Texas Congestion Hasn’t Gotten Better or Worse Over 32 Years of Data

In a long-running practice of tilting at windmills, the State of Texas pours billions of dollars and concrete every year to continue growing the massive webs of impervious surface (roads) attempting to address the perceived problem of congestion.

Traffic crashes are a much bigger problem than congestion, costing the people of Texas at least twice as much.  Even so, the State of Texas has repeatedly funded partnerships between TXDOT and TTI to produce annual reports highlighting the problems of congestion and advocating for meeting a perceived need for more spending on road expansions.

Meanwhile, Texas Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) use circular logic in developing their Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs) based upon regional growth forecasts that assume the road building proposed in their previous RTP – allowing for the dire predictions of all day rush hour and infinite need for more road spending.

This comprehensive, cooperative, and continuous advocacy for spending has been extremely successful at focusing public perception and the legislature’s attention to the “problem” of congestion, which hasn’t budged a bit, while crashes continue to impose a varying, horrible, and greater cost on Texans.

A public input process is currently open for TXDOT’s proposed 2019 Unified Transportation Plan (overview presentation) (full draft UTP), which will guide transportation planning and spending across the state for ten years. The following table shows the performance metrics that will be used to allocate at least $2.5 billion to combat congestion.

Zero consideration of the traffic death impacts. Zero consideration of enhancing connectivity. Zero consideration of whether these projects will help the economy or environment. $2.5 billion tilting at windmills.

Has congestion really gotten worse, creating a need for all this investment in trying to stop it? Furthermore, has the state’s massive spending on road-building meaningfully addressed or reduced congestion costs?


No. It appears that congestion costs each Texan about $500 a year and it has stayed amazingly consistent since 1982, according to our analysis of the 2015 TTI Urban Mobility Scorecard data.

We calculated the total cost of congestion for each metro included in the report, which contains data from 1982 to 2014 for the 100 largest metros in the country (including ten in Texas). Separately, we parsed 2014 data from across Texas, which included 22 additional metros. The smaller metros have a theoretical 2014 congestion cost of $1,094,000,000, or 8% of the statewide problem. We used this data to extrapolate the Texas-wide congestion cost for previous years.

Texas transportation policy for the 21st Century needs to do a lot more than continue to fling concrete at this old paradigm when there are more pressing concerns. The Texas Department of Transportation should be allowed to invest all available funds using meaningful, multi-modal performance measures to meet the goals and priorities of the state of Texas, including preserving the lives and limbs of Texans as the highest priority.

There will be a public hearing on the UTP on August 7, 10am in Austin at ENV Conference Room, 118 E. Riverside Dr., Austin, TX 78704. You can watch and participate in this meeting via webex:

Join the WebEx
Host room ID: 732 950 262
Password: XxGkmJd4

or by calling in on a telephone:

Join by phone:
855-437-3563 (US toll free)
210-606-9485 (US toll)
Access Code: 732 950 262

You can also submit comments using these methods:

Leave an online comment or print a comment form and mail it to:
Attention: Peter Smith
P.O. Box 149217
Austin, TX 78714-9217

To assist the Texas legislature, Governor, and local elected officials in transportation policy and funding decisions and balance the annual lobbying for congestion-focused spending, Farm&City is seeking funding to develop a companion report for the much bigger problem of traffic safety, highlighting the 100 deadliest roads in Texas. Let us know if you are interested in sponsoring Vision Zero Texas. This project is on hold until we find funding, as it will be a substantial, yet extremely important effort.


Making the Case for Vision Zero for Laredo

On Monday, June 18, 2018, Farm&City staff Jay Blazek Crossley and Ashkan Jahangiri traveled to the City of Laredo, Texas to present on Vision Zero to the Laredo City Council and the Laredo MPO. Laredo City Council Member George Altgelt invited us to present on Vision Zero along with Stephen Ratke, Safety Engineer with the Federal Highway Administration – Texas Division

We presented them with copies of two Vision Zero Network reports: Vision, Strategies, Action: Guidelines for an Effective Vision Zero Action Plan and Centering Safety at Metropolitan Planning Organizations. We also prepared for them a short list of Six Examples of Policies a Texas City Could Pursue as Part of a Vision Zero Action Plan, and a list of helpful contacts across Texas to learn more about Vision Zero and implementation in Texas.

