In the midst of a pandemic and against all odds, the city of Austin, Texas’ state capital, has decided to move forward with a +$7.1bn public transportation plan[1]. The “Project Connect” had long been discussed at the City Council but in last summer 2020, Austinites eventually approved the retrofit and expansion of Austin’s Capital Metro Public transportation system.

Mural in Austin – April, 2020 (Source: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Even though Austin stands apart in Texas’ urban scene, it was hardly imaginable to see such a project getting off the ground for many reasons. Cars – or should I say trucks – not only dominate the transportation system, but epitomize Texans’ quest for freedom and independence. Behind this attachment to automobiles lies a strong devotion to the idea of liberty, and it is therefore not surprising that Texas spearheads the “small government” movement alongside Florida or Nevada. In everyday life, it means that Texans do not pay a state income tax and scrutinize local taxes ruthlessly. Texas has suffered a terrible toll with the Covid-19 pandemic and is currently caught in an unprecedented economic tailspin. Massive layoffs and record demand declines do not typically portend a favorable climate for urban development policies. In addition, despite light restrictions related to Covid-19 safety guidelines, Austin, the city of live music, has gone silent for months: no concerts, lowered capacity restaurants and emptied bars. The usual vibrant streets and shops have been deserted and life is just slowly starting to get back to normal thanks to the rapid rollout of the vaccine. Meanwhile, across the United States, many articles have questioned the safety of public transportation and suggested that people should opt for other modes of transportation, such as driving, cycling, or walking.

This confluence of circumstances could not have been worse for a public transportation project. Most American City Councils would have probably seen it as an insurmountable setback and given up the idea. Notwithstanding this dreary outlook, the inevitable increase in local taxes and the highly uncertain return on investment, Austin voters voted for this community project. Once again, Texas took us all by surprise!

Before taking a deep dive into “Project Connect”, we will outline the major historical dynamics of Texas’ urbanization, portray the main trends and challenges that are shaping the city of Austin today and offer hypotheses on the causes of such a bold move.

A quick history of Texas’ urbanization and Austin’s development

Often associated with vast expanses of land, ranching and of course oil, Texas actually offers a much more diverse scenery. John Wayne’s movies and the Dallas sitcom have nurtured people’s imagination, simplifying greatly the complex identity of the Lone Star State. Clichés span along a wide array of topics including energy, diversity and political inclination. For instance:

  • Even if Texas is famous worldwide for its Black Gold and shell gas, it produces more electricity from wind farms than any other state in the US.[2]
  • Texas’ major cities have consistently voted for Democratic candidates for local, state and presidential elections over the past decades.[3]
  • Texas is the second highest producing state by GDP[4] and the second most diverse state in the United States[5].

Similarly, Texas’ urbanization is not monolithic, and, throughout its modern history, it has witnessed several distinct waves of urban expansion. During the Spanish rule in the 18th Century, the opening of missions shaped urban settlements especially along the Rio Grande and the Guadalupe rivers. The city of San Antonio and its Fort Alamo serves as the most well-known example, but Texas’ ranching heritage is also a standing legacy of that era and the Hispanic influence. After the Texas revolution in the mid-19th-century, urban expansion was primarily led by Americans who settled in Texas from east to west, along the coast, and up the rivers in a sequential pattern of seaports, river towns, and railroad towns. The region was growing rapidly and cities like Galveston or Houston began to gain traction.

Austin succeeded Houston as the State capital in 1846, propelling it to the forefront of the political scene of the newly created Republic of Texas. However, shortly after the Texas revolution, the US Civil War erupted. The city voted to remain in the Union, but the rest of the state overwhelmingly expressed its will to join the Confederacy in 1861. The war wreaked havoc in the state and in Austin, spreading famines, ramping up inflation and taking the lives of most men sent to combat. In the 1870s, buoyed by the arrival of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, Austin prospered as a trading center, but the oil boom propelled smaller towns across the state, outshining Austin’s development. The city struggled to attract industrial investments, while a sprawling petrochemical industry corridor along the coast from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur thrived.

