Defining and Solving Austin’s Traffic Problem

by - | 9 min read
Traffic on I-35 in Austin, Texas. Photograph by Cassie Gallegos.

Traffic on I-35 in Austin, Texas. Photograph by Cassie Gallegos.

Guest writer, Gary Hoover is an accomplished entrepreneur currently working on his fifth startup, BigWig Games.  His previous companies include Bookstop (sold to Barnes & Noble), RoadStoryUSA, Travelfest, and Hoover’s (sold to Dun & Bradstreet). His very first company ran charter bus lines for students at the University of Chicago.

I love to study transportation and I love to study cities.  The two biggest sections of my 55,000-book personal library are transportation (especially rail) and urban studies & architecture.  I have traveled to 49 states and 45 countries riding subways and walking and photographing cities.

I believe clear thinking about Austin’s transportation needs must realistically reflect our context.  Context, as is often the case, is very important but often under-emphasized.

Austin is a 20th and 21st century American sunbelt Texas city.  It is one of the great American boom towns of this era.  It likely will continue to be a boomtown for many years, probably eventually forming a twin city with San Antonio, not unlike Dallas-Ft. Worth, San Francisco-Oakland, or Washington-Baltimore.  This would never have been true had Austin not been in the sunbelt or not been in Texas.  If Austin were in the midwest, it would be Madison; if it were on the west coast it would be Berkley; in neither case would it be the most exciting US city not on either coast.  But warmth from the sun has drawn people to the sunbelt, and a warm business climate (and a historically low cost of living including taxes) has drawn them to Texas.  On a firm economic foundation of lakes, hills, state government, and a great university, Austin has risen remarkably in the 32 years I have lived here.  Our five-county metropolitan area contains about 1.9 million people.  By 2050 that number will exceed 3 million, and including San Antonio over 7 million.

One of the attributes that comes with being a sunbelt boomtown in this era is amorphous, amoeba-like growth.  Change happens relatively fast, and our infrastructure needs to be as flexible as possible.  Apple or Boeing might build a facility Northwest or Southeast.  A new airport between Austin and San Antonio would change everything.  New houses are going up over here, then surprisingly over there at the opposite corner of the metropolitan area.

The highly visible (especially in the press and at city hall) concentration on downtown and density is only part of the story.  And perhaps not the biggest part of the story.  While there has been a wonderful resurgence in urban living in the US, from Times Square to Main Street, we should not forget that most growth is and will continue to be at the edges of the area, both here in Austin and around the sunbelt.

Especially at certain stages of life, many people prefer a placid natural private suburban homestead to a hectic concrete shared urban one.  People with young children or who place a high priority on school quality often prefer the suburbs.  With the rising costs of housing in the city of Austin, this trend may accelerate, leaving the city, much like San Francisco (and increasingly Portland), a ghetto of affluent people.  (It amazes me that people in Austin talk about building affordable housing but they really mean subsidized housing, which does nothing for affordability; in fact many of the regulations we enact make housing less and less affordable.)

On the other hand, if people live near their work, the total costs in time and energy are less.  This is often more easily achieved with suburban facilities and offices, especially if your employees have school-aged children.  All of these factors encourage continued dependence on automobiles for most of us in the sunbelt.

Today Williamson County, at over 450,000 the second most populous county in the Austin metropolitan area, has a greater population than the cities (city limits, not metropolitan areas) of Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Tampa, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati.  Round Rock will continue to rock.

This also means we need a regional approach to solving transportation issues: Bastrop, Johnson City, Marble Falls, Taylor, and San Marcos are all part of a greater Austin region, part of our “hinterlands.”  They will grow faster than many imagine, and increasingly become part of the Austin daily commuting zone.

Given this context, our transport systems must be flexible.  Adaptive.   Not fixed.  It is hard for me to ever imagine rail being a reasonable solution for transportation challenges in a city like Austin.  It is expensive, it is immovable, it is permanent and works best in very high density unchanging urban structures like New York.  People need flexibility in their local travel.  They need to stop at the store or the barbers or pick up the kids.  Even in many big cities with fine subway systems, ridership as a share of total trips and commutes continues to decline.  (About 5% of all US trips to work are made on public transportation, but the figure is much lower in sunbelt areas than New York or Chicago.  The 5% number continues to decline over time.)

It would also be great if we were truly creative.  We tend to think Austin is highly innovative, but (for example) some celebrate light rail, which my hometown in Indiana (and many others) had over 100 years ago, and later abandoned.  Sometimes it seems like we copy the latest fad from other US cities whenever possible, rather than thinking “outside the box” – or outside the track.  Here are a few ideas and examples of what I mean.

