Austin Let’s Be Great or We Will Simply Be A Warning

On Tuesday the Mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, shared one of the most candid “State of the City” remarks given in recent history.

Ambitiously titled, “Great Cities Do Big Things”, Mayor Adler challenged Austinites to address affordability and mobility specifically. These two systemic issues were shown to be the disease creating a plague of stagnation and issues. While we excel now and find ourselves on the top of the charts on nearly every list being produced, we also find ourselves at an inflection point. Without planning and action, Austin will become the city that could have been.

Specifically, the Mayor shared his concerns and pointed to the cautionary tale of San Francisco:

“Austin is the city of the future, but what future that will be is unclear. If we do not do big things now, we will end up with the housing costs of San Francisco and the traffic congestion of Los Angeles. Great cities do big things not because they are great. Cities become great because they do big things. To do what Austin needs us to do, we have to be better versions of ourselves, more willing to fail in the pursuit of progress, less afraid of doing what has never been done before. If we find the courage to lead our city to where it’s asking us to go, if we can work together to do big things, then we will be a great city.”

By 2030, according to the Urban Institute, Austin’s metro area is on pace to have over 3 million residents. This explosive growth will sit on top of infrastructure designed for a city the quarter of the size. Beyond that, our city was designed in a way that either intentionally, or accidentally, segregates and divides the people and spirit of our city.

We can be content to be the status quo or recognize the status quo pushes the imperfections of our city into the shadows. For now, Austin will grow regardless of who sits on the council and regardless of actions (or in some cases inaction).

Austin deserves more though and it seems our mayor agrees.

“I do not believe that I was elected to be a caretaker mayor. And I don’t intend to spend my time skipping stones across the river’s surface, having fun but not much effect on the river’s course.”

The time to address these two systemic problems is now, not tomorrow. For a generation, we have sat idly by knowing this day would come.

Austin now has the 2nd fastest growing suburban property poverty rate according to the Brookings Institute. As costs rise, people move further out of the urban core. As that happens, traffic increases and travel times increase. That is why I-35 has becomes the most congested road in Texas. Now a barrier for connection between east and west is no longer an artery north and south. The symbol for division doesn’t even serve the purpose it was designed to accomplish — moving people.

The numbers are staggering.

That ETC survey that told us Austinites think we’re doing a bad job planning for growth also found that fewer one in five of us — 17% — is satisfied with traffic flow on major streets. Really, people in Austin are so fed up with traffic that almost half of us are dissatisfied with the enforcement of traffic laws, partly because we now see how “blocking the box” at intersections slows everyone else down, and also because Austin had 102 traffic fatalities in 2015, well over the previous record of 81. Our city is so congested and dangerous that we wish the police wrote more tickets. That’s how bad traffic is.

There is good news in this. We seem unified in our goals and dreams. Austin wants a solution to affordability and mobility. While the constant detractors will fight and let the perfect be the enemy of the good, there is a growing movement towards action. That movement needs a vision and visionary to rally around.

Whether that is an iterative leadership style or direct advocacy style, leadership is required. Unlike a previous generation who let the problems pile up for the next generation, the time to act is now.

12th Annual Keep Austin Weird Fest (Photo: Do512)

While we tackle the policies, we must fight and preserve the culture of our city. If we proclaim Austin as the live music capitol of the world, we must fight for the artists. If we want to “Keep Austin Weird”, we must ensure the creative community and multi-generational families are preserved. This goes back to the policy issues facing our city.

The Mayor create his benchmark. He believes, “Ultimately, we will be evaluated and judged — you, me, and the Council — on how we each do to achieve greater affordability and increased mobility.”

The stakes are too high for small change. Chicago rebuilt after the fires. A great city rose like a phoenix. Detroit is reinventing itself from a purely industrial city to a hub of innovation. The spirit of New Orleans was held to a such a standard that, post-Katrina, the city was described as tougher, feistier, cooler 10 years later.

There was no disaster in Austin. There has also been no political or civic will for change. Great cities do big things. If this is indeed true, Austin has a choice to make. Will we be great or just another American boomtown?

Read the full remarks here.

About The Author

Matt Glazer is the Executive Director of the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce (AYC). You can connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIN. Views expressed here do not reflect the views of AYC or any other person or organization.