The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Time to Retrofit Our City for the Transit System Voters Approved

By Natasha Harper Madison, May 14, 2021, Columns

Austin's voter-approved $7 billion transit investment might look like a slow train coming, but Project Connect's new light rail lines, commuter rail trains, and enhanced bus services will be here before you know it.

When all those things are up and running, Austin will at long last finally have a mass transit system worth bragging about.

That's no offense to Capital Metro, which has spent the last 35 years working with the scraps we've given it to operate what is largely a safety net service for people who don't have the financial or physical option of driving their own car.

The old saw about land use policy being transportation policy (it's an old saw in municipal policy circles at least) is undeniably true. Like every other Sun Belt city, Austin spent the past seven decades or so opting for the low-density, car-dominated kind of growth.

When you make walking, biking, and public transit an afterthought for nearly a century, it shouldn't be a surprise when walking, biking, and public transit are second-class modes of transportation. It also shouldn't be a surprise that, in a city where driving is the most attractive option for the vast majority of trips, driving is a pretty unattractive option.

Project Connect gives us the opportunity to reverse course and retrofit an Austin with what the wonks call "transit-oriented development," or TOD. That's just a 10-dollar term for housing, jobs, and other kinds of community amenities that you don't need a car to get to. In a lot of other cities across the world, and even here in the U.S., they just call this "development."

By retooling our existing systems to allow for a lot more TOD to replace the existing COD (car-oriented development) along our transit corridors, we can make big steps toward achieving our housing, mobility, and climate goals, on top of getting the most bang for the seven billion bucks all of us are spending on Project Connect.

At the same time, we have to ensure that our transit-dependent residents won't lose access to our transit system just as it finally becomes a first-class service. The unprecedented $300 million anti-displacement fund voters approved as part of the Project Connect plan will go a long way toward that goal. But we also need to work toward far more inclusive planning processes than the ones we've relied upon for way too long. That means centering the focus on renters, communities of color, immigrants, young people, residents with disabilities, and others who have historically been denied a seat at the table and who will be disproportionately impacted by climate change fueled by car-oriented development.

It seems like every week, we see another headline about the skyrocketing cost of living in Austin. This is directly due to a housing shortage we've created by car-oriented development policies that make building anything other than a large-lot single-family house prohibitively difficult across most of our city. If we want to address affordability, displacement, and homelessness, we need to get out of our own way and allow a lot more housing, housing, housing. If we do that along our busiest transit corridors, we can also put both car-oriented development and the shame of a second-rate transit system in our municipal rearview mirror once and for all.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison represents District 1 on Austin City Council.

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