A Post-Urban Rail Transit Agenda

Over the past few weeks, quite a few people connected to city politics have told me that they don’t think the urban rail proposal will pass in November. With the current property tax unrest and questionable merits of this operationally risky, $1.4 billion urban rail project, I believe it would be careless for Mayor Leffingwell to continue pushing for this project to be on the November 2014 ballot.

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Photo by John Anderson

During Mayor Leffingwell’s State of the City Address earlier this year, he went so far as to threaten that if Austin did not pass a rail bond this year, we would fail as a city. This level of simplistic thinking and fear mongering on a complex city issue like public transit is not only wrong, it is extremely unproductive to transit politics. We deserve more from our elected officials.

How We Got Here

Mayor Leffingwell obviously did not come up with the “Rail of Fail” soundbite by himself. It came from a group of people within the establishment who think that any rail project is better than no rail project at all. This group’s perspective is largely framed by the failed 2000 light rail election, which lost by only a very small margin.

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Photo by Austin Rail Now

Since then, this small group of well-intentioned-but-misinformed urbanists have slowly and half-heartedly pushed for a rail investment that follows a path of least resistance. Their rationale for not pushing for another proposal on the most favored, heavily traveled, and comparatively more dense Guadalupe/Lamar corridor is based on the fear that it is politically unfeasible to take a lane away from automobile traffic. They have instead favored a proposal on San Jacinto that would seek to use transit primarily to encourage urban development at Mueller (and most recently at Highland Mall) where it currently does not exist.

I am sympathetic to those that are frustrated with the merits of this specific urban rail proposal, yet are worried that we may never get another opportunity to put rail on the ballot. After all, I used to be one of them! Their position is summed up here by fellow Urban Transportation Commissioner Rich MacKinnon and rebutted here by ex-AURA Executive Committee Member Julio Gonzalez Altamirano. (I really encourage everyone to read those two posts. It is a good example of the current state of affairs among Austin’s transit community. For brevity’s sake, I chose to skip a more in depth explanation.)

I ultimately changed my mind about this proposal a few years ago when I realized how operationally inefficient and risky this project was actually going to be. Contrary to what the public is being told by Project Connect, there are actually very few corridors in Austin with the land use and density needed for rail to make financial sense; that is, where it is actually more cost-effective to run rail than buses. The arbitrary Highland Sub-Corridor outlined by Project Connect simply does not have sufficient densities to support rail at this time.

A lot of people are wondering what will happen if rail ends up failing. Obviously Leffingwell’s “Rail or Fail” saying isn’t true. If the proposal ends up failing in the November election, life–and Austin’s transit system–will simply go on. A much more desirable outcome from an advocacy standpoint, however, would be for Mayor Leffingwell to give up on this project altogether. No matter what happens with urban rail this year, the majority of Austinites utilizing public transit will continue doing so on a bus for the foreseeable future. And I will see them there.

Lessons Learned

So, with more than five years of going back and forth over the many iterations of this fundamentally flawed urban rail proposal, what lessons have we learned?

For almost a decade, the obsession with urban rail as a symbol of a “world class city” has stood as an impediment to addressing the real problems with Austin’s transit system. I believe that one of the biggest lessons throughout all of this is that we need to stop talking about transit in only “rail vs bus” terms. Outside of CapMetro and City Hall circles, very few people care whether they’re on a bus or a train. What they do care about, however, is how good their transit system is at providing freedom of movement throughout our city. In many cases, the vehicle type matters very little when it comes to providing that freedom. For example, put a rail vehicle in the same environment as a “slow” bus & you’ll see how absurd technology discussions really are. What matters most to improving service in Austin is infrastructure.

In 2012, I wrote the following in an email to the Alliance for Public Transportation leadership after Mayor Leffingwell decided to postpone putting the urban rail bond on the ballot:

“Going forward, I would encourage us to focus less on transit technology (rail or bus) and more on level of transit service (frequency, speed, span, etc). Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant and author of Human Transit, believes regions should focus “on mobility outcomes, and use whatever technology best delivers those outcomes in each corridor.”