The Laredo MPO voted to establish a committee to explore potential safety measures appropriate for the regional collaborative approach. The Laredo City Council asked the City Manager to work with appropriate staff to develop a proposal for the city to pursue Vision Zero.

Here is the presentation that Crossley presented to both entities, in pdf form:

Here is the presentation that Ratke presented, in pdf form:
20180618-Vision Zero Laredo MPO policy board – SR

We look forward to supporting the work of the City and MPO of Laredo to end the epidemic of traffic deaths and incapacitating injuries.

We had a lovely time visiting the City. The downtown of Laredo is a classic example of traditional North American urbanism, with a terrific, compact street grid, narrow streets with safe design speed and bulbouts at intersections, wide sidewalks, ample shade from awnings and first floor retail. While plans to revitalize will require a suite of appropriate policies, such as you mind find in an equitable, transit oriented development policy, but Laredo still has the bones to build up that many Texas cities are so sorely lacking.

We were especially impressed with the strong showing of citizens of diverse ages at the City Council meeting and the general environment the council seems to have cultivated to allow robust discussion with the public to be integrated into their decision making.

Below are videos of our presentations and Mr. Ratke’s.

Jay Blazek Crossley presenting to the Laredo City Council

Jay Blazek Crossley presenting to the Laredo MPO

Stephen Ratke presenting to the Laredo City Council

Stephen Ratke presenting to the Laredo MPO

Environmental sustainability implications of Austin’s regional growth policies

In the Austin region, we must reduce our metropolitan carbon emissions to play a responsible role in the 21st century world community. Unfortunately, many of our public policies continue to increase our carbon footprint – especially land use and transportation policies.

As we grow from two to four million, we have the opportunity to lower our carbon footprint significantly by allowing existing and new residents better options to live healthy, low-carbon lifestyles, by reducing car dependency.

Cutting the region’s vehicle miles traveled is a crucial element of climate responsibility, which will primarily be determined by our regional growth policies, especially CodeNEXT and the 2045 Regional Transportation Plan.

In addition, current zoning is responsible for many of Austin’s localized flooding problems. Passing a CodeNEXT that aggressively allows more people to live in the City of Austin would reduce future regional impervious surface.

Getting rid of exclusionary, environmentally destructive land development code is not a new experiment for the Austin region. The UNO provisions, which have allowed for extraordinary growth and dramatic improvements to the West Campus area should be replicated across the urban grid.

Download the full report

GrowingWeirder_Sustainability (pdf)
Printable version: GrowingWeirder_Sustainability_Printable (pdf)

Growing Weirder is our initiative to advocate for equitable, sustainable regional growth through the two major planning decisions currently underway in the Austin region. The City of Austin’s land use and development code rewrite, CodeNEXT, will determine what proportion of the 700,000 newcomers over the next ten years will be allowed to live in the City of Austin. CAMPO’s 2045 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) will determine many aspects of the region’s future, including the possible conversion of up to 650 square miles of rural areas to sub-urban or urban.

Farm&City produced a number of reports taking an in-depth look at the different factors influenced by these broad decisions, with some surprising conclusions. This work provides direction for the planning efforts listed above: if it is more affordable to live in a more compact, connected city, equitable long-term decisions should work to provide meaningful options for living in such places.

Growing Weirder is made possible through the generous support of our sponsors: GreaterAustin Neighborhoods, Blazek & Vetterling, Impact Hub Austin, and My Brilliant City.

Where Austin’s CapRemap Provides Better Transit and For Whom?

Sunday morning, Austin’s Capital Metro transit agency relaunched its core service, with a reconfiguration of its bus service into a frequent grid network. More than a year ago, we explored how the changes would provide more low income people with access to frequent transit.

There have been reasonable equity concerns in the Cap ReMap process, although all our work and all analysis that we have seen indicates that people of color and low income people will overall be getting better service. In particular, the proposal that some neighborhoods had better access to requesting highly subsidized routes be preserved, presented repeatedly by transit activist, Zenobia Joseph, seems concerning to us. Her concerns were outlined in an article from the Austin Monitor:

Zenobia Joseph, an activist and longtime critic of the upcoming changes, warned the board that Cap ReMap does not comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Joseph alleged that some low-ridership routes in whiter parts of town will receive improvements while low-ridership routes on the east side are being cut or dramatically diminished.

