CITY VS. SPRAWL: A Study in Impervious Cover


During the final Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reading, Council Members Ora Houston (D-1), Ann Kitchen (D-5), and Leslie Pool (D-7), led by Kathie Tovo (D-9), cited impervious cover and the supposed resultant flooding as demonstrative reasons why we should not add housing in Austin’s urban core. The same argument has been used by neighborhood NIMBYs to decry new downtown residences.

ADUs do add impervious cover, to be sure, but in exchange they provide places for Austinites to call home. Furthermore, thanks to the new ordinance which passed 7-4 on November 19, ADUs built within a quarter mile of an Imagine Austin corridor are not required to have a parking space—a minimum I.C. savings of 289 square feet over the previous requirement! As for new downtown residences, well, if they were surface parking lots prior to their construction, then they are not to blame for increased impervious cover.

If we refuse to provide adequate housing in the city, then developers will provide housing outside the city limits. While certain Council Members try to be environmentally pennywise by voting against ADUs, they end up pound foolish by inadvertently encouraging suburban sprawl.

As Austin grows, we should avoid (quite literally) driving our development through virginal Hill Country, which results in car dependence, a barren landscape, and endless pavement. We should, however, support incremental density—that is, gradual urban infill—which affords our city architectural variety, historic layers, and yes, character.

Just for fun—or, you know, not—let us take a look at eight sprawling retail and office developments and see how their vastness compares with the boundary of downtown Austin:

  1. Lakeline Mall: “In 1990 the discovery of endangered cave bugs – found on what was then raw, undeveloped land – delayed construction of Lakeline Mall.”malls-02
  2. La Frontera: The portion of the land where La Frontera now sits was the site of the primary filming of the 1974 cult movie classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a “story… about isolation, the woods, the darkness, and the unknown.”
  3. Tech Ridge: “Retail centers and restaurants are numerous in the area in response to 45Toll and 130Toll construction and a number of recent subdivisions that were built in recent years.”
  4. The “Arboretum” & Gateway: “Arboretum Plaza I offers 146,030 square feet of rentable space on nine floors. Parking is at a ratio of one vehicle per 300 square feet of leased space. Arboretum Plaza II, with 97,944 square feet of leasable space, has a denser parking ratio of one per 278 square feet. Arboretum Plaza II comprises six stories.”
    [486 parking spaces + 352 parking spaces = 838 parking spaces]
  5. Southpark Meadows: “…over 90 stores including big box national retailers, fabulous restaurants and loads of parking…”malls-07
  6. Barton Creek Square: “‘Within hours [of the beginning of construction on Barton Creek Watershed] … the water emerging from the springs turned dark and silty.'”malls-08
  7. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport PARKING: “…13,000 parking spaces… [including] surface lots, garages, and spaces in the four overflow lots.”
    [13,000 parking spaces = 26.4 city blocks]
  8. Dell Campus: “Dell Computer Corporation occupies approximately 2.3 million square feet of manufacturing, distribution and office facilities…”malls-10

Note: The Domain was excluded from this listicle because it contains a substantial residential component.

The $400 million question: How accurate is Austin traffic planners’ crystal ball?

Will there be more traffic in the future?

Signs point to yes - Magic 8 Ball

Congestion will be worse than you can possibly imagine! Vehicle counts will nearly double over the next 15 years! Austinites will waste untold millions of extra hours sitting in traffic on South MoPac, traffic planners say, unless we do something to fix it.

That something, according to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), is to spend between $350 and $400 million adding two managed lanes to S. MoPac.

If traffic planners do one thing consistently, they preach the gospel of adding highway capacity to meet the unstoppable rise of vehicle miles traveled, whether or not that faith matches actual data. Surprise! Traffic engineers predict the need for more traffic engineering. Austin is no exception, and as you can see in the graphic below, the gloom and doom that is currently predicted for MoPac was at one time used to push the expansion of S. Lamar.

Lamar vs MoPac-01

In the face of public opposition, the Lamar expansion plans fizzled. The massive gains in traffic that were so unavoidable never materialized. In fact, traffic volumes at the Lamar bridge have consistently trended downward since the early 90s.

Can we build our way out of traffic?

Reply Hazy - Magic 8 Ball

Here’s what we do know:

1.  If you build it, they will come.

Because of a well-established phenomenon known as induced demand, every new lane that gets built will fill up within 5-10 years and congestion will return to its bumper-to-bumper equilibrium.

2.  There’s no end to the cycle.

Once traffic fills up those extra lanes, the highway industry will be back to advocate for the next round of expansion. When they’re done, congestion will be even worse. One recent example, the Katy Freeway in West Houston, was expanded from 8 to 23 lanes in 2010. $2.8 billion later, traffic is actually slower than before the expansion due to all the private development that the expansion encouraged.