This particular lesson cannot be overstated. We have to understand that what is important to attracting global talent in the 21st Century isn’t shiny rail vehicles, but the actual freedom that transit service gives to those wanting to live a carfree lifestyle. In the future, let’s focus less on the wrapper and more on the substance of transit service.

Where We Are Going

It is time to start building a new narrative about transit that brings Austin’s transit community together. Below is a list of things that I will be focusing on over the next two years:

  • Get good leadership with a real understanding of transit on the CapMetro Board and on City Council
  • Establish a frequent service bus network for Austin similar to the Houston proposal
  • Improve MetroRapid by expanding the transit priority lanes, increasing frequency and addressing the fare issue
  • Develop better transit cost-effectiveness and equity measures for CapMetro’s service guidelines and standards
  • Implement policies that allocate public right of way based on actual transportation modeshare studies
  • Improve the way CapMetro collects, delivers, and presents data, information, and alerts to the public
  • Integrate extensive public outreach and community involvement within the CapMetro decision-making process
  • Build a stronger transit constituency in Austin by connecting grassroots and grasstops leadership
  • Grow a culture of transit in Austin through the use of new media and other unconventional campaigns

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a blog post dedicated specifically to each of the ideas outlined above.

Help Wanted

If there is one thing I have learned over the past year, it is that I cannot do any of this by myself. Do you have other ideas on how to make Austin’s transit system better? Please share them with me on Twitter and Facebook! I will be compiling our ideas and will eventually host a public workshop to develop more concrete ideas on how to go about achieving each goal.

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Urban Rail Predictions

Later today, Project Connect will likely present the Mayor and the Central Corridor Advisory Group with two basic alignment options for the urban rail project; one that crosses the lake and one that does not. Today’s meeting will move Austin closer to choosing the final proposal that will be presented to voters in November of this year.

The Two Options

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Project Connect will likely present an alignment option that goes from downtown, up the San Jacinto/Trinity couplet (or perhaps the Guadalupe/Lavaca couplet), through the University of Texas on San Jacinto, and along Red River to the Hancock Center and onto Highland Mall. Project Connect will also likely present an alignment option that goes from the University of Texas, down the San Jacinto/Trinity couplet (or perhaps the Guadalupe/Lavaca couplet), across the lake using a new bridge, and down East Riverside.

Best Choice: East Riverside

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The Mayor and the members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group should move forward with the second option. As I outlined in my first ever blog post, East Riverside scored at the top in both of Project Connect’s serving and shaping scenarios. East Riverside is uniquely set up to support urban rail. As Chris Bradford has pointed out, the East Riverside community “just got through a multi-year planning process culminating in the East Riverside Corridor regulating plan,” which is premised on the hope that they would soon be served by urban rail. The same level of planning and involvement cannot be said for the communities along Red River, many of which are strongly opposed to any changes to existing land use. Another benefit of East Riverside is the amount of right of way Project Connect has to work with. There is plenty of room on East Riverside to run urban rail on congestion-proof, dedicated lanes. East Riverside is also a very straight corridor, directly going from East Austin into downtown. As Jarrett Walker has repeatedly shown, direct routes often have higher ridership than circuitous routes with many turns. The gerrymandered and circuitous nature of the route to Hancock/Highland will undoubtedly make transit service slower than it has to be. To top off all of these other benefits, East Riverside has been a uniting force among transit advocates, where as the route on Red River has been deeply dividing. Political leaders would be wise to choose a route that bridged North and South Austin. After all, what better symbol of our transit system’s backbone than a bridge?

