Roads, Rails and Riders: A Look into the Austin Transit Experience

In 2019, city council unanimously passed the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, detailing a mission to bring the number of people driving alone to work down to 50%. Through interviews and new first-hand experience on public transportation, Nathan Adam Spear tries to see what Austin is doing to make this dream a reality.

By Nathan Adam Spear

Photo by Matthew Mateo

The similarities between Austin and the other metropolises of America grow each year as skyscrapers fill the landscape and more large businesses become our new neighbors in the Texas capital. With Austin’s developments also including an accelerating population and frequently mind-numbing traffic, the city has found the need to develop another big city similarity – public transportation.

Due to the sprawling geography of Austin, and subsequently Austin Community College, high-capacity public transportation networks like the New York subways or the London Underground, have so far refrained from being Austin’s primary public transit style. Currently, Austin takes the bus.

Since its establishment in 1985, Austin’s transit-service, CapMetro, has led the way for Austin’s public transportation through its fleet of 358 buses and 83 routes. ACC specifically has nine of its eleven campuses serviced by CapMetro, the two currently excluded being the Hays County and Elgin locations.

ACC students, faculty and staff are even allowed free access to the CapMetro Green Pass as of 2019, providing unlimited use of CapMetro services. Still, according to a transportation survey in 2019 by ACC’s office of energy and sustainability, only 7% of respondents had utilized public transport to get to campus.

As a long-time member of ACC’s car dependent students, my own experience with public transportation is likely similar to many others – severely lacking. 

My car parked on the curb in Pflugerville Texas, April 29, 2023. Photo by Adam Spear.

The car I’m dependent on – a red Chevy Sonic equipped with several strips of duct tape, a broken taillight and an increasingly unbearable noise every time I push the brakes – continues to fight the title of ‘efficient’ and ‘preferable’ with every use, making other transit options grow more attractive.

It was the evening of April 6th when I began my first public transit journey aboard the route 20 bus headed toward Capitol Station. Besides being within walking distance to its namesake building, Capitol Station also begins my eight-minute walk to ACC’s Rio Grande Campus, the location of my Thursday afternoon American Sign Language class.

My first commute on the bus had a promising start; the recommended stop and route was easily found with the CapMetro app on my phone. Directions to my stops were also on Apple Maps, which has an option for public trip options readily available. My ticket, a local day pass, was also purchased conveniently for $2.50 through the CapMetro app – a temporary expense before I set up the available ACC Green Pass.

Ruby Krimstein, an ACC student and ACCent writer, has experience on the bus that far exceeds my own. Having previously resided in cities like Chicago and New York City which have very developed transportation networks, Krimstein has never owned a personal vehicle or even a driver’s license.  

A CapMetro Bus drives near Highland Station, which services the ACC Highland campus with bus and rail commuting options. Photo taken by Matthew Mateo in Austin Texas, April 25, 2023.

“Everyone would say to me ‘you need to have a car, you’re moving to Austin, this is the time to get your license, this is the time to get a car,’” says Krimstein who, since moving in January, has found these friendly warnings not to be the case.

Splitting her time as an English major between the Highland and Rio Grande campuses, she not only utilizes the bus, but CapMetro’s commuter rail – AKA the Red Line – as well. Krimstein says she has found surprisingly few issues getting where she needs to go from her apartment in east Austin, even compared to her previous experience commuting in more mass transit-oriented cities.

“There’s an idea of Texas being very ‘car-centric’, but I think [public transportation] is more efficient than people realize.”  

The efficiency in Austin has not been without some effort; in 2019, after four phases and two years of brainstorming, city council unanimously passed the Austin Strategic Mobility plan, the first adopted transportation plan since 1995. 

This 358-page citywide plan of action aims to decrease the 76% of the city’s drivers that take a car independently to work down to a bold 50% by the year 2039, with transit ridership increasing to 16%. The reason being to handle the predicted traffic congestion as a result of population increase as well as lower the city’s carbon emissions.

