Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley is the most important center of US technology development. Its cluster of tech workers, financiers, and services are light years ahead. There was no special natural resource that made Silicon Valley the only place for a tech boom, but once it got started, Silicon Valley built a strong First Mover Advantage–any place that wants to compete has to not only duplicate Silicon Valley’s ecosystem, but it has to do it in a world where Silicon Valley is already here. Silicon Valley also has strong network effects–each new techie that moves to Silicon Valley makes it an even more attractive place to build a company, which makes it a more attractive place for techies to move, which…

But in tech, there’s sometimes a Second Mover advantage. New companies can learn to navigate around the market leaders’ failures and steer straight for the successes. Big companies can get sclerotic and bureaucratic, unable to appreciate the problems they have or unable to fix them even if they know. Success breeds complacency–famously, Microsoft struggled after its employees became millionaires by virtue of owning stock options at the right place and the right time. Company culture becomes backward looking, focused on preserving the successes of today, rather than building toward tomorrow.

Silicon Valley’s Achilles Heel is Terrible public policy

To many residents of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, the dangers of being First Mover are very familiar–not from their workplaces, but their local politics.

  • The bureaucratic ordeal in getting a new software development project started at a large company is legendary, but pales in comparison to getting a land development project off the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • Silicon Valley and San Francisco have their own versions of Microsoft Millionaires: Housing Millionaires. Folks who had the good fortune to own a house in San Francisco years ago and became lucky as their asset skyrocketed in value. Many of these folks have, understandably, become less concerned with making San Francisco a place where a new generation can make their fortune and more interested in protecting what they have.
  • Despite (or perhaps because of) its reputation for innovation, San Francisco’s local politics is dominated more by discussions of the past than the future. Like a company that refuses to release new products out of fear of harming their current cash cow, the city has become extraordinarily conservative in its approach to new development. New developments must first prove that they will harm no existing residents in any way, rather than merely proving they will provide a benefit to new residents.

The results are catastrophic: San Francisco and Silicon Valley are failing at one of the core competencies of any city: providing housing. Tech workers spend enormous fractions of their income to live in poorly maintained homes in the Mission, while those outside tech frequently live far outside the city and commute long distances on congested roads. New housing for tech workers is protested as are buses to transport workers from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley. The city and the region understand that they are in an intractable mess of antagonistic politics, but still cannot do anything to extricate itself. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are ripe for disruption.

Housing could be Austin’s Killer App

Building the best product isn’t enough to compete with a network effect. If it were, a few more of us might be using Google Plus or Google Wave today. The new product or platform has to be close to comparable in the current feature set and, crucially, it has to have a Killer App that makes people not just like it, but want it and need it. For Austin and our platform of functional public policy, the Killer App can be walkable, bikable, transit-accessible, relatively affordable housing.

While the construction technology for building housing at low-cost is not something new, the political technology of a functioning municipal governance platform that facilitates its creation through times of poverty and times of prosperity is something that the United States as a whole lacks. In addition, improving on current governance and providing housing to meet demand would be a difficult act to match. There are few cities outside Silicon Valley that have the right ingredients of a startup economy as well established as Austin does. All of them have had housing cost problems for far longer than Austin has had, yet none of them have adequately addressed the issue.

Tech needs long-term, Quality Public Policy Engagement

How can the technology community in Austin help with local governance? For starters, the community needs to engage with public policy at a much deeper level than it has to date. Politics is not a company to buy or a video game to win. Sometimes throwing money into politics without understanding things hurts your position more than helps. The companies and communities that have a lasting impact on politics don’t just show up when there’s an issue that directly affects them. They develop deep relationships so that when issues affect them, they understand how their proposals will affect others in the community and vice versa.

Technology companies need a supportive environment around them to succeed–angel and venture for funding, consultants to help navigate situations other companies have seen before, IP lawyers, board members, complementary companies. A good company takes advantage of all the resources they have available to them. The same is true of a smart participant in public policy. The most effective ones don’t go it alone; they have an ecosystem of allies and advocates, consultants and collaborators whose advice they listen to and cherish.

