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:
TXDOT
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.

 

1,000 Miles for Transit & Vision Zero

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.

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:
LaredoVisionZero_FarmAndCity_Crossley

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

The Case for Austin’s Transit-Oriented Development Fund

Austin’s need for equitable transit-oriented development is apparent. TOD allows meaningful access to affordable, healthy lifestyles, yet our development regulations have created a perverted marketplace that does not provide these options for most people.

We can give more people affordable, multi-modal access to all the necessities and amenities of metropolitan life, along with all the benefits of dense urban development. As Austin’s population expands, that accessibility will play a key role in making the city sustainable, equitable, and affordable for all.

To ensure these policies are consistently and equitably pursued, we advocate for the establishment of a city-based Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Fund. Such funds have already been established in Denver, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, and San Diego, dedicating tens of millions of dollars to building sustainable neighborhoods for all.

Each TOD fund is a complex financial package designed to meet shortfalls in financing mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable urban environments. They are comprised of public housing funds, private philanthropic capital, and bank funding. The funds are designed to be available for private and nonprofit developers alike, but can only be accessed if developers include a certain level of affordable housing units, plan to build within walking distance of high-quality transit, and meet other community desires proscribed by the fund.

Austin’s ETOD Fund would be initiated by a dedication of working capital from a local foundation and a matching contribution from the City, which can then be leveraged to secure additional commitments from other foundations and private banking institutions.

A properly cultivated ETOD Fund would help provide Austinites with accessible, sustainable, and equitable habitat for years to come. Learn more in our full report:

Download the full report

GrowingWeirder_ETOD_Proposal (pdf)
Printable version: GrowingWeirder_ETOD_Proposal_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.

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.

Austin Considers Expanding Regressive Homestead Exemptions

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.

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.