AUSTIN (KXAN) — For years, Professor Junfeng Jiao with the University of Texas at Austin has focused his research on transit deserts — regions where there’s a high demand for public transit access but limited public transportation resources.
He says these are prevalent throughout Austin.
Now, he’s putting his years of research to the test with a new mobility hub initiative in the Georgian Acres neighborhood, near Interstate 35 and East Rundberg Lane. The project, in collaboration with the Austin Transportation Department and nonprofit Jail to Jobs, received a $1 million grant to help its efforts.
“It’s a very joyous moment,” he said. “It’s a wonderful moment, we finally — we worked on this for a year, actually a year and a half, and we finally won it. We’re excited to bring this to Austin and to the community we want to serve.”
The National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge awarded the project the $1 million grant funding. The grant focuses on providing additional resources to “community-based solutions to address challenges related to equality and natural disasters,” per a city news release.
The Georgian Acres neighborhood mobility hub will be solar-powered and include the following features:
- Bike system
- Bike-share station
- E-scooter stations
- Free WiFi
- Mobile health clinic
- Food pantry
Nearly 9,000 people live in the Georgian Acres neighborhood, with 75% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino, per data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2020 Central Health Demographic Report. About 16% of residents live below the poverty line, and 45% of them are dependent on public transit.
Transit deserts are often found in migrant or non-white communities, as well as where there is a higher concentration of lower-income residents, Jiao said. By combining non-vehicular public transit options with access to Wi-Fi, food and medical resources, he added the program will help address the layers of inequity facing underserved populations.
“We all know working-class and low-income parts of Austin often get left behind,” Austin City Council member Greg Casar said in a statement. “That’s why investments like this are so important. We’re bringing transportation, free Wi-Fi, mobile health clinics, and a food pantry to a neighborhood that badly needs it. This is Austin taking a real step in the right direction.”
To help identify significant resource needs among Georgian Acres’ residents, UT Austin and the city partnered with local nonprofit Jail to Jobs to help assist with staffing the program.
Jail to Jobs will hire 3-5 clients to drive buses through the neighborhood as part of the project. The bus route will connect area residents to grocery stores and transit centers, further enhancing community members’ access to essential resources.
“I’m really excited about this, because it’s not just an opportunity to address transit problems,” said Chris Haskins, founder of Jail to Jobs. “But once you have the designated space be efficient enough, you can say ‘What else can we supply within there?’“
He said his nonprofit has had a continued presence in the Georgian Acres neighborhood for years, and added familiarity with residents and their specific needs is crucial to help guarantee a project’s success.
“What I think is so important about this is finding a local nonprofit that is already invested in the neighborhood, that knows the neighbors and really can understand anytime you’re trying to solve a problem, there can be tension with other neighbors,” he said. “So to have a group that’s already there, that’s already established working within that realm.”
While the mobility hub was just named a grant recipient this week, Haskins said this is hopefully just the start to future endeavors in other high need neighborhoods. The Georgian Acres project is expected to complete within the next year, Jiao added.
“We aim to use technology to solve the first and last-mile problem and remove the transit desert.”