The city survived thanks to its first-class education system and prominence in the political sphere. Partially because of these factors, Austin’s population grew exponentially. African-American and Latin-American communities became more visible in a city that was not yet ready for change and racial justice. It impelled the 1928 City Plan,[6] which aimed to relocate Black communities, many of which had previously been operating their own churches and businesses across the city, into a dedicated part of town. Most African-Americans were relocated in the East-Austin neighborhood, on the other side of modern-day Interstate 35. In parallel, Latino families would concentrate in Eastern and South Eastern neighborhoods. Even into the 1950s, the city remained heavily segregated. Even if, with the Civil Rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Right Act, race tensions started to thaw, discrimination persisted in employment, housing or education.

Only later in the 20th century did Austin eventually begin its transformation into the city we know today. In the 1960s, IBM and Texas Instruments pioneered the development of the city’s electronics industry, starting with typewriter and computer manufacturing plants. In the 1970s and the 1980s, a confluence of political and economic decisions solidified Austin’s position not only as a hub for computer manufacturing, but also in the nascent technology industry. One of the most vivid examples of that period is Governor Mark White’s resolution to support research and development and send the already well-regarded University of Texas to the forefront of innovation. The dot-com bubble of the 1990s and the GAFAM hegemony in the 2000s contributed to the expansion of Austin’s wealth. Since then, Austin has experienced exponential growth from a $4bn economy in 1970 to a $140bn today[7], and has managed to diversify its economy in activities that are booming and doing better than most in the 21st century.

Photography of Austin’s Capitol taken in the 1890s and in 2019

(Source: Austin Public Library)[8]

Austin, the fastest growing city in America

Today, Austin is frequently featured in rankings of the fastest growing cities in America[9]. It has become a get-away town for many young high-level professionals that used to live in other Texas’ cities such as Dallas and Houston, as well as smaller towns like College Station or Waco. Newcomers from California and the East Coast are also amplifying this trend. The city’s success rest on a dynamic and highly qualified job market in tech, finance, and real estate as well as low housing prices, low taxes, and a coveted quality of life.

If we drill down into the data, a few metrics confirm the velocity of this dramatic growth. The size of the population is one example of Austin’s prosperity. The Austin metropolitan area’s[10] population has nearly doubled in less than 20 years. Second, the number of companies investing in Austin has continued to grow. Austin’s prominent position in the technology sector, thanks to the early investments of big tech majors, has enabled it to structure a powerful ecosystem of entrepreneurship, create a strong platform for start-up creation and attract venture capital funds and new companies! In 2019, Austin even entered the Top 10 of US Cities with the largest overall value of venture capital transactions[11] (+28% increase compare to 2018[12]). In the last 15 years, 500+ companies have decided to relocate their headquarters in Austin translating to 60,000+ jobs[13].The scope of Austin’s business expansion is even more impressive when we account for companies opening a second or a third office, or simply expanding their existing location. Most of the recent announcements from tech companies like Google, Amazon or Microsoft fall in this last category. For example, Google announced in 2019 that it will continue to expand its activities significantly, leasing new spaces and reinforcing its staffing for Android, Google Play or Cloud[14].

The growth and expansion of the city is vividly shown in this Business Cycle Index diagram from Austin’s Chamber of Commerce. It underpins how dramatic Austin’s expansion has been over the last decades.

Austin’s and Texas’ Business Cycle Index from 1980 to 2020 – Chamber of Commerce Austin[15]

The city’s diversity has also increased and reshuffled the distribution of race and ethnicity amongst its population with some striking key trends: the size of the Asian and Asian-American demographic should surpass the African-American population in less than 10 years, and Hispanics are expected to surpass White Americans in less than 25 years.

