Does Austin hold the key to transportation’s future?

Multi-modal in TexasMulti-modal in Texas

The web/tv show TRANSLOGIC has a must-see piece on how Austin, Texas is approaching its transporation and traffic problems. The city is using a combination of light rail in select business corridors, electric vehicle charging stations, share rides and shared cars, and ample bike paths and bike lanes. (It is, after all, Lance Armstrong’s hometown.)

The fact that nobody in this short video mentioned the term “high-speed rail” makes me think that the citizens of the Texas capitol may just have their stuff together, at least much more so than California.

What isn’t mentioned, however, is that for 20 years NIMBY activitsts and anti-growth forces almost stopped any roadbuilding whatsoever in the Austin area. And this happened while the city’s population swelled from 250K to over a million today. As a result if you try to get anywhere in Austin in a car you’re going to be stuck in a gridlock that rivals Los Angeles.

The last 10 years or so have seen a flurry of new road construction, but contractors have told me that because of Austin’s past just-say-no-to-new-roads agenda, the city will never catch up in terms of building enough roads to handle the population. But what the TRANSLOGIC video seems to indicate is that alternative modes just may have a chance here. And Austin, a city criss-crossed with hills and rivers and lakes, is a city where you’d want it to work.

It’s time the roadbuilders and their associations in the rest of the country stop dismissing bike paths and light rail. Done intelligently both have something to contribute. Both provide construction opportunities and when done right greatly improve property values and the desirability of cities that use them as part of the overall transportation mix.

The problem is that the political culture we have in most of the country can’t make something like this work. The Tea Party and Republican base are so focused on cutting governement that they’ve forgotten what the necessary functions of government are. The Democrats are largely captive to the kook fringe of the environmental movement and those people haven’t put together a realistic plan since the Garden of Eden. So nothing gets done.

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In contrast, I think Austin may have the right combination of pragmatic transportation planners (all those A&M graduates), a progressive business community, citizen activists and a big dose of civic pride.

Keep  your eye on Austin. It could point the way to transporation’s future. And by the way, the city is hosting its first Formula One race this fall. The city’s got it going on.