“I think people are seeing [the program] now more like a machine, and we’re addressing speed issues,” Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar said. “And people are stopping and saying, ‘Is this what we really want to do?’”
Previously, the city would install speed humps, which are rounded, raised devices made of concrete. At a cost of $13,000 each, Spillar said speed humps were expensive, and the city could only install about eight per year.
“There were questions about whether everyone had an opportunity to speak, and most importantly whether we are fully addressing the problems and whether we’re using the right tools."
—Alison Alter, District 10 City Council member
With new technology, the city switched to black rubber devices called speed cushions that are one-third the cost, he said. The city now does about 20 speed cushion projects per year.
“Now, we’re getting really efficient in getting these in, and I think it’s taking people by surprise,” he said.
Residents also recently raised concerns over the location of the new speed cushions and a lack of communication about upcoming projects, Spillar said.
The traffic-calming program is geared toward slowing down drivers on residential streets, but Spillar said the city received requests for devices and installed them on collector streets that funnel traffic from neighborhood streets to more major roadways.
District 10 Council Member Alison Alter led the charge to ask the department to pause the program in mid-July to revisit how it handles controlling speed on these collector streets. Three projects were recently completed this spring and summer in District 10 on Far West Boulevard, Mesa Drive and Jester Boulevard.
Although some residents welcomed the new projects, she said, others wish they had been informed.
“There were questions about whether everyone had an opportunity to speak, and most importantly whether we are fully addressing the problems and whether we’re using the right tools,” Alter said.
Here is a map of Northwest Austin-area traffic-calming projects. Those in red have been completed, and the ones in green are funded but have not yet been installed. The city plans to reassess several completed and planned projects.
An Aug. 10 city memo outlined several changes to the program, including more scrutiny for collector streets and minor arterials. Council members will also receive notification about projects in their district, and Spillar said staffers will alert drivers via signs in areas being considered for traffic calming.
Staffers also reassessed new projects in District 10, and in September, they plan to lengthen the speed cushions from 7 to 10 feet on Mesa and Far West for a smoother ride, said Mario Porras, a graduate engineer with the transportation department.
Alter said the changes overall are a good step forward.
"We've learned from the process, and we're better able to take advantage of the 10-1 system," she said.
Alter is hosting a community meeting to facilitate communication between the transportation department and the Jester neighborhood at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 at Coffee Shark, 7300 RM 2222, Bldg. 5, Ste. 111, Austin. Residents should attend to be more involved about next steps for projects planned on Beauford and Lakewood drives. Residents may also take a survey here.
Last year the city had planned to install speed cushions in one Southwest Austin neighborhood, but Spillar said residents asked the city to try other measures first. Instead, the city tried other speed mitigation devices, including striped medians.
“I think we’re going to step back and bring some of the lessons learned from that application into these collector, arterials approaches,” Spillar said.
Austin’s traffic-calming program, called Local Area Traffic Management, dates back to the 1980s and was last revamped in 2012.
“As Austin congestion levels started to increase and because this region doesn’t have a lot of parallel main roads, whether it’s highways or main roads, I think the community suffered pressure by trips diverting to streets that may not have been appropriate for those trips, so that’s cut-through traffic,” Spillar said of the need for the program.
Previously homeowners and neighborhood associations had to approve the installation of traffic-calming devices. However, Spillar said council members became frustrated because the program was often held up on these votes, or devices never got implemented.
Now, a resident who lives on the street in the area in which he or she requests a device fills out an application, and the city handles the traffic study to count the number of vehicles speeding. If the 85th percentile speed is 3 mph above the posted speed limit, the project would be eligible, Porras said.
Eligible projects then require the resident who requested traffic calming to get the signatures of residents who live in the project limits to sign off on the project. The more signatures gathered means a higher score on the criteria list, which also includes the number of vehicles speeding and excessively speeding, proximity to schools and parks, and availability of sidewalks.
The main reason for slowing down drivers to the posted speed limit is to reduce the risk of pedestrian deaths in traffic incidents. A study included in the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan, which aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths, showed the risk of a pedestrian dying or being seriously injured in a traffic incident doubles when vehicles increase their speed from 30 to 35 mph.
“The agenda of the city is not to slow everybody down,” he said. “The agenda is to address the risk of severe and fatal crashes.”