By Wade Goodwyn, December 17, 2013
With a rapidly growing population and very limited mass transit options,
Austin now ranks among the nation's most congested cities — but has
done little to address the traffic problem.
Four decades ago, Austin, Texas, had a population of 250,000 and a
reputation as a laid-back oasis of liberal politics and live music.
Today, the Austin metro area is home to 1.8 million people and has some
of the nation's worst traffic congestion.
For years, the city
has done little to address the growing problem. But most in the Texas
capital now agree something has to change if Austin is to save what's
left of its quirky character.
The best way to experience Austin
traffic may be from inside the police department's new helicopter.
Breathtaking in the late afternoon sunlight, the state Capitol and the
University of Texas Tower glow like torches.
But tear your eyes
away from the skyline to look down and — poof! There goes your pretty
picture. Nearly everywhere you look, the roads are backed up with cars,
pickup trucks and 18-wheelers crawling along.
Police officer Ryan Miller is up in the sky nearly every day, and he
says he has seen Austin's traffic grow exponentially worse during the
past five years. Now, a large portion of the city's inhabitants must
plan their daily activities with the traffic in mind.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a native Austinite, says he's watching automobile traffic slowly ruin his beautiful city.
was kind of an epiphany — a moment in time when we realized that we are
going to have to quit ignoring the problem, which we'd done for so many
years in the past," Leffingwell says.
An 'If We Don't Build It, They Won't Come' Mentality
Austin fiddled decade after decade, Dallas was busy building the
largest light rail system in the country. Thirty years later, the Texas
city with the conservative reputation has the regional mass transit
network, not Austin. Austin has done practically nothing in that regard.
think that is a fair statement," Leffingwell says. "There's a very
strong no-growth movement in our city. And that applies not only to
transportation but other infrastructure."
Leffingwell says that
view can pretty much be summed up as, " 'If we don't build this water
plant and we don't have enough water, they won't come. If we don't build
this power plant and we don't have enough power, they won't come.'
"And that is absolutely wrong in my view," he continues. "The growth
trend has been steady and constant since 1870, and there's no indication
that anything is going to change."
In fact, the Austin metro area is predicted to double in population over the next 25 years to 4 million people.
Texas A&M Transportation Institute has built sophisticated computer
modeling of Austin's future traffic — and the findings are not good.
The commute from downtown Austin to the northern suburb of Round Rock
currently takes about 45 minutes during rush hour. But by 2035, the
institute estimates, it will take two hours and 30 minutes to go those
Perhaps nobody knows more about Austin traffic than
Texas A&M's Tim Lomax. The transportation planning expert says
Austin's relentless growth overwhelms all potential solutions.
technical word we use is 'awful,' " Lomax says. "If you do all of the
scenarios that we normally think of as transportation improvements, it's
still going to be awful."
Trying To Lure Drivers With Speed
Texas Highway 130, a new Austin bypass toll road, is so far east of the
city that it sees little traffic. The state recently raised the speed
limit there to 85 mph in hopes of boosting its use.
is the largest city in America with only one interstate running through
it. Just six lanes wide through downtown, Interstate 35 backs up for
A tolled bypass to the east of Austin was
supposed to help relieve the bottleneck. But Texas state Highway 130 was
built so far to the east that practically nobody uses it.
desperation, the state raised the toll road speed limit to 85 mph, the
fastest in the nation. The idea was that drivers could drop the top,
drop the hammer, crank the music and fly right past Austin.
a beautiful, wide-open highway — but it's empty, and the builders are
nearly bankrupt. So now, the state is considering tolling Interstate 35
and making the toll road free — as well as building a light-rail system
and putting in more bike lanes.
But Lomax says his computer models show the only real solution is going to involve changes in behavior and lifestyle.
did some modeling to suggest the kind of magnitude of change," he says.
"We used a giant hammer on the travel model. We took away 40 percent of
the work trips. We said those are going to happen somehow, but they're
not going to happen in a car."
To keep traffic flowing in his sophisticated models, Lomax plays God of Austin.
"We said, instead of people driving on average 20 to 25 miles to get
to work, now they're going to drive five, six or seven miles to get to
work," he says. "That says there's going to be a massive shift in jobs
If Austin can do all that, Lomax says, the
roads and highways in his computer models stay the color green — traffic
still flowing. But without those drastic changes in behavior? The
entire region turns into red capillaries of doom, with everybody
crawling along everywhere almost all the time.
Like many in
Austin, businessman Kevin Tuerff moved here to attend the University of
Texas and never left. Ten years ago, he bought his dream home in the
Austin Hill Country. Traffic has become a mess as the population has
By last year, Tuerff was fed up with two hours on the
road every day. Now he rents a high-rise apartment in a gleaming new
"My office is about five minutes by car or 12 minutes by bicycle," he says. "And that's what I love about this place."
is part of that 40 percent that Lomax needs to make his transportation
models work. And there's a growing population of successful
professionals paying $3,000 to $5,000 in rent every month for the
privilege of walking and biking to work and play.
But what about Austin's many musicians and artists — and, in fact, everybody else?
'The Velvet Rut'
used to feel like I could go anywhere in 12 minutes," says Amy
Scofield, a successful artist who has lived and worked in Austin for
more than 22 years. "And I still have that mentality, and now I'm late
all the time. And I'm stressed out all the time because a 12-minute trip
takes 25 at least."
As the city Scofield loves has grown from a lovely university town into something bigger, she has considered leaving.
thought that about five or six years ago. I was really looking for
someplace else to go. I felt like everybody's driving a [Porsche]
Boxster and wearing a Rolex, and I don't relate to this population,"
Scofield says. "But I couldn't think of any place. Because I want this
kind of — the attitude, the political mindset, the social mindset, but I
also want warm weather."
Scofield calls this "the velvet rut"
of Austin. It is shared by many here, and that's the problem in a
nutshell: not enough leaving, plenty more coming, and nobody, old or
new, wanting a fleet of bulldozers plowing up their pretty city.
sometimes wear T-shirts that protest the relentless growth with the
slogan "Keep Austin Weird." They have their work cut out for them.