The 250 low income seniors and disabled residents of Rebekah Baines Johnson Center (RBJ Center) in East Austin are in many ways isolated. Most lack independent mobility. Many are mobility impaired. Some use wheelchairs or scooters. Most do not have cars, and those who do don't feel safe driving after dark. Many depend on Capital Metro's demand-responsive Metro Access shuttle service to get to the grocery store, pharmacy, doctor's office, and simply go places to enjoy the many free and low cost amenities that Austin has to offer. While Metro Access provides a valuable and needed service, it requires advance planning and often long waits. As much as they appreciate the service, residents are anxious that they will have to wait a long time, or worse, be stranded after dark. For many destinations accessible by bus, residents must transfer twice. A short visit to the doctor can take half a day or more—waiting in the heat, cold or rain. In addition, they may have to walk, often with difficulty, several blocks to get to and from bus stops.
RBJ Center is currently undergoing an expansion. Current residents will move to a new residential tower, now under construction, while the existing tower will be entirely renovated and brought up to today's codes. By 2021 its resident population will grow to 750 residents. There will be three times as many residents needing better, healthier more flexible mobility solutions.
OUR SOLUTION: Protected infrastructure for all vulnerable low speed modes (under 25 mph).
We propose to demonstrate the ease, joy, flexibility, practicality, and sense of community of a low speed, low cost mobility alternative that we have developed to help people of all ages and means to live healthier, happier, more abundant and connected lives.
We call it LEAN mobility (LEAN is Low Emission Alternative Network). The design is Zero Emissions, and Vision Zero (no traffic fatalities or life-altering injuries). LEAN mobility has two elements:
1. Low cost infrastructure
2. Low cost modes, which include Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), pedicabs, scooters, pedal-assist modes, and active modes.
For the infrastructure, we propose moveable barriers and other low cost protective features that can be easily and inexpensively placed to create a dedicated a two-way multi-use path that is a total of 12 feet wide. It will extend from the RBJ Center, along East Avenue, underneath the I-35 bridge over Lady Bird Lake, along the Rainey Street area and ultimately connect with the Capital Metro Center hub at 4th Street. This route can be developed with the crumbs of major transportation projects. Moveable barriers allow us to adjust the route and enhance safety features as we observe how people use this mobility alternative.
For the residents of RBJ Center, we propose using Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). With a range of 30 miles, NEVs are ideal for short distances. Unlike golf carts, they have three-point seatbelt harnesses and other safety features. NEVs are easy to get in and out. Over the life of the vehicle, an NEV is about 1/4 the cost of a conventional vehicle. They have virtually zero emissions, using about as much energy as a refrigerator. They recharge at any 110 outlet. Insurance is typically $200/year. NEVs cost far less than a fully equipped Metro Access van, they don't need a highly skilled driver, and they meet some of the day-to-day needs of many mobility-impaired residents.
NEVs can be equipped with heaters and fans to provide comfort regardless of the weather. That is a trade-off most would happily make not to have to wait for a bus or Metro Access in hot or inclement weather.
NEVs can be owned, rented, or shared—just like cars. There are local and national foundations that may help with the cost of acquiring NEVs since this initiative touches so many needs (climate crisis, public health, equity). Leading U.S. manufacturer Polaris GEM offers a Financial Grant Program to help buyers find grants to purchase NEVs.
Few Austinites know what a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is, and why would they? They're rarely seen on city streets. We estimate that only 3 percent of Austinites know what an NEV is, so this pilot project will be their first introduction to this mobility alternative—and to an infrastructure that we project can quickly account for approximately 20 to 25 percent of all trips in Austin by 2026, eliminating a cumulative 500,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. This is the only rapid game changer on the table for Austin's mobility crisis.
ACCESS FOR EVERYONE. LEAN infrastructure is accessible to anyone using small low speed or active modes, not just RBJ Center residents. This can make all the difference for anyone in East Austin whose job is downtown, who needs to catch a bus or rail, or who wants to visit downtown amenities. Young people might use dockless scooters or bikes. As more young people use the pilot project infrastructure, there will be multi-generational opportunities to interact with a wave or a smile. If the infrastructure reaches its capacity, that's a problem we'd like to have. We have planned for this with easily moveable barriers.
