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Spotlight on Austin, TX

By Jimmy Onofrio
On February 10, 2014

When most people think of vibrant American cities that are models for the 21st century, the first two cities that come to mind are Portland, Ore. and Austin, Texas. A few months back, I wrote a column for The Daily Campus about quality of life in Portland. After visiting Austin, I found many similarities between the two - though Austin has more of a cowboy flair that serves as a constant reminder that you are in fact in Texas (think hipsters in cowboy boots).
As the capital of Texas and home to the University of Texas' flagship campus, the core of Austin's economy is built on education, government services and, in recent decades, the tech industry. Like Portland, the city has a long tradition of active citizenship: the creation of a new master plan for city development from 2009-2012 involved over 25,000 residents, according to the National League of Cities. The result is a metro area respected for its quality of life and home to cultural institutions like South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits music and arts festivals.
Though the city is more spread out than a comparable metropolitan area in the Northeast, it still receives high marks as a walkable and bikeable city: Bicyclist magazine ranks Austin at No. 11 on its "Most Bike-Friendly Cities" list, and daily bike commutes have increased by 60 percent over the last decade. The international bike-share program B-cycle has also recently expanded into Austin. Hand in hand with the bike infrastructure is the network of parks downtown and along the riverfront.
"To me Austin is unique because it puts such an emphasis on walkable urbanism and the development of green spaces throughout downtown," said Bili Yin, an Austin native and 8th-semester finance major at Rice University in Houston. "I do think that it is more people-friendly (than Houston). ... Austin puts an emphasis on shared spaces, which makes it easier to interact with people."
However, this city of nearly a million people has no surface or subway rail transit in its core area (a commuter line serves the northern suburbs). Downtown Austin seems well-served by its bus system, Capital Metro, which just inaugurated a new limited-stop service, MetroRapid, along its busiest corridor. MetroRapid buses will use geolocation to tell traffic lights when they are approaching, helping to keep service on schedule.
"Getting around without a car in Austin is possible but not preferable," said Jackie Wattles, a lifelong resident of Austin and associate news editor at The Daily Campus. "It takes a lot of planning to get around solely on public transport if you live out in North Austin like I do." She said expanding bus routes to surrounding communities would be of more short-term benefit than adding a metro line, which could take years to complete.
Capital Metro is in the planning stages of its first metro line, and the community engagement process is exposing a rift between the planning committee and some groups of citizens. The huge University of Texas campus sits just north of the downtown core, and the initial proposal called for the transit line to be built on the east side of campus, serving both Texas Stadium and a new, planned suburban community on the site of an old airport. However, many students and young people live in the West Campus neighborhood and would prefer the line to be built along Guadalupe Street, the west border of campus.
The new line will help connect campus and the northern parts of the city to the area east of downtown, like the popular shopping strip along South Congress, and Sixth Street, the center of Austin's nightlife. Similar to Memphis' Beale Street and Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Sixth Street becomes pedestrian-only after a certain hour, allowing pedestrians to safely roam the blocks-long strip of bars, clubs and restaurants. Many spots have rooftop bars and stages, and nearly every establishment features live music, contributing to Austin's title as the "live music capital of the world."
Like the Pearl District in Portland, East Sixth Street (formerly Pecan Street) in the 1970s was a declining area of warehouses and small businesses just east of the downtown core. Low rents and historic architecture inspired a rebirth into the vibrant cultural mecca that the street is today. Areas like Sixth Street coupled with green space and large institutional employers have established a reputation of high living quality that has made Austin one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country.
"I think people who live there find there's no place quite like it when they leave," said Wattles.

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