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.

Reforming the Capital Metro Board Citizen Advisory Committees

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


Why Change the Committees?

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

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

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

Discussion amongst the Dreaded Zoning and Planning Commission

Role of Committees

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

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

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

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

Selection and Treatment of Committee Members

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

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

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

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

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

Increasing the Number of Committees

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

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

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

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

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


Suggested Committees

IT and Technology Services

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

Network Evolution

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

Service Quality

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

Access

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

Project Connect Advisory Committee

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

Plaza Saltillo and Other Transit Oriented Development Projects

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

Mobility Innovation Zones

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

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

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

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.

Thanks,
Jay


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]

Come to one of four TXDOT traffic safety workshops in May

TXDOT is making incremental progress towards seriously pursuing an end to transportation deaths throughout the state. The 2017-2019 Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) begins with the following mission statement:

Texans will work together on the road to zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

Ending transportation deaths is possible, and agencies throughout the levels of government in the United States are beginning to embrace the necessary shifts in direction, planning, and funding. Sustained public engagement will accelerate this reality, and to that end, TXDOT is hosting four traffic safety workshops in the first half of May. Click here for the full schedule and specific details, dates and locations are listed below.

May 1, Houston
May 3, San Antonio
May 15, DFW
May 17, Midland/Odessa

TXDOT representatives will provide an overview of the SHSP and the safety countermeasures it identifies. They will work with attendees to understand your transportation challenges at any scale. The purpose is to connect the goals of transportation activists with the work of TXDOT to align all our efforts towards true transportation safety. See you there.

Regional Traffic Safety Workshops

City of Austin uses corridor program to seriously address design speed

When engineers are designing streets, they use a concept called design speed to choose appropriate measures and elements for that expected speed of travel. A closely related concept is the “target speed”, which is the speed they hope that people will travel on that street. Design and target speeds for urban streets can be much higher than posted speed limits, creating unsafe transportation conditions throughout cities.

Various factors contribute to excessive design speeds, including width and number of lanes, the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists, street trees with minimal setbacks, and so on.

On December 15, 2016, Austin City Council adopted a comprehensive safe design speed policy that included instructions to staff to “incorporate target design speeds into plans & manuals” and “systematically evaluate arterial speed limits citywide for appropriateness.” The resolution noted that this was a logical step in the City’s commitment to Vision Zero.

The Austin Transportation Department has made tremendous progress on this effort, including a proposed $600,000 for the 2018 bond package dedicated to retrofitting streets to safe design speed. TXDOT and other cities across the state are following Austin’s lead on this issue, as national engineering leaders call for a radical shift in thinking about the design of streets and speed.

The corridors project is perhaps the single biggest opportunity currently funded to deploy safe, multi-modal streets with modern design speeds in the region. The NACTO standards for safe design speed for urban arterials – 35mph or less, would not slow down the current experience of these corridors.

Accepting this responsibility, the City of Austin has made the commitment to take design speed seriously, claiming to “fully intend to comply with NACTO standards as we design and construct the Corridor Construction Program projects,” per this April 2018 memo from Assistant City Manager Robert Goode.

This is a tremendous and laudable advance in urban planning and should be commended. It should also be the standard for all urban roadway design across Texas.

Design Speed in Corridors Construction Program

Higher design speeds and other misguided elements of transportation planning increase the volatility of systemwide speeds. Higher design speeds can contribute to increased crashes, blocking roadways, and reducing systemwide speed as a result of sudden congestion.

Using Google Maps and their travel data, we estimated the amount of time it would take to travel each of the corridors from end to end at 4pm on a weekday, and translated that into an overall travel speed.

Corridor Rush Hour Travel Times

Today, the average speed of travel on these corridors is between 13 and 31 mph, and it is not possible to travel faster than 35 mph on any of these corridors during rush hour. Austin’s new design speed standards could theoretically (and perhaps counterintuitively) increase rush hour travel times.

The stated plan for corridors funding is to focus on improving intersections, which will increase safety and throughput, with the safety improvement further decreasing delay caused by crashes. Using safe design speeds throughout the corridors will contribute to easing traffic flow by reducing crashes.

Imagine traveling in a car on a safe, urban street filled with life and people at a comfortable, dependable 25 mph rate, and not sitting at traffic lights all the time. Beyond the benefits to people in cars, safe design speed is the determining factor in our ability to build a healthy urban environment where people have the freedom of walking, biking, traveling by wheelchair, and using transit.

It is quite likely that a realistic travel demand model – that doesn’t assume induced sprawl like our current one – could show that a comprehensive safe design speed approach will actually lead to a faster – yet safer – car trip along these corridors in ten years.

Every single one of these corridors is also expected to add population, jobs, stores, schools, and other elements of a complete community. Using safe design speeds below the minimally acceptable 35 mph NACTO standard is a crucial element of optimizing this investment of half a billion dollars.

