Austin’s shallow climate plan

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 29 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Tomorrow City Council will vote to adopt the Austin Climate Equity Plan. I’m sure it will pass easily.

The plan itself does not immediately implement any new policies. However, ideally it will serve as an important guide for city staff in recommending new policies to Council or developing new rules on anything that affects the environment.

For instance, it includes a broad call for reducing car dependence through more walkable, transit-oriented development. By 2030, says the plan, 80% of new non-residential development should be located in what the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan identified as key activity centers or corridors. And the city should seek to phase out or discourage free parking, beginning with its own facilities that are located near frequent transit.

And yet, the plan is strangely silent on the issue of residential development patterns. “Sprawl” does not appear once in the 161-page, 47,000-word document. Walkable commerce on the corridors is great, but if you really want to cut down on emissions you need as many people as possible living on and near them.

The document talks a lot about the importance of investing in public transit and bicycle infrastructure, but again, it largely avoids discussing the necessary changes in residential development patterns that make those modes work and the existing barriers in the city code that undercut them (single-family/euclidean zoning).

To their credit, the authors of the plan at least acknowledged that the land development code plays an important role in climate policy. But they chose not to comment on it:

While creating complete communities through the code and related tools is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Transportation & Land Use Advisory Group chose not to tackle specific code questions due to ongoing City Council discussions. Instead, the group focused on strategies aligned with Imagine Austin and the City Council’s direction on more sustainable development and travel patterns.

Translation: talking about land use regulations makes some people uncomfortable, so we’re going to move on.

On transportation as well, the plan mostly ignored the politically tough policy decisions the city must make to disincentivize driving. There was no talk of reducing or eliminating the city’s existing mandatory parking requirements. There was talk about improving transit service and bike infrastructure but there was no acknowledgement that the best way to do this is by providing these modes with designated right-of-way, usually at the expense of cars. There was no mention of the role that widening highways has in inducing vehicle demand and incentivizing sprawl. TxDOT’s proposed expansion of I-35 was not mentioned once.

In sum, the Climate Equity Plan will make almost no one at City Hall uncomfortable. And that’s a shame.

This is an excerpt from the Sept. 29 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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