Landed just after sunset and my best friend Colby picked me up. The whole trip started a couple of months back when Colby phoned me from Afghanistan and said, "Would you come to Lake Como while I'm on leave?" My answer. "Yes, of course." I haven't seen the guy in two years since I was the best man in his wedding.
I even managed to allow myself some Coca-Cola.
Instagramming the odometer turnt all the way up. Probably got a tunnel ticket for that one.
[The views and opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone. Otherwise, it'd be called Diatribes by Joah and Other People.]
I was reading Monocle magazine’s list of the 25 most livable cities in the world and was quite dismayed Austin didn’t make the list. That happened at the beginning of a vacation in which I spent the last eight days traveling from my old neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to New York’s JFK Airport to Milan, Italy, to Lake Como to Alassio and to Geneva, Switzerland, and finally came back to the States with a final thought on the matter. That final thought is seven-and-a-half pages and 3,800-something words now pasted into this blog. Have fun. :)
Summary: It’s true, Austin deserves no place on a list of the world’s most livable cities. At least not unless that place is somewhere in the bottom half of a top 100 list.
Austin, quite frankly, isn’t all that livable on the global scale. We may be trying to become the best-managed city but that doesn’t seem nearly as effective as being the most livable city. Maybe that’s just me.
In the last few years alone, I’ve been to eight of the cities on the list, which isn’t enough to call myself a world city expert, I know. However, the range of cities I’ve seen – Barcelona, Kyoto, Paris, Portland, San Francisco, Tokyo, Vancouver, and, most recently, Geneva – that did make the list plus the bevy of international cities not on the list that I’ve experienced to a degree in the last few years – Atlanta, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Dallas, D.C., Houston, L.A., London, Miami, Milan, Minneapolis, New York, Philly, Rio de Janeiro, Seattle, Toronto – should give me some credo.
American cities in the South like Atlanta and Houston lack connectivity, preventing them from both attracting the “top” 1 percent and connecting them to the next 10 percent to propel their ideas and vision. International cities like Kyoto and Vancouver offer end-to-end balance as cities overall, but don’t appear to be focused on cultural growth as a means to spur economic growth the way Rio, London and Toronto have. I could go on and on with key observations, but I share this to say that I fully agree with Monocle’s writers and their methodology.
Sure, Austin has a live music scene worth bragging about to the world. We’re about to have a major event mix that features Formula 1, South by Southwest, and Texas Longhorns football games. Amazon and Apple have joined a slew of tech companies growing their footprints here, and we have more creatives and 30-somethings couples with high incomes moving here everyday. Hurray us.
But this city still lacks for diversity (as an example of who makes the cut, Geneva, #25 on Monocle’s list claims 40 percent of its residents as foreign and compare that to Austin where less than 9 percent of its residents being Black), we still need a more robust assortment of budget-conscious shopping (although H&M’s recent announcement to take up residency in the Domain helps some), and the establishment of true neighborhood living is still pending while H.E.B. and Whole Foods continue to have a stranglehold on the Austin grocery market, preventing most residents from legit car-less shopping.
Let me add a little context: in my travels over the years – more than 75 cities of 250,000 or more residents in the last 10 years, but who’s counting - my specialty has become going into a city, usually with less than 72 hours, and diving into the thickness of a place in a way not customary for tourists.
But beyond that method of traveling, my real focus is uncovering the soul of a city or town in a way allows me to distill only the most pure and potent aspect of what that place will mean to me in my own life and the city I live in. Obviously going to a place more than once helps…it refines that aspect, shapes it, molds it, but really it only takes me a few hours.
And what is easily the most telling sign of a city’s soul? It’s public transportation system.
For what Austin has today transit-wise it sure isn’t very “well managed” if that’s worth anything. And who the hell wants a poorly managed soul? Not me. So in the last eight days I’ve gone to a few cities that know a thing or two about being uber-livable on the global scale, and they all put Austin to shame on the public transportation front. As a result, they are all more livable than Austin will ever become if it keeps on its current transit-averse, budget-hawk, vision-laden course.
