Quick Thoughts on Airport Transit Ridership

I’ve been discussing this on Twitter all morning, but I’m very skeptical that tourists want to ride public transport from any airport unless have to.

Even aside from that qualitative skepticism, I decided to see if I could find some numbers on ridership for existing public transport systems that have lines to the airport, and it turns out yes you kind of can.

JFK AirTrain ridership is right there on Wikipedia, with nearly 18,000 passengers per day and 12% of the 53 million passengers (!!!) that pass through JFK yearly.

The numbers for BART in San Francisco are very similar – 11% of all air travelers to SFO used BART, which is connected to a very good public transportation network in the Bay Area (yes yes it needs improvement).

Perhaps a closer comparison would be Portland, Oregon, where they have had light rail the airport for fifteen years now.  Portland has a more comparable airport with 16 million passengers per year, and the daily ridership at the airport station is…a whopping 3200 people per day.  That source is from 2012, but the numbers in 2013 were similar.  That’s about 6% of the total passengers that pass through PDX Airport.  Portland has a well established light rail system, and the line has been open for fifteen years.

So what can we expect in Austin?  I would argue the numbers are likely to be much lower than Portland because Austin’s transit ridership numbers are much lower systemwide, but let’s be generous and assume that 10% of Austin-Bergstrom passengers take light rail.  11,897,959 passengers come through the ATX airport every year, giving us an annual ridership of 1,189,795 and a whopping 3,260 people per day.

If the line proposed in Austin is going to serve lots of people in between the Airport and Downtown, then great!  Build it.  But if the main justification for a rail line is “the airport”, then it’s going to be massive disappointment.

 

 

 

Nick Barbaro Doesn’t Get to Define What’s Conservative and What’s Not

I was tired of Nick Barbaro’s trolling at the Chronicle so I sent him an email:

Dear Nick Barbaro,

In your most recent Public Notice, it seems you are at least aware of the other side of a debate that you either consciously or accidentally find yourself weighing in on in Austin: how the city should grow.  You seem well intentioned, so this email will be more explanatory of why what you prefer to call “density activists” support the positions that we do.

So let’s start with how you addressed Friends of Austin Neighborhoods supporters:

when it comes down to specific votes on specific issues, you find yourself allied with the most conservative members of the City Council, and 100% opposed to the voting records of the council members who have the longest and strongest histories of working for social justice issues in every field other than land use.

It’s telling that you don’t actually address the substance of FAN’s arguments here.  You resort to defending the character of certain members of the Council, which is really not the point.  If Council members are well intentioned but vote for regressive policies, does that make the policies any less destructive?  Your argument is a textbook ad hominem argument as defined by Wikipedia:

Ad hominem is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.

It’s also notable that you omit mentioning that FAN endorsed Delia Garza in your previous column, but made sure to mention Don Zimmerman, who was not endorsed by FAN as clearly shown on their website.  I’m sure that was an innocent mistake. The line that FAN is a “developer friendly internet group” whose positions “lean hard to the right” is a cheap smear, but it leads me into my next point.

Voting against more housing is voting against the interests of young people, renters, and low income Austinites, and that is precisely what Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Ora Houston have done consistently.  Let’s take the case of the Burnet/Rockwood project in Leslie Pool’s home district.  The lot is currently an auto repair shop, and a developer wanted to build over 200 apartments, including 15% reserved as affordable housing.  There is good public transit on Burnet, and the project was right next to 183.  One would think this is an ideal place to add significant housing so more Austinites can have a place to live.  Pool, Tovo, Kitchen, and Houston all voted against this project.  Leslie Pool cited traffic as a reason, and Ora Houston cited the “rights of neighbors”.

So I ask you Mr Barbaro: what is progressive about preventing the construction of housing for Austinites?  Is it because for some reason you assume that what is bad for developers is good for everyone?  Have you considered what is good for those of us that don’t own homes, namely young people, renters, and low income Austinites?  Is preventing the construction of housing because it might increase traffic a progressive position?

Adding more housing supply of all types benefits low income and young Austinites.  It doesn’t matter if you call certain people liberals, conservatives, or anything else.  You can distort the meaning of those terms all you want.  It doesn’t change the fact that the policies of your favored City Council members are regressive.

