Austin draws up plans to close Rainey Street to cars permanently

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new report by the City of Austin lays out what is possible for the future of Rainey Street, including potential plans which could close off the street to car traffic permanently.

City staff have identified that Rainey Street “has seen rapid growth in recent years” which has strained existing infrastructure and transportation options.

The report, which is part of the Rainey Mobility Study, was commissioned by Austin’s Transportation Department (ATD) and the Planning and Zoning Department (PAZ). The infrastructure firm AECOM compiled the technical memorandum for this study into a whopping 744-page document.

Scenario 4C, one of eleven potential scenarios for traffic on Rainey Street in Austin. Rainey Neighborhood Mobility Report.

The report offers up 11 different scenarios for Rainey Street and the surrounding entertainment district. Seven of those scenarios suggest closing off the street to all cars except emergency vehicles.

The memorandum is not a final recommendation but rather a report on how feasible different transportation solutions could be in the area. These scenarios factor in the expected traffic in the year 2025 as well as proposed developments.

The memorandum concludes that closing Rainey Street to cars “would improve the space” for pedestrians, bikes and dockless scooters. But the document also noted that in order to close Rainey Street to cars, there would need to be other streets where cars could travel nearby.

Additionally, the report said that in order to close Rainey Street to cars, Red River Street will have to be extended to allow another route for traffic. The report also says the scenarios that added a traffic circle at the intersection of Red River and Davis Street reduced delays. Delays were also reduced in these scenarios by turning the East Avenue/ River Street intersection and the Red River Street/ Driskill Street intersection from two-way stops into all-way stops.

If Rainey Street was closed off to vehicles, emergency vehicles could still be allowed to get in through the closure, the memorandum explained.

Rainey Street Pilot Program

In early 2019, the city staff launched the Rainey Street Mobility Study to look at improving transportation and traffic in the area. A city spokesperson previously told KXAN that, “during the study, high pedestrian volumes were observed, with some points in time exceeding 80% of total traffic on the street.” 

City staff said they determined during the initial study that the high numbers of people walking on Rainey Street increased the risk for those people to get hit by cars. That in turn, led city departments to support the closure of Rainey Street to cars.

Austin-Travis County EMS responded to 10 crashes on Rainey Street in 2019; five of them involved pedestrians or scooters, and three of those hit were taken to local hospitals for injuries.

In June, a driver hit a woman on Rainey Street and sped off. That helped accelerate the momentum to make safety improvements around Rainey Street. Austin’s Council passed a resolution in June calling for staff to get this pilot off the ground.

The city is currently in the middle of this pilot program that bans cars from driving down a portion of Rainey Street Thursday through Saturday from 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. The program began on December 5, 2019, and is set to run through March 8, 2020. People are still able to walk, ride scooters, ride bikes, take pedicabs, or ride in electric low-speed vehicles through the closed section during the pilot.

Feedback from businesses

Michael Johnson, general manager at the coffee shop and bar Little Brother, worries closing the street entirely to cars will hurt his business.

“We’re not just a bar at night,” he said. The shop, which opened about a year ago, serves coffee starting at 9 a.m. and is planning to add a food truck to attract more traffic.

“We’re one of the only places that have a little bit of parking here as well,” Johnson said, “so that’s something that we tell our customers.”

If the street closes to cars, they won’t be able to offer off-street spots anymore. While he understands the safety concerns, he told KXAN, Little Brother might have to alter its hours or business model to adapt.

But most of the businesses analysts surveyed for the report support closing the street to cars for good.

When the survey closed on Aug. 15, nine of the 15 owners and managers the survey targeted submitted complete responses. Some of the owners and managers run multiple businesses on Rainey Street, the report said.

The businesses represented include Clive Bar, Big Fat Greek Gyros, Craft Pride, Unbarlievable, Drafting Room, Half Step, Container Bar, Camden Rainey Street, and Bangers.

Survey data from businesses in Rainey Neighborhood Mobility Report.

Survey data showed that 56% of the businesses surveyed — five of the eight who answered the question — said they support closing Rainey Street to car traffic altogether.

Ahead of the pilot program that closed Rainey Street on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, only 4% of businesses said they did not support closing Rainey Street to cars any day of the week.

The report said that if Rainey Street is to be closed to cars, the city should consider establishing a trash pick-up for businesses on back alleyways and designating a loading/ unloading-only lane on Rainey Street. The authors of the report added that if it’s not possible to have a loading/ unloading-only lane on Rainey Street, the city should close Rainey Street to cars after 5 p.m. to allow for deliveries.

What happens next

The city is reaching out to businesses and neighborhood groups to help walk them through the details of this long and detailed report.

AECOM’s analysis is part of the broader Austin Core Transportation Plan, an ATD spokesman said. Over the coming months, the department plans to gather feedback on the plan, including all 11 scenarios listed in the report.

There is no timeline for making any changes to Rainey Street, he said.

Businesses and organizations in the area will have to discuss this report and the potential impacts of the scenarios it lists out.

Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board is scheduled to discuss the impact of the closure of Rainey Street to cars on the MACC parking lot, which is right next to the entertainment district.

A rendering of Rainey Street as a car-free shared street. Rainey Neighborhood Mobility Report.

Residents in the area told KXAN they have concerns that the city is not looking at the big picture when it comes to the long-term for residents who have invested time and money to live there.

Previously, residents in the area and neighborhood leaders told KXAN that they had concerns about closing off Rainey Street to cars in the pilot program, citing traffic difficulties the growing area already faces.

After the city published the new study, Michael Abelson, president of the Rainey Neighbors Association board of directors said he was “elated” that the city is paying attention to the traffic issues around the residential and entertainment district, but that planners need to ensure people who live there are able to get in and out of the neighborhood.

The memorandum says that the next steps now are sharing the findings of this massive report with stakeholders, finishing the Rainey Streets Pilot program, boosting infrastructure, and updating Austin’s Core Transportation Plan with improvements laid out in the study. Those who compiled this report expect to see an increase in “demand volumes” of people getting around Rainey Street as the neighborhood continues to grow.

An area with history

The Rainey Street area, just east of I-35 and just north of Lady Bird Lake, was originally made up of small single-family homes that were mostly built in the 1920s, the report explains. A century ago, the area was home to a thriving community of working-class Mexican-American families.

The 1928 Plan in the City of Austin segregated minorities by limiting where they could access public services, pushing the Hispanic community to the area just north of the Colorado River and the African-American Community to the area just north of that, literature at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center states.

A 2016 report commissioned by the city found that in the 1960s when I-35 was added to downtown Austin, the highway severed those Mexican American neighborhoods downtown from the communities in East Austin. The City of Austin is currently undertaking several efforts to preserve and celebrate the Mexican-American heritage of the area.

The Rainey Mobility Study report explains that in the 1990s the neighborhood around Rainey Street grew to include small businesses, warehouses, and a low-density condominium complex.

The city changed the neighborhood’s zoning to Central Business District in 2004 which put the amount of allowable density in the Rainey Street area on the same level as the rest of downtown, the report notes. Since then, the district has been developed to include a popular entertainment district. Many people still live in the area, though now that’s mostly in condominiums instead of single-family homes.

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