Following our research trying to actually see how many people would benefit, Capital Metro staff replicated the work with their own data and analysis, yielding similar results. They found that more People of Color and more low income people would have access to frequent transit with Cap ReMap compared to the old system. This section of the Board Meeting packet from the November 15, 2017 meeting shows the staff analysis based on our approach. The full meeting packet includes the Title VI Service Equity Analysis that Cap Metro conducted to assess whether there were innapropriate disproportionate impacts of the service changes.

The Federal Transit Administration also tried to assess if there were a Title VI violation, according to the Austin American Statesman, and found there was not, sparking this quote from new Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke:

“I’ve never seen anything more clear from the FTA,” Clarke told the board in May. “Not only do we not have disparate impacts, (the FTA analysis) says that we are providing even more service to low-income and minority populations in Austin. Sometimes facts matter in the conversation.”

Our report over a year ago called for further research to look at the impact of service changes on all people, not just the limited look from our report at how many people would have access to frequent transit. The frequent grid network revolution begun in Houston is theoretically intended to provide more people with better transit, including low income people and historically marginalized groups. Yet, data should support these claims, before and after the changes.

Recently, we have developed one way to respond to the question of how different groups theoretically benefit from Cap ReMap. We used the GTFS data on the previous Capital Metro system as well as the GTFS data for the new system in Cap ReMap to understand access to transit across the Austin region. First we determined the amount of boarding opportunities in each census tract – how many opportunities every week there are to get on a bus or train in that tract.

Next we normalized this by square mile. Census tracts are heterogenous shapes – wildly different sizes – meaning that in a larger tract, a person on one side of the tract would have a long walk to get on a bus on the other side of the tract. This also compensates for the concern of those that object to the long stretches between stops on CapMetro’s MetroRapid, such as Mr. Dahmus.

Finally, we multiplied opportunities to board transit per square mile times the total number of people living in the tract, People of Color living in the tract, and Non-Hispanic White people living the tract.

According to our assessment of how many doors open for the people of Austin to ride transit, the old system provided more access to People of Color and the changes seem to provide increases in access to Non-Hispanic White people at about the same amount of increase as for People of Color.

However, the concept of reconfiguring a whole transit system to focus on providing more people with more access seems to mean removing illogical services with high costs per rider. While it makes sense to reallocate service away from places where it costs the transit agency high prices like $40 a ride, real people and whole neighborhoods lose service in this situation.

We mapped out the changes to show how communities gained and lost in the ReMap process. On the maps below, swiping the control to the right shows the old system and swiping to the left shows access under the new ReMap system. The first map shows total access to transit before and after the ReMap overhaul:


This next map shows doors opening to Capital Metro transit for People of Color across the Austin region before and after ReMap:


This next map shows doors opening to Capital Metro transit for Non-Hispanic White people across the Austin region before and after ReMap:

We believe that improving transit service across Texas requires transit agencies and local governments to do a much better job of providing services – based on data – to as many people as possible, while ensuring that all changes have equity assessments integrated throughout.

However, we also believe that Texas cities continue to suffer from a severe lack of transit funding. We must increase the size of the transit pie, so that transit-dependent and transit-supportive communities are not fighting so much over insufficient pieces of the pie. This is why we launched One Thousand Texans for Transit. We hope you will join us at one of the events planned in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Taylor this month.

Access to frequent bus service for Austinites living in poverty currently and with the proposed Connections 2025 service changes

[In the formative months of Farm&City in early 2017, we created this report, working with AURA leader, John Laycock, but just realized that we had never posted it on our website, which was launched months later. With the launch of Cap Remap today, it seemed important to post this as a record of part of this important policy discussion that we contributed to a year ago]

Economic freedom in the 21st Century – for the average American – will increasingly mean safe, efficient access to jobs, schools, and all the ele- ments of the good life avail- able in the American city.

A shift – accelerated by actions in Houston, of all places – is happening in how transit is un- derstood and optimized. Hous- ton Metro’s redesign focused on providing frequency rather than coverage. “Frequency equals freedom” is the mantra and the goal is actually improving the lives of as many people as possible.

