Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Exploring beyond the routes

Avery Thorpe

Editor’s note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.

Transportation is closely tied to our lives. Every day, we start our casual Monday mornings by brainstorming a map for efficiently getting to class. We make decisions about mode choices: whether to bring our personal vehicles, walk, cycle, ride e-scooters, take buses or perhaps even skateboard. Sometimes, we end up spending too much time looking for parking spaces or CapMetro never arrives on time. Either way, you are late for class.

In fact, transportation cost ranks as the second largest expenditure in household budgets. Simply put, if we reside further away from downtown and campus, our monthly rent decreases because we can hardly save time and reduce transportation expenses. Conversely, as our travel distance decreases, the time and money spent on transportation increases.

Given its significant impact, ensuring that public transportation systems are affordable, reliable, safe, efficient and equitable not only alleviates the financial burden but also fosters a more inclusive and accessible environment.

However, it’s easier said than done. Be aware that the opportunities and burdens of using public transportation differ across individuals. The issue of ‘for whom’ exists. Homeless people are often denied boarding. Individuals whose first language is not English are overwhelmed when riding the public bus. Gender minorities are more prone to harassment in public transit. We’ve seen news articles reporting harassment of people of color, a situation highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People who are more oriented toward using public transportation are likely not to own personal vehicles. The burden on this transit-dependent population is ‘reforming.’ Notably, emerging transportation services pose challenges. Micro-mobility services like e-scooters in Austin are more commonly allocated in high-income and White-dominant neighborhoods. Ownership of electric vehicles is skewed. Communities of color and low-income households have less access to public electric vehicle charging stations. A leading luxurious brand like Tesla operates its charging network, which only allows their specific charging ports, creating barriers for lower-tier electric vehicle users.

Often, we are inclined to consider only the static status quo. Simply installing more bus stops or adding a new lane does not entirely solve the problem because the availability of accessing those stations matters. Fortunately, the City of Austin is aware of this issue. Actions, such as street widening near campus, creating rooftops at bus stops and installing a smart mobility hub in Georgian Acres, are taken to align with improving the notion of transportation availability. Their Project Connect and Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) plan, which includes $300 million in anti-displacement funding, aims to ‘transform’ Austin’s public transportation system.

To genuinely utilize an existing plan, public engagement should be enhanced so that people know about emerging issues. In 2022, graduate students led by Dr. Alex Karner in Community and Regional Planning interviewed transit riders and facilitated focus groups in Austin. Few people had heard or knew about Austin’s transportation policy. Leveraging voices from the bottom up is only possible when problems are identified and brought to the forefront. The executive plan should be communicated to community leaders and grassroots organizations. Your interest and voice matters. 

Let us not merely navigate through the existing public transit systems but actively steer toward a future where every citizen has equitable access and a voice in the evolution of our urban transportation landscape.

Choi is a doctorate student in Community and Regional Planning at UT Austin researching smart transportation, transportation equity, and machine learning. 

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