1,000 Miles for Transit & Vision Zero

One Thousand Texans for Transit, Texurban, VisionZeroTexas

In June, Farm&City took a five day field trip throughout South Texas to spread the good words of two of our major initiatives: Vision Zero Texas and One Thousand Texans for Transit.

We were forced to rent a car for this trip as driving was the only mode of transportation that made it possible for us to meet all of our obligations. With this car, we drove 1,000 miles.

Day 1
100 Miles

Early in the morning of Friday, June 16, we packed into the rental car and drove to San Antonio. On Saturday, we were to host the second event in our statewide series of advocacy trainings for One Thousand Texans for Transit. However, we also aim to bring Vision Zero Action Plans to the over 5,000 local governments and agencies throughout the state through our Vision Zero Texas work.  And coincidentally, the forward-thinking Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) and the City of San Antonio were hosting a Vision Zero Summit.

At the summit, we heard from elected officials, transportation engineers, and Vision Zero advocates from throughout the US.

The City of San Antonio adopted its Vision Zero Action Plan in 2015 and since then has made headway in leading Texas cities towards a truly safe transportation system. Identifying and tracking targeted sources of data is a critical step in reducing transportation deaths.

San Antonio’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department drafted its first Severe Pedestrian Injury Areas Report and found that 33% of crashes occur at just 1% of intersections. We also learned of innovative changes to street design and signaling, including successful implementation of Pedestrian Leading Intervals that have improved not just pedestrian safety, but also vehicle throughput.

The City of San Antonio is doing a lot of exciting work with its Vision Zero program, but it needs the help of all related partners – from AAMPO, to TXDOT, to the rest of the governments and transportation authorities throughout the state of Texas.

Day 2
230 Miles

On Saturday morning, we hosted an advocacy training for One Thousand Texans for Transit (video). Representatives from San Antonio’s transit agency, VIA, and AAMPO also gave presentations. John Tiemann showcased VIA’s exciting regional Bus Rapid Transit Network plan and discussed their extensive community engagement (pptx). Linda Alvarado-Vela, Planning/Public Involvement Program Manager at AAMPO, gave an introduction to the structure and function of metropolitan planning organizations and highlighted the interdependence of sustainable land use and transportation policy (pptx).

At Farm&City, we know the various negative consequences of sprawl, but we were surprised to learn that the San Antonio region has sprawled so far across the region that United States military test operations and trainings have been disrupted and conflict with residents (neighbors).

Just as San Antonio is leading on Vision Zero, VIA is focused on providing high quality public transit and enticing more riders. Among the major Texas metros, VIA serves the most number of trips per regional resident, is funded the least per regional resident, and also charges the lowest fares, approximately half of DART fares across services.

Day 3
20 Miles

We explored downtown Corpus Christi, finding both heartwarming urbanist design and some room for improvement. Importantly, it only took us ten minutes of meandering to find safe street design retrofits, including bulbouts at intersections, and a bike share station! And throughout the city, we saw bike lanes of generous width, though they were unprotected by any barrier from motor vehicle traffic.

Additionally, much of downtown was covered in new sidewalks which provided robust wheelchair accessibility, especially at intersections, where the precise location of curb cut ramps is critical to a straightforward transportation experience for people with mobility impairments.

We did find room for improvement. There was a healthy supply of restaurants and bars downtown and many appeared to have massive and unpriced parking lots despite the incentive to drink and drive that underpriced and excessive parking provides. Cities should not require parking and given the overabundance of parking in America and the related concerns such as the heat island effect, inhibited walkability, auto-dependancy, and drunk driving, cities would do well to institute parking maximums.

In any case, the Corpus Christi Unified Development Code does in fact have arbitrary parking requirements, including one spot per every 150 square feet of gross floor area for restaurants. Considering that each parking space requires over 200 square feet of pavement, restaurants are required to dedicate more land to parking than the restaurant itself. However, the oysters were excellent.

We also had the pleasure of riding a bus on the CCRTA system to and from a lively mall 10 miles away from our hotel. Fares were very reasonable, at 75 cents for a single trip and $1.75 for a day pass. After great deliberation, it was decided that these 20 sustainable miles traveled would count towards our tally of 1,000. It was a great day exploring Corpus Christi!

Day 4
150 Miles

At 9am Monday morning, we met with representatives from Corpus Christi staff from transportation planning, engineering, and public safety. The key to a successful Vision Zero Action Plan is for all existing stakeholder government departments to coordinate efforts that could lead to reducing deaths. It was promising that these different departments were interested in learning more about Vision Zero. We engaged in a thoughtful discussion on what a Vision Zero Action Plan for Corpus Christi would look like. Corpus Christi has numerous proactive transportation safety programs in place across different departments, but annual traffic fatalities have fluctuated from 20 to 40 deaths per year in a city of 325,000.

From Corpus, we immediately drove to Laredo, where we were invited by Laredo City Councilmember George Altgelt to present the case for Vision Zero to both the Laredo Metropolitan Planning Organization and to Laredo City Council. In Laredo, we were joined by Stephen Ratke, Safety Engineer with the Federal Highway Administration.