This is important for anybody who wants to participate in politics, but it’s especially important for tech. Tech, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, does not share a background with everybody in the community. The common experiences that bring tech people together can divide us from everybody else. A company that lets its programmers do design will end up with an interface designed for programmers but clunky for everybody else. When the tech community designs its own political messaging, we end up with arguments, imagery, and optics that look good in the board room and clunky–or even offensive–to everybody else.

Learn to Listen and Not Just Lecture

When Uber and Lyft decided on putting their case to the Austin voters, they did not lack for a voice. They brought more money to the campaign than the city has ever seen spent in a race. In a campaign that will be studied for years, voters received dozens of pieces of direct mail, text messages, app alerts, and in-person messaging. Uber and Lyft did not have trouble getting heard. Indeed, many people reported having heard so much from Uber and Lyft that it got in the way of their ordinary life, soured them on Uber and Lyft’s message, and fed into the narrative Uber’s opponents campaigned on (Uber as corporate bully).

While Uber’s money succeeded perhaps too well at getting its voice heard, Uber failed at some of the basics of campaigning. Despite a large number of people and organizations that supported their cause in general, they failed to build a coalition working for them. Many of their allies dropped out of official events and organizations while others failed to rally an effort. For those familiar with the campaign, this wasn’t a surprise; Uber as a company didn’t come to this campaign with any willingness to listen to allies and understand what they wanted and needed out of a campaign.

For those who have been involved in tech, the listening deficit shouldn’t be surprising. The mythos of technology startups says that visionary founders and young startups are a special breed of people able to see what the broader society cannot. But building effective political coalitions is very different from building technology startups. If the technology community wants to participate effectively in local politics, it must bring the skills appropriate to the problem.

Not Every Problem can be solved by tech

Technology can be applied to any problem. Sometimes in the technology world, this gets combined with a frustration about the difficulty of involvement in public policy, and comes out as “every problem can be solved by technology.”

There are numerous housing technologies today being developed to improve construction techniques, from cross-laminated timber to prefabricated apartment blocks. But the technologies to resolve San Francisco’s housing crisis were developed in the early 20th century and before. The reasons that San Francisco and the Bay Area lack the housing supply to accommodate the people who want to work there is definitely not because the area lacks the technical know-how to construct housing. Developing new

technologies can reduce costs, but it cannot create new housing when the purpose of the regulations that prevent new housing is precisely to prevent housing. There is no technology short-circuit to public policy engagement.

How to get involved

Where to? The biggest effort to reform Austin’s public policy right now is CodeNEXT, a rewrite of the extensive set of rules governing everything from the height of buildings to which streets can be used for offices and which streets for homes–a reform with the potential to shape Austin’s competitiveness for decades to come.

The author has worked in technology for 15 years and engaged with Austin politics for a few.

Austin’s Killer App: How Austin Tech Can Compete with Silicon Valley

3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates

Every form of transportation has some unique considerations. Car drivers worry a great deal about parking near their destination–a consideration bus riders don’t need to think about. But, as transit consultant Jarrett Walker has written about, some considerations are universal. As Uber and Lyft have added carpool services, some people have noted that they can learn from traditional transit:

But what lessons go in the opposite direction? What can transit learn from Uber?  Continue reading “3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates”

3 lessons for buses, from Uber, illustrated by presidential candidates

8 reasons to End West Campus Minimum Parking Rules

In West Campus, as in all of Austin outside downtown, there are rules that require new homes and shops to build new parking spaces. Minimum parking rules don’t make a lot of sense for the city in general but make even less sense in West Campus. Here’s 8 reasons those rules should be repealed:

1. Most west campus residents walk, bike, or bus to campus

Grad students in 78705 and their primary means of commuting.
Grad students in 78705 and their primary means of commuting.

Austin is car-centric. But in the last 10 years since we have allowed dense, mixed-use buildings in West Campus, it has become the shining exception. Only 9% of grad students living in West Campus use their cars as their primary means of commuting!


2. land used for cars is land that can’t be used for homes

Obvious but needs to be said! Tons of students wish they could live in West Campus and walk to school. Many of them end up living much further from campus. If we took the land that’s currently being dedicated to long-term parking and freed it up for more apartments, more students could live in West Campus and walk to school.