This revolution in transit ser- vice contains many ironies and seeming contradictions.

Houston has proven people can have better transit service with the same budget. Fre-quency means efficiency inpublic spending. It is simply a matter of doing a better job with what is available to provide more people with more.

Planning a transit system that connects the entire city by prioritizing people – including low income people – gives them access to our most valuable asset: other people.

Cutting under-performing routes – eliminating the bus that some people may have depended on their entire lives – can be the socially equitable thing to do.

The question is how many people – including our actual neighbors living in poverty – can we serve with great transit service that really provides full access to all of the city?

We found Connections 2025 would provide many more households living in poverty better access to frequent transit than today, as shown in the numbers to the right.

The expansion is dramatic, giving 32,000 more households access to frequent transit, including almost doubling the amount of households living in poverty within walking distance of frequent transit stations.

There are other key questions for Connections 2025, especially whether changes in access to non–frequent bus stops have negative consequences to people living in poverty thatoutweigh the benefits of access to a frequent grid network.

Further questions to help optimize Connections 2025 and transit in Austin – which we would love to have the time and funding to study – are suggested at the end of the report.

People in Poverty Access to Connections2025 MiniReport (pdf)

Sylvester Turner Calls for a Sustainable, Resilient 2045 Regional Transportation Plan

In a rousing speech to the Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston – an entity that lobbies for multimodal transportation funding – Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner presented a vision for high capacity transit, safe streets for all people to comfortably walk and bike, city policies that support walkable urbanism at the high speed rail station, and city policies to prioritize bus transit on its streets.

Mayor Turner then finished his speech with a forceful denouncement of sprawl road building and an extraordinary challenge to the region’s 133 other towns and cities and 6 counties to work together through the regional government, the Houston – Galveston Area Council to develop a sustainable, resilient 2045 Regional Transportation Plan.

Watch the speech in its entirety here. Following are his words from this section of the speech that we have transcribed as they were delivered:

“I would like to leave you with a last thought about the resiliency of our region. Resiliency and mobility are inextricably linked. In a post – Harvey world, we know we must use smarter transportation policy to create a region that is less prone to flood risk.

Since I came to office, I have been pushing all of our partners for a paradigm shift in transportation investments. Focusing our transportation investments in the core of our region, rather than the periphery will make a more sustainable, less congested, and more resilient region.

In the past five years, over 50,000 acres of land are now experiencing development activity within three miles of the recently completed segment of the Grand Parkway, and much of these developments drain to Buffalo Bayou, Braes Bayou, Cypress Creek, and Greens Bayou. That means that over time, these channels will experience and even greater volume of runoff than they do today. Yes, I understand that these developments are required to provide detention for their runoff, and yes, there are drainage improvements like channel widenings or new detentions ponds or reservoirs that will part of that solution.

Still, Hurricane Harvey was a watershed moment for this City. This event demonstrated that we have to be smarter about our regional transportation investment strategy. The strategy of building new freeways through vacant lands as a means to open land for development has serious consequences. It requires serious regional planning. Urban sprawl comes with a cost.

Focusing on the core would create a more sustainable, more resilient, and less congested city. Houston’s future must be building up, not necessarily out, to sustain our success. I am challenging our entire region to work together in this direction. As the Houston – Galveston Area Council develops its 2045 Regional Transportation Plan, I would like all of our regional partners to consider the lessons of Harvey and develop a 2045 Plan that fosters a sustainable and resilient region.

This is in all of our collective and best interest. This is an exciting time to be in Houston. Challenges, yes – and we have many of them. But this is a city that I know rises to the occasion. We have to find dependable, reliable funding sources to do the things that we need as it relates to transportation, transit, and mobility, if we are going to be competitive.”

Houston Tomorrow, the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, and other organizations across the Houston region have long advocated for a greater focus on H-GAC’s RTP process from the City of Houston. One of Farm&City’s main programs focuses on sustainable regional growth policies, currently focused on the Austin region through our Growing Weirder project. This process is designed to be replicable to all Texas metro regions, and we have been doing as much as we can with our tiny budget to encourage and help more Houstonians be involved in the 2045 RTP process. We also collaborated with several Houston partners to develop a sustainable framework for responding to Harvey that includes a more holistic, equitable regional planning regime. Read more at RebuildTheHoustonRegion.org.

