Checkin’ Out Austin by Foot, Scooter, Bus and Rail

By Joyce Mandell

It’s the all-too-familiar “wonder what I’ll learn, whom I will meet, what I will see ” anticipatory excitement I felt as I boarded the plane at Logan to fly to Austin, Texas for the 2024 YimbyTown conference in late February. This was a chance to gather with over 500 like-minded urban geeks from all over the country and beyond to talk about parking, walkability, housing and land use.  What a party! AHMA had assembled a mighty delegation of almost 30 staff, board members and pro housing advocates to attend the conference.  We can honestly claim that Massachusetts was well represented and highly visible at YimbyTown this year!

Now, I could report on all the tidbits I gleaned to take back to my organizing work here in the Bay State – learning a ladder of engagement opportunities for strengthening leadership base, the power of Discord in fostering pro housing conversations and community, the importance of usability and universal design in creating accessible housing for all.  Or I could kvell about my colleagues who put together important conference presentations – Cheryl on effective pro housing communication strategies, Kassie, Elvira, Julia and Cheryl on developing an equity and anti-racist lens on our YIMBY work, Julia on including tenants rights and renter voices in our movement , Kassie and Nate Stell on engaging and mobilizing k – 12 students and board member Jarred Johnson on making more diverse YIMBY coalitions. 

I’ve decided to go a bit maverick today and take you, the reader, outside of the conference walls at University of Texas and into the city of Austin.  One of the best parts of going to a conference in a faraway place is to immerse oneself, even a tiny bit, in a new scene. For years, I had heard about the buzz in urbanist circles about the growing paradise of Austin, Texas. It was time for me to see for myself!

During YimbyTown’s opening plenary, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson invited us to experience Austin and upheld his dedication to “keep Austin weird.”  Watson touts the benefits of pro-growth to keep Austin a place where young people can afford to stay and build a youth-driven and creative economy.  Since 2000, Austin’s population has increased by more than 300,000 new residents, resulting in a need for more abundant housing and transit planning for its future.  Austin has stepped up to the challenge by electing one of the most pro housing city councils that in the past year, has passed groundbreaking legislation that includes decreasing minimum lot sizes, allowing for tiny homes and ADUs, eliminating all minimum parking requirements citywide and ending single family zoning by allowing up to three homes per lot by right.  Even though there was pushback about taking land from a 100 year old burger joint, voters in 2020 still approved the projected 7.1 billion Project Connect plan that aims to build two light rails, three rapid transit bus lines and additional commuter line for a better alternative transit-accessible city.  Endorsing this forward thinking planning, Watson cites the importance of the “Effie effect” that he named after his granddaughter, which is the positive outcome of making land use decisions based on what is good for future generations not just for those who live in Austin today.  

Pledging to see Austin not behind the wall of a window of a speeding car, I walked at least 15,000 steps a day, almost fell off a rented scooter, used a day pass on the metro and hitched a ride on several city buses.

Join me on my Austin urban adventures!

 “Uh, Dan,” I ask, “Why are you smiling?  You are taking us on this scooter tour of West Campus and I have no idea how to stop this machine!”

Dan Keshet and I bonded over our both growing up in Newton, Massachusetts.  Now a dedicated Austin resident, computer programmer, blogger and co-founder of the urbanist group, Aura, he loves bringing people out to tour the built environment of the West Campus neighborhood, home to many University of Texas students and one of the densest residential neighborhoods in all of Texas.

Since the rezoning allowed under the University Neighborhood Overlay in 2004, this neighborhood has experienced unprecedented growth adding more than 1000 bedrooms a year to its housing stock and over 1 billion dollars in private development investment.  One can see throughout the neighborhood the contrast of smaller, older homes adjacent to new, large buildings, many of them serving to house a growing student population. 

Cranes and new buildings galore throughout the neighborhood! Note the old streetlamp in the corner of this photo as a contrast to the modern building being erected.

An older building housing a coffee shop in the foreground and the new buildings towering over in the background!  West Campus is getting even more dense each year. 

“Why are you passionate about taking people to this neighborhood?” I asked Dan.  He explained that West Campus serves as a powerful example of how the increase in housing can lead to other livable amenities – bike lanes, street trees, more restaurants and shops and better sidewalks.  Developers are choosing to build housing now without as much parking because residents can get everything they need within walking distance from where they live.

I was amazed at the miles of paved, raised bike lanes on my walk from the conference center to the hotel.  The pedestrian sidewalk is adjacent to the bike lane so walkers and cyclists can ride separately and safely away from traffic.  Parking is to the left of the bike lanes.  Many roads were four lane wide stroads especially downtown but I still felt safe walking on the extensive sidewalk network.

In his book, Trains, Buses, People, An Opinionated Atlas of US and Canadian Transit, Christof Spieler cataloged, compared and photographed every single transit system in the country.  I and one other transit nerd from California were the only Yimbytown attendees that signed up for Christof’s  photography and transit tour.  Christof taught us how we could use the cameras on our cell phones to plan artistic transit photos by understanding the role of lighting, curves and background/foreground.  I loved diving into his passions and now, I can never look at a simple bus or bike path in the same way!  Check out my creations from that tour!

The CapMetro train we rode for one stop was practically empty.  Any world class city should have a metro, right?  The city used old freight lines for their track that unfortunately, do not end in the downtown or denser neighborhoods near University of Texas.  The consequence is that ridership is very low on this line.  Great idea but flawed execution!  In this photo, I caught some passengers, one with a bike, disembarking.  You can see in the background the crane at the top of a skyscraper building.  Cranes and evidence of building sprees are happening all over Austin, especially in the downtown as a result of pro growth zoning changes in the city.

This is my favorite photo I took on the tour! I waited for the train to come into the station before I snapped this shot.  It just so happened that a man on an e-unicycle was heading in the same direction on the bike path at the same time.  Notice the contrast of the train with the person, the curve of the bike path, the red stop light in the foreground.

This is my second favorite photo as I waited for the train to depart. The train is leaving the station in the background while a woman approaches on the curved bike/walking path.  Notice the colors and curve of the black fence next to the red of the path.

Can you see the beauty of the bus lines here moving far out into the distance? Notice the contrast of the red lane outlined in white adjacent to the bright blue, Exit Only sign.  In the far distance, you may be able to see a moonlight tower ascending the sky.  Built in the 1890s, the 165 feet tall “moonlight” towers were designed to light up the night sky so people could see in the dark of night.  Austin is one of the only places that still maintains these erected towers now designated as historic landmarks

This alley behind the bars, restaurants and music venues on 6th Avenue, locally known as “Dirty 6th” have some interesting details to observe.  Note the sign, “Musician Loading, 7 pm – 3 am” that gives a hint that Austin’s 6th Avenue may be a bit similar to  Bourbon Street in New Orleans. 

The real focus of this photograph are the buildings in the background that can give us some clues about the growth of Austin over the years.  Note the smallest pre 19th century, historical brick building in the front of the shot.  A 20th century office tower looms behind followed by a modern, more recently built glass skyscraper.

If you’ve made it all the way this far in this Austin photo journey, please know that I’m back home now in Massachusetts.  The best part of seeing faraway places is returning home with new ideas for our built environment and cultivating a deeper appreciation for all the blessings I have here on the home front.  I may have envied the raised bike lanes in Austin but I love the triple deckers in my city of Worcester.  I may have relished meeting new people who shared their housing stories and advocacy work with me and at the same time, was overjoyed to hug my husband, son and dog when I returned home.