 

Where To Go Post Election? Stop Saying Urbanism.

Ignoring the national political shitshow for a bit, the results of the local elections in Austin seem to be basically the status quo.  Delia Garza and Greg Casar have been the two most reliable supporters of better transportation and land use policy in the Austin, and they both won re-election easily.  Natalie Gauldin was defeated soundly, which means that Leslie Pool will continue to be strong voice against increasing housing (both affordable and market rate).  Sheri Gallo will hopefully win her runoff, and we will be left where we were over the past two years.

So the question becomes how best to work with Leslie Pool and the other city council members that are either ambivalent, ignorant, or actively hostile to building more housing and better public transportation.

I think one move to is to drop the label of “urbanist”.  Even for someone in their 20s like myself, the word still has connotations of “new urbanist” white suburb recreations like Celebration, Florida.  “Urbanist” still feels like it advocates master planning an ideal life for middle class families with two kids where Mom stays home and cooks casserole after Dad comes home from his job in middle management downtown.  There’s plenty of parking on both ends of the perfectly planned commute!

But master planning is not really what most of us are about.  The places that most urbanists love (most big American cities) weren’t built with master plans, they were built before modern zoning really existed.  The point is not that we should do away with all housing regulations or zoning, the point is that we don’t need master plans.  We just need to let people live where they want and get around how they want.  People have lots of different ideals and tastes about the places they want to live, and they should have lots of choices!  If people want to live in the suburbs, great, more cheaper housing for me in the central city.  If people want to drive everywhere, great, more room for me on the bus or train.

I feel the same way whenever I hear people called “density advocates”.  I’m not advocating that anyone live a more dense place than they want to, but I am advocating for them to have the choice of doing so.  No one wants to force anyone to live a Manhattanized hellhole if that’s not what they want.  But Manhattan is one of the most expensive places on earth!  Clearly people want to live there or a place like it, and there’s no reason that regulations should prevent that from happening.

One way of living is not inherently “better”, but there is a superiority in the term “urbanist” that I’m not sure it will ever shake.  Yes, living in a multifamily dwelling and riding transit is better for the environment, but technological advances like clean energy and electric cars might shrink that difference significantly in the next 20 years.  If people living in the suburbs isn’t bad for the environment and it’s not subsidized any more than living in the city, then go for it!  Again, more space for me in the city.

That doesn’t mean that one policy is not objectively better than another, however.  I think the policies that most urbanists advocate for are objectively better, and the arguments that we make should illustrate that rather than attempting to sell a lifestyle change to people that don’t want it.  So back to how we work with Leslie Pool and other people that see “urbanism” and “density” as threatening?  Use different terminology.

Say “fair housing” to describe allowing more housing types, because in reality that’s what it is.  Adding housing in the central city is good for equality and good for the Austin economy.  Preventing housing construction is hostile towards renters and non homeowners, which I don’t think is fair policy.

Talk about “parking burdens” placed on businesses and landowners that are forced to provide parking that their customers and tenants don’t want.  Explain over and over and over again that building parking costs a lot of money.  If anyone needs a refresher, Miami recently reduced parking burdens on residential developers, and a developer described his issues with the previous zoning:

Frey was unsure yet about what kind of rents the building would command, he estimated that building structured parking–in this case 12 spaces, under the previous regulations–would have cost $300,000, or $25,000 per space. This, he said, would have added roughly $330 per month to average rents, an uptick that he would have been unlikely to command in the working-class immigrant neighborhood.

$330 per month to the average rent is astonishing.  When anyone wonders why all new housing in Austin is so expensive, show them that quote.  If Pool or any other Council member talks about affordability, show them that quote.

But I do think it’s time to move past the urbanism of the past.  I’m not trying to master plan anyone’s life, and neither should you.  The sane thing is to give developers, businesses, and residents options about how they want to use their properties, and let people live the way they want.