Do I live in those cities? No. Would I prefer those cities to Austin? Hell, no. But a truth one place doesn’t mean a truth in another.
But there’s this: Austin’s transportation “decision makers” seem to be hung up on the initial, up-front costs of implementing a public transit system with true scale and vision. Instead, we are getting piecemeal solutions that ultimately do more good than harm (thank God), but also hinder the ability of Austin’s residents to reap the full benefits of an integrated, multi-modal transit system anytime this decade.
Meanwhile, the city is quick to embrace major events such as Formula 1 – which I, too, am a huge proponent of – or a potential second week of ACL Fest while missing the announcements of such events and job boosts (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) to relay, reiterate, repeat (catch my drift?) the message to voters that public transit infrastructure is going to be much cheaper today than it’ll ever be in a few years when we’re desperate for it. If it’s not painful, then it’s not lofty enough…isn’t that true for anything worth having?
It seems like our city is A-OK with assuming Austin will be more populated in the future, particularly the Downtown area, and planning to our heart’s delight so long as it doesn’t mean we actually have to do something really hard like build a public transit network in the decade BEFORE we pass 1 million city limits residents.
Austin also lacks a more thoughtful approach to lower hanging yet important elements of the city’s transportation experience, mainly taxi cabs (or the lack thereof at critical places and times throughout the year) and international flights (and their lack thereof).
Two simple recommendations on those fronts:
1. Austin should consider setting up a grid of pedi-cab to Taxi-stand areas in Downtown that are reliable and come with a $1 or $2 surcharge ($3 for pedi-cab connections) for the comfort of a guaranteed ride to your meeting/date/home/friend’s house. 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. would work for Thursdays – Saturdays to start to cover the happy hour and bar crowds. This system should be measured by ridership rates, survey-like tracking of both cab drivers and riders, and decreases in DUIs/DWIs and accidents stemming from alcohol. Couldn’t we test this out during F1 and SXSW this year?
2. Austin should be proactive about airport expansion and create public-private partnerships looking to tap into the Live Music Capital or increase their presence in Austin and Texas. San Francisco to Austin and back is easy (JetBlue), but what about Tel Aviv to Austin or London to Austin? These other tech centers would greatly benefit from connectivity to Austin. I would say the same for cultural hubs like Rio de Janeiro (site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics) and Tokyo, where Japanese businesses like Uniqlo could root their Texas expansions and live music fans could more easily attend South by Southwest Festival or Austin City Limits. I know we’re competing with Houston for a lot of these flights, but something tells me Virgin and British Airways are much more JetBlue/Southwest culturally and business planning-wise than they are like United/Continental. Again, couldn’t we find one airline willing to get creative with us and find a way to share the cost to expand the airport’s runway for longer-haul flights and larger jets like the ones Airbus makes? Are we just sitting still and assuming a city of a million or more city residents isn’t going to want to fly internationally directly from Austin?
These suggestions aren’t perfect, admittedly. They should go on a wall with about 100 others that could be stripped down to four to six workable concepts that are tested with a crowdsourcing friendly, customer centric model a la (shameless plug alert) Bazaarvoice’s ratings and reviews software and measured against projected costs to scale to the Austin density forecasted by our City demographer.
What Austin really needs though is a public case for public transit. Unfortunately you kind of need higher voter turnout to actually get the public to support anything hard in this city, and (this is where people stop reading or stop liking me) many of the city leaders – primarily the unofficial ones with their organizational fiefdoms - aren’t all that concerned with higher voter turnout because you can never actually predict the results of such action.
The reason we haven’t heard one yet is because we seem to be getting too caught up on what is good for our 2012 budget and development goals (aka construction costs) instead of what types of expenditures and social environment we’re setting ourselves up to have in 2020 and beyond. I can tell you this much: we sure won’t be having so much success getting more companies to re-locate here, more developers to build here or more talented people to look for jobs here if we don’t address the issue.
