The annual arrival of South by Southwest in Austin means the yearly departure of a lot of longtime Austin residents. This year's festival—which kicked off Friday with SXSW Interactive—has brought with it all the requisite grumbling. Affixing mobile chargers to roving St. Bernards is a step up from the homeless-person hotspots of yesteryear, but even a benign Southby festival is enough of a mess to drive residents right out Austin's city limits.
The thing is, it's not SXSW that makes living in Austin so taxing. It's not the ACL or Fun Fun Fun festivals, either, although those are chief among targets for Austin grumps. These days, Austin is trouble year-round. What's ruining Old Waterloo for the people who live there and love it are the people who live there and love it. There's just too many of them—and no plan for handling them all.
According to a March report on population trends from the Census, the Lone Star State's capital city saw the highest growth of any major U.S. city, bar none. Between 2010 and 2013, the population of Austin grew 12.0 percent—a surge that outstrips the growth of cities anywhere else in the country. Among the top 25 most populous U.S. cities, Charlotte came in after Austin with 8.4 percent growth, a distant second place.
That's a five-alarm population boom. And the city came to it honestly, for the most part, by migration. Lured by jobs in the tech, government, and education sectors—plus a high quality of life marked by abundant live music and delicious breakfast tacos—tens of thousands of people made their homes in Austin in recent years. While it's true that Austin grew slightly in size (as in geographic area) between 2010 and 2013, annexation accounted for about one-fifth of the population growth over that time.
For Austin, the recent growth spurt was more of the same. Over the course of the 2000s, the city's population increased a staggering 37 percent; as of 2013, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, 7.5 percent of the city's residents lived somewhere else just one year earlier. The population stands to reach 1 million by 2025.
Growth alone is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a city (unless your mission is to Keep Austin Weird). But growth in Austin has not been met by an attendant measure of infrastructure improvements, especially with regard to zoning and transportation. In fact, while the population keeps ticking up in the Armadillo, public transportation figures are dwindling.
"Many people are surprised that Austin’s transit ridership has actually remained stagnant," says Jace Deloney, chair of the City of Austin Urban Transportation Commission and cofounder of AURA, a grassroots organization, by email. "While many transit agencies across the U.S. are seeing record ridership numbers, CapMetro ridership actually decreased in 2014."
Deloney attributes poor ridership figures to the city's auto-oriented land-use policies as well as planning mistakes on behalf of Capital Metro. These complaints are part and parcel of the reasons that Deloney and other transit advocates opposed Austin Urban Rail, a $1.4 billion light-rail proposal and the city's biggest transit upgrade in a generation. The AURA activist org started life as Austinites for Urban Rail Action, a group that opposed former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell's "rail or fail" effort. (The rail proposal failed by referendum in November.)
"With the defeat of Prop 1, the transit community seems to have moved beyond its obsession with rail," Deloney says. "A broad coalition has come together around improving our existing bus network."
Some of the upgrades in store in the wake of the rail initiative's failure—including real-time bus arrival info and open transit data—seem woefully behind the times for a city that bills itself as Silicon Hills. As Austin's population trucks along toward seven digits, the city will need to do more to shore up its future against gridlock. Traffic in the city is already worse than New York's, per one 2014 study.
One thing the city could do to improve its transit infrastructure is to pick up its population density. Presently, Austin is lagging behind. San Diego, a city of 325 square miles, has 4,170 residents per square mile, for example; Austin, while a similar size in area (310 square miles), has nowhere near the density (2,844 people per square mile). The cities of Dallas and Houston are both considerably denser than Austin.
Austin boasts that it has built more than 1,000 units of housing downtown since 2010, bringing the population there to more than 10,000 people, with another 1,330 units under construction and 2,700 units in planning. Austin can still do better. "The City of Austin is currently rewriting its archaic land development code," Deloney says. "If done correctly, there is a big opportunity to address the many parking and density regulations that adversely affect transit performance."
Missing the Future Islands secret set at Stubb's isn't the worst thing about Austin. It's not the rental cars packed on I-35 during SXSW, either. And it's certainly not the noise that comes with living downtown in the Live Music Capital of the World. For residents of a small town that's turned big city practically over night, the problem is that living in Austin is like dealing with Southby every day.
The city's going to need a visionary platform to build dense housing while denying residents the subsidized parking they're used to—and following up with real transit alternatives. If Austin can't adjust, the shitshow of SXSW is going to look increasingly like the status quo.
Interactive map via the Pew Charitable Trusts.