Some things I learned from asking people where they were going on Lamar

by Marshall Escamilla

So, a while ago I was sitting in really bad traffic on South Lamar, and I started to get curious. “All these people,” I wondered, “where are they going? And where are they coming from?” So I made a survey that asked exactly that.

To be specific, here are the questions I asked:

  • Did you drive on Lamar from 3 – 7 pm today?
  • Where were you going?
  • Where were you coming from?
  • How long did it take?
  • Did it suck?

Before I talk about my results, I need to make a note: this is totally unscientific. Like, really, really unscientific. The conclusions I might come to from this data are more provocative than conclusive–so you should add the words “but this is probably bullshit” to every sentence you read below. Be forewarned.

All that being said, here are a few things I’ve learned:

1. People are generally going pretty far.

When I made this survey, part of me was hoping to find that there are lots of people driving on Lamar who are only going a few miles, and could easily replace their trip by biking, walking, or some simple combination of the two. Maybe if there were better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, we could really reduce congestion!

Turns out, nope. The mean and median trips were both at around 7 miles–which is way out of walking distance and outside of bike range for most casual cyclists. If you set walking distance at 1 mile and biking distance 4 miles, there was only one respondent who could have walked, and only 10 who could have biked. Out of a total of 35. And that’s even if you don’t consider physical fitness, disabilities, hills, etc.

To extrapolate that number out, this survey implies that better pedestrian infrastructure would only remove about 1,000 cars from Lamar out of the total 35,000 that travel on it every day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing–but at least according to this survey, walking isn’t really an alternative to driving on Lamar.

Having said that, remember, this could all be bullshit.

2. The further you go, the more it seems to suck.

One mistake I made in phrasing the survey had to do with the answer choices to the “Does it suck?” question. I should have done a Likert scale or something, so I could get an objective sense of how much people hated having to drive on Lamar to get to where they were going. Instead, I went for the humor factor and just gave the options “Yes,” “No,” and “Yes, there was traffic.” Oops.

Since that’s what I did, I don’t really have a way to gauge whether people who said “There was traffic” thought Lamar sucked more or less than those who just said “Yes.”

However, there was this one thing.

People who said their trip on Lamar didn’t suck were going the shortest average distance, at 4.78 miles. People who said there was traffic went the second shortest, at 6.85 miles. People who simply said “Yes, Lamar sucks” went the furthest at 7.08 miles. As long as I’m drawing specious conclusions from an unscientific survey, I may as well just say that this means that people in that third group hated Lamar the most. People in the second group had a good reason for why things sucked–there was traffic–so I’ll take that to mean that they’re feeling a little less hopeless.

Urbanists in Austin and elsewhere have been making the case for years that letting people live closer to where they work and vice versa makes for a better society. This survey would seem to lend some credence to that idea. Of course, this is probably meaningless bullshit.

3. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to connectivity. Oh, and also transit.

In order to have a few other numbers to play with, I created two other metrics for each respondent that weren’t included in the survey. The first I called connectivity score, which was based wholly on my subjective measure of how well the street grid connected around either the respondent’s destination or point of origin. This score really didn’t have anything to say about whether the two points were well connected to each other–because that would have been far too much work for me to figure out. Instead I just eyeballed the map and gave each location a score ranging from 1 (few connections) to 4 (lots of connections). Since most of Austin’s connectivity is so poor, I generally erred on the side of generosity with this score–naming Barton Springs at Lamar as “2” even though in many other cities it would be considered a “1”. I then took a mean of each respondent’s two scores.

The second metric I called the “transit multiplier.” I calculated this by looking up the time it would have taken each respondent to take the bus (according to Google), and dividing that time by the midpoint of Google’s traffic estimate for driving during rush hour (those numbers are reported as a range). The result is the ratio of the amount of time it would take to bus from one point to the other vs. drive.

