South Lamar Gridlock - A Symptom of a Much Larger Problem?
As a 28-year resident of the Zilker neighborhood, I have seen many changes in South Lamar. We no longer have so many used car dealerships, adult-oriented businesses and vacant buildings. In their place we now have many more retail shops, boutique clothing stores, restaurants and bars, all bringing more vibrancy to our neighborhood but also more traffic into the area.
We are also seeing significant residential development along the corridor from Lady Bird Lake to Ben White, adding density and generating more local traffic. Combined with this there is increasing suburban commuter traffic from Southwest Travis County using South Lamar as a route into downtown instead of the parking lot we call MoPac.
This growing use of South Lamar combined with the very limited opportunities for adding traffic capacity to the roadway is resulting in substantial rush hour gridlock. But the increase in traffic congestion is no longer confined to rush hour. On a recent Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. I walked South Lamar and there was a constant stream of traffic in both directions. This late evening traffic is something unimaginable only a few years ago, and suggests that “Tomorrow’s Traffic Hell” is really here today.
And as the traffic on South Lamar gets worse each year, our adjacent neighborhoods are also seeing an ever-growing amount of cut-through traffic. Though Zilker implemented traffic calming measures like road humps many years ago, we are seeing even more folks avoid the gridlock on South Lamar by speeding through our residential streets. The danger this cut-through traffic presents for residents is only compounded as more South Lamar business patrons park on our streets due to inadequate parking at the shops, bars and restaurants themselves.
So when I think of South Lamar today I am reminded of the old adage, “When you find yourself in a hole that you do not want to be in, the first thing you do is to stop digging."
But before we “stop digging” and start looking for solutions, let's first understand how deep the hole we have already dug is by looking at the existing traffic capacity of South Lamar. When the Zilker neighborhood began neighborhood planning many years ago one of the things we researched was the carrying capacity of South Lamar as it is configured today.
How Many Vehicles Can South Lamar Handle?
South Lamar is a State Highway with a MAD 4 designation. That means a “Major Arterial Divided” with four traffic lanes, two in each direction and a “chicken” left turn lane in the middle. The design capacity for such a road configuration is about 48,000 trips per day.
Back in 2007 the average trips per day was 36,500 on South Lamar. That left only about an additional 11,500 vehicle trips per day until the roadway was in complete lock down. As noted by Gary Schatz, Assistant Director of Austin’s Transportation Department, due to the limited cross-town connections there isn’t much opportunity to increase the capacity of South Lamar by diverting traffic elsewhere. The option to widen the roadway by buying more right-of-way and then adding new travel lanes was unlikely to ever happen due to the cost of buying out the many businesses along South Lamar. (When that option was studied by the Zilker neighborhood association we identified over 90 businesses that would be either entirely removed or would lose what little parking they have.)
So widening South Lamar is off the table and while minor improvements in signalization can be done, we are pretty much stuck with the roadway configuration we have today.
Traffic Time Bomb
But it is not only the roadway that contributes to the congestion, we are also saddled with all the existing zoning along South Lamar. Almost all of the properties along South Lamar are zoned Commercial Services (CS zoning). This zoning district allows buildings to be as high as sixty feet tall with minimum setbacks from the street. What we mainly have on South Lamar now are one- and two-story structures with associated surface parking lots which are not fully utilizing the existing zoning capacity. If that existing base zoning was fully developed there would be a huge increase in density that could replace what we see today, all resulting in more traffic generation. The current CS zoning is just sitting there waiting like a time bomb to explode with more redevelopment, and when it comes it will only acerbate the traffic problems we have today.
On top of this ticking time bomb, the City’s efforts to promote more density in the urban core has resulted in the existing CS zoning being expanded with what is called Vertical Mixed Use (or VMU) zoning as an overlay on top of the CS zoning. The VMU overlay ordinance allows for certain properties to be built out with even larger buildings than allowed under the CS base zoning, again eventually resulting in even more traffic.
Even with the CS and VMU zoning available for future development, during the “Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan” (IACP) planning process the city planners recommended that a target of 7,500 new residential units be encouraged for every two miles of South Lamar. To give you a sense of what that would mean just imagine South Lamar lined with over 30 60-foot-tall apartment complexes between Barton Springs Road and Barton Skyway!
These new developments would be on the same scale as the existing Cole and Bridges apartment projects between Barton Springs Road and Lady Bird Lake. But to accommodate such a huge increase in residential units, we would also lose many of the existing local businesses that now give South Lamar its current vibe. Our analysis of the combined CS zoning, the VMU overlay and the IACP recommendations for South Lamar would have resulted in over 97,000 vehicle trips per day without even considering the added background traffic from the growing suburban commuters.
