Austin Reclaims its Public Space With “Healthy Streets”

This is a guest blog post by Gabe Colombo, an urban design intern at Black + Vernooy Architecture and Urban Design in Austin and a master’s student in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

People love taking back their streets. The city of Bogotá, Colombia, has been closing its streets to automobile traffic for 40 years with the transformative Ciclovía. Cities around the world have followed suit. But it took a pandemic to get the ostensibly progressive city of Austin to do the same.

Austin, the liberal capital of conservative Texas, has a walk score of 41 out of 100 ⁠— in other words, not very walkable. It’s voted down light rail transit twice in the past 20 years and remains stubbornly incapable of passing land-development-code reform that could steer the city’s booming growth in the direction of walkable, compact neighborhoods. (Its most recent efforts on this front remain mired in a legal battle, thanks to vocal anti-development neighborhood groups.) In May, however, the city took a major step forward when the Austin City Council passed a resolution directing city staff to immediately begin implementing a new program, Healthy Streets.

Since Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a stay-at-home order in March, three key metrics have skyrocketed in the city: calls to mental-health hotlines, traffic speeds and serious car-crash injuries, and springtime crowding at Austin’s parks and trails. In addition, over 40 percent of Austinites don’t live within a 10-minute walk of a park. The need for safe, accessible public spaces in which to get exercise without risking virus transmission or being hit by a car has perhaps never been greater.

In response to this pressing need, a coalition of 30 community organizations and over 1100 Austin residents, led by the nonprofit Walk Austin, submitted a letter and petition urging the City of Austin to immediately implement a “Slow Streets” program. The initiative would limit automobile traffic on selected neighborhood streets to prioritize active human use, whether on foot, bicycle, or wheelchair.

people walking, biking and rolling on open streets in Austin, Texas.

The City Council was enthusiastic, and pandemic’s urgency meant fewer barriers to political action. Marshaled by Council Member Paige Ellis, along with reliably urbanist council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Jimmy Flanagan, Greg Casar, and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, the Council unanimously approved a “Healthy Streets” resolution on May 7, following the lead of cities around the U.S. including Oakland, California, Boston, Minneapolis, and San Diego. Large cities like New York and Los Angeles have since followed suit.

The seven-page resolution directed City staff to begin “designating and deploying a small number of Healthy Streets” — the first few within two weeks — “regularly and steadily expanding in batches over time, and iterating initiative design based on lessons learned.” According to a press release, the first three streets — including two in underserved locations of east and southeast Austin — are being rolled out this Friday, May 22. Using A-frames, traffic cones, and temporary signage, Healthy Streets will be created on low-traffic streets without public transit and are intended to be distributed fairly throughout the city’s neighborhoods. The city has also launched a webpage with information, maps, and resources for residents to request a street or give feedback.

Healthy Streets’ realization is a dramatic realignment of priorities in Austin’s public spaces, a powerful demonstration of the need for — and the significant benefits of — redesigning our streets to emphasize people, not cars. Baron Haussmann’s radical reorganization of Paris in the mid-19th century was, in part, a response to an outbreak of cholera in France; despite that project’s serious social-justice issues, there’s no reason the coronavirus crisis can’t be a similar turning point for sweeping urban-design change. As cities around the world leverage the moment to improve their streets — from Montréal to Milan, which is explicitly making over many public spaces permanently — residents are seeing firsthand the world that could be. Case in point: nationwide bicycle sales were up between 59 and 121 percent in March.



Luckily, Austin’s elected officials are understanding that vision of the future, too. Indeed, it was at the request of Council Member Kathie Tovo that an amendment was added to the resolution requiring the Council to revisit Healthy Streets for permanent implementation when Austin transitions to recovery mode. Walk Austin recently applied for an AARP Livable Communities grant that would fund more robust public engagement, with the goal of facilitating a public conversation about extending Healthy Streets beyond the pandemic.

Despite COVID-19’s devastating impact, this uncertain time has presented unexpected benefits: family bonding, strengthened neighborhood communities, and a dramatic improvement in air quality, which, in Austin, has been worsening over the past few years. As we use our streets differently, we are realizing how much we’ve been missing by giving them over almost entirely to automobiles. Austin’s groundbreaking Strategic Mobility Plan, passed in 2019, laid out the goal of reaching 50/50 modeshare by 2039, which entails shifting one quarter of current travel from private vehicles to walking, bicycling, transit, and other alternatives. Healthy Streets represents an important step toward achieving that policy goal. As cities around the world take bold action to make sure public spaces in the new, post-pandemic normal will be safer, healthier, and more accessible, Austin is joining the trailblazers.