Austin metro surpasses 2 million residents, but issues remain

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin area was ranked the fastest-growing large metropolitan area for the fifth year in a row, leading the area’s population to finally surpass the 2 million mark for 2015, according to recently released Census Bureau data.

On Thursday, the Census Bureau released population growth data for 2015 compared to 2014, showing 57,395 new residents are now calling the Austin-Round Rock metro area home. 

“There’s nothing magical about the two million mark, but I think people take a step back and say, ‘Wow, Austin’s bigger than I thought,’” Austin demographer Ryan Robinson said. “I know that’s a sort of simplistic sort of thing, but it’s a significant threshold.”

Large metropolitan areas are defined by having a population of more than 1 million, Robinson said. Austin, as well as the three other largest metro areas in Texas — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio — all placed on the top 16 list of nationwide metros in terms of population growth, adding a collective 412,000 residents to the state in 2015.

The Census data only looks at county and metro area growth and will release data for cities in the coming months, according to the Bureau’s website. The data is all based on estimates until the Bureau conducts its more thorough count in 2020.

Journalism freshman Madelyn Myers, who comes from the Houston metro, said she has noticed differences in how the two fast-growing metros have handled their population growth.

“Houston just seems more roomy to me,” Meyers said. “I see more houses rather than large buildings if you go out of the city. I’m not really in downtown often, but around downtown seems more manageable than Austin.”

Although passing the threshold is a victory of sorts for Austinites tired of living in a so-called “college town,” the city’s rapid growth over the past five years has only caused transportation issues and the lack of affordable housing in the city to increase, Robinson said.

“Maybe being the fastest-growing city in the country year after year after year is a bit of a dubious honor, because the growth is out of hand,” Robinson said. “It’s so rapid that we can’t manage it.”

Kara Kockelman, an engineering professor with a master’s in city planning, said one way to address the city’s growing transportation issues could be to introduce credit-based congestion pricing.

In this system, a license holder who may or may not drive a car and instead uses buses or other modes of transportation can receive a credit of $15 a month from collected tolls, for example, for staying off roadways, leading to less densely packed streets and better traffic flow.

“We really need to get courageous about managing the transportation system more thoughtfully,” Kockelman said. “Most of things in life come with a price, and … if we’re tolling to reduce congestion, then that money doesn’t go into infrastructure — it’s simply a way to sort people by how much they value their trip at that time of the day.”

Kockelman said Austinites are a highly progressive and educated population that are more willing to change lifestyles to fit city needs, such as walking or biking rather than driving personal cars to reduce and avoid traffic congestion.

Kockelman also said the past three city councils and mayors have shown leadership in focusing on transportation issues.

For the month of April, the city will host several conversations related to mobility issues to gauge the community’s concerns before collecting all the information and reporting back to the council’s mobility commission on June 8. 

All the information would then inform any actions the council plans to take in addressing transportation issues this year and in the future.