BRT in the Middle Of I-35 is a Terrible Idea

After reading Mike Dahmus’ and Ricky Hennesey’s takeaways from the Project Connect 2.0 meeting they attended, I was so disappointed I decided to write a letter to the Project Connect feedback team.  Posting it below:

(sent to feedback@projectconnect.com, javier.arguello@capmetro.org and joe.clemens@capmetro.org)

I wanted to express my disappointment with what I have read about the Project Connect 2.0 presentation for Friends of Hyde Park on November 15th.  Austin resident Mike Dahmus was at the meeting and wrote extensively on his takeaways.  His perception was the top priorities of Capital Metro do not include investment in high capacity transit on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor, which is nearly universal preference of transportation advocates in Austin.  I would be very interested to know if Capital Metro acknowledges the strong support of transit advocates for High Capacity Transit on the Guadalupe/Lamar corridor.  If your agency does acknowledge that support, you should address why we are being ignored.

The alternative priorities presented were also deeply disappointing.  Among them were Bus Rapid Transit on I-35, which I’m somewhat appalled to hear.  Interstates are not transit friendly, and Austin should not be investing money in high capacity transit on interstates.  End of story.  This is really common sense, but it’s also backed up by plenty of data.  I would urge you to take a look at a map of Austin on walkscore.com and observe the areas of Austin that are most walkable and therefore the most transit friendly.  I’ll also embed an image here:
please don't sue me walkscore
please don’t sue me walkscore

Notice that I-35 is a barrier to walkability.  Walking from Cherrywood to UT is difficult and unpleasant because of I-35.  You are proposing spending transportation dollars on a corridor that people actively dislike.  You are transporting people along a corridor where there is nowhere to go.  Is the expectation honestly that people exit one bus surrounded by 60+mph traffic, and stand nearby the 60mph traffic to wait for a second bus to get to their destination?  That is an absolute fantasy and in the entire country no current highway running BRT systems that serve as successful examples.  Mike Dahmus’ post includes a slide from a proposed BRT line in Minneapolis that does not yet exist.  It is beyond me why Capital Metro would look at fictitious examples of transit in order to guide policy for a major city.

There are plenty of examples of successful transit projects.  Houston’s light rail was built along the city’s busiest corridor, and ridership has been well beyond expectations.  Houston’s light rail is built along the city’s busiest corridors, and those corridors  were busy before there was rail, just like Guadalupe and Lamar are now.  Houston also has a network of frequent buses connecting to that rail system, and their ridership is growing quickly while Capital Metro’s is falling precipitously.

Austin does not need to reinvent the wheel.  Building good transit is simple: build it where people and businesses are.  There are no people and businesses along I-35 that are friendly to transit riders, and there will never be.  You are literally asking people to transit in one of the most unpleasant and least accessible places in Austin: the middle of an interstate.  It will be a disaster.

Pool Opponents Smeared As Developer Front Groups While Pool Receives Money From National Construction PACs

A hilariously terrible site popped up this week to smear Natalie Gauldin, the City Council Candidate challenging Leslie Pool in Austin’s District 7.  One of the quotes on the front page is “The only neighborhood organizations that have expressed support for Natalie are front groups for developers like FAN and AURA”.  This is not true, as anyone who is familiar with those organizations knows.  Both groups mention affordability in the first breath of describing what they are about, and their work so far has shown that.

It’s also worth noting that “developers” are not universally good or bad people.  Lots of people work in the real estate industry, many of them probably care very much about making Austin a better city and more affordable.  There’s plenty of examples on Twitter and elsewhere.

That said, what about Leslie Pool’s association with the real estate industry?  A quick look at the donors in her most recent campaign finance filing shows that there are actually several real estate or construction interests that have given money to her campaign:

HNTB Holdings PAC of Kansas City, Missouri has spent nearly $600k this election cycle, with 60% of that spending going to Republican candidates.  The donors appear to be mostly construction interests with a focus on transportation.

Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam PAC is also a construction interest representing Lockwood, Andrews and Newnam, a company that has built several highways around Texas and the country.  All the data I can find shows them giving to Republican candidates previously.

Perhaps most importantly, her campaign treasurer is a Vice President at a massive commercial real estate company.

