Systemic inequity hinders the effectiveness of CAMPO’s best plans

DecideTexas, Texurban

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has prepared a draft Regional Active Transportation Plan for the first time and the Transportation Policy Board is expected to vote on passage of the plan at its meeting tonight.

Some very excellent consultants worked on the project led by very capable staff. Together they have produced a document with important data, analysis, recommendations to improve active transportation options and systems across the region.

However, the structural geographic inequity at CAMPO seems to have hindered the effectiveness and benefit of this otherwise positive step forward. As shown in the charts above, every single metric I was able to look at from the report showed an underrepresentation of the residents of Travis County in this process and the resulting recommendations. The data is here.

300,000 more people live in Travis County than all other counties of the 6 county CAMPO region. Yet, more government staff were able to attend meetings on this plan in Williamson County alone than in Travis County.

While Travis County is shown with the most total number of miles of active transportation planned and proposed for any one county, more total miles were proposed outside the county than inside, for the area with 300,000 less people. While there are 11 projects proposed per 100,000 residents of Travis and Williamson County each, there are 19 per 100,000 residents in Hays and 35 per 100,000 residents of Burnet.

This brings potential serious concerns as CAMPO moves to add this plan into its performance measures and metrics for allocating regional transit funding, as explained in our letter sent in during the brief public comment period. We also explored the serious inequity issues at CAMPO year ago in our Special Report on Representation at CAMPO as well as in our broader Texas Transportation Equity Assessment.

While this Active Transportation Plan is a step forward and likely improves the overall picture at CAMPO, much work remains to be done for CAMPO to be able to produce an efficient, equitable, prosperous 2045 Regional Transportation Plan. To remedy similar inequity and inefficiency issues, the State of California recently restructured the voting system of SANDAG, CAMPO’s equivalent for the San Diego region. Perhaps similar broad measures are needed here.

City of Austin housing has not “kept pace” with population growth

Growing Weirder

The City of Austin grew from 678,457 to 931,840 people in just ten years between 2005 and 2015, adding 253,383 new residents. While not as much growth as the City of Houston – which added 357,198 in the same period – this growth is harder on Austin with its segregationist zoning code and its extraordinarily high rate of sprawl.

Displacement, traffic, and other issues of growth are real, meaningful problems for the young metropolitan region and the city – and particularly tough for some residents of the region. How we respond with public and private decisions will determine the carbon footprint of the region, the ability of people to afford to live here, the quality of millions of people’s lives, and the long term sustainability of the metropolis.

A recent report from the Urban Institute claims that the City of Austin’s housing stock “kept pace” with its own population growth because the addition of housing units was at a similar rate to the addition of population in the city. KUT’s coverage focused on this concept of comparing population growth in the city to growth of housing units in the city.

The underlying premise of comparing just the city’s population growth to housing unit growth is suspect. So I dug up my own data from the US Census Bureau’s Fact Finder and ran my own numbers to allow a different interpretation of the same data they were trying to explain.

Here goes:

How City of Austin failed to keep pace with population growth

The Austin region grew by 740,830 people between 2000 and 2015 or a growth rate of 59%, with 465,552 of that growth happening across the region outside of the City of Austin – what you normally call sprawl.

Yet during this period, the City of Austin limited growth of housing through its segregationist zoning code, meaning that only 120,795 housing units were added in the city, at a growth rate of 44%.

This seems to have limited population growth inside the city to a rate of 42%, a significantly slower rate than the region as a whole. Yet people still want to live inside the city where they have much greater access to jobs, retail, people, schools, and affordable transportation costs. Since the city’s segregation policies can’t actually dictate who rents or buys each unit, lower income people were likely forced out as units within the city went to the highest bidders. This is the core story of displacement.

Were the City of Austin to have “kept pace” with regional growth – simply matching regional growth rate – it should have added an additional 43,310 housing units between 2000 and 2015. Doing this would have meant radically cutting displacement and the costs of sprawl. An additional 113,916 people should have been allowed to live in the City of Austin than were allowed simply to match regional growth rate. This would have meant a more sustainable tax base for the city, a more feasible future for AISD, and a variety of other benefits both for current residents and local governments.

If Austin were to have adopted smart growth policies – which it most certainly has not done – it would have tried to grow at a faster rate than the region. This would have allowed more people access to live in walkable urban places connected by high quality transit with low carbon lifestyles. This also would have cut down on the vast amounts of the Hill Country continuing to be destroyed through the interaction of the city’s segregationist zoning and CAMPO’s sprawltastic Regional Transportation Plan.

The traffic consequences of limiting access to the City of Austin

Using the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index – one of the most important tools on the entire interwebs IMHO – I found that residents of the City of Austin on average drive a vehicle 7,894 miles every year, while residents of the rest of the CAMPO region drive 10,221 miles every year on average.

This vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita is perhaps one of the most important environmental variables facing our metropolis, our nation, and our world. This determines not only your consumption of gasoline and emissions while driving, but also need for the car itself. The embodied carbon of a new car is about equal to the carbon emitted from the tailpipe over the lifetime of the car – a carbon footprint that also holds true for an electric vehicle.

