As the city where I currently live, Austin makes sense as the topic for a post about my carfree life. I’ve blogged somewhat extensively about Austin and even mentioned both its transit system and its opportunities for pedestrian living on my main blog. Furthermore, carfree living has been a topic of discussion, here in town, and it’s quite likely that my motivation to start this blog was tied to my life in Austin.
Problem is, I consider Austin to be a pedestrian-hostile place (PHP).
Austin is the capital of Texas and a college town: four universities, including the main campus of the University of Texas (about 50,000 students). Both the city itself (about 700,000) and the metropolitan area (about 1,5 million) are about half the size of those for Boston or Montreal. But unlike Boston and Montreal, Austin is not a pedestrian-friendly city.
This is all subjective but I do feel rather strongly about this. And, though I’m a bit afraid of the backlash, I feel it’s important for me to say a few things about pedestrian life in Austin.
I’ll try to emphasize the positives as I go along.
First, the transit system.
Capital Metro does have a lot of qualities.
- Bus drivers are remarkably friendly and polite. They’re attentive to passengers, drive smoothly most of the time, and seem reliable.
- Many busses have bicycle racks in the front.
- All busses accommodate wheelchairs.
- Persons with disabilities have free buss passes with RFID.
- CapMetro’s fares are hard to beat. All personnel and students at the University of Texas travel for free. For other adults, a single trip is 50¢, a day pass is 1$, and a monthly pass is only 10$.
- The system has a good number of free routes including campus and downtown shuttles.
- The downtown and campus areas are well-served with a number of routes converging in front of the Capitol building (on Congress Avenue).
- In most densely-populated areas, there are bus stops at every street corner.
- CapMetro’s current plans to add long-range transit in the near future sounds rather neat. The MetroRail will even have Wi-Fi connections abroad.
- The bus fleet has vehicles of different sizes, making the service rather flexible and probably increasing fuel efficiency.
- Even on small busses, there is almost always enough seats for the usual number of passengers.
- The transit system’s current maketing campaign/content seems appropriate. At least, it seems appropriate to me. And I really wish I could get an iPod touch.
- There are some interesting options to get bus schedules or plan bus trips. For instance, it’s apparently possible to get transit information through SMS. The online trip planner is relatively easy to use. Google Transit has data for Austin.
- The Destinations schedule book is rather comprehensive. It was free until the end of last year and is only 1$ now. It can also be downloaded by sections as PDF files.
- A proportion of passengers are quite representative of Austin’s eccentricity.
All of this is really nice. I was pretty enthusiastic about Capital Metro, originally.
- The entire transit system is focused on getting people to and from downtown. This means that it’s nearly impossible to go from one neighborhood to another without going through the downtown area.
- Even some parts of downtown Austin are difficult to reach solely by bus because most routes go North-South and few routes cover the distance East-West. The walking distance downtown isn’t that much of a problem but the scarcity of busses in different parts of downtown does decrease the reliance on busses for compulsive pedestrians.
- Schedules are simply unreliable. The online schedules have been inaccurate on enough occasions to make me quite weary of them. I even missed some busses because they reached the stops in advance of the official schedule.
- Schedules are rarely available at bus stops or aboard busses. Those schedules which are posted at a few bus stops are confusing, imprecise, and inaccurate.
- The overall system map is rather confusing. Several routes have two different numbers, making it difficult to remember which route goes where. Some routes have variable configurations: either they fork at some point (which is well-documented but still confusing) or they skip some stops at different times during the day.
- While the frequency of some routes is rather appropriate, several schedules are quite unpredictable without the use of the official schedule information. In other words, at very few spots is it possible to simply assume that a bus will come after a reasonable interval because several routes run at irregular intervals.
- Several bus routes overlap significantly and their schedules are often close together. While it might be nice for some people to avoid switching busses to go downtown, it makes the overall system quite inefficient.
- Many bus stops have no installation (like roofs or even benches) and I’m not sure that there are actual bus stations anywhere. Unlike cold weather cities like Montreal, Austin’s weather may not require specific accommodation (although, air-conditioned shelters would be very valuable during the summer, AFAICT). Bus stations would make the experience of waiting for a bus much easier to endure which, in turn, would go a long way to increase Austinites’ evaluation of the transit system.
- Several important areas around town are simply not accessible by bus. What is especially surprising is that there is no bus going to Dell‘s International Headquarters in Round Rock. Granted, the distance from downtown Austin to Round Rock is rather long and Round Rock isn’t officially part of Austin. But Dell is a very important employer in Austin and a significant number of Austinites are connected to that company.
