transportation options

Expensive on-campus and West Campus housing pushes students struggling with the rising costs of college to look farther off for affordable living. Many of these include African-American students, who make up a meager 5 percent of the student population, and an increasing number of Hispanic students. While our campus encourages diversity, the lack of support for transportation options that would ultimately increase minority affordability seems to contradict this priority. The city should work to make transportation equal for all areas to ensure affordability and accessibility of Austin, with Proposition 1, the local urban rail proposal, being the first step of many that need to be taken.

For those without the option of a car, public transportation is often the only means of transit. Historically, infrastructure segregated white and black Austin between the west and east, respectively, but modern development and rising costs are pushing minorities even further east. In communities that don’t have an East to West connection, limited transportation options inhibit commutes to work outside of their community, distant schools and even suitable grocery stores, as many eastern neighborhoods are food deserts with only convenience stores as sustenance options. The lack of adequate public transportation options isolate poorer communities, further distancing them from interaction and representation on a municipal level.

Congestion is usually given as the main concern when defending public transportation. Capital Metro buses assist many as an alternative to car trips that cost the average Austinite 40 additional hours per year in traffic. But this emphasis evades the importance of accessibility. Discontinued bus routes have hurt students in particular. Specifically, the disappearance of the Wickersham and Cameron Road shuttles hurt students looking to lease in an affordable area but rely on the bus as their only way to school. The current urban rail proposal would be especially beneficial for the many students residing at the Riverside student apartments, which are significantly less expensive than their closer West Campus counterparts. 

City transportation discussions often revolve around public transportation as a means to address traffic issues and rapid growth, but rarely is equal accessibility even mentioned, much less made a priority. The new District 1 Council member will no doubt give a voice to these communities and bring accessibility to the forefront of the Austin equality conversation, but a “yes” to Proposition 1 would be a step in the right direction to expand public transportation and begin a pattern of prioritizing accessibility for traditionally overlooked and underserved communities. The city needs to be made accessible in all directions, not leaving low-income neighborhoods out of options.

Griffin is a journalism freshman from Houston.

On Tuesday, Council Member Chris Riley addressed Student Government on what he referred to as the urgent need to address the growing transportation shortage in Austin with transportation network companies, known to most students as services such as Uber and Lyft. We would like to see these sleek new services available for legal use by students in the near future, but as Riley pointed out repeatedly during his remarks, the Council needs to develop a reasonable accommodation that both ensures continued safety for passengers and allows for fair competition with legal cab companies by ensuring everyone follows the same rules.

Riley’s recent proposal before the Austin City Council to legalize TNCs forces them, like cab companies, to have $1 million in liability insurance for the services (Uber and Lyft voluntarily provide such coverage), as well as strict background and drug checks, vehicle inspections, 24-hour customer service representatives and service for the disabled population. All are good regulations that must be followed if we legalize these exciting new transportation options.

Additionally, all TNCs should carry 24-hour commercial insurance, even if passengers are not present in the car. Too many incidents have occurred in which a personal insurance company has denied coverage to an Uber or a Lyft driver after a wreck where no passengers have been present. This is specifically dangerous for pedestrian students.

The council should also foster a competitive business environment between the traditional cabs and TNCs by ensuring that the elimination of a regulation for one category results in elimination for the other. Houston did this in one instance when they legalized Uber and Lyft last month, allowing vehicles-for-hire to charge variable rates, higher or lower than city-set fares. This is one solution Austin should consider implementing.

As Riley said on Tuesday, the city implemented regulations governing taxis for good reasons. At one time, pre-set fares forced price stability, permanent dispatch centers required accountability and strict medallions prevented the market from being flooded. But changing technology has indubitably rendered some of these regulations obsolete. It is up to city regulators to responsibly update these codes and allow new technology and new blood into the marketplace without sacrificing the safety of the public or the transportation options of some of its most vulnerable members. Riley wanted what he called a “major overhaul” of taxi laws. We say bring it on, but make sure to do it right.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Chris Riley, a member of the Austin City Council, advocated for more transportation options at Tuesday’s Student Government meeting.

Riley announced his plan Monday to legalize the ride sharing services Uber and Lyft in Austin. Currently, both are legal as underground operating services, but this push would advertise them to the public as an alternative to public transportation and traditional taxicabs.

“It is a real paradigm shift,” Riley said. “We have a very elaborate set of regulations in place to govern the cab industry. We control the fares they charge, the number of cabs on the street, and for a good reason. The problem is the world has changed now, and there are opportunities to have more effective and more efficient modes of transportation in place.”

Riley, a District 9 council seat candidate, said he hopes to legalize these services to minimize traffic.

“What I want to do is figure out a way we can actually legalize services like Uber and Lyft, so you guys can know you’re getting into those options, getting into those services and use them safely,” Riley said.

According to Riley, the City Council is scheduled to discuss an item on Sept. 25 that will encourage operating agreements for transportation services such as Uber and Lyft. Riley said some of these operating agreements include providing adequate insurance coverage, driver background checks, vehicle safety checks, a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, ADA accommodations and price of ride disclosure.

“As long as a company is able to meet all of our expectations on all those things, we shouldn’t have to keep wasting our resources trying to shut these services down,” Riley said. “We ought to be out there embracing it.”

Jamie Nalley, chair of the Student Affairs Committee, said SG is in favor of alternative transportation options, such as Uber and Lyft, and plans to propose legislation in their favor for a vote next Tuesday, before the City Council votes Thursday.

“Transportation in Austin is really terrible right now,” Nalley said. “I think improving options in as many ways possible will benefit students and Austinites in general.”

Riley also discussed the need for more housing options and construction in the city.

“We’ve got to provide different options,” Riley said. “Not everybody wants to live in a single family home in the suburbs. A lot of people want to live smaller, live closer and drive less.”

At the meeting, SG President Kori Rady also announced that the proposal for extended hours at the Flawn Academic Center will be revisited next week and that Safe Ride had increased usage last weekend.