Tuesday, April 2, 2013

January ESSENTIAL Class Day Takeaways

Guest post from ESSENTIAL Class of 2013 participant Laura Donnelly Gonzalez. Laura is Chief Operations Officer at Latinitas, a nonprofit empowering young Latinas through media and technology.

Geeking Out on Public Transportation and Utilities

I probably enjoyed the January class day on public transportation and utilities the most so far in our ESSENTIAL Class of 2013 program year. I felt like most of the presenters had a sensitive and realistic vision for the city and the needs of the people.  There was a balance of visionaries, history, culture and innovators.

Standout moments for me included:

  • The city’s movement towards "strollable neighborhoods" and inhibiting car use downtown. I’m visiting New York City (my home town) as I write this, and I had forgotten how I lived here as if cars did not exist. I jettisoned city-wide by subway, bus and even a monorail in the air. In order to save itself from a traffic implosion, Austin is going to have to create an environment where public transportation is our #1 option. Bring back the Dillo. It can be our BART.
  • I truly enjoyed the presentation by Capital Metro on where the city is going with bus service and possible trolleys. I'd like to be on the commission that kicks the city into gear to get it done faster.
  • The presentation from Austin Community College about the Highland Campus had me at mini-city. I like the foresight ACC has and - in a city dominated by Mega U - it was cool to see the people’s educators not only creating a vision for accessibility to higher education, but in a space and environment that is suitable, green, and with greater purpose than just a building.
  • Those who understand the high cost of free parking share my enthusiasm for a walk-able, festival-ridden, true urban center. Their presentation on the history of parking space design was quirky and interesting and shows that prioritizing free parking not only costs a lot for the city, it does not incentivize other means of transportation.  

Difficult points for me:

  • The conversation about what development means in a city overall leads to some good reflection about the need for higher density as we grow so we do not continue to displace people and raise a cost of living already unaffordable to many. I understand this idea and I get its value, but it seemed clear to me that a privileged few would benefit.
  • Car sharing is a nice alternative for commuters, but it is clear that this alternative is not accessible to all - especially those who might really need it. At this time, the bottom line is: if you are "without papers," you're out of luck.
  • There was a lot of information about developing transportation to and from Hutto, but we have people, here, central to the city, still unable to get proper public transportation to work. Let’s start there then hit the affluent burbs. My ex from Mexico always wonders why we don’t use "Chivas" - the shorter, quicker buses in Latin America. We could have more frequent service with smaller vehicles. Just saying.

The closing speaker - Capital Metro President and CEO Linda Watson - kind of understated her "kick-ass-ness." I appreciate innovators like her who change a whole system. This is sometimes an impossible feat in a city bureaucracy, and I appreciate Leadership Austin for letting me hear her story.

Overall, I am going to turn lights off when not using them, consider solar power, look forward to faster bus service that I would be excited to take, and even maybe dream a little about what a subway would be like in Austin. I also take these sessions as opportunities to impart what I learn to the audience in which I serve - young, Latina, some impoverished, some not, but overall still not entirely in the city-wide dialogue.

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