When a city is better connected, all residents benefit. Connectivity can reduce inequity, mitigate climate change and repair communities. But in the US, the challenge for some cities is how to undo historical inequity.
Discriminatory housing practices separated Austin along racial divides – the effects of which are still felt today. But Austin is attempting to address injustices and create opportunities with a new transport network and an unprecedented $300m (£260m) anti-displacement investment.
Project Connect is a new light rail and bus network designed to connect neighbourhoods around Austin. It aims to improve access to daily needs like jobs, healthcare and education. As well as connecting neighbourhoods, by reducing people’s reliance on cars, the project also aims to play a role in tackling Austin’s carbon footprint – reducing community-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by around 250,000 tonnes per year and helping the City of Austin to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2040.
Six Austinites from different and diverse communities, who are united by their care for the future of the city, describe their hopes to bring communities back together, improve transit, and address climate change.
Yasmine Smith Esq, Chair of People United for Mobility Action (PUMA)
Yasmine Smith is a proud born-and-raised Austinite. She’s also an attorney and through her work with PUMA is working to ensure Project Connect will use transportation as a tool for equity.
“Transportation is the difference between someone having access to fresh food or living in a food desert,” says Smith. And having reliable transportation can even mean that young people have the opportunity to access higher education instead of succumbing to a “school-to-prison pipeline”, she explains.
The racially segregating 1928 “Master Plan” forcibly moved black and brown communities to the eastern part of the city and divided them from the white west. The east side was the underinvested, industrial part of the city, while the west attracted the white, wealthy and better educated. Today, life expectancies on the west side of the city are up to 10 years higher than in some eastern postcodes. More recently, eastern neighbourhoods have been gentrified, with higher rents and new developments displacing the original communities. Smith says displacement can be tied to transport developments.
“Historically, when bus lines or bike lanes come, that’s a signal of displacement.”
Designed in partnership with impacted community members, PUMA advocated for the $300m-anti-displacement investments and supported the creation of an “Equity Assessment Tool” in order to guide decisions being made on Project Connect and ensure support is given to those living near proposed stations so they aren’t displaced.
Hear Yasmine Smith explain why this municipal project felt different:
Robin Rather, CEO of sustainability consultancy Collective Strength
Robin Rather runs her own sustainability consultancy and is part of a team intent on the ecological restoration of Zilker Park – home to a world-famous natural swimming spot. She says Austin needs ecological reform, having recently experienced wildfires, floods, rising temperatures and rising GHGs from vehicles.
Having lived in Austin for most of her life, the biggest change she’s seen is the “excruciating degree of traffic” which has come with Austin’s accelerated growth. The city is one of the most car congested in the US – 54 million miles are driven on roads in the Austin area every day. And three-quarters of Austinites travel alone in their cars to work.
Meanwhile, light rail produces 60% fewer emissions than cars. Having fast, affordable transit alternatives that also encourage people to drive less could help to reduce the city’s emissions.
Austin FC fans are taking the city’s existing rail line in significantly growing numbers – one of a number of groups of residents and visitors who have enjoyed riding, and celebrating, on the train:
Veronica Castro de Barrera, chair of the board of directors for the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP)
Veronica Castro de Barrera’s passion for mobility and urban design started when she moved to the US from Mexico City aged 13. In her hometown she was free to play in the streets or walk to school with her friends.
But when Castro de Barrera moved to the US, she often found herself walking along roads that weren’t designed with pedestrians in mind, making her feel vulnerable. She later enrolled in architecture school to learn how to make cities more welcoming and healthier for their inhabitants.
One of the main challenges for Austin is the urban sprawl. People make long commutes from home to work, and it can be difficult for businesses to recruit staff. She hopes that Project Connect is going to “stitch the city together” and that Austinites will pivot away from their current car culture.
Listen to Veronica Castro de Barrera describe the perfect 15-minute city:
Ana Gonzalez, plant biologist and ecologist
With climate change already bringing longer, hotter summers, as well as more severe rain events and flooding, creeks are vitally important in a semi-arid area like Austin, says Ana Gonzalez.
Creeks function as cooling networks in the long hot summers. Trees and plants that grow along banks provide shade and absorb water, which then evaporates from their leaves, acting like a natural air conditioner. Healthy watersheds, where rain infiltrates into the soil to sustain plants also have this effect and support healthy creeks. They help to mitigate the “urban heat island” effect, a phenomenon where urban areas have higher temperatures than their rural surroundings, and provide corridors of refuge to wildlife during drought.
“Heat stress is a significant human health issue,” says Gonzalez.
An infrastructure change like Project Connect needs to incorporate and protect Austin’s many ecologically vibrant creeks. For example, creating bridges that span a creek, she says, is better than roads that pave over the creek with a large pipe for the water to flow through instead.
In the audio below, Ana Gonzalez describes how the city’s creeks can be incorporated into Project Connect:
Shane Johnson, clean energy organiser for the Sierra Club, a US environmental non-profit
“Race is the single biggest predictor of quality of life in the US,” says Shane Johnson, who was a co-chair on the steering committee for Austin’s Climate Equity Plan, which grounds Austin’s climate change policies firmly in racial equity. “We don’t want to be just addressing the symptoms of climate change. We want to address how [climate change] is rooted in systemic racism.”
Currently, transport is Austin’s second biggest source of carbon emissions, primarily caused by people driving cars.
Project Connect – which will provide alternatives to driving across the city and is aiming for half of journeys to be made without cars – is crucial in meeting the city’s climate goals. But it will also need to avoid the displacement of vulnerable neighbourhoods and neighbourhoods of colour, and ensure that those who are displaced also benefit from the public transit investment.
Jeffrey Ouellette, board member of Black Star Cooperative
Black Star, the world’s first community-owned brewpub, has already benefitted from Austin’s commuter rail line which created a transit-oriented hub in an area that previously had very little development, connecting it to the rest of the city and allowing businesses to spring up.
Ouellette, who moved to Austin in 1996, has seen that growth firsthand, and although he’s not complaining, he feels such quick growth has changed Austin and changed the vibe.
“That’s the compromise you make with a growing city, things are going to change,” he says.
Although he is anxious about the disruption of construction, he hopes Project Connect will bring back a more connected, small-town feel. And while Austin continues to grow, so too will a sense of community.
Project Connect aims to reduce avoidable vehicle journeys by 109 million miles annually. As the population of the area is set to double by 2040, reducing the climate impact of travel in the city is critical to its sustainable growth. Improving the car-free travel options will benefit residents’ health, jobs and education.
These six Austinites are all hopeful that this project will also bring their city together.
“I love that they call it Project Connect, because when you’re riding a bus or a train, you are meeting people you wouldn’t normally otherwise meet,” concludes environmentalist Robin Rather. “And I can see in the future, the much happier, much more connected, deeper sense of community that Austin will have because of it.”
This content was produced for the City of Austin by BBC StoryWorks as part of the Transforming Cities series presented by C40 Cities. Learn more about Transforming Cities: www.transformingcitiesseries.com
Editor’s note: In March 2023, Project Connect announced five scaled-down light rail options. Learn more at: https://www.atptx.org/