Nothing about this year has been expected, but one particularly unanticipated development has been the increase in traffic fatalities seen here in Austin and across the country during a period when people have been driving less.
Between January and October, 78 people died in Austin traffic crashes, up from 72 over the same time period in 2019.
City data suggests that the reasons for the uptick are myriad: young drivers are taking advantage of emptier roads and speeding, and police may be enforcing traffic laws less stringently in an effort to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
Overall, however, the data prompts more questions than answers, said Lewis Leff, the city's transportation safety officer.
The problem with speed
City data shows that many of this year's crashes have been caused by excessive speed despite the reduction in traffic and congestion since the pandemic began.
"With fewer cars on the roadway, there are certain drivers that have taken advantage of that," Leff said.
Young drivers between 20 and 35 years old and people of color are overrepresented in the crash data.
For example, Latino residents make up 34% of the city's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but accounted for 41% of crashes this year.
Black residents, who make up 8% of the city's population, were disproportionately affected by crashes, making up 15% of fatalities.
Armed with this data, the Austin Transportation Department has launched a campaign focused on young drivers—especially young men of color—in an effort to prevent future crashes. Targeted ads now appear on Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites.
This is in addition to the department's preexisting Vision Zero efforts, which are aimed at eliminating traffic deaths in Austin.
These projects include its high-injury network, which identifies city streets with a relatively high number of crashes and targets them with low-cost improvements, such as improved lighting or new crosswalks.
Additionally, Austin City Council unanimously approved reduced speed limits in neighborhoods and on certain downtown streets earlier this year.
Despite these changes, the pandemic has made it challenging to ascertain their impact.
"It's hard to say definitively if it's the pandemic or the work that we're doing," Leff said.
While traffic fatalities increased this year, other metrics show improvements. ATD data shows 365 serious injuries due to traffic crashes between January and October, compared to 473 over the same period last year.
These injuries include third-degree burns, skull fractures, limb amputations and paralysis, and they often lead to extensive medical expenses and loss of work.
"If you were to tell me that we would have an 18% to 20% reduction (in serious injury crashes this year), I would have said that was a great goal," Leff said.
This, along with other transit initiatives that have moved forward this year, is encouraging for safety advocates.
Jay Balezek Crossley, executive director of the local nonprofit Farm&City, cited the speed reduction plan alongside Project Connect, Proposition B and ongoing Vision Zero initiatives as steps in the right direction—toward fewer crashes.
"Austin is leading the state in this effort," he told Austonia.
The pandemic has also made some residents more open to the systemic changes that would be required to make the local traffic system safer.
"People don't want to go back to the old normal," Crossley said, adding that many residents have started walking around their neighborhoods and noticing the lack of sidewalks, lighting and other amenities.
This awareness is welcome given that the city faces some significant challenges, including what Crossley called the state's "unique policy of transit austerity."
Unlike other states, Texas prohibits the use of red light and speed cameras. Texas highways also have some of the highest speed limits in the country, allowing a maximum speed of 85 mph on certain interstates, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Additionally, Crossley is concerned about the forthcoming I-35 expansion project but retains hope that TxDOT will listen to residents' concerns about increasing the speed and number of lanes on downtown streets.
Down the road
It's still too early to tell whether these recent changes will have an impact on traffic fatalities in Austin now or in the coming years.
"Unfortunately with crash data it does take time to play out," Leff said, adding that often his department works with three- and five-year data sets.
But Crossley believes that the cocktail of Vision Zero, Project Connect and a safety-focused overhaul of I-35 could be effective.
"If we do that … then Austin is on a really good path to achieving these goals," he said.
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Last fall, Janneke Parrish was pushing hard in her advocacy at Apple. She wanted to see flexibility with remote work, pay equity and for Apple to respond to Texas’ six-week abortion ban with paid time off and coverage for the procedure under the company’s health insurance plan.
Then, in October last year, she was fired.
Parrish, who lives in Round Rock and worked at Apple’s Austin campus as an Apple Maps program manager for about five years, is a leader of an internal movement at the tech giant. It comes at a time when the company is expanding its local presence with a new $1 billion Northwest campus with space for 5,000 employees.
Parrish worked at this Apple campus on West Parmer Lane. (Steven Joyner)
In August, the movement known as #AppleToo launched a website with the goal of organizing employees and sharing stories about alleged workplace harassment and discrimination. Austonia talked to Parrish and another former Apple employee who are part of the movement about their claims in what they observed while working for Apple.