The future resident of Austin, Texas, will be familiar with Monocle magazine, you can believe that. And the likelihood is that he or she or they will be coming from a city with better public transit, and measure Austin along that lens as well. Good luck when that happens.
When “cheap rent” and “lower cost of living” stop being the #1 go-to reason to move to Austin over a coastal city, we’re going to be Fucked. Capital intended.
Pardon my language, but I hope you can already imagine that world because I can. At least I will continue to believe so unless the City rolls out it’s “Keep Austin’s Restaurant and Drink Prices Weird (and Low)” campaign which should be starting any year now based on current upward pricing trends. I know this with a fairly high degree of confidence because of what Monocle readers mean to a city’s bottom line and social sphere. Hell, Austin doesn’t have that many of us, but we sure as hell make the needle move around here if I may say so myself.
But don’t believe me, just go to Book People and watch someone pick up a thick copy of Monocle and ask them what they do for a living; it’ll probably be an entrepreneur or designer or architect or some other mid-to-high income profession with a high degree of education and knack for travel. Oh, and they probably have a wife or significant other who is just as interesting and capable who likes shopping a tad more. And they’re probably considering a real estate purchase in the next three years, and eating at Uchiko for the hell of it next week…on Tuesday (because Friday is already booked at Justine’s). Yeah, those people.
I guarantee you they aren’t wasting their education doing something that isn’t paying them enough to live a comfortable life nor is that person complaining about how expensive yoga is these days or is that person any more than three weeks from their next business trip to L.A., New York, San Francisco or Chicago or more than four months away from their next vacation. To Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia or South America, most likely.
Speaking of vacation again, last Saturday was when I went to D.C., my old stomping grounds, to start my vacation abroad. Yeah, like many Americans who don’t live on the East Coast, I started a trip abroad by starting in a U.S. city where they have airports within 40 miles connecting the nation’s capital to global capitals of finance and policy.
D.C. is a city that commands power, even from such powerful hubs as New York’s Wall Street and London’s Parliament. That knack for power is both what gives the city its fuel and serves as its Achilles heel. In D.C. you’re just as likely to hear two Masters candidates discussing the positive impacts of micro-lending in third-world countries or the negative influence of super-PACs on political campaigns as you are to hear two legislative aides subtly one-up one another by sharing Congressional “my boss” stories or two nonprofit liaisons spar over whose cause is of greater merit to the average American.
Ultimately, what you get is a ton of circular dialogue where the good goes with the bad and the yes’s are equally matched by the no’s. Thus America’s political stagnation. The Metro system in D.C. carries it all. The suit-and-tie wearers, the ladies changing from tennis shoes to heels, the homeless, the fatherless children and the mannerless teens, the service industry employees with more education than members of Congress.
America rides D.C.’s metro system every day, perhaps reflecting our nation’s issues and opportunities more directly than New York’s Subway, and gives us cause for both consternation and conversation. D.C.’s soul is, at present, in limbo. Does it want to be a city reflecting America’s positive image to the world – they recently unveiled the MLK Statue – or does it want to be the harbinger of America’s political might – Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, despite losing their official titles within the Republican Party, are seemingly more powerful than ever with a war chest amassing hundreds of millions with relative ease. Perhaps the upcoming elections will give us the hint Obama’s election didn’t seem to offer due to the economic recession he faced.
Regardless, the tenor of D.C. … the soul of that city is felt most directly when you ride the Metro. What does Austin have? I-35 and MOPAC.
Less than 24 hours later, I flew to New York, home of the nation’s most-known public transit system (“the Subway”), and another set of major international airports with JFK, LaGuardia and Newark not far from Manhattan. If you’ve ever ridden the Subway or flown internationally from one of those airports you know exactly what I mean when I say the soul of that city is felt through its transit system. You either feel poor or rich, stylish or like you need new clothes, hot or cold, excited or bored, energized or dog-tired, safe or scared simply by riding the Subway. In Austin, we have Westlake and we have “the Eastside.” The gap between those two worlds are a) not that far apart from a “livable” standpoint unless the term “Section 8” doesn’t register and b) still so socio-economically segregated that the two sides would have you believe one is in Tahiti and the other is in Haiti.