3. Building Parking increases the costs of building new homes

Building parking is expensive! An on-site, off-street parking space can cost up to $40K to build. If we let new apartments be built without parking, it’s doubtful we would see rents come down immediately. But in the long-term, reducing costs is the only way to keep rents down.

4. students choose whether to bring cars

In much of Austin, living with a car is a necessity for living a functional life. In West Campus, though, living without a car is a viable choice for most students. Students take into account the availability, cost, and convenience of parking when deciding whether to bring a car to school. When we force apartments to overbuild parking, we aren’t responding to the reality of students taking cars to school so much as creating that reality!

5. there’s already a lot of parking in West Campus

The Castilian in West Campus features 5 floors of parking before you reach a floor of student housing.
The Castilian in West Campus features 5 floors of parking before you reach a floor of student housing.

Will there still be students who need or want cars in West Campus? For sure! Fortunately for them, even in the very unlikely event that all new buildings featured no new parking, most existing buildings do have parking lots or garages. Students who value on-site parking can choose to live in a building that has it.

6. On-street spaces are metered.

Sometimes, people fear that if new apartments don’t build parking, residents will still bring cars but park them on the street. In West Campus, though, streets have parking meters, so students would be better off either buying off-street parking or not bringing a car.

7. Parking garages are ugly

One of West Campus' ugliest new structures: a featureless parking garage.
One of West Campus’ ugliest new structures: a featureless parking garage.

This one is subjective, but overwhelmingly true. West Campus since UNO has seen a bloom of street trees, sidewalks, and interesting new buildings. The ugliest of those buildings? Overwhelmingly the parking garages.

8. It sends a message

What starts here changes the world

Do we live in a society that understands the bigger picture in which auto-centric design is driving our planet into catastrophic climate change? Do we care?

College isn’t just a place to learn facts; it’s a place where we teach the next generation the values that we hold as a society. Right now, our code is teaching a “can’t-do” attitude about building better places and fighting for our environment. We can and must do better.

8 reasons to End West Campus Minimum Parking Rules

Four things City Council could do today to fight the housing shortage

Central Austin needs more housing. Prices have been rising, more and more people want to live where they have short commutes but are only able to afford homes near the periphery. We have a long-term plan to alter our land development code that may help with this but our need is now. What options are available to us today?

End Parking requirements in west campus

Every year, West Campus adds more and more dense student housing and along with it, pedestrian amenities like wide sidewalks and street trees.IMG_20160119_142423 A parking benefit district meters on-street parking with proceeds plowed back into neighborhood improvements. Surveys have shown the vast majority of West Campus students get around without cars. Allowing housing for students without parking could allow denser housing, lower construction costs, or allow more creative buildings that take advantage of unique lots. Removing minimum parking rules has already resulted in a few buildings downtown targeting markets that either don’t need cars or have other places to park them; the same could be even more true in student-rich West Campus.

Reduce parking requirements near transit routes

The same logic of reducing parking requirements applies outside the student market to apartments near transit routes. More and more people in Austin want to live car-free or car-light. That is easiest to do in buildings created with that lifestyle in mind–a step that can both reduce construction costs and allow room for improving other amenities. Long-term, if Austin wants to be a sustainable city, parking-free typologies should be allowed everywhere. However, in much of Austin, we wrongly treat scarce on-street parking as an endless “commons” rather than managing it as a scarce resource. This means that it may be the wiser path to improve incrementally–iteratively reducing off-street parking requirements, improving on-street parking management, and improving transportation options. Happily, this may also improve an almost universally disliked aspect of Austin’s largest apartment complexes: their architectural monotony.

Implement the Downtown Austin Plan

New high-rise towers are being constructed in downtown Austin all the time–but downtown is more than just the Central Business District. A sleepy section of downtown known as northwest downtown consists mostly of one and two story offices, with a handful of residences and a handful of larger buildings mixed in. Northwest District PlanThe demand for living in this area is very high: it is adjacent to the university, the central business district, county government, ACC, and Pease Elementary. In 2011, a stakeholder process decided on a measured, middle approach toward developing this area to be more housing-rich, commensurate with the strong demand for downtown living, but without the high-rise towers that characterize downtown. Unfortunately, with no active sponsors pushing for implementation on City Council, this plan has languished. With the heavy lifting already done, it would not be complicated to implement and could result in real gains for those wishing to live downtown but not in high-rise towers.