What I learned from these is two things I already knew. First, Austin’s streets don’t connect to one another very well. Generally speaking, people are going from places with decent connectivity (i.e., downtown) to places with poor connectivity (basically anywhere else). This leaves them few options when it comes to choosing routes home. There is at least a chance that connecting more streets in neighborhoods could improve traffic on Lamar.

The second thing I learned that I already knew is that taking the bus is a lot slower than driving. The average transit multiplier was 1.91, meaning that it generally takes people about twice as long to ride the bus as it would to drive. That’s a big difference, especially when you consider that this accounts for driving in peak traffic, and that some people are already spending a decent amount of time in their cars.

The only respondents who seemed at all well served by the bus happened to be traveling along the 1 route. Pretty much everyone else was screwed–and they got more screwed the further they traveled. These conclusions, being based on observations of destinations on Google Maps, are probably somewhat less specious than everything else. But, still, it’s probably bullshit.

4. People generally don’t have any idea how long they spent in the car. One of the questions I asked people was how long their trip took. Their estimates were wildly inaccurate, with most people estimating way too low. One respondent said it only took them 5 minutes to get from the Whole Foods downtown to the Target on Cameron Road. Uh. No. It took a lot longer than that.

I suppose that’s good news, though. It may take 20 minutes, but it only feels like 5! That’s at least something positive. What this meant is that I basically ignored people’s responses to this question.

5. What to do about it
While I didn’t necessarily learn anything shocking from this exercise, I can say that I was a little surprised at how important the distances between destinations seemed to be. If we want to do something about the traffic on Lamar, it seems, the best possible thing would be to try to allow central Austin to become denser.

Most of the traffic seems to be coming from people who are traveling long distances, between places that were poorly served by transit and not well-connected to the rest of the street grid. All of these are contributing factors to the enormous volume of cars clogging up that one road. Putting people’s houses closer to the places they want to get to–whether it’s work, or a strip club, or whatever–seems to be the only real way to combat traffic congestion.

The advantage to this approach is it’s basically free. Allowing increased density in close-in neighborhoods would be cheap when compared to the infrastructure-based traffic fixes people in Austin discuss on a daily basis. In terms of traffic solutions, simply building houses closer to downtown would probably be the simplest and most effective approach.

But then again, like everything else, this conclusion is probably bullshit.


Affordability Really is Just a Word in the City Budget…

Let me begin this post by talking about Manchaca Rd. Manchaca is my neighborhood’s “main street,” or whatever you call a hellish highway near your house with far too little pedestrian infrastructure. On Google street view, it looks like this:

Screen shot 2015-09-19 at 7.38.33 PM

From the point of view of someone whose son is presumably going to attend Joslin–that school on the right hand side of the picture–in about 5 years, this street has a lot of problems. First of all, the sidewalks are way too narrow, so that you can’t walk two abreast on them. Second, they’re right up against the curb, putting small children trying to get to school dangerously close to traffic that is regularly going 40 – 45 miles an hour. Third, the sidewalk is frequently blocked by vegetation, or it’s incomplete, or there’s a utility pole on it. Fourth, and perhaps most annoyingly, it’s very difficult to cross Manchaca on foot. The traffic moves so fast on it that, even if you think you’ve got plenty of time to get across, you might find a car right on top of you before you make it. There are only four traffic lights on Manchaca between Ben White and Stassney, and two of them change so infrequently that I’ve frequently found myself waiting 3 to 4 minutes at them just to cross the 30 feet or so to the other side of the street.

Manchaca isn’t really unique, of course. It just happens to be the nearest-to-me example of a phenomenon that really is more common than not in Austin’s streets. Many, many, many of our roads would require significant upgrading to make them even a little bit safe for pedestrians, let alone welcoming or inviting to walk on. I’ve heard it said that it would take around $1 billion just to get our city-wide sidewalk deficit up to zero–that is, everywhere that needs sidewalks will have them–or about the same amount as the latest failed rail bond.

