Notes on Kamp: Will Austin Ever Get Smart About Public Transportation?
Mobility is closely tied to equality
Whenever I find myself in a city with decent public transportation, I'm so delighted by it that I feel like a caveman being introduced to the concept of fire. How is it possible that I can get from one place to another reliably, cheaply, and fairly quickly without having to deal with the hassle of driving and parking? I get more reading done in a week than I do in a month in Austin; I walk distances I would normally drive; and I go out more, because it feels so easy.
As the Prop. 1 election looms, I can't help but be reminded of the Prop. 1 of 2014. While I wasn't in love with the proposed light rail route, it's hugely disappointing to me that Austin just can't seem to get anywhere when it comes to public transportation. The affection people feel for Uber and Lyft surely stems in part from the frustration of trying to use Cap Metro.
I spent years in Austin without a car, and it wasn't fun or easy. In those pre-ride-hailing days, I was lucky to have friends with cars who would help me out when I needed to go somewhere that wasn't covered by a bus route, or when I needed a ride at a time when the bus didn't run. But that doesn't mean that I didn't do my fair share of waiting for buses with infrequent service, going out of my way because there wasn't a direct route to where I was headed; walking along roads without sidewalks; and praying while riding my bike down streets without dedicated bike lanes.
I hope that no matter how the May 7 election turns out, we can move on and think about ways to improve our other transportation options. Among the concerns I have about ride-hailing, I know that it's not an option everyone can access. It requires having a smartphone and a debit card, and not everyone has both or either of those, no matter how ubiquitous they may seem. And not everyone can afford it: The cost of paying someone to drive you around in their car is never going to be as low as taking a bus or riding a bike. A city without a good public transportation system will never be truly cosmopolitan.
I commend Mayor Steve Adler for attempting to make better transportation a priority in Austin. I agree with him, and with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, that mobility is closely tied to equality. Foxx was quoted in a March 29 Washington Post article as saying, "Transportation for a long time has been seen in the light of something that is connected to opportunity. If we don't appreciate that and figure out how to do better, I think we're going to constrain our ability to grow our country. Everybody has got to have a shot." Foxx recalled growing up in a poor, black Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood: "Freeways were there to carry people through my neighborhood, but never to my neighborhood."
Better public transportation would mean connecting those neighborhoods that currently feel cut off from the center of Austin. It would mean money saved for people who struggle to make ends meet. It would mean fewer hourlong (or more) commutes to work, and more job and education opportunities for people whose lack of access to transportation currently limits their options to what's close by or on a bus route. I would hope it would also mean more sidewalks, bike lanes, and safer streets. The number of traffic fatalities reached a record high of 102 in Austin last year. Surely more sidewalks and fewer cars would help bring that number down.
But in order for us to have better public transportation, we have to want it. At some point we, as voters, have to be willing to fund it.
As Mayor Adler pursues funding through the U.S. DOT's Smart City Challenge, he's right to point out that although drastic change may not seem possible, it is possible. After visiting Copenhagen, the mayor wrote that "in the '70s Denmark had an auto-centric population just like Austin does now. Back then, Copenhagen made a tough (and, as it turns out, smart) decision to prioritize a different way to get around town. Today, bike users represent 50% of Copenhagen's commuter traffic."
Austin isn't going to become a public transportation paragon overnight. But the only way we'll ever get anywhere will be to believe that it's both a possible and desirable goal.