Density Does Not Cause Traffic

densities map_small_years

It seems that local media outlets constantly bemoan the statistic that 110 people move to Austin on an average day. Tall buildings, skyscrapers, 10-to-50-story buildings full of people are presumably to blame. Meanwhile, the city is still not as dense as it was in 1950, 1960, 1970, or 1980.

In fact, 2015 Austin is only 68% as dense as 1950 Austin.

densities table_small_years

1950 Austin had no towers. An aerial photograph of the city shows a downtown almost entirely covered with trees and buildings, the tallest of which was the Texas State Capitol.

1950 Austin had no I-35. Residents traversed the city in buses manned by Austin Transit Corporation, Greyhound Lines, and Continental Trailways.

On the other hand, 2010 Austin had eighteen towers taller than the Texas State Capitol. It had I-35, Loop 1, SH-71, and US 183. While it may appear that our present-day city is more crowded and the traffic less manageable, that feeling of encroachment is most certainly due not to an increase in people but to an increase in cars, an increase in asphalt. Over time blocks of historic houses were destroyed to make way for expressway feeders. Parks and greenbelts were devastated to make way for commuters’ vehicular storage. Previous generations literally “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

We saw in 1950 Austin that density + transit = no traffic.
We saw in 1990 Austin that sprawl + cars = traffic.
We see in 2015 Austin that density + cars = more traffic.

Why not take a leaf from our own city’s history book?

Speakers against the many “funneling project[s]” of the freewheelin’ sixties, like Mr. Sam Dunham, argued that “in building a transportation system, a lot more is being done than creating ways for cars to travel.” Meanwhile, Mr. John Gallery of West Austin Citizens and acting Dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture in 1975, protested the following issues associated with midcentury expressways and sprawl: substantial noise, less desirable and widened streets, resident flight, the elimination of parks, and infrastructure spread too thin.

On July 26, 1973 Mr. Jim Phillips, on behalf of Mr. Lyndon Henry and the Texas Association for Public Transportation, argued in favor of a viable alternative: rail. He pointed out “environmental benefits, minimized land uses [sic], preservation of green belts, and by taking cars off of the streets, 46,000 pounds of air pollution would be eliminated per day. Other advantages would shape urban development with more desirable patterns in their growth; highrise and multiple unit developments would leave land for other things.”

In the mid-1980s, Greyhound Lines and Continental Trailways moved their bus terminals away from downtown. The 1990 U.S. census revealed Austin’s most sprawled population yet.

Today the Austin Neighborhood Council’s mission statement reads: “Austin is often described as an oasis in central Texas, envied for its natural beauty with the hill country and the Colorado River, and is home of the University of Texas and our State Capitol. The charm of Austin is also reflected in the many wonderful vibrant neighborhoods throughout the city, each with its own unique character and spirit, much like the pieces of a lovely patchwork quilt.”

Density does not favor the built environment over natural beauty. It favors localizing the built environment so that its natural beauty can flourish. Portland, San Francisco, and New York City are both denser and greener than Austin; Portland’s park area amounts to 17% of its land area, San Francisco’s 19%, and New York City’s 20%, compared to Austin’s 14%.

Density does not favor towers over neighborhoods. Density is not synonymous with high rises. We saw in 1950 Austin that we can have an efficient midrise city, complete with thriving communities, diversity and originality.

The solution lies both in our people and in our transit. Not all people cause traffic; pedestrians don’t, cyclists don’t, transit riders don’t. Drivers cause traffic. As we search for our city’s ideal balance between density and transportation, that thread which ties our patchwork quilt back together, one thing should remain certain: our first priority should not be to “find parking.”

[City of Austin data, Ryan Robinson; historic photos, The Portal to Texas History; 1997 and 2012 photos, The Austin-American Statesman.]

8 thoughts on “Density Does Not Cause Traffic

  1. Pingback: High-Rises Don’t Cause Traffic; Parking Lots Do |

  2. Excellent article! Too many planners today think that density automatically eliminates traffic. You showed that it doesn’t.

    The problem is that every house now needs a driveway and a garage, every grocery store now needs hundreds of parking spaces, every apartment complex now needs a parking garage, every office building now needs parking for most of its workers, and most every road now needs another lane or a feeder or an overpass! Some 85% of residents of the Austin metro area get into cars to drive to work each morning. Overwhelmingly, they use cars to buy their groceries. Bicycles are used mostly for leisurely jaunts on the weekend in nice weather.

    It’s all this space for cars that takes up half of our cities now. Cars have become our “second homes”. Roads and parking spaces have claimed our trees, parks, and sidewalks. We’re not “automobile-dependent”; we’re “automobile-dominated”. Without an automobile, it becomes difficult or impossible to do the basic functions of life: go to work, buy food, go to the doctor, etc.

  3. Reblogged this on reviewanew and commented:
    Interesting analysis from Austin Texas about the relationship between density and traffic.

    I’ve always been bemused by the argument against inner city residential proposals that they would increase traffic. If the same people were housed in lower density development further out of town, presumably that would mean more people driving for longer distances. But of course, the would “NIMBY”!

  4. Good article. I am an advocate for appropriate density in appropriate locations. Why? Is it one of our best tools to help traffic, lower the cost of housing, preserve our natural resources (a biggee) and it will make Austin much more financially strong. Austin is struggling under the weight of trying to operate, maintain and repair an low density city that has many more miles of roads and pipes than other, more compact cities have. If we stopped growing today, our taxes would go up dramatically because we already have these “legacy costs” of low density development. Those costs are killing us. We have to start “reusing” our infrastructure — adding density with little or no increase in infrastructure — to right this ship.

    One item I see on your density analysis . . . Austin comprises a smaller and smaller share of our metro population. Why? Lots of reasons, but a primary one is that Austin’s housing has become increasingly more expensive. That fact pushes a significant number (majority?) of people to the fringes of our metro area to live. Then, about 145k of our entire metro area works in Urban Austin (downtown, Capitol, UT). Far more work in the core. And most get in cars and try to get to work. So much of the traffic in Austin comes from that disconnect of jobs being in one location and housing for the workers being in a different location. . . .

  5. Pingback: Links 2/19/15 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  6. Pingback: what we're reading - affordability & opportunity - Community BuildersCommunity Builders

  7. I moved away from Austin back in the mid-1990s when it was at the start of the big population boom. Even at that time, traffic was horrible and the nascent construction of the 183 free/toll-way was merely a means of reducing the traffic time to I-35 rather than a means to relieve the actual traffic caused by the main artery. At the time, 183 was stoplights all the way from Leander to Manor. Making it into a partial toll and expressway has somewhat improved the traffic flow.

    The reality Austin has never learned is that you cannot simultaneously build everything along a major highway and reduce traffic. I still call Austin “the world’s largest highway town” because there are very few places outside of the downtown/campus areas which are not built with the purpose of funneling everyone onto a major highway or another. If you want to live on the north side, you have to get on I-35, 183 or Mopac (or 360 if you have the means to live in the hills). If you live in mid-town, you’re looking at 2243 or the non-expressway version of 183, maybe even 71. If you live on the south side, it’s Mopac and I-35 again, or Ben White (aka 71) or 290. Add in the requisite shopping, grocery stores, and maybe a mall or megamart and it adds up to all the cars going to the same areas at the same times and the kind of traffic Austin is semi-famous for. All of the city’s planning decisions seem to be centered on bigger and wider highway construction and not actually providing alternatives to sitting in a car for upwards of three hours every day.

  8. Pingback: Los Rascacielos No Causan Trafico; Los Estacionamientos Si | SalvoLomas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s