So, anyway, as an engaged citizen and Austin Neighborhood Advocate, I started calling 311 on a semi-regular basis to bring up issues relating to pedestrian safety in my neighborhoods. I asked for more safe ways to get across Manchaca, more and better sidewalks, and so on. And every time I’ve managed to talk to someone who works in the relevant city department, I always end up hearing the same refrain: “There’s just no money for that.”

This brings me to a letter from my council member, Ann Kitchen, that was recently posted on NextDoor (among other places). In it, she says the following:

During this year’s budget process “affordability” was more than a word, it was our guiding principle.

Ok. Fair enough. I understand that lots of people have been harmed by Austin’s sky-rocketing housing costs, and I know it was a big issue in the elections last November. So I guess I’m glad that it’s more than a word. A little lower down, though, she says this:

For the owner of the median value home, the city property tax bill decreased by $14. That means, with a limited total fee increase, the total bill from the city will increase by only about $4/month.

Wait, what? A $14 / month savings is taking affordability seriously? It isn’t an increase, so for people on a fixed income who are stressed by rising assessments that’s probably a good thing–but what about everyone else? Those tax savings wouldn’t cover one extra night out at Torchy’s a month; let alone help keep us in our home if we were so tax-burdened that we were thinking of moving out.

And then, what about renters? I suppose it’s at least theoretically possible that landlords paying reduced property taxes* might result in lower rent. But given the 99.9999% occupancy rate (or whatever it is), I think it’s much more likely that landlords would just pocket the extra savings and treat themselves to some ice cream.

Of course, if you’re one of those people who has a $2 million mansion in Tarrytown, these savings start to get pretty substantial. I’m glad we’re helping those people out–I’m sure they’re hurting. Maybe they’ll be able to use their savings to get another boat.

I don’t know enough about the city finances to be able to say exactly how much this tax cut is hurting city services. But, in the face of the massive need to upgrade and improve safety on our city streets (among many, many other pressing needs), I would have preferred it if council had just kept my $14 / month and used it for something important, because clearly they need it more than I do. How about more traffic signals on roads that used to be rural but are now major arteries? Or how about a few feet of sidewalk here and there? Or subsidized affordable housing? Or even better kolaches for city staff in morning meetings?

This ultimately puts me in complete agreement with Kathie Tovo. Given the meagerness of the tax savings for the average Austinite, it’s hard for me to get on board with CM Kitchen’s assertion that this is an accomplishment worth crowing about. If anything, it makes it seem like affordability really was just a word. You know, like a “what we can do so that we can say we did something about affordability?” kind of thing.

Now, if they could just find $60,000 to get another traffic light on Manchaca…

*It’s worth pointing out here that much of the tax savings are coming from an increased homestead exemption, which wouldn’t even apply to renters at all.

Want to fight gentrification? Go to West Austin.

Gentrification has been in the news a lot in Austin lately. The Jumpolin saga touched a lot of nerves, and then there was the report that ranked Austin as the most economically segregated city in the nation. Just yesterday, a number of businesses in East Austin woke up to find some pretty nasty stickers affixed to their shop windows.

I’ve lived in Austin for 12 years, and the gentrification of the East Side has been part of the Austin conversation the entire time I’ve lived here. On some level, I get why people are upset about it. What I don’t get, though, is why West Austin is–and as far as I can tell, always has been–missing from that conversation.

Let’s look at that economic segregation report. If you actually read the report, you’ll find this nice little nugget:

Economic segregation is driven by the choices made by more advantaged groups. The creative class is more segregated than either the working class or service class. College grads are more segregated than those who did not finish high school. The wealthy are more segregated than the poor—indeed they are the most segregated of all groups, and by a considerable margin.

In other words, Austin’s Economic segregation can be attributed to the rich choosing to live in areas where they will be surrounded exclusively by other rich people. You can see this really clearly by looking at a map of Austin, broken down by median family income.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 11.43.23 AMYou see the big swath of dark blue? That is where the rich people live. They live there in neighborhoods that are frequently gated and at the end of long private drives. They live there in neighborhoods that are entirely inaccessible by transit, so if you are employed as one of the help, you’d better be making enough to have a car of your own.

