Austin, TX is a pretty cool city.
I was recently visiting the liberal heart of the reddest state, and was able to peruse the streets of the city during a warm & humid afternoon. In many senses, Austin and Minneapolis are eerily similar: both cities contain major world-class research universities, a growing knack for progressive urban design, and a burgeoning downtown population which hosts both probz car-free Millenials and suave empty nesters alike. From a local non-expert’s point-of-view, Austin also is coming out of an era of automobile dominance, and is developing a flurry of slick projects – both public and private – that demonstrate truly good urbanism.
My long urban pilgrimage started near Republic Square Park, a block-sized park that connects the more established downtown area with the booming Market & Warehouse District. I walked down to Congress Avenue, a main north-south corridor and Austin’s traditional main street leading to the Texas State Capitol. I snaked around the Capitol area and ended up on the south end of the University of Texas main campus. I then perused the West Campus area before heading back south to the booming Second Street and Seaholm District near the Colorado River (not THE Colorado River like the Grand Canyon one, the Austin version is a different Colorado River… but more people live near this Colorado River than THE Colorado River, it’s a little confusing, look on Google Earth and Wikisearch the history of river names or something).
Transit infrastructure is p decent
Since I get a rise out of public transit (But I mean, who doesn’t), I was keenly observing the built transit environment around my stroll. Austin’s transit provider is Capital Metro, which carried just over 113,000 weekday passengers in 2013. The system is primarily funded by a 1% sales tax within the Austin transit service area. Cap Metro’s transit system relies solely on their bus fleet with the exception of one commuter rail line, the Capital Metrorail Red Line. Previous attempts to develop a light rail line within Austin have failed twice, most recently in 2014.
Even with their unfortunate transit snafus, their bus fleet that I observed is quick, slick, and easy to use. Along Guadalupe Street near Republic Square Park, a Marq2-esque station system exists. The corridor contains stops with amenities such as roof-only shelters, benches, and real-time arrival signage that ACTUALLY shows real-time arrival information. I’m no expert on fleet quality, but the buses in this area seemed clean but well-used. This section of Guadalupe also has a well-striped bus-only lane.
Interesting street designs – both permanent and tactical
During my stroll, it was fairly clear that Austin is still an auto-oriented city, but is trying its hardest to poke its progressive multimodalist head out from the bushes. Along sickeningly-wide Congress Avenue, an unfortunate 6-lane configuration is mitigated with fancy sidewalk curb and parking bay designs. Rather than bumping sidewalks out at intersections alone, Congress includes mid-block bumpouts and diagonal parking bays. These mid-block bumpouts contain anything from trees to benches to concrete umbrellas to restaurant patio space – all while maintaining a good supply of on-street parking nearby.
Meanwhile, a recent re-design of Guadalupe Avenue (Locally pronounced “Gwad-A-Loop” instead of “Gwad-a-Loop-ay”, BTW, because Texas I guess) near the UT Campus has a more tactical, NYC Broadway Avenue feel to it. The heavily traveled corridor was narrowed to four total traffic lanes, a buffered northbound bike lane, a planter-protected southbound bike lane, a few parking bays, and several “floating” bus stops. The former design had the parking and southbound bike lane flipped; the new layout gives pedestrians more crossing room and gives bikes more peace of mind. Guadalupe has a ton of wonderful urban-minded street-fronting retail outlets along the generously wide sidewalk, and the new layout with the planter protection also adds a nice touch for pedestrians.
Bike infra is good, but could be better
Austin is a burgeoning bike city with many promising cycling corridors, but still has a ways to go. It contains several nice trails near the Colorado River and the Shoal Creek area, but on-street biking areas feel too dominated by auto traffic. I noticed several signs that commanded bikers to yield to buses, which, in my opinion, seems a little backwards. However, the protected lane on Guadalupe and a two-way cycletrack on Rio Grande Street demonstrate Austin’s continuing push for better biking conditions.
The private side
Austin is GROWING. Like, its growing really, really fast. Luckily, a good swath of development is occurring near the already walkable city center rather than in the sprawl (Looking at you, San Antonio). Much growth is occurring in the Second Street, Seaholm, and Market Districts, as well as the areas around the UT Campus. Specifically, Second Street (or Willie Nelson Blvd) contains excellent walkable streetscape, complete with all items you’d hope to see in an urbanist goodie bag.
Coupling with this, some of the hopefully-soon-to-be-developed surface lots also contain active use. A lot south of Republic Square park had a pop-up food-truck-esque restaurant tent in it, and people were patronizing it and sitting on temporary seating areas and all! It was pretty rad. Its something I’d love to see happen temporarily in those lots on the north end of Nicollet Mall near the library, before better things are built.
I truly enjoyed my short-lived time strolling the streets of Austin, and I didn’t even experience the events that make the city famous – amazing music festivals, Hook ’em Horns football, the probably strong night life, the amazing foodie goodness (although I DID have the best Turkey Reuben sandwich I ever had in my life for lunch). Austin is often on that list of attractive mid-sized cities that are good for Millenials and young families and generally good employment opportunities and stuff, and for good reason. It may not have the transit and bike infrastructure that a Portland or a Denver, and certainly doesn’t have the state support that a Minneapolis/St Paul has, but it has all the right elements to tag along with the crew. Austin will certainly succeed as long as the development of the riverfront pushes forward and the “Keep Austin Cool” vibe continues.