As a principal at Element 5 Architecture, and one who lives outside of the city, I commute to work in and out of downtown Austin everyday. Like most people in our city, I experience the increasing traffic first hand.
According to Gary Schatz, Assistant Director of the Austin Transportation Department, “I will say to anyone: traffic increases every year anywhere from one, two, three percent a year no matter where in Austin you are." Take a stretch like South Lamar, an important CBD artery that is being actively developed, Schatz says, and traffic will grow even faster.
One of my projects requires me to travel the South Lamar corridor for meetings and no matter what time of day it is, this experience is increasingly frustrating to say the least. I lived adjacent to the South Lamar corridor 20+ years ago in the Barton Hills area ("the 78704"), the birthplace of "keep Austin weird", and at that time, I was proud of our zipcode and proud of where I lived. I even owned a "78704" t-shirt. Being a music lover, the Broken Spoke, Horse Shoe Lounge and Saxxon Pub held a special place in my heart. But today these Austin icons seem to be buried in the chaos. I am not convinced I would want to live along this corridor today.
While there are mixed-use developments taking place, which hopefully offer opportunities for residents to live and work in closer proximity, the big problem I see is that there is no option of widening the boulevard. There are private properties that line the zoning along the street. The chance of the city purchasing chunks of private property to widen this corridor are minimal. Even if the city made this move, there is still the bottleneck at the bridge crossing the river into downtown.
The other problem is that there are few options of routing traffic to other arteries. According to Schatz "One of the challenges of South Lamar is it's kind of like a watershed, you have in effect a traffic shed that the traffic generates, there really aren't options to get over to South 1st or to get over to MOPAC, so the traffic really focuses on that corridor.”
I am not sure the city can do more than tweak the problem with computer controlled traffic lights, improved bike lanes, mass transit and wider sidewalks. While in the city's eyes improving the pedestrian experience along Lamar is a positive, it most-likely will slow traffic even more.
This 3 mile stretch between Ben White and the river is no longer "weird", but one of Austin's more serious problems to solve.