DFW Regional Transportation Council Aims for Zero

Dallas – Forth Worth, along with every other Texas MPO, adopted safety targets set by TXDOT that continue to project increasing deaths year-over-year. However, the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), the decision making body for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), demonstrated initial steps towards meaningful advances in transportation safety.

The council added an aspirational regional goal to its resolution, stating that “even one death on the transportation system is unacceptable.

While this declaration is not reflected in the performance measures – there is no formal timeline for reducing traffic fatalities – the leadership displayed by the RTC positions the MPO to adopt more ambitious safety targets.  Doing so will require the identification and establishment of appropriate data sources that will enable precise tracking of individual components of safety goals. CAMPO, the Austin region MPO, recently took these steps through an agreement with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

After adopting the safety targets, RTC Chair Rob Franke, P.E. and Cedar Hill Mayor, remarked that, “I think it was November of 2000, the last time we had a day in Texas where someone wasn’t killed on the highways.

November 7, 2000, was the last day in Texas with zero traffic deaths.

[Dallas Skyline Credit: Dave Hensley, Creative Commons License, via Flickr]

San Antonio region envisions zero traffic deaths

Of the 10 largest Texas MPOs Farm&City investigated, the Alamo Area MPO (AAMPO), which covers the San Antonio region, seems to be most seriously pursuing Vision Zero – a deliberate approach to end traffic deaths.

Along with every other Texas MPO, AAMPO adopted the TxDOT safety targets that assume a continuous increase in the total number of fatalities on Texas roads. But the devil is in the details.

The City of San Antonio has a Vision Zero Initiative with a holistic, multimodal approach to eliminating traffic deaths. The staff presentation (beginning on page 45) to AAMPO is remarkably forward-thinking in outlining such a path.
AAMPO’s Technical Advisory Committee and Bicycle Mobility Advisory Committee recommended adoption of the state guidelines, but the Pedestrian Mobility Advisory Committee recommended a target of zero traffic fatalities by 2040, 470 fewer overall deaths than the other plan.

The Alamo Area MPO spent 51 minutes at their January meeting presenting and discussing transportation safety before adopting safety targets. Other major Texas MPOs spent about 5 minutes on these goals.

A culture of safety
This ambitious proposal – zero deaths – is a reflection of the local safety culture. Most Texas MPOs held a short staff presentation on the TXDOT safety targets, followed by no discussion, and unanimous adoption of the TXDOT targets, although Austin’s CAMPO had a very meaningful, yet shorter discussion. The AAMPO Transportation Policy Board, however, spent over two hours between their December and January meetings.

San Antonio Councilmember Shirley Gonzales led a productive discussion on the need for safety to be the top consideration in all transportation policy decisions. The body also reflected on the fundamental multimodal approach to transportation that exists in safer cities abroad.

In discussion before voting to adopt the weaker TXDOT measures, AAMPO Transportation Policy Board members expressed their desires to actually achieve a meaningful reduction in road fatalities while balancing concerns that such ambitious targets would limit further funding.

Regional transportation planner Allison Blazosky lamented the “apprehension” that is felt state-wide. Fear of future funding restrictions is a ubiquitous deterrent perceived by various elected officials on Texas MPO decision making bodies – even where there is general agreement on a desire to pursue safety more strongly, such as adopting a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan. Blazosky reports on her analysis of current federal transportation policy that “there is no evidence that this is a concern under the present method of federal funding administration through state agencies.”

Perhaps Texas transportation officials could reconsider their weighting of the perceived risks of potentially not meeting ambitious safety targets versus the ongoing daily carnage of traffic deaths on our streets.

[Riverwalk image credit: Pedro Szekely, Creative Commons License, via Flickr]

CAMPO makes meaningful strides toward a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan

At their last monthly meeting on February 12th, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Transportation Policy Board (TPB) agenda included adoption of Safety Performance Measure Targets. Farm&City has been working for the last six months with a coalition of nonprofits and citizen activists across the Austin region to provide analysis and best practices to the members of the TPB on the potential benefits of a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan, including a letter-writing campaign just before last month’s TPB meeting.

CAMPO, like all Texas MPOs, had the option to support TXDOT’s statewide safety targets or to pursue their own goal and metrics. Either way, they were federally mandated to adopt a safety performance target by February 27. The Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan (pdf) calls for a 2% reduction in projected fatalities, which actually translates into an increase in statewide traffic fatalities from 3,773 in 2016 to 4,241 lives lost in traffic in 2022.

Members of the public (including Farm&City staff), spoke during the public comment period to advocate for more ambitious targets in line with a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan. TXDOT itself is nominally committed to the Vision Zero goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, though they have not set any timelines or official milestones. The TXDOT safety targets continue to project increased year over year traffic fatalities.

The transportation policy board expressed interest in pursuing a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan during discussion. There were several inquiries as to how the 2% figure could be a reduction if it projected an increase in fatalities.

The board ultimately approved the state safety targets after Chair Will Conley emphasized that doing so would not prevent the adoption of more aggressive safety targets. The next item on the agenda began exactly that process.

According to Transportation for America, the greatest factor preventing MPOs nationwide from pursuing safety is the lack of robust and targeted data sources. However, TXDOT has been doing a relatively good job in recent years of making data available to citizens, local jurisdictions, and MPO staff through the CRIS system.

