The end of the road warriors

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Council members displaying their enthusiasm for various transportation metrics with a show of fingers (1 = bad, 5=good)

City Council met last Thursday at the new Central Library to talk about transportation. Specifically, they were providing final feedback to city staff on the “mobility” chapter of Strategic Direction 2023, a comprehensive vision document that is supposed to guide city policy for the next several years.

The actual conversation was not that enlightening. What I found noteworthy, however, was the absence of any anti-transit or anti-bike voices in the room. For the first time since the 10-1 Council was seated four years ago, there is not one member of Council who thinks that cars are the #1 priority or that bikes are for sissies.

It was only two years ago that District 6 was represented by Don Zimmerman, who ridiculed bike lanes in his campaign ad and once told me that we could get rid of the current bus system by simply providing people vouchers to use Uber. Zimmerman has since been replaced by Jimmy Flannigan, who is a a staunch supporter of bringing high-capacity transit to Austin and of crafting a transit-oriented land development code.

She was not nearly as extreme as Zimmerman, but Ellen Troxclair in District 8 was also a regular opponent of investing in alternatives to car-based transportation. Although she did urge Cap Metro to preserve bus routes in her district, Troxclair regularly framed city investment in bike/transit infrastructure as a slap in the face to the car-driving majority. Troxclair has now been replaced by Paige Ellis, who is an enthusiastic proponent of both the big picture on transit and plugged into the small, incremental steps that need to be taken to make the city more transit-oriented. At the Thursday meeting she talked about the importance of extending trail connections etc in Southwest Austin.

Ora Houston in District 1 was not anti-transit but was utterly disengaged from the issue and would likely have opposed any major transit investment that might raise property taxes. And she regularly dismissed bike infrastructure as a superfluous hipster amenity. In contrast, her replacement, Natasha Harper-Madison, is a huge fan of bikes and public transit.

I think if the current Council had been in office three years ago, we might have seen a very different transportation bond. You may recall that Greg Casar and Leslie Pool offered an alternative bond that was more multi-modal.

First, the Mayor’s plan. He wants $100 million put towards regional mobility projects – this includes work on suburban highways. But, Council Member Greg Casar wants no local bond money put towards these projects…

…Those local projects include initiatives like the city’s Sidewalk and Bicycle Master Plans (more on that here) and the city’s Vision Zero plan for traffic safety (more on that here.)

While Mayor Adler’s plan puts $120 million aside for projects like these, Casar wants more – he’s saying $220 million.

There are other numbers, of course, but an easy way to sum up the differences is this: Adler’s plan is more car-focused than Casar’s. The Mayor says his plan represents a consensus – serving both those wanting MoPac to be more efficient and those who want more bike lanes.

I guess I can’t be sure, but I think the mayor’s tune would be different today. Adler will still be inclined to be the moderate or compromiser in the room, and there will certainly be differences of opinion, but the terms of the compromise have changed because there are now three additional pro-multi modal votes on Council.

What remains to be seen is whether the pro-transit consensus on Council lines up with public opinion. There are obviously still plenty of transit-haters in Austin. If you read the Letters To The Editor of local publications you’d think Austin was made up of nothing but them. But alas, I believe the once-proud road warriors have begun to wane. Their forces are in decline, increasingly overwhelmed by millennials who are strangely unoffended by the absence of parking lots in front of every bar.

The youth participation next year should be absolutely off the charts with Trump on the ballot, so I think it would be the perfect year for Austin to go big on an ambitious transit bond and bike/pedestrian bond.

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