BRIDGING I-35. Whether on foot or in a conventional vehicle, crossing I-35 is a hazardous course with chronic traffic congestion and distracted drivers in a rush. Further, I-35 is barrier that many believe divides our city. We propose an easy-to-implement Vision Zero solution to bridge the divide quickly, at a next-to-nothing low cost, providing safe passage for low speed and active modes.
LOW SPEED SAFETY. Austin's traffic deaths and life-altering injuries are a public health crisis. An estimated 80 people will be killed on our roads in 2019. On October 18, two people were killed, one a wheelchair user hit by a truck. The #1 or #2 cause of injury deaths for nearly every age cohort is motor vehicle collisions. The cascading effects—medical costs, life-altering injuries and loss of wage earners—destroy lives. Consider that a pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 45 mph has a 5 percent chance of survival. At 20 mph, that pedestrian has a 95 percent chance of survival. Our executive director is a public safety advocate. She urges "safety as the prime directive" for LEAN mobility in her book, "Tiny Transit: Cut Carbon Emissions In Your City Before It's Too Late." Speed kills.
MICRO-ECONOMY. Micromobility can create a micro-economy. We are seeing this at Community First! Village, operated by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, in farthermost East Austin, where the Institute is developing a Mobility Plan that provides independent mobility (both within the Village and extending 1.2 miles to a grocery store). Village neighbors will be circulator and on-demand shuttle drivers, earning an income, serving their neighbors, and strengthening the sense of community. Similar opportunities can open up with the RBJ Center.
REPLICABLE LOW COST INFRASTRUCTURE. A key goal is to demonstrate how quickly and inexpensively this mobility alternative can be developed. It is important not to overcomplicate it, drag it out, or add bells-and-whistles. This demo cannot be not an expensive one-off. It must demonstrate low cost, fast implementation, and it should be operational well before May 1, 2020. It should demonstrate that we don't have to wait years for a bond election that will raise property taxes to implement a low speed mobility alternative that is too little, too late.
At this moment, Austin has a building boom, with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on design and construction of dozens of major developments, both public and private. LEAN infrastructure can be incorporated in each development at little or no additional cost to taxpayers. If it's done right, real estate developers will welcome this. This is possible only with a groundswell of public support. And the groundswell will happen only if people can experience the joy and efficiency of this paradigm change. This pilot project is crucial. See our pro forma example on how a disruptive financing approach can enable a $1 billion infrastructure by 2026 without a bond election or property tax increase.
The City could spend millions on this single pilot project—but why? We want to demonstrate that we can stretch grant and taxpayer money just as we do our own—very carefully. We believe taxpayers will appreciate the logic and low cost.
We have identified 12 more possible demonstration routes all over Austin that become the next step when this demonstration is in place. The climate crisis coupled with Austin's mobility and equity crises leaves us no time to waste.
With this pilot project, Austin can join the Innovators and Early Adopters that include:
Lincoln, CA, first city in the U.S to adopt an NEV plan
Peachtree City, CA, with 100 miles of multi-use off-road paths
Coachella Valley, CA, building CV Link, a 50-mile multi-use spine connecting thirteen cities and tribes
LA Metro, which adopted its "Slow Speed Network Strategic Plan for The South Bay," in 2017
Note: With its expansion, RBJ Center will have an increasing number of wheelchair and scooter users who are residents. This pilot project is an ideal site for new wheelchair mobility innovations. Austinite Stacy Zoern Goad founded Kenguru, which prototyped a low speed vehicle in which the wheelchair can become the driver's seat. In Europe, there are devices that can attach to a wheelchair; again, with the wheelchair as the driver's seat. With this LEAN initiative, Austin can seek to become the testbed for new wheelchair mobility innovations that we can expect to be introduced by manufacturers. To that end, we have attached a summary of wheelchair and scooter use in the U.S. The 85,000 U.S. veterans who are wheelchair users is a viable market. Our veterans deserve no less. The LEAN infrastructure is an ideal platform for wheelchair mobility innovations. There are several proposals that address the needs of wheelchair users with which we could collaborate.