Working at the Community Level to Transform Austin’s Mobility System

With a population of 1.8 million and counting, Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. That rapid growth brings with it transportation challenges. In fact, last year Austin was rated the nation’s 13th worst city for traffic, with commuters spending an average of 80 hours in traffic delays in 2014. RMI is working with the City of Austin to tackle congestion along with the city’s other mobility challenges—including costs, accessibility, safety, and the environment—by leveraging the power of emerging technology and new business innovation.

Working on transportation—particularly personal mobility—on a community level is critical. “If you tackle transportation only at a national level, you’ll get things like tax credits for EV incentives and bus passes or regulatory changes that can remove roadblocks to new technologies like autonomous vehicles, which are important, but can’t be expected to transform the transportation system as a whole,” according to Greg Rucks, a principal in RMI’s mobility practice. “It’s really only at the community level that you can understand the interdependencies and craft a whole-system solution for replacing today’s personal-vehicle-based mobility system that can then serve as a replicable model for other communities.”

The RMI-Austin partnership will deliver enhanced transit information; a wide variety of affordable, convenient, and tech-enabled multimodal commuter options; electrification of high-mileage fleets like taxis and ride-sharing companies; accelerated deployment of autonomous vehicles; and land use code enhancements for mobility-oriented city development. The multi-year program aims ultimately to shift from a fossil-fueled, personal-vehicle-based mobility system toward one defined by electrified, autonomous mobility as a service.

Community-Level Action

At RMI, we have seen the importance of local leadership in building a clean energy future. Our work with various communities, including Austin, demonstrates the opportunity for local communities to embark on successful energy transformations, and create replicable models for success. At the December 2015 gathering of world leaders for COP21 in Paris, a Climate Summit for Local Leaders was held. This was the largest-ever convening of mayors, governors, and local leaders focused on fighting climate change; it’s clear that action at the community level can be powerful.

Based on key insights from leading communities across the country, RMI recently published our Community Energy Resource Guide, which includes information on the overall process that a community might follow for energy transformation. In addition, various strategies and tactics that a community can implement are suggested for four main sectors: electricity, buildings, industry, and transportation. In the transport area specifically, we recommend several ideas for communities related to two key levers: reducing vehicle miles traveled in single-occupancy vehicles and improving fuel efficiency.

Austin’s Transit Goals and Strategies

Austin is an example of a community that is charging forward by drafting a Community Climate Plan, showing how to reach its long-term goal to be a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions city by 2050. Since 35 percent of Austin’s emissions come from the transportation sector, that means especially taking action in the area of personal mobility, and that’s where RMI comes in. “Our program will focus on transforming personal mobility in Austin from a just-in-case system based on individually owned and operated gasoline-powered vehicles, to a just-in-time mobility-on-demand system using shared, electric, and eventually autonomous vehicles,” says Jeruld Weiland, managing director of RMI’s Mobility Transformation program.

We are currently in the process of creating a commuting solutions marketplace that will aggregate employers’ demand and connect it with mobility providers who will offer cost-effective and convenient supply-side solutions.  This project is gaining traction among major downtown employers. Austin’s public transit agency, CapMetro, as well as Uber, Lyft, SuperShuttle, and a host of other solutions suppliers are also eager to participate. By connecting aggregated demand and supply we can reduce cost as well as emissions while improving convenience. There are already employers that have signed a pledge to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting by 20 percent by 2020. “This is a great example of how community-level leadership can help galvanize action,” says Rucks.

We are also partnering with transit authorities, universities, vehicle-for-hire companies, app developers, and others to collaboratively establish an interoperable transit data system that delivers a seamless, convenient, and cost-effective mobility experience to users. We hope to make Austin the host of a first-of-its-kind, globally scalable, interoperable data portal for transit and transportation data.

And we’re working to mainstream the acceptance and usage of electric vehicles through a Fleet Electrification Marketplace that connects fleet owners like taxi companies to companies specializing in electrifying fleets. We will also work with private companies such as Uber and Lyft—which don’t have fleets—to adopt leasing models where a driver can lease or rent an EV during working hours, through programs like Vision Fleet’s Evercar. Evercar has had great success with a pilot program in Los Angeles, and is considering expanding to Austin.

Scaling Solutions

In parallel to Austin, we are working with the City of Denver as the lead scaling partner for the program. RMI, Austin, and Denver will work together to ensure that best practices can be shared and applied across the United States, and globally. “This has to be a city-by-city transformation,” says Rucks. “To get the results, we can’t do it at a state level or a national level. We have to do it at a community level.” The U.S. Department of Transportation also recognizes that cities are appropriate test beds for scalable solutions to transform mobility nationwide. It recently announced a Smart City Challenge, which will award up to $40 million to the winning city to make transportation safer, easier, and more reliable.

Austin is one example of a community that is working to implement real change in the transportation sector, and more broadly related to energy. They are demonstrating the power of taking action at the community level. RMI’s recent resource guide will assist communities with critical elements of a successful comprehensive energy strategy, and is based in large part on what is working in leading communities like Austin. To learn more, please download your copy of the Community Energy Resource Guide.

Photo courtesy of TLVShac via Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).