in ANZUS that have any non-trivial penetration of transit in modeshare.

The “slow everybody down” theory just results in that demand evaporating eventually.

30 01 2012

It seems as though much of the terrible traffic in the downtown grid is made up of people passing through, trying to get from point A to point B the quickest way… As the crow flies, if you will. What would happen if “passing through” traffic was funneled to the outer edges of the grid? I see Cesar Chavez serving that purpose but can other streets be utilized that way for the thoroughfare purpose? I myself have used 5th street to cut through from Clarksville to 35 and well, it took forever.the point I am trying to make here, and I will go ahead and get to the point, is what if we close off part of downtown to traffic entirely? I assume drivers would find an alternate route around. They might be grumpy but people can adapt. Oh, i cant cut through downtown anymore, guess i will take Chavez or hop on MLK… (that’s my inner driving monologue if presented with the scenario) People will take all that they are given and it seems that widening highways and roads just enables… Fattens the cow in a way. If you feed it more and more, it will just get bigger. At least that’s my take away.

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