I've spent time each month discussing my viewpoints on public transit in Austin, specifically supporting light rail as the most logical route for Austin to meet the current and future demands on its public transportation infrastructure. Last month, I backed up for a minute to talk about one of the major political hurdles for something as progressive as light rail to happen in Austin: our faulty political engagement system.
This month, I'm keeping along those same lines and writing about another major hurdle: people who live in the past.
Now this topic isn't as government-minded as my last nor is it as easy to spell out and enumerate into a few bullet points as my earlier diatribe about the need for light rail in Austin. However, I would argue this topic is equally important to the future of Austin, particularly with regard to transit, because it's something that we all hear about whenever any innovative-sounding solution is put to vote.
"Oh, they're trying to make Austin like L.A., New York or somewhere..."
"I remember when it used to be..."
"We need to stop letting people in..."
"I wish all these people would stop moving here..."
Well, I have something important to say to the people who say things like the above: Austin's future had better be a lot bigger and different than your memory of Austin's past because the city is going to die if it isn't.
Let's start with the population. A century ago, somewhere in 1910 or 1911, Austin's population crossed 30,000. Half a century ago, somewhere between 1961 and '62, Austin's population had multipled over and over on its way to the 200,000 resident mark. In 1970 we hit 250,000; by the early 80s we were over 300,000; in the early '90s we crossed half a million; a decade ago the population was around 670,000 and now we're likely somewhere above 800,000. This is just in the city limits.
Okay, so here we have some rampant growth. People are moving here for school. People are moving here after college. People are moving here to start families. People are moving here to retire. Up and down the pendulum, Austin is growing. Now, if you want Austin to go back to the days of the '70s or '80s or even '90s, you're in for a very rude awakening. Why? Because a) our population growth isn't stopping and b) if it does slow tremendously, and ultimately stop, we'll be hard pressed to find benefits in such diminished growth in several key elements of the city which I will address momentarily.
Austin is going to hit a million residents pretty soon. If you doubt that, then you'd better do what I did a couple of weeks ago and have coffee with our city demographer Ryan Robinson. One of the reasons why light rail is even being considered is because the next 100,000 to 200,000 people who will move to Austin are likely the type of people who either a) want a city with better public transit after living in a city without one worth mentioning (perhaps people from Dallas or Houston) or have lived in a city with a good system (say, D.C. or Portland) AND/OR b) want to take advantage of public transportation to commute to work and take part in social offerings in the rapidly-developing urban core of Austin.
The key to Austin's future is making sure these thousands of new residents are the type of people who share the same concept of quality of lifestyle with us. Or, if they don't, they're willing to improve upon what currently exist by adding something new. My friends Terry, the executive producer of Austin City Limits, Niraj, the owner of Apothecary Cafe & Wine Bar, Kent, member of the awesome indie band Letting Up, and Deva, a reproductive health researcher and activist, aren't from Austin but they've decided that this is a place for them to contribute and thrive. We need more people like them to move here.
In terms of transit, if you are the type of person to yearn for the days when you could drive up and down Lamar Boulevard with no traffic in sight or get from 183 to Downtown in 10 minutes at 8:30 a.m., you'd probably want to move to a city with slower population growth because Austin isn't it. And if you've already set your roots here, and still want to complain from your bungalow in South Austin (78704 resident myself), then I suggest you think back to why you didn't pay more attention to population trends. At no time in Austin's last century has population not ballooned decade-to-decade, so the fact that you're even surprised means you don't know simple mathematics. Seriously, if someone told me to decide whether or not Austin would ever have 2 million city residents I wouldn't wonder if that would ever happen at all (like say, if Dr. Dre's Detox will actually ever come out). I would just wonder if I'd live to my 70th birthday.
But the population growth is only part of the equation. Population without social offerings and quality of lifestyle is an economy-dependent population. Take a look at some of the major Midwest and Rust Belt cities to see what happens when the economic conditions swing out of your favor and your social/cultural offerings and quality of lifestyle aren't up to par.
