Austin (KXAN) — Starting next week, the city of Austin will try out keeping a stretch of Rainey Street car-free, a city memo shows.
The program will start on December 5 and continue through March 8, 2020. Under the pilot program, the street will be blocked off to cars starting at 9 p.m. and continuing to 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. While cars will not be allowed in the area, people will still be able to walk, ride scooters, ride bikes, take pedicabs, or ride in electric low-speed vehicles through the closed section.
On the northern part of Rainey Street, people can load and unload out of cars from Driskill Street, along Rainey Street to Davis Street, and along Davis Street. The taxi zone will remain in front of Hotel Van Zandt, the city says.
On the southern portion of Rainey Street, under this pilot program, you can load and unload on the north curb of River Street east of Rainey Street as well as on the cub next to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
Austin Transportation will be leading this program and Austin Police will be implementing it. This is a pilot program, so the city plans to analyze the information they gather during this period to determine what works and what doesn’t.
What led to the program
City staff explained that the area around Rainey Street “has seen rapid growth in recent years, adding pressure to existing mobility infrastructure.”
So in early 2019, city staff launched a Rainey Street Mobility Study to look at how traffic and transportation could be improved.
A city spokesperson explained, “during the study, high pedestrian volumes were observed, with some points in time exceeding 80% of total traffic on the street. ” The study found that the window for the largest numbers of pedestrians started Thursday at around 8 p.m. and peaked each weekend Saturday at around 11:00 p.m.
Additionally, more than 7,000 pedestrians were counted on Rainey Street between 6:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. each Friday and Saturday during the study.
City staff said they determined 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.
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.
Potential public impacts
While Rainey Street is home to an entertainment district, it is also near where many people live.
Tom and Trecia Roberts have lived in the Towers of Town Lake for more than 26 years and say they’ve seen a great deal of change over that time.
“We have all of this traffic that is growing and growing and growing because of the density in the area,” said Tom Roberts, speaking to KXAN from East street, just a block away from the entertainment district. “Behind me, 50 stories are going up and just to my left, 32 stories are going up beside it.”
“We think it’s a horrible mistake, and we’ve been trying to tell the city council that since it first came up,” Tom Roberts said of the pilot program
He is the president of the Homeowners Association of the Towers of Town Lake and believes that his neighborhood already has experience with Rainey Street being shut down. Each year, the street is shut off to cars during South by Southwest. During SXSW, Roberts says he’s had to wait as long as thirty minutes just to exit out of his driveway because the traffic going around Rainey Street is so bad.
“We need to stop, take a breath and implement some basic fundamental things that will improve mobility in the area, will improve safety in the area, and will improve quality of life in the area for the residents who live here,” he said.
His wife Trecia Roberts, who has also been active with neighborhood groups on this issue, agreed.
“The city council seems to think that we are Sixth Street, and they continue to compare us to that,” Trecia Roberts said, referring to the way the City of Austin closes down parts of the Sixth Street entertainment district to vehicle traffic on weekend nights. “Sixth Street is closed down, but has no residents living in it, we have residents here.”
But others who like to go to Rainey Street feel there may be some benefits to eliminating cars.
Luke Vammen, who lives in Austin, said Rainey Street is a go-to place to bring out of town guests. He thinks the possibility of closing the street to cars could help make nighttime traffic there less hectic.
“We love it,” he said of the pilot program idea. “We’re all about safety and we don’t like people getting hit by cars, and if you shut down the street it creates more of an open party for everyone.”
Diana Vammen added that she hopes the city makes it easier during this pilot for people to find rideshare drivers near Rainey Street.
“It’s so confusing, when you are picking up a Lyft or an Uber on Rainey it’s impossible, you have to walk half a mile just to meet ’em,” she said.
Jacob Engling also enjoys going out to Rainey Street with friends, he thinks the pilot program has, “some benefits and also some cons.”
He thinks the program could perhaps help reduce the risk of people getting injured by cars while out on Rainey Street.
“Sometimes you see people running across and it gets dangerous,” Engling said.
As the city continues this pilot, he hopes they strategize ways to make it easier to get to Rainey Street and find a ride out when you’re ready to leave.