First, what is the problem?  I think we need to relieve rush hour congestion on our major streets and freeways.  If we can improve upon this in a meaningful way, we would reduce the time we waste sitting in traffic and we would reduce emissions and pollution.  Worthwhile, important goals.  So what would I suggest we look into to improve the situation?  We have spent or are discussing spending over $500 million on rail systems – might that money be more effectively used to solve or improve congestion and pollution?  What are some options?

My first thought is to reduce the number of people going to work at the same time.  If we got even the 4 or 5 biggest centralized employers (Dell, Freescale, UT, State Government, etc.) to have (say) one-third of their employees start work at 8, one-third at 9, and one-third at 10, traffic would be substantially reduced.  Encouraging work at home days would further improve the situation.  Organized, co-ordinated efforts would yield bigger results.  While we might be able to achieve this from the bully pulpit and through persuasion, we could also give incentives to the employees and/or employers, without spending nearly $500 million of taxpayer funds.

My second thought is Electronic Road Pricing, or ERP, as seen in Singapore.  Regular highways (with no toll booths and no need to slow down) use a dynamic system to adjust road prices to match the circumstances.  It might cost $3 to drive on MoPac Expressway at 8 a.m. but only 50 cents on Sunday afternoon, then higher when there is a Sunday downtown marathon happening.  The system seems to work like a charm in Singapore.  You can do it with selected lanes or with an entire highway.  An investment is required, but it should pale in comparison to building rail.

A Mercedes-Benz O305 on the O-Bahn guide-way.

A Mercedes-Benz O305 on the O-Bahn guide-way.

Third, it is hard to beat busses for efficiency and flexibility.  Our new MetroBus system is a step in the right direction.  But study the high speed urban bus lines like Bogota’s TransMilenio and Mexico City’s Metrobus – they need no fixed rail and no electricity to the entire route, both of which drive up costs.  Even more interesting to me is the O-Bahn Busway system in Adelaide, Australia, which allows high speed travel down the main corridor (like MoPac), but allows the lines to separate at the ends, allowing busses to run into neighborhoods or toward plants and offices at either end of the commute.  New routes are added to new sites with little or no additional capital investment.  This is powerful flexibility.

Fourth, there has been some enthusiasm for a ski-lift cable-car type transit system here in Austin or in Round Rock, modeled after the impressive system in Medellin, Colombia, which I have ridden.  It costs less than rail and can hop over rivers and other obstacles.  I am not sure if this is right for us, but innovations like this, from around the globe, are certainly worth a serious look.  Asia is probably the bus center of the world (see Hong Kong’s outstanding private city bus system).  Whenever I return home from Colombia or Mexico, I feel like we are far behind in many ways.

Fifth, we need to make much greater use of shared vehicles and “para-transit,” including taxis and jitneys.  While we must treat the existing taxi companies and other transportation providers fairly, having more competition and choices from entrepreneurial transport companies would strengthen our system.  A serious free enterprise jitney service (flat rate hop on and hop off) running up and down Lamar, Congress, or Burnet could be very powerful.

Sixth, and perhaps most important, creative, agile entrepreneurs are more likely to innovate and meet emerging customer needs than government bureaucrats.  If our food distribution system or our restaurant system were designed by the federal, state, or city government, it is unlikely we would have Whole Foods Market, Central Market, the Wheatsville Co-Op, Uchi, or Taco Deli.  We need that kind of imagination at work in transportation; we need local versions of transportation innovators like Fred Smith (FedEx), Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), and Richard Branson (Virgin Air).  We are already seeing it in Uber, shared SmartCars, and Zipcar – we just need more of it!

In the meanwhile, while we pour taxpayer money into consultants and expensive systems which serve limited numbers of people and which do not make a noticeable dent in congestion or pollution, we are also increasing taxes and the cost of living in the city, further driving growth in the more remote parts of central Texas.  Instead, let’s make Austin a truly, deeply innovative city, a city that leads, not a clone of Portland or anywhere else.

Photograph by Cassie Gallegos for Techzette.

Guest writer, Gary Hoover is an accomplished entrepreneur currently working on his fifth startup, BigWig Games.
  • Harlan B

    I think you miss the biggest impact on busy roads: Schools!!! Schools are the problems. Try any day in the summer = no traffic.

  • Carlos

    Very refreshing to see ideas that don’t cost more than they are worth. This is practical and could help day 1 if implemented

  • Brit Yocum

    I too enjoy putting serious though into traffic and transportation concerns. I’ve lived in several metro areas throughout my adult life and suffered through commutes of up to 56 miles (each way). I am glad to see this article and that serious thought is being given the this issue. However, as a recent transplant to San Antonio who has driven through Austin on the Interstate, ironically, while traveling to another state, I’m left wondering, what about the millions of us that are passing through. We need non-toll ‘through’ lanes for those times when we aren’t visiting the ultra-hipster downtown, when we are merely using the Interstate Highway System to go about our merry way.