3.  Other cities have had enough.

There are plenty of cities across the globe working to lessen their dependence on the car, but you don’t have to look to walkable meccas like Vancouver or London. Los Angeles recently announced a sweeping new plan that will shift the focus of transportation planning away from cars and traffic to other modes of travel. No city has fought harder than L.A. to make the car culture work; it might be prudent to pay attention when La La Land decides to throw in the towel.

So let’s not get too caught up with reading the Texas Tea Leaves, shall we? Instead, let’s take a step back to appreciate that regional planning isn’t all about responding to the crushing needs of an inevitable future. Planning is about helping to shape the future by carefully considering our actions today. When a governing body or authority claims that we must double the size of a highway in order to accommodate many more cars, it’s not just making a prediction, it is setting a goal. It’s up to the community to decide if those plans accurately reflect its values and aspirations.

What else could Central Texas do with $400 million?


South Lamar:

“Over a Troubled Bridge: Neighborhoods Battle Plan to Widen Lamar Bridge.” The Austin Chronicle, 11 Oct. 1996.
“Delay and Traffic Projections.” South Lamar Corridor Transportation Improvement Program. Austin Transportation Department, 27 May 2015.


Proposed Action, Purpose and Need Technical Memorandum: MoPac (State Loop 1) Intersections, Austin District. Texas Department of Transportation, June 2015.
Memorandum to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Stantec Consulting Services, April 2015.
“How much traffic will toll lanes bring to South MoPac?” The Austin American Statesman, 15 Nov. 2015

Learning from Bogotá: No More Excuses

We ended this month’s meeting of the Pedestrian Advisory Council with a few thoughts on education and safety*. Of the 82 2015 Austin traffic deaths, 26 have been pedestrians. While we advocate and wait for infrastructure improvements in the form of reduced speed limits, marked crosswalks, sidewalks and bulb-outs, Jim Dale of the city’s Transportation Department recommended that “the public can be another player in making streets safer.”

Bogotá, Colombia is a multimodal megacity renown for its alternate transportation initiatives, including:

  • open streets (ciclovías), since December 1974
  • dedicated bikeways (ciclorutas), since 1996
  • the world’s largest car-free weekday event (Dia Sin Carro), since February 2000
  • bus rapid transit system (Transmilenio), since December 2000


Antanas Mockus, Mayor of Bogotá from January 1995 to April 1997, once said that “innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words.” When drivers refused to yield to his city’s pedestrians, he hired 420 mimes to make fun of traffic violators because he believed that Colombians were more afraid of being ridiculed than fined.

Although police enforcement of the law has since loosened, present-day Bogotanos maintain the same zeal for defending their right-of-way. While living and working in Bogotá from February 2012 to November 2013, I walked the mile between my home and office four times a day everyday. As expected, I scuffled with drivers on a semi-regular basis, but I was able to keep my cool by flashing my blue Road Intelligence (Inteligencia Vial) card.

no más excusas

No pedestrian wants to be perceived as the wildly-waving, fanatically-cursing outcast of a car-driven society. (Pun intended.) The Road Intelligence campaign of the Road Safety Fund** (Corporación Fondo de Prevención Vial) gently calls attention to in-the-field drivers’ road safety offenses. The concept is simple: pedestrians flash the blue side of the card—the ‘no more excuses’ side—when a driver fails to yield the right-of-way; pedestrians flash the red side—the ‘thank you’ side—when a driver properly yields. A single blue card may seem minor, but en masse they can incite major change. Instructions for how and when to use the card are available on Inteligencia Vial‘s website.

It is important to note that the Road Safety Fund focuses on behavioral modification, not on infrastructural improvements. That said, while Austin’s Transportation Department fields 100 requests for pedestrian hybrid beacons and voters await a $1 billion sidewalk bond on the 2016 ballot, a similar DIY initiative may have a place.

It’s so weird, it just might work.

*To set the record straight, Chapter 4 of the Texas Driver Handbook states:

Yield the Right-of-Way to Pedestrians (Persons on Foot)

Avoid Turning a Car into a Deadly Weapon
You should always be on the lookout for individuals who are on foot (pedestrians) whether they have the right-of-way or not. Drivers must give the right-of-way to pedestrians:

  1. At an uncontrolled intersection (there are not any traffic signs or signals for the pedestrian to enter the crosswalk)
  2. If the pedestrian has a WALK signal or
    a. If there is not a pedestrian control signal, give the pedestrian the right-of-way on a green light.
    b. If the light changes after the pedestrian has entered the crosswalk, still give the pedestrian the right-of-way.