There’s more individual donors from the real estate and construction industry, so feel free to browse for yourself.  The point here isn’t that some real estate interests support Pool, but that a narrative has been allowed to develop that Gauldin and her supporters are owned by “developers”, whatever that means.  The Austin Chronicle continued this garbage portrayal of Gauldin being in the pocket of developers by endorsing Pool and accusing Gauldin of supporting “developer plans to a fault”.

Again, working in the real estate industry industry does not make you shady. However, I would argue that local city council candidates receiving money from well funded national PACs does deserve more scrutiny.  There is only one PAC that has disclosed spending on behalf of Gauldin and it’s Equity Austin, a local PAC that advocates for affordability in the city.  Perhaps if the Chronicle did a bit more research into their endorsements they would know what the candidates actually stand for.

Housing Costs Could Damage Austin’s Economic Growth

A conversation with some friends recently reminded me that the “why” of affordability in cities is rarely discussed.  Sometimes when I lament the fact that working class people are being driven out of Austin, the response is an acknowledgement that it sucks but really, people can just move elsewhere right?  Should we really be basing housing policy around people without much money who just want to live in a “cool city”?  Why should we care?  I think the answer is actually pretty simple: people deserve access to the Austin job market.

One caveat: I am not a libertarian and I never will be.  I support using the market to benefit the greatest amount of people, but there is an economic floor to what the market will solve.  People with income or disadvantages that put them below that floor need government intervention to support them, and no amount of supply side economics is going to solve that.  Reagan sucked and luxury towers are not going to house the homeless.  That said, let’s talk housing economics in Austin.

Let’s start with the fact that Austin’s economy is absolutely booming.  Data from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed that in the entire country only San Antonio was growing more quickly than Austin, so it’s clear the Central Texas economy has been doing quite well lately.  Austin’s tech sector has grown along with a nationwide tech boom, and the oil price drops that have affected Houston have left Austin largely unscathed.

So who is benefiting from that economic growth?  Well, anyone that can afford to live in Austin or nearby.  The unemployment rate is an astonishingly low 3% in Austin right now, and there are no indicators that it will be rising any time soon.  The structural barriers to being successful in the United States and economic inequality definitely still exist in Austin, but for the most part if you can be a part of the Austin labor market there are relatively good opportunities.

But what is seemingly the simplest part of the equation, living in Austin, has become the most difficult.  Rather than worrying about what skills to acquire or what careers to choose in Austin, many people wonder if they can afford to live close enough to participate in the city’s growth at all.  Nearly a third of Austin’s jobs are located in the urban core, and that number is only increasing.  But Central Austin is also where housing costs are highest, so lower income and younger residents are being driven out to the suburbs.  A new job that pays better is great, but is it worth it if you have to commute in traffic 90 minutes a day instead of spending time with your family?  Maybe not.

Which brings me to one of my favorite articles about the problems facing San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and so many other growing cities right now.  Ryan Avent writes about “The Spectre haunting San Francisco”, and that spectre is housing.  Avent points out that the biggest cost of increasing the supply of housing is “rent”, but not what you pay your landlord every month:

rent, in the economic sense of the word:

Economic rent is the cost of non-produced inputs or advantages; the result of natural or contrived exclusivity.

The “natural or contrived exclusivity” that applies here is being an existing landowner in a place where there is high demand for housing.  A homeowner in Central Austin is the beneficiary of a lot of exclusivity, most of it gained during the economic growth of the past two decades.  The land underneath houses in Central Austin wasn’t nearly as valuable twenty years ago, but recent job growth and proximity to those jobs has made that land much more desirable. The defining characteristic of many homeowners in Austin that oppose new development is that they have been there longer than people that would occupy newer housing.   It sounds a bit like feudalism, but existing Austin landowners are using local regulations to limit supply and to extract outsized gains from their investment in land.  As Avent points out,

“the structure of local politics tends to magnify rent-seeking, generating enormous social costs…Zoning restrictions are a tool of the oligarchy, effectively. I’m only one-fourth kidding. But they are; they are a means by which owners of capital extract an outsized share of the surplus generated by job creation.”

The last bit is important too.  There’s nothing that Austinites love to sneer at more than the new tech arrivals fleeing San Francisco, but a UC Berkeley economist found that one new tech job supports an average of five local service jobs.  It makes sense: high earners have more disposable income to spend on local services, so more bars, restaurants, spas, and the like open up that will gladly accept money from those high earners.

