April 19, 2024 8:00am

Local transportation: The present and the future

Power Poll shows little confidence that Austin ever will have public mass transit that gets respondents out of their vehicles

Photo of Ken Herman
Austin, TX Correspondent
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This month, Power Poll asked Austin-area respondents about how they get around town in a town that’s a lot harder to get around than it was in the past.

The results about the local transportation future were pretty clear. Despite ambitous, expensive plans to expand local public mass transit, 78% of the area business, governmental, political and civic leaders who responded told Power Poll they don’t foresee a day in their lifetimes when they’ll greatly decrease the use of their personal vehicles.

Only 22% said they could foresee that day.

Lionel Felix, CEO of Felix Media Solutions, said Austin is less than ideal for the kind of rail transit planned for the future.

“Our city is not dense and it will never be dense. The lack of walkability and density to make light rail rational is not there and wont be,” he said. “We missed that train. Should we be dense and have light rail? Yes. Can we ever get there? No.”

He added, “Spending billions because a minority of people cannot afford or opt out of cars is not good policy.”

But Scott Francis, CEO of BP3 Capital, said the time is right to expand rail.

“We should build now for the city we want to be in 20 years. The (current) Red Line was the subject of jokes when built. But 20 years later look at what is on that line from Lakeline to McKalla to Crescent to Saltillo Plaza to downtown. Each stop has interesting development. The density will follow the train line builds. Let’s get on with it.”

Eric Bandholz, founder and CEO of Beardbrand, said the transportation future is approaching and will be different than the present.

“Self-driving cars are right around the corner and will fundamentally transform how we commute. Building a mass transit system at this point is the most irresponsible decision,” Bandholz said. “For a much lower price you could buy a fleet of Teslas (and support a local manufacturer) and give riders point-to-point transportation. It’s much more flexible to scale with demand.”

Local novelist Sarah Bird responded to Bandholz with this: “Might we consider the public transit riders who will never, ever, be able to afford the self-driving cars believed to be ‘right around the corner.’”

Lazan Pargaman, an associate broker with Kuper Sotheby's International Realty Austin, said Power Poll’s mass transit question wasn’t properly focused.

“It would be wonderful to have effective and efficient mass transit in Austin,” Pargaman commented. “I wonder why the question posed wasn’t about whether we wanted mass transit but was instead posed from the skeptical viewpoint of whether we think we will ever have it.”

No respondent said they currently use Capital Metro’s trains or buses on a daily basis. Only 2% said they use it once or twice a week. Another 6% categorized their Cap Metro usage as occasional. Thirty-six percent said they use it rarely.

A majority, 57%, said they’ve never used it.

And, in what can be interpreted as support for continued use of personal vehicles, 63% of respondents said they believe the current multi-billion-dollar project that will expand and make major changes in Interstate 35 through downtown and Central Austin will prove to be worth the high price tag.

But Felix believes relatively minor changes, compared to the planned massive overhaul and redesign, is all that’s needed.

“Spending billions to put lipstick on that pig is offensive,” he said. “Fixing it so there are the right number of lanes and the least amount of friction in the on/off/merge is the only investment needed. Turning it into a park is insane. We have parks. Cities have highways that cut through them, that's literally how cities work. Fix the efficiency by streamlining traffic flow.”

A question about what kind of vehicles respondents count on as their primary form of transportation showed that 79% have a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle. Another 10% said they have a hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle and 9% said their primary vehicle is fully electric. Bicycle was listed as primary vehicle for 2% of respondents.

Respondents were divided on the City of Austin’s ambitious attempts to encourage bicycle transportation by installing lanes and structures aimed at making cycling safer. A slim majority - 51% - said the city has not gone too far with the bike lane project, leaving 49% who said the city has gone too far.

“Bike lanes went from some extra striping to major construction and unsightly and dangerous installed poles, plastic fencing and the dots which can make a close turn go from a bump to totalling a car while presenting a major hazard for the bikes they intend to protect,” said Felix. “I’m liberal, a cyclist and pro-bike lanes, but this is turning into a farce. Reflective paint, call it a day and if you want to ride (RM) 2222 on a bike, that's insanity regardless of barriers.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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