Wear: Area transportation shifts over 15 years cover lot of new ground

June 29, 2018
Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear holds a quarter — unneeded to travel on all-electronic toll lanes — as he drives on the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) toll lane after its opening on Oct. 15, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The more things change with Central Texas transportation … well, the more they change.

Come August, I will have been on the Statesman transportation beat for 15 years. No term limits, not here. And while some things have stayed more or less the same — the combined state and federal gas tax has never moved from 38.4 cents a gallon, for instance, and Interstate 35 traffic pretty much stays snarled — just about everything else is different.

And by different, I don’t mean more or less of this or that thing, such as more miles of highway or fewer Capital Metro passengers (though both are actual developments). I mean that the fundamental elements of how we get around have undergone radical and continuous change. Job security for me — so far, at least — but also an interesting evolution.

A look at those changes, in the order of my (subjective) ranking of their impact.

Tolls. In 2003, when I started writing about this stuff, the closest toll road to the Capitol was in Northwest Houston, and the state had just five such roads. Many people in Central Texas had never paid to drive on a road, or perhaps had done so only a few times. And those toll trips probably included waiting in line at toll booths and dropping actual metal coins into a wire basket, rather than the no-stop-necessary toll tags and video tolling we have now. No one knew what might happen when the three Austin tollways under construction at that time opened.

Would most people boycott them? At that point, there were several tollways around the country, and one near Laredo, that were financial failures.

Central Texas’ ever-expanding system of tollways.

Now we have nine tollways in Greater Austin alone (and two more under construction) and dozens statewide. The last time I inquired, almost a million vehicles in Central Texas had electronic toll tags. And only one of those nine tollways, the rural part of Texas 130 from Mustang Ridge to Seguin, is struggling financially. Central Texans are willing, it turns out, to pay for roads in exchange for lanes that flow.

Ride-hailing. For more than a hundred years, people who wanted to get somewhere in a hired vehicle basically had a one-word vocabulary: taxi. The rates were fixed, the response times were sometimes slow, and the cab interior was somewhere between drab and shabby. Was the driver friendly? Maybe, maybe not.

Then, starting less than a decade ago, some tech folks decided there might be a better and potentially lucrative other way. Persuade regular Joes and Janes to supply the vehicle, the gas and the driving, connect them to customers with an app and then split the proceeds. Radical. And a direct threat to the taxi industry and the city governments that regulated them tightly.

First Lyft, and then days later Uber, showed up in Austin in June 2014, with little warning and no permission from city officials. Civic chaos ensued (and continues elsewhere, including in London, where a crackdown on Uber is occurring). Here in 2018, it remains far from clear if Uber or Lyft, heavily capitalized, or such smaller competitors as RideAustin, will ever break even.

But customers have bought in completely, so much so that it is unclear whether the taxi industry will survive. Austin this week tried to throw a lifeline to its four cab franchises, essentially freeing them to operate much like ride-hailing companies.

Bikes. Austin had few bike lanes when I came on the beat, and those that had been painted on streets were controversial with drivers. The concept of taking away asphalt from cars and trucks in an increasingly congested city and handing it to what appeared to be a tiny corps of serious bikers was ludicrous to many people.

But the city stuck to its principles on bikes and then doubled and tripled down. Bike lanes are everywhere now, many of them protected from drivers with pylons or medians, and there are more and more off-street trails. We have a multimillion-dollar bike and pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek. And the local toll authority made it a policy to construct concrete “shared-use paths” alongside its newly built turnpikes.

Back in 2003, the only bikes around were those that people owned, other than a few brick-and-mortar-based rentals and the sparse “yellow bikes” repaired by a nonprofit and released into the wild for anyone to use. Then the city got behind a nonprofit bike rental company, B-Cycle, which now has about 600 bicycles on the streets. And in the past couple of months, Austin has been inundated with “dockless” rental bikes and scooters. These days, the yellow bikes are from Ofo, and they cost $1 for the first half-hour.

Bikes, and the city’s spending on bike facilities, still irritate some cranky people, but their numbers are shrinking.

Rail. Austin didn’t decide to have passenger rail until a 2004 election, and it took until 2010 to open MetroRail. Usage is still light, in the larger scheme of transportation here, with fewer than 3,000 boardings a day, and voters said no to light rail in 2014. It remains unclear when or if Capital Metro and the city will make another run at more rail.

The cheaper approach to mass transit — electric buses, possibly even driverless ones, running on dedicated transit lanes — could be what officials opt for instead. MetroRail may be it, in other words, but that’s 32 miles more of rail than we had in 2003.

And so much more. Roundabouts are no longer just a weird European thing, with several of them scattered about Austin. Autonomous vehicles in test modes have already spent some time here, and Capital Metro this week moved to launch self-driving shuttles in downtown Austin by the end of the year. Street parking, at the city of Austin’s behest, has been shrinking steadily over the past decade, even as the use of meters (coinless, in most cases) has expanded from downtown to formerly free-to-park streets.

We’ve had our first transit-priority lanes (bus-only, except for turns) for a few years now on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, and more are coming. The city installed several hundred back-in angle parking spaces on South Congress Avenue and a few other streets, forcing us all to learn another skill, then appeared to cool on the idea. The Texas Department of Transportation, which gets billions of dollars annually now from sales taxes and energy taxes, has decided we can all drive faster, introducing 75 mph and 80 mph roads in several places, and even allowing 85 on that southern piece of Texas 130.

Fifteen years from now? The gas tax replaced by a vehicle-mile tax. Electric, autonomous cars, and charging stations everywhere. No Capital Metro or perhaps a much bigger Capital Metro. Maybe big drones carrying people rather than just tiny cameras.

And, who knows, a system of gondolas. The kind that requires an oar.