Anybody who has seen the tear-jerking 1989 classic “Field of Dreams” knows that, if you build it, they will come. What Austin’s city council and many of its constituents don’t seem to understand is that, if you don’t build it, they will still come — and car traffic, rents and other metrics of our city’s livability will get worse and worse.
For the past three decades, there has been a dangerous “no-growth” movement among a rather selfish and shortsighted segment of Austin’s population who are obsessed with maintaining a “college town” atmosphere in our city.
It only takes one look at Austin’s skyline or the Manhattan-like bustle of the Drag on a weekday afternoon to realize they lost all hope of winning that battle about 15 years ago. The secret is out: Austin is pretty amazing, and, according to Forbes, the Austin metro is now growing faster than any other city in the country. Intentionally obstructing infrastructure improvements until traffic becomes truly apocalyptic is not the best way to voice opposition to Austin’s rapid growth.
The main fear driving the no-growth movement is that, if Austin’s rapid urbanization continues unabated, we will “turn into Dallas” and will no longer be able to “keep Austin weird”. But I think this fear is unfounded. Austin is simply growing up, and becoming a more cosmopolitan, sophisticated version of its old weird self, while maintaining its true progressive character. The no-growth movement’s backward-looking urban planning philosophy is based on fear and will only lead to stagnation.
As reported by the Austin American-Statesman, in his last State of the City Address, Mayor Lee Leffingwell emphasized that traffic congestion is the number one problem threatening Austin’s future. Consequently, the mayor has made combating the traffic problem his number one priority in his final term in office. Yet, despite the increased attention the problem has received both in the media and in city government, progress toward a solution has so far been limited to stopgap half-measures such as the brand new MetroRapid buses, which, despite their questionable effectiveness, have taken a lane away from busy streets like Guadalupe and Lavaca. Clearly, the problem requires a more comprehensive solution and a greater commitment from city government.
The first step to alleviating traffic is to build urban rail, and to build it in the right place. The currently proposed route is most certainly not the right place. The next step is to continue to increase density in Austin’s urban core. The closer people live to their places of work or education, the less time they’ll spend in a car, contributing to traffic congestion. The third step is to improve Austin’s two main highway arteries, I-35 and Mopac. Mopac is off to a good start with the express lanes currently under construction, but I-35 is a mess and SH 130, the toll-road bypass constructed far to the east of the city in a foolhardy attempt to divert traffic from I-35, was a useless, expensive mistake, no matter how high its speed limit is.
Right now, Austin is at a crossroads. While growth is inevitable, the form that growth takes is entirely up to politically involved citizens. We can become a sprawling, gridlocked mess of inadequate road infrastructure where it takes two hours to commute to work, or we can become a denser, well-organized metropolis with smart and efficient mass transit. If you want Austin to remain vibrant and livable, contact your local city council member and tell them Austin needs a transportation system that can handle the demands of the coming decades and, most importantly, vote in November. Vote against poorly planned urban rail proposals that will degrade the credibility of mass transit in future election cycles. Vote for local politicians who support a progressive and forward-thinking transit agenda. Vote for the Austin you’ll actually want to live in 10 years from now.
Burks is an English and history junior from Plano.