And we’re not done there. Excessive driving – and especially neighborhoods and vast areas designed for car dependent lifestyle require significantly more surface of the earth to be paved for roads, parking, and all the space needs of a system designed for using a 3,000 pound vehicle to go to the store to get a gallon of milk. Every time you drive, you’re consuming a little share of the tailpipe emissions of the construction vehicles that mined those aggregates and paved that road.

The choice of the Austin City Council to continue segregationist zoning to limit access to living in the City of Austin has meant – on average – about 2,327 additional vehicle miles traveled per person not allowed to live in the city.

If instead, the city had “kept pace” with the regional growth rate and allowed 113,916 more people to live inside the city of Austin, the CAMPO region would theoretically today be dealing with 265,046,611 less VMT per year or 726,155 miles worth of cars driving on our roads every day.  This represents 1.69% of the region’s current total VMT, meaning that on average, every traffic jam would have about 2% less cars in it.

The region could be using a little over 11 million less gallons of gasoline each year if we had ended segregation in 2000. This increased VMT caused by segregationist zoning also on average means four additional traffic fatalities and 40 more devastating incapacitating injuries every year than we would see if Austin had allowed these people to live inside the city.

However, these are conservative under-estimates, because greater density within the City of Austin would allow for better transit access for all – not just new residents – shifting wasted transportation funds from inefficient, low-use suburban roads to high-use multimodal streets, and allowing shorter trips for all. VMT per capita in the city will continue to go down as we add more people, even as we each gain greater access to more things.

Let’s not delay anymore – end segregation in Austin in April 2018

Much hullabaloo has been made this week about the costs of the CodeNEXT process, with a lot of people apparently having become experts on the costs to completely rewrite the land development code for a major US city. Luckily, city council chose this morning to continue the project and to try to stay on target to complete it in April next year.

As of now, the largest US city to switch from segregationist zoning to form-based code remains Miami, Florida, home to 453,579 people, less than half the size of the City of Austin.

This is a necessarily complex project. Various concerns and a vast diversity of neighborhood, community, and business interests deserve the deep, meaningful debate that we have had for the last four years. CodeNEXT can be completed in a way that keeps Austin weird, which means allowing people to live here, allowing many more of us to have the option of low-carbon lifestyles, and completing every neighborhood with more friends, more nice walks, more coffee shops, more schools, more access to the quality of life that comes when you live in a growing metropolis.

Beware the murky stats passing by in the flood waters


In the flood of hot takes following Hurricane Harvey, much discussion has emerged around impervious surface – land that cannot absorb water and instead passes it off down the stream. Many of our libertarian friends have been espousing a set of “stats” about Houston’s impervious surface, linking back and forth to each other’s articles as proof of an apparently well known truth.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism published a report by our well respected local adversary Tory Gattis and one of the nation’s leading purveyors of poorly done math and statistics, Wendell Cox. Like others, they cited an argument that they believe that Houston doesn’t have much impervious surface.

All of this seems to stem from a Cato Institute blog post by Vanessa Brown Calder and this “analysis” she calculated from USDA Forest Service data:

Seems pretty telling – if you are bad at math.

So we looked further into it, knowing that one of the unique characteristics of the City of Houston is its abnormally large land area, rendering comparisons of percent impervious surface most likely a dubious pursuit.

If you instead look at impervious surface per person – the amount of concrete sealing the ground shut on behalf of each one of us – a quite different interpretation emerges. We looked at the same USDA Forest Service report that it seems Cato did, but included all 20 cities in that report, not just the five that Cato deemed “similarily populated American cities” to Houston (a truly odd statement considering they chose to include a city with four times as many people and another with one sixth as many people as Houston).

The two US cities that suffered the two most costly natural disasters this nation has ever seen are also the two coastal cities with the highest rates of impervious surface per person.

Using this same data, we created the chart below which simply shows the total amount of impervious surface in each city. The people of the City of Houston have paved over more earth than any other US city studied in this report, except for the city of Los Angeles, which has us beat by 3 extra square miles, but is home to 1.7 million more people.

If Houston had instead developed at the density of New York City, it would have required only 50 square miles of impervious surface, leaving an additional 201 square miles of prairie, wetlands, and forests to soak up a little of that rain water.

This of course doesn’t mean in this unlikely alternative scenario that flood waters would stop flowing through our bayous or streets – which isn’t actually what anyone wants. It does mean that we would have had substantially less people’s homes spread across the Houston region in harms way on a substantially smaller footprint in need of protection and flood infrastructure than we did have.

The people of Houston region have extremely important discussions to have right now. We need comprehensive systems of engagement, collaboration, and planning for rebuilding the Houston region with resiliency, equity, and prosperity for all. We need free market solutions such as eliminating parking requirements – something local environmentalists have been calling for for many years. We need comprehensive, equitable regional planning and regional approaches that stop the ongoing waste of public funds and squandering of our abundance that the crony capitalism of our past has given us.

One thing we really do not need is bad math and disingenuous statistics.

[Harvey flooding image credit: Jill Carlson, Some Rights Reserved]