Following the adoption of TXDOT safety targets, Item 9 from the agenda included approval for CAMPO staff to sign and fund a quite remarkable agreement with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) that includes addressing this gap in data and analysis. This item was approved. The four elements of the agreement with TTI include development of: a Regional Crash Database, a Regional State of Safety Report, Development of Safety Performance Measures, and a Regional Traffic Safety Plan. CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson also announced the formation of a Regional Safety Council.

We applaud these courageous and responsible steps. Yet there seems more to be done at the TPB level to get to a Regional Vision Zero Action Plan. Austin Council Member Ann Kitchen asked CAMPO staff during the TPB meeting to report back soon to the TPB with a better understanding of what doing a real Regional Vision Zero Action Plan would entail, to which Johnson simply replied “yes, ma’am.”

[Crash image credit: Ruin Rader, Creative Commons License, via Flickr]

Ask CAMPO for a regional Vision Zero Action Plan

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) is the transportation decision making body for Central Texas. Metropolitan planning organizations such as CAMPO are federally mandated to adopt periodic safety performance targets.

Every day four people die or suffer incapacitating injuries across our region, a much higher rate than many American metropolitan areas. This is something that we could actually fix.

Tonight, CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board (TPB) will meet and vote on adopting the safety targets set in 2017 Strategic Highway Safety Plan published by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT).  The state plan aims for a slight reduction of 2% below an expected continuing increase in annual traffic deaths. We think sticking to an unambitious goal and accepting rising traffic deaths is an abdication of the moral responsibility our elected officials have to address this crisis.

Members of the public concerned about achieving meaningful reductions in traffic deaths can advocate for the adoption of more ambitious targets and specifically for CAMPO to develop a regional Vision Zero Action Plan. This plan should show a path toward actually reducing the amount of deaths and serious injuries across the entire region.

To send your letter, click here.

Today’s Farm&City Stat of the Day: Williamson County leads Texas in debt

Williamson and Hays County – the north and south ends of the Austin metro region – have more tax supported debt per capita than any other Texas counties with more than 50,000 residents.

Each resident of Williamson County is responsible for $2,498 in public debt, while each resident of Hays County bears $2,090 in public debt, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Debt-At-A-Glance website.

This compares to just $750 in public debt for each resident of the urban core of the Austin region – Travis County, $700 in Harris County – Houston’s urban core, and only $26 per person in Dallas County and $223 per person in Tarrant – the two urban cores of the Dallas Fort Worth region.

In terms of total debt, Williamson County is only third in Texas – with a total tax supported debt of $1,320,901,658 – behind Bexar – $2,718,935,950 – and Harris – $3,212,667,903. Yet Bexar and Harris are the 4th and 1st largest counties in the state with 5 and 15 times as many jobs as Williamson, respectively.

According to our analysis of county appraisal district data, Williamson County was worth about $57 billion in 2016 – the total property value of all properties in the county – and Hays is worth about $15 billion.

Total tax supported debt as a percent of fair market value is an interesting way to compare a county’s fiscal status. County public debt accounts for almost 3% of the total value of Hays and over 2% of the value of Williamson, but only about 0.5% of the value of Travis.

We’re working on a more in depth report looking at this debt. Key concepts that we must explore and understand is how forecasts of county growth and road spending play into these seemingly troubling stats.

(Williamson County Courthouse photo credit: A Lee, some rights reserved)

Today’s Farm&City Stat of the Day: Texas kids outnumbering immigrants

Texas led the nation in population growth from July 2016 to July 2017, according to the Austin y ausiness Journal‪‬. This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone living in our rapidly growing major metros.

However, that growth was not led by immigration to the state as some might perceive, but instead dominated by natural increase – Texans having more children than Texans dying.

Last year, 210,000 more Texans were added as a result of natural increase, while only 190,000 came from outside the state (domestic and international immigration).

Public policy discussion in Austin has been dominated by a discourse of bigotry against “California tech bros” and similar epithets seemed acceptable under the guise of opposing housing in the CodeNEXT process. But this story largely rings untrue in the actual data. Growth in the City of Austin has been dominated by additional people of color, including many children of existing city residents.

We hope to staff up our Texurban department to provide the people of Texas’ major metros with more meaningful understandings of our tremendous growth – with a focus on the Austin region this year in the Growing Weirder Project. Growth policies based upon honest understandings of our reality and our potential can lead to better results for the Texans of today and tomorrow.

Systemic inequity hinders the effectiveness of CAMPO’s best plans

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

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]

Mini Report: The Costs of Distracted Driving in Texas

This summer, the Texas legislature conducted a rapid fire special session. With twenty topics on the call, only about half ended up making it to Governor Abbott’s desk and many were left lingering in committee.Farm&City stood with police departments, family members of victims of traffic violence, and  other safety and health advocates to oppose an attempt to go backwards on Texas distracted driving laws, HB 171.

And we won. The bill was left pending in the House Transportation Committee because it did not have enough votes to pass out of committee, following a passionate hearing (video).

We prepared a mini report for the hearing to make sure that lawmakers understood the extent of the problem of distracted driving in Texas and the costs to Texas families. The estimated impact of distracted driving in Texas is between 2 and 3 billion dollars a year, with at least 455 deaths across the state attributable to distracted driving. As explained in the report, we believe the actual number of deaths caused by distracted driving in Texas is much higher.

The Costs of Distracted Driving in Texas – House Version (pdf)

In 2019, the Texas legislature needs to take up smart, comprehensive statewide reform to end the scourge of distracted driving deaths in Texas. We look forward to assisting in finding the optimal way to do it.

[Crash image credit: Ruin Rader, Creative Commons License, via Flickr]