Why It Will Not Be East Riverside

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While I think East Riverside is clearly the best option for urban rail under these two options, I am fairly confident that the Mayor and the Central Corridor Advisory Group will move forward with the Hancock/Highland option. Council members and city staff have sent out consistent messages pointing to an initial rail sequence that goes up Red River to Hancock Center and Highland Mall. Much of the work being presented to the public during this process is from previous projects and engineering studies that only considered a universe of alignment options to Highland and East Riverside. Every single one of the previous recommendations (PDF) presented to City Council favor a Phase 1 investment that goes up Red River and a Phase 2 that crosses the lake. The eventual final recommendation that Project Connect will make will continue on this narrative.

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Stuck In A Hamster Wheel

What’s really surprising to me in all of this is just how little the current Central Corridor process has changed the actual urban rail plan. The plan being considered now is, for all intents and purposes, the same plan from previous proposals. It pains me to admit this, but it’s almost like the current process was designed to end up with a predetermined recommendation. This sort of process was not what AURA asked for when we launched our campaign a year ago. We wanted a process that would test our own and the City’s assumptions on where urban rail could best serve our community. This process is only reinforcing our assumptions.

Next Steps

So, what’s next? At this point, I think it’s clear to everyone that the small, insulated group of political leaders are intent on presenting the Hancock/Highland urban rail alignment to the voters this November. While there is a possibility that some political leaders could be persuaded to delay bringing this to a vote, I think that we should let the current leadership go through with this. The Mayor seems set on using urban rail primarily to encourage development rather than serving the needs of regular Austinites. I do not think we can enlighten the current leadership on the real way that transit works to enrich people’s lives.

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An urban rail alignment that goes up Red River to the Hancock Center or Highland Mall is speculative and risky. It is my belief that the voting public in Austin is fairly risk averse. With the numerous other bond proposals that are likely to be on the November ballot, I am not confident that an urban rail alignment up Red River will pass. Either way, it is time that we break free from the unfortunate situation that this project has put Austin transit advocates in. We need a proposal that will unite us rather than divide us.

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My Thoughts On MetroRapid

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With the launch of MetroRapid quickly approaching, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I anticipate will be Capital Metro’s most successful project over the past decade. Starting on January 26th, Austinites will be able to ride new accordion-style buses from South Congress, through downtown, past UT and up North Lamar (Route 801). Later this year, a second route will be launched that travels from South Lamar, through downtown, past UT and up Burnet Road (Route 803). These new buses and the infrastructure supporting them are Capital Metro’s first attempt at what is referred to by transit planners as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT originated in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974 and has since spread across the world as an alternative to rail transit investments. The goal of BRT, especially in US markets, is to make riders feel that the system is more than “just regular bus service” by providing faster, more frequent, and higher quality service.

MetroRapid Features
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One of the most important features of a BRT system is the allocation of dedicated transit lanes. With the launch of MetroRapid, buses will travel along transit priority lanes through downtown. Automobiles will still be allowed to enter this lane to make right turns, but it will certainly help make Austin’s transit system more reliable by giving buses the ability to bypass what is now chronic downtown congestion.

The new MetroRapid vehicles come with added features.  Those accordion-style buses don’t just look cool, they will also be able to carry more people than regular local buses. This will hopefully mean a seat for everyone, which is a welcome change to the often overcrowded Route 1M/1L buses. These vehicles will also have multi-door boarding, which will help reduce dwell times at stations.

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Another important feature that MetroRapid will have is bus signal prioritization outside of downtown. MetroRapid vehicles will have the ability to communicate with stop lights, allowing for extended green lights. This will help delayed vehicles catch up to meet their scheduled arrival and departure times.

While I am concerned with Route 801’s frequency (of which I will discuss later on in this post), riders on Route 803 will see the amount of time they will have to wait at the bus stop cut in half. These ten minute headways will give riders freedom from bus schedules by allowing them to show up to the stop whenever they want with the promise that a bus will soon arrive.

The MetroRapid feature that I am most excited for is the release of real-time transit information. Riders will soon have the ability to know exactly how far away their bus is. The information will be displayed not only at each station, but will also be accessible on mobile devices. As a side note, I believe this will be a good leverage point for those wanting Capital Metro to officially adopt an open data policy.  Real-time transit data provides Capital Metro with great opportunity to open up their data so that third party developers can come up with new and innovative applications.