How much of Austin is off limits to new housing through compatibility?

Austin is a green city.

Austin is welcoming to all people.

Austin is a smart city of the future.

Austin limits access to affordable housing and low-carbon lifestyle options because some people feel their lifestyles are threatened by being able to see other buildings from the middle of their back yard.

One of these statements is not like the others.

The weird concept here – compatibility – is actually codified into City of Austin’s land development code, a situation not dissimilar to many American cities to be sure. Yet, what makes Austin really weird is that city staff, citizens, advisory groups, commissions, consultants, and elected officials have been working on a process called CodeNEXT to modernize Austin’s land development code based upon various environmental, equity, affordability, and community plans and goals for the last five years – and as of now, the compromise proposal is to continue to use this strange tool, in spite of significant negative environmental, equity, tax base, and traffic consequences.

YIMBYs point out how foreign this concept is to many cities and neighborhood with a very high quality of life – many of the places you like to visit. NIMBYs seem to get tied up in knots debating the correct technical interpretation of various details of continuing this weird tool. And City Council had to deal with all the complaints from people worried about preserving this strange back yard protection when CodeNEXT Version 1 came out and instructed staff to make sure to make it clear to those concerned that this type of exclusion would continue.

But how big of an affect does this compatibility policy have on Austin?

Here’s a map of areas impacted by compatibility in Austin in the existing code. Areas that are shown in white are exclusive single family areas and areas that are blue have no compatibility-based restrictions on height of buildings. The rainbow in between are all the parts of Austin impacted by compatibility, where the height of buildings is limited by this concept of whether someone could see into someone else’s back yard.

While this creates a funny squiggly set of rainbows across the city, it ends up being a significant part of the city, and especially impactful on areas where it otherwise makes sense to add housing, jobs, schools, and all the elements of complete communities.

Buildings are not allowed to be over certain heights in 22% of the land area of the City of Austin based on the concept of someone standing in the middle of their back yard and not wanting to see any buildings, including along many of the corridors where the people of Austin will be investing at least half a billion dollars to facilitate healthy, walkable urban development, dramatically limiting the benefits of these investments and excluding many Austinites from enjoying these benefits.

What was proposed in CodeNEXT Version 3 for compatibility?

Our understanding of CodeNEXT Version 3 is that this concept of limiting housing based upon someone’s view from their back yard is proposed to be continued in Austin, and appears to actually be growing in land area affected, limiting development in 26% of the City, a four percent increase from current code.

Planning Commission – Please craft an inclusive, equitable, sustainable CodeNEXT

Hello members of the Austin Planning Commission,

Thank you so much for your service to all the people of Austin and for putting so much of your time and energy and thought into this CodeNEXT process. I believe that because so much heart and pain and ideas and love has been put into this process by so many people that the Austin community is stronger and Austin policies in general are much improved. However, I think we all know that CodeNEXT V.3.5 is still not good enough.

The current and future people of Austin are counting on you and City Council to finish this job that so many of us have put so much into.

Farm&City launched Growing Weirder in January to provide independent, original research into the entire Austin region’s growth and development policies to help more people engage and improve both CodeNEXT and the upcoming CAMPO Regional Transportation Plan.

We have tried to make information available to you on the costs and benefits of various policy options, which I would like to sum up below as you go into your final work on CodeNEXT.


The official regional growth forecasts used by CAMPO and all local governments to plan for our future are an unmitigated traffic, equity, climate, and local habitat disaster, if they should fully come to fruition. By 2040, we will convert about 650 square miles of rural land to sub-urban or urban – according to our official plan. Traffic will grow steadily worse, while the region becomes increasingly unaffordable.

The City of Austin’s land development code is one of the major inputs into the regional growth forecasts. Through its land development code, the City has been limiting the amount of people allowed to live in the city of Austin to about 25% of regional growth, and the proposed “equivalency” would continue this with only 27% of the region’s expected growth over the next ten years allowed to live in the city of Austin.