Despite these lower points, I would still say that Capital Metro does increase Austin’s pedestrian-friendliness.
Also a factor of pedestrian-friendliness in Austin is the prominence of “greenbelts” throughout the city. If Austin’s reputation as a “green” city is deserved at all, it probably has something to do with these parks and other largely undeveloped public spaces. Austin’s greenbelts do make life easier for pedestrians as they decrease the need to get of the city for a breath of fresh air. Plus, they probably contribute significantly to air quality. But those advantages aren’t exclusive to pedestrians and my guess is that there are many more carpeople driving (!) to these greenbelts than pedestrians frequenting them.
Bridges on Austin’s Colorado river are very pedestrian-friendly and it is quite easy to cross from different points of South Austin (where I live) to different points of the downtown area. This one was actually a concern of mine before I came and I was greatly relieved to see how easy and fun it is to cross the river. There’s even a very wide pedestrian bridge with a large number of benches. Unfortunately, that bridge is separated from the downtown area by one of the most pedestrian-hostile areas I’ve seen.
Another dimension of Austin’s pedestrian-friendliness is that there are some central parts of town where diverse activities are happening on a very regular basis. For instance, Sixth Street is known for its bar scene and South Congress (or “SoCo,” as some people call it) is a rather trendy spot. What’s more, those two parts of town are within walking distance of one another. Makes for a cool nightlife which is quite pedestrian-friendly if you happen to live nearby.
But Austin still remains, in my mind, a pedestrian-hostile city.
Different individuals (including pedestrian-friendly ones) have said on several occasions that my wife and I would need to get a car, at some point. This was usually said as a warning and several of these people have been kind enough to give us rides and help us adapt to the city despite our carlessness. It still seems clear to a large number of people that it’s almost impossible to live in Austin for an extended period of time without a car.
I don’t disagree with these people. They might well be right, but I still tried to make it work. Since we arrived in Austin (mid-December), a number of things have indeed been difficult to do without a car and we did end up getting help from friends who own cars on several occasions. But, overall, our pedestrian lifestyle hasn’t been horrible. At least, IMHO. Things may change during the summer but, due to unforeseen circumstances, I won’t be able to experience an Austin summer myself.
This may sound somewhat contradictory. I claim that Austin is pedestrian-hostile yet I have been able to live in Austin without a car for a number of months. To me, there’s a clear difference between a pedestrian-friendly city (like Fredericton or Lausanne) and “the possibility for certain individuals to live a relatively pleasant carfree life in a given city.” I maintain that it is possible for certain compulsive pedestrians like me to survive in Austin (or in almost any other city). I also observe several dimensions which make Austin a difficult city in which to live a carfree lifestyle.
One such dimension has to do with traffic throughout of the city. It’s remarkably difficult and time-consuming for a pedestrian to cross a major street, in Austin. Granted, I’m a compulsive jaywalker so my perception is clearly biased. But I don’t expect Austin to be like Chicago, London, or Montreal in terms of being jaywalker-friendly. What I do expect is that crossing streets at a street light may be a relatively painless experience. In Austin, not only are the pedestrian lights remarkably infrequent and short in duration (especially given such broad streets), but they are surprisingly unsafe. Many drivers seem to pay no attention to these pedestrian lights. In fact, the (in)famous “right turn on red” (RTOR) principle is applied very aggressively, in Austin. Not only do drivers turn right at red lights without stopping or even slowing down but they do so in almost any circumstance, even when a pedestrian is crossing that street. Part of my reaction to this practice may come from the fact that I come from one of the few cities not allowing RTOR, but I’ve lived in other cities where RTOR was practiced more carefully. The stress level involved in street crossing in Austin is disproportionately high and plays a large role in making a pedestrian’s life quite unpleasant.
A very basic aspect of pedestrian-hostility, common to Austin and many pedestrian-hostile cities, is the lack of sidewalks. Sidewalks are present almost everywhere in the downtown and campus areas but some streets in residential and commercial areas are either devoid of sidewalks or only have sidewalks on one side. In some parts of town, there are even bus stops which aren’t connected to sidewalks. Not only is this problematic for compulsive pedestrians like me but it’s likely to be a major issue for people in wheelchairs or parents pushing strollers.
As is typical with urban sprawl, Austin’s commercial areas are mostly found on the periphery. There are some stores and restaurants downtown or in residential neighborhoods but the typical pedestrian still needs to travel a fair bit to do some of the simplest things. Not only are most stores situated in malls but those malls are scattered through a number of peripheral neighborhoods. While several malls are accessible by bus, it’s often very difficult to go from one mall to the other by foot.
