Staff dials back reform on 2nd draft

The Strawbiddy Yops regale babies, toddlers and their parents with storybook songs Saturday morning at the Hive in far south Austin. Certainly not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but you get the idea.

2nd draft shrinks transitions, reduces housing potential
To the credit of city staff, they haven’t hidden the fact that the second draft of the code, which was released Friday, will probably get us less new housing than the first. It’s still not clear exactly how much the total housing capacity was reduced by, but it wasn’t hard to notice the changes on the new zoning map.

The gentrification zone
A number of areas identified as “gentrifying” that in the first draft were zoned R4 (max 4 units, up to 8 units w/affordable bonus) were knocked down to R3 (max 3 units, no bonus).

The areas that were determined to be gentrified-beyond-hope retained R4. Generally a lot of the transitions south of E. 12th (E. Cesar Chavez, E. 7th Street, Rosewood) went down to R3, as well as corridors further east, while the corridors north of that (Manor, 38th 1/2) kept R4. MLK has R4 closer to downtown and R3 further east.

The same was true for areas in southeast and south Austin. Properties along E. Oltorf, in Montopolis and those surrounding S. 1st St south of Ben White got R3.

What’s the benefit of this? I’m having a hard time seeing it. We get less housing overall and in R3 there’s not even the opportunity of an affordable housing bonus.

Planning Commissioner Conor Kenny is also unimpressed.

Dialing back residential corridors
One of the other ways staff decreased capacity was by reducing or eliminating transition areas around corridors that were deemed “primarily residential.” This was one of the infamous amendments put forth from the temporary collaboration between the mayor and Alison Alter.

The result is that there are streets that for all intents and purposes are major transportation thoroughfares, such as Menchaca, W. 45th St, Exposition and Pleasant Valley that are not fulfilling their potential as transit corridors.

Some random changes
For instance, in my own neighborhood of Southwood, Redd St., which is sort of a neighborhood corridor, if such a term exists, was initially proposed to be upzoned entirely from single-family to R4. Now it’s all R2 again. Hmm. I wonder if a certain South Austin Council member might have had something to do with this.

Some improved site regs, but still a long way to go
Remember, the code is not just about zoning. That’s what most people focus on, but the theoretical right to build a billion units on a lot doesn’t mean much if there are other regulations (impervious cover limits, floor area limits, fees) that make that impossible. Here are a few of the big things that caught my eye.

Small improvements for duplexes
I’ve talked before about the way the current city code allows duplexes on single-family lots but strongly discourages themThe new draft improves the situation, but not nearly enough.

The proposed minimum lot size in the R2 zone is now 5,000 sq ft for one or two units, compared to the minimum in the current code of 5,750 for one unit and 7,000 for two.

What’s not good is that a duplex would be limited to the same 0.4 floor-to-area ratio (FAR) as a single unit, which means the floor space can only take up 40% of the lot. There’s an exception for units under 1,300 sq ft –– so you can exceed the FAR limit if both units are smaller than that. That’s helpful, but the fact is that limiting the FAR is not simply preventing builders from building very big duplexes –– it’s also encouraging them to build monster single-family homes.

Some helpful FAR exemptions
In response to concerns raised by builders, staff reinstated a partial exemption for parking and attic spaces. That means that up to 200 feet of garage/car port space will not be counted toward the FAR max. The same will be true for up to 400 square feet of attic space.

An improved preservation bonus
In case you forgot, the preservation bonus is a concept whereby you get to build an extra unit if you preserve the original structure on the lot. So, let’s say there’s an old house on a lot zoned R2. If you preserve the existing home, you could build an additional two units.

An amendment by Casar proposed some changes to the program. It suggested easing size restrictions on units achieved through the bonus, increasing allowable impervious cover, exempting a preserved unit from counting against the FAR limit, and making units as young as 15 years old eligible for the program and exempting bonus units from parking requirements.

Staff was cool with all of that except reducing the age to 15. They recommend sticking with 30: “Available data indicates that 30 years is the point at which properties become market-rate affordable, which is consistent with one of the Incentive’s main objectives.”

