Point Austin: Know Thyselves
Zandan Poll a snapshot of Central Texans' preoccupations
I'm coming a bit late to the annual party on the local Zandan Poll, the survey sponsored by Peter Zandan of the worldwide public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies, released April 16. Called "Voices of the Austin Community," the poll results are based on a March online survey of more than 800 "Austinites," selected to reflect the demographics of the city – or more accurately, the "Austin" that is defined by residents of Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell Counties. "Austin" is a fair community definition for that region, but the geographic ratios also color greatly what the respondents say about the city that is, in actual fact, Austin – and the relative influence the various areas have on the issues and problems the survey addresses.
Ninety-three percent of respondents say they live in one of the first three counties; 58% live in Travis, only 48% within city limits. Within those parameters, it makes sense that a large majority – 82% – would identify "traffic, roads, and transportation" as by far the "most important problem facing Austin today." At 50%, a combined answer of "affordability, cost of living, affordable housing, gentrification" was a distant second. (Population growth, more a cause than a symptom, ran third at 24%.) Last year, traffic was ranked highest, by a nearly identical 80%, but the other numbers have shifted somewhat: in 2014, growth was second at 29%, affordable housing (specifically) 26%, drought 20%. (Drought has faded as a concern this year, to 11%; the spring rains have apparently had some effect.)
That a poll so heavy with commuters would identify "traffic" as their most important concern is not terribly revealing; but it's also worth asking if a group representing more than half out-of-towners can have much salutary effect on the solutions to city traffic problems that they in fact embody. (The demographic context does, however, go a long way to explaining why TxDOT wants to double-deck MoPac over Lady Bird Lake.)
As You Desire
Like Harry Potter's Mirror of Erised, a poll tends to say as much about those reading the results as about those who answered the questions. Zandan himself was taken with the fact that Austinites thought of their neighbors as perhaps more "weird," "creative," even "liberal" than they think of themselves (43% self-identify as conservative), and simultaneously "active" and "laid back." He also called attention to the "youthification" of the city – with a higher density of "young millennials" than any other large city in the U.S. That would also explain why respondents (74%) describe Austin as a "haven for millennials" rather than "Boomers," and a better home for singles or childless adults than for families with children.
Mayor Steve Adler was quick to note that a very large majority (79%; 57% of respondents are homeowners) say they support a 20% homestead exemption (which the mayor campaigned on), and nearly as many (69%) support it even if it means higher taxes for "industrial and commercial" properties – that is, for somebody else. The poll didn't ask for odds on enacting the former without the latter corollary – pretty high, would be my guess – but there nevertheless remains plenty of abstract enthusiasm for spending more money on roads, on transit, even on incentives for both economic development and "creative industries." The poll wasn't clear on where the money would come from for all those admirable initiatives – but if that had been one of the questions, my guess is the answer would be: from somebody else.
There were certainly a couple of questions that made me a trifle nervous. Question D13, for example, found that just 5% of Austinites get most of their news from print sources. I suppose I should be somewhat comforted that 45% responded "online" to that question – even if it makes my reporting more constricted and my deadlines dramatically shorter.
Happy to Be Here
Last year, 77% of respondents called Austin the "top city in the U.S." That question wasn't precisely repeated this year, but it's clear that Austinites – especially the youthifiers – remain enthusiastic and optimistic about our town (or region) and its future. They're a bit more vague about the city of Austin's recent political changes and its future – unsurprisingly, since half of them live elsewhere – but it seems apparent that the demographically representative group of people who answer these surveys, and the larger but quite unrepresentative group who most persistently vote in our municipal elections, are not the same folks.
That's one more weird disjunction in a community that prides itself on its weirdness. If we could somehow arrange a meeting of the minds between the residents who believe Austin hung the moon and the voters who believe the whole town's going to hell in a handbasket – perhaps together we could figure out a way to cure traffic congestion and make housing affordable once again. In another decade or so, we'll learn if those happy millennials have gotten any closer to finding the answers.