AUSTIN (KXAN) – Trends in requests to Austin 311, the city’s hub for services, have risen and fallen in new ways over the past two years. While some types of requests have ballooned, others have deflated in tandem with the changing needs of a city enduring crises like COVID-19 and February’s winter storm.
When the pandemic hit, Austin saw a downshift in requests for traffic signal maintenance, as fewer people took to the road. KXAN obtained the 311 information through the city’s open data portal, which provides up-to-date records for viewing and download.
From 2017 through 2020, the top 311 requests – aside from requesting a code officer – were for traffic signal maintenance, followed by requests for help with loose dogs. In 2019, traffic signal requests hit a high of 15,930. In 2020 they did a U-turn, dropping by 43% and staying that low in 2021. Loose dog reports were also suppressed, dropping 14% to 7,427 in 2020.
Meanwhile requests for Austin Resource Recovery services – namely missed yard trimming and compost pickups – have seen big upticks. Calls for missed yard trimmings rose most significantly in the past year, with all but one zip code in the city seeing a rise in calls, according to the city’s 311 data.
On average, about 7,500 people reported missed pickups for trimmings and compost in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, that request skyrocketed 68% to over 13,000 calls. Austin Resource Recovery attributed the increase to several factors — most notably the February winter storm.
That week-long weather event pummeled Central Texas with ice, snow and prolonged single-digit temperatures in mid-February. A statewide power crisis left thousands of people in the Austin area, and millions throughout the state, without power and heating for days. Statewide, more than 200 people died, including 28 in Travis County alone, according to the Department of State Health Services.
In the months following the winter storm, thousands of destroyed trees and branches had to be hauled off.
“ARR received over 6,300 calls in March and April for missed yard trimmings/compost collections, which accounts for most of the increase. ARR received around 1,300 calls over the same months in 2020,” said Austin Resource Recovery spokesperson Paul Bestgen.
The increase in calls was also due, in part, to 53,000 homes being added to Austin Resource Recovery’s collection route and staff shortages that have delayed some routes.
In addition, Bestgen said some calls were related to “improper set-outs,” meaning bins or piles were contaminated, blocked or too large for collection.
Other request trends have changed as well. Dockless and shared micromobility requests — which include scooters and other small transportation devices without a license plate — popped into the top-15 most requested services in 2019. In 2020, parking enforcement requests crept into the top-10. In 2021, park maintenance requests also jumped into the top-10 most requested services.
See the top-10 service requests for 2019, 2020 and 2021 below.
Storm and Pandemic impacts
Overall, Austin 311 said it receives about 1 million calls and creates about 300,000 service requests per year. KXAN did its analysis of 311 call trends using records from the city’s online data portal, which does not show all the service requests made through 311, according to the department. It is not clear why the online data does not show every request.
“At the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, Austin 3-1-1 experienced an increase in call volume. We went from answering 72,053 calls in February to 89,928 in March of that year, which was about a 24.8% increase in calls,” a 311 spokesperson told KXAN by email.
Call takers at 311 – also called “ambassadors” by the city – began working from home in March of 2020. That transition was not difficult because one-third of the 311 workforce already telecommuted, a spokesperson said.
Calls to 311 tripled during the 2021 winter storm, according to the department. The call volume overloaded the department’s phone lines, and KXAN reported receiving complaints from people unable to reach call takers and the department not operating at 100%. However, the department said it “maintained continuity” by staying open, and its online app continued receiving service requests.
The 311 Department said it has also assisted Austin Public Health in fielding COVID-19 vaccine registration questions. So far, the department said it has taken nearly 752,000 of those vaccine-related calls; however, those vaccine calls were not tracked until March, according to the department. From March to November 2021, Austin 311 said it took 48,740 vaccine calls.