Yield Here to Pedestrian Signs
The “Yield Here to Pedestrians” signs are used when yield lines are used in advance of a marked crosswalk that crosses an uncontrolled multi-lane approach.

In-Street and Overhead Pedestrian Crossing Signs
The “In-Street Pedestrian Crossing” signs or the “Overhead Pedestrian Crossing” signs may be used to remind road users of laws regarding right-of-way at a non-signalized pedestrian crosswalk. The “In-Street Pedestrian Crossing” signs are placed in the road at the crosswalk location on the center line, on a lane line, or on a median island. The “In-Street Pedestrian Crossing” signs will not be posted on the left- or right-hand side of the road.
The “Overhead Pedestrian Crossing” signs are placed over the roadway at the crosswalk

**Since 1995 automobile insurance companies have been required by Colombian law to contribute 3% of their gross revenue to the Road Safety Fund, which in turn has been required by national law to exist.

Leading by Example

The satellite images below, captured at the same scale, show the headquarters of two companies that have chosen to locate themselves in vastly different environments. Where an office chooses to locate says a lot about the priorities of its leadership and the expectations they have of their employees.

Carlsbad Portland illustrated

For example, the office on the left is surrounded by disconnected swaths of surface parking, does not have pleasant or safe pedestrian infrastructure, and is not within walking distance of any transit service that would be useful to office commuters. The only fixed service runs five times a day on school days only with the last bus leaving before 6 pm. The decision to locate here communicates that the leaders in this office expect their employees to drive to work every day. It is difficult to imagine that they have much interest in promoting alternatives to driving.

On the other hand, the office to the right is located in a finely gridded neighborhood with very little surface parking and is directly served by a bus that runs roughly every 20 minutes for most of the day. About three quarters of a mile away is a new train station that will open in September. Employees here have many options for arriving to work; the streets are far more conducive to biking and walking.

These offices also have a few particular things in common: they both help plan public transportation networks, and they each represent one of the two teams that have applied to assist Austin’s Capital Metro with its long range plan. The firm on the left is Transportation Management and Design of Carlsbad, CA and the firm on the right is Portland, OR based Jarrett Walker and Associates.

According to a recent tweet by Austin American Statesman reporter Ben Wear, a Capital Metro committee voted to recommend Transportation Management and Design to the full Board of Directors. We feel compelled to make the opposite recommendation, one that recognizes the value of experts who walk the talk.

Ben Wear tweet

How much does parking add to your rent?

Parking Rent - Construction June 2015

Click to Enlarge.

I couldn’t resist double dipping on this graphic I created for Reinventing Parking.  I’ll try not to repeat most of my remarks from that post here, but I’ll start off by saying that the numbers for Austin are somewhat lower than the national average featured at the top of the graph. (Notice the location of Dallas along the green arrow.) That is likely offset by the fact that apartments built in Austin have a lot more parking than in many other major cities.

Beyond contributing to Austin’s affordability crisis by denying people who could choose to live with one fewer car the ability to realize the full savings of that decision, car oriented high density development places an unsupportable burden on a city’s streets. That’s exactly what we’re building right now in Austin. If we want an ecologically sustainable and socially fair city, we need to ensure that people that don’t want or can’t afford cars aren’t saddled with the enormous costs of storing them.

We’ve made some progress mainly in Downtown and West Campus by reducing minimums and instead managing on-street parking with meters. Austin needs to act more decisively to unburden itself from some of the most onerous minimum parking requirements in the country while working to encourage property owners to end the practice of bundling parking with rent. Separating rent for cars from rent for people will give Austinites the freedom to, and full reward for, making better transportation choices.

Parking Rent - Construction Supplement

Knitting Austin Back Together – Stitch #2

There are many levels of urban connectivity that affect the travel habits of a city’s residents. Our last post focused on the macro level by showing how a new extension of street or public way could dramatically enhance the effectiveness of transit, walking, and cycling for getting around in a neighborhood. A network with more connections better supports alternatives to car dependency. Streets however can be more or less connected internally as well. Streets where there are frequent opportunities to cross are well connected internally. This kind of connectivity plays an equally important role in creating a walkable city where alternatives to travel by car are comfortable, practical, and dignified. As the following example will show, even in places where the street grid is relatively complete, discriminatory infrastructure can still place a heavy burden on people trying to get around on their own two feet.

Don't Walk, Drive.

This sign doesn’t have a place anywhere in a civilized city, least of all in its urban core.