Austin corridors spending provides perfect opportunity towards reaching Vision Zero

The City of Austin is committed to ending its epidemic of traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. The Vision Zero Action Plan, adopted by city council in 2016, includes a detailed list of potential countermeasures to reduce traffic deaths. Various City of Austin departments, led by the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) have led the way in boldly demonstrating what can be accomplished towards road safety in Texas.

The $482m from the 2016 Mobility Bond available for nine Austin traffic corridors provides the City of Austin with the perfect opportunity to significantly invest in transportation with meaningful progress to zero transportation deaths.

Seventy-five people died in the city of Austin last year, 2017, from transportation, and 550 people suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries. Nine of those people died on the corridors included for funding in the 2016 bond, and 65 suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries there.

The Contract with Voters established for the 2016 Mobility Bond promises to “complete the proposed bond program within 8 years,” by 2024. Given that the city’s goal is to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025, it is reasonable to expect that the target of zero deaths is factored into the design and implementation of all corridor spending.

These are serious and achievable goals. The pedestrian and bike-heavy Guadalupe corridor has not seen any traffic fatalities from 2010 to today.. 

Guadalupe includes many features that contribute to this safety, among them, ever-present pedestrians and restricted left turns. However, it is not necessary to be adjacent to a university to achieve this level of safety.

Austin is a member city of NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. NACTO has published an Urban Street Design Guide that not only demonstrates how safe streets can be built, but also how to manage the transition to maximally safe streets from more traditional, more dangerous, street-road hybrids in otherwise urban environments.

The challenge in accomplishing these goals is in demonstrating a consistent commitment to transportation safety on every possible front- to reach zero deaths, all related efforts must be aligned and coordinated. Adopting a Vision Zero Action Plan necessitates that the city forgo conventional and politically expedient safety measures in favor of innovative, data-supported improvements.

Safety must be the top priority in all transportation policy decisions. Contrary to popular perception, urban roadway expansion does not increase safety or reduce congestion. Available evidence predicts only detrimental effects on congestion, the environment, affordability, and public safety.

A robust public transportation network is positively associated with every one of these factors. Reducing single-occupant vehicle trips and giving more people the freedom of meaningful options to walk, bike, and use transit reduces systemwide congestion, improves air quality and per-capita emissions, is more affordable, and is fundamentally safer.

Produced by Elliot Fisherman, Director at the Institute for Sensible Transport.

The relationship between Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and traffic fatalities has been stable for the last ten years in America after years of gradual reduction. This plateau indicates that we are approaching the limits of transportation safety possible through the conventional, piecemeal reforms. To eliminate traffic deaths in Austin by 2025, the city must ensure robust, frequent, and comprehensive coverage of public transportation and embrace low- or no-carbon transportation options, while using modern, best practices of safe street design.

The social and economic costs of a dangerous and inefficient transportation network largely consisting of single-occupant vehicle trips are hidden and enormous. Ensuring compliance between the implementation of the Mobility Bond with the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan will result in a safer, more economically prosperous Austin.

Deaths and Serious Injuries on Each Corridor, 2010-2017
Click images to expand

Airport Boulevard
Burnet Road
Guadalupe Street & 24th Street
N. Lamar Boulevard
S. Lamar Boulevard
E. MLK Jr. Boulevard
E. Riverside Drive
William Cannon Drive, top. Slaughter Lane, bottom.

 

Tell the feds your thoughts on CAMPO’s performance

Every four years, MPOs are subject to federal review by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). As part of this process, these agencies want to hear from the public about how regional transportation projects affect our lives and what we think can be improved.

This evening, from 5pm to 7pm at UT campus (2405 Robert Dedman Drive), is the public input hearing for this cycle’s federal certification review. The public is asked to provide feedback on the following questions:

1. Do you have any comments regarding the CAMPO TransportationPolicy Board’s performance in carrying out the responsibility of the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)?

2. Is CAMPO doing an overall good job of providing the public with a reasonable opportunity to provide input and participate as part of the metropolitan transportation planning process?

3. Are there specific areas you feel CAMPO could improve? If so, explain.

Earlier this year, we encouraged public engagement with CAMPO to urge them to adopt a Vision Zero Action Plan, and they heard your voices! CAMPO is responsible for the administration of hundreds of millions of dollars of annual transportation funds but receives relatively little attention. Establishing a tradition of sustained public engagement will ensure efficient and accurate representation of regional transportation interests.

Show up this evening and give the federal government your thoughts on CAMPO’s performance! CAMPO and its board members perform vital public services, but as we have uncovered in our research, there are certainly aspects of CAMPO with room for improvement.

After you provide your testimony, or for those unable to attend, send your answers to the prompts to [email protected] and [email protected]