West Campus isn’t downtown Austin, but downtown Austin could learn a thing or two from West Campus. This student-populated neighborhood directly west of the University of Texas is sort of like the city’s own little laboratory for urban design, and though it’s generally outside this blog’s area of coverage, the vertical expansion of this district over the course of the last decade or so is truly remarkable even by Austin standards. After the 2004 approval of the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO), a plan providing new construction in the district with additional density and height beyond typical zoning in exchange for affordable housing and other benefits, the neighborhood is essentially unrecognizable from its previous life.
West Campus, circa 2007.
You can turn the clock back all the way to when the area’s first Google Street View images were taken in 2007 and note the vast difference — outside of possible hotspots like Rainey Street, it’s now the densest part of the city, and this evolution took place practically overnight by urban standards. The neighborhood’s proximity to the university and almost entirely student population means its growth and change is treated differently than other development around town, whether we notice or not.
The same view as above, but in 2021.
There’s a downright experimental attitude present in sweeping planning efforts like UNO, and the program’s success in creating rapid residential density and preserving a comparative level of affordability should provide a model as the rest of our city ponders reforming its patterns of land use. But now that UNO’s had more than a decade to breathe, it’s time to consider the next urban experiment for West Campus, another planning effort that could provide the blueprint for similar transformations all over the city — you might already know where we’re going with this.
Removing cars from the section of Guadalupe Street known as the Drag, the famed stretch of campus-oriented businesses running between 27th Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard, is the so-called Option B of Capital Metro’s Project Connect transit development plan. In this configuration, the Drag would contain the Orange and Blue Lines of the upcoming light rail system, along with expanded space for bikes, pedestrians, and potentially buses. Option A, which would just irritate everyone by providing an experience significantly worse than either a full-fledged pedestrian mall or a regular street, would allow one lane of car traffic in each direction.
It’s fairly obvious to us that Capital Metro’s planners want Option B, the so-called “Transit Mall,” to win the day. It’s a surprisingly radical proposal in a city renowned for its historic inability to think more than a few steps ahead — pedestrianizing the Drag could prove truly transformative, arguably on the same level as something like UNO. We’re big pushers of car-free streets around here, everywhere from Rainey Street to Congress Avenue itself, but that doesn’t make us delusional. Closing Guadalupe Street to traffic isn’t going to be particularly easy — in fact, we’re confident it’s going to suck.
Look, we’re talking about cutting off a major arterial providing central access to downtown for southbound traffic, more directly than either North Lamar Boulevard to the west or Red River Street to the east. These plans always spark controversy, even in the situation here where Project Connect is reportedly expecting to triple the number of people moving along this corridor upon completion. But if you’re familiar with driving here — say you’re the guy writing this article and you live at 18th Street just south of the Drag and know exactly what it’s like to drive that segment of Guadalupe Street on various days at various times — you might start to see Capital Metro’s point.
Behind the wheel, a lot of things about the Drag already ought to make you feel a little out of place — the prohibited left turns and rights on red, the non-standardly-huge crosswalk at the West Mall, the urge to change lanes to avoid getting stuck behind its many buses, the completely insane gridlock even compared to traffic in downtown proper, and on we go. In a country that generally treats cars like royalty, the relatively minor design features and other quirks keeping Drag traffic in harmony with the area’s larger context as one of the most active pedestrian streetscapes in the city really stand out, and at peak hours the sheer volume of people on foot, bike, or bus in the area can make you wonder if it’s even a good idea to drive there at all.
Even when the light’s green, driving through this giant crosswalk feels odd.
White-knuckle your way through the area enough and you’ll find yourself taking the extra time to use North Lamar Boulevard (or Red River Street, at least before it was closed for construction) if you’re going somewhere outside of West Campus proper. The presence of these nearby major roads on each side of the Drag could handle through traffic, but that leaves local trips — and that’s where we disagree with Capital Metro’s transit nerds just a little. At its presentations of the idea to the public so far, Project Connect representatives say they don’t want to use any internal streets of West Campus for rerouted traffic, and we’re not sure that’s entirely realistic.
Without the Drag it becomes pretty obvious that Rio Grande Street is the most effective alternate axis through West Campus, at least southbound — you could make the street even more useful by converting it back to two-way traffic, although that would require removing its excellent bike lane, which doesn’t seem likely even with the presumably stellar lanes Project Connect would bring to the table. Rio Grande Street provides cars with a path basically parallel to the Drag, its main northern access point at West 29th Street just two blocks north of where the closure would start.
Looking north up Rio Grande Street, which runs roughly parallel to the Drag stretch of Guadalupe Street.
Taking cars off the Drag won’t be easy, but that’s precisely why we ought to see it through — if we can do it here, we can make it happen anywhere in the city. Sure, the plan represents a significant adjustment, but it’s helpful to remember that pedestrianized streets and other “radical” urban designs almost always follow the same three-part storyline: people fight about them, slowly adjust their habits to accommodate them, and soon can’t imagine life without them. Welcome to part one.