Building roads for more drivers

More lanes for transit & bikes, not cars! Like this protected lane on Bluebonnet Ln.

The premise of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which City Council is scheduled to consider at the end of the month, is that our city needs to shift its transportation focus from moving cars to moving people. One of the overarching goals that supposedly guides the plan is to reduce the percentage of people who get to work by driving alone from 74% to 50% by 2039. 

In other words, we should have the same number of drivers on the road in 2039 as now, even though the population of the Austin metro area is projected to DOUBLE.

The goal is totally doable. But only if we dramatically change course in transportation and land use policy. On land use, that means we need to allow way more housing in the urban core, since public transit cannot effectively serve sprawl. In terms of transportation policy, we not only need to radically boost investment in non-car transportation (transit, urban trails, bike lanes, sidewalks) but we need to STOP expanding our car infrastructure.

This is not what the ASMP proposes. In fact, the ASMP envisions adding lots and lots of new car lanes to our road network. Here is a map of “roadway expansion” projects contemplated over the next 20 years (you can check out all of the ASMP maps here) :

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Transportation Department officials emphasize that not all of these roadway projects involve adding “travel lanes.” Here’s the statement I got from ATD Assistant Director Annick Beaudet:

New roadway capacity benefits transit by facilitating new connections. New roads or roadway reconstruction may also include bike facilities and sidewalks. Also, expansions do not necessarily mean adding travel lanes. Roads may be expanded because we need to add turn lanes or because a street is substandard (in need of curb and gutter infrastructure, sidewalk facilities, etc.). It’s also important to note that some of these projects would be spurred by development, not led by the City. Finally, improving Austin’s street grid pattern is a key tool in improving emergency response times by improving multiple access points to fire or other emergencies.

There are still plenty of roadway projects that do include adding car lanes. I spent a few minutes counting all of them, and I know I’m missing some:

Parmer Ln, E. Cesar Chavez, Bee Caves Rd, Old Bee Caves Rd, Cameron Rd, North Lamar, Blue Goose Rd, E. Wells Branch Pkwy, Pearce Ln, E. 7th St, McNeil Rd, Harris Ridge Blvd, Ferguson Ln, W. Howard Ln, Anderson Mill Rd, Vision Dr, Bratton Ln, William Cannon, Blue Bluff Rd, Slaughter Ln,  …

I don’t think those additional lanes are simply being proposed to accommodate overburdened roads. They’re being built in anticipation of more drivers coming onto the roads.

Spending millions of dollars to facilitate additional car travel undermines the goal of significantly reducing car use. Not only are the millions of dollars spent on these projects diverting funds away from non-car transportation projects, but expanding roadways simply encourages more driving. It’s called induced demand. It’s a real thing and it’s a real problem. Expanding the roads will barely reduce congestion because they will simply attract more drivers.

This issue seems particularly true downtown. Driving on Lamar should suck. It may be a necessary evil, but it’s not something that somebody who lives on Lamar should want to do to get to their job downtown. The bus should be a much more attractive option. The city should not be spending money to make a car trip down Lamar more compelling than a more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Perhaps more significant than the way that expanding roads will impact individual behavior is how it impacts housing development. Developers will build for the infrastructure that is available, meaning they will continue to build car-oriented sprawl if we keep building bigger roads.

It’s not surprising that the transportation department would pursue this fundamental contradiction. That’s the message they’ve gotten for years from City Council, which supports public transportation and walkability in theory but not in practice. Hence, it’s entirely predictable that we’d have a plan that establishes a lofty, transit-oriented goal but does not include the painful policy choices necessary to achieve it.

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