Fourteen graduate students recently completed the UT School of Architecture’s first ever Transportation Quest, a day-long field trip that brought students into direct conversation with transportation leaders in many of the organizations central to keeping people and goods moving in Austin and the Texas Triangle megaregion.
The tour was part of Urban Transportation Planning and Policy, a graduate course designed by Community & Regional Planning Assistant Professor Gian-Claudia Sciara intended to prepare students from across disciplines to become fluent with the fundamental transportation planning and policy challenges in today’s complex metro regions. Funding for field trip was provided through an educational enhancement grant from UTSOA’s center for Cooperative Mobility and Competitive Megaregions, which aims to advance research, education, and technology transfer initiatives to improve the mobility of people and goods in urban and rural communities of megaregions.
For these eager observers of urban transport, the day started at 7:00AM at Littlefield Fountain. Travelling by charter bus, the group’s first stop was the joint offices of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), responsible for regional transportation plans and investments across six counties, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the public agency responsible for a system of toll roads across Williamson and Travis counties, including the MoPac Express Lane. The group talked with the agencies’ executives, engineers, financial officers, and external affairs liaisons about the tough political and funding choices they face in addressing transportation needs in the diverse region comprised of Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties. According to graduate student Madison Andrews, the discussion expanded her view of transportation problems beyond Central Austin, causing her “to examine how the needs of people only one county away can be vastly different.”
By mid-morning the group was on the road to Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), using CTRMA’s 183 South facility and accompanied by CTRMA Director of Engineering Justin Word. Along the way, Word pointed out key design features and challenges of the toll road project and spoke candidly about the difficulty of anticipating future travel needs given rapidly evolving technologies and preferences.
At AUS, Planning and Development Supervisor Jennifer Williams showed the group how one of the fastest growing U.S. airports is responding to unprecedented passenger volumes. Students toured the cutting-edge terminal expansion, which features ultra-accessible restrooms, an outdoor terrace, and extensive public art. They also donned hard hats and cleared security for a behind-the-scenes look at the labyrinthine baggage screening operation – a “once in a lifetime experience,” according to Community and Regional Planning student Sim Serhan.
Next, the class headed to Amazon’s 855,000 square-foot SAT2 Fulfillment Center in San Marcos, ground zero for understanding how ecommerce, precision robotics, and just-in-time logistics are generating an entirely new of set of transportation demands in the region. Students talked with tour leader Trinidad Cisneros about the firm’s efforts to address carbon impacts, from in- and outbound freight truck operations, to last-mile neighborhood delivery, to energy for powering its fