Moving People Over Automobiles

Last week, I shot footage of morning traffic on the South 1st Street Bridge to illustrate how poorly we use urban space in Austin.

In the video, you will notice that all Northbound vehicles are stuck in the same traffic regardless of how many people they are moving. Each lane on the bridge carries around 40 vehicles, most of which are occupied by one person. The glaring exception to that rule are transit vehicles, which typically carry around 20-30 people at this time of day. You will also notice how underused the three Southbound lanes are.

As Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns pointed out while he was in Austin this past week, “traffic engineers call this an “efficient” design“. We have essentially designed the bridge in a way that puts peak vehicular capacity in both directions as the primary goal. The outcome of that design is that half of the lanes on the bridge are wasted for the majority of the day. We can do better than this.

As I have said previously on this blog, we have encouraged land use and transportation patterns where essentially no one wins and everyone loses. The way we are using the South 1st Street Bridge as a perfect example of this tragedy. As Austin continues to grow, what would happen if we started focusing on moving people instead of cars?

One obvious way that we could improve the people-moving capacity on the South 1st Street Bridge is by expanding the existing transit priority lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca through downtown. Expanded transit priority lanes would incentivize transit use by greatly improving the reliability and speed of the seven bus routes that currently use the bridge.

The idea of expanding transit priority lanes outside of downtown Austin isn’t new. AURA recently recommended that the Austin Transportation Department expand transit priority lanes along The Drag after finding that transit moved roughly half of the people passing through the corridor during peak periods.

And it’s not just a group of “clicker minions” that are interested in this idea. According to the highly publicized Mobility ATX Report, expanding transit priority lanes was the third most popular idea for improving mobility in Austin among participants. The report pointed out that expanding transit priority lanes would require the collaboration of CapMetro and the Austin Transportation Department; something that has not always been easy. Based on CapMetro CEO Linda Watson’s quote in the report, though, it looks like CapMetro is willing to come to the table to discuss this idea with city staff.

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There will always be some people who might say that we can’t do it because, politically, we just can’t take a lane of automobile traffic away. But remember how underutilized those Southbound lanes were in my video? Let’s use some of that excess capacity when and where it is needed.

Reversible Transit Lanes

The most realistic configuration for transit priority lanes along the South 1st Street Bridge would be to have a single reversible lane that changed directions depending on the time of day. These reversible lanes could accommodate Northbound buses in the morning and Southbound buses in the afternoon. Reversible lanes have been studied extensively by groups like APTA, which have found that they are “best used when there is a distinct and significant split of volumes between the morning and afternoon peak periods”. In other words, places like the South 1st Street Bridge in Austin!

To implement reversible lanes, some cities have used zipper machines like the one in the video below:

But we don’t have to start big. If it were up to me, we would be using cones to test the effectiveness of reversible transit priority lanes before building something more permanent. With all of the recent construction going on, cones are a familiar site on the bridge.

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During Mayor Adler’s recent visit to Dublin, he commented on how that city’s decision to expand transit priority lanes drove demand for more transit service. Another thing that Mayor Adler has consistently talked about is how we need to innovate and test new approaches in addressing our transportation problems. As he has said during his campaign, “we can’t just build or buy our way out of this traffic congestion”. I hope this messaging is a sign that he is willing to expand Austin’s transit priority lanes where we need it most, when we need it most.

The transit priority lanes downtown have been successful, but their real value will be realized at our city’s most congested choke points, like the South 1st Street Bridge. Transit advocates, the public, CapMetro’s CEO, and the Mayor all agree. If we are going to improve Austinites’ access to their city, we must prioritize the people-moving capacity of our city’s streets over automobile capacity.

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