  • Sinikill

    Mr. Hoover’s analysis is spot on but only IF our goal is to improve transportation efficiency. If the goal is to create a monstrous black hole to attract the maximum of public funds and distribute them to those with political clout, then his ideas don’t stand a chance of even being discussed.

  • John Rothgeb

    I think Gary glossed over and mostly missed one important problem and the attendant solution. All the public transportation uses basically the same roads. Except perhaps for the double decked portion of I-35, but that small section, as badly done as it is, shows how we can get a lot of cars off the street. Buses are more efficient than cars usually (as long as there is decent ridership) and light rail too, but the buses are in the same plane as the cars. Gary touched on it with the ski-lift cable-car type transit system, but there is another, better solution. Monorail.

    Unlike light rail it only needs enough right of way for the single pillar and the occasional station. It is out of the plane of traffic so anybody using it deducts from the congestion. I think of the mono-rail in Seattle and it was slated to be torn down after the World’s Fair (and it was financed by the company that built it with profit sharing to the city) but it paid for itself and the kept it so it has been there about 60 years now. We have much better and faster monorail now and it can almost all be prefabricated and put up much faster than light rail. Do we want a system that is like Houston where the light rail has an accident every two weeks or so? I don’t think so.

    I propose that we first build a mono rail from the end of the light rail downtown to the airport and around the F1 track. It should pay for itself fairly quickly. Then we can build out east west lines from the light rail as well and possibly one up Mopac and I-35. Not only would it help congestion if we build it where the most commutes are (and anchor the ends with parking garages to make it easy to park and ride) but how cool and futuristic would it make Austin to fly in and go downtown and all around about 20 or 30 feet in the air seeing all the sights. The ski-lift cable-car type transit system isn’t all worked out (though it seems to work well in Medellin) however, monorails have been built for over 100 years now and some of the most advanced cities in Asia and the Middle East have them now. We should too!

  • shawnmon

    A culture shift is needed right about now for inner-city commuting. That includes things like what Gary said about different work hours (as possible within a company’s demand times). Another is in how we get to work, to school, to shopping, to anywhere really…
    RideAP.com is anticipating such culture shift.

    It’s hard to imagine that we could actually reduce traffic, emissions, pollution, and stress without spending any money at all on light rail, ski lifts, monorail, metro rapido, bullet trains, or guide wires…
    But we actually could.
    The right culture shift would allow this to happen.

    Throw up a $500 million dollar rail system, or even a multi-billion dollar mass transit system, and not everyone will embrace it. We (the mass/majority) people love our cars! That’s our current culture. We can afford to buy this tool (car), and we can afford to buy the coolest coziest sweetest tool we want that will help us fit into the certain social group we want to fit within. It’s yours, it’s stylin, it represents you, and it won’t leave you if you’re running 60 seconds late, nor will it object to you wanting to leave early. So, it’s also “convenient”, right?

    A shift in that culture is the only zero-tax-dollar solution that would prepare a community ahead of time to fully embrace a new transit system. Why not start with the zero-dollar efforts so the billion dollar efforts are anticipated and an instant success?

    • http://m1ek.dahmus.org/ M1EK

      Work-hour shifts and telecommuting are a notorious pair of markers for being unserious about transportation. It’s been the thing that would save us for fifty years now.

  • http://m1ek.dahmus.org/ M1EK

    Moving jobs to the fringe is a failed experiment. What ends up happening is that first you may move to be near your job; buy a house in that particular suburb; and then your job ends, and your new job is on the fringe too, but in a suburb on the other side of the city. Or you’re a two-job couple and your jobs are on opposite sides of the city.

    The pre-WWII model where employment is almost universally in the city core is actually far more environmentally and fiscally responsible in the long-run as it enables transit and carpooling, while suburb-to-suburb commutes can never feasibly be served by anything except the single-occupant car.

  • http://lightrailnow.org ARN

    Hoover is just recycling stale anti-transit, anti-rail, pro-sprawl arguments from roughly the past half-century. They’ve repeatedly been refuted, but periodically re-emerge like zombies.

    In attracting travelers to public transport, rail transit has predominantly out-performed the “flexible” bus-focused and other motor vehicle-based systems that Hoover favors. See, for example:
    Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus
    http://www.vtpi.org/bus_rail.pdf

    Hoover’s proposals aren’t “solutions” to congestion, they’re throwbacks that would perpetuate and worsen congestion.