The situation is alleviated somehow by the presence of a few convenience stores, but even those are rather scarce here. I’m probably biased because convenience stores are extremely common in Quebec. But the difficulty of a carfree lifestyle often comes from such details, however subjective they may seem.
Another dimension making Austin pedestrian-hostile, in my mind, is the fact that events and meetings organized by individuals typically don’t take into account the fact that some people may not have cars. Even some more formal events have elaborate indications for drivers yet have no information for pedestrians. While it’s not a deliberate practice of pedestrian exclusion, it seems representative of how marginal pedestrians are, in this city.
Several Austinites are trying to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. Plans are made to have more bicycle routes, to decrease the number of cars in certain parts of town, etc. Much of this happens through the city council yet many proposals are initiatives by grassroots movements in diverse communities around town. Clearly, there’s a will, by a certain proportion of the city’s population, to make Austin pedestrian-friendly.
But, to be perfectly honest, I recently reached a rather sad conclusion about Austin’s pedestrianism. I now think that some of the hopes are simply unrealistic. In fact, while I do think that Austin will become less pedestrian-hostile, my impression is that it can’t become a truly pedestrian-friendly city.
Part of this reflection relates to a post on my main blog in which I talked about assessing the situation of Austin’s pedestrian improvements. Laura Tex‘s comment on that post was in fact the trigger for me to post something more elaborate about my perception of pedestrian life in Austin. I was (and still am) a bit weary of the backlash which may come from these statements but I guess I still need to go on the record about this.
First, as I was telling a friend this very morning, it seems that Austin’s pedestrian-hostility is in large part a problem of attitude. In other words, Austin is unlikely to become pedestrian-friendly because a pedestrian lifestyle doesn’t seem to be very mainstream in Austin. Not that carpeople are deliberately hostile toward pedestrians or that there’s actual intolerance shown to pedestrians. But a carfree lifestyle is rarely considered an option, in Austin.
Another set of reasons has to do with the city’s topography and demography. Austin is growing quite rapidly and, with this growth comes suburban sprawl. Can’t find it right now but I remember seeing an interactive map of Austin housing developments through time. While Austin is certainly not unique in terms of urban sprawl, the map seemed to imply that Austin may be affected particularly strongly or, at least, particularly quickly. My impression is that part of the reason behind this type of urban sprawl has to do with the way the city was designed. I’m no urban designer (unlike one of my brothers) but I perceive something about Austin’s design which would make it difficult to expand the downtown area itself. It might have to do with the State Capitol, the major highways on both sides of downtown, the surprisingly large streets, the centralized position (and relatively large size) of UT’s main campus, or some imponderables. But I just don’t see Austin as a whole suddenly becoming a haven of pedestrianism.
There are housing developments downtown and it’s quite possible that a significant portion of the population will live downtown Austin at some point in the future. But the trend toward suburbs extending farther from downtown is unlikely to change. I associate part of this with the desire people have of living in houses instead of apartments. This desire has to do with both the passion for private ownership and a perception of comfort. I don’t perceive this pattern to change anytime soon, in Austin.
To go back to more positive notes, this time about Austin’s future…
While I don’t think Austin will become a pedestrian-friendly city in the near future, I clearly see possibilities for different neighborhoods to become pedestrian oases.
One model for this can be a mixed environment with both housing and services (restaurants, shops, cafés, offices). A bit like a “village in a city.” A “luxury” version of a development built on such a model opened fairly recently in Austin. Triangle Austin is a “mixed-use hub” based on principles of “traditional neighborhood design.” That development includes apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, and public transportation. The City of Austin is currently pushing projects like The Triangle. “New Urbanism” has become the new buzzword in town. It’s quite possible that such development projects will make life easier for some compulsive pedestrians, especially if they happen to work in or within walking distance of the development where they live. As they are currently developed, these projects typically target an affluent crowd. A connection with (controversial) “gentrification” processes throughout North America could easily be made.
Austin does have neighborhoods which are already “community-friendly,” including some which are connected to Austin’s important Mexican communities. Some of these neighborhoods have the “village in a city” feel of the neighborhoods serving as the model for current urban design projects. In those neighborhoods, shops and homes are found side-by-side. I might be projecting but I imagine that neighbors frequent one another quite frequently. Though I haven’t seen many of them, children likely play outside in some of those neighborhoods. While these neighborhoods are as car-focused as any other part of Austin, my guess is that they would be a good basis for enhancing pedestrian-friendliness for people of any age, origin, or income level.
This post is probably long enough. For now, at least…