“We are trying to reduce our consumption, there are lots of ways to do it, but transportation has the biggest impact,” says Lonny Stern, public involvement manager for the Austin Transit Partnership, “Choosing to share your trip, even just carpooling, that’s a 50% reduction right there.”

Commuter delay, affordability, travel choice and safety were found to be the primary concerns of the focus group formed by city officials before drafting the ASMP.

Affordability isn’t an issue as an ACC student, but Krimstein is well aware of the occasional delay and feeling of discomfort experienced while using the city’s public transportation. Most especially, though, she finds issue in a “lack of autonomy” from relying on public transit. 

On the CapMetro Red Line, that she uses frequently to access the Highland campus due to its “cleaner” environment, Krimstein says missing a train can sometimes lead to hour-long waits for the next.

A train from CapMetro’s Red Line, which began operations in 2010, awaits departure at the Highland Station. Photo taken by Matthew Mateo in Austin Texas, April 25, 2023.

With the bus’s varying service times and limited travel distance, she says some freedom is lost without owning a car.  Often, events that are on a far side of the city or in a different one altogether are practically unreachable when depending on public transportation.

As for my own maiden bus trip, I fortunately arrived at my stop on time with the bus arriving shortly after to pick me up at the scheduled 5:00; However, frequent stops and a minor delay (after the driver answered a phone call and stepped off for a few minutes) made the future of getting to my 5:30 ASL class on time grow unlikely.

With all this stress for an otherwise roughly 15 minute car ride, I wondered what might make daily-use of these services, when other options are available, appealing.

“I’ve found it’s a good way to see the city,” says Krimstein, “It’s like an effortful journey which can be fulfilling.”

With that I can agree; getting to spend time outside in the community, with my eyes off the road and on the view around me, I find myself feeling unexpectedly content with my place in life and society. As Krimstein says, public transport isn’t so isolated compared to driving independently.

I was nearly finished practicing, ‘Sorry, I’m late’, in sign language when the bus came to its hissing stop at Capitol Station. My relaxing city walk turned into a sweaty urban jog, but I arrived at class on time, slightly damp, but on time.

It was 2020, when voters not only addressed improving the efficiency of its transportation by funding the Transit Enhancement Program, but also approved the planning for a different type of transportation entirely  through funding Project Connect.

Project Connect, supported by a portion of the city’s property tax revenue and run by the Austin Transit Partnership, is primarily focused on the construction of a new citywide light-rail system. The light rail, named for its smaller size, boasts high-speeds with frequent arrival times.

Focused on implementing the light rail without displacing low-income communities, ATP was formed to lead the program and works along CapMetro’s and the city’s ETOD or, Equitable Transit-Oriented Development, strategies as well. 

Initially, Project Connect planned 28 miles of accessible light rail throughout the city and presented these plans in early 2020; But after necessary changes to the rail’s design had accompanied the city’s accelerated cost of living, the original $5 billion cost estimate was doubled, and the vision was replanned.

Lonny Stern (left) , representing ATP, explains the initial plans for Project Connect to a student passing his table for ACC’s Earth week. Photo taken by Adam Spear at the Riverside campus on April 20 2023.

“In a way, we were building our dream home,” says Stern who, I discovered later, is a local realtor. “But now we know we need to start with a starter home and add on to it.”

Stern has been conducting community outreach for ATP since the light rail’s open house in March. Along his quest for public input and as part of ACC’s Earth week, he presented five options for the first phase of Project Connect’s construction at the ACC Riverside Campus.

The presentation was scheduled to include an electric vehicle demonstration, but the weather had other plans according to Amber Orr, the ACC energy and sustainability manager. 

Stern assures that the five more affordable options he presented are just for phase one of the long spanning project, and that the plans promised in 2020 have not ceased entirely, just slowed considerably. For Stern and ATP this brings the issue of finding routes to service first. 