Most attending members of the Laredo MPO were interested in Vision Zero, though one county commissioner brought up concerns with the cost of implementing Vision Zero. This was an opportunity to make an important point about Vision Zero—Vision Zero is not a program to pour money into, it is a new understanding of transportation planning. Cities, counties, and MPOs already spend a significant amount of their resources on transportation, be it directly through roadbuilding, or indirectly through providing emergency services following crashes. TXDOT alone spends $10 billion a year; a statewide Vision Zero plan would prioritize saving lives with this funding.

We also brought Vision Zero to the attention of Laredo City Council. At both the MPO and the City Council, incremental steps were taken to address concerns and to clarify what Vision Zero for these entities could mean.

Day 5
500 Miles

Finally, we left from Laredo to go to Houston and then back to Austin. It was my first time going through a border checkpoint. It went fine, I said yes when asked if I was a citizen. Though thousands of Texans are trapped by border checkpoints and have to think about them more than I do.

It was raining heavily and we got lost, adding just enough miles to our trip to help us reach 1,000. In Houston, we were invited to a meeting of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets. The City of Houston is the largest city in the nation that does not have a Vision Zero Action Plan, but does have promising transportation safety initiatives underway, such as the Complete Streets Executive Order, a Safe Passing Ordinance, the Complete Communities initiative, a newly proposed Safer Streets program, and systemic changes to planning and transportation from the Houston Walkable Places Committee.

Finally, we headed back out onto Texas highways to head home to Austin, getting our rental car back 108 hours after leaving Austin on Friday.

Austin Considers Expanding Regressive Homestead Exemptions

Growing Weirder

Tomorrow, Austin City Council will vote on a proposal to cut next year’s revenue by $5 million by increasing the city’s property tax homestead exemption from 8% to 10%, a reduction in taxes for the minority of city residents who own homes.

While affordability is a major concern that city council can address through legislation, homestead exemptions are not the best approach. Most Austinites are renters, including most low-income residents. Homestead exemptions do not benefit renters and might actually increase the property taxes they will shoulder through their rent or will deprive the city of funds for civic services for those who need them most.

A policy brief from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy details the regressive nature of percentage-based property taxes. Restrictions from the state legislature limit what the City of Austin can do with respect to property taxes, but the city has a variety of tools available to positively affect affordability. The outcomes and regressive nature of the proposed homestead exemption are well-understood and uncontroversial, so it is difficult to understand why elected officials would pursue an ineffectual, self-limiting policy.

If members of Austin City Council are concerned with addressing affordability at this time, they can pass a CodeNEXT that effectively removes exclusionary policies that cause displacement and un-affordability, and follow that with a meaningful and well-focused affordable housing bond to establish mixed-income, equitable, transit-oriented communities.

Read the two page ITEP policy brief here. It contains a succinct explanation of property taxes and explains flat versus percentage-based exemptions.

Reforming the Capital Metro Board Citizen Advisory Committees

One Thousand Texans for Transit

Ruven Brooks is a senior and transit advocate who believes that public input into transit design needs to be much deeper than the occasional public hearing with three minute speeches.


Why Change the Committees?

In the City of Austin, citizen advisory committees can be very important and powerful organizations; the dreaded Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission are, in fact, merely citizen advisory committees.

Why have these committees become so important?  There are at least two reasons.  One is that they are a source of expertise; members of those commissions frequently know as much about City land development policies as City staff do and they sometimes point out errors in what staff have done.  Second, they give an opportunity for airing and public discussion of controversial issues before City Council members are required to take a public position.   The Cap Metro board needs both of those benefits.

To receive these benefits, Capital Metro needs to give its committees a different role, improve the selection and training of committee members and increase the number and specialization of the committees.

Discussion amongst the Dreaded Zoning and Planning Commission

Role of Committees

The main purpose of citizen advisory committees is to bring to the board and staff information which they would not otherwise receive from Capital Metro staff and other sources.   This information is often about public opinion but it could equally well be operational or technical information.

Currently, advisory committees play almost entirely a summative role; they are asked to pass judgement on complete change proposals.   In this regard, they are really no different from all of the other public input mechanisms Capital Metro uses.   Instead, they need to be brought into a more formative role in which their input is used to shape proposals.  For example, If there’s a need to cancel routes or stops, advisory committees could be provided with ridership data and then asked for the pros and cons of different alternatives, or, even, asked, with staff help to formulate the alternatives. 

Once proposals have been formulated, citizen advisory committees should be asked to hold public hearings on major or controversial issues before any board hearings.

Agendas and backup materials for advisory committee meetings should be posted on the web site in advance of the meetings, just as they are for Cap Metro board meetings and City of Austin commission meetings. If possible, they should be broadcast and recorded

Selection and Treatment of Committee Members

Committee members should be made aware that their role is to assist the board in making decisions and they serve at the pleasure of their board member and may be asked to step down if the board member does not feel that they are making an effective contribution.   Committee members should be given Cap Metro email addresses and have published phone numbers so that other members of the public can communicate with them.  

