Zika Snakes? Let me explain, I am a desperate woman using desperate measures to keep more people from moving here. You see, last month, I read this headline that provoked me to sputter out my coffee: “Austin Metro Surpasses 2 Million Residents.” Talk about a sucker punch of reality, a nail in the coffin – Old Austin is officially no more! We need to publicize our Zika snakes.
When my first-grade self was among Austin’s 186,545 residents in 1960, we were a virtual hamlet! Everyone potentially, if not in fact, could have known everyone else! Back then, no one spoke of an “Austin Metro,” and even if they did, it would not have meant an area including all of four counties. Literally and figuratively, Austin was Austin, Round Rock was Round Rock, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Same for Bastrop, Buda, Kyle, Leander, etc.
But, now, with two million people, we’ve blended and merged into one big glob of humanity. Even while Round Rock is technically still Round Rock and Cedar Park, Leander, and Pflugerville still have their city governments and long histories of independence, they’ve become those neighbors you can hear through the walls!
You folks in Houston might snicker over a mere two million residents. But you were ready to expand — you have roads for your millions!! New Yorkers might also wonder at my distress but NYC has a public transportation system we would die for. Also, both Houston and NYC are peopled with big spenders who dreamed yuuge and built yuuge, which, in turn, fueled public spending on the infrastructure necessary to support those dreams.
In contrast, the Austinites of the past were folks who fretted about losing our small town quality of life, hoping against hope that no one else would discover this little jewel of a city and start dreaming big, much less yuuuge. The powers-that-were joined hands, sang Kumbayah, and adopted the time-honored principle of “if-we-don’t-build, people-won’t-come.” So, we didn’t build and yet . . . the people came. Given Austin’s complete lack of foresight and failure to embrace growth, where did we go right? Or more pointedly, what does a town have to do to curtail more people moving here? Create the threat of Zika snakes?
You’d think we’d done enough. Haven’t we guaranteed a nightmare of intra-city travel for years to come by restricting transportation options? We had organized groups blocking the construction of new roads and thoroughfares, refusing to settle for anything less than the 1950s integrity and tranquility of their neighborhoods. We required a reliance on peculiar routes to travel east-west, obliging drivers to weave through neighborhoods and endure frequent lights and stop signs.
And we haven’t gone crazy building big roads for north-south transit, either. Basically, we only have two major thoroughfares, one being Interstate 35, which is the major trade route linking South Texas with Northern Minnesota. Most of the time it’s packed with truckers, tourists and business travelers waving as they pass the Capitol on their way elsewhere, competing for valuable road space with local commuters or the downtown noon crowd seeking to eat lunch on Riverside Drive. In fact, the segment between Riverside Drive and Dean Keeton Blvd. (26th St.) has been ranked at 10th place on the list of worst highway bottlenecks in America. The other spots, just so you can compare, are in Los Angeles and New York.
Imagine our excitement when a state highway in far east Austin was announced as a project that would serve as an alternative route for pass-through traffic, truckers in particular, thereby leaving I-35 for the locals! But, those hopes were dashed when it was built as a toll road with very high tolls for trucks. The truckers did some comparison shopping and decided to stay on the free interstate. Back to square one.
Our other north-south thoroughfare – Loop 1 or Mopac – ain’t no great shakes, either, plagued by the increasing congestion courtesy of our neighbors to the north, residents of Leander, Cedar Park, etc. Some argue that those communities wouldn’t have grown, but for the extension of Mopac. Hence, reverting back to Austin’s no-build-no-grow philosophy, we shouldn’t even think about extending the road southward! But there’s no stopping growth now. With or without the direct highway extension, Austin’s southern outskirts are just as fecund as their northern counterparts and any extension, if it ever happens, is years away. It’s the Austin way.
Now, with all this vehicular traffic, you might surmise that we have a new miraculous public transportation system in the works. Wrong! Austin has done a great job of sticking with the bus system of the 1950s, although we’ve added and extended routes and bought some bigger (bendable) buses. But, along with blocking road construction, we are champions at shooting down anything sensible like light rail. The reasons for opposing the painstakingly developed plans of feasibility-study committees are numerous: too expensive, unpopular routes, unwelcome development around stations, reduction in car lanes, etc. Austin did approve a little commuter train system (Metrorail) connecting our northern outskirts to a station east of downtown, but only because it runs on existing train lines in the middle of the highway, thereby having no impact on neighborhoods or existing infrastructure. Unfortunately, its goal of reducing congestion on Mopac, hasn’t panned out — ridership is still less than stellar and traffic on Mopac is still bad. It won’t be selling Austinites on any future rail projects.
As little as our transportation woes work to stop the flow of new folks, could it be our affordable housing that keeps drawing them in? But, wait, affordable housing went by the wayside years ago! Unlike our transportation system, however, the housing debacle is not a self-inflicted wound. Austinites blame Californians for ruining what was once an affordable housing market. Sadly, those West Coast denizens discovered our city and began transplanting themselves in droves, exiting their crazy-high housing market and plopping down their exorbitant equities for Austin houses – they paid cash for asking prices or more! Naturally, that drove the whole Austin housing market skyward, along with our property taxes, making it hard for even long-established residents to stay in their homes. Minorities were driven from historic residence east of I-35 as all properties in Austin became hot targets for development. And developers who followed in the Californians’ wake, found their bliss in building expensive condos for downtown living. Judging by the unflagging changes in our skyline, there are people who love this concept and will pay through the nose for it!
As I ponder these changes in our city, I realize I was mistaken in thinking a lack of professional sports teams would discourage any significant number of new folks. All we have, you see, are college teams, primarily the University of Texas Longhorns football team, to inspire any zealous devotion. Moreover, Austin’s football frenzy is generally short-lived as the team often fails to live up to its hype. And if anyone were to move here thinking that one day we’d host a pro team, they are probably gone by now, realizing that Austin isn’t going to pick up the check for any team’s sports arena. As our decisions on mass transit prove, we simply don’t do big projects.
A corollary shortcoming is that without a pro team and that big arena, Austin isn’t a regular stop for the big touring musical acts. While we have lots of venues where our great local bands can perform for little more than tips, and some nice theaters that are largely dominated by touring nostalgia acts, it makes you wonder why someone doesn’t call out Austin for its moniker, the “Music Capital of the World.” Two ACL festival weekends and one week of SXSW a year isn’t enough to justify that claim, if you ask me. Although it was a good decision to abandon our former moniker, “The Friendly City,” lest it be interpreted as a welcome mat. But was “Music Capital” the most logical replacement? Wouldn’t it be more honest just to leave it at “The Former Home of the Armadillo World Headquarters,” which partly explains how this music thing got started? How about “The City that Tokes with Willie?”
But if I had to choose another city nickname, why not put our potential new neighbors on notice that Austin’s pollen levels from trees and grasses are known to be among some of the highest in the country. How about “Allergy Capital of the World,” or “Kleenex Capital of the World?” New neighbors should be aware that we sneeze, cough, and suffer from Cedar Fever in the winter and the infamous “Austin Croup,” in the spring. We also have long, hot summers made muggy with high humidity, which often produces strains of mold that cause even more allergy suffering. To put it in perspective, Austin has way more miserable allergy sufferers than musicians, venues, or concerts put together.
So, spread the word before our population reaches the three million mark: Austin’s not an easy place in which to reside, drive, and even breathe, and it’s not going to get any better soon, if ever. And don’t forget the Zika snakes!