I took the above picture at 5th Street and Bowie on my walk to work. Between this location and my office two streets away, a person on foot must cross a total of four times: twice extra than should be the case. My best guess as to the reason for the missing crosswalks is that our local traffic engineers have determined that these pedestrian crossings would pose too much of an inconvenience to motorists turning left from Bowie onto one-way 5th and 6th streets. On four separate days, I timed the various legs of this one block journey to determine how much extra time is added to my commute by the lack of crosswalks.

Don't Walk Graphic1

X marks the incomplete pedestrian infrastructure.

Don't Walk Graphic2

Zig zagging through the city

In the maps above as well as the charts below I’ve documented the one block journey by showing necessary components in black and extraneous portions in red. The extra waiting and crossing caused by anti-pedestrian infrastructure added an average of one minute and twenty-four seconds to a walk that was otherwise two minutes and fifty-four seconds, an increase of 48.5%. That might not sound like a big deal at first; it’s just the equivalent of stopping daily at two extra red lights during a commute by car. Consider however that this is only one example on one block. Missing crosswalks and missing sidewalks abound throughout Austin even in the densest quarters. They are thousands of permanent detours that litter the pedestrian environment adding a minute here, forty seconds there. It adds up, making a comfortable walk uncomfortable while pushing journeys that would be a stretch into the realm of the impractical.

I’ve had people tell me they don’t walk because of the heat. This keeps people on foot in the heat longer. I’ve heard people say they don’t feel safe crossing a lot of busy streets. This forces people to cross unnecessarily. And unlike building new sidewalks or adding new pedestrian beacons or installing new traffic lights, these intersections already have all the expensive equipment. The designers simply and intentionally chose to discriminate against people on foot to achieve a convenience for people in cars.

Crossing Times-01Crossing Times-02

Predictably, many if not most people on foot ignore the legal crosswalks which clearly fail to respect them as equals. People cross where the crosswalks should be, and it works, to an extent.

That’s not the kind of place I want to live though. That’s not the kind of city I want Austin to be.

Welcome to Texas

Pedestrians are outlawed just a block from the Texas State Capitol. Lavaca St. is considered a Core Transit Corridor.

Knitting Austin Back Together – Stitch #1

At each of Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid stops, there is a map indicating the destinations to which you can supposedly walk. It looks like this:

1. 803 Map

Featuring a reasonable half mile radius, the Lamar Square stop looks like it serves a sizable chunk of South Austin.
2. Actual walking distance

Well, not quite. The streets colored black in the map above show an actual walking distance of a half mile. You can see that long stretches of S. Lamar lack connections that would allow people to walk East or West. Two of the four destinations on the list are not actually walkable within a half mile. In fact, the lack of connections block a substantial majority of the territory in the half mile circle from accessing the MetroRapid. When considering why more people in Austin do not use transit on a regular basis, poor connectivity has to be the first problem that comes to mind. People simply cannot use public transit if they cannot access it. In a triple whammy, poor connectivity also decimates people’s ability to walk or bicycle for transportation.

3. Gibson Extension

So, we have a modest proposal. Knit the city back together. The map above shows that just a single eastward connection would increase the number of places accessible from this stop dramatically. We would suggest that this connection be a bicycle and pedestrian crossing for a number of reasons. Principally, the number of connections that are needed are many and any money available to accomplish them limited. Adding motor vehicles to the mix would increase the costs considerably and limit the number of connections that could be made.  More but smaller, targeted interventions can have a wider reaching impact. Secondly, the benefit of added connectivity to cars would be minimal while the benefit to walkers, cyclists, and transit users would be huge. Finally, many existing residents would be concerned about the safety implications of extra motor vehicle traffic on their streets. (The inherent danger that car traffic poses to residents, especially children, is of course a great reason why we need better access to transit.)

4. Route 5

The improved connectivity would benefit not only the Lamar corridor, but also users of the local 5 route to the East (shown in yellow above). Walking just one additional block will get you to the number 10 bus on S. First Street.

5. Route 5 Expanded coverage

The streets colored gold above show the additional destinations that would be within a half mile walk of the number 5 bus, including the soon to be completed Lamar Union development. Residents in the immediate vicinity of the new connection would not be the only ones to benefit. Everyone who lives near the 5, employees and patrons alike, would have another option for arriving at the Alamo Drafthouse, among other destinations. At the same time, everyone living in the red or gold zones would enjoy an effective increase in the frequency of transit through increased options.

6. Lamar Square connection

Finally, a second connection to the West could repair the hole left by the oversized cul-de-sac that is Lamar Square, and allow many more residents of the Zilker neighborhood to access sustainable transportation options.

We picked this area for the first stitch because we know it well. We’d love to hear suggestions for other specific places where a relatively small connection could have a dramatic impact.