Rapid expansion is not always a blessing and the city is dealing with a varied set of challenges: inequality, urban sprawl, water and soil pollution, poverty and traffic congestion. With the city’s economic growth and the creation of highly skilled employment, housing prices are skyrocketing and peaking at record highs in many neighborhoods around the city, including those that were overlooked in the recent past, like South Congress and East Austin. Most inhabitants of these areas are leaving because they cannot afford their rents or mortgages anymore. The gentrification of lower-income inner-city neighborhoods harms the diversity of the city and more generally reinforces inequality while fueling urban sprawl. Austin’s urban expansion has been exponential in the last 15 years in all 5 counties of Austin’s Metropolitan area (see graphs below).

National Land Cover Data for Austin’s Metropolitan area in 1992 and 2011[16]

These economic and demographic trends have also reshuffled the power struggle among Texan cities, which had previously been dominated by Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Austin does not sit in the outsider’s position anymore and is now ready to take a seat at the table. The city is currently ramping up its logistical hub to gain economic independence from Houston and Dallas. However, an infrastructure size mismatch still exists. The current road network is simply not suited for the city’s size. Interstate Highway 35 (IH-35)[17] receives most of the commuter and industrial traffic and is frequently quoted as one of the most dangerous and jammed sections of highway in the US. Congestion and traffic have been top of mind for Austin’s politicians and statesmen and have likely forced decision-makers to take a closer look at public transportation.

Austin’s dream to go big on public transportation in a covid-19 era

Austin’s public transportation, CapMetro, is composed of a large network of bus routes in addition to a single-line commuter rail that runs from North Austin to downtown. With the pandemic, usage of both CapMetro’s buses and trains have plunged. In December 2020, ridership was down by almost 48% compared to December 2019. The reduction in business activity, the increasing unemployment rate, the sudden surge in remote study and work as well as the fear of the virus in enclosed spaces have impacted public transportation usage significantly. Micro-mobility transportation systems such as shared scooters and shared bikes, which had exploded in Austin before the pandemic, have also plummeted.

More generally, public transit has lost its momentum with the pandemic. Public transit’s occupancy level remains very low whereas driving has caught up with the levels of pre-pandemic. Some experts[18] even suggest that people have shifted their mode and invested in cars. For many observers, it could plunge cities into the “transit death spiral”, meaning that revenue from ticketing will go down, repairs and retrofits will become less frequent and public investments will be more scarce as the number of users decreases, thus deteriorating the service in the end and prompting riders to choose another commute option.

In these circumstances, it is hard to predict how well Austin’s CapMetro “Project Connect” will do, especially in an urban area marked so heavily by the use of cars. However, Austin may count on specific features that could drive adoption.

First, the plan is ambitious enough to build a viable option for drivers. “Project Connect” not only includes new bus routes and intensified services, it plans on adding five more light rail lines and a Park and Ride network. The pattern behind these new lines and route expansions mainly targets students, business travelers and tourists, offering a direct connection from the airport to the city center or convention center, for example. Young, highly skilled workers that tend to live primarily in the city center could also adopt this new transportation system. However, families that have already decided to live further away to find more affordable housing and amenities such as schools are unlikely to use such a service, setting Austin even farther apart and making it even more inaccessible for lower and mid-level income families.

Beyond transit, “Project Connect” could help transform the city of Austin into a more walkable and ridable urban area. This shift is already visible in the city center, as the number of bikes, pedestrians and electric scooters has proliferated in recent years. This accessibility is key to retaining and attracting young and highly educated people, who are accustomed to the lifestyle benefits of other cities like San Francisco or Boston. Another characteristic that Austin shares with San Francisco and Boston is its powerful higher education setting. There is no denying that the environment created by the University of Texas helps drive this inner-city development and will be instrumental in the success of “Project Connect”[19].

