Density is a tool; Access is the goal

I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Jarrett Walker, a highly-regarded transportation consultant who has worked on, most recently, Houston’s reimagined bus network.  Walker makes the good point that ultimately, transit is in the business not just of laying X miles of rail tracks, or even moving people Z miles, but of providing people freedom to access the places they need and want to go: work, school, church, restaurants, stores, parks, etc.

Access here is the stuff of life. Can I get to that job interview on time? Can I get home from work in time to see a movie? Can I meet my friends for dinner? Does this okcupid match live close enough to make dating possible? When my daughter asks to play on the traveling soccer team, can she get to practice?

The context of Walker’s talk is public transportation network design. But access is just as much an issue in land use–what buildings, parks, roads, etc get built where. Whether you’re driving, riding, walking, biking, ubering, or whatever, the basic fact is that you can reach more destinations in the same amount of time when those destinations are close together. And more destinations means more opportunities–whether that’s opportunities to work, to learn, to shop, or to meet people. This was the basic lesson I took from living my own life in different parts of Boston.

This shouldn’t be a complicated or counterintuitive concept. Even with a car, traveling from one end of Austin to another is already quite a daunting trip to make more than occasionally. The more people Austin gets, the more destinations there will be–economic, cultural, or otherwise. But the more we spread out, the less access new and old residents will have to each other and to the destinations we create. We are foreclosing options by where we build.

This isn’t to say that density is the only ingredient necessary for access. There’s plenty of ways to build density that doesn’t afford much access. You can arrange your streets so that, even though two places are near each other, the path you must take to get between them is far. You can enforce a strong separation of complementary uses (homes here, shopping there, offices over there), so that, even though there are a lot of people near you, you have to go far in order to go to work or get Indian takeout. You can place density mostly on corridors, rather than in a grid, so that people must traverse the whole length to have access. This is why you often see the same people who argue for more homes in central Austin also fighting for removing gates from streets or allowing restaurants on 45th St. The connection is about removing barriers to access.

I don’t blame anybody for watching city debates and thinking that they’re mostly about abstract concepts they don’t identify with–sidewall articulations, dwelling units per acre, floor area ratio, headways, lane allocation. These are important parts of implementation. But at the heart of the matter is whether we as a city can make room so that everybody has a chance to participate in meeting new people, building a career, finding love, getting an education, seeing great music, and whatever else we want to do. The more distance we put between ourselves, the fewer opportunities we have.

Density is a tool; Access is the goal

From 300 to 100,000: Making Transit Oriented Development Normal

The Burnet Road rezoning case I’ve been following (1, 2) is over. City Council voted not only to approve the apartments, but passed Greg Casar’s proposal to increase the number of allowed apartments from 225 to 300. The developer correspondingly upped his pledge to 45 rent-reduced units and committed to a certain number of those having 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms.

This is great, because 300 households will soon have the option of living in nice, new homes right along one of the city’s prime bus lines (the 3/803). But 300 might not be enough to handle the people moving here in a week, let alone a month or a year or burning off the backlog of people who already live in Austin, but want to live more central. In his state of the city, Mayor Adler set a target of 100,000 new units over 10 years. I don’t know if that’s enough! In the end, we as a city should set our goals based on vacancy rates, rents, and home prices, not arbitrary round-number targets. But we already know that we have to build a lot of new homes in central Austin. I’ll use the notional “100,000” though to mean “enough units to reach price stability.”

So, how do we get to 100,000?  No one idea is going to be enough. Brennan Griffin has kicked off the discussion with a list of things already getting built in Austin’s core: downtown, Mueller, VMU, ADUs.  I’d throw in UNO as well. But today, I’ll focus on one option to get us further: making transit-oriented development normal.

Transit Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development is just a name for homes and offices and other places designed for people to get to without cars. Of course, it should be near good transit (whether buses or trains or streetcars or whatever). It should also have fewer amenities oriented around cars, like parking spots, and instead have amenities oriented around walking, like a front door you can take onto the sidewalk without traipsing through parked cars.

Austin has three plans for TOD, centered around the Crestview, MLK, and Plaza Saltillo MetroRail stations. These TOD districts are a kind of small-batch, artisanal zoning district, crafted painstakingly over the course of years, for small groups of customers to truly love. As it says on Page 97 of the Plaza Saltillo Station Area Plan:

Planning for the TOD Districts has been a lengthy and complex process. It has involved numerous stakeholder groups, including the City, private developers, and affordable housing advocates. DMA’s recommendations are the result of careful consideration of all interested parties with an eye toward the creation of a vibrant, diverse, and affordable community.

Detailed Glazing Rules
The Plaza Saltillo regulating plan has extraordinarily detailed design requirements hand-crafted by specialist consensus-builders to meet the specific needs of a relatively tiny area of the city.