Sure, but a 15-year-old house is a lot closer to 30 than a 0-year-old house. I don’t know if this makes a big difference. Are there many instances of units built in the 21st century that are already getting demoed? I’d be interested to hear from my readers in the real estate biz on this one.

There will be much more on the code tomorrow…


Large fire at homeless camp under frontage roadThe Austin Fire Department is working to determine what caused a fire at a homeless camp in north Austin that stretches three football fields long under a frontage road. AFD responded to a large homeless encampment fire in the 1100 block of Anderson Lane around 9 a.m.

Terrible. This may likely underscore the danger of homelessness encampments, as well as the risk involved with pushing the homeless to camp in wooded areas.

Greg Abbott renews attacks on city homeless policies, citing stabbing:  The governor said Saturday he has a four-step solution to solve homelessness in Austin, but the city “doesn’t have the leadership to do this.”

Those steps included opening large shelters, providing mental health and drug addiction treatment, job training skills and focusing on long-term housing. He did not elaborate in his tweets on how the resources could be provided.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the elaboration will not be coming anytime soon. But I’d be happy if he proved me wrong.

Wendy Davis way ahead of Chip Roy in fundraising: Davis raised $910,000 in the fourth quarter, more than double Roy’s haul, marking the second quarter in a row that she has taken in more than him. She also pulled virtually even in cash on hand, with both reporting $1.2 million in reserves.

If this presidential election goes well for Dems (hardly a foregone conclusion), Roy is a goner

A biking revolution is possible in Austin


Below is the average daily high temperature for each month in Seville, Spain. (Fahreinheit in parentheses)

As you can see, the summer months are scorching, with average highs of 96.8 in July and 95.9 in August. Does that sound familiar? That may be because it’s practically a carbon copy of Austin, shown below.

So the next time you hear somebody say that people simply won’t bike here because it’s too hot, or the next time you find yourself tempted to think that yourself, consider that Seville has a summer every bit as loathsome as ours and yet bikes account for 6% of commutes and 9% of all non-work trips. In contrast, the bike mode share in Austin is 1-2%.

The weather is hardly ideal in places where bike ridership is even higher, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where a whopping 41 percent of workers commute by bike despite winters where the average temperature is in the 30’s and it rains every other day.

But let’s not get distracted by the Dutch or the Danish. They’re so far ahead of us in the bike game that drawing comparisons to them isn’t particularly useful. Let’s stay focused on Seville, which 15 years ago was in practically the same situation as Austin. From the Guardian:

For many years Seville had only about 0.5% of journeys made by bike, with roads choked by four rush hours a day, due to siestas.

A small group of cycle campaigners spent years vainly pushing for change, among them Ricardo Marques Sillero, who recalls first arguing for bike lanes in 1992. “I’ve been doing this so long my hair was a completely different colour when I started,” the silver-thatched university academic says.

His campaign eventually gained support from the United Left (IU), a political alliance led by the Communist party. In 2003 elections the UI won enough council seats to jointly govern with the Socialists, and managed to get the cycling plans in the coalition agreement.

I’m not a commie myself, but I’d become one if I thought it’d help us get some decent bike infrastructure. Fortunately, I don’t think we need to call the Bolsheviks in quite yet. All we need is a big, beautiful bond on the November 2020 ballot.

How much will it cost? 
The Wheel Deal, the proposed mobility package crafted by transportation wonk Julio Gonzalez and a couple other transportation activists, includes $684 million to build “America’s best bike network.”

Does that sound crazy? The fact is, that amount of money is spent on road projects in the blink of an eye, without anybody noticing. The protected bike lanes, wide shared use paths and urban trails created by that level of investment, however, would be a community treasure that future generations would zealously defend.

But could that community treasure be got cheaper? In Seville the surge in biking is attributed mostly to a 50-mile network that cost about €32 million in 2006. Alas, Seville is about four times as dense as Austin. That’s just one of many ways density saves you money.

The 2014 Bicycle Master Plan pegged the cost of a comprehensive “All Ages and Abilities” bicycle network at $151 million. The authors of the plan described such a system as one that would ensure enough comfort and safety that more than half of city residents would feel comfortable biking at least occasionally (compared to the 17% who said so at the time).