I strongly believe that all of these features, combined with clear and attractive branding, will help encourage more people to take advantage of transit in Austin.

Is MetroRapid BRT?

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There has been a lot of discussion in Austin about whether or not MetroRapid even qualifies as BRT. During discussions like these, it’s important to keep in mind that there is not one single feature that defines BRT. What makes a bus system qualify as BRT, rather, is the quality and combination of a few key features. In order to help define BRT, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) created The BRT Standard. According to ITDP’s BRT Standard and my fairly generous scoring, MetroRapid qualifies as “basic” BRT by scoring a 46/100. So MetroRapid is not “just regular bus service”, but there is clearly room for improvement if we want this system to achieve a Bronze, Silver or Gold BRT rating.

Future Improvements
So what specifically can Capital Metro & the City of Austin do to improve MetroRapid in the future?

Expand Dedicated Lanes
First, we should expand the amount of dedicated lanes we are giving to MetroRapid vehicles. The transit priority lanes are a great start, but we should really be looking to implement this tool where it matters most; on Austin’s congestion chokepoints. One of the City of Austin Transportation Department’s main goals for high-capacity transit is to break through what they refer to as the “Ring of Congestion”. This “Ring of Congestion” encompasses Lady Bird Lake to the South, I-35 to the East, the University of Texas to the North, and Mopac to the West. These barriers essentially funnel traffic destined for downtown onto a few key streets. This creates a transportation situation where no one wins and everyone loses.

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According to Jarrett Walker, “if you’re trying to create a transit advantage over a wide area of the city, it may well make sense to have a segment of exclusive transit right-of-way that gets you through a chokepoint”. Because city staff and politicians seem wary of taking any more room away from automobiles, transit advocates should do their part by giving them political cover for expanding dedicated lanes where it can make the biggest impact on transit reliability.

Increase Frequency on North Lamar & South Congress
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As I shared earlier, one of the things that concerns me most about MetroRapid is that many of today’s Route 1M/1L riders will actually end up losing frequency. Mike Dahmus is right: While the 10 minute headways on Route 803 will be a great improvement over existing levels of service (riders on South Lamar and Burnet Road will see headways cut in half), most riders along Route 801 will actually be losing frequency. This bares repeating: With the launch of MetroRapid later this month, transit riders on our city’s highest ridership route that live outside of the urban core (i.e., South of Cesar Chavez and North of 38th Street) will see a decrease in frequency over existing conditions. Riders who are traveling between Cesar Chavez and 38th Street will see a an increase in service due to duplicate service. When I asked Project Connect staff about this issue at last month’s Urban Transportation Commission meeting, they shrugged it off as negligible. As transit advocates, we should be asking these hard questions and pressing Capital Metro to increase the frequency levels on Route 801 (or on the new consolidated Route 1).

Improve Walkability and Access
As a member of both the City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission and Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee, I have a unique window into the way transit issues fit into the broader multi-modal picture. I always try to ground myself in the transit rider’s perspective. Some of the people I have talked to about MetroRapid are worried about the distance between MetroRapid stations. In transit planning, what many people view as a feature could also end up being a bug for some. While I’m against adding MetroRapid stations to the planned routes, I strongly believe we need to be making walkability improvements between and to MetroRapid stations. Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee has already passed a resolution on this issue. I encourage the City of Austin and Capital Metro to work together to address this issue as soon as possible.

Addressing these three big issues will have a huge impact on the future success of the MetroRapid system.