However well you think these plans have accomplished their goals within their borders, they just don’t add up to much. Austin as a whole is getting less affordable, less diverse, and in many ways less vibrant. Most of Austin’s growth is in traffic-oriented subdivisions along the edge. We are a city with more than 800,000 residents, gaining more new residents than almost any city in the United States, convening stakeholder processes with dozens of people planning a couple hundred homes for years. It just doesn’t scale up.

Map of 801 + 803 bus stops
Frequent bus service already covers a lot of the city. Imagine a 10-minute walk radius around each of these stops.

Meanwhile, in many areas that are pretty good for living without a car (far better than MLK station), we have to fight tooth and nail for every new transit-friendly home! Build a side house in West Campus? Not without car parking, you don’t! We need to pull some of the simplest elements for TOD out of the realm of the exotic, craft-zoned district and into the realm of the ordinary. People who want transit-oriented development shouldn’t be limited to tiny patches of the city, each with their own special rules. Ordinary home-builders should be able to follow  standard, city-wide design documents and end up with transit-friendly homes in transit-friendly places all over.

I have no issue if the city wants to keep experimenting with extensive transit-oriented regulations in small places, but in order to see real, sizable effects, we need to update the code in general to be more transit-friendly. I’m not going to get deep into the weeds, but the basic ideas aren’t complicated and could be implemented immediately: anywhere within a 10-minute walk of a good transit line is “transit-friendly.”  In a transit-friendly area, you should be allowed to build transit-friendly homes without expensive car amenities.  You should tweak our density-limiting code in these areas so that you can build more homes close to the transit stops–distance matters a lot when you’re walking to your bus stop. Perhaps also make these areas more mixed-use, whether in the same building (vertical) or on the same street (horizontal), to provide more destinations for people to walk to. We must not worry so much about making each new transit-oriented area have the perfect feature set if it means years of delays on the most important feature: existence.

Because these transit-friendly buildings will be built spread out around the city, wherever there’s decent transit, rather than clustered in a single area, they may go pretty much unremarked. They won’t fix all the problems of a city code built up for decades around the paradigm of a-chicken-in-every-pot, a-car-in-every-garage. But to build a more affordable city with more transit-friendly options we need to make “affordable” and “transit-friendly” simple, ordinary, and widespread, and iterate from there.

From 300 to 100,000: Making Transit Oriented Development Normal

Planning Commission Fiddles While Austin Rents Burn

Austin’s new City Council members were elected on a platform of affordability. In a recent zoning case, the majority have turned to the straightforward, economically literate explanation for why our central city prices are burning so hot: too many people want to live in not enough homes (1 2). But Planning Commission, made up of citizens appointed by the previous Council, hasn’t gotten the message.
Continue reading “Planning Commission Fiddles While Austin Rents Burn”

Planning Commission Fiddles While Austin Rents Burn

3 types of affordable housing in Burnet / Rockwood debate

I’ve previously discussed the difference between two kinds of affordable housing: the mandatory kind (means-tested, reduced rent programs) and the market kind (housing that is inexpensive on the open market). In the Burnet / Rockwood case (history: 1, 2), however, there were really three concepts of affordable housing under discussion: lowering market rents, providing selective rent reductions, and providing deeply affordable housing for the very poor.

Continue reading “3 types of affordable housing in Burnet / Rockwood debate”

3 types of affordable housing in Burnet / Rockwood debate

Councilmembers’ approach to zoning, in their own words, part 2

Last month, City Council took up one of their first large zoning cases, a proposed apartment complex near Burnet Road. Many of them used the opportunity to expound not only on the case in question, but some of the principles behind their decision, and I duly blogged those takes. Zoning changes require 3 “readings” (i.e. 3 different votes). If there’s no disagreement, all 3 readings can happen on the same night. But in this case, there was disagreement, so they only passed the vote “on first reading,” and this last Thursday, revisited it. If you’re interested in the background and outcome of the decision, check out Liz Pagano’s take in the Austin Monitor. Me, though? I’m interested in hearing what the Council Members had to say about their approach to zoning.

District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo

Gallo here notes that the majority of Austin rents, neighborhood associations don’t always do a good job representing them, and it’s the responsibility of City Council to look out for all residents, not just the organized ones. Readers of this blog will be familiar with both the renting and neighborhood association ideas.

Here, Gallo gives her opinion that the reason why rents have risen in Austin is an imbalance of supply and demand, and suggests more housing supply is needed to stop price increases. This, again, is familiar territory on this blog.

