7 Strategies to Solve Austin’s Traffic Problems More Effectively

austin traffic solutions

Last week we looked at induced demand and learned why adding road capacity will not result in a decrease in Austin’s traffic congestion. Due to the rational (and irrational) behavior of urban travelers, it’s safe to say that we can’t expect to necessarily improve traffic by adding more road capacity. Instead, we should look at alternative options to help solve Austin’s traffic problems.

First, I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying we should never build any roads. Rather, the purpose of the last article was to show that a road system must be appropriately sized for it to be financially sustainable. Because roads require continuous and costly maintenance, it doesn’t make sense to build an elaborate highway system requiring continuous investment. Instead, let’s provide travelers with more options and use our existing system more efficiently.

Again, there is no magic bullet. To relieve congestion and reduce travel times, we will need to rely on a thousand small cuts. Some strategies rely on decision-makers and politicians for implementation, others are things you can do individually. The strategies here are by no means exhaustive, but each is an opportunity to alleviate some of Austin’s current problems.

So, without further ado, here are my seven key strategies to solve Austin’s traffic problems more effectively:

Toll Roads

Toll roads and managed lanes, lanes with a surcharge to use or free for high-occupancy vehicles, can make an immediate impact on traffic. Roads may seem like a free public commodity, but taxpayers subsidize their overuse. By adding a cost to each trip, we start to re-balance demand: People who do not wish to pay will shift how they travel, when they travel, and if they travel. It also provides a more reliable travel time to those who are willing to pay–which is a particularly important for truck drivers or people like me who want to make a flight on time!

Separated Rail and Bus Rapid Transit

Adding grade-separated or lane-separated transit (like bus or rail) provides an effective alternative to driving because it’s not as impacted by road congestion. Because they operate on separate systems removed from the traffic, travel times are drastically reduced, making it an attractive system to commuters. The key here is to select strategic routes that serve and connect geographic areas with higher-density or concentrated housing and employment centers.

Separated Bicycle Lanes

There is no point bicycling to work if you get stuck in traffic and have to wait behind cars. Providing a separate, continuous bike lane system is not only safer, it’s a great alternative to driving and can shift a significant number of commuters, particularly in central city areas. In London, bicycling is already faster than driving to most points in the city.

Land Use Planning

The golden ticket is coordinating transportation and land use planning. By appropriately zoning for higher density, mixed-use development in central areas, we can increase the number of citizens who can viably commute between work and home by transit, bicycle, walking, or even carpooling. Promoting the concentration of employment will ensure that transit routes can be developed to actually take people to their place of work.

Unfortunately, the State of Texas does not permit zoning or land use planning outside of municipal boundaries, so urban areas will continue to sprawl indefinitely without changes to legislation. However, if we focus on building fewer roads to remote areas, we can reduce the desirability of land at the periphery and deter development that contributes to both urban sprawl and congestion.

We can also zone appropriately within our municipal boundaries. The City of Austin has been particularly focused on developing high-density districts around MetroRail stations over the past few years, and in the coming decade, we will reap many of the benefits of these strategies, particularly once redevelopment is complete and more frequent train service becomes viable.

Employer Policies: Telecommuting and Employer-paid Transit

Policies that allow telecommuting and staggered work hours can reduce peak demand and the number of work trips in a region. Employer-paid transit passes or subsidies can also give people that push to use public transit It’s also good practice to have ample bicycle parking and shower/locker facilities.

Charging for Parking

Eliminating free parking can be the most effective tool at reducing the number of single-occupant vehicles on the road. Creating a parking cash-out program or charging monthly fees for spaces can be one of the easiest and most effective programs at shifting demand. It also helps waste less space on parking and allow for more structural development in high value areas.

Y-O-U and Your Friends

It sounds cliché, but you really can make a difference by making smart choices!

Step one: Live as close to your workplace and neighborhoods you frequent as possible. Before you think you could only afford a home in Hutto, you should remember that most American suburbanites spend upwards of 30 percent of their income on transportation. That means you could afford something more expensive in central areas by cutting transportation costs.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology has a great tool that shows the lowest cost areas of American cities based on a composite housing and transportation index, and the results are not what you might expect; close-in areas are in most cases less expensive! See for yourselves here.

In Conclusion: We have enough roads already!

Believe it or not, we already have more roadways than we can really afford. The Federal Government subsidizes construction of roadways–up to 80 percent of the cost in the case of the interstate highway system– but not operations and maintenance. This has left us financially overburdened, particularly given the limited revenue sources that are politically palatable (Remember: gas taxes have not gone up in decades despite higher fuel economy). That’s why we have to make optimal use of our existing infrastructure AND promote a multi-modal, balanced system. Not only will it save us time and money, it will create an urban environment that provides a better quality of life for all of us.

We may not all reach the same conclusions, but I feel very strongly that the solution to our transportation woes will need to be multi-faceted, and new roadways are not the answer.