Of course, the wealthy have lived apart from the rest of the city in West Austin for a long time, dating back at least to the ’20s. It’s a little-discussed fact that Clarksville (where the present median list price for a home is $1.23M) was a historically black neighborhood, founded by a freed slave. At least, that’s what it was until the city forcibly removed all people of color from that area as best they could. At the same time, neighborhoods like Hyde Park were developed that explicitly excluded people of color.

Austin isn’t at all unique in having a chapter like this in its history–in fact, nearly every US city has some dark race-related policy in its archives somewhere. But I’m bringing this up because those neighborhoods that were forcibly made into all-white, all-wealthy parts of town still very much are. It seems as though this fact is so deep in the background of our city’s understanding of itself that we pretty much take it for granted. In all the raging against the way the East Side has been changing, there’s been little to no mention of the neighborhoods that East Side residents were intentionally excluded from in the first place.

Meanwhile, residents of those wealthy neighborhoods continue to organize and agitate for the right to make their neighborhoods more exclusive. They’ve pretty successfully stymied development, fought affordable housing in their areas, and put gates on public streets. Each of these efforts is made for some sort of theoretically valid reason (cut-through traffic, losing neighborhood “character”), and is frequently cloaked in social-justice like language, but the end result is to make the wealthier parts of town more off-limits to everyone else.

So when people like PODER protest the gentrification of East Austin, I certainly get it. In the rising real estate values of their neighborhoods they see another Clarksville brewing. Not to mention the fact that their neighborhoods are filling up with hipsters, and that’s got to be annoying. But to focus exclusively on the East Side is to miss at least half the picture.

What the hell is any of this for?

It is my understanding that we, as a society, decide to have laws to serve one of two purposes. Either a law is written to attempt to protect citizens and their property from random acts of violence (what I suppose some theorists might call “a monopoly on the means of violence”), or it is written to protect citizens from the negative consequences of their fellow citizens’ actions (in Economics speak, “negative externalities”).

An example of the first is murder. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong, sure, but it’s also illegal because none of us would want to live in a society in which anyone can be murdered with impunity. Just ask people in Ferguson. An example of the second is speeding: the act of speeding may not inflict harm on either the driver doing the speeding or on anyone around him at the time, however, if everyone drove as fast as they could, our roads would be much more dangerous and we’d all suffer as a result.

As I learn more and more about Austin’s–and, really, every other city’s–building codes and zoning restrictions, I’m increasingly starting to wonder which of these purposes these rules serve. If you look at Austin’s 100-page “Zoning Guide” (a handy PDF published by the city), you’ll find that the city has very specific laws governing how far your property is from the curb, how far it is from your neighbor’s house, what the allowed square footage of the lot is, how much of the lot can be covered by buildings (of course, only certain things count as buildings, while other things that you might think of as buildings don’t)… and on, and on, and on. The level of granularity and complexity in the building code is kind of astonishing, and as I read it, I can’t help but wonder: what the hell is any of this for?

I’m sure that anyone wanting to support the existence of a building code (and by this I mean anyone who wants to defend it for reasons other than wanting not to bite the hand that feeds) could make the argument that it falls into the second category, namely, that it protects us from the negative consequences of our neighbors’ actions. But, the thing is that every city in the nation–and Austin is no exception–has at least one part of town that was constructed before it adopted any building codes. These neighborhoods are usually thought of as the most charming, desirable parts of town to live in, and not only because they’re close to downtown. Part of their charm is in their non-compliance, the fact that they were built at a time before people constructed every building to excruciatingly exacting standards.

Right now, the city of Austin is going through the process of rewriting its Land Development Code, and that’s probably a good thing. The current state of affairs is far too complex to no good purpose, and that’s really bad for everyone.