Monorail and the Great Streets Program: A Great Fit

In 1996, the Downtown Austin Alliance established a 'Great Streets' program whose mission is the improvement of the physical design of Downtown streetscapes. The goal of this Great Streets program is to develop “vibrant, multi-functional, pedestrian dominant, commercial corridors like Boston’s Newbury Street or Chicago's Michigan Avenue.” The city of Austin’s Great Streets website describes the history of the Great Streets program:

'In Austin, the concept of Great Streets in downtown Austin came from the architectural community. In 1996, the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), adopted the idea as an initiative worthy of implementing in downtown Austin. The DAA Great Streets program's purpose is to improve the quality of downtown streets and sidewalks, aiming ultimately to transform the public right-of-ways into great public spaces. Our streetscapes should be accessible, comfortable and have an aesthetic sidewalk network throughout downtown. After the DAA's adoption of the Great Streets concept, in 1996, voters approved dedicating $5 million in bonds to the Great Streets Program. The City of Austin selected Black & Vernooy + Kinney, a joint venture, to develop the Downtown Austin Great Streets Master Plan. The Master Plan will synthesize issues of transportation and street design into an integrated and harmonious system. With the tremendous growth and change Austin is experiencing, this Master Plan presents a timely opportunity to affect the livability, safety and aesthetics of Austin's downtown streets. A recent report by the ROMA Design Group and Black & Vernooy Architects, two architectural and urban design firms working together on the Second Street Retail District, has suggested six additional guiding design principles:

Principle 1: Manage Congestion

Congestion is a fact of life in successful urban places. By definition, a place that supports a great concentration of economic and social activities within a pedestrian-scaled environment is going to be congested.

Principle 2: Balanced/Active Streets

Downtown streets must balance the needs of pedestrians, bicycles, transit and the automobile in creating an attractive and viable urban core. Downtown streets are for people first, commercial second, parking third and through traffic fourth.

Principle 3: Streets as Places

The Great Streets Program envisions downtown as a vital focus of city life, and as a primary destination. Our downtown streets are our most important and pervasive public space and common ground.

Principle 4: Interactive Streets

Urban Streets are the stages on which the public life of the community is acted out.

Principle 5: Pride of Place

Visible, caring and upkeep are critical to the vitality of urban street life. The Austin Monorail Project has seen Sinclair Black of Black and Vernooy appear on a recent showing of Austin at Issue on KLRU as he discussed his Great Streets program. Mr. Black states that an important goal of Great Streets is to reserve "50% for sidewalks and 50% for automobile, and in fact in Austin, the proposed Great Streets plan, the percentages go from 25/75 to 45/55 (55% traffic)'.

The Austin Monorail Project supports the Great Streets idea and underlying guidelines. However, certain Great Streets guidelines conflict with the goal of getting people to downtown to enjoy these great spaces and in fact raise some safety concerns. Consider the following quotes:

"Downtown streets are for people first, commercial second, parking third and through traffic fourth." Great Streets Urban Design Guiding Principles.

"Downtown is a place to drive to, not through. That is one of the basic tenets of Great Streets. It’s also one of the adopted policies under the guidelines the city council adopted"  Sinclair Black, Austin at Issue.

"The most profound way to change our streets is to change the balance between people and cars by seeking the widest possible sidewalks and calming traffic." Downtown Great Streets Master Plan.

"City staff contends that two-way streets will 'calm’ traffic—a euphemism for slowing it— making our downtown more inviting. I agree. This plan will definitely slow traffic—most likely to a standstill." Eddie Safady, president, Liberty Bank. Austin Business Journal, July 12, 2002.

"This [picture] is right at the corner of Union Square [in San Francisco]. You can get run over by a horse, other pedestrians, an automobile, a bus or a trolley (our emphasis in italics). It goes to the point of the dense, active, vital driving character of a street. When it’s that good of a street, it’s congested, it’s complex, you have to be alert, you have to know why you are there. And it’s a great joy" Sinclair Black, Austin at Issue.

The Austin Monorail Project believes that these guidelines make sense only if there exists a fast, safe, and reliable method of getting people downtown in the first place. Light rail or streetcar systems typically kill one or two persons per year per system and maim and injure many more. These systems cannot both rapidly carry passengers to their destinations and be both pedestrian friendly and pedestrian safe at the same time. It makes great sense to raise a rapid transit system above street level where it cannot collide with pedestrians, bicyclists, or other vehicles and provide much more rapid transit than a rail system traveling in the street. The best rapid transit option for this purpose is monorail, because it is designed to be elevated.

Monorail makes sense for another reason. An illustration that Black on Austin at Issue showed a cross-section of a one-hundred foot wide street. Each side of the street comprised: 10 feet setback, 16 feet sidewalk, 5 feet bike lane, and 11 feet of roadway (see illustration below). Track for a light rail vehicle is shown taking up 16 feet in the center of this roadway. While Black indicated that "this is not even one of the Great Streets models per se, it gets out that issue of light rail, automobile traffic, bicycle lanes, medians, in this case separated sidewalks which would not be a usual circumstance downtown."

Consider if monorail were to replace the dedicated light rail right-of-way. Those 16 feet could be reallocated to wider sidewalks or bike lanes. There would be more room for sidewalk cafés. Monorail support columns could be placed every 120 feet apart on the sidewalk if desired, thereby eliminating any required space in the middle of the road. The number of streets suitable to become a Great Street would increase because there are more streets in Austin that are only 84 feet wide than there are 100 foot wide streets. More streets could qualify as Great Streets.

For a study of possible streets that would qualify as a Great Street, see Thomas Gray’s study on the Great  Streets proposal (see link below). And in fact, a typical street is more on the order of 80 feet wide, instead of the 100 foot wide street described here.

To summarize, we believe that Monorail and Great Streets is a great fit because:

Great Streets intends to make the downtown streets a destination. Monorail can safely and quickly get those people to downtown so that they can enjoy those streets. Because monorail is grade-separated, average monorail speeds can reach 35-40 miles per hour or almost three times the national average speed for light rail.

• Great Streets intends to calm traffic (slow it down). Monorail will greatly relieve the need for fast automobile through traffic downtown.

• Monorail is safe. Monorail, being elevated, will never kill or maim pedestrians, bicyclists, or commuters.

Unlike light rail, monorail will not take up dedicated right of way that could be used for more sidewalk space or parking. Relatively small support pillars are required only about every 120 feet and could be placed on the extended sidewalks. More importantly, because Monorail does not require street surface right of way, more streets could qualify as a "Great Street."

For Further Reading

City of Austin Downtown Great Streets Master Plan

Downtown Austin Alliance 'Great Streets'

Sinclair Black & Andrew Vernooy Architecture and Urban Design


Thomas Gray: GIS 390: Final Project: Great Streets for Austin

Examines City of Austin and US Census GIS data to determine which Austin-area corridors have the most potential to improve the quality of life of Austin neighborhoods, become catalysts for inner-city investment and development, and provide support to the city's "Smart Growth" initiative.

GIS 390: Final Project: Great Streets for Austin


Great Streets a boondoggle - 2002-07-15 - Austin Business Journal


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