AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin researchers are partnering with the City of Austin to bring more transportation options to Georgian Acres, a neighborhood in Northeast Austin considered a “transit desert.”
The term, coined by Junfeng Jiao, an associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning program, means the area has more demand for transportation than is available. The new project will help solve this problem by building a smart mobility hub on Wonsley Drive near Gessner Drive, just off Interstate 35 and U.S. 183.
The hub will have bus stops, electric scooters, and pickup and drop-off spots for rideshares. It will also have resources such as an on-site health clinic and a food pantry. The team was recently awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to help pay for it.
“As we were starting this project, we reached out to residents in the Georgian Acres neighborhood and asked them what they wanted to see in their community, rather than telling them what we planned to build,” said Jiao. “We wanted to make sure the hub was customized to meet their specific needs.”
On top of bringing transportation options to the Georgian Acres neighborhood, the project will also help provide jobs to people recently released from incarceration who are looking for work. The research team has partnered with the nonprofit Jail to Jobs, which will hire two people to drive circulator buses through the neighborhood to bring residents to their apartments and grocery stores, improving access to food in an area that is also considered a food desert. Capital Metro is providing the buses.
“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 of Jail to Jobs.
The UT research team, which includes public affairs, information, and economics faculty members, identified the spot for the mobility hub through a data-driven process looking at travel patterns, mobility infrastructure such as bus and bicycle routes, and socioeconomic status to see the demand on transportation systems neighborhood by neighborhood across Austin.
“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 Alex Payson of Austin Transportation’s Smart Mobility Office. “It’s also a traditionally low- to moderate-income community, which means that affordability is a significant barrier to transportation for these folks. 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.”
Researchers working on the project are involved with the UT grand challenge known as Good Systems, whose aim is to design artificial intelligence technologies that benefit society. The project aligns with its goals of building smarter cities that use data and information to help governments provide better service to residents.
The project is designed in a way that it can implemented in other parts of town, while also providing resources that are unique to this area. It may also inform how the city and Capital Metro decide to develop their future transportation hubs as part of Project Connect, the new transit plan that includes a light-rail system.
“What we are working on is something that is relatively new,” said Jason JonMichael, Austin Transportation’s assistant director. “The regional traffic models that UT is working on help us to understand the demand on the transportation system now and into the future. No one has ever gone deep within the neighborhoods to figure that out. We are excited the NSF has the vision that this is a particular area where we need additional research and development.”