With no transit system connecting them, there is no platform for this division to clash and, ultimately, erode. Instead, Austin’s leaders – using this term loosely, because someone could lump me into that group if they choose to - allow this city to become something like ground zero for the Digital Divide.
I took one of those flights from JFK across the Atlantic to Milan, Italy, where my best friend Colby picked me up for a week vacation in Lake Como (made famous in the U.S. by George Clooney’s abode that was featured in Ocean’s 12) then Alassio, a small beach town on Italy’s eastern coast. [Not bad for a kid who once lived in Section 8 housing in Killeen, Texas, I know.]
Between the ferries that cuts minutes off car trips along Lake Como, the trains that fed in and out of Alassio – connecting the beach towns to larger metro areas like Milan, which I took – Italy was a symbol of economic conundrums (every boutique or shop and even some coffee shops and restaurants were closed for the entire month of August despite the country’s fiscal woes) and transit prudence (all the trains were still running). Italians vacation throughout August, and why not when trains are so damn easy to hop on and off. Thirty or forty Euros and you’re somewhere drinking a Martini and talking about how salty the water is.
Sure, Austin’s fiscal prudence is worth noting, but to take care of 2012’s budget at the expense of all the hopes and dreams listed out in the Downtown Austin Plan – which is supposed to facilitate development of the urban core for the next 20-to-30 years – is not so smart. If you want to build an NBA Championship caliber team, you don’t simply sign a guy that gets you 20 points a night (see: Johnson, Joe; Brooklyn Nets), you sign a star (or two) that gets you production, sells tickets AND fills a talent gap (see: Nash, Steve & Howard, Dwight; L.A. Lakers). When Austin finally does decide to get active on the transit front, the sigh will probably be bigger than what Kobe just exhaled after two straight second round playoff exits (Red Line, anyone?).
To end my trip, I rented a Smart car and drove north from Milan to Geneva, Switzerland. Beyond the extra hour of waiting at the borders of Italy, Switzerland and France, (the traffic was due to immigration controls, not idiotic transit planning). In less than 16 hours in Geneva, I was able to see exactly why this capital and not ours made Monocle’s list of the most livable cities.
In Geneva, I got the sense that driving was for going to another country if you had the time to avoid flying, not for going to see your friends, going to the bar, going to watch your team play or going shopping. No, they had feet, bikes, buses and trains for those types of day-to-day activities. Comparatively, Austin is a hodgepodge of roads that the planners themselves know weren’t too properly constructed (see: Interstate-35 or Manchaca & South Lamar).
I’m not saying Austin doesn’t have a soul. I’m just saying it’s one boring, latent and uninspiring one when it comes to public transit. It’s sad that those words describe the city I love so dearly, but they do. I wonder if anyone will do anything about it before it’s 2020 by the time – and I’m very certain of this - we stop making all those other lists we seem to be so proud of when we recruit new residents, business owners, and tourists.
There’s almost always an assumption that people need more time to do a lot of things. That assumption is why some people have things, and others don’t. Why some people do things, and others don’t. Time is a reflection of adaptation, commitment, dedication, energy, focus, initiative, persistence, reliability, strength and trust. Time reflects life’s core values every minute of every hour of every day of every week, month and year. That is precisely why when someone thinks something takes longer than I think it should I realize, more often than not, that the root of that timetable is fear. Fear of facing the truth more quickly than it’s actually accepted as real.
The truth is that Austin is not that livable, on a global scale, at present time. That doesn’t exactly sit well with the powers that be who do nothing but talk about Austin’s positives all day.
