an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
When asked what the biggest issue facing Austin is, we typically hear a smattering of answers, but the most common refrain involves traffic, sprawl, and public transportation. No surprise, then, that Austin voters last November were asked to weigh in on Proposition 1, which would fund the creation of a public rail system within and beyond the city’s borders. The proposition was defeated, however, and the city was left without a clear plan for the future of its transportation system. We sat down with Niran Babalola, who works with Austinites for Urban Rail Action, an organization that sought to both educate voters last fall about the problems associated with Proposition 1 and to construct a more efficient, widely used rail system for the city.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in rail activism.
I’m Niran Babalola, and I’m a member of AURA, formerly known as Austinites for Urban Rail Action. In 2013, I heard that the city was beginning the planning process for a rail line, and there had been rumblings about getting something done for years, since 2008 or so. I love riding trains when I visit other cities, and I wanted to help get rail built in Austin to help solve our traffic problem.
I heard about AURA’s push for a data-driven rail planning process, and it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of. We have huge transportation needs, but we don’t have a huge transportation budget, so using all the information we possibly can to validate our decision to spend money on a particular project makes tons of sense.
Planners at the city and Capital Metro projected that building the proposed rail line would’ve actually made our transit system less efficient. We’d be spending more money each year to move each person, but most cities use rail to do the opposite. Austin can’t afford to have a less efficient transit system if we’re going to solve our traffic problem, so AURA opposed the rail plan.
Is there a central problem with the rail line plan that made it not function as it should have to address traffic problems in Austin?
Rail is a tool to make it cheaper to move people. Drivers are the most expensive part of a transit system. Instead of having three buses with three drivers, you have one train with one driver to move the same number of people.
The drawback is that it costs more to maintain trains than buses. If a route has enough riders, the savings from using fewer drivers outweighs the increased maintenance costs and everything works out. The ridership projected for the proposed rail line wasn’t high enough for the math to work out in our favor, so even if we hit the projected ridership, our transit system would’ve been less efficient.
In spite of the evidence that it will cost us more, you don’t think it was the bus vs. train projections that made voters disagree with the plan, that it was more about personal interest and property taxes?
It was almost certainly personal interest and property taxes. Even if the rail proposal was solid, a single rail line only solves problems for the people who live and work near it. There’s no real plan for improving transit for the parts of the city that won’t be served by any first rail line. It’s hard to convince people to pay a higher tax bill when it’s not clear how it improves traffic for them.
We can’t solve our traffic problem without a world-class bus system. It is physically and financially impossible. Our streets are full, but we need to move more people, so we need more people on fewer vehicles. We don’t have enough time or money to put rail everywhere, so even when we build rail some day soon, we’re going to need great buses to move more people in the rest of the city. That’s why I think debating rail is a distraction. We need a plan for making our bus system great, then we can decide which parts of that system we want to upgrade to rail when and where it makes sense: when there are so many riders on a route that moving three bus loads of riders on one train instead saves us money.
What do you think can be done about the aversion to public transit as a hinderance to car drivers? When comparing bus to rail, it also seems like there’s an aversion to buses based on status. Would a rail line influence these perceptions in any way?
Buses do seem to have a low-status image for many Austinites, but that’s largely because our buses are so slow that everyone avoids riding the bus if they can afford to. There’s no evidence that there’s something about our culture that would make Austinites avoid buses if buses got people where they needed to go quickly. So let’s make our buses do that.
Our buses need to be fast. They’re slow today because we let our buses get stuck in the same traffic that you’d have to deal with if you drove. That’s on top of the stops for other people to get on and off. As a result, most Austinites who can afford to drive choose to drive because it makes tons of sense. Buses need to be faster so transit becomes the smart choice to get where you need to be. We can make them faster by giving buses their own lane of traffic, especially at traffic choke points like our bridges and the Drag.
We need to be smart about when we give buses their own lane. When a street would move more people during rush hour if we reserved a lane for transit, let’s paint a bus lane and move more people. If it turns out that the prediction was inaccurate and we’re moving fewer people, let’s undo the bus lane and move more people. In some places, it’ll make sense to add more capacity to a street in a tunnel instead of using existing lanes, but when we can’t afford it, bus lanes are the right choice. Otherwise, it will make sense for Austinites to keep choosing to drive at today’s rates, and we’ll all be stuck in traffic together.