“Some people may look at this and say, I want to go as far as possible, pick the cheapest branch, let’s do that, and there are other folks who are more specifically concerned about where we are serving,” says Stern. 

Focused on implementing the light rail without displacing low-income communities, ATP works along the city and CapMetro’s ETOD or, Equitable Transit-Oriented Development, strategies as well. 

Each of the five options, which fit into a more conservative budget, presented a portion of the original light rail system. The underground and elevated lines that were promised initially were only offered in the shortest of the five lines due to the unexpectedly high production costs of specialized rail. 

ATP’s outreach to ACC’s Riverside location was because one of the presented tracks did not reach far enough to service the campus efficiently; The northernmost reaching option, starting from North Lamar, only went as southeast as Pleasant Valley, whereas the others continued southeast to Yellow Jacket or, in one, all the way to the airport.

With troubles even arising at this year’s legislative session, in the form of House Bill 3899, it seems Austin’s light rail future is still some time away with speed having only increased semi-recently. After the the bill lost steam and the comment period ended May 2nd, it was less than a month later when ATP announced its agreed first phase of development.

“Full steam ahead!” posted CapMetro’s Twitter account announcing their board’s agreement on June 2nd 2023. The plan is a modified version of the five presented by ATP last month. Graphic from @CapMetroATX on Twitter

Most notably, the approved $4.5 billion plan will begin from 38th street down to Yellow Jacket, with a “priority extension” connecting Crestview up north as and from Yellow Jacket directly to the airport.

Last Friday, CapMetro’s Twitter announced that the CapMetro board unanimously approved the adjustments, putting Project Connect finally on the road, or rail, to construction.

Even with this decision being a big step towards the optimistic plans that we were shown in 2020, construction for this first phase will likely not feel much quicker; and several public comment periods can be expected in the meantime.

After acquainting myself with the city’s current transportation options and some of its riders, though a fulfilling experience, it does still have room for improvement with limited distances and varying delays. Austin’s Transit Enhancement Program, voter funded in 2020, provides a place for those of us using the bus to be heard while we wait further for Austin’s transit future.

Texas Advocacy Day 2023: Voices of LGBTQ Texans

The 88th legislative session started on January 10 and concludes on May 29, 2023. This term sparked a sense of fear amongst LGBTQ Texans as there are more anti-LGBTQ bills than in previous sessions.

by Foster Milburn

On March 20, 2023, Texans from across the state gathered near the south side of the capitol. The goal: to use the mere presence of the community to push back on bills that directly impact the lives of LGBTQ Texans. 

National and regional equality groups organized the day in a routine schedule to train and create positive energy amongst attendees. Equality Texas, GLAAD, Texas Freedom Network, Transgender Education Network of Texas, and ACLU were the backbone of the event. 

Allies are a crucial part of the LGBTQIA community. “This is a joint effort of the all-in for equality coalition – it’s great to come together with allies,” Communications Director at Equality Texas Jonathan Gooch said. In support of that, Equality Texas provided advocates transportation directly to the training site at the First United Methodist Church of Austin. 

Around noon, advocates marched to the capitol building and stopped to gather on the south side. Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas, gave an energetic opening speech. Following his speech, he introduced Cynthia Lee Fontaine, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” television show contestant from season eight and a Texan themselves. Cynthia performed directly in front of the capitol building as a direct visual protest of SB 12, the bill that defunds public libraries holding drag story hours and outlaws any public display of drag. 

The bill uses vague language directed at any cisgender person portraying the opposite gender publicly. This leaves out all of the cisgender women and non-binary people who perform drag as well. The language of the bill suggests that the law could be used to target transgender people. 

When asked about some of the primary goals for the day, Gooch said, “I look forward to spending some time with community members, celebrating, sharing some queer joy, and showing Texas lawmakers that we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re going to be around for a while.”

After several speeches from transgender college students, equality groups, and other advocates from the community, the crowd lined up to enter the capitol building. Five groups were assigned three different Texas representatives to discuss what bills were wrong and which ones they should support instead. 

