Can Austin Become a Car-Free City?

By Carrie Waller and David Lynch

Cities around the world are exploring ways to reduce the number of cars in their urban cores. New York has closed off parts of Broadway near Times Square for more pedestrian areas and bike lanes. Paris prohibited cars around its main tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Oslo wants to ban all cars from its city center by 2019, and Madrid will do the same by 2020. Local government officials in these spots want to improve air quality and make it more efficient for people to move through the city.

Should Austin consider finding ways to create more car-free, pedestrian-centric nodes? We wanted to explore this question to see if it might make sense and what it would take to get there.

The current state of affairs

Despite its focus on health, sustainability, and active lifestyle, Austin — like most of Texas — remains solidly car-dependent. Traffic tops the list of gripes residents have about the city.

But there’s a reason why the city’s residents are dependent on cars. Most of the population lives outside the city center even though most jobs are downtown. On top of that, there is no comprehensive network of public transportation options to or from the suburbs, putting most Austinites into cars for every commute twice a day. There’s been a huge push to add downtown housing, but most all the residences available in the city core are unaffordable to the majority of the people who live here. Before even considering a car free city center, Austin will need to drastically expand the transportation choices people have. Not only that but those options will have to be available at different times of day, at various points in their life, and for every trip occasion.

Imagine Austin, the city’s long-term roadmap for the future, is already envisioning a city core with more public transportation. It has imagined a network of interconnected and walkable nodes throughout Austin anchored by Transit Oriented Developments, or TODs, mixed use communities seeded around major transportation hubs — think Plaza Saltillo or the Domain. These nodes will be one-stop-shops for live-work-play. Rapid Transit buses, light rail, and other modes of transit would provide easy access to the communities, making cars less necessary for residents. It’s a vision that would help reduce car reliance for people living in these developments.

Here are some other ideas the Imagine Austin team could add to their plan:

Offer free WiFi and other promotions

The idea of expanding regional light rail service to more surrounding communities and offering more bus routes with a more robust timetable is already being considered. But what if we incentivized commuters to “work while they commute” by offering free WiFi on buses and trains? A group in New York called Transit Wireless started offering free internet connections to subway riders. This opened up advertising revenue for the city’s Metro department and drew more people onto the trains (they’ve tracked over 5 million riders a day). The company further incentivized ridership by offering contests and promotions like free Kindle giveaways and other gifts for riders that participate.

Incentivize carpooling on MoPac

The new toll lanes on MoPac have started to open and should be completed in 2018. Some have criticized the solution for being too expensive for some drivers, while not gong far enough to decrease the number of cars on the road. One solution for the city could be to include a variable for number of passengers in their fee structure. In other words, the higher the occupancy of the vehicle, the less it pays to use the lane. Atlanta has used this approach and it has become a popular incentive for carpooling commuters.

Offer shuttles for city employees

Austin already offers free train, bus and vanpool services to city employees, but what if they expanded this program to include access to car shares and shuttle services so they can get to meetings and appointments anywhere in the city. Knowing they can move around easily during the day, employees don’t feel pressured to drive in to work in the first place if they have other options.

Make 130 free and I-35 a toll

The original plan for State Highway 130, the toll road that runs around the heart of Austin from Seguin to far north Austin, was to offer an alternate route for trucks and travelers thereby relieving congestion in the center of the city. That hasn’t happened. In fact, so few people have used the SH 130 toll that the company managing the road filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Meanwhile, Interstate 35 becomes more of a parking lot every day. One solution to both problems would be to swap I-35 and SH 130 for pass-through traffic only. I-35 could be made into a toll road for anyone not getting on or off between Onion Creek and Pflugerville, while 130 would become free. That would direct a significant amount of vehicles who are moving through the city — as opposed to within it — away from city core, and focus I-35 for local traffic.

Create local Hyperloops

Earlier this year, Texas was chosen to be a testing ground for the first Hyperloop, an underground transportation system that uses electric propulsion and magnetic levitation to push a Hyperloop vehicle through a pressurized tube at very high rate of speeds. The route will take cargo and passengers between Laredo, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Could something like that work on a smaller scale? Instead of connecting major cities, the Hyperloop could connect cities to suburbs, or even neighborhood streets to points of interest.

At the end of the day, the idea of Austin as a car-free may be unrealistic. There will always be demographics that rely on cars as a matter of course. But it is a real possibility to find ways to reduce the number of cars with good planning and a commitment on city and state levels. As land value continues to increase, and density continues to grow, parking will become more expensive and scarce, and Austin will have to seriously grapple with the question of what to do about all those cars.

Carrie Waller, AIA, is a Technical Designer with Gensler Austin’s Lifestyle Studio. She has a Master’s of Architecture from University of Texas at Austin, and works on a variety of projects including transportation, hospitality, and corporate facilities. She is closely involved with Austin’s planning and urban development community, including efforts around Code Next review and implementation, and AIA Austin’s Design Voice committee. Additionally Carrie has served as an academic mentor and teaching assistant for the University of Texas School of Architecture.
David Lynch, AIA, is a Project Manager and Studio Director with Gensler’s Lifestyle Studio. He is a graduate of University of California Berkeley with a Bachelors degree in Architecture. David specializes in complex projects, and has led some of Gensler Austin’s largest efforts, such as the Austin Bergstrom Airport Expansion, 500 West 2nd Street office tower, and Domain Northside mixed use development. David is a wealth of information, particularly when it comes to understanding the practical implications of design decisions on large projects.