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Why Austin Needs To Ditch Traffic Impact Studies And Parking Requirements

Austin needs to toss parking requirements, end transportation impact studies and quantify the benefit of road projects if it intends to maintain its quality of life, according to a prominent national transportation planner.

Interstate 35

Planner Jeff Tumlin was the keynote speaker this week at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s regional planning conference. In a looser and more direct conversation with millennials Monday night at a downtown bar, Tumlin emphasized the tension in Austin’s competing goals of equality — everyone gets the same thing — and equity — everyone has the same opportunity.

“Austin, like Oakland, is on the cusp,” said Tumlin, who spent nine months at the helm of Oakland’s transportation department last year. “The decisions you make over the next two years will shape this city for the next 70 years. There’s a lot that is coming together for success, but in order for you to take advantage of it, you have to really be clear about what Austin’s values are.”

The value in Oakland was equity, Tumlin said. So Oakland’s transportation department defined it, quantified it, aligned its work plan to it and then passed a $350M bond issue to support it. Every project and task is now quantified by performance metrics and measured against the goal of creating an equitable city, he said.

“I would argue that transportation planning is a branch of economics rather than a branch of civil engineering. It’s about creating land value,” Tumlin said. “When you open up Interstate 35 through the core of the city, you increase the value of land in Georgetown and decrease it through the urban core.”

Tumlin was referring to the announcement of new plans to address Interstate 35. A new vision for the crosstown freeway, unveiled by Sen. Kirk Watson at the chamber’s regional forum, would remove the upper deck, depress the lanes through Central Austin underground, and add two toll lanes in each direction between Round Rock and Buda. The total price tag on the project is set at $8.1B.

Such a project has both benefits and costs, Tumlin said. “The next question you need to ask is, what happens at the surface level when that happens? What happens to East Austin, and to what degree are our infrastructure investments creating value and to what degree are they creating the potential for gentrification and displacement?”

Interstate 35 Through Austin, 1972

Road construction is one place where elected leaders turn into socialistic Communists, Tumlin said. Leaders can easily question the value and return on a costly transit project, but they rarely question or quantify the value and cost of a multibillion-dollar road project, Tumlin said.

"They never ask the value, it's like government manna from heaven, this thing like air," Tumlin said. "We never have anyone ask the reason why, to want to know what we're getting for this investment."

Austin talks a lot about equity. It ought to be talking more about equality, Tumlin said. Like Oakland, Austin has had a diverse population, but also a history of redlining and discrimination that is pushing historic communities of color out of the inner city and into the suburbs.

“Equity and equality are at odds with each other. These are two very different concepts,” Tumlin said. “If you start with a population that is unequal and simply add equality to an unequal base, all it does is perpetuate the underlying inequality. The disparity gap widens.”

If equity is a goal, Austin needs to take a number of steps in its city transportation planning. In Oakland, all minimal parking requirements were tossed, citywide. Level-of-service reviews — known as transportation impact analysis, or TIA, in Austin — were tossed. That unlocked millions of square feet of sustainable development across Oakland. 

"You have to frame it in the right way," Tumlin said. "We have an overreliance on the traffic congestion problem. We focus on vehicle delays instead of person delays, and focusing on the vehicle delays only exacerbates the traffic congestion problem it's intended to solve."

Traffic impact studies focus on the least efficient mode of transportation and high trip counts, he said. That sort of strategy chokes the opportunities to prioritize goals like walking, biking or taking a bus. By quantifying goals, and then meeting, those goals, planning becomes predictable.

"And, at the bottom line, it builds trust," Tumlin said. "You look at what is an economic investment and look at its social return, its environmental return, its quality-of-life return. People want to know what they're getting for their investment."