Social mindset about public transportation needs to be changed before any reform

Amanda Haight

At a recent meeting, the Austin City Council unanimously adopted the 2014 Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP), which outlines the “identification of roadways of regional significance, and a locally preferred alternative for urban rail on a route from the East Riverside corridor through Downtown, the Capitol Complex and the University of Texas to Highland/ACC.” The Council is expected to vote Aug. 7 on whether to put a $1 billion bond proposal on the November ballot. If approved, the plan will dedicate $600 million to urban rail in hopes that the Federal Transit Administration will make up the rest of the billion-plus-dollar price tag.

Judging by the pro-light rail groups who appeared at the meeting to oppose the proposition, which, according to them, would not serve the currently densely populated Guadalupe/North Lamar corridor, it seems the preferred alternative is far from locally preferred. But the main controversy surrounding Austin urban rail misses a fundamental requirement.  We have to address the problem of how to get people to leave their cars at home and adopt public transportation as a way of life before multi-million dollar investments are made.

Austin cannot afford to have supporters of light rail opposing a light rail plan. The clash risks a repeat of the narrow loss at the ballot box of a proposed urban rail in 2000. Even if the controversial plan is eventually approved, the disappointing turnout of Red Line riders proves the "Field of Dreams" approach false: If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. When determining the method and map of mass transit, authorities must answer: Who will realistically and reliably take public transportation so it will be a sustainable venture for municipal investments?

I recently returned from a study abroad program in Strasbourg, France, a city with a metropolitan population comparable to Austin, where I exclusively used public transportation to travel around the city. In every major city I visited it wasn’t even a question: I would be using public transportation for my daily commutes. This mentality was incredibly freeing as I had full access to the city without a car.

The European public transportation lifestyle arose from a combination of factors. Public transportation in European cities existed before the invention of cars and was a necessity for city life as the city developed around it. Not only the transportation systems, but also the mentality of a public transportation based lifestyle, have subsequently been maintained. There is not the same level of urban sprawl, so people have never truly needed their cars, thus remaining luxuries. An economic incentive to leave the European car at home: gas prices are more than double U.S. prices, which can be attributed to an abnormally low federal US tax on petroleum.

But we live in a car-centric society. Following the pattern of cities across the country, Austin grew with its suburbs and the car has been the primary means of transportation for decades. Squeezed between two highways, Interstate Highway 35 and MoPac Boulevard, Austin was never meant to grow. Austin faces historical infrastructural obstacles as it has grown into a destination rather than a rest stop. Compared to European cities that have public transportation incorporated into their collective history, Austin has to work backward to reintroduce it to the mentality of the city.

I don’t believe any group has sufficiently addressed how to change our societal car obsession. Step one is to provide transportation to and from places people want to go — an area where the current rail has undeniably failed, and with the infighting of current rail advocates, the ASMP seems headed in the same direction. You also have to provide transportation when riders want it, a difficult task compared to a car that can go whenever you need it. Environmental factors are also an issue; a half mile walk to a bus stop is almost pleasant on a beautiful day but unbearable in over 100˚F heat. To change the car-centric mentality, each issue needs to be successfully addressed to surpass the conveniences of personal transportation.

The urgency for a transportation solution is palpable, but if the light rail, which would cost more than $1 billion, is built and fails, the transportation department will lose significant credibility with the public and it will be disastrous for any future rail projects. The transportation mentality in Austin needs to change before we can make such a risky, expensive investment, and just building a light rail will not automatically change it. Austin needs to gradually change its transportation mentality through continued improvements to existing systems, gaining the confidence of Austin riders who will eventually be prepared to adopt a public transportation lifestyle and fully support future light rail propositions.

Haight is a linguistics senior from Austin.

Correction: An earlier version of this column was attributed to the wrong author.