Five years after the Bicycle Master Plan, it’s clear that $151 million isn’t nearly enough. City staff has said that it will cost $170 million to finish the plan –– $47 million for on-street improvements and $123 million on urban trails.

The reason that Gonzalez’s proposal is so much higher than other cost estimates is that he appears to be geared entirely towards urban trails. The $684 million is based on building 342 new miles of urban trails, at an estimated cost of $2 million per mile.

In fact, I think the payoff from protected bike infrastructure could be far greater than what took place in Seville. For one, the proliferation of scooters means there are tens of thousands of more potential users of protected bike lanes and urban trails.

Other advocates have chimed in with competing proposals. Jay Crossley, who heads Farm & City and whose top issue is safety, has proposed $275 million as part of a $6 billion mobility package ($4.4 billion for transit).

Long story short, I would like to see an updated analysis from transportation engineers on what it would cost to do the following:

1. State-of-the-art bike paths that are separated from cars by solid barriers on every major corridor

2. Protected bike lanes on every street where car speeds average over 30 mph

3. A shitload of new urban trails

Yes, number 3 is not very precise. I don’t know how many new trails we should build, but I know they would make biking an attractive proposition to even more people than protected bike lanes by providing a riding experience that is entirely divorced from the exhaust fumes, traffic lights etc.

What’s important, above all else, is that the powers-that-be, notably the mayor and Council, take bike and pedestrian infrastructure just as seriously as high-capacity transit. It’s very likely that a few hundred million dollars on bike lanes and urban trails would get more people out of cars than a multi-billion dollar investment in transit, at least in the short-term.

And no, that is NOT to say that the transit investment isn’t absolutely necessary. Mass transit, like highways, are expensive to build. That’s just how it is. But it’s something that every major city needs.

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There’s no potential consensus on Austin’s code

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It used to be common for opponents of increased density to decry the change as threatening “neighborhood character.” That phrasing is no longer in vogue. Instead these are the favored buzzwords:

  • Striking a balance
  • Building trust
  • Achieving consensus
  • This proposal is divisive

Public policy accomplishments are almost always divisive. The New Deal. The Civil Rights Act. Obamacare. Sometimes, consensus simply isn’t possible. The same is true of the debate over land use in Austin.

Yesterday Delia Garza said that everybody on City Council wants the same thing, they just disagree about how to get there. I don’t think that’s true. Yes, everybody would like Austin to be more affordable and less car-dependent, but some prioritize the preservation of single-family housing above those two goals. Or at least on equal footing with those two goals. Meanwhile, some on Council don’t view preserving single-family housing as an important objective.

There will be some matters within the code, such as the misguided “equity overlay” aimed at reducing housing capacity in gentrifying areas, that will earn unanimous support. But on many of the core issues being debated, notably how much new housing we need, there’s no way the two blocs on Council can come together.

If the code passes with more than 7 votes on second and third reading, it will almost undoubtedly be because the housing goals have been weakened. It would represent a failure on the part of the mayor and other housing supporters.

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If we have a hotel tax, why not a taco tax?


Austin has a particularly robust taco market that generates God knows how much sales tax revenue for city government. But is the city really providing enough support for Austin’s trademark cuisine?

Here’s a novel idea: Why don’t we exempt tacos from the sales tax and instead implement a special taco tax? The revenue from this special taco tax would not be allowed to be used for typical city services such as police, fire, parks, or social programs. Instead, all of the money would go into a special fund dedicated to promoting the growth of the taco industry.

For instance, we could use the money to establish the first ever national taco museum. Or if that’s already taken we could surely do the first ever breakfast taco museum. We could pay for signage that directs visitors and residents alike to various taco locations. The city could set up taco walking/biking/running tours and organize taco-eating competitions. We could pay to send various taco businesses to national and international culinary festivals and to appear on cooking shows.

At this point you may be wondering if I’m serious. Of course I’m not. The idea is ludicrous.

And yet replace “taco” with “hotel” and you’re looking at the situation in Austin and every other city in the Lone Star State. This is the scam the hotel industry has convinced the state of Texas and municipal governments to buy into. Hence the push to expand the Convention Center.