That’s one of the reasons I’m good at things like analogies and assumptions, and why I can fit more into a trip of 24- or 48- or 72-hours than most people seem to be able to. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m the most traveled person in the world. What I do know, though, is that there’s a certain way of traveling that I’ve mastered over the years, and that public transit and multi-modal transportation has been a big part of it from the trains I took from Tokyo to Nagano and Kyoto at the start of this year to the Smart car I just rented to go from Milan to Geneva to the buses I used to take between D.C. and Manhattan.
The first time I visited Austin was when I was a 17-year-old junior at Killeen High School. Back then I realized this was the city for me, but I also realized this city would never get over that hump – I’ll call it the Monocle hump – without public transit. Why was a 17-year-old kid with a fake ID being forced to drive around after a few beers on Sixth Street? Hell, why couldn’t I just take a train into Austin – just 55 miles away – in the first place? If you’re focused on me having a fake ID, you’ve already missed the point.
There’s a belief that you need more age to be a leader of a business or organization or more experience to manage people. There is also a line of thinking that says you must date someone for several seasons, possibly years, before you can know if they’re right for you. But, years ago, I determined some important things about who I am as a person and they’ve held up pretty well. One of them is that I make quick, typically accurate decisions about situations and places.
The decision I made while I was on vacation is that I want to help connect people in Austin who are as passionate about public transit as I am (seriously, email me email@example.com). Not just the people interested in going to town hall forums and talking about what people in Sweden or Japan are doing with trains, but people who are actually well-traveled and represent the kind of people who have options about where they want to live.
After all, these are the people that make Austin special – they’ve been the same since Willie Nelson chose to move here from Nashville and Terry Lickona moved here from upstate New York and my buddies Brad Spies and Ericka Herod aka DJ I Wanna Be her chose to move here instead of staying in L.A. This is the Monocle reader, and they are my friends around the world and in Austin.
I have this belief that you can choose your life on one of three vectors: people, purpose and place. With Austin being my first love, I’ve been fortunate to find a place that offers me the type of people I want to surround myself with and the ability to move forward with identifying and fulfilling my purpose in life. One of them has to be to help this city finally do something about the poor transportation record every other city in Texas seems to adore. At minimum, I’ll continue contributing with these diatribes. I’m a writer, first and foremost.
Maybe after all these words some of you are still reading, and - if you’re not too tired or disinterested or uninspired – plan to stay tuned for more.
*As usual, comments are always very welcome, even if I don’t agree with you. Just try to keep it to a paragraph or two; if you want to do a rebuttal in the comment box just start your own blog instead and call my attention to it.*
To say Brent Grulke's fingerprints are all over South by Southwest would likely be a gross understatement. While working on my book about Austin's live music scene, Indisputable, I had the opportunity to interview Brent to learn about the history of the Austin Chronicle and SXSW. Sitting in Dog & Duck Pub, Brent re-counted some great stories about the small group of creatives who started two of Austin's important businesses in the early-to-mid '80s. At the end of that interview, perhaps feeling a creative-entrepreneurial kinship, I shared with Brent an idea I had about SXSW adding a fourth segment alongside its successful Music, Film and Interactive components, which would be focused on style. While Brent was already heavy into 2010 SXSW planning (this was December 2009), I shared the initial concept of Style X with him months before I ever sat down with Brad Spies Jon Pattillo Cristina FisherNiraj Mehdiratta or many of the other people who would later be key to Style X's first year success. For a couple of months, before unloading my SXSW Style idea onto others, I went over notes for Indisputable - focusing on the interviews I'd conducted with people who'd actually started something of note, like Brent, like Austin City Limits' Terry Lickona, like Susan Antone (whose brother Clifford gave us Antone's) - and their impact in and on Austin. In the end, it was the confidence, not in success but in the collective spirit of "guys we should do something cool together" and creative zeal I heard in Brent's voice that drove me to have those initial conversations with Jon and Brad. Hopefully, one day, I'll be able to make Brent and those other guys proud of having joined their ranks as someone who left their mark on Austin's creative scene. Brent certainly left an impression on me that I hope to someday leave on others. May he R.I.P.