Expanding MetroRapid
Austin’s transit community should be identifying immediate opportunities to expand MetroRapid to other corridors. In 2010, Capital Metro’s 10-year roadmap, Service Plan 2020, designated three MetroRapid corridors; South Congress to North Lamar, South Lamar to Burnet Road, and East Riverside to the Mueller Redevelopment. Why did the East Riverside to Mueller corridor get left out of the initial MetroRapid FTA grant? Was it because Capital Metro already had plans underway with the City of Austin to propose an urban rail alignment there? What is more plausible is that Capital Metro likely chose to move forward with the other two corridors (South Congress to North Lamar and South Lamar to Burnet Road) because they believed those two were the most competitive in receiving an FTA grant. After all, according to Capital Metro, “these two transit corridors see 21,000 weekday boardings…making them the densest and highest ridership transit markets in the region.”
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At the end of last year, Project Connect identified East Riverside and Highland/Mueller as the priority high-capacity transit corridors. Many people believe the next high-capacity transit investment will be in the form of urban rail. One of the stated reasons for not considering Lamar for urban rail was that MetroRapid would serve as a test as to the viability of further investments there. If this is really a policy direction we want to take (not necessarily a bad one, in my opinion), shouldn’t we hold all other corridors to this same standard, including East Riverside and Highland/Mueller? If Capital Metro thought Lamar and the other corridors that will be served by MetroRapid were more competitive for a bus-based FTA Grant in 2012, why do they think a route to Highland/Mueller is the most competitive for a rail-based FTA Grant in 2014? Many people, including myself, have written about their concern over a speculative urban rail investment to Highland/Mueller. In keeping with Capital Metro’s Service Plan 2020, we should be advocating that the next MetroRapid investment connect East Riverside and Mueller to downtown.

Moving Forward
Overall, I am cautiously optimistic about the launch of MetroRapid and believe it will encourage many more people to take transit in Austin. I hope MetroRapid’s success will help the Austin transit community get past its obsession with mode (rail) and begin having clear-headed conversations about what really makes a great transit system. Jarrett Walker has written extensively about the bus vs rail issue on his blog, Human Transit.

To sum up my thoughts on MetroRapid, I believe Capital Metro and the City of Austin should be commended for their work and collaboration on this project over the past three years. In 2010, Capital Metro chose to make new investments in their most productive transit corridors. A few months ago, the City of Austin took away parking to establish bus priority lanes through downtown. These are the types of smart policies the transit community should be praising. That said, we can and should aspire for more improvements to this rather mediocre-scoring system. Let’s continue measuring MetroRapid’s success and advocating for improvements that will one day give it a Bronze, Silver or Gold BRT rating.

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Project Connect’s Sub-Corridor Recommendation

I was hoping my first real blog post would be about the work that Austinites for Urban Rail Action have been doing to change the discussion around transit issues over the past year. Due to more pressing issues, this will have to wait.

The Recommendation
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Last week, Project Connect made an initial recommendation to the Mayor’s advisory group on which sub-corridors should be considered for Austin’s next high capacity transit investment. Their recommendation: a route from the Highland Mall area, through Downtown and down East Riverside. The recommendation itself was not much of a surprise to me, as I have seen something similar presented over the past three years that I have been involved in this often questionable process. What did surprise me was the way in which Project Connect staff came to their recommendation.

The Sub-Corridors

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East Riverside
First, let’s take a look at the two sub-corridors that were included in Project Connect’s initial recommendation. According to Project Connect’s methodology (which I will briefly get into later), the East Riverside sub-corridor scored at the top in both serving and shaping scenarios. To anyone who has a general understanding of Austin’s changing landscape, this sub-corridor makes quite a bit of sense. East Riverside is an already fairly dense area that is rapidly changing. Some places are actually starting to resemble Austin’s densest neighborhood, West Campus. Existing transit ridership is also high, largely due to the number of affordable housing units and basic geometry of Riverside Drive itself. This sub-corridor also has the potential to connect to Austin Bergstrom International Airport in future expansions. Most telling of all was the number of attendees at Project Connect’s workshops that changed their preferred sub-corridor to East Riverside AFTER they were shown the data.