City of Austin Housing Has Not Kept Pace With Population Growth

The people who are coming are generally not Californians (currently 4% of the region’s growth), but instead are predominantly the children of people living in this region already and Hispanics from across Texas moving to Austin. 72% of the region’s growth over the next ten years will be from adding people of color. They deserve meaningful options to live in the City, which requires allowing enough housing to be built.

Who’s Coming to Austin?

There are three Austin’s (stretching out across the entire 6-County region) with about equal populations of people: urban, rural, and sub-urban Austin. Contrary to popular myth, urban Austin is the most affordable – on average – both in terms of housing and transportation costs. Our estimation is that the public mythology of affordability is dominated by single family home sale prices, a transaction that occurs with only 1% of the region’s households in the region each year. Limiting urban development in the City of Austin unquestionably makes the region less affordable.

Housing and Transportation Affordability by Urban Form Across the Austin Region

Yet, CodeNEXT Version 3 still maintains a ban on apartments on 54% of the land where housing is allowed. This is unconscionable.

How Much of Austin Should Remain Under the Apartment Ban?

As of Version 2, the staff proposal was for the City of Austin to require developers and homeowners (and passed through to renters) to invest $2.6 billion in parking spaces associated with new housing units expected over the next ten years. This is a wild misuse of power and funds. The vehicle miles traveled impact of this radical policy is astounding, which means the traffic impacts are astounding, which means more people will die and suffer injuries on our streets, because of this policy. This is unconscionable, and has been slightly improved – yet likely remains in the same general ballpark of environmental, social, and traffic costs.

Imposing this bad idea of minimum parking requirements in particular on nonprofit affordable housing developers is an extraordinarily bad idea. Nonprofits creating projects with at least 50% affordable units should have “by right” no minimum parking requirements, although we oppose the entire concept.

Current Austin Compromise Means $2.6 Billion of Housing Expense for Parking

As of CodeNEXT Version 2, the impervious surface benefits of allowing more people to live in the City of Austin are astounding, even though the Watershed Department buried the lede on the most important information contained in their analysis. Leaving Austin with its current exclusionary zoning system would make us slightly worse than Houston in terms of impervious surface per capita in ten years, while CodeNEXT Version 2 would move us up to slightly better than Atlanta, which is a low bar. To whatever extent you can find ways to allow more people to live in the already developed City of Austin, you will be pointing us toward where the actual progressive cities across the nation are going, dramatically decreasing the region’s future total impervious surface.

The High Impervious Surface Costs of Austin’s Current Zoning Scheme

The decisions you make today – on whether to continue the practice of limiting the amount of people allowed in the City of Austin or not – will profoundly impact the region’s ability to take its responsible role in the most important problem of the 21st Century – climate change. Americans emit more green house gasses through transportation than energy.

Your choices today will significantly impact future vehicle miles traveled – the primary determinant regionally of our carbon footprint going forward (regardless of whether or not vehicles are electrified). Limiting the amount of people allowed to live in the City of Austin means paving more roads and parking lots across the Texas hill country and encouraging people to drive more.

How to Protect Your Neighborhood Against Growing Traffic, Climate Change

To finalize, we have been working on a proposal for an Equitable Transit Oriented Development Fund – something that most progressive cities and regions have already created. Allowing as many people as possible to live in communities that actually allow healthy, low-carbon lifestyle should be a primary driving force of City of Austin policy, unless it plans to throw away its Climate Action and Vision Zero Plans. In our work, we have identified the 15.5 square miles of Austin with access to high quality transit.

We believe that limiting the amount of people allowed to live in these areas in favor of aesthetic or lifestyle preferences is not acceptable. Minimum parking requirements are not acceptable in this area. Compatibility is not acceptable in this area. We need “by right” options for housing the rapidly growing, diverse people of Austin in at least this area. You can see the area in this report, which is almost finished, but not quite. We are happy to share GIS files and more data.

EquitableATX Development Fund
A Proposal for Neighborhood Powered ETOD Fund(s)

This was emailed to the Austin Planning Commission on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 as they began the process of deliberating over a long series of proposed amendments to the draft CodeNEXT Version 3.5.

You can email the Austin Planning Commission too at these email addresses:

[email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

[Photo Credit: City of Round Rock, Some rights reserved]

How much of Austin Should Remain Under the Apartment Ban?