Why is it that Austin seems to make every 10 best list published about American cities? And how does the city end up in the top three just about every time?
It's all about connecting social offerings with a desirable quality of lifestyle. Social offerings are both permanent - bars, convention centers, hotels, restaurants, shops - and temporary: special events and cultural gatherings. Live in Austin for a year and you'll know exactly where these restaurants are and what these events are like.
By quality of lifestyle I'm not talking about the simple and oft-used term "quality of life". People in places like Indianapolis, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Kansas City, Missouri, actually have a pretty good quality of life. Housing is affordable. High quality research universities and liberal arts colleges aren't too far away. Locally-owned restaurants and shops have been able to stay in business for years, building a high sense of community with their patrons.
Quality of lifestyle is all about demographics. Certain people have certain goals for the way they live their lives. Austin - unlike most cities in America - has a fairly balanced approach to what it offers. True, its Black population and others are not the primary audiences of all of the social offerings available, but by and large Austin gets it right from the age standpoint. Teenage kids and college students have a place like Barton Springs in the summer; 20-somethings people have a steady stream of new bars to check out (the East Sixth Street bar scene is no more than a few years old and Rainey Street is even younger); 30s and 40-somethings have a growing jobs market with companies like Bazaarvoice and nonprofits like LIVESTRONG that are cultural beacons for their respective industries. People in their 50s and 60s don't have to spend an arm and a leg planning their retirements here like their counterparts on the West and East Coasts nor do they have to look forward to their retirements as much because employers are more welcoming to your outside activities (during your 20s and 30s primarily; maybe you're in a band or a mountain climber) as places like Atlanta and Chicago. And did I mention there's no state income tax in Texas?
Couple these social offerings with a highly valued quality of lifestyle and you have a city that gets buzz for all the right reasons, with businesses, parents, professionals, students, and visitors alike. This is specifically why Austin has had a fairly strong buffer to the national economy significantly impacting other cities in America these last three years.
Austin City Limits, Apothecary, the bars on Rainey Street, Sweet Leaf Tea and Deep Eddy Vodka, Bazaarvoice, Sanctuary Printshop, Livestrong, Mulberry...these are all establishments that have brought something significant to the city of Austin and they just so happen to involve friends of mine. My very small network is just a microcosm of the power of what Austin has going for it. A community of people - both natives and newcomers - who want to contribute to a constantly-improving set of social offerings and improve the quality of lifestyle in a city already known for being great at both!
This is also why it's imperative that we connect the dots between what Austin does well socially - music, food, local, outdoors, fun, youth, etc. - and what Austin's population will need it to do well in the future, not only socially but also systemically. Public transit - light rail in particular - is going to be a big part in this equation.
We could stop growing of course. We could try to slow it down. Encourage fewer business owners, fewer students, fewer young families, fewer visitors. We could let more of our good local restaurants go out of business, see UT raise tuition even more, have our schools decline further, and say good-bye to emerging festivals like Fun, Fun, Fun Fest and Pachanga. You can't have one without the other. This is a marriage.
Our growth is directly tied to our future. You can't go to sleep arguing about what's happening to Austin every single night of the week and continue to think you're going to wake up in a perfect marriage with a city in 5 or 10 years. We're growing. We're expanding. We're moving faster. Grow with us. Expand your horizons. And try to keep up. Otherwise you should do like those people who don't have anything good to say.
I know I come off as brash sometimes, but it's only because after just two-and-a-half years living here (aside from my time at UT in the early 2000s) I realize it's so damn simple.
If we stop growing, we start dying. We can try to slow it down, but then we're just in a coma...not yet ready to pull the chord on a city that used to be the Top 10 everything...
Are we really willing to give all this up because we don't want light rail lines a couple of blocks away from our businesses and neighborhoods?