President Obama had a lot on his to-do list when he visited Austin during SXSW last month. Speak about citizen involvement and the role of technology – check. Eat at Torchy’s Tacos – check. Shut down streets throughout the city – check.
Adding a Presidential motorcade to already-snarled SXSW traffic seemed like a recipe for disaster, but the Austin community didn’t just sit and fret – we took action. City Manager Marc Ott announced that City offices would close early and Mayor Adler talked to every possible media outlet encouraging residents who could work from home that day to do so. Employers heeded the call, making special arrangements for their employees to avoid rush hour and the afternoon road closures. Everyone who could do so left early, worked from home, or used other options.
Morning rush hour was non-existent. Once the afternoon road closures cleared and the President left, evening rush hour was much better than usual, too. Commuter reactions on social media ranged from employees saying “#ThanksObama” for getting to work from home, to commuters proclaiming “Green is the new Red!” on their 5 pm traffic maps.
The President’s visit showed us that individual decisions can make a huge difference in traffic. We just need to get enough individuals doing something at the same time. It helped that City leaders and employers were acting together and media echoed the same messages. It also helped that people took seriously the “threat” of sitting in traffic even longer.
Now we are going to see if Austin commuters can intentionally make a difference in rush hour traffic. Preparations are underway to declare a commuter referendum of sorts for one day in May. We will get employers on board, but you – the commuter – will “vote” with your actions. Choosing a different commute – whether that is working from home, carpooling, taking a bus, train, or bike, or just shifting work hours – is a vote for real traffic solutions.
Let’s think beyond Earth Day and start getting real solutions to the traffic you have to deal with every day. Changing your commute tells everyone you are serious and they need to get serious too.