Live Music Capital of the World. Mecca of all things "weird." City of hippies, slackers and honky tonks—Austin's reputation was once synonymous with all things "cool."
But after three years as the top city to live in the U.S., Austin fell to No. 13 in the U.S. News & World Report's ranking this year.
For over a hundred years, Austinites have lamented that their city's charm is gone, and some continue to worry that the city has swapped too many of its grittier live music venues for gleaming corporate towers.
Has Austin's coolness taken a fall from grace? Here's a look at what could be affecting Austin's reputation.
Migration and affordability—not so cool
3. The median priced home costs $635K, while the median Austin resident can only afford a $438K home.— Nik Shah 🏡 (@NikhaarShah) June 16, 2022
This affordability gap of $187K is 3x higher than at the national level! pic.twitter.com/CH036nj8Nn
There can always be too much of a good thing–including dating profiles bragging about packing up and moving to Austin.
Austin saw a higher growth rate than any other U.S. city from 2010-2020 as the metro attracted 171,465 newcomers in a decade.
With highly publicized move-ins including billionaire Elon Musk, podcaster Joe Rogan and tech HQs, came a gaggle of Californians eager to eke out a living in the burgeoning "boomtown" paradise.
An affordability crisis ensued.
Young people, who often serve as the drumbeat of a city's "coolness," are quickly being priced out amid skyrocketing rent. While a Rent.com study ranked Austin as one of the best cities for young professionals in 2022, the city's share of 20-24-year-old residents was 7.5% of the population in 2019—down from 8.6% in 2010.
And the so-called "slackers" that helped make Austin famous are now struggling to survive in a city where the median price for a home is now $550,000, especially as many in the city's creative class make well below a living wage.
Live music and things to do—still cool
The outside, Zilker, Towne Lake, Barton Springs, dozens of decent hiking within the area. This is the advantage, do the free outside stuff (Austin has wonderful patio restaurants, etc but then the 💵 goes) More time inside less advantage to living here.— Trust_w/o_Journey_Is_Compliance (@runningman902) June 7, 2022
Austin was famously dubbed the "Live Music Capital of the World" in 1991 when officials discovered that the city had more live music venues per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. And with 46.4 venues per 100,000 residents in 2018, that mantra remained largely true for years.
After the worst of the COVID pandemic, which was estimated to shutter up to 70% of music venues in the Red River Cultural District alone, the city's live music scene has worked hard to bounce back. The city now has the fifth-highest number of small music venues per capita in the nation and comes in at No. 4 among the best live music cities in the U.S., per a 2022 Clever.com study.
And many of Austin's unique attractions remain timeless. While paddle boarding on Town Lake has become overcrowded and even caused swimmer's itch for some, outdoor attractions like Barton Springs Pool, the Barton Creek Greenbelt and other Hill Country swimming holes remain a popular pastime.
And while the coolness of Sixth Street has become riddled with violence and safety concerns, the city still boasts plenty of nightlife districts.
Instead of the Armadillo Den of Austin yore, the new Austin boasts bachelorette party entertainment on West Sixth Street, intimate concerts in East Austin and a refuge for tech professionals on booming Rainey Street.
Keeping Austin Weird—barely hanging on
If you know...you know pic.twitter.com/auDQyVurUy— Evil MoPac (@EvilMopacATX) September 3, 2021
Leslie Cochran, the high-heel-wearing homeless man who personified the "Keep Austin Weird" movement, is long gone. In his place are controversial attempts at keeping that mindset alive, including an Instagrammable sculpture of the mantra approved by the city's Historic Landmark Commission in February.
But pockets of that signature Austin feel still exist. It's not uncommon to see Sam Greyhorse riding on his horse on South Congress.
And while South Congress is losing longtime businesses and gaining luxury retailers in its new Music Lane development, other areas—like Barton Springs—still retain their carefree, old Austin feel.
New "weird" strongholds have cropped up as well, like Austin FC's Q2 Stadium, where 20,500 soccer fans gather to chant Austin's mantras, lift up inflatable chickens and celebrate their community.
"Cooler" alternatives emerge
Moving out of Austin is so good for your mental health.— 𝒟𝑜𝓁𝓁𝓎 𝒷𝒶𝒷𝓎 🥂 (@adeeoxox) July 30, 2021
Still, Austin's residents are facing the second-most overvalued housing market in the nation, and many are looking for greener—and cooler—pastures.
Instead of cross-continent moves, some new move-ins are now relocating to nearby cities, according to a Placer.ai study. The study found that Austin's "boomtown" status could already be overshadowed by new tech markets like Philadelphia, Phoenix and Raleigh, North Carolina.
And even within the state, Austin fell behind Dallas, Houston and San Antonio as Texas' most sought-after city.
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The colorful little robots roaming the streets of Austin, delivering burritos and fried chicken, are likely not going anywhere soon. If anything, this might only be the beginning of the era of robotic delivery.
At least that was the sentiment at the City Council Mobility Committee meeting Thursday when the Transportation Department gave a presentation on the future of personal delivery devices, or PDDs, in the city and outlined the rules they must follow.
PDDs are defined as automated devices operating in pedestrian areas, like sidewalks, or on the shoulders, such as bike lanes. They are currently piloted by employees with a 360-degree view of the road via the cameras built into the machine. Think remote-controlled car but bigger.
PDDs were first seen in Austin in July 2016. In 2019, Senate Bill 969 went into effect, enacting statewide regulations for the robot delivery drivers. The robots aren’t permitted to exceed a speed limit of 10 miles per hour on a sidewalk and 20 miles per hour on a shoulder of a road, according to Texas code. They must have a braking system, front and rear lights if operating at night, and must display the operating company’s information on the device.
“I just see (the delivery robots) as a pretty effective way to get people some of the things that they need in a timely manner. And from everything that I can tell, it’s pretty safe,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said.
Currently, only two companies, Coco and Refraction AI, are using PPDs in Austin, but other PDDs on Austin streets or even in the air are on the horizon. One delivery robot, developed by Ford, takes parcels from trucks to customers’ doors, and Uber and Amazon Prime are preparing to deploy – or have deployed – drone-like devices.
“These are not currently in Austin, but these are things that have been developed and are operating in various parts of the world,” said Jacob Culberson, division manager of mobility for the Transportation Department.
Transportation has partnered with Coco and Refraction AI to ensure they are operating in compliance with state rules. The department is currently working with the companies to create best-practice guidelines, with rules such as prohibiting the use of parkland or avoiding state Capitol grounds.
“We think that transportation is important from the standpoint of getting things places more efficiently and more sustainably,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI.
Though the reception was mostly positive, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison raised concerns that automating delivery services could take jobs away from people who might deliver items by bike, car or foot.
“Is there some sort of counterbalance for the workforce when we start to automate?” Harper-Madison asked.
“We are hiring, and we are hiring fast. We have plenty of places for these people to work who would ever be displaced by such a thing,” Schneider said.
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The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously July 26th to require that Central Health undergo an unprecedented independent performance audit. Commissioners voted again August 2nd to go with the tougher of two proposals for the scope of that audit.
A key goal of the audit is to obtain nitty-gritty details about what medical services Dell Medical School has provided to low-income Travis County residents in return for the $35 million annual payments from Central Health—$280 million so far. Over the initial 25-year term, payments will add up to $875 million and every penny of it comes out of the pockets of Travis County property taxpayers.
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