Both Roads and Transit

Counting on traffic fixes

Rush-hour traffic at Sixth and Lamar, looking eastward
Rush-hour traffic at Sixth and Lamar, looking eastward (Courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department)

"Reduce driver frustration." While the city Transportation Department's new Austin Mobility Program has other noble goals – faster commutes, economic vitality, improved air quality, climate remediation – the frustration factor strikes everybody. So over the past month, the relatively new department and its director, Rob Spillar, have begun rolling out a program to make Austin driving less of a headache. It includes three strands:

1) a Downtown circulation study;

2) a Strategic Mobility Plan, for which the city is seeking a consultant team; and

3) an Urban Rail Program, for which it's already partnering with outside firms on the initial engineering, design, environmental work, and cost estimating required to prepare for a November 2010 transportation bond referendum.

The recently released circulation study (PDF) serves as the groundwork for all that will follow. Traffic counts for the study were collected last December, in partnership with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. (The city hadn't done an annual traffic count since 1992; Spillar is reinstituting them.) The big headline is no surprise: During ever longer morning and evening rush hours, all of Austin's main roads are fully congested. Still, it's a promising sign of professionalism that the Transportation Depart­ment first collected hard data on which to base funding and planning.

Rush-hour traffic at Third and Lamar, looking north
Rush-hour traffic at Third and Lamar, looking north (Courtesy of the Austin Transportation Department)

In Central Austin and Downtown, only 1% more cars are traveling than in 1992. "We were at maximum capacity 18 years ago, and we're at maximum capacity now," was Spillar's shorthand interpretation of that finding. Then as now, more than half a million drivers come in and out of Central Austin daily. (The core area is defined as Lamar to I-35 and the Colorado River to 38th Street, to catch the central business district, the Capitol Com­plex, and the University of Texas.) Around 30,000 cars crawl in and out of the central business district, twice a day, during rush hours.

Congestion is bad all over. South of the river, there's been an 8% traffic increase on major arterials leading into Downtown: South Lamar, South First, and South Con­gress. To get across the river daily, some 10,000 more drivers choose the congested Lamar Bridge (four lanes) over either of the six-lane bridges, at First Street and Congress – go figure. In North Austin, past 38th Street, there's been a whopping 20% increase in car counts on major arterials.

Both the number of people working Down­town and the number living there have grown since 1992, by about 13% and 118% (4,600 residents), respectively, so how can it be that car counts are virtually unchanged? Not all the added people ride the bus, surely. (According to Capital Metro, since 1992, overall ridership has increased by 34%.) Spillar pointed to a high area carpooling rate – near 14%, above the 10.7% national average – as a sign that people are shifting their behaviors. (And that's without HOV lanes or other carpooling incentives, as adopted in other large metro areas.) Scooters, pedicabs, taxis, and bicycles are more in evidence, particularly on weekend nights in entertainment districts. Thousands of people who love Downtown now live there and don't drive around much, but Spillar also thinks that as the Downtown work force has grown, hogging every lane during rush hour, "discretionary" shoppers have fled, in part from traffic hassles. That's not good news for Downtown Austin's retail ambitions. You can build the swank shops and cafes, but if people can't get there without cursing, the outliers won't come.

The metric used to document congestion is a road's volume-to-capacity ratio, which compares the existing volume of traffic (flow rate) to a street's real capacity. A road rated under 0.8 has capacity to spare; between 0.8 and 1.0, it's approaching, or at, capacity. Beyond 1.0, it's a total drag to drive – think Lamar or Loop 360 or MoPac or I-35 Downtown at 5:30pm.

All the arterials the city measured in and out of Central Austin had a volume-to-capacity ratio of 0.99, in both the 1992 and 2009 counts. South of the river, the major roads were at 1.26 – that's barely crawling at rush hour. (No wonder drivers get tempted to pass the time by texting.) Basically, if we want traffic to flow, there's no room to squeeze even 10 more cars onto our major local roads. Yet we can count on more people moving to Austin (about 3.5% annually, historically), and they'll need to get around. We can't build any more roads in Central Austin, Spillar notes – so it's time to focus on other transportation modes.

Based on the data, the Transportation Department has reached two major conclusions. One, it needs to take immediate action to provide short-term relief by using traffic-engineering fixes that improve traffic flow. An example recently completed: The linking of signal timing on Lavaca/Guadalupe through Downtown to the Guadalupe/Uni­ver­si­ty grid. (Check it out: It's now possible to glide on all green lights traveling on Lavaca or Guadalupe, all the way from MLK to Cesar Chavez in less than four minutes.) Simultan­e­ous­ly, the department and city of Austin must lead and build an urban rail transit system. In addition, the department is partnering with Public Works on many new sidewalk and bicycle improvements and advocating that people simply drive less, both regionally and in town.

Spillar also believes it's critical that Austin provide strong regional leadership with its Strategic Mobility Plan (to address all transportation modes) and Urban Rail Pro­gram. "We have got to get beyond the argument of roads versus rail," said Spillar. "It's a nonsense discussion. We have to identify the mobility problem, in each case, and the best tool to resolve that problem. We now have proof that the roads in and out of Downtown are full, so we have to seek new alternatives. We know that existing interchanges in our suburbs stand uncompleted. It's clear that we've got to have both roads and transit." His team will identify funding streams for each priority project and help explain to the larger community how it benefits, said Spillar. "You're really building a contract of trust with the public."

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city transportation, Austin Transportation Department, Rob Spillar, Central Austin Circulation Study

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