But that job creation doesn’t happen if the everyone, including high earners, has to spend a large proportion of their income on housing, as has become true in San Francisco.  And in Austin’s frequently ill advised attempts to not become San Francisco, it is actually following very closely in SF’s footsteps.  Austin housing costs are growing rapidly, and they are eating up more and more of the income of Austinites.  Eventually, the things that make Austin appealing to those Californians may not hold true anymore.  Part of Austin’s job growth is due to a competitive advantage: living in Austin has always been much cheaper than Northern California and many other regions.  When that’s no longer true, what incentive is there to start a company here?  Austin has a very educated population and some other advantages, but relatively low cost of living has always been a selling point of Austin and Texas more broadly.  If there is one threat to the amazing job growth Austin has experienced, it’s the cost of housing.

The incredibly sad thing about this issue is how artificial the housing shortage is.  This debate shouldn’t be happening.  Housing isn’t oil.  We’re not running out of materials to construct housing, and it doesn’t hurt the environment to build more housing in existing cities.  In fact, it’s better for the environment than building in places that aren’t already urban.  People should be allowed to live where they want if they are not hurting anyone else, and housing developers should be allowed to provide housing that people want.  It’s really that simple.  But selfish, rent-seeking behavior from landowners is preventing it, and they are politically powerful enough to get their way.

And finally, there’s issue of equity.  Labor markets in big cities should not be limited to existing landowners.  Access to high paying jobs allows social mobility, and high paying jobs are increasingly clustered in central cities, including central Austin.  Whether someone is a software engineer or a bartender, they deserve the opportunity to live in Austin.

 

Self Driving Cars and Transit in Austin

Self driving cars are a hot topic these days.  They are especially intriguing to Austinites who are fed up with the city’s traffic, and who have possibly seen Google testing their self driving cars on the city streets.

One essay that’s gotten a lot of attention is by Lyft’s CEO John Zimmer on Medium in which he boldly predicts that “By 2025, private car ownership will all-but end in major U.S. cities”.  There is a lot to agree with in his post.  He addresses the effects that building for cars has had on cities like leveling housing for highways, and building for cars instead of pedestrians or cyclists.  He suggests that autonomous cars will lead to a change in the built environment in our cities, something that most urbanists are probably looking forward to.

The only factual issue I would point out is that his timelines are probably optimistic, and some prominent transportation engineers have suggested that “the hype [around self driving cars] has gotten totally out of sync with reality.”  That said, it’s very likely that the technology for self driving cars will be at least somewhat widespread in the next 20 years.

So let’s examine the future Zimmer describes.  He paints a very rosy picture, and I hope it’s one that comes to fruition.  But there are a few things to keep in mind when reading an optimistic post about the future from the CEO of a multimillion dollar company:

  1. Lots of people have private cars, and they are not going to give them up for free.  If private car ownership is truly going to end before those cars are literally falling apart, the government is going to have to pay them to get off the road.  Maybe that will be worth it for the safety benefits of self driving cars, but maybe it won’t.  Again, the technology isn’t ready yet, so counting on an ideal future with perfect technology to save us is misguided.
  2. Lyft and other ridesharing companies operate on public roads.  Relying on them to handle any significant portion of a city’s transportation needs means that the city is constructing transportation infrastructure and letting private companies profit from operating vehicles on that infrastructure.  This is not unheard of.  The UK privatized it’s rail infrastructure in the 1990’s and the results are best described as mixed.  Whether privatization worked a continual debate in British politics, with debates lining up along predictable lines: leftist parties want public ownership to return, conservative parties say privatization worked.  There are also possible similarities to how airlines operate in the United States.  But the fact remains that private companies will be profiting off of the use of public infrastructure.
  3. Related to the point above, most public transit agencies currently operate at a loss.  They don’t make a profit, and public transit riders are  generally lower income than the population as a whole (.pdf warning).  Bus riders are even more so.  Switching to a system in which privately operated autonomous ridesharing companies provide a large portion of a city’s transportation means relying on those companies to operate more efficiently and extract a profit while maintaining lower prices than a public transit agency could.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, autonomous cars don’t solve traffic.  Yes, they will someday be better drivers than humans, so the parts of traffic that attributable to human error could someday be solved.  But self driving cars are unlikely to be perfect any time soon: any software developer will admit that bug free software is basically unheard of.  So, we’re left with a situation in which we may have just as many cars on the road at rush hour as before, and as this great post from Jarret Walker shows, the problem with cars is space:
    stolen from Jarrett Walker sorry Jarrett
    stolen from Jarrett Walker sorry Jarrett

