From an urban planning perspective, the Rainey Street District is one of Austin’s weirder locales. A small neighborhood of narrow streets and single-family homes, effectively annexed into downtown by the construction of an interstate highway and later upzoned to allow infill development at the skyscraper scale, the Rainey area now stands as the poster child for downtown Austin condo and apartment tower growth, its historic converted-bungalow bars coexisting — and sometimes actually joining — an entire galaxy of higher-density projects.
But that growth has growing pains, the foremost of which might be the increasing difficulty of simply getting around there. Whether you’re driving, biking, walking, or (heaven forbid) scooting, you’ll see traces of the Rainey Street District’s suburban past all over — missing sidewalks and crosswalks, a lack of dedicated bike lanes, distant bus stops, and a noticeable lack of connectivity with the rest of the downtown grid.
You can blame some of this isolation on geography, with Lady Bird Lake and Waller Creek bordering the district on two sides, but I-35 is also a culprit. Outside of the highway’s access road, the only real connection to the area from the rest of downtown is via Red River Street at its intersection with Cesar Chavez Street — which wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world, except that same stretch of Cesar Chavez Street is majorly congested every weekday by eastbound commuters headed for the interstate.
It’s insane that this cruddy intersection is the de facto gateway to the Rainey Street District.
Along with its limited access, the actual environment of Rainey Street compounds the issue. Narrow streets and tight intersections mean ordinary Capital Metro buses don’t run here — it’s also apparently a pretty tight squeeze for the city’s fire trucks in spots, which isn’t great for response times — and in the southern half of the district your closest metro stop is actually on the other side of the highway.
For a region packed with hundreds of bar-going pedestrians every weekend, parts of the neighborhood feel downright unfriendly on foot.
Weekends find the district packed with hundreds of barhopping visitors attempting to navigate an incomplete network of sidewalks and crosswalks (a 2017 study indicates approximately one pedestrian crosses the intersection of Rainey and Davis Streets every three seconds between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m.), their presence facilitated by a fleet of continually-circling rideshare vehicles and pedicabs.
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Though the growth of the district is clearly beneficial for Austin as a whole, the current state of its mobility is a recipe for frustration, particularly among residents of its many condo and apartment communities. In a recent letter to the city’s Design Commission from the Rainey Neighbors Association, the group’s president Sandra De Leon expressed an urgent need for transportation infrastructure improvements to match the aggressive pace of the region’s development:
Today, the Rainey Neighborhood has eleven infill projects in various stages of the permitting process for new development, with five of those projects surpassing 45 stories in height.
Rainey was built to accommodate single-family homes on long blocks, a pattern that impedes circulation, unlike the street grid in the downtown core with shorter blocks that create connectivity.
— Sandra De Leon, President, Rainey Neighbors Association
To that end, the association requested that the city work with them to create and adopt a mobility plan for the Rainey Street District, which would apparently compliment the Austin Core Transportation Plan and confront Rainey’s “unique mobility issues.” It appears they’ve gotten their wish — at its meeting last week, the Design Commission voted unanimously to recommend a “comprehensive mobility study” of the neighborhood to City Council, the results of which will eventually lead to a Rainey Neighborhood Mobility Plan.
The Design Commission recommends a comprehensive Mobility Study be conducted for the Rainey Neighborhood. Further, we recommend the results of this study be used to create a Rainey Neighborhood Mobility Plan, formed in collaboration with Rainey stakeholders, addressing the unique mobility challenges of the neighborhood. The Mobility Plan should include specific goals and policies for developments in order to provide predictable outcomes.
In 1999 Austin City Council passed a resolution directing the City Manager to work with the Rainey Neighborhood to facilitate discussions leading to land use objectives and priorities for the neighborhood. However, when the Rainey Neighborhood was ultimately rezoned in 2005, mobility issues were not appropriately addressed.
Today, the Rainey Neighborhood is a popular entertainment destination, yet there are currently no transit stops and many streets are missing accessible sidewalks, crosswalks, and dedicated bike lanes. There is also a noticeable lack of district parking and dedicated ride share drop off and pick up locations. Additionally, the narrow streets and tight radii at several of the intersections make navigating the neighborhood a challenge for vehicles. The Rainey Neighborhood is not laid out in a true grid, like the rest of the Central Business District and this lack of connectivity exacerbates its growing mobility problems.
— Austin Design Commission Draft Recommendation, April 22, 2019
Though she says there are “no concrete plans” at the moment, De Leon sent us some additional thoughts on the current conditions around Rainey Street, and mentioned that the Austin Transportation Department already has funds allocated for the mobility study here — though its timeline remains unknown and the whole item’s got to pass City Council first anyway.
“There is poor connectivity to Rainey and connectivity is lacking within Rainey itself. Densification must occur with mobility planning. One should not occur without the other in mind, yet this is what we’ve done on a very large scale in Rainey . . . we can’t expect to create a dense urban core, expect people to give up their cars, and then not provide an alternative for them. Not everyone has the desire or the ability to ride a bike, but some of those people might take a shuttle or a downtown circulator, or even a small electric vehicle . . . it begins with infrastructure, planning, capital and priorities. I think the city is now starting to focus on this with Rainey.”
— Sandra De Leon, President, Rainey Neighbors Association
This whole situation might give you deja vu if you’ve followed downtown news for a couple of years, because it turns out there was already a big mobility study released for the Rainey Street District back in 2017, conducted by local engineering firm Big Red Dog. Feel free to dig through the 120-odd pages of the full report at your leisure, but one of its major conclusions based on field research and resident feedback is that sidewalk improvements and other pedestrian access features like crosswalks should be the district’s top priority.
Another move the study supports is punching Rainey Street all the way through to Cesar Chavez Street, rather than its current northern termination point at Driskill Street — this one will probably show up again in the new report, since it’s an obvious way to ease the pressure on Red River Street. Other improvements include traffic calming devices, bike parking, improved signage to help drivers locate existing parking, and the replacement of some street parking spaces on Rainey Street with designated rideshare drop-off zones.
Removing a few street parking spaces might give us room for something better.
It’s unclear why the city wants to do another study — maybe the appearance of dockless scooters has shaken things up around here so much it’s rendered the old data inaccurate? Even in its own recommendation, the Design Commission suggests Big Red Dog’s report is the “logical starting place” for city staff on this undertaking — so it’s going to be interesting to see which of the 2017 report’s suggestions pop up again in the city’s shiny new version.
Obviously, we have a few ideas of our own — some of them extremely hot takes, such as “close Rainey Street to traffic on weekends like they do on Dirty Sixth, I don’t care what that Statesman article says” or “use eminent domain to build a road through the circus-themed bar that is somehow equally stupid and racist in a previously-unseen case of quantum douchebaggery.” Still, we thought it might be nice to give our readers the first shot, so click here to fill out our survey or use the handy form below: