The City has launched the South Lamar Corridor Study to analyze the "safety and mobility concerns" it claims are being caused by rapid growth along the corridor.
South Lamar needs a lot of work. The rapid growth along the corridor provides a fine excuse -- and an equitable argument -- for making capital investments to the corridor. But South Lamar's problems have very little to do with growth along the corridor. It is an uninviting, pedestrian-hostile traffic sewer today, but then it was an uninviting, pedestrian-hostile traffic sewer fifteen years ago, when I moved nearby. South Lamar is in the condition it is in because that reflects the Transportation Department's priorities. Vehicle throughput has been maximized to the exclusion of every other design value. There is thus no street parking, few lights to allow safe street crossings, and high free-flow speeds. It's an unpleasant street for either drivers or pedestrians. That's by design.
I don't know what City staff has in mind for South Lamar. There were a lot of transportation engineer-type consultants at the open house I attended in December, which is not encouraging. There were also some urban design consultants, though, which is encouraging. And the City is playing up the "health" angle (Walking is good for you!), which gives me hope that staff wants to make the boulevard more pedestrian friendly.
The City has released the initial results of the public input. Staff asked the open house attendees to put stickers on an easel chart to mark their top priorities for the corridor. Cars came in fourth place, which isn't so hot considering everyone got five stickers.
I've thought about this survey a good bit since the open house. I don't think the options the City gave us were very useful because they gloss over the main conflict.
South Lamar is an important thoroughfare. It is an important commuting alternative to MoPac for those living in the southwestern suburbs, and it is, of course, the main commuting route for those those of us who whole live on or near South Lamar. It is also an important connection to Zilker Park and to the central city generally. South Lamar is all the more important as a thoroughfare because Austin has very few central corridors.
But South Lamar is also a place, a destination in its own right. The street cuts through or borders six census tracts that had 24,000 residents in 2010, including hundreds living in condos and apartments directly on South Lamar. The street has added hundreds of apartments since then -- actually, over 1,400 -- and another 1,200 are under construction or about to begin construction. South Lamar is the Main Street for all of these people.
The number and diversity of businesses along South Lamar reflect this. I started counting businesses the other day, but quit at 200, with long portions of the street still to survey. South Lamar has four dozen restaurants, a dozen bars and lounges, dentists, bakeries, yoga studios, comic book stores, a taxidermist, second-hand clothing stores, auto repair shops, tailors, and all of the other kinds of businesses you'd expect on a busy main street.
The chief problem with South Lamar is that the City treats it solely as a conduit of traffic and does not respect it as a destination in its own right. Every shred of hospitality, agreeableness or accessibility has been engineered out of the street. (To be fair to the City's traffic engineers, it was largely that way when they got it -- it started out as a rural highway to Fredericksburg and the city grew up alongside it.)
Framing the problem with South Lamar as a choice between competing modes -- car, pedestrian, bike or transit -- obscures this fundamental conflict between South Lamar as traffic conduit and South Lamar as a place. South Lamar is uninviting for pedestrians, but it is also uninviting for drivers who want to go someplace on South Lamar. It should be no surprise that a place that is uninviting for pedestrians and drivers is uninviting for bicyclists and transit users.
The discussion we really should start with is, "Are we willing to make the changes necessary to allow South Lamar to flourish as place?" I think we should, but it's not at all clear that the average Austin resident would agree with me. But framing the issue as bicyclists versus drivers versus pedestrians really obscures more than it clarifies.