    Cars take up a ton of space.  They do not fit in walkable, bikeable cities, and even in a world of all autonomous cars, that will still be true.  If your answer to the issue of space is “autonomous buses” then great!  That’s my answer too.  Uber has already recognized the benefits of shared, fixed route transportation as it’s started testing smart routes in San Francisco.  As Jack Smith pointed out on Twitter, Uber’s smart routes sound a lot like a bus route: screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-02-47-pm

    There’s another technology that runs on fixed routes, and the autonomous technology has already been perfected: rail.  Vancouver, BC has a rail system that carries nearly 400,000 people per day in trains that are fully automated.

My point here is that the arrival of autonomous vehicles is going to be complex.  In Austin’s case, many people seem to pin their hopes for solving traffic on driverless car technology, but the specifics of how exactly that will work are often lacking.  Again, it’s worth noting that driverless car technology is being developed by private companies for profit, while public transportation agencies are currently run for public benefit.  I’m going to say this over and over on this blog, but public transportation is a form of redistribution of wealth right now.  Changing that will be a significant change working against public transit riders, who are overwhelmingly low income in a place like Austin.  It’s easy to get lost in a vision of the future in which you have a coffee and read the morning news on your smartphone while getting shuttled to work in a comfortable private autonomous vehicle, but that vision will likely never be a reality for a large slice of the population.  That vision will not be cheap.

I hope driverless cars come soon, and I hope they save some of the thousands of lives that cars take every year.  I also hope that they aren’t used as an opportunity to eliminate public transportation.  Because that vision of coffee and the reading the news on your way to work?  Plenty of public transportation riders are already living it.  It’s called the bus (or train).

 

Austin’s Impervious Cover Regulations Force Residents to Subsidize Businesses’ Runoff

I’m not a fan of Austin’s impervious cover regulations.  To me the obvious way to reduce pollution and keep impervious cover on a macro scale is to reduce sprawl.  The best thing the City could do to to mitigate water pollution right now is stop all greenfield development outside of the current developed area and leave it to nature.

For various reasons, that will never happen.  People like single family homes, and they want to be able to buy new ones.  It would also maybe drive housing prices up even more, but also maybe not if it were paired with a loosening of development laws inside the city limits.  As crazy as it sounds, the State of Oregon actually sets an Urban Growth Boundary for every municipality in the state including Portland.  You can see the urban growth boundary in some places as you’re driving out of the city – single family suburbia will end abruptly and turn into farmland or state parks.  The growth boundaries are somewhat contentious as it restrains developers and landowners and possibly increases housing prices (although I don’t know if that’s been shown as significant by any studies), but so far they have held up politically.  Again, Austin could do this, but it’s very unlikely.

So, we are left with Austin’s current regulations that attempt to maintain some of the benefits of natural world in an urban area by imposing maximum impervious cover regulations through zoning.  In short, “impervious cover” refers to anything that won’t absorb rainwater like roads, buildings, and parking lots.  Austin sets a maximum percentage of impervious cover for any piece of zoned land, meaning that you cannot build housing

However, if you look at the impervious cover regulations for each zone in city’s zoning guide, it quickly becomes apparent that the regulations really only apply to housing and not businesses.  The absolute densest residential development, MF-6, only allows 80% of the lot to be impervious cover, meaning that developers of an apartment building have to devote 20% of their land to grass that no one will ever use instead of building more housing:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-13-40-am

20% may not seem like a big imposition, but the lost revenue from more housing is probably enough to stop would-be housing developers to not take a risk on developing a multifamily property.

