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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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."