What other options should Austin consider to reduce traffic?Or do you still think roads are the answer?

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Photo Credit: johnphilipg on Flickr used under Creative Commons

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In their 2030 Mobility Plan, the City of Austin, its partners, and the region’s transportation planning organization (AKA CAMPO) are emphasizing many of these strategies.

About Mark Gilbert

East Austinite, Certified Urban Planner, hiker, food-lover, and coffee-savvy traveler committed to developing a sustainable, high quality environment.

8 thoughts on “7 Strategies to Solve Austin’s Traffic Problems More Effectively

  1. Pingback: Will building more roads in Austin decrease traffic? | Austin Blog on Life Music Culture -- Republic of Austin

  2. Charlie Richards

    Allowing motorcycles to filter traffic is a start, unfortunately it’s not up to the city, but the state instead.

    Reply
  3. Justa Fact

    What a load of nonsense. More roads won’t decrease traffic? Seriously? Your premise to any thinking person is, well, just plain silly. Yes, roads have a maintenance component – so does mass transit – big time! You offer a false economy. Urban rail running from 51st to Congress has a projected price tag of $1B and an eight figure annual maintenance budget. It will do NOTHING for 98% of Austin residents who will be stuck with the tab. It will do little to NOTHING in reducing traffic on key commute corridors; to imply otherwise is an outright lie. Imagine what $1B could do to upgrade commute corridors and Austin arterials – improvements that facilitate traffic flow and service all Austinites. Fixed mass transit works in cities grown up around the horse and buggy where goods, services and residences are clustered. It doesn’t work in places developed around the automobile. Advances in automotive technology promise a diminishing viability and return for fixed, expensive to maintain mass transit ideas Urban rail does nothing a bus can’t do cheaper and with more flexibility. The difference is, busses don’t fill the coffers of the planners, engineers, train builders and myriad of corporations that feed at the ‘urban rail trough’. It’s the ultimate scheme to extract huge amounts tax dollars from a community. The only way this should work is if it can operate entirely on it’s own merit, without being put on the back of the already overtaxed homeowner.

    Reply
    • Mark D. Gilbert

      Hi Justa, that certainly is an opinion that many people share. I plan on writing an article to explain, in my own opinion, the separate merits of new starts rail systems as opposed to bus systems. Both actually serve different purposes- one being a long-term land development tool (rail) in which the very fact that the route is inflexible is why it promotes higher density redevelopment in central neighborhoods that will permit current and future residents in those areas to live car-free veruss one that adjusts to meet fluctuations in route demand (bus). Both have value. While you are entitled to your own opinion, I think you are still ignoring the very strong latent demand factor that I discussed in the previous article, explaining that there is no amount of roadway in our region that can ever be constructed to alleviate demand- both existing and currently unrealized. Consequently, it is of paramount importance to make better efficiency with our existing infrastructure, which is what the seven strategies above attempt to do. I would also encourage you to visit cities like Portland and Vancouver, which have not group up in a horse and buggy era, but rather are modern examples of developing new transit systems that have been wildly successful and cheaper than the road building/maintaining alternative. Finally, as a last comment- transportation is not exclusively about economics, though that plays an important role- it is also about providing users with reasonable and equitable options and improving the public sphere and our collective quality of life, something that better pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure is uniquely capable of achieving. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Reply
  4. J. rost

    As far as bottlenecks go you have to look at where the traffic is backing up on a case by case basis. My idea to make traffic flow on loop 360 is free and easy to implement. It will also draw traffic from MoPac if it works.

    Two major bottle necks on loop 360 are the light at Jester and the light at BridgePoint. If those two lights would stay green from say 8:00 to 9:00, then traffic would not backup at all at those two lights. The reason this works is that there is another exit from Jester on 2222 and the other exit from the Courtyard north that dumps to 2222. Keeping the lights green on 360 means no one has to actually use the traffic lights because you can merge going north or south by going around to the entrances to 360 at the 2222 interchanges. It means using a tiny bit more gas for those people who want to not go to 2222 to go north or south at those lights, but the enormous amount of gas saved by everyone else will pale in comparison.
    The other two bottle necks lights are at Spicewood Spring and Westlake Drive. If those two lights were solid green for North/South traffic and blinking red for crossing, then it would be up to the driver to either turn right and merge and turn around down at a crossover, or wait for a break in the traffic to turn left across the intersection…. I’ve really thought this thru and it would work…if only people could learn how to drive better…

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Austin Traffic - Dealing with Traffic and Shipping Delays

  6. Tim

    I live in Cedar Park and work off 360 near Bee Caves Road. I would love to ride my bike to work except it is just not safe to do so. People drive on shoulder of 360 and on the grassy median. I cant blame them because we are all frustrated. I just wish there was a dedicated cycle path/road that I think could be built rather inexpensively we could use…

    Reply

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