Fixing Traffic the Austin Way

Mayor Steve Adler

If you think that we’re doing the mobility bond completely differently that we’ve ever done it before, you’re right. In a remarkably quick process that united many diverse groups, the City Council has approved a $720 million Smart Corridor bond that will do far, far more for traffic and transit than our city has ever done in one fell swoop. But what makes the Smart Corridor bond unique in Austin is not just the speed in which it was approved but how the mobility solutions it offers unite us toward a common purpose instead of dividing us along special interests.

Put another way, we’ve finally figured out how to fix traffic the Austin Way — a smarter way that works for everyone. It’s not cars versus bikes, safety versus congestion, neighborhoods versus developers, or any other iteration of the old divisions that have stymied Austin for decades. The Smart Corridor bond approaches old problems — too much traffic and not enough public transportation, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure — in a smart, holistic way that helps us all work together.

The problems we’re facing are clear to everyone: Picture North Lamar Boulevard, which the state built way back when as the old Dallas Highway. Now we use it as a local road, and it can’t hold all the cars. Buses make traffic worse when they stop to pick up passengers. The original designers never imagined that residential neighborhoods (and schools and convenience stores and bus stops) would grow up around the highways, so they never built sidewalks in many cases, and forget riding bikes in traffic. Too dangerous.

You could look at those problems and see a lot of competing interests, but the planners we hired many years ago realized that we can turn these old state highways into Smart Corridors in a way that works for everyone. The corridor plans have undergone years of public scrutiny. The neighborhood groups, mobility experts, local businesses, and consultants all worked together in a deliberative, public process that took many years and cost millions of dollars. Then, in one of Austin’s least-proud traditions, we put these plans on a shelf. (There’s really a shelf where we have these plans. It’s not a metaphor.) The North Lamar/Burnet Corridor Development Plan, for example, started in September 2011 and wrapped up in January 2012. Since then, traffic’s only gotten worse and more dangerous, and the plan has gathered dust — until recently, that is.

When we began looking at doing something to relieve traffic congestion, we were mindful of needing also to do something to increase access and safety for pedestrians and bikes as well as to get a critical mass of riders along transit corridors. The answer was waiting for us — again, just sitting there on a shelf.

The answer was in the corridor plans, thanks to all the public input that neighborhoods and stakeholder put into them. To relieve traffic congestion, boost rapid transit, make it easier and safer to walk and bike, and help us manage growth, we need to reject the old way of looking at these problems that sees only cross purposes and instead focuses on our common goal: making the roads work for everyone.

Turning the old state highways into Smart Corridors means making basic, simple changes such as installing smart traffic lights that can be timed remotely and automatically, putting in turn lanes and medians so you’re not stuck behind someone waiting to turn left, adding pullouts so buses get out of traffic when letting passengers on and off (and cue jumps so they can get a head start on traffic), and building sidewalks and protected bike lanes so people can get where they are going safely.

These changes would undoubtedly decrease delays at intersections (which is how they measure traffic flow on busy city roads, I’ve learned). The North Lamar/Burnet Corridor Development Plan, to cite our example, says delays will decrease by nearly half, 48% during morning rush hour and 49% in the evening.

Because a Smart Corridor would be good for vehicle traffic, many people assume that it would be anti-bike, anti-bus, and anti-pedestrian. This is not at all true. Got a bike? You get a safe way to get around on busy streets. Same with kids and their parents walking to school or just in the neighborhood. And if we are smart about it, we can direct new housing along the transit corridors to put the bus riders along bus routes, all the while protecting neighborhoods. This is what managing growth looks like: transit and riders along transit corridors, increasing capacity where we want it (along busy streets) instead of where we don’t want it (in the middle of existing neighborhoods).

This plan also addresses infrastructure deficits in some of the most vulnerable parts of our city. Too many in Austin are walking in ditches instead of on sidewalks alongside busy roads or standing in the rain or hot sun at unsheltered bus stops. That’s wrong, unsafe, and unfair, and we can fix it.

There are other elements of the Smart Corridor bond — relieving pain points in West Austin, making our most dangerous intersections safer, making progress on the Bike Master Plan, sidewalks, and urban trails — but the crux of it attacks an old problem in a new way. Dealing with mobility doesn’t need to pit us against each other. By doing things the Austin Way — smart, creative, and bold — we can work together so we all benefit. I like doing things that way, and so far it seems like a lot of you do, too.

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