Are hotels a public good? 
The whole premise of the hotel occupancy tax is that a city’s hotel industry is a public good that deserves government protection. Whereas other businesses are subject to a sales tax that flows into the city’s general fund, hotels are subject to a different tax that (for the most part) can only be used, per state law, on things that benefit the convention and lodging industry. No, it’s not just about tourism. The law specifically calls for the great majority of the revenue to be committed to spending that will benefit hotels.

Businesses often claim they just want government off their backs, but in this case hotels would prefer to pay higher taxes as long as they can dictate how those taxes are spent. They know there are certain things they cannot accomplish individually. It’s much easier to give their money to the government and have it build them a Convention Center than to figure out a way to finance one on their own and deal with the risk.

So, is the hotel industry a public good that needs government support? No. It doesn’t require government support any more than the taco industry. That argument might be compelling for a small, economically-depressed town (but perhaps in a beautiful area) that believes it could jump-start its tourism economy if only there were a hotel or two within 50 miles. That’s obviously not the case in Austin. We have a booming tourism industry, most of which has nothing to do with the things we spend the hotel occupancy tax revenue on.

What about the economic benefits?  
So now we come to the Convention Center. The hotel industry desires –– and City Council has already delivered –– an increase in the hotel occupancy tax to fund a new Convention Center that will likely cost north of $1 billion.

The hotel industry and the dedicated city staff supported by HOT revenue (Visit Austin) argue this is a win-win-win situation for Austin. If we get a bigger, better Convention Center, we will attract bigger conventions to town and therefore more hotel bookings, more restaurant spending etc etc.

The problem is, even the city-commissioned study that endorsed the concept didn’t offer compelling data in support of the idea. It flatly stated that the tax revenue generated from the increased Convention Center business would never make up for the cost.

Below is the chart outlining what the study views as three plausible scenarios. The base case is sort of the middle of the road, and the upside and downside case are pretty self-explanatory.

I can’t vouch for the methodology used here, but I’ll say that even the upside case hardly looks like a home run. In that scenario, the more than $1 billion we spend on the Convention Center supports less than 1,000 full-time jobs, so that’s more than $1 million per job.

Yes, government investment usually produces economic benefits. I’m totally cool with Keynesian economics. But we could just as easily derive that benefit from investment in things that the general public uses: libraries, parks, museums, infrastructure, etc. We pay people to build them. We pay city employees to staff them. All of that money circulates back into the local economy, probably much more effectively than spending on international hotel chains.

Finally, the evidence that Convention Centers are a powerful driver of local economies is exceedingly thin. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that they provide a more effective economic stimulus than a traditional government project. However, there have been decades of Convention Center expansions not living up to the expectations created by the hotel industry and convention consultants.

But what about the homeless? And the arts? 
Alas, we arrive at the only reason I can fathom supporting the Convention Center expansion.

You see, the downtown hotels have offered the city a deal. If the city goes ahead with the expansion, the downtown hotels will submit to a Tourism Public Improvement District where they will levy an additional 1-2% tax on hotel stays. They have agreed to dedicate a certain % of that to homelessness services, which, as you may have already noticed, we desperately need. Supposedly we’ll get $4 million for the homeless in the first year and eventually it will generate up to $10 million a year.

And then there’s the fact that state law allows cities to spend 15% of their hotel tax revenue on promoting the local arts and 15% on historic preservation (as long as the historic projects are near the Convention Center). So if we raise the hotel tax, we increase the revenue available for arts and historic preservation. Council last month voted to set up a live music fund that will begin getting about $3 million a year in hotel tax revenue.

So everything that I’ve mentioned in this section actually serves a public good. But it’s beyond perverse that in order to get them we have to spend over $1 billion on something that provides very little public value.

Many urbanists, including Convention Center skeptics, have come around to the idea because Council has made clear the new CC will not be as godawful as the current one. It will hopefully engage more with the street –– perhaps with ground-level retail –– integrate some public space and not break up the street grid. This is great, but again, it probably doesn’t justify the cost.

But it’s state law!
A common refrain at City Hall is that, while Convention Centers aren’t particularly useful, it’s not like we have a lot of options for spending hotel tax revenue. It’s state law, after all.