The impervious cover laws for other zones are even more insane.  The regulations for SF-6, what the city describes as “Townhouse and Condominiums”, allows only 55% impervious cover and 40% of the lot to be taken up by a building:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-19-34-am

This means that if you own a lot that happens to be zoned SF-6, you have to do nothing with nearly half of your land by law.  And realistically in Austin, that land is going to be grass lawns, which will need to use the region’s scarce water to stay green.  Not exactly a win for the environment.

However, looking at the zoning for businesses in the zoning guide, something jumps out.  The baseline maximum for businesses is 95%, much higher than any residential zone in the whole guide:

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-31-22-am

So what should be made of this and what are the consequences?  The first thing is that it guides the building practices you see across basically the entire city:  every house must have a lawn, and many of them are massive even in central neighborhoods (shoutout to the 12,000 sq foot lot in Allandale).  Businesses, on the other hand, can pave over massive swaths of land with basically no mitigation.  Impervious cover has been one of the many complaints by neighbors about the Grove at Shoal Creek development, which will add much needed housing to Central Austin, but meanwhile nearby businesses on Burnet Road like HEB or even Burnet Road Self Storage have no obligation or incentive to not pave over as much of their land as possible.

As I said at the beginning, I think Austin’s impervious cover regulations are actually fighting a battle that will never be won.  Rather than trying to maintain natural ecology in our urban areas, we would be doing much more for the environment by limiting the spread of urban (or suburban) areas entirely.  Most of New York City is concrete, and even calling the beautiful parks like Central Park and Prospect Park “nature” would be a stretch.  But the average New York City resident’s lifestyle is much, much better for both the water and air than the average Austinite, and it’s almost entirely due to a) living in multifamily housing where heating and cooling is shared, and b) not driving cars.

If Austin does keep the impervious cover regulations, businesses should be required to participate too.  One option common in Portland is streetside bioswales, which are basically normal gardens that are intentionally planted with plants that will help filter pollutants from runoff.  They have generally been successful, and have even helped the City avoid replacing expensive sewer infrastructure for controlling runoff.  You can see them here around a grocery store in the Hawthorne neighborhood in Central Portland:

Bioswales at Fred Meyer on Hawthorne in Portland
Bioswales at Fred Meyer on Hawthorne in Portland

In typical Austin fashion, the city’s impervious cover regulations are probably well intentioned but are ill-suited to the large city Austin has become.  Austin is no longer a town of single family homes where land is cheap.  Devoting large portions of land in the Central City to grass or rocks contributes to the city’s affordability crisis, and the city should look at changing how this issue is approached entirely.

 

Leslie Pool Says Residents Like That Children Can Bike Safely, but doesn’t Support Bike Lanes on Shoal Creek

Austin’s District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool gave an interview to KUT News in which she “rolled her eyes” at her opponent Natalie Gauldin’s position’s on urban growth and said residents of her district “like the fact that their children can ride their bike in safety”.

Meanwhile, when asked if she would support adding better bike lines along Shoal Creek, Leslie Pool hedged and said that the decision should be left up to the “people who drive” on the road.  Here’s the video from a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters:

The truth is that Pool’s policies don’t lead to safety for bicyclists, and they don’t to lead to safety for pedestrians.  The only people that are protected both physically and politically under Leslie Pool are people that are surrounded by tons of metal and airbags.

Pool’s disdain for people that want to bike safely in Austin is frankly offensive.  Vote Natalie Gauldin in November if you live in District 7.

Single Family Homes Can Be Walkable: Two Single Family Homes in Two Cities

Several years ago, your two humble authors were living in two single family homes with roommates in two different cities at the same time.  The rent was similar, and both houses were in good neighborhoods but not the absolute nicest (this is subjective of course).  One house was in Austin and one was in Portland, and they illustrate the somewhat mundane differences that can have significant consequences for residents’ transportation, even when you are just comparing different single family homes.

