Things I love about Austin: music, migas, South Congress (aka SoCo,) cage free hens at East Side Cafe, The Mean-Eyed Cat, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the friendly people you meet—everywhere. (Shout out to Jillian at Blackmail, http://www.blackmailboutique.com/.)
Things I don’t love: attempting safe passage across South Congress Street.
It’s shocking how this pedestrian-oriented (perhaps pedestrian-willing is more accurate) street is so unfriendly—and in so many ways. Traffic signals are spaced out at nearly a half mile (or seemingly more) in between. The sidewalks are uneven, not well maintained, and encumbered with obstacles and A-frame signage. Bus stops are marked with signs, but don’t always provide seats or shelter from the ever-present sun.
Crosswalks are extremely few, and the two or three that I noticed along the entire stretch were not signed or illuminated in any way. In fact, I discovered an unspoken rule the hard way: traffic simply does not stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
There’s nothing so disconcerting as running for shelter in the suicide lane, being passed in front and behind by cars traveling at 50 miles an hour without any acknowledgement of human life. All I could do was hope that no one would make a turn and accidentally hit me, even though I was in a clearly marked crosswalk. Upon surviving, I thought, Jeez, they even stop for you in Paris and Rome, providing that you make eye contact!
Over the four days that I stayed in SoCo, I watched pedestrians risk their own safety by dodging traffic as a normal matter of course. The drivers never once slowed down or even tapped a brake for anyone crossing the street, and frankly, it didn’t appear as if any of the locals expected them to. So much for friendliness!
This is unfortunate, as it’s clear that the size of the blocks, the distance between the lights, the lack of crosswalks, the lack of adequate traffic calming measures and defined bike lanes, and the state of the sidewalks are certainly not helping this neighborhood to become what it’s so well-positioned to be.
The key ingredients exist in SoCo to make a pedestrian-vibrant urban neighborhood: regular transit service, a cross-section of young, energetic residents, a diverse offering of hip, local retailers, eateries, services, mobile food vendors, diverse housing options, and hotels—and a location that’s spitting distance from the famous “Bat Bridge,” the state capitol and downtown Austin.
Call me an optimist, but I believe it will happen.
With the addition of local grocers, multi-modal transit, farmer’s markets and a healthy pedestrian network, I can see SoCo growing in viability and all levels of sustainability in coming decades—jobs, relationships, health, culture, economy, music, and climate impact. In the meantime, it’s up to the planners, policy makers, city council, neighborhood stakeholders, transit agencies, the various departments of the transportation division and the city—and the voters themselves.
You never know.
Upon my return home, I took Link light rail from SeaTac to Westlake Station and walked half a block to catch a bus that dropped me at my front door.
If that can happen in Seattle, anything’s possible.