$1M grant to be used to address transportation challenges in North Austin

The City of Austin has received a $1 million grant to address community-identified transportation challenges in North Austin's Georgian Acres neighborhood.

The Austin Transportation Department, the University of Texas at Austin, and local nonprofit Jail to Jobs will work together to build a solar-powered mobility hub for the neighborhood. Mobility hubs are places in a community that brings together public transit, bike share, car share, and other ways for people to get to where they want to go without a private vehicle.

The Georgian Acres hub will provide access to a neighborhood bike system, a bike-share station, e-scooter stations, and more while offering free WiFi and other community services such as a mobile health clinic and food pantry.

Why build it in the Georgian Acres neighborhood?

Georgian Acres is a North Austin neighborhood bound by Rundberg Lane to the north, US 183 to the south, I-35 to the east, and Lamar Boulevard to the west. It is what Jiao, a UT Austin professor considers a "transit desert," referring to the area's high demand for transportation service but low supply. Commute times in Georgian Acres are 67% longer than the city average.

"Georgian Acres is bound on all sides by highways and high-speed roadways, making it difficult for community members to travel in or out of the neighborhood," said Gina Fiandaca, Austin's Assistant City Manager overseeing Mobility. "It's also a traditionally low- to moderate-income community, which means that affordability is a significant barrier to transportation for these residents. Our hope is that this community hub project will provide a variety of affordable transportation options, empowering community members to select the modes that best meet their needs."

Where is the $1 million grant coming from?

The grant comes from the National Science Foundation's Civic Innovation Challenge, an initiative to find community-based solutions to address challenges related to equality and natural disasters and make them sustainable, scalable, and transferrable to other communities across the US.

Earlier this year, the Austin project team received $100,000 from Stage 1 of the competition. Austin was among 52 other teams spanning 30 states, a tribal region, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.

During Stage 1, the project team began outreach to community partners and community members in the Georgian Acres area to better understand how to solve the spatial mismatch between affordable housing and jobs and increase access to services like food, health care, and childcare.

With guidance from the community, the project team proposed cocreating a mobility hub with the community that provides first- and last-mile mobility options to reduce commute times, decrease transportation costs and understand the social and economic impacts of these disparities. Jiao suggested that the same framework of a community-driven process could be used for other areas of town that traditionally have lacked transportation access and infrastructure.

The project team proposed customizing the mobility hub to meet the community's needs. "We want to make it very customized," he said. "We are not going to design a one-size-hub-for-all. This community might have a different travel pattern compared to downtown or another Austin neighborhood. We want to co-create the hub to satisfy the neighborhood's unique needs."

Jail to Jobs, the project's nonprofit partner, works with youthful offenders to provide access to jobs when they come out of incarceration. With support from the NSF grant, the nonprofit plans to hire three to five of its clients to drive circulator buses through the Georgian Acres neighborhood-designing a set route that would reach apartment complexes along Interstate 35 and run to grocery stores, transit centers and other points of significant interest. Capital Metro has agreed to donate two wheelchair-accessible vans for this purpose.

"We are literally saving their lives, taking them off the street and teaching them a skill that can change the rest of their life," said Jeremias Cooper, Travis County director for Jail to Jobs. "I would love to see this mirrored in other neighborhoods and cities where transportation is an issue."

Jail to Jobs is located in the neighborhood and near the planned location for the community mobility hub.

"We applaud the efforts of all the teams who worked tirelessly to build partnerships between researchers and community stakeholders," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said. "We are excited to see the teams selected for the next phase begin their pilot projects and plant seeds of innovation across the country. This program demonstrates the value of research-community partnerships in rapidly translating cutting-edge science into community-based innovation, and we look forward to seeing its positive impact across urban and rural communities."

The Civic Innovation Challenge is a program run in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. To learn more about this project, watch the video the project team created for their Stage 2 proposal.

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