District 3 Council Member Pio Rentería

CM Rentería, similar to CM Gallo, believes that raising supply will stabilize prices.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar

Casar offers a number of ideas here. First, he discusses a “filtering up” mechanism, where, if new housing doesn’t get built, old (or “vintage”) housing can become more expensive, giving as an example housing his brother lives in in Los Angeles.

Another two ideas that Casar argues for are that: 1) building housing is in and of itself, a “community benefit.” 2) There is an additional “economic integration” community benefit to having some portion of that housing be mandated Affordable Housing.  Neither of these ideas are new to council. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear both of them in the same speech. Frequently, the “economic integration” argument appears on the side of somebody arguing against denser zoning. In this case, though, Casar appeared to be arguing for greater density as a mechanism for making more Affordable Housing economically viable for the developer.

Mayor Steve Adler

I publish this not because Adler offered much background on his approach to zoning here, but because of the previous rarity of seeing a Council Member ask a developer to consider greater density on a site.  (Sorry, I accidentally cut the video short; the developer said yes, he would consider it.)

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza

Garza offers two items of note: 1) delays in the development process add to the costs of housing, and 2) Austin is a high-demand city, and when there isn’t enough housing supply in richer areas, this adds to gentrification pressures in poorer areas.

District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair

Troxclair offers a bit of a procedural take, arguing that Council’s way of using zoning as a negotiation tool encourages parties to take extremist positions. She appears to have misspoke when she said she couldn’t support MF6; she voted, as she did in the previous reading, for the higher-density MF6 and against the lower-density zoning.

The Developer

Finally, we hear from the applicant, C.J. Sackman, the developer of the project. I’m including this testimony not because his views will have lasting impact on the Council the way that Council Members’ do, but because they’re broadly representative of developers’ views.

The Rest

CM Pool (District 7), CM Kitchen (District 5), and CM Houston (District 1) emphasized that, because there was disagreement between a neighborhood association objecting to the project and the developer and because the two hadn’t fully negotiated, they wanted to pass a lower zoning category on 2nd reading only, to pressure the two sides to negotiate. CM Zimmerman (District 6) thought there had been enough testimony, and moved for the decision to be made for the higher zoning category on 3rd reading. Mayor Pro Tem Tovo (District 9) voted with Pool, Kitchen, and Houston.  In her testimony, Tovo focused on whether the developer could have provided steeper discounts on the Affordable Housing apartments, to target a poorer population.

Councilmembers’ approach to zoning, in their own words, part 2

Real-time bus data can improve effective frequencies

In February, Capital Metro expanded the reach of real-time bus data from the 801 and 803 routes to the entire fleet. There have been a few pieces about the promise of real-time data: the piece of mind of knowing your bus is actually on its way, the ability to save wait time by only heading out to your stop at the last minute, the promise of real-time data to evaluate system performance. I’d like to add one more: improving practical frequencies.

As long-time readers know, one of my pet peeves is buses that run in the same direction, but pick up at slightly different locations. Two bus routes that each run 2x / hour and run together for some length could become one combined route running 4x / hour along that length if they picked up at the same location. In Austin, this is the case for the central transit corridor from downtown to UT / West Campus along the 1/3/5/19/801/803 bus routes.

Downtown, the problem I complained about in the linked piece has been resolved; almost all north-south bus routes through downtown are now running on the Guadalupe / Lavaca transit priority lanes. However, during SXSW, as I stayed in a short-term rental in between South Congress and South 1st, I had a less extreme version of the same effect. My location was halfway between the South 1st corridor, where the #10 bus ran and the South Congress corridor, where the #1 and #801 buses ran. In the pre-real-time data days, this would have meant that I would have had to choose between waiting for the 10, waiting for the 1, or waiting for the 801, all of which pick up at different stops.

With real-time data, I could just look at my free Transit app and see which bus was approaching next:

Transit App Screenshot
Transit App Screenshot

During morning rush hour from my rental to downtown, there were five buses per hour on the 801, two buses per hour on the 10, and two buses per hour on the 1. Prior to real time data, that equals five buses per hour, as I would have had to choose which stop I was going to wait at and would’ve chosen the one with the most buses. With the advent of real-time data, that equaled 9 buses per hour, as I could choose which stop actually had the next arriving bus. Obviously, this only applies in some locations. But where it does, it’s a major improvement!

Real-time bus data can improve effective frequencies

What Compact and Connected Means to Me

On March 23, I presented at the CNU Central Texas City Matters 20×20 panel on the subject of “Compact and Connected” and what that means to me. The format of the presentation called for a ton of pictures. This post is adapted from my presentation. Thanks to the great team at CNU for prompting me and pushing me to put this together.

To me, Compact and Connected means independence and an opportunity for personal growth. I’m rare in Austin as somebody who is eligible for a driver’s license but doesn’t have one. This is the story of how that came to be, and how much the places we live affect who we are.

