AUSTIN (KXAN) — With new transportation investments coming down the pipeline, Austin transit leaders discussed Wednesday the future of transit, land use and density for residents throughout the city.
The Urban Land Institute hosted a panel Wednesday morning with representatives from the City of Austin, CapMetro and the Austin Transit Partnership. The key focus centered on how new forms of mobility play into Austin’s economic and population growth, as well as how transportation marries into land use and housing density.
A driving factor propelling Wednesday’s conversation forward was the City of Austin’s 2039 modal shift goal. Under that initiative, city leaders aim to only have 50% of residents reliant on single-occupancy vehicles to get around town. The rest of the residents would rely on multimodal transportation — buses, light rail, rideshares, carpooling, biking or walking to work.
Peter Mullan, executive vice president of architecture and urban design with Austin Transit Partnership, acknowledged the lofty nature of the goal.
“It’s ambitious, but it speaks to a culture shift in our community,” Mullan said.
A look at the first phase of light rail in Austin
Mullan is a member of Austin Transit Partnership’s core team delivering the city’s upcoming light rail system. He said the City of Austin will not be able to continually survive its rapid population growth if transit infrastructure doesn’t feature alternative mobility methods.
This shift toward expanded multi-modal mobility is more tangible in the city now following the unveiling and approval of Project Connect’s Phase 1 light rail plan in June. The now-approved initial investment features 9.8 miles of light rail running from 38th Street south to Oltorf Street and southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane, with 15 stations along the project route.
ATP officials anticipate the light rail route will service an average of 28,500 riders daily. Its sticker price is estimated to the tune of about $4.5 billion, per project documents.
As to whether the city will ever see a more robust, comprehensive light rail system akin to the likes of Chicago and Washington, D.C., Mullan said that is an expectation and a standard ATP officials are holding themselves to. Mullan added the measure of success and future expansions of the light rail system will come down to nailing that initial investment to help build an appetite for alternative forms of transit.
By building an initial system that’s easy to use and integrated into people’s daily work and personal routines, Mullan said that will help propel future investments forward.
“[Transit] doesn’t just move people,” he said. “It creates a sense of community.”
How Austin is planning for equitable transit development beyond light rail
Sharmila Mukherjee, CapMetro’s executive vice president of planning and development, said during the panel that creating a regulatory framework for equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD) is essential toward marrying the future light rail into existing transit forms.
While light rail is a key component of the Project Connect program, Mukherjee added it needs to integrate with existing bus rapid transit (BRT) routes, CapMetro Pickup services and other transit offerings since not everyone will be using the light rail for the entirety of their commute to and from key destinations.
Two Project Connect elements — the Pleasant Valley and Expo Center MetroRapid lines in development — will help support moving more people to and from these destinations, she said.
While city and transit leaders are at the forefront of these developments, officials cited private-public partnerships that could be an essential backbone of more mixed-use, transit-related development opportunities down the road.
Uptown ATX, in development between CapMetro and Brandywine Realty Trust, is an upcoming 66-acre site in north Austin that will consolidate workspaces, multi-family units, retail, hospitality services and CapMetro’s Broadmoor Station.
Officials Wednesday said it’s an example of a transit-centered mixed-use development that could be replicated in other parts of Austin.
Public transportation ridership levels in Austin
On the public transit front, Mukherjee said substantial improvements have been made since initial downturns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Daily ridership level across CapMetro’s system approaches 72,000 users, she said, adding the transit authority has recovered nearly 80% of its pre-COVID ridership levels with a 49% bump in new riders within the system.
With the upcoming Phase 1 light rail plan servicing areas with existing usage and appetites for public transit, she said this can play into the success of the light rail once built.
Changes to Austin’s parking minimums, single-family lot uses
Upal Barua, interim assistant director of the City of Austin’s Transportation and Public Works Department, referenced policy shifts at the city level that will support multi-modal mobility expansions down the road.
Austin City Council approved in May the removal of parking minimum requirements for all new developments. Barua said this move will help support density and the maximization of space usage citywide, while also encouraging alternative forms of transportation.
He said these changes will help remove load on the city’s street networks while amplifying efforts supporting that 2039 50/50 modal split initiative.
In late July, the Austin City Council approved the initiation of amendment changes to the city’s land development code that, if successfully amended, will create higher-density living in Austin neighborhoods.
The main goal of that amendment would be to decrease minimum lot size requirements for single-family homes from 5,750 square feet to 2,500 square feet. Proponents of the endeavor said this will allow smaller homes to be built, which, in turn, will be cheaper for middle-class homebuyers.
The move could also allow the subdivision of single-family lots to accommodate a variety of housing types, including row houses, townhomes and garden homes.
The conflation of land use, expanded density, along with transportation overhauls at the same time is something all three panelists said was critical to the future success of Austin. Mullan said it’s also about making up for lost time when these sorts of conversations were either not happening or kicked down the road.
He said it’s an opportunity to now take a holistic approach toward city building and to analyze how all three elements marry together.