Yes, I get it. But laws can change. And frankly, I’m having a hard time taking seriously the recurring claim from City Hall folks that the hotels will never allow the law to change. For one, have they even tried to change it?

No, Austin can’t do this alone. It will require the collaboration of other Texas cities, all of whom are also desperate for new sources of revenue to support basic public services. But there are people on both sides of the aisle, from the libertarian right to the progressive left, who would be eager to subject hotels to the same rules as everybody else.

It may take a few years to get the law changed, but if we move forward on the Convention expansion now, we’re foreclosing on future opportunities to put our money to better use.

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A look back at the history of Austin’s camping ordinance


I thought it’d be useful to look back at how this whole camping debate started. No, not this past summer, when Council voted to decriminalize camping/sitting/lying. Let’s go back to when the camping ordinance was first implemented.

You could be forgiven for assuming the rules that Council scrapped had been on the books since the city was first incorporated. Based on the outrage their repeal has caused, you’d think a camping ordinance was a basic building block to any U.S. city.

Alas, City Council did not target homeless encampments until 1996. Let’s take a look at the Chronicle reporting on it at the time. How similar –– and yet how different –– the story is from the one we’ve been hearing the last few months:

On Thursday, January 25, the first day that the ordinance went into effect, making it a Class C misdemeanor for an individual to sleep, store personal belongings, cook, or build fires in public areas, about 200 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol building to protest its passage. 

APD vs. City Council
Back in ’96, the police also felt abandoned by City Council’s camping policies. But for very different reasons:

Michael Urubek says the city council is dreaming if it thinks the new encampment ordinance will succeed in solving the homeless problem. His view may not sound radical until you know who he is: Urubek is the Austin police lieutenant in charge of fielding questions about the city-wide camping ban. As spokesman for the municipal entity responsible for enforcing the new ordinance, Lt. Urubek knows he’s supposed to toe the party line about how the new law will aid police in cracking down on the homeless population. But the man just can’t seem to lie.

“What were the city council’s expectations after this [ordinance] was passed? The police department is not targeting the homeless. We don’t have the staff to round them up or the room to put them away,” Urubek huffs. “Maybe the council should have thought this through a little more.”

Urubek likens the council’s action to a political game. “[The councilmembers] said, `We’ll talk our game; we’ve done our job [by passing the ordinance]. And now we are not going to have homelessness anymore,'” he says. “But the only problem is, it’s not going to work in the long run… [Violators] will go in court one day and come out the next.”

Just like San Francisco! 
As is the case today, back in ’96 people responded to Council’s action by drawing comparisons with San Francisco.

Another city that, like Austin, has gained nationwide attention for defying its reputation as the liberal bastion of its state by cracking down on the homeless is San Francisco. City leaders there launched a campaign two years ago to ticket homeless people for some of the same offenses detailed in Austin’s new ordinance. According to an article in the Washinton Post on January 1, the move was widely criticized as having little impact other than wasting police resources and inconveniencing homeless people. Police issued more than 27,000 tickets with little effect. “Several million dollars have gone down the drain so this mayor’s office can give the business community the perception they’re addressing the problem, by having fewer homeless people visually present,” Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness told the Post.

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What if shared mobility fails?

IMG_20190918_125714Ridesharing (Uber & Lyft) and dockless e-bikes and scooters are a tremendous resource for those seeking to free themselves of car ownership. Both tools make it much easier for my household to forgo a second car. I mostly rely on my bike and public transit, but because this city’s system bike/transit system has serious gaps, it helps that I can rely on a Lyft or a scooter when I’m in a pinch. If not for those options, it would be much more tempting to spend thousands a year to own a second vehicle. (AAA estimates it costs the average American $9,000 to own a car)

The problem is, none of the companies that provide me these options are profitable.

Uber & Lyft
Uber lost $5.2 billion just last quarter, while Lyft lost a comparatively modest $644 million.

It’s not as if Uber & Lyft are paying their drivers too much. In the Wall Street Journal last moth, Ken Wiles, a UT finance professor, recently joined Kep Sweeney, some private equity guy, argue convincingly that Uber/Lyft are fueled by financial illiteracy. When taking into account the full cost of ferrying strangers around –– gas, repairs, maintenance and, last but not least, the decline in the value of their vehicle –– drivers are barely making any money at all.