Obviously we have dug a very deep hole for South Lamar when our existing zoning would allow development that would generate twice the traffic volume the street was designed to carry. Fortunately the staff proposal to mandate such density was dropped due to these concerns, but we still need to deal with the long-term consequences of the zoning that is now in place. So while the existing traffic is a nightmare, if all the current zoning was utilized, it would sound the death knell for the existing local businesses and would turn a traffic nightmare into a true horror story.
The many new residential projects that are either in the pipeline, coming out of the ground, or are just opening their doors are utilizing this existing zoning capacity, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what could happen on South Lamar in the coming years. So what can be done to reduce current traffic congestion and prevent that future “perfect storm” of all-day gridlock?
Foot and Bike Access from Adjacent Neighborhoods: a Trickle Compared to a Torrent
Many local businesses have expressed their delight at the number of neighborhood folks who visit by walking or biking. This surely is a benefit in reducing car traffic from the adjacent neighborhoods. But the fact of the matter is that with rising rents and more businesses moving in to take advantage of the new hip scene, shops and restaurants and bars cannot simply rely on local bike or foot traffic to survive, they need more customers than the surrounding neighborhood can provide, which means more cars driving to these businesses. So while we should encourage neighborhood connectivity, provide more sidewalks and bike lanes to encourage folks to walk and bike to South Lamar, such efforts will do very little to address the traffic congestion.
Public Transit – A Band-Aid at Best
Many proponents of adding density to the urban core suggest that to offset the car traffic problem folks will be using more public transit. But to make this work there must be a firm policy connection between adding density and the availability of local transit. While Austin is headed for an election on urban rail, the current planning for that proposal will not help South Lamar at all. And if we look at the long-range planning for any fixed rail transit, South Lamar is not even on the radar. So the only public transit will be the bus system run by Capitol Metro.
While Capitol Metro is adding express buses to South Lamar to facilitate commuter riders, they have also completely abandoned any neighborhood connectors that would aid access to South Lamar from the interior of our neighborhood. CapMetro recently eliminated most neighborhood internal routes making it difficult for the adjacent neighborhood populations, which lie outside of a reasonable biking and walking distance, to get to South Lamar except by car. The express routes will reduce flow-through commuter traffic to some degree, but Capitol Metro needs to add back neighborhood feeder and connector routes if public transit is to provide any measurable relief to South Lamar. Until feeder and connector routes are a substantial part of the CapMetro bus system, public transit will be insufficient to make any dent in the traffic problem on South Lamar.
Land Use Planning and Zoning – Part of the Problem or the Solution?
For far too many years land use planning and its related zoning has been virtually devoid of any consideration of infrastructure and transportation planning. As a result we find huge amounts of zoning entitlements all over Austin that have no relationship to what the available infrastructure and transportation systems can support. While this is good for the individual property owners who benefit from these entitlements, it is not so good for the community that then has to deal with the consequences of the resulting development, such as the traffic congestion of South Lamar.
Unfortunately Texas is a so-called "property rights" state and, as such, once a zoning entitlement has been granted it is very hard to “down zone” a property. Instead, land owners get projects approved solely due to the zoning and then the city has to play "catch-up" to provide the supporting infrastructure for the new development or suffer the consequences. Too often the cost of such infrastructure improvements needed by new development is paid for by your tax dollars and not by the developers, offloading not only their traffic impact on the rest of the community but also adding insult to injury by getting the community to pay to fix the problems created by their development.
The Planning Commission has recognized this issue and in their recommendation to the City Council on the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, they have noted that future zoning and project approvals should be reviewed with regard to available transit infrastructure. In other words, it makes no sense to grant increased zoning entitlements that will generate more traffic that cannot be accommodated by bike and pedestrian access or by surrounding roadways or public transit. So a major part of stopping digging a deeper hole is to stop granting zoning increases where we do not have the infrastructure to support additional development.
That will stop making the problem worse, but it will not address what can happen with all the existing zoning along South Lamar. What we really need is a comprehensive businesses/economic analysis comparing the amount of growth on South Lamar permitted by the existing zoning, and how much extra infrastructure this would require. We also need to identify the added costs created by traffic delays and the impact of this traffic on air pollution. Once that is determined then we can make a cost-benefit analysis of how best to deal with the situation. Should we spend millions on acquiring new right-of-way and buying out whole swaths of existing businesses to accommodate building more travel lanes? Do we go through the political process and down-zone properties to bring future development down to levels that we can accommodate with the existing infrastructure? Do we see the cost of buying back certain development rights as a cheaper way of reducing future development and reducing the growth in traffic demand? Or do we just throw up our hands and ask folks to learn to live with the gridlock and mounting traffic congestion?
Growth Management – Can We Get There From Here?
