Austin and sustainability: the Texas capital bets on “equitable” mobility

Railways and subways, the solution of the US city to continue growing

That lush urban trail that winds for about 10 miles along the Colorado River, creating a green oasis in the heart of Austin amid skyscrapers, baseball fields, auditoriums and theaters, is one of the Texas capital’s major gathering spots. The Ann & Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake, named for a former mayor and his wife, and is frequented by more than 2.6 million people a year. This gem is more than just a great trail: for many Austin residents, it is a symbols of the city’s vibrancy, with its close-knit recreational activities and the rapid development of roads, viaducts, and infrastructure that testify to the growth of the metropolitan area, which by 2021, according to the Census Bureau, had a population of more than 2.3 million.

Those who were walking or biking along the trail on September 8 were treated to a special encounter: Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and Austin Mayor Steve Adler rode on electric bicycles along a long stretch to the Central Library. The royal visit, which took place just as Queen Elizabeth II was passing away in England, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the city’s efforts to incorporate the basic principles of the Dutch bicycle network’s design into its mobility infrastructure. Not only that. For the construction of the Central Library, city officials were inspired by the Central Library in Amsterdam and the New Library in Almere.

“It was an honor to show Her Majesty Queen Maxima our Central Library and highlight the ways that Dutch libraries inspired Austin to create a facility that is world-class, yet still uniquely Austin.” said Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk in a press release.

Austin's plan for increasingly sustainable mobility

The search for solutions for sustainable mobility guides the decisions of the administrators of the City of the Violet Crown, as Austin is known for the colour of its sky just before sunrise or after sunset. Austin’s ambitious Project Connect plans to build a public transport rail network capable of reducing pollution and relieving the pressure on super-congested streets at all hours of the day.

Approved by residents in November 2020, who also agreed to a property tax increase to cover 20% of the cost of the work, the project includes light rail lines, a tunnel, downtown rail, new stations and parking, with an expanded bus system and electric fleet. Originally estimated to cost $7.1 billion, because of rising commodity costs, expansion of services required and increased property values along the planned routes, Project Connect is set to exceed $10 billion (€10 billion).

Project Connect is based on the principle of ETOD (Equitable Transit-Oriented Development), introduced by the Austin Department of Building and Planning to engage area residents of all incomes and backgrounds in a pro-active role in planning and design. This engagement makes Project Connect even more ambitious in terms of cost and time: in the initial designs, for example, the subway stations in Downtown were underground, but at the Street Community Design Workshop held in March 2021, the possibility emerged of re-designing them to be above ground, according to a more equitable connectivity.

This sort of engagement makes sense in light of the numbers and trends on the ground. With 3,999,944 added population between 2010 and 2020, Texas ranked first in numeric growth among all the states, according to the 2020 Census.  Austin is “only” fourth behind Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, but the growth trend is equal to the others. At nearly 700,000 square kilometres (or 268,598 square miles), Texas is second in size only to Alaska, surpassing California, which ranks first in population with 40 million residents. Despite a lower population density, more construction or maintenance work is done in Texas than anywhere else. Texas has 55,000 bridges in service, a full 27,000 more than any other state, with an average life expectancy of 47 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated the brides of Texas a B-, or in good condition.

Austin sustainability, a work in progress

Austin’s access roadways are a continuous work site, with work on major viaducts and new express lanes now underway. Interstate I-35, both to Dallas and to San Antonio, has numerous upgrades in progress. Among the busiest companies is Lane (Webuild Group), which has built major highway connections in Texas, right on I-35.  Central Texas Regional Mobility contracted Lane to extend the 183A toll highway in Williamson County, just outside the capital city.

Under the motto Go Big, in the late summer of 2022 Texas Governor Greg Abbott reported a record, for the tenth month in a row, in the number of nonfarm jobs, reaching a whopping 13,530,100 people employed, adding a full 727,000 more in the past twelve months. And he announced that the 10-year Unified Transportation Program (UTP) plan in 2023 will have $85 billion (€85 billion) for road construction throughout the state.

“The State of Texas is working to ensure the transportation needs of our fast-growing state are met and that the safety of Texans on the roadways is protected,” said Governor Abbot. “As more people move to Texas and businesses grow across the state, we are working together to make sure Texans’ transportation safety and mobility are secured and businesses can flourish for generations to come.”