Our buses also need to be frequent. More people choose transit when they can just show up at a stop instead of having to plan their lives around the schedule. Our frequency problems are partially a result of spreading ourselves too thin. There’s a balance that transit agencies have to strike between covering as much of the city as possible and maximizing ridership by concentrating buses in parts of the city where they get used heavily. Many cities are shifting their focus from coverage to ridership, and Austin needs to join them.
Houston is a great example of this trend. They restructured their entire bus system to create a frequent grid of routes without spending more money. This makes transfers fast, and trips that don’t involve downtown have been dramatically improved. We need to take a similar approach in Austin, but high-frequency routes require high demand to get to and from places on those routes, and Austin is too spread out for that to exist today—we’re less dense than Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Our land use rules force people to spread out.
Some people think Capital Metro is the reason why we don’t have great transit, but it’s mostly our fault as citizens. The land use laws we’ve put in place make it impossible for Austin to have great transit. We need to change those rules to make any progress on traffic.
You brought up Houston, which is an interesting case. Austin is always on these top ten lists best place to be, best place for job seekers. It shows up on lists with great cities like Seattle, New York, and Chicago, but not in terms of transit. Do you think that Austin has a future as one of these metropolitan-grade cities if we can’t get our act together on the transit front?
I think transit is absolutely important. Getting transit right is important not just to be a great city, but it’s important to sustain our economy and the Austin that we love.
Traffic makes life in Austin worse. We spend time in traffic that we could be spending doing things we enjoy with our families and friends. We love this place despite its flaws, but we should only accept the flaws that aren’t fixable, like summer. We can fix traffic.
No matter how much we love this city, it will be really hard to live here if it’s hard to get a job here. If we don’t get transit right, our economy will suffer because people won’t be able to get to work, and employers won’t be able to grow here the way they do now. Existing companies may want to leave and new companies won’t want to come.
Traffic is such a huge threat to our ability to continue to enjoy this place. Some of the strategies for fixing traffic cost lots of money, but we should start with the ones that don’t. We haven’t yet because those strategies cost political will. We need more transit lanes, but first, we need to convince Austinites that transit lanes will move more people. We need to let more homes be built in central Austin, but first, Austinites have to understand that our current land use rules are making traffic and affordability worse.
If you agree that these are good ideas, we need your help to convince more people. Convince your friends. Join AURA, and we’ll help you convince some strangers.
Thinking beyond this past fall and the failure of Prop 1 and thinking about the future of AURA, what are the next steps Austinites and the city need to take to find a better transit solution?
AURA fights for an affordable Austin where it’s easy to get where you need to go. Our most important effort right now is influencing the CodeNEXT process. CodeNEXT is a rewrite of our decades-old land use rules to match the city’s current needs and the Imagine Austin plan to make Austin a more compact and connected city.
The current rules are in place because lots of people like them, and they’re fighting to keep them in place. But the current rules make it hard to build more homes in existing neighborhoods, so new neighborhoods have to be built further out. That’s why we have terrible traffic. That’s why transit doesn’t work well today. That’s why living in central Austin is so expensive. Richer people will always be able to outbid everyone else for the homes they want, and since it’s hard to build more homes, there aren’t any left for middle-income folks. AURA is fighting to make sure we have land use rules match our city’s values, and we need your help.
Beyond CodeNEXT, AURA members are also putting together more concrete plans for getting the dedicated transit lanes, frequent transit grid, and other changes Austin needs to have a great transit system.
Since the city just voted against a rail plan, people are wondering what we do next in terms of rail. How do we get to the point at which a rail plan passes?
The path to a successful rail proposal starts with a plan for a great bus system with routes that are fast and frequent. Once we have that, the case for rail is simple: it saves money so we can add more buses in the rest of the city. We should periodically evaluate our highest ridership bus routes to see which ones would save the most money if we converted them to rail. When money is available, we put the best route—the one that frees up the most money to serve the rest of the city—on the ballot.
I think it’d be easy to make the case for approving such a proposal, and I’m looking forward to doing it.
Niran Babalola builds software in Austin. He is a founding member of AURA, and uses his free time to further AURA’s goal of an Austin for everyone by fighting for abundant housing and effective public transit.