Implement the South Central Waterfront Plan

Map of South Central WaterfrontThe South Central Waterfront has added a modest amount of housing in recent years, with the apartment buildings the Catherine and 422 on the Lake acting as an extension of downtown across the river.  However, the area as a whole is a mess, from the enormous Statesman offices to the big-parking-lot-and-a-Hooters near the Long Center. Fortunately, the city has been working on a plan that would clean it up, add significant amounts of park land, improve transportation access by improving the street grid and adding trails, and, crucially, free up some land for more and better housing. Implementing this plan would be a great boon.

And Beyond…

Added together, these plans aren’t nearly enough. Austin is a big city and rapidly growing. Unfortunately, it’s growing in many of the wrong ways right now: our houses are sprawling outward, our towers aren’t affordable to most people, and our apartment complexes are monster buildings dominated by parking garages. But this ship can’t turn that fast and it’s time to get turning.

Four things City Council could do today to fight the housing shortage

Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart

In 2004, Austin adopted a new set of rules and design guidelines allowing developers to build larger apartment buildings in West Campus with fewer parking spaces required, as long as they provided a few additional benefits like better sidewalks and street trees and set some of the apartments aside for low-income students. Unlike the larger apartment complexes Austin allowed on major streets like Burnet or Lamar, these homes are scattered throughout the neighborhood. One of the ideas was to provide a place where students could more easily walk, bike, or bus to campus rather than drive. This is in fitting with ideas of environmental groups like the Sierra Club.

What’s happened since then?

Continue reading “Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart”

Austin created a dense student neighborhood—what happened next will warm your environmentalist heart

5 Reasons Uber has leverage in Austin (or, How Austin made taking taxis awful)

Austin is in election season. City Council passed a new set of rules for Uber and Lyft, and the companies have funded an initative to repeal and replace those rules with rules more similar to the ones previously in place. On May 7, the issue will be decided by voters. This election has been heated, with charges that Uber pays its drivers too little and its campaign workers too much and countercharges that City Council members are in the pocket of Big Taxi. For many people I know, the referendum poses an awkward choice: they think the new rules the City Council passed are reasonable but they don’t want to see Uber and Lyft leave.

How is that when two young, money-losing startup companies contemplate stopping service here, that possibility gives them so much leverage? Mostly, the answer is that Austinites remember getting rides prior to Uber and Lyft, it was awful–and nothing has been done to fix the underlying problems.

1 The city (still) limits the number of taxis

Finding a taxi in Austin when you needed one was hard. At 2:00 AM on Friday and Saturday nights (closing time for bars), throngs of downtown revelers used to line up desperately searching for cabs. Many folks had to wait until the first wave of cabs had already driven to the suburbs and back. Others gave up and either drove home intoxicated, took unpaid rides from strangers, or hired unlicensed cabs. Since Uber and Lyft have arrived, the number of people offering rides for money and the number of paid rides have both risen dramatically, showing that the demand was always there, but couldn’t be provided for with the limited number of taxis the city permitted.

2 The city (still) forbids taxis from pricing appropriately

Uber and Lyft vary their prices for a variety of reasons. They use sales and first-ride discounts to promote their services; they use temporary price hikes to motivate drivers to get on the road at times of high demand. Given the city-mandated taxi shortage, taxi companies could have used similar tactics to build ridership at down times and motivate all their drivers to drive at times of highest demand. Except the city doesn’t allow taxicabs to change their prices except by act of City Council. The tools that Uber uses to provide reliable service aren’t available to taxis.