[Ricardo Martinez – CEO of Equality Texas & Jonathan Van Ness – celebrity hairstylist, star in Netflix’s Queer Eye, and Trans activist.] – Photo courtesy of Adam Spear

Josh Tutt, the President of the Pride Community Center in College Station, said, “I was not surprised that we only got to speak with staffers during our office visits and not directly with the elected officials. I was also not surprised that they were, for the most part, unwilling to commit to supporting the bills we were lobbying for.” Each staff member said the representatives were already on the house floor despite once the advocates entered the capitol building. 

Another important event was the inspiring speech given by Jonathan Van Ness, a native Texan from the “Queer Eye” series, to Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. As the legislative session unfolds, LGBTQIA Texans have shown that a whole group of marginalized people exists in Texas and are not going away. 

On paper, it looks like the entirety of the legislative body is against the LGBTQ+ community; however, the high number of good bills is equal to the number of bad ones, which is crucial to acknowledge. 

“We know Texans are generally becoming more supportive of LGBTQ equality,” Gooch said. Why these bills increase each legislative session continues to be questioned following marriage equality not even a decade ago. “As far as I can tell, this is a result of primaries – politicians playing to their primary voters – this tiny group of voters having an outside impact on what bills pass,” Gooch said.

There are Representatives in the legislative body that support bills that favor the LGBTQ population. They refer to bills that promote non-discrimination, mental health services for public education, and healthcare, such as prohibiting the coverage of conversion therapy on all healthcare plans.

The LGBTQ community is equally active in opposing anti-LGBT legislation as legislators who support it. Unfortunately, there is a wall that these bills have built up each legislative session, and the LGBTQ community in Texas is pushing back. This session represents the most visible display of a marginalized community claiming power against the harmful and incorrect stigma around not only queer expression, but the community’s very existence in this state. 

Breaking Threads: Weaving the Changing State of the Austin Art Scene 

As art and technology accelerate Austin’s growth, the city’s large number of artists as well as its under-represented communities have struggled to match pace.

by Nathan Adam Spear

The surplus of creative events in the city paired with the increasing presence of several large tech company headquarters like Dell (1984), Apple (2019), and most recently Tesla (2021) has made the once quiet capital’s cost of living increase, displacing the historical communities and the artists that make it attractive.

Celina Zisman, the chair of the City of Austin’s Commission for the Arts, says that the commission has been facing this increasing loss of culture with the implementation of an equity lens on its funding model inspired by the strategic direction that city council adopted in March of 2018. 

In June of this year, the arts commission along with the city’s cultural arts division released their review process, which details how the city will support the preservation of its culture with three new funding programs. 

The newly applied equity lens on these funding programs places the commission’s funding priorities on local artists and creative organizations that take action to accommodate and uplift under-represented communities.

Zisman has been involved with the arts commission since 2019. The organization, composed entirely of volunteers, faced its share of funding difficulties after the year’s pandemic.

Austin’s arts and culture funding, which is sourced from a fraction of the city’s hotel occupancy tax, dropped significantly after traveling restrictions during the pandemic caused hotel revenue to drop. The city was met with a long period of no events, and the artist’s struggle worsened.

“I’m honestly just proud we were able to keep our s**t together,” said Zisman, who moved to Austin from the Bay Area in 2008 and has since been closely involved with the city’s developed creative community. Like many local artists, Zisman remembers having her start renting space on Austin’s previously more affordable east side.

“I had a few friends who lived over there, but I didn’t really have any guides or context when I moved,” says Zisman about her experience moving to Austin as a low-income artist. “It was just the affordable place to live.”

The low costs of the neighborhood, before it garnered its more recent attention, was in large part due to Austin’s history of segregation. In 1928, the segregation plan that the city adopted aimed to relocate the African American community to the homes and neighborhoods east of I-35.

For years the neighborhood developed as a prominent African American community, the highway physically separating the under-represented Austinites on the east side from the more expensive and white parts of the city. 

