Transit Advocacy Is Not Urbanism

It’s not too often I attempt to write a justification for my existence, but here goes.

Few people in Austin are willing to talk about public transportation right now, which seems odd given the major developments in Connections 2025 (now branded “Cap Remap”) and Project Connect. This is a gap I’ve tried to fill with my new transit blog, the Austin Metro Journal.

Capital Metro’s board meetings draw a small cohort of regular critics, but they focus on individual service planning and customer service issues (“I don’t like the way y’all cut service to my neighborhood post office”) and thereby miss the bigger picture. I’d put Austin’s light rail boosters in the same camp. These folks have the best intentions, but they’re narrowly focused on building a specific transit technology.

On the flip side, you have Austin’s “urbanists” and policy wonks, comprised mostly of millennials and techies, who see public transit as a stepping-stone to a New Urbanist utopia complete with Vision Zero, universal cycle tracks, and—let’s be honest—Manhattan-like densities. Urbanists certainly value public transit, but it’s not their main focus. They care about transit insofar as it paves the way for their starry-eyed visions.

And then you have me, the guy who’s interested in critiquing Capital Metro and advocating for better service for Austin transit riders.

I’ve been asked a few times, why not just call yourself an urbanist? Urbanism is intersectional and encompasses a variety of interests, public transit included. Surely, it would be more productive to join forces with a proper urbanist organization instead of staking it out on my own.

But here are some reasons why I think better public transit is not synonymous with urbanism.

Yes, there are grassroots organizations that focus on public transit exclusively. Austin could use one.

Is there a legitimate place for public transit advocates who don’t call themselves urbanists? Well, if organizations like Straphangers Campaign in New York and SO.CA.TA in Southern California are any indication, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

And I think—as I have said several times over Twitter—that Austin has needed someone who cares about public transportation for a very, very long time. A service re-imagining like Cap Remap is a big freakin’ deal, but it doesn’t attract attention because it’s not a flashy capital project like bus lanes, MetroRapid, or urban rail. Full stop.

Development that makes good urbanism does not necessarily make for good transit.

Yes, we all know public transit generally works better in dense, diverse communities. But it doesn’t follow that all dense neighborhoods are inherently better for transit. Recently, Jarrett Walker made a great point about the dangers of high-density sprawl:

One of the most common mistakes of New Urbanist development is to build “transit-oriented” villages in places where efficient transit could never reach them. Usually, this is because the village is in a cul-de-sac location position with respect to the larger network, so that transit can’t run through it on the way to anywhere else.

Uh, Mueller and the Domain, anyone? These two neighborhoods, which are darlings of Austin urbanists, are actually located quite poorly for transit service, despite what their marketing might have you believe. That’s why the Domain has a special circulator bus and the Mueller streetcar has never been built, no matter how loudly its residents and developers clamor for it.

Transit is operated for goals that are not necessarily urbanist—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A public transit network is more than its light rail and rapid bus lines on the city’s best corridors. It also includes the commuter rail lines and the hourly suburban circulators, usually operated by the very same agency. These are services communities choose to operate for various mobility, access, and equity reasons that don’t align with urbanist goals.

Whether transit should serve urban or suburban interests is a particularly contentious question in Austin, since the existing Red Line commuter rail was sold as “doing both” but has fallen far short of its promises. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that such services exist, and we should strive to operate them as efficiently as possible through effective network design.

After all, two of the biggest transit projects making national headlines right now are commuter rail expansions in New York: Amtrak’s Gateway Project and the Long Island Railroad’s East Side Access. If you’re a hardcore urbanist, you’d be kicking and screaming that those billions of dollars of suburban welfare could have gone toward fixing the subway or building the BQX streetcar or whatever. And yet, New Yorkers and observers agree both projects are critical to the region’s economic future.

Yes, transit can work better in the built environment we already have.

Some of my urbanists friends have suggested that transit has so much working against it in Austin—the lack of density, a lack of money, a hostile state legislature—that these things will need to change before we ever see improvements.

And yet, look at Houston, the Texas city that hired Jarrett Walker to design a badass 7-day-a-week bus network, using no additional resources.

And look at our rapid bus system that still has gaping gaps between stops and no public timetables.

Good transit can perform surprisingly well even in the worst built environments. Growing up in Bakersfield, I lived along route 61, a circulator that connects Bakersfield’s transit-dependent east side to affluent west side exurbs. It holds the dubious distinction of being the only route GET has increased service to following a 2012 network redesign, going from hourly to half-hourly service on weekdays.

To sum up, while urbanists sometimes accuse me of being narrowly focused on public transportation, I would argue the__y are narrowly focused on transit as an enabler of urbanist lifestyles and urbanist development goals.

I have no doubt of their good intentions, but the risk is they might view transit from a naive “SimCity” perspective: If they plop the zones and train stations in just the right places, good service will follow. Not so; transit networks are highly politicized. Remember, as Jarrett Walker always says, there is no right answer on the ridership-coverage tradeoff. We need to have an honest conversation about what we want our transit network to do.

I’m here to talk about transit, what it can do for our community, and how best to accomplish the objectives we set out for it. That’s why I call myself a public transportation advocate, not an urbanist.