Urban Design

When it Comes to Encouraging Walkability, Austin Runs Past Dallas

Austin offers some simple urban lessons: create a Pedestrian Advisory Council and eliminate minimum parking requirements

As any regular follower of Frontburner knows all too well, Dallas is a city that hates pedestrians. On any given day and often for weeks on end, dozens of sidewalks are closed, chewed up, or made impassible around the city. We all know Dallas’ basic street infrastructure is poor, but its pedestrian and bike infrastructure is even worse.

Perhaps one of the reasons why so many areas of the city are so unsafe for pedestrians is because, outside of our continuing series on messed-up sidewalks, there are few if any pedestrian advocates who can raise their voices and demand better, safer streets.

Not so in Austin. Austin’s city government has a Pedestrian Advisory Council, which meets once a month to discuss issues relating to walkability and offers improvement suggestions to the city council. The body was created back in 2013 in response to both ongoing urban development in the capital city and a spate of traffic deaths.

Urbanization + dangerous traffic = a need to reconsider how the city’s streets function and protect pedestrians.

Makes sense, right?

Well, Dallas is a city that likes to borrow and buy other city’s shinny new things. How about Dallas copies Austin and creates its own Pedestrian Advisory Council (PAC). This way the city’s disgust over its crappy streets can have an even more productive outlet than a city magazine’s photo series.

What can a Pedestrian Advisory Council do? Well, it can push the city to rethink outdated zoning policies, like parking minimums from the city’s land use code, expanding upon on a policy change implemented in 2013 that eliminated parking minimums in Austin’s downtown.

Parking minimums are one simple way that city code perpetuates car dependence. They participate in driving up the cost of development, leading to issues with housing affordability, historic preservation, the environment, supporting small businesses, and walkability. This article on Strong Towns illustrates the point with an example from Sandpoint, Idaho:

The 2009 approval of a 60,000 square foot, 3-story bank headquarters in the heart of downtown ended up requiring 218 parking spaces. Because only 110 were provided (which was plenty), the bank was subjected to in-lieu parking fees totaling over $700,000. Well, being bankers, they soon realized the cheaper alternative was to buy up adjacent properties and demolish the buildings for surface lots.  Consequently, small businesses were evicted and the much-beloved downtown historic development pattern was diminished.

But businesses need parking, right? That’s how they get customers in car-dependent cities?

Well, no, not really. In 2009, Sandpoint realized its parking minimums were hurting, not helping, its downtown, so they eliminated them. The results were remarkable:

Towards the close of 2018, Sandpoint expanded the de-regulated area and completely overhauled off-street parking requirements throughout the rest of the city—substantially reducing minimum requirements. It was much easier this time around. The reason? The City was able to see the millions invested downtown as a result of that bold action taken in 2009. Since that time (even during the recession), Downtown Sandpoint has seen the local winery building expand, a new music venue open, a beloved restaurant expand, and a local high tech startup enjoy relocation and growth to nearly 100 employees right in the middle of it all. Not one of these investments would have been possible under the old paradigm of mandated parking minimums. Was it easy? No. Is there more work to be done? Likely, yes. Has it been worth it so far? Absolutely.

These lessons apply to larger cities as well. Austin’s 2013 code change, which eliminated minimum parking requirements downtown, hasn’t meant that developers have stopped building parking structures. Some new developments still include a parking element, but developers can chose to construct as much parking as makes economic sense for their project, rather than being forced by the city to construct an arbitrary number of spots.

The Pedestrian Advisory Council isn’t anti-parking, just pro-smart parking. The PAC has also advanced suggestions to council that could help create incentives for the creation of parking that doesn’t impact or harm urban walkability. One is to include new parking structures’ square footage in the overall floor-to-area ratio calculations, which limit building sizes in Austin’s CBD. Currently, parking isn’t included in these calculations, which means developers often use the ridiculous buildings-perched-on-parking garages architecture model, also common in Dallas, as the cheapest way to provide on-site parking. Including those structures in the FAR calculations would push more developers to place parking underground.

The PAC also wants Austin to adopted demand-based dynamic pricing for parking across the city:

Speaking in support of the recommendation, former Council Member Chris Riley said the goal should be to maintain parking capacity at around 85 percent, simply adjusting the cost of hourly parking on each block according to demand.

“A lot of neighborhoods are very anxious about the removal of parking requirements because of what they fear they’re going to see on the streets,” Riley said. “The reason they fear that is because we have not been doing a good job of managing the parking situation on the street.”

Demand-based pricing of on-street parking could also be a significant source of revenue to city neighborhoods. Austin’s Parking Benefit District structure allows neighborhoods to implement parking meters and use 51 percent of that revenue minus city costs for infrastructure improvements. The program has already provided funds for several projects, including the protected bike lanes along Rio Grande Street in West Campus.

PAC is asking Council members to permit all neighborhoods to implement the Parking Benefit District structure if parking demand is sufficient to cover the costs and maintenance of the kiosks. Revenue would potentially be used for sidewalks, parks or other pedestrian benefits.

All of these proposals hover around an unspoken truth with regards to parking and urban development. The car-dependent infrastructure of American cities hide the true cost of auto ownership and travel. Subsidized highway construction, subsidized parking lot construction, and under-priced on-street parking place the negative burdens of car travel on municipalities. These new ideas Austin is kicking around will bring those costs to the surface. Over time, it will likely mean that developers and residents alike will respond by creating and supporting places that are less car-dependent.

But it all starts with bringing new ideas and voices into the conversation. Dallas doesn’t have a adequate means to start and leverage these kinds of conversations. Incidentally, Austin also has a Bike Advocacy Council. Why we’re at it, Dallas should have one of those too. We wonder why our streets are unsafe, and yet we don’t have the political means to address the problems.

It’s inevitable that the next mayoral election will hinge on issues like education, street repair, and housing affordability. But these kinds of tiny, wonky policy details—a single line of parking code, as Strong Towns points out—can have a disproportionate effect on some of those very issues.

It may not tip the election, but a candidate could distinguish herself by arguing that she doesn’t merely want her own voice to be part of the conversation about the future of the city, but wants to create new advisory bodies that can bring more voices and ideas to the table as well.

 

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