For drivers who depend on Uber to make a living, their cars’ loss in value is serious. If a driver carries passengers for 40,000 miles a year and incurs depreciation of 29 cents a mile—the average reported by the American Automobile Association in 2018—the annual expense is $11,600, or $967 a month, $223 a week, $5.58 an hour based on 40 hours a week.

This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that Uber/Lyft won’t let you drive a 20-year-old beater that doesn’t have much value left to lose. You have to have a relatively new car.

Wiles and Sweeney suggest drivers may catch up to the ruse:

Once drivers understand that they are liquidating the value of their vehicles, in effect receiving payday loans with their cars as collateral, the effects may be significant. Companies like Uber, Lyft, Grubhub and DoorDash may find it more difficult to recruit and retain drivers unless they raise prices and pay drivers more.

If Uber & Lyft can’t come close to a profit even when they’re ripping drivers off, what will happen to them if they have to actually pay them decently? And how much of a price increase are customers willing to tolerate?

One theory is that Uber & Lyft have no plans to be profitable until they can take the driver out of the equation. Which is why both are investing heavily in autonomous vehicles. If that’s true, you gotta wonder how many years of losses they can sustain waiting for a driverless revolution. A driverless car is one thing, but the ability to deploy a whole fleet of driverless cars to pick up and drop off people … that’s a long way off.

It’s tougher to find out numbers associated with the scooter operators, which are largely private companies, but leaked numbers show that Bird, one of the two top companies, lost $100 million in the first quarter of the year. Speculation abounds online about whether scooter economics can work.

In recent months the scooter companies have recently raised their prices –– significantly. Originally they all charged $1 to unlock the device plus 15¢ per minute. The $1 flat fee has remained the same, but Bird and Lime have raised their per-minute rate to 27¢ and Lyft has gone up to 30¢.

So far the price increases don’t appear to have dampened enthusiasm. User racked up over half-a-million miles on dockless devices in August, around the same level as previous months. Now that school is back in full swing use appears even higher, and September is on pace to set a record for non-SXSW months.

Let’s prepare for the worst
If all of these companies fail, then we’re just back to where we were six years ago. That’s not disastrous, but it is certainly suboptimal. However, the city can take steps to mitigate the negative effects:

Keep leaving taxis alone: There is a profitable way to give people rides, even if those rides aren’t as cheap as those offered by Uber & Lyft in recent years. The key is for the city NOT to do what it did in the pre-Uber days, when taxis were strictly limited through a franchise system and left people on 6th Street waiting for hours to get a cab at night. Council voted last year to deregulate the taxi industry –– they should stay the course.

Make regular biking attractive: Keep building out our All Ages & Abilities Bicycle Network via protected bike lanes and urban trails. For only a couple hundred million dollars, we could put in place a system ala Portland that dramatically increases bike ridership.

Invest in transit: In addition to the high-capacity routes created via Project Connect, the city must aggressively reallocate right-of-way on key corridors to transit. This will make transit much more attractive, whether or not you have a convenient last-mile scooter option.

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A look at Cap Metro’s July ridership gains


Cap Metro’s July ridership was 8.9% greater than the previous July. The increases were seen across all bus services, including MetroRapid routes, Express routes to the burbs and the good ol’ local routes. The Red Line actually declined, no doubt due to the disruption of the downtown station due to renovations.

This builds upon the 5.5% ridership increase that Cap Metro experienced between July 2017 & July 2018. That first increase, along with most of the monthly increases Cap Metro has seen since implementing Cap ReMap in June 2018, could in some part be dismissed, since Cap Metro had essentially “bought” them by increasing service hours. Investing heavily in increased frequency and not achieving greater ridership would have been a catastrophe.

However, July 2019 is the first full month where we’re comparing year-over-year performance post-ReMap. So for whatever reason, presented with the same exact service, more people opted to take the bus this year than last. Hopefully that means that more people are giving transit a chance due to the increased frequency.

There’s one very obvious caveat: July 2019 had one more weekday than July 2018, which probably accounts for a couple percentage points of the higher total ridership. There may have been a couple weather differences too, although I’m sure both were miserably hot.

