When former Red River bartender Sara LeVine decided, shortly after SXSW 2014, to do something about drunken driving in Austin, she had what seemed like realistic expectations. She posted a Change.org petition, thereby launching the ATX Safer Streets organization, she said, simply to “get a conversation started.”
In a town where community input and consensus are revered and some matters take months, if not years, to resolve (urban farms, anyone?), the tendency is to expect such conversations to be plagued by bureaucratic delays, barely differentiated special interest groups, and political grandstanding.
But the progress of ATX Safer Streets has been pragmatic and swift.
After receiving an unexpected level of grassroots support from her petition, LaVine was in short order appearing before the Austin City Council with a survey that reveals the scope of the problem and ATX Safer Streets’ suggested solutions.
“The original plan was to email council and let them know about the petition,” said LeVine via telephone. “Once it got bigger, we decided to go before them at citizen’s communication. Getting the press’ eye on what we’re trying to do not only garnered support but got council members to pay more attention. Being on KXAN and Fox News ‘broke’ us.”
According to the survey, 58 percent of its 651 local respondents have driven intoxicated out of fear that their cars would be towed if left overnight; 81 percent would use transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft if available; and 94% would use public transportation “if it ran later and if it ran in their area.”
While Urban Transportation Commission member Mark Gilbert (later echoed by everyone’s favorite mathematician/council member, Bill Spelman) noted that a more statistically sound survey was probably called for, ATX Safer Streets’ stats highlight obvious and pressing issues facing a city whose economic growth has been predicated on its image as an event and party town.
The group’s straightforward agenda helps, as do its specific proposals to increase the number of cabs on the street, especially during big events; legalize TNCs; enforce use of downtown’s taxi stands (which everyone seems surprised to learn exist); add later and more frequent Capital Metro Night Owl buses; and address concerns about towing and ticketing for vehicles parked overnight.
“We set out goals pretty early, and then looked at how we could address these in most common-sense way possible,” said LeVine. “We spent a lot of time doing research on what’s out there, what’s not, what other cities are doing that works.”
In the short time ATX Safer Streets has existed, City Council has approved a TNC pilot program; downtown overnight parking will be available on weekends; and the city created its own “Know Before You Go” web page containing downtown parking rules and transportation contact information.
“Fortuitous timing and a lot of hard work” went into ATX Safer Streets’ early successes, said LeVine, since the group launched at a time “when the city was actually willing to start a conversation about this stuff.”
Moreover, she said, “A lot of is how many voices I have behind me. We have an organization that a lot of people agree with and are willing to get behind.”
Some of Austin’s taxi drivers, believing that unregulated TNCs will have unfair competitive advantages, aren’t there yet; other citizens fear that the quick adoption of a TNC pilot program might cause regulatory steps to be skipped, inviting outrageous pricing and unsafe services. And some have noted that more complex matters, such as the nature of Austin’s party culture, still need to be addressed.
In the meantime, the organization is “striking while the iron is hot,” said LeVine. Neil Diaz, whose Neil Diaz PResents has been helping with publicity, is now its business development manager. Formalizing its nonprofit status, fundraising on CrowdTilt, doing outreach to council candidates, and planning another public event are on the agenda. Long-term plans include creating a fund for nightlife and music business workers who become victims of drunk drivers.
Supporters are encouraged to sign and send letter to Capital Metro on the group’s website; the group also needs volunteers to help with community outreach and research (email firstname.lastname@example.org).