Planning a Compact City in the Midst of Urban Sprawl

Sic Transit Gloria

by Nelson England

For two decades, Austin environmentalists have fought two major battles in transportation planning: trying to halt construction of freeways that pave the way for urban sprawl, and seeking to protect the inner city from the daily onslaught of traffic created by a system that panders to suburban freeway commuters. They have been mostly losing the first battle, but they have increasing prospects for winning the second. Last December, the Austin Transportation Study (ATS), a 17-member committee of regional elected officials charged with transportation planning for the metropolitan area, adopted a 25-year plan that was long on discussion of the need for a compact city, and for better facilities for cyclists and pedestrians. It scaled back previous plans to widen practically every inner city arterial, and it called for 52 miles of light rail to provide a transit spine that would shape compact growth. However, these good intentions have run headlong into a concrete fact. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) plans to use the lion's share of state and federal transportation money until the end of the century in order to complete the giant US290 and US183 freeway projects, and add lanes to I-35.

Under federal law -- the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) -- the ATS has certain powers to divert funds from freeways to transit. But they've never attempted to use those powers, either because the local officials fear antagonizing the powerful highway department, or, more likely, because an ATS majority favors freeway expansion in spite of all the talk about a compact city. The ATS gave a pretty good demonstration of its priorities in September, when it approved $75.7 million to be spent on freeway construction in the next three years, more than half of it for the US290 project over the Edwards Aquifer. Then in November, it voted to send a delegation to the Texas Transportation Commission to ask for an additional $144.4 million in funding for the next phases of US290, US183, and the Outer Loop.

Capital Metro's light rail plans have received a boost recently (see side bar), but the bad news is, the extensive freeway construction is setting the stage for decades of sprawl that is likely to reduce the quality of urban life in four ways. (1) Pristine areas of the nearby Hill Country are being covered with subdivisions and shopping centers. (2) Water quality is likely to decline in area streams, lakes, and aquifers. For many in the inner city, the most heartbreaking spectacle may well be the increasing pollution of Barton Springs as the thousands of currently empty acres made accessible by South MoPac, US290, the Outer Loop and the Southwest Parkway are paved over with impervious cover. (3) Air quality is worsening as more and more cars travel longer and longer distances. Odds appear increasingly higher that Austin will exceed federal ozone standards by the end of the century, but by then, the US183/290 freeway loop will be a fait d'accompli. (4) Traffic congestion and noise will mount in spite of -- or more accurately, because of -- the increased freeway capacity.

Still, at least one gloomy factor that usually accompanies the urban sprawl scenario may not be in the cards for Austin's future. Citizens appear determined to prevent the inner city decay that has plagued other American cities where freeways have paved the way for flight to the suburbs. Perhaps the best thing to come out of the year of debate over the ATS 25-year plan was a heightened awareness among the citizenry of the overwhelming importance of transportation systems in shaping urban growth and determining quality of life. Subjects that weren't much discussed outside of environmentalist circles a few years ago -- such as ozone pollution, compact city, and the ATS itself -- are increasingly familiar topics to average citizens. This heightened awareness is reflected in the recent work of the Citizens Planning Committee, which was created partially in response to an ATS directive to the city to evaluate changes needed in zoning regulations that would encourage compact growth (see accompanying story).

"Compact city" is a much-ridiculed term, but what cynics sometimes fail to notice is the real potential for inner city renewal to a more human, livable scale, even as the metropolitan area spreads out over neighboring counties. The University of Texas took an important step toward strengthening the urban core this year when it revealed plans to calm traffic on campus streets and extend its pedestrian malls (see the "UTopia" cover story, The Austin Chronicle, Vol. 15, No. 4, Sept. 22). UT has long maintained a central plaza for Austin, something that most American cities lost when freeways and shopping malls began sucking the life out of downtown commercial centers in the Fifties. It serves as a haven for social interaction at the city's heart, as well as an island of calm and sanctuary for pedestrians in a sea of traffic.

But the next step requires linking the university on a pedestrian/transit scale to the state capitol complex and downtown. And this may not happen unless future downtown residential development creates a constituency strong enough to demand and achieve traffic calming. As it stands, the city's center is inhabited primarily in the daytime, by commuting office workers who depend on a system of pedestrian-unfriendly one-way "feeder" streets to speed them in and out of downtown from I-35 and MoPac.

Leading the way in planning for a calmer, more human-scale center is the Downtown Austin Alliance, an association of downtown business owners. The DAA is also pushing hard for a plan to reunite East Austin to Downtown by submerging I-35 and providing for numerous ground-level crossings over the freeway. To the west, residents of Clarksville -- sick of cars speeding down West Fifth and Sixth between downtown and MoPac -- are also demanding traffic calming. Conversion of Fifth and Sixth to two-way streets with traffic signals could create a corridor of lively pedestrian activity centered around restaurants and specialty shops throughout the entire length of these two streets and the block in between them.

What these plans illustrate is that a compact city can emerge by starting from a strong pedestrian-friendly core which gradually moves outward, pushing frantic traffic with it back to the freeway as it goes. Traffic calming and mixed-use zoning could free up neighborhoods to develop along the lines of Hyde Park and Clarksville, with small nodes for restaurants, bakeries, and laundromats that people can walk to, and where they can meet and interact. Perhaps it isn't the anti-sprawl idea of a compact city which Austinites originally envisioned, but it may be the only one which is politically within their reach. A better name for it would be "compact center."

Even this more modest goal of an urbane, civilized core in the midst of a sprawling Texas car culture will sound like a pipe dream to some. However, dozens of European cities have successfully preserved and revitalized their centers in the past two decades by creating a series of concentric traffic-calmed rings which progressively limit automobile speeds as they approach the inner city. Big pluses already working in Austin's favor are the heavily used Town Lake and Shoal Creek hike-and-bike trails. Sierra Club Chair Dick Kallerman has launched a movement to stop the widening of street intersections near Town Lake, with hopes of eventually linking the all-important hike-and-bike trail to a widening traffic-calmed zone. Plans of the Austin Metropolitan Trails Council to expand the trail system along other urban creeks could preserve green space and dramatically increase Austin's walkability. Meanwhile, Rick Waring, Austin's new bicycle coordinator, is working on a city-wide plan to break down barriers to continuous street cycling, and thus make bicycle commuting a viable option for more people.

In spite of these hopes and dreams, make no mistake: traffic congestion is here to stay. The freeway construction that is currently underway guarantees an automobile-dominated transportation system in most of the metropolitan area for years to come. Such a system takes up between one-third and one-half of urban space for roads and parking. Since so much space is devoted to cars, distances between home, job, and other activities increase, requiring people to drive more miles per day. Traffic engineers then try to reduce the time needed to traverse the longer distances by building more and wider roads, but cars eventually fill up any available roadspace, creating ever more congestion. The only way to stop this vicious circle is to place limits on the automobile's demand for space and speed.

In the next few years, neighborhoods are likely to come under new pressure to give in to arterial widening, as congestion mounts from large volumes of traffic generated by the completion of the US183/290 freeway loop. Austin's ability to preserve a vital and livable center is going to depend on citizens' ability to resist this pressure, and to demand that future increases in transportation capacity within the inner city be limited to improved public transit. n

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