In the City of Austin, 357,515 people live in housing that is not a single family home – 48% of the people living in apartments, duplexes, and condos in the Austin region. A minority of residents of the city are single family homeowners. Yet, the City of Austin is poised to maintain an odd public policy – an Apartment Ban across much of the city.

Demand for housing that offers healthy, low-carbon lifestyles far outweigh supply in all Texas metro areas, primarily because of the combined market perversions of exclusionary zoning and sprawl subsidies – such as road spending. Adding multifamily units in transit, bicycle, pedestrian accessible neighborhoods is essential to building a sustainable Texas for our expected 31 to 54 million Texans in 2050.

According to the Kinder Houston Area Survey, 51% of Houstonians – about three and a half million people – would prefer to live in “a smaller home in more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and workplaces” as opposed to “a single-family home with big yard, where need to drive almost everywhere.” But Houston’s land use restrictions – parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and other aesthetic preferences – work well with sprawl transportation subsidies to deny access to healthy, low-carbon lifestyles that a majority would prefer to have.

Austinites are likely similar to Houstonians, with likely about half preferring the environmentally costly, car-dependent single-family home lifestyle, and half wanting something different. Yet various public policies subsidize and “protect” the single family home lifestyle option.

We know from the Austin Area Sustainability Indicators that a majority (53%) of Austinites are “willing to accept density to save natural areas / farmland”. Yet the City of Austin uses exclusionary zoning to limit the amount of people allowed to live in the City of Austin, contributing significantly to the region’s ongoing environmental devastation.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s regional growth forecasts assume that the City of Austin will continue to use exclusionary zoning to limit the amount of people allowed to live in the City of Austin to about 25% of the region’s expected growth. By 2040, should the region actually build housing across areas matching this regional growth forecast, 650 square miles of rural areas will be converted to sub-urban or urban.

In the midst of the region’s affordability crisis, the more dense parts of the region are more affordable both in terms of housing cost and transportation cost, according to our analysis in the Growing Weirder report Housing + Transportation Affordability by Urban Form Across the Austin Region. Restricting apartments and density in the City of Austin directly impacts the ability of low income people to be able to afford living in the region.

Finally, there are equity issues with policies that “protect” single-family homeowners. While 71% of non-Hispanic White Austinites live in single-family homes, only about 55% of people of color live in single-family homes. In general, low-income people are much more likely to live in apartments as well. Public policies should generally support housing markets providing all people with meaningful options to live how they want.

Austin’s Apartment Ban

Given all these issues, it is surprising to find that the City of Austin staff are proposing to extend a 20th century concept of an Apartment Ban in the proposed final draft of CodeNEXT.

Other fast growing cities, like Seattle and Washington DC, are having meaningful public conversations about the significant costs of their Apartment Bans. We became aware of this concept of Apartment Bans from this interesting discussion on twitter.

Using the slider below you can see Austin’s current Apartment Ban and the ban proposed for CodeNEXT. All of these areas allow housing, but not multifamily housing, which would be preferable to single-family housing for environmental, equity, and access and mobility concerns. The current exclusionary zoning system bans apartments in 55% of the land area where housing is allowed in any way, while the proposed CodeNEXT Version 3 would reduce this ban to 54%.

Here are the maps shown individually, which you can click to see in more detail. Included at the bottom is the minimal Apartment Ban included in CodeNEXT Version Andrew, an alternative proposal developed by Farm&City GIS Analyst, Andrew Mayer.

There are numerous indications that the people of Austin want to be allowed to live in dense, sustainable walkable communities and prioritize fighting against climate change and taking steps to lessen other consequences of single-family, car-dependent housing, such as the region’s traffic death crisis. But policies like this Apartment Ban force the region to sprawl, negatively impact city and county budgets, and further displacement and inequality.

Houston’s growing traffic violence crisis

There has been a lot of attention in Houston to a glut of deaths of people riding bicycles in April – four devastating tragedies. In contradiction to Raj Mankad’s frustrated advice, I have been working on another OpEd for the Houston Chronicle calling for the City of Houston to finally  adopt a Vision Zero Action Plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries.

However, for the moment, a post about the sobering reality of Houston’s growing traffic violence epidemic, killing people riding bikes, walking, or riding in cars and trucks.