“I’ve been advocating for members of my immediate team within Apple for several years,” Parrish said. “And when I realized that the issues that I was seeing with my own team were true throughout Apple, there was a natural transition toward, ok let’s expand this advocacy and instead be more of an advocate for everybody at Apple to ensure that we the workers at Apple are treated fairly and equitably and get treated as human beings.”
In the lead-up to her firing, Parrish faced an allegation that she had leaked details from a recent all-hands meeting to the Verge. She says she suspects it’s this, along with her advocacy, that influenced Apple’s decision to fire her.
“I didn’t do (the leak). And I know that Apple knows I didn’t do this,” Parrish said since a few employees including herself didn’t have access to that meeting due to a system crash that day. “I was still placed under investigation.”
As a requirement of the investigation, Parrish turned in her work devices. Before doing so, she wiped the files from her computer, saying she didn’t want her personal files on Apple servers. After a few days on paid suspension, she says human resources called and told her she’d been terminated with the reason being that she’d deleted those files.
Parrish is one of the leaders of the AppleToo movement. (Janneke Parrish)
Before Parrish’s firing, Apple was taking action on leaks and workplace organizing. An internal memo from 2018 noted a number of leakers they had caught were arrested. About a month before Parrish was fired, the tech giant had fired a senior engineering program manager for allegedly leaking confidential information. And in a September note, CEO Tim Cook sent a note to all Apple employees saying “people who leak confidential information do not belong” at Apple.
Austonia asked Apple about Parrish’s case and other matters at the company. In an email reply, the company said:
“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”
Another piece of Parrish’s advocacy involved career opportunities for workers, particularly those based in Austin.
Even though Apple upped their presence in Austin in recent years, Parrish said Austin-area employees couldn’t enjoy networking opportunities like California workers did as Apple events were held on the West Coast. Texan Apple workers shouldn’t have to relocate to move up, she said.
“For those of us in Austin, I noticed, especially for my department, my career options were extremely limited,” Parrish said. “I was told by a manager that if I really wanted to advance in my career, I would have to move out to California.”
Parrish said Apple employees in Austin do not have the same career opportunities as those in California. (Shutterstock)
Austonia spoke to another member of the organizing group AppleToo. She requested anonymity to not hinder future job prospects in the tech industry. She’ll be identified with the pseudonym Mary.
Mary said she’s worked at Apple since 2008 in Austin, starting off as a contractor in customer support at iTunes and moving around over the years, leaving the tech giant earlier this month.
“It’s too hard to advance and there are no opportunities for development so (I was) just kind of stuck in a dead-end job,” Mary said.
Mary felt that another challenge was being a woman at a tech company. Starting out, she says she was the lowest paid in a training class of mostly men with pay of around $30,000, which rose to about $55,000 by the time she left.
But aside from pay, communication also proved to be a hurdle. To make her persona appear gender-neutral, she changed how her name was displayed on Slack, the interoffice directory and over email to just her first initial.
“The hard part was when I would have to get into a meeting with people then I felt like my voice is giving me away now,” Mary said. “But when I could avoid having meetings, I felt like it did make a difference.”
Mary says there’s been some movement in the right direction. An internal memo in November affirmed employees’ right to discuss pay after it had shut down employee-run pay equity surveys and an employee-run Slack channel. Earlier this month, it announced new efforts in a racial equity and justice initiative.
“We all want to see positive changes from Apple,” Mary said. “We all want them to look at wage disparities. We’d like to see more diversity—more minorities in leadership positions, more females in leadership positions.”
Still, Mary feels there’s more to be done. “I wish Apple was more responsive at making bigger changes,” she said.
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The Texas French Bread Bakery, located on 2900 Rio Grande Street, has been completely destroyed after a fire erupted on Monday night.
The Austin Fire Department responded to the fire just before 11 p.m., where they arrived to see flames coming from the roof of the bakery. Firefighters fought the fire for about an hour before the roof collapsed.
While no one was injured in the fire, firefighters say the historic building was completely totaled.
Texas French Bread just went up in flames pic.twitter.com/agXqKN3c00
— Jordan (@AimIessFriend) January 25, 2022
AFD determined that the fire was accidental and caused by mechanical failure. AFD said the damages amounted to $1.6 million total: $1.1 million in structural damage and $500,000 in damage to the contents of the bakery.
This year, Texas French Bread will celebrate 40 years of business. Before the bakery occupied the building, it was the Rome Inn, a music venue that hosted 1970s artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan.