As Austin piles up the accolades and ascends to the top of all the “best cities” lists, cars pile up on our streets and highways. According to Forbes magazine, Austinites currently waste an average of 41 hours per year in traffic. If you commute on I-35, that probably seems like a conservative estimate.
“Austinites currently waste an average of 41 hours per year in traffic.”
Blockbuster events like SXSW and innovative urban planning projects like the Mueller community are proving that if you build it, they will come – and bring their cars with them. As the historically under-utilized Seaholm District near the heart of downtown is redeveloping, the City of Austin is attempting to avoid the transportation missteps of the past and build a multi-transit city for the future.
According to a recent traffic impact analysis prepared for Austin Energy, transportation experts estimate that in 2015, after the completion of the major developments in the Seaholm District, there will be 19,516 trips in and out of the area on weekdays and 18,414 trips on weekends.
To handle the increased traffic in and out of the district and provide more access points to the downtown grid, the city will be extending Seaholm Drive, West Avenue, and Nueces Street from Cesar Chavez to 3rd Street. To provide safer and more predictable opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists to cross Chavez, the city will be adding stoplights at each of its new intersections at Seaholm Drive, West Avenue, and Nueces Street.
Fred Evins, a redevelopment project manager with the City of Austin, acknowledges that drivers may balk at the idea of adding more stoplights to an already busy street. However, the city’s transportation experts believe that the changes will be a net positive: “We ask people to remember that they will have an opportunity to turn off Chavez onto these extended streets so that they can enter the downtown grid more quickly,” says Evins. Currently the only opportunities to exit that section of Chavez are at Sandra Muraida Way and San Antonio Street.
The city will also be extending 2nd Street across Shoal Creek and developing a pedestrian-friendly woonerf, or festival street (See our previous feature on the Seaholm District in The Admire Issue for more information). The new 2nd Street bridge will connect the woonerf near the new Central Library with the redevelopment happening at the Green Water Treatment Plant. The 2nd Street bridge and festival street will provide an additional point for both cars and pedestrians to access the district.
The 2nd Street woonerf is also part of a larger Austin initiative known as the Great Streets Development Program. The Great Streets program aims to turn downtown streets into great public spaces by widening sidewalks, adding bike lanes, facilitating public transit, and improving streetscapes by adding trees and benches. Several downtown streets have already been converted, including the eastern part of 2nd Street near the Convention Center.
In order to make these changes, however, the city often has to reduce the number of lanes available for vehicle traffic and parking. According to Humberto Rey, who manages the Great Streets program, about 75 percent of downtown right of way was reserved for vehicles before the project began. Today, the ratio is closer to 55 percent for vehicles and 45 percent for pedestrians and cyclists.
The Great Streets program has the support of the Downtown Austin Alliance and many local businesses, although some businesses and residents are unhappy about the reductions in on-street parking. Steve Grassfield, the City of Austin’s Parking Enterprise Manager, says the city has several exciting plans to ensure that, even with reductions in the number of on-street spaces, residents will be able to easily find parking in the Seaholm District and throughout downtown.
“Our plan for downtown is ‘park once,’…once they park their car, they can use the improved pedestrian options to get to their destinations.”
CITY OF AUSTIN PARKING ENTERPRISE MANAGER
One of the new initiatives coming to downtown parking garages is vehicle wayfinding that will help drivers locate available parking spots in off-street garages. The Whole Foods Lamar location recently installed a new vehicle wayfinding system that senses which spots are occupied and provides green and red indicator lights above each parking stall, as well as signs at the entrances with the number of parking spots available on each level. Similar systems will soon be widespread downtown and in the Seaholm District.
The city has also partnered with the makers of the ParkMe app to provide heat map data on the availability of both on-street and off-street parking. According to Grassfield, the city is continuing to explore public/private partnerships that would improve parking convenience, like deals with local event organizers that would allow visitors and residents to
purchase parking online at the same time they purchase tickets for events.
In addition to making existing parking options easy to find, numerous parking garages will be constructed to accommodate the high volume of visitors to the Seaholm District. At the Seaholm Power Plant, a 1,000-car garage is being built to serve the residential tower near the power plant as well as nearby office and retail space. Of the 1,000 spaces, 315 will be available for public parking. The Greenwater Treatment Plant redevelopment will also have 250 spaces earmarked for public parking, and the new Central Library will have 200 public spaces that can be accessed even after library hours. Parking garages are planned for three other parcels of the district, but the design and number of spots hasn’t been finalized yet.
“Our plan for downtown is ‘park once,’” says Grassfield. “The idea is that people drive from their home to a parking space, and once they park their car, they can use the improved pedestrian options to get to their destinations as quickly as possible.” The Great Streets improvements as well as an upgrade to the Shoal Creek Trail provide opportunities for pedestrians to easily move through the district and downtown.
The city is also doing its best to encourage cycling and the use of shared vehicles. Developers and city officials have partnered with Car2Go, Zipcar, and Austin B-Cycle to make sure that the district is well-stocked with both shared vehicles and reserved parking.
Plans are also in play for improving cycling infrastructure. The Lance Armstrong Bikeway currently detours along Chavez to avoid MetroRapid construction, but later this year the bikeway will return to its intended route directly through the Seaholm District. Another exciting development for cyclists is the Bowie Underpass, a pedestrian and bicycle path under the Union Pacific Railroad tracks at Bowie and 3rd Streets that will provide an unbroken, protected route from the Lamar Market District through the Seaholm District to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake. In anticipation of increased bicycle traffic, the new Central Library will include a special bike parking lot with 200 spaces.
In the future, the city hopes to make the Seaholm District a public transportation hub as well. The district will be served by the MetroRapid 803 bus line when it opens in late summer of this year. Late last year, the City Council also approved a plan for Lone Star Rail to open a station in the Seaholm District that would be a stop on the proposed regional transit line from San Antonio to Georgetown. Ideally, this station could also serve as a connecting stop for a light rail line that would travel along 3rd Street and connect to the existing MetroRail commuter line. The Lone Star Rail project and an extension of the city’s light rail have both been in development for over a decade. This spring, the City Council plans to revisit both projects.
Another project already underway on MoPac near the Seaholm District is another example of Austin’s efforts to increase the number of transit options beyond automobiles in order to reduce congestion and improve mobility. Throughout this year, the city will be converting one of the existing lanes on MoPac to an express lane for public transit and adding a fourth, variable toll lane that will help reduce congestion.
The price for the variable toll lane will increase or decrease depending on congestion and the number of vehicles entering the toll lane. Electronic signs will indicate the price changes in real time so that drivers will know before they enter how much it will cost to drive in the express toll lane. The government body in charge of the project, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, estimates that toll prices will be between 25 cents and $4.00, though this may be subject to increase depending on demand. Several areas across the country, including the Katy Freeway in Houston, are trying a similar approach to managing congestion. The express and variable toll lanes will run from Parmer to Cesar Chavez and end near the Seaholm District.
In addition to the express and toll lane changes on MoPac, the CTRMA will also be adding shared use paths for pedestrians and cyclists and improving sidewalks, curb ramps, and signage to facilitate path usage for pedestrians and the disabled. These improvements to MoPac will offer more options for drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and those who ride public transit.
Austinites can expect to see more transit improvements that consider the needs of cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit users in addition to drivers as the city extends the multi-transit approach to urban planning that has already begun in the Seaholm District to the rest of the city.
Art and concept photos provided by The City of Austin and Project Connect.
ParkMe App photo from ParkMe App.
Local Arts Columnist
Jamie Smith is a writer and content strategist based in Austin, TX.
She writes for and about people and organizations doing innovative work in the fields of arts and culture, design, social justice, travel, and technology.
If she’s not writing, she’s probably at a book club meeting, traveling through cities large and small, or trying to tackle Austin’s outsized hills on her bike.