Meeting Demands for a Walkable Austin

“Walkability” has implications for much more than transportation – it can affect our health, neighborhood affordability, security, and sense of community. So it makes sense that walkability has become a buzz word in recent years, at the national and local level. (Last year, walkability expert Jeff Speck visited Austin, speaking to over 300 residents and activists about how to create a more pedestrian-friendly city.)

“More and more of us want to be within safe and comfortable walking distance of the destinations that meet our everyday needs, such as shops, places to eat, services, parks, and good transportation options that can take us downtown and to jobs and other places we want to go. It’s the hottest trend in real estate, sought by buyers and renters alike,” writes the Huffington post.

If you think that living in a walkable area like this sounds pretty great – you’re not alone! Demand is growing for these places, especially among two demographic behemoths (Baby Boomers and Millennials). According to the results of a nationwide survey released earlier this year by the National Association of Realtors and Portland State University, 50 percent of Millennials consider it “very important” to be within an easy walk of places “such as shops, cafes and restaurants.” In addition, Baby Boomers seeking to downsize are increasingly interested in neighborhoods where they can retain their independence without needing to drive. Thirty-eight percent consider walkability to be very important.

To see evidence of this demand in Austin, you need to look no further than the popularity and rising home prices in our most walkable neighborhoods. Downtown is an obvious one – the highest rent in the city, averaging $1,913. The close-in and walkable Zilker neighborhood is just behind, with an average rent of $1,500. In a 2015 real estate forecast, local professionals reported that they were seeing increased interest in smaller homes with a close proximity to downtown, where you can leave your car behind to embrace the downtown lifestyle. “People are willing to give up space for place,” says Kevin Burns, broker and CEO of Urbanspace Real Estate.

Look at parts of Austin like West Campus, South Lamar, and lower Burnet Road, and you’ll see more evidence that walkability is in demand, as dense growth reshapes those areas, and people who want to live close in to work and leisure flock to residential units and homes there.Screen shot 2015-12-09 at 11.42.00 AM

In Austin the demand is clearly there – now how do we deliver on that demand?

Austin’s development code and transportation system haven’t caught up with those market shifts, and as a consequence dense, walkable areas are still packed with traffic. As Yogi Berra would say, “no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

To meet the demand for walkable places, as well as give transportation options a boost, we’re going to need even more.

Some of that may come from Austin’s new land development code, CodeNEXT, which is in the works now as part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. The code can affect walkability with things like where shops and restaurants can be built, and how much parking lot a pedestrian might have to traverse to get to them.

Corridor Improvement Programs are also in the works to update roads, making them more accessible to all users, not just cars.

Complete and Great Streets policies are additional steps Austin is taking to build walkable neighborhoods. The award-winning Complete Streets policy focuses on the safety aspect of walkability, ensuring users of all modes – walking, biking, driving, transit – are able to share space on every street. The Great Streets policy (just applied downtown for now) takes this a step farther to enhance the experience of the street as a memorable public space.

What can you do? Make your voice heard through the Austin Pedestrian Advisory Committee, attend corridor improvement workshops, or get involved with CodeNEXT as it moves forward.

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