Committee members should also be required to complete the same type of training as City of Austin committee members.  Every committee member should understand what they are allowed to do and are not allowed to do as committee members.  They should also be aware of how Capital Metro is financed and the financial constraints it operates under.

In a change from current policy, all committee members should be expected to have at least a minimal understanding of public policy and governmental operations and a reasonable command of spoken and written language, either directly or through the use of assistive technology. As needed, Cap Metro should be prepared to offer translation and interpretation support for committee members whose fluency is in languages other than English.    Committee members are, effectively, representatives or the wider public and if they are unable to get their thoughts across to others, they are limiting public input to the decision-making process. 

Qualifications for committee membership should be determined on the basis of the tasks of the committee.  In particular, frequent ridership on Cap Metro services should not be an automatic requirement for membership; for example, a committee whose charge is recruiting new riders might well benefit from having members who don’t use the services currently.

Currently, recruitment and retention of committee members is problematic.   A likely major contributor is that the committees are seen as ineffectual.  Once this perception changes, it will be easier to recruit and keep committee members.

Increasing the Number of Committees

The City of Austin has something like 66 citizen boards or commissions.  Why so many?  There are two factors which encourage a large number:

Commission members are appointed by and have access to council members.  Effectively, the commission members are the eyes and ears and, sometimes, the voices of council members.  The more committees, the more of the city government the councilperson has a citizen contact for.

A second reason for many committees is to narrow the focus of each committee.  If the same committee which hears complaints of building code violations also had to handle requests for zoning changes, it is doubtful whether either commission would do its job well, even though the areas are somewhat related.

A final reason for many commissions is limiting agenda length.   If all of the cases heard by the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission were handled by a single commission, meetings would last far into the night.

The City of Austin has four times the budget of Cap Metro; on that basis, Cap Metro ought to have something like sixteen advisory committees.  Perhaps, the City of Austin is a bit too enthusiastic in setting up committees but Capital Metro could probably benefit from having a few more than the four it now has.


Suggested Committees

IT and Technology Services

In form or another, technology services form a substantial part of Cap Metro’s budget.  None of the current board members can claim much expertise in the IT area or other technology areas so there’s little oversight at the board level.  Austin is rich in technology professionals, at a least a few of whom would be willing to contribute their expertise.

Network Evolution

Topics concerned with the evolution of the network, such as the Connections 2025 plan, should be the responsibility of this committee.  All service changes intended to reach alignment with this plan would come under this committee. Members of this committee need to have the background and perspective to carry out this responsibility. Particularly desirable would be people with backgrounds in urban planning, demographics, or real estate development.  There would no particular requirement for members to be current frequent riders.

Service Quality

This committee would advise on current network operations.  Their main function would be to identify current problem areas, particularly those not already known to Cap Metro staff, and bring them to the attention of the staff and the board. Frequent use of public transit would a requirement for membership and care should be taken that all of the different services are represented, e.g., there should be at least one person who participates in the Metro Rideshare program.

Access

Even though its charter doesn’t say so, this existing committee focuses on use of the transit system by individuals with disabilities.  It is highly desirable that the membership represent as large a range as possible of people with disabilities.   Also included under this committee’s charter should be support for riders who have limited or no capability to communicate in English.  

Project Connect Advisory Committee

Project Connect already has the Multimodal Community Advisory Committee.  In some respects, this committee is a model for how the rest of the committees should function since it does it’s work before public release of reports, rather than critiquing them afterwards.

Plaza Saltillo and Other Transit Oriented Development Projects

The Plaza Saltillo project has received input from City of Austin citizen advisory committees such as the Planning Commission but this input ceases once the plans have been approved.  Experience with Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning, which uses the same zoning mechanism as TOD zoning, has shown that long term adherence to the original agreement is often very dependent on citizen monitoring.  It would be worthwhile to establish a citizen’s advisory committee to monitor Plaza Saltillo and other transit-oriented development projects to ensure that these projects continue to meet the objectives of transit-oriented development.

Mobility Innovation Zones

As the sprawl leader among the 20 largest American cities, Austin suffers particularly from the problem of providing public transit services in low density areas, whether these areas be wealthy or low income.  The Mobility Innovation Zones are an opportunity to try solutions that don’t involve a 60 passenger fixed route bus.  For these innovations to be really successful they must attract riders beyond those who use the limited fixed route service currently available.

Getting public input early enough to play a formative role is important and cannot wait until Cap Metro staff has a complete plan.   Formation of this committee should have started with the beginning of the Pilot experiment.   Members of this committee should include representatives of businesses and organizations which are likely to help fund new services, such as those businesses which fund the Chariot routes, representatives of businesses and organizations which operate their own transportation systems in the area, such as senior residences, and, even, individuals who do not currently ride public transit but who are likely to do so if appropriate transit is provided. 

CapMetro’s existing citizen advisory committees are the Access Advisory Committee and the Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee.Meetings are open to the public and anyone eligible may apply to join the committees at any time.  Austin also has a Multimodal Community Advisory Committee, “formed to act as an advisory group to both the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and Capital Metro’s Project Connect.” A full list of Austin’s Boards & Commissions is available here; all meetings are open to the public and Austinites may apply to fill vacancies at any times.