When researchers study traffic violence looking for trends, they usually group deaths and incapacitating injuries together, often referred to as “K+I”. Deaths can be considered somewhat rare and random events, while in general for every traffic death, you will see about five people suffering life-altering incapacitating injuries. These are terrible injuries, including things like losing limbs or brain damage, often having come very close to dying. Looking at the rates of these two things together can help us better understand traffic violence.

However to be clear, in Texas, traffic deaths are less rare than in most of America. Every single day in Texas, an average of ten people die using our transportation system – more than any other state.

Dying in cars, on bikes, on sidewalks, and crossing streets.

Overwhelmingly more people die or suffer incapacitating injuries while driving or riding in cars or trucks than all the other modes (data is split out generally between car or truck, walk, bike, or motorcycle).

In the City of Houston last year (2017), 48.3 people riding in cars or trucks died or suffered a life-changing incapacitating injury for every 100,000 residents, while only 1.9 people riding bicycles and 6.5 people riding motorcycles died or suffered incapacitating injuries for every 100,000 residents.

The second most common way people die in the City of Houston transportation system – after riding in cars – is walking. Last year 11.9 people died as pedestrians for every 100,000 residents.

Most people dying in the City of Houston transportation system – like across the rest of Texas – are dying while riding in cars. Every single one of these deaths is a preventable tragedy. Vision Zero is an international movement to prioritize ending these deaths – regardless of mode of transportation. There has been an unfortunate mistake often repeated that we should focus just on people dying while riding bicycles, and a misunderstanding that Vision Zero is about only pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the City of Houston, this even manifested in a tragic mistake by Mayor Annise Parker, who initiated something called Goal Zero focused on bicycling, at the same time that most large American cities were developing Vision Zero Action Plans to end all deaths – including bicycling as a normal mode of transportation along with all others. All of us are vulnerable to unnecessarily dangerous streets – including while riding in cars – and all of us deserve the freedom of a safe, multimodal transportation system.

But more and more people are dying while walking and biking

However, the rate of deaths and serious injuries of people walking and biking is rising in Houston at an alarming rate – much like has been seen across the nation. Driving in cars is also getting increasingly dangerous, although at a much smaller rate of increase.

While dying in cars remains the lead killer in the City of Houston transportation system, more and more people are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries while walking and biking. The rate of pedestrian K+I is rising faster than any other mode.

Using three-year averages, the rates of pedestrian deaths per capita have increased by 46% from 2010-2012 to 2015-2017, while cycling deaths rose 31%, motorcycle deaths rose 17%, and car deaths rose 7% in the City of Houston.

Approaching active and car transportation death parity

Something odd appears in the data on pedestrian deaths and incapacitating injuries. It appears that the rate of pedestrians suffering incapacitating injuries as opposed to deaths in the City of Houston was just 2.6 incapacitating injuries for every death. In general in the traffic violence policy data world, you can assume about 5 incapacitating injuries for every death as a rule of thumb, so this is odd. On the other hand the rate in the City of Houston for people in cars is 7.6 and people riding bicycles is 6.2.

Perhaps it makes sense that serious crashes involving pedestrians are more likely to kill the pedestrian than people in cars or on bikes, who might have a better chance of surviving yet still suffering a terrible injury.

This surprising thing leads to an even more surprising chart.

This chart is showing how many people die in cars for every person that dies while walking or biking in Houston, and apparently this stat is on a steady decline. If all trends hold true to their current course, by 2020, more people will be dying in the City of Houston while walking or biking than in cars.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that it is getting safer to drive. More people are dying per capita in cars as well, just not at such at high rate of increase as walking and biking.

This could mean several things: Many more people are choosing or being allowed the freedom for various reasons to walk and bike, exposing themselves to greater risk in a terribly dangerous transportation system, resulting in more deaths. Or somehow the risk is increasing causing more deaths per use.

However, whatever it means, it both changes the conversation about Vision Zero, while confirming one of my core beliefs – that we still must be all in this together. People are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries in all modes.

We must rebuild our transportation system to be safe for all.

Of the ten largest cities in the nation, only Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix still do not have a Vision Zero Action Plan to end ALL traffic deaths and serious injuries.

We’re dying for a plan.

[Image Credit: luna715, some rights reserved]