Fast Growth, Economic Divides Weigh Heavy on Austin’s Smart City Bid

Austin, Texas

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“This is not about testing new, shiny-penny technologies that will do nifty things,” the city’s mayor says. “This about using mobility technology to actually address basic problems.”

This is the fourth in a series of profiles on the seven U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge finalist cities, which will be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 9 to present their final grant applications to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Read our previous Smart City Challenge finalists profiles on Columbus, DenverKansas CityPortland and San Francisco| REGISTER for the June 9 Smart City Challenge livestream

As Austin, Texas, seeks to claim $50 million through a federal grant competition meant to push new transportation technologies forward, the city has outlined plans for self-driving vehicles, package-delivering drones and sensors that can detect road conditions in real time.

But Mayor Steve Adler sees Texas capital’s quest for the funding as more than a chance to roll out new technology and upgrade infrastructure. "People will say that Austin doesn't provide equity and opportunity for everyone. That it’s an increasingly unaffordable city,” Adler said in a phone interview last week. “When you look at what that means, you'll see that the highest two expenses that people have in this city are housing costs and transportation costs.”

In Adler’s view, the proposals in Austin’s application for the grant competition, known as the Smart City Challenge, offer ways to drive those costs down, and to provide low income communities with better connections to jobs and other destinations, ranging from grocery stores to healthcare facilities. “This is not about testing new, shiny-penny technologies that will do nifty things,” he said. “This about using mobility technology to actually address basic problems.”

A single winning city will be awarded as much as $40 million in federal funds through the Smart City Challenge—contingent on future appropriations. The city will also be eligible for up to $10 million from Seattle-based Vulcan Inc., an investment firm started by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. The idea with the challenge is that the winning city will act as a testbed of sorts for next generation technology meant to make urban transportation safer, easier and more reliable.

The stakes are high, Adler believes, when it comes to proceeding with the kinds of plans in his city’s application. “It's kind of a question of life or death for the spirit and soul of Austin,” he said.

‘Economically Segregated City’

The Smart City Challenge comes at a time when the Austin area has seen a surge in its population and strength in its economy. But the region also faces deep economic divides.

Among the city’s top employers are companies such as IBM Corp., Apple Inc., 3M Co., and Whole Foods Market, which is headquartered there. Between 2010 and 2014, average annual gross domestic product growth for the nation’s metropolitan areas, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, was about 2 percent after adjusting for inflation. For the Austin metropolitan region it was 5.5 percent. The city’s population, meanwhile, has ballooned. The number of Austin residents is estimated at about 931,000 for 2015, up nearly 15 percent from around 811,000 in 2010, U.S. Census Bureau data show.

“We have like 110 people-a-day moving to Austin,” Molly Alexander, executive vice president for economic development at the Downtown Austin Alliance, said by phone last week. “I say that we’re in a renaissance. We have, I don’t know, over 20 cranes in the sky right now in downtown. We’re booming.”

The influx of residents has pressured the city’s transportation systems.

Alexander noted: “Our roadway infrastructure in the city is at capacity."

Growth has affected the metropolitan region in other ways as well.

“Austin has gotten so expensive that, basically, it has pushed people of color and the poor and the working class out to the suburbs . . . where transportation isn't that accessible and is more costly,” said Susana Almanza, director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, a group that works on social and economic justice issues in the city.

Adler, too, is quick to acknowledge these sorts of trends.

“We’re the most economically segregated city in the country,” the mayor said. “We have health outcomes that are being determined by ZIP code,” he added. “We have one of the highest rates of suburban poverty growth in the country. So our challenges are great.”

Austin City Hall (Shutterstock)

Elements of the Proposal

No one with Austin’s Transportation Department was available to discuss the latest details of Austin’s Smart City Challenge application last week. But some of what the city has proposed is outlined in a “vision statement” submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year.

In terms of automated vehicles, there is a proposal for a low-speed, driverless shuttle that would run between the main terminal of Austin–Bergstrom International Airport and a new, nearby “smart station,” where a variety of transportation services would be available.

According to Adler’s communications director, Jason Stanford, smart stations are proposed in four locations in the latest version of Austin’s application: near the airport, downtown, Pflugerville, which is a suburb north of the city, and the Rundberg Lane corridor—site of revitalization efforts focused on public safety and quality of life issues.

The stations are described as one-stop transportation shops, which would provide access to a range of services, like buses, car and bike sharing, and automated taxis.

Tam Hawkins, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, voiced support for stations like the one planned for Pflugerville, as well as for the city’s application overall. “This would certainly be a win,” she said of the proposed Pflugerville smart station.

As for the current transportation connections between the suburb and downtown, she said they “definitely can be improved.” When gas prices were higher, she said, one of her employees was spending $600 or more each month commuting from Pflugerville to central Austin.