Whatever approach we take on South Lamar, this problem is not unique to us. The challenges created by Austin’s population growth can be felt all over town. Unfortunately, many of the City's policy decisions have only acerbated traffic problems all over town. While South Lamar zoning is certainly a major factor contributing to today's congestion, the flow-through traffic between Downtown and suburbia is also a major contributor to the problem. But the city seems to be of two minds when it comes to where it wants to direct growth, and lacks a clear policy on how to manage future growth.
On one hand there is a great effort by the city to promote growth in the Central Business District focusing on making Downtown a Mecca for economic development and job creation. The recently completed Downtown Austin Plan proposes to greatly expand the amount of development that could be permitted in the central Business District. For much of the Central Business District the Downtown Plan would double or even triple the size of buildings allowed. This would result in significantly more office and retail space, more jobs and therefore more people heading Downtown.
While the Downtown Plan also calls for many new residential units in hopes of providing workers with housing close by, there simply will not be enough new housing Downtown to accommodate the commercial development. Moreover, the type of high-priced condos and loft apartments being built will not be attractive or affordable to many folks who will be working there. So where will they live? Some surely will locate in the urban core neighborhoods surrounding Downtown, such as Zilker, and in the new residential projects popping up along "core transit corridors" like South Lamar. But from the City’s own demographic studies, many will be moving further out due to housing costs and the desire for family oriented housing that is becoming even more scarce in the urban core (and certainly not the predominate housing being constructed in the Central Business District). Resulting in just the opposite of what our city planners are intending.
What is particularly ironic about this push for hyper-density Downtown is that a few years back the City of Austin participated in the Envision Central Texas (ECT) five-county planning exercise. This exercise strongly recommended that job growth be de-centralized and spread out. This was seen as a way to reduce the demand on core-city infrastructure, especially our roadway system. It was suggested by many participants in the ECT process that the city determine the traffic capacity of the major corridors leading into Downtown and then adjust Downtown zoning in keeping with that capacity. Unfortunately city staff, many “new urbanists” and the Downtown property owners who stand to see a huge windfall financial profit from the increased entitlements opposed this type of front-end analysis with the attitude that we will deal with the infrastructure consequences later!
As noted above, one of the fallacies of the push for the massive “up-zoning” in the Central Business District is the assumption that it will reduce suburban sprawl. Yet aside from the increasing cost of living downtown, our City Council continues to approve suburban zoning that will result in even more low-density subdivisions pushing growth even further out. As shown by the City demographer's analysis of where growth has gone in the past ten years, most of it is either on the edge of town or has skipped beyond our city limits into the County or adjacent communities such as Buda, Kyle and even further into Hays and Blanco Counties. Drive out Manchaca, Brodie, South MoPac, and Highway 71 or 290 and see if you believe we are doing anything to significantly reduce sprawl!
The environmental community has fought hard to prevent sprawl over the Edwards Aquifer by opposing infrastructure expansion in that area. However, the proposal to build SH 45 Southwest shows the other side of growth management. Here, rural county property owners, suburban developers, the state Highway Department and even some members of our Austin City Council are pushing to build this link in our “outer loop.” Building SH 45 SW may relieve some local congestion further south, but it surely will add even more traffic to South Lamar as these new suburban commuters seek to avoid the gridlock of MoPac on their way into the city.
Austin’s quest for ever-more economic development has resulted in hyper density Downtown, more urban core neighborhood infill projects and expanding suburban sprawl, all at the same time and without any significant consideration of our existing infrastructure’s ability to accommodate that growth. South Lamar is caught in the middle with no place to go.
If there is any chance to avoice the perfect storm of ever-increasing traffic congestion on South Lamar, the City most stop paying lip service to managing Austin’s growth. The Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan falls way short of addressing the fundamental issues of infrastructure capacity and related traffic congestion. Without addressing these growth problem up front, the implementation of the current comprehensive plan will only make matters worse.
Though the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan's recommendations do encourage folks to get out of their cars by providing better bike and walking connectivity, and recommend more public transit both for commuters and for our neighborhoods, and that future development be clustered where transit is available, these suggestions alone will not solve the traffic gridlock problem we are facing. The real solution for South Lamar is to seriously evaluate the impact of the build-out of the existing zoning with regard to the roadway capacity and then develop a real growth management plan that acknowledges the constraints of the existing infrastructure.
We can no longer deal with the infrastructure consequences “later.” We have to deal with the limitations of our infrastructure now. This would be a sea change in the way the city addresses growth and will be opposed by those who benefit most from the status quo. However, it is the only option we have to create a comprehensive solution for South Lamar that is sustainable, reduces future traffic congestion and protects the quality of life for our surrounding neighborhoods.