There are cheap ways to do even better

In a video promoting the increase, Cap Metro CEO Randy Clarke said, “Think about what could happen when we get dedicated lanes with something like Project Connect.”

Totz. I hope we do move forward on the ambitious plan for two high-capacity transit routes envisioned by Project Connect. But that likely won’t materialize until mid-way through the next decade, at the earliest. There’s a lot of work Cap Metro and, more importantly, the city, can do to further boost ridership on the existing system.

First, the city must aggressively seek opportunities for bus-only lanes on major corridors. Even small stretches of a road –– such as the new contraflow lane on Guad or the new transit/bike lane on W. 5th –– can substantially reduce the impact of traffic on bus service by helping buses avoid particularly nasty bottlenecks. Neither of the above projects cost much money or prompted armed rebellion, so there’s no need not to do a lot more of them.

And then there’s density. We need a lot more of it. Especially near transit stops.

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Maybe City Council shouldn’t take July off

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A zoning case Council is taking up at 3:26 a.m. today.

City Council adjourned at 4:18 a.m. today, concluding what I believe is the longest meeting in the four-and-a-half year history of the 10-1 City Council. It’s tough to keep it short with an enormous zoning case, a fight over hotel taxes with the county and two citizen referendums.

Yesterday would not have had to be so grueling if Council had had at least one meeting in the past seven weeks. But City Council has a tradition of taking a break in July. That’s to give the city manager and staff time to craft the budget, which Council takes up in August and September, but it’s worth noting that the County Commissioners Court meets every week all year long and their staff doesn’t appear to have problems putting a budget together. Yes, the commissioners court has fewer members and (at least currently) the members tend to be less talkative, but still…

Council’s first meeting in August last year similarly went into the early morning hours. That was not the case in 2016 & 2017, but both of those years the second meeting following the break was very long, which I imagine still had something to do with the lack of work in July.

It’s not good for City Council to be making big decisions at 3 a.m. Even the sharpest wits on the dais are seriously impaired by that point.

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A slumlord’s market

I’m not an expert on apartment maintenance, but my sense is that you’re not necessarily a bad landlord just because you picked up a couple code violations. But I also know that negligent and unfair landlords are not uncommon. Come to think of it, it’s not as if us tenants are always saints either.

I don’t know quite what to think when I look at the list of properties on the Code Department’s “repeat offenders” list. But then I look at a map of the properties and something is very clear: this isn’t really an issue in West Austin. Most of the central neighborhoods also show zero violations.

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It’s a particularly big issue in the north and the southeast. Broken down by Council District, District 3 (Pio Renteria) leads the pack with 888, while Greg Casar’s North Austin District 4 is in a close second, at 864. In contrast, CentralAustin District 9 (Kathie Tovo) only had 6 violations. (Curiously, however, there was one major property in West Austin District 10 that racked up 169 violations)

In a real estate market as tight as Austin’s, however, advocates for tenants and low-income people find themselves balancing their desire to demand better from landlords with their desire to keep affordable housing available. A condemned property not only immediately disrupts the lives of the current tenants, but it takes affordable housing out of a market that is desperate for it.

If you have any insights or experience dealing with this issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Scooter, e-bike use up 375% in year


Scooters are far from perfect, but they are definitely here to stay.

Half a million trips a month … 
In July of 2018, the first full month when electric micro-mobility devices were legal in Austin, people here took about 119,000 trips totaling 142k miles. At the time, there were 1,959 devices in circulation. Almost all of that came from scooters –– there were only 247 bikes in circulation that generated 7k trips.

One year later, there were 450,000 trips totaling more than half a million miles. Undoubtedly the dramatic increase is partially driven by increased popularity and awareness, but it also has something to do with supply: there are now just under 17,000 devices in circulation.

While scooters still dominate, there is now a substantial number of e-bike trips: 29,000 last month.

If it’s not broke…
This is very good news for Austin mobility. Although city officials have been surprisingly supportive of the scooters from the get-go, there is always a threat of a political backlash (see: San Antonio). The more popular the devices are, however, the harder it will be for the city to clamp down on scooters (e.g. franchise system).

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