I grew up in Newton, MA, a gorgeous but expensive Western suburb of Boston. My house, an 1890 Victorian, would fly through the historic landmark commission in Austin, but was typical of the city block I lived on. The place had many of the amenities that school-aged parents wanted: good schools, large lots with green lawns (9600sf), an acclaimed public library, and easy freeway access to downtown Boston.

My childhood home
My childhood home, c/o Google Maps.

Although all of our parents had moved there for the schools, to myself and my 15-year old friends, we as children were frequently bored. The first thing we wanted to do when we were old enough was get a driver’s license. To us, a driver’s license meant freedom. Freedom to see our friends on our own schedule, to go to restaurants, to go to parks, to go into Harvard Square and listen to street musicians. Freedom to explore our world.

For me, though, it was not meant to be. About the time I’d be going for my learner’s permit, I became ill. That meant two dramatic things that made a profound impact on my life for decades to come: 1) I was unable to learn to drive, and 2) I missed too much school to graduate in four years, and took a fifth year doing an alternative learn-from-home program.

During that fifth year, I felt the sense of deep isolation that car-oriented cities create. Newton was built centuries before the automobile, but the last trolley lines had been torn out decades before I was born and the city had been remade over the decades to accommodate cars. It would take me 3 hours to walk to one of my closest friends’ house and back.

Waaay too long walk to close friend and high school classmate's house.
Waaay too long walk to close friend and high school classmate’s house.

The closest grocery store was 35 minutes there and a lot longer than that walking back carrying groceries.

35+ minute walk to conventional grocery store.
35+ minute walk to conventional grocery store.

That acclaimed public library was 45 minute walk. The only commercial cluster near me didn’t offer much (pizza and a convenience store is all I remember) and closed early. Despite living in what truly was one of the most desired places in Boston, I literally couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t see old friends or make new ones, find any sort of job, or continue my education without being 100% dependent on my parents and their cars.

So, about two weeks after I graduated high school, I moved into the compact, connected community of North Cambridge. What do I mean by compact and connected? Compact: Instead of living in my parents’ 3,100sf home, I lived in a 500 sf studio apartment in a modest 24-unit corner complex.

The first apartment building I lived in.
The first apartment building I lived in.

What do I mean by compact? The houses along my new street were closer together, and multiple families shared a single house.

Houses neighboring my apartment building
Multifamily houses neighboring my apartment building.

And just as the distance between people’s homes was more compact, so too were the distances between my home and the places I needed to be. There was a grocery store 10 minutes walk from me.

10 minute walk to conventional grocery store.
10 minute walk to conventional grocery store.

There was a smaller grocery store with high-quality produce literally across the street.

Farm and Garden Center across Massachusetts Ave from my apartment building.
Farm and Garden Center across Massachusetts Ave from my apartment building.

While the public library was a bit more “compact” than Newton’s, it was literally 500 feet from my home, and I would stop by sometimes multiple times in a day.

463' walk to Cambridge branch public library.
463′ walk to Cambridge branch public library.

So, for me, compact meant the independence to be able to feed myself, take care of myself, and get an education. So, you might be asking, how does this apply to everybody else?  Not everybody finds themselves in a situation where they can’t drive. For them, does it matter whether you can get somewhere in 10 minutes on foot vs. 10 minutes in a car? If you drive, you already have the independence to take care of basic needs, even car-oriented places like Newton.

That’s where connected comes in! Newton and North Cambridge were both on public transportation routes. Here is a visual of places I could quickly reach on public transportation from my homes:

Area I could quickly travel on public transportation in Newton vs Cambridge.
Area I could quickly travel on public transportation in Newton vs Cambridge.

Cambridge’s density allowed for more frequent, better public transportation, that had a geographically broader reach than that in Newton. But that’s only a tiny portion of the story. Because Cambridge was built densely, with things closer together, that geographical reach translated into way more destinations. Here, for example, are the restaurants nearby each of my homes:

Restaurants nearby in Newton vs Cambridge
Restaurants nearby in Newton vs Cambridge

Note not only how many more there are in Cambridge, but the variety. By moving to Cambridge, I exposed myself to Tibetan, Bengali, and Nepalese food, to a little Japanese-oriented mall, and to specialty book stores. I got heavily involved in local political movements of all flavors, and heard dozens of languages spoken on the street. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to take night classes in Computer Science at a local college and find a starter job in the tech industry, without which I wouldn’t be employed as a computer programmer today.

I’m no longer the isolated kid I was, and I’m sure I could make a fine life for myself in the suburbs. But, for me, compact will always means independence, and connected will mean personal growth and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What Compact and Connected Means to Me