Here we go again.
Austin recently released its 81-page corridor study of Guadalupe Street near the University of Texas recommending (as a 2016 draft had presaged) that two of the street’s four lanes be reserved for buses and that parking along the Drag be deep-sixed to make room for an added bike lane and wider sidewalks.
The report also — in a surprise, because it didn’t seem to be within the report’s scope — advocated reducing West 24th Street from four to three lanes from Guadalupe to North Lamar Boulevard, replacing that lost lane with an eastbound bike lane.
Total project cost: $33.7 million, potentially to come from the “corridor” portion of the $720 million transportation bond Austin voters approved a year ago.
The debate in the article’s comment section and on social media — Gov. Greg Abbott even chimed in — immediately broke into refrains utterly familiar to anyone who has lived in Austin for a while: Motorists rapping Austin transportation policies as loony anti-car fantasia, and bike/transit supporters trashing gas-drunk Luddites who cling to their steering wheels like pacifiers.
Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong.
Here are some things I believe:
• Reducing the number of lanes available to cars really does add to traffic congestion. The report, on page 52, says as much. The engineers’ A-F rating for all nine intersections on Guadalupe from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to West 29th Street would get worse under the proposed change, it says, with added rush-hour delays at each varying from a few seconds to half a minute or more.
• Buses could move through the corridor faster than they do now with all the cars out of the right-hand lanes, as the report proposes.
• Faster buses likely would mean more transit riders. Would it be an additional 218,000 boardings a year in the Guadalupe corridor, as the report suggests (based on a Capital Metro 2016 estimate)? The study’s authors’ guesswork is no doubt better than mine. But it’s still guesswork.
• Capital Metro’s ridership (and, indeed, the boardings for transit agencies across the country) have been falling in the past few years due to low gas prices, ride-hailing services and skyrocketing property values in neighborhoods formerly peopled by regular transit users. And the agency’s ridership predictions have been notably unreliable and, usually, overly optimistic.
• The UT area is pedestrian-and-bike country, far more than the rest of the city. Anyone who attended the university (as I did, long ago) or passes through that area from time to time knows this to be the case. Students, many of whom live in the West Campus area within a quarter-mile of the UT Tower, walk and bike a lot. An astounding 7,500 pedestrians cross the Drag each weekday during the afternoon commuting period, the report says.
• But the changes in the report would apply all the time, even when most of the students and staff are gone on holiday breaks and in the summer.
• Having fewer cars on Guadalupe would be safer for all those walkers and cyclists.
• There are increasingly fewer ways for people driving cars to get into and out of downtown. Taking two lanes out of the mix for cars will make this worse.
• The people who might have driven Guadalupe with two lanes in each direction, but wouldn’t with just one each way, would increase traffic on alternative routes such as North Lamar Boulevard, Red River Street, Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard. This collateral effect likely would extend to small neighborhood streets in West and East Austin as well.
• Having a continuous, protected bike lane on Guadalupe in each direction through this mile-long stretch would persuade some current drivers to cycle instead. But the number would not be large, and it certainly wouldn’t be comparable to the 400 to 500 cars per hour in each lane during peak commute times.
• The Nueces Street alternative suggested in the report (making it two-way between West 24th and West 29th streets) would attract very few motorists to this thin, densely populated street because of poor access to it from the north and the south.
• On the one hand, Austin ultimately doesn’t have the room to build enough added vehicle lanes to accommodate our growing population. And “induced demand” — the concept that added lanes draw more drivers — is a real thing.
• On the other hand, removing existing lanes often exacerbates the existing traffic congestion because there is not a one-for-one conversion of drivers to alternative modes when a vehicle lane disappears.
• Austin’s less-than-comprehensive bus network and sole train line are not sufficient to persuade more than a single-digit percentage of people (many of them with no choice financially) to use mass transit.
• Significantly improving the transit system is impossible at this point because Capital Metro is maxed out on its 1 percent sales tax, and the Legislature has shown no appetite for spending state money on mass transit or giving local government more tax options to do so.
• But the Legislature, and Texas voters, did choose in 2014 and 2015 to reallocate more than $4 billion a year in existing taxes for highway building.
• Cars pollute, while bikes and walking don’t. But this problem is diminishing as cars get better mileage, and it could become less significant as people convert to hybrids or even electric vehicles over time.
• Buses also pollute, especially in comparison with cars when a bus is carrying very few passengers. And a bus system that runs 16 hours a day or more will have quite a few runs with mostly empty buses (at midday or when a bus is “dead-heading” in the noncommute direction during rush hours). Technology could improve this situation.
• Only a small percent of Austinites will ever choose to commute regularly by bicycle because of the enormous distance from their homes to work, their age or health, Austin heat and lack of shower facilities at work, their family situation, or the need for storage space in the vehicle.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
I purposely threw those at you in random order, with those buttressing one side of the argument intermixed with those that speak to the other side’s merits. The point is, neither position has a monopoly on the truth.
The problem for policymakers, though, is that when they are presented with a particular proposed venture, they have a stark choice: Do it or don’t do it. And that is true whether the subject is this Guadalupe report with its lane closures, bike lanes and lost parking, or adding toll lanes to I-35.
The key quote in the American-Statesman story on the Guadalupe report came from a city engineer, Lee Austin, who said, in part, “Austin as a whole has a made a decision that we don’t want to prioritize giant, multilane roads.”