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Transit-Oriented Development in Austin

Austin preparing for transit

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At the October 28 Livable Houston meeting, Molly Scarbrough, a senior planner with the City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department, spoke about how Austin is planning for transit-oriented development (TOD) even though it does not yet have a rail transit system in place.

Scarbrough noted that the city’s commuter rail line, which has been hampered by problems, is expected to open sometime next year, but that the city has been unsuccessful in developing light rail so far. She said that many people thought it came down to a choice between light rail and car lanes, but she emphasized that the light rail system the city is currently exploring would coexist with cars. That plan could be up for a vote next year.

Scarbrough explained that TODs are pedestrian-friendly areas created around a strong transit connection, preferably within half a mile of a dedicated transit stop. To take full advantage of the transit situation, the buildings are moderate- to high-density and are mixed-use. “We’re not talking about huge [density] increases here,” she said, but rather a series of buildings that might be five stories high instead of one or two stories. The buildings also must have an active ground floor with lots of windows and few setbacks in order to generate the most pedestrian interest. Densities are typically highest right next to the transit stop, she said, tapering off further from the center.

Transit-oriented development generally requires rail transit, not bus transit, Scarbrough said. “Typically, nationally, we’ve seen that there’s more investment with fixed rail,” she said, because rail is relatively permanent while bus stops might change or be removed.

Austin, Scarbrough said, is looking to encourage transit-oriented development for a number of reasons. Congestion and pollution is increasing, and the city is expected to double in size - adding one million new residents - in the next 20 years. In addition, more residents are interested in conserving resources and living sustainably, and many residents also want mobility choices and a diverse urban environment. “People may not give up their cars,” she said, “but they won’t have to use them all the time.”

To encourage TODs, Austin has begun planning in anticipation of future transit, has created new regulations, is using public-private partnerships, is using the city’s Capital Improvement Program to build sidewalks and other infrastructure, and is moving forward with plans to build urban light rail.

The process began in 2002 with the five-county Envision Central Texas initiative. A series of workshops sought community input on how to accommodate the city’s projected growth, and support grew for more compact development in existing urban areas. This was followed with the creation of the downtown Great Streets program, which aimed to make streets into public gathering places, not just traffic lanes. The Great Streets website states, “The design of our streets should be primarily an issue of urban design, not traffic engineering.”

In addition, Austin provided some bonus incentives to TOD developers. For instance, by including good streetscapes and affordable housing, developers are allowed to build taller buildings than would be permitted otherwise. The city also passed a TOD ordinance in 2005 to regulate setbacks, windows, mixed use functions, and other necessary components of transit-oriented development.

The basis for all of the TOD planning is the Capital Metro long-range plan. The city is currently doing station-area planning around four commuter rail stations, keeping in mind such factors as connectivity, multimodal access, reduced off-street parking, and public gathering places.

The city also created citywide design standards in 2006, classifying every street and specifying design requirements accordingly. Scarbrough said that the standards included some political concessions, but that ironically the concessions have ended up being somewhat unpopular.

Examples of transit-oriented development in Austin include The Triangle and Mueller, the latter of which housed the old Austin airport. Having real-world examples is helpful and can build support for TOD, Scarbrough said.

The city has encountered a few problems. For instance, while TODs are required to have main entrances opening onto the sidewalk, some of them have de facto main entrances next to the rear parking lots instead. In other places, the city is limited by a lack of available land. Scarbrough gave one example where the city did not have enough room to add two bike lanes to a street, so it added just one bike lane going uphill, where the bicyclists would be slower and more vulnerable to traffic. And finally, the city has not yet seen any new development taking advantage of the bonus incentives. Scarbrough said that part of that may be the real estate market, which collapsed not long after the incentives were adopted, but that she suspects it may also be that the city set its standards too high or the bonuses too low. All of these processes have taken a long time, Scarbrough said.

Scarbrough concluded by saying that transit-oriented development had key political support in Austin, including from powerful City Council members, the Planning Commissioners, and state legislators who represent the area. “Having advocates in leadership positions is key,” she said.

Matt Festa at the Land Use Prof Blog provides a write-up of the event. He notes that Austin has been working on transit-oriented development for years, even though the city does not have an operational rail line, while Houston “has had an operational light rail line for about five years, but has little TOD to show for it.”

Molly Scarbrough’s presentation (ppt, 17.9 mb)
PDF version (pdf, 10.9 mb)

Due to technical difficulties, video of this event is not available.

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