Conclusion

Anyone who has once visited, worked or lived in Texas knows that this state is not walkable or even ridable. Its cities and highways are meant for cars and trucks, while its scenic drives are designed for motorcycles. Anyone who has ever been to Austin also knows how different this city is and how fast it is changing. “Project Connect” is one example of how Austin is emerging as a unique Texan city that soon will be more comparable to cities on the East or West coasts than to Houston or Dallas. Austin has clearly taken another path to growth, and continues to break away from the rest of the state. Its strong tech and higher-education influences as well as its liberal mindset push forward projects that would be inconceivable for many other parts of Texas. Even if the city’s improvement and gentrification are a win per se, the concentration of wealth and increasing inequalities threaten its successful development. It seems that Austin ought to find a way to properly balance both aspects.  “Project Connect” will probably not solve all these challenges at once, but may lay the groundwork for future infrastructure improvement. Beyond demographics, economics and urbanization, let’s hope that the city will manage to maintain and capitalize on its unique attributes by nurturing its cowboy folklore, embracing its artsy scene and preserving its early eco-friendly projects. In doing so, Austin will probably keep itself weird!

Footnotes

[1] Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors joint meeting with Austin City Hall August 2020 http://capmetrotx.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=1822&Inline=True

[2] Top US states for wind electricity generation – US Energy Information Administration (June 2019)

https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39772

[3] US Presidential Election results in 2016 and 2020 – CNN Politics 2016 https://www.cnn.com/election/2016/results/states/texas

and 2020 https://www.cnn.com/election/2020/results/state/texas

[4] Gross Domestic Product by State (Q3 2020) p7 Bureau of Economic Analysis https://www.bea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/qgdpstate1220_0.pdf

[5] Most & Least Diverse States in America – (September 2020) Wallet Hub https://wallethub.com/edu/most-least-diverse-states-in-america/38262

[6] Austin PBS Revealed Civil Right Stories https://www.pbs.org/black-culture/shows/list/austin-texas-civil-rights/

[7] Interview of Lee Cooke, former Mayor of Austin, Austin PBS Revealed: https://www.pbs.org/video/booting-up-big-tech-powering-up-the-economy-mhu5oo/

[8] Capitol from Old Main Building (University of Texas) https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth125127/m1/1/

[9] “Austin named America’s fastest-growing large city in 2019”, October 2019, Rice University https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2019/10/22/wallethub-austin-dallas-houston-fastest-growing-cities-2019

[10] Population Overview – Austin Chamber of Commerce – Including the 5 counties of Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williamson https://www.austinchamber.com/economic-development/austin-profile/population/overview

[11] “Austin Reaches Top 10 In US Venture Markets With Record Funding In 2019” (January 2020) Crunch base News https://news.crunchbase.com/news/austin-reaches-top-10-in-us-venture-markets-with-record-funding-in-2019/

[12] “Austin’s 2019 VC Investment Hits $1.7 Billion, up Nearly 28 Percent from 2018” – Silicon Hills News (January 2020) http://siliconhillsnews.com/2020/01/14/austins-2019-vc-investment-hits-1-7-billion-up-nearly-28-percent-from-2018/

[13] “Tech’s Major Migration to Austin, TX”, Crunchbase News, (April 2019) https://news.crunchbase.com/news/techs-great-migration-to-austin-tx/

[14] “Google Says it plans significant expansions in Austin”, Statesman (June 2019)

 https://www.statesman.com/news/20190614/google-says-it-plans-significant-expansion-in-austin

[15] Business Cycle Index – Austin Chamber of Commerce and Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas https://www.austinchamber.com/blog/09-08-2020-business-cycle-index

[16] A geospatial analysis of the urban heat island effect in Austin, TX – Shae Mackenzie Richardson (2015)

https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/5628/Richardson%2CShaeFinal.pdf?sequence=1

[17] “I-35 has the worst traffic in Texas”, Statesman News (December 2020) https://www.statesman.com/story/news/local/2020/12/01/study-i-35-in-austin-has-worst-traffic-in-texas/115081244/

[18] “Public transit has lost its momentum during the pandemic. Can it be regained?” Rice University (August 2020) https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2020/08/05/coronavirus-pandemic-houston-metro-public-transit-ridership

[19] “How Universities can renew America’s cities?” (2014) Brookings Institution – https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/how-universities-can-renew-americas-cities/

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