3 The city (still) limits the number of taxi companies

Ever wonder why, when riders and drivers both complain vigorously about the existing taxi companies, no other company came into existence and tried to lure drivers away to work for them instead? After all, Uber and Lyft are constantly fighting for each others’ drivers. The city only grants franchise agreements to three companies and limits the number of drivers for each, so they have no incentive to compete for drivers. As a member of my neighborhood association, I’ve met with people looking to start a new taxi company. Unfortunately, all their time was spent on the politics of convincing City Council members to allow them to serve customers rather than the actual logistics of serving customers. Starting a business is hard enough; starting a business that requires political approval before you are allowed to operate is a step too far for most people.

4 The city (still) forbids other companies from offering anything that even vaguely resembles a taxi ride

With the city-mandated taxi shortage, you might expect people to get more rides from slightly differentiated services like prearranged ride companies (called limousine service, but not limited to stretch limos). However, the city code includes many rules with no conceivable consumer benefit. For example, limo services are forbidden from charging less than $55/hour, must wait half an hour before providing service, and must keep trip tickets proving both of those facts.

5 Uber and Lyft provide better services than traditional taxis

Even acknowledging reasons 1-4, Uber and Lyft probably wouldn’t have as much leverage as they do if they merely provided another option on par with what existed before. But they really have managed to use digital technology to provide much better service for passengers. Just some of the Lyft features I’ve personally used recently:

  • Texted my driver before he arrived to okay bringing my cat along.
  • Waited upstairs until GPS showed my ride was a minute away.
  • Automatically matched for carpool with people I didn’t know.
  • Texted my friends a link to a map tracking my ride’s current progress.
  • Paid and tipped my drivers via credit card on file without driver interaction.

In addition to these flourishes, they’re better at the basics of requesting and dispatching cars. This is a point that gets acknowledged repeatedly at City Council. In one debate, Ellen Troxclair argued passengers already have a choice of fingerprinted drivers (taxis) vs. non-fingerprinted drives (Uber/Lyft), and Mayor Adler said it wasn’t realistic to expect passengers to choose taxis given their inferior service.

What next?

Uber and Lyft currently have superior technology and regulations that allow them to put as many drivers as they need on the streets and price rides based on the conditions they face. With the possibility that those companies will be unwilling to continue service under Austin’s new regulations, voters face a choice between having access to convenient, reliable paid rides and the regulations which at least some of them prefer.

Uber and Lyft’s tenure in Austin has exposed the massive gap between the ride services we had and the ride services we want. Whatever the outcome of the election on Proposition 1, I hope that City Council realizes that, as long as it forbids taxi drivers from collectively meeting the number of rides needed, they will always be providing a massive amount of leverage to non-taxi companies who want to meet that demand.

5 Reasons Uber has leverage in Austin (or, How Austin made taking taxis awful)

Living in a big ole city: Taylor Swift Urbanism

If you listen to a lot of bluegrass and country, you’d think cities were the worst thing that every happened to humanity. J.D. Crowe and the New South ask why they ever left their plow behind to look for a job in the town:

Hank Williams, Jr. thinks that you’ll only get mugged if you go downtown.  If you keep watching, you find that this is exactly what happened to the narrator’s friend!

Dave Grisman didn’t get mugged, but still found himself impoverished:

Taylor Swift, on the other hand, can portray a positive side of cities: cosmpolitan places to escape bad relationships, meet new people with different life experiences, and grow your dreams.

In White Horse, she reminds herself that small towns are difficult places for dreams to come true:

In Fifteen, she describes a process where girls growing up in small towns can be encouraged not to dream big dreams (though she herself, she reflects, has moved on to bigger, better things):

In Mean, she holds out the hope for city living as a way of escaping abusive relationships holding her back:

When she finally reaches the big city (New York), she is overwhelmed with the possibilities. People come from all over the world, feel free to explore their sexual identities, remake themselves, and try to achieve their dreams:

Real-life Taylor Swift is a fantastic example of somebody who achieved her dreams by moving to a specialized city, Nashville. Nashville has grown and evolved a cultural and economic engine in country music that allows young people like herself to meet like-minded, skilled people to collaborate with. Good for Taylor Swift for recognizing that the same process means cities can allow for personal growth in other dimensions, by exposing people to others from all over the world and all walks of life.

Living in a big ole city: Taylor Swift Urbanism