Point Austin: What We Think of Us
City’s “Community Survey” an annual public selfie
We love Austin. We believe Austin is a great place to live and work, and an excellent place to raise children. We're fairly keen on the overall quality of city services, and those of us getting on in years are mostly persuaded Austin will be a good place to retire. On the other hand, we're not quite convinced we're getting fair value for what we're paying in taxes and fees. And we're deeply disappointed in the city's willingness or ability in "planning for growth."
Those conclusions are drawn from the City of Austin's latest "Community Survey," this one performed by the ETC Institute (a market research firm that specializes in these types of governmental surveys), and based on 2,099 completed mail, phone, and internet questionnaires of Austin residents, at least 200 surveys in each of the 10 City Council districts, a sample of city demographics roughly representative in race, gender, age, and income (and delivering perhaps surprisingly similar results citywide). The surveyors grade themselves at a "confidence level" of 95%, and a margin of error of +/–2.1% (i.e., pretty good).
The city commissions a fairly similar version of these surveys every year, with the intention of getting a handle on community sentiment about city services, about what Austinites think the city is doing well or badly, and about any trends they might need to keep an eye on. Responses seldom change dramatically from year to year, although this survey was generated late in 2016, and the consultants note: "However, overall satisfaction with City services has declined [since 2012]. This is a nationwide trend, as concerns about the economy, public safety, and issues related to the recent presidential election may have contributed to decreases in satisfaction with government during the past year." In other words, our short national nightmare-in-progress appears to have given some of us the glums.
Yes, But …
Nevertheless, the numbers continue to show that Austinites are mostly happy to be here – 80% of those surveyed say they are "satisfied" (49%) or "very satisfied" (31%) with life in Austin – and the overall satisfaction numbers with almost everything fairly high, and on average higher than for residents in peer cities (over 250,000 population). Certainly, most folks approve of the place they live – it's home, after all – so that while Austin is at 80%, the national average for large cities is 71%.
That doesn't mean we love everything about Austin and its city government – 68% say the city is doing a poor job of planning for growth, which might be another way of delivering the Austin cliche, "When I first got here things were great, but ..." Ratings on many city services – parks, public safety, libraries, airport, animal services – are high, with ABIA, for example, topping out at a 79% approval rating and "electric services" at 59% satisfaction. The break seems to come at health and human services, with only a 41% satisfaction rating (although 41% also offer a "neutral opinion"), and down at the very bottom – no surprise here – are "traffic flow on major city streets" (72% dissatisfied) and "traffic flow on major highways" (86% dissatisfied). Guess what: We've got "mobility" problems!
Don't Move Here
In general, Austin scores pretty well in comparison to U.S. cities of comparable size, although we're badly below average on how residents judge the city's "planning for growth." Other large cities managed to achieve a 33% approval rating in that category; that sounds pretty bad, until you see that Austin currently sits at 13% satisfaction, fully 20% below the national average. (It's beyond the bounds of this survey to compare European cities on questions of planning and mobility; they've mostly been at it longer than we have, and are not quite so strongly wedded to, and strangled by, single-occupancy motor vehicles.)
I've been reading these surveys for several years now, and while it's not exactly news that Austinites love Austin, it has remained entertaining to compare how strongly we approve of our overall quality of life with how angrily we complain at City Hall during zoning hearings or Citizen Communications. Molly Ivins used to enjoy mocking how much Americans love surveys that tell us how ignorant we are compared to the citizens of other nations. At the current national political moment, that joke is neither so reassuring nor amusing as it once might have been.
Here in Austin, we continue to take pride in our music, in our weather, in our parks and libraries, in our great outdoors, and in most of what we get for our (somewhat grudging) tax payments for public services – the price we pay for a communally managed community. We remain uncertain whether we really want to share these public benefits with quite so many newcomers or soon-to-be newcomers. That, too, is not new.