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Highland
On the other hand, the inclusion of the Highland sub-corridor is puzzling. Apart from Red River (which is currently low in density), there is not an existing transportation corridor where urban rail would make sense. The highland sub-corridor also hugs I-35 along its entire Eastern edge, greatly limiting the potential for development and ridership. To be fair, UT does have plans underway to develop the extreme Southern edge of the Highland sub-corridor. With the information that is currently available, I am unconvinced that Highland deserves to be considered for the first phase of urban rail. I am concerned that it currently does not have the level of public support and the mix of people and destinations needed to make a successful first phase urban rail investment.

The Process

Under such a short project timeline, Project Connect staff have done a great job with public outreach. Since this project has been moved out of the City of Austin Transportation Department, I have seen a complete 180 in staff’s willingness to listen and respond to tough questions. They haven’t always been perfect, but they have been willing to revise (sometimes obvious) errors that citizens have brought to their attention.

While I am generally pleased with the public outreach thus far, the evaluation process was over-complicated. The FTA is fairly straightforward in what they look for when funding transit projects. Project Connect decided to double their evaluation criteria by including projections when the FTA clearly prefers the use of current data. With such a rushed timeline, why not focus on the key measures that the FTA is looking for and be done with it? I personally believe the combination of a rushed timeline with the over-complicated evaluation process caused many of the errors that the local transit community had to point out.

What About Lamar?

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East riverside is the clear winner when compared to Highland, but why wasn’t Lamar included as an obvious choice in Project Connect’s recommendation? After all, Lamar was the most preferred sub-corridor at Project Connect’s public workshops. The official Project Connect response is that the Lamar sub-corridor didn’t score well enough on their indices. This goes against the views of many nationally respected transportation planners, as well as my own observations. Study after study shows Lamar has the highest population and employment densities. According to Walkscore.com, the Lamar sub-corridor contains many of the most walkable neighborhoods outside of Downtown Austin. 
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The Lamar sub-corridor also has the highest transit ridership in Austin. Routes 1 & 101 alone carry close to 17,000 people per day through the Lamar sub-corridor; more than five times the number of people that the RedLine carries. North Lamar also repeatedly shows up on TxDOT’s Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas.

So then why did Lamar rank so low in Project Connect’s evaluation? I believe there are a few reasons. Project Connect decided to use large geographic areas in stead of comparing actual routes. Using large geographic areas affects the results because, according to Stan Openshaw, “areal units used in many geographical studies are arbitrary, modifiable, and subject to the whims and fancies of whoever is doing, or did, the aggregating.” I’m not saying that Project Connect intentionally chose large geographic areas to skew the data, but it does make me wonder if this was the right scale of analysis. 

I also believe that the assumptions going into this study greatly affected the results. For instance, I believe Project Connect gave too much weight to future projections and highway congestion data. One example of this is that they decided to use highway congestion data from I-35 and Mopac. Because of this, the Lamar sub-corridor, which contains one of the Top 100 Most Congested Roads in Texas, ranked dead last in the Congestion Index.
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I believe these issues, combined with the looming political questions surrounding the launch of MetroRapid, have contributed to Project Connect’s decision not to include the Lamar sub-corridor in their initial recommendation. This is a mistake.

Next Steps

It is clear to me that Lamar should be included in Phase 2 of Project Connect’s Central Corridor Study. It has the existing ridership, density and public support needed to make transit investments successful in Central Texas. If MetroRapid really precludes an investment on Lamar, as some have speculated, we should at least be strategically planning how to service our city’s transit backbone in the second phase investment. During the next few weeks, I will be strongly advocating for Lamar to be included within Project Connect’s recommendation for further study. Will you be?

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Today I start a blog

I have been using social media over the past few years to share my thoughts on urbanism, transit, economics, biomimicry, technology and everywhere in between. People have been asking me if I have a website where they can read more about what I am doing in Austin. My reliance on Twitter and Facebook is limiting my ability to effectively advocate and build out a framework for certain projects.

Today I step out of my comfort zone and start a blog.

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