One house was 1981 SE 11th Avenue in Portland’s Hosford Abernethy neighborhood.

there's a front porch under there I promise
there’s a front porch under there I promise

The lot size is 2,614 square feet, which allowed significant front and side yards and a small fenced backyard.  The house has a great front porch, and within two blocks there are three bars, a bagel place, a bbq restaurant and a bodega.  Expand that range a few more blocks and you have multiple grocery stores, a bookstore, restaurants, offices, and two bus lines that came every 15 minutes or less for most of the day.  The house is on the edge of Ladd’s Addition Historic District, a leafy neighborhood of beautiful homes mostly from the early 20th century.  The walkscore for the house is 94.

The other house was 5510 New Haven Court in Austin’s Allandale Neighborhood.  The lot size is 12632 square feet , more than five times the size of the house in Portland (I’ll have to tackle that absurd lot size in another post).  The house is in one of several cul-de-sacs along the stretch of Shoal Creek Blvd. in this stretch.  Despite being in one of Austin’s central neighborhoods, there is nothing within a few blocks of the house.  There are several bars and restaurants on Burnet, but it is at least a 15-20 minute walk to reach most of them, partially due to the cul-de-sac.  Fortunately, the bus is near the Capital Metro 803 bus, which comes every 15 minutes during the day.  The walkscore for the house is 56.

House in Allandale
House in Allandale

So what accounts for the huge difference in walkability between these two single family homes that are both centrally located?  For the most part it seems to be zoning.  Everything except Burnet Road that is within walking distance of the house in Austin is also just single family housing.  There are no businesses on this stretch of Shoal Creek Blvd. or Hancock,  and the nearby stretch of Allandale Road is zoned Limited Office, which means nothing super useful for the neighborhood can be built there.  I doubt that Walkscore factors this in, but it’s also worth noting that the nearest street to walk to the businesses on Burnet also has no sidewalks:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-7-14-44-am
just walk your kids right in the road I guess?

The house in Portland, on other hand, is actually on a commercial corridor.  And let me pre-empt the reaction of “people with kids don’t want to live by bars and bodegas!” with the answer: you are correct.  This was edge of a residential neighborhood, meaning this was a commercial corridor that ran around the outside of historic Ladd’s Addition.  A family with young kids may not want to live there, but for three people in their mid 20s it was perfect.  We could walk across the street to get coffee, bbq, and sit on the patio at the dive bar.  When we needed chips or beer, we went to the bodega.  We also had a vegetable garden in the front and a grill in the back.  It should also be noted that a lot of the commercial buildings had small apartments on top of them, including the bodega:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-03-46-am
wow sidewalks what luxury

The neighborhood follows a zoning pattern typical of Portland in general, where corridors of significant multifamily and commercial zoning surround residential neighborhoods.  The Portland house happens to be on a fairly dense corridor that is zoned Central Employment, allowing a wide range of uses.  Hence single family houses across the street from bars and restaurants.  And again: I get that this particular spot would not be ideal for many people, but all of these businesses are within walking distance of plenty of more typical single family houses.  Here is a zoning map of the neighborhood:

zoning map of Ladd's Addition in Portland
yellow: low density residential, light blue: high density residential, red: storefront commercial, purple: multi-use

The house in question is the white circle at the left, but all of the yellow in the center of the image is single family housing.  All of those homes have a Walkscore of 80 or above because of the surrounding commercial corridors on Division St. and Hawthorne St.  These are some of the most idyllic and beautiful single family homes in the city, and they are in a wonderfully walkable neighborhood.  This is a typical Ladd’s Addition house:

Ian Poellet - Own work via wikipedia
Ian Poellet – Own work via wikipedia

Finally, you’ll notice something else about the bar, restaurant and coffee shop immediately adjacent to the house:  there is no parking lots:

coffe shop in foreground, Firkin Tavern bar in the blue building
coffee shop in foreground, Firkin Tavern bar in the blue building

The City of Portland hasn’t forced the owners of those buildings and businesses to build parking lots, so they haven’t.  They do just fine, and building parking would be expensive.  Local people are the main patrons, and Portland is dense enough that locals can sustain a small business.

The whole point here is that you don’t have to live in Manhattan to have walkability.  It seems like many Austin residents think there is a choice between a tower downtown or a house with a giant yard and two cars, but there is a lot of in betweens.  That’s why the “missing middle” housing that people talk about is so important: it can actually coexist with single family housing quite peacefully.