Plans for electric, on-demand automated vehicles in downtown are in the city’s proposal as well. Asked if this meant people would be able to use cell phones to request a driverless vehicle to pick them up, Stanford, said: “we would eventually get to that.”

Google already has automated vehicles operating in the city, he noted. “We’ve got driverless cars going around our neighborhoods in regular traffic,” he said, “and no one ever says, ‘boo.’”

Along with moving people, the vision document says several private companies had expressed interest in using autonomous vehicles—drones—to deliver packages. This, the document said, could help cut down on congestion by reducing the need for large delivery trucks.

Electric-powered buses, Stanford said, were part of plans in the application that call for electrifying the city’s fleet.

Some of the sensor technology described in the vision statement would allow signal timing at intersections to be adjusted by factoring in the speed of traffic and weather conditions. Another possibility is changing walk signs based on pedestrian activity in crosswalks. Temperature sensors might also be installed on bridges to help detect when they are getting icy.

A so-called Mobility Innovation Center would help guide the various projects and programs in the city’s proposal. The center would help coordinate organizations involved in the city’s transportation efforts. It would also have a hand in policy research and a new online portal where transportation data would be published.

Some Skepticism

Sensor-equipped street corridors, which allow for faster travel between the city’s outlying areas and its core, and building-out the smart stations, were examples Adler offered for how Austin’s Smart City Challenge proposals could help lower-income communities.

"It's hard for someone to get a job, or train for a job, if it takes them an hour-and-a-half to get from where they are to where the job is, or where the training is,” the mayor said.

But Almanza is skeptical, and explained that PODER had declined to endorse Austin’s Smart City bid in writing.

While she had not reviewed specifics of what the city has proposed in its application, Almanza said that, after looking at what the challenge entailed more broadly, she was unconvinced the program would help the neighborhoods where PODER works.

“We were concerned how was this going to benefit communities of color and working class communities,” she said. “That wasn’t very apparent to us.”

Electrifying more vehicles, or reducing traffic, Almanza acknowledged, could cut pollution. But other aspects of the program, such as those that have to do with automated vehicles, seemed, to her at least, to be geared toward “a more privileged class of people.”

“You can almost tell that it’s not going to be for us,” she said. Almanza tends to work in lower-income and minority neighborhoods on Austin’s east side. Places where, she said, bus fares weigh heavily on residents and basic transportation needs have long gone unmet.

“In a lot of these outlying areas there is no mass transit system,” she said.

“We’ve been waiting for sidewalks, that’s part of transportation, for decades,” Almanza went on to note. “But now we’ve got bike lanes up and down the street . . . Those are the types of things that we see.” She also stressed the need for affordable housing in transit corridors, “not condos and town homes.”  

As the city’s future transportation network takes shape, Adler sees concerns like the ones Almanza raised as valid, calling them “a very real danger,” but he added, “having a very real danger identified like that does not mean that you don't try things.”

‘We Have to Move Forward’

The Downtown Austin Alliance helped found and now manages Movability Austin, a group that focuses on connecting the city’s commuters with new transportation options.

Movability Austin would serve as one of the city's partner organizations if the Smart City Challenge proposals advance. 

Alexander, the alliance’s vice president for economic development, said that as commute times have increased in Austin, companies have taken a keener interest in how employees get to work.

“They recognize the need to do this because it really helps with employee retention,” she said.

Alexander also highlighted that Austin has a high concentration of millennials, an age group known for having an aversion to driving and car ownership, compared to previous generations.

Movability Austin, along with Whole Foods, the advertising agency GSD&M, and Cirrus Logic, a technology company, recently launched a pilot program that is seeking better ways to get employees into downtown. The distances between workplaces on the west side of Austin, and the city’s MetroRail station, on the eastern side of downtown can be particularly problematic.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a coordinated effort between multiple companies,” Alexander said.

About 15 private firms responded to a request for proposals issued as a part of the pilot, she said, offering transportation options ranging from electric-powered bicycles, to car-sharing.

These types of private sector initiatives could become more common in the coming years.

“I think it's impossible to achieve the goals without collaboration from the private sector,” Mayor Adler said as he discussed the city’s Smart City Challenge transportation plans. “Federal funding doesn't come the way that it used to,” he added. “Even state funding to the local governments doesn't come the way it used to.”

Adler is open to more traditional funding options as well. In late he May proposed a $720 million bond referendum that would help pay for upgrades on major corridors throughout the city.

Whether or not Austin prevails in the Smart City Challenge, he said the city would forge ahead with plans described in its application.

"We have to move forward,” the mayor said. “Winning the challenge probably means we get to move forward more quickly and more comprehensively, with an increased number of partners. But we have to do this.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Portland Seeks to Extend Its Proven Tech and Transit Expertise in Smart City Challenge Bid