When artists wanting to live in the culturally vibrant urban area discovered the large number of affordable homes and renting options to the east, the historically segregated neighborhood’s reputation as a creative hotbed began to form and the originally segregated communities faced displacement again.

“Do artists play a role in gentrification? Hard stop yes. Artists are notorious for being brave and living where other people might not want to,” said Zisman, elaborating on the trend of artistic communities transforming the low-income areas they settle in and displacing the neighborhood’s preceding residents as more attraction for the once-undesirable location is created.

The population in the city has continued to grow rapidly, even reaching as high as 2.2 million in the latest report from the 2021 United States Census Bureau, a 22% increase in the last decade alone. The white, non-Hispanic population leads this charge contributing nearly 40% of the population’s total growth according to the same report.

The American Growth project, led by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, listed Austin as 2022’s second fastest growing U.S city. The project points out how the city developments that were made in response to the area’s growing popularity continue to increase expenses as well, reporting that the average rent for multifamily housing has increased around 10% every year. 

The notoriously low-income artists, especially those on the east side, are facing the consequences as well after the influx of attention and development. The east side, after years of neglect, is seeing the presence of rapid high-income focused development like Waterloo Central – which boasts 39,000 square feet of Class A office space – outpaces the city’s opportunities for artists. 

Pump Project Art Complex, previously located on 20,000 square feet of Shady Lane, was a longtime participant in the East Austin Studio tour and an active creative space for 13 years in this location. Now, after the building’s owner put the space on the market for $2.4 million, Pump Project lacks a physical shop and hosts pop-ups under the name ArtUs at the Arboretum in Northwest Austin.

“It was organically grown with all these little incubator spaces, and it became this thing that grew, and we kind of gentrified ourselves,” said Joshua Green, the co-founder of Pump Project, to Texas Monthly in 2021.

Pump Project was one of the city’s many art hubs that felt pressure as inflation increased. In the Economic Development Department’s (EDD) 2017 Creative Spaces survey, 51% of the participants had even admitted to considering leaving Austin for another city or state.

In the most recent Austin Studio Tour, previously known as the East Austin Studio Tour before joining the western side with a name change in 2021, the concentration of artists that once occupied the east side has largely dispersed.

Hoping to unite the efforts of artists trying to live sustainably and the city wanting to keep its culture, the arts commission worked with EDD’s Cultural Arts Division to prioritize funding with an equity lens that looks at an organization/individual artist’s diversity and potential impact.

In June of 2022, the Cultural Arts division released their cultural funding review process, detailing the new programs in place after reaching out to the needs of the arts community and evaluating the equity of previous funding programs.

“You may not be a person of color but does the work you’re doing serve communities of color?” explaining the priorities of some of the new programs, “If you’re a non-profit, does your board represent a spectrum of the community?”

The division’s entry-level funding or Nexus Program has the lowest award amount of $5,000 and the easiest application process. Nexus focuses on the support of new talent in and out of the city.

The Thrive program, which has the highest grant amounts, intends to correct the city’s past participation in gentrification and its history of funding biases by focusing support on non-profit organizations that are reflective of Austin’s culture by, for example, possessing a 5-year or more history with the city. Looking primarily for non-institutions as well, the Thrive program has award amounts going as high as $80-150k a year.

Despite the development of these new programs and the recovery of funds from the hotel occupancy tax, the artistic community still struggles as inflation rises. According to a 2022 survey by the EDD, only 30% of respondents have access to an affordable creative space.

Finding awareness of these opportunities and a lack of business experience to be recurring problems for the creative community, Zisman or as they like to be known, The Craft Advocate, offers insight and financial advice to local creatives.

Zisman finds the preservation of what’s left of the Austin culture through direct collaboration with artists, generating more local creative opportunities and placing a high priority on a more affordable renting market for artists.

“I mean we got to have some spice, we got to have flavor and I think without our creatives feeding this culture, we’re just another spot on the map.”