Walkable only if you drive
I noticed Walk Score’s first transit system ranking for cities and it gave me pause. As much as I love Austin and Texas, I was shocked that the city and state could ever get anything remotely close to a top ranked “Public Transit Score.” To be fair, Walk Score also looks at "Walkability," ranking cities as most walkable to...well, not.
Out of a possible score of 100 (with New York ranking number 1 with 81 transit points and an overall walkability score of 85) Austin scored 33 transit points and 47 points in walkability, while Houston got 36 transit and 50 in walkability, Dallas got 39 transit and 47 in walkability and San Antonio got 35 in transit and 41 in walkability. San Antonio’s downtown was regarded as walkable because of...er, the Riverwalk?
These are people who have clearly never lived in Texas. Walk Score, bless its heart, is based in Seattle, the 6th most walkable large city with a walk score of 74. (Seattle boasts the 7th ranked public transit score with 43). Yay.
You should know that while I have adopted Austin as home, I grew up in New York. I came to Texas briefly in the 1990s, moving to Houston to become a newspaper reporter. I learned how to drive in Houston when I was 22 — a fact that amused my colleagues, who’d been learning how to drive on tractors and such what-not since they were preteens.
Meanwhile, like most of my young New York friends, I was surprised everyone in Texas wasn’t a country-trained equestrian. I never went so far as to ask, “So, you mean you didn’t ride horses to school?” — but I thought it. But I digress.
I guess to up our walkability scores down here in Texas, we’ll need to keep driving ourselves to places where we can get out and walk around.
For my reporting work, I needed to get around quickly and reliably. It became clear that in Walk Score’s top scoring city, New York, I had been spoiled with public transportation that could get you to any part of the city in under an hour regularly. Our friends at Walk Score suggest that Houston is “somewhat walkable.” What a nice way to put it.
The Lone Star State and the Empire State have a lot in common — the big swagger, the pretty buildings, the unique culture. There is no comparing the swift, easy-to-understand public transportation in New York to the eccentric scheduling and routes of public transportation in this state. (Transit Gods, please make it so that I can get a ride from CultureMap readers if my car ever breaks for good, since I probably will be barred from Texas buses and light rail for this. Thank you.)
In Houston, as in Austin later, I could never find a bus when I needed one. Maybe that’s how Houston earned a transit score of 36. I can laugh about this now, but much to the chagrin of my city editor at the time, I tried walking what would have been the equivalent of a 10-minute car drive from my efficiency apartment in the Medical Center to a press conference at MD Anderson.
Since there was no telling when a bus was going to arrive and the schedule posted at one of the few bus stops in my area was outdated and faded by the sun, I put on my proverbial big girl boots and soldiered my way on foot toward the building in question. It was the end of June and I was so horribly mistaken.
By the time I arrived, the people I was supposed to be interviewing seemed relieved I was still in an area where doctors were working, since I was sweating through my shirt and looked close to passing out from dehydration. Somewhat walkable? Right — at night, when you don’t have to be anywhere in particular and it’s December.
I learned my lesson. After I got a car, I only took the bus a handful of times in Houston. I never took public transportation in Seattle, though sometimes I noticed it from my car window.
When I lived in the Bay Area, I was exposed to the beauty that is public transportation on the Left Coast. It ranked second in walkability from Walk Score behind New York, and its transit score was 80. Aside from the slightly funky cloth seats on its trains, the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) goes everywhere (except for Marin) and BART stops running around 1 a.m., it was pretty great. Like everything else, it wasn’t particularly cost effective, but that’s Northern California for you.
Even if Austin has increasingly earned its "Silicon Hills" comparisons to the Silicon Valley, Capital Metro is a far cry from BART. Maybe that’s how it earned a transit score of 33 as the 21st city on a list of 25 Top Cities. I knew things were bad — a ten minute drive from my house in East Austin to downtown requires at least one bus transfer — to go West, you have to go North, then wait for at least 20 minutes between buses — but for Austin to trail San Antonio, Dallas and Houston in walkability and transit? It makes my brain hurt.
Still, after living in Austin for seven years, it now makes total sense. I am not proud of the fact that I have taken the bus in this town only four or five times, but apparently I am still in the minority, since only an estimated 2.7 percent of Austinites use public transportation here. I would love to be one of the people who saves the equivalent of $10,000 a year by hopping on a bus. (If I knew how to ride a bike, I might do that instead.)
When I was working full-time and going to graduate school part-time, I thought I might be able to save some time by parking at work downtown and taking the bus to the University of Texas and back to my car. Unfortunately, that ended up being more of a hassle than a convenience: Adding the bus, with its wonky schedule and weird travel patterns, also added about an hour and a half to my travel.
Now we’ve got light rail. Yay! Too bad it doesn’t go where I need it to go, among other issues. Sounds like light rail in Houstonhas its own challenges — shocking! I guess to up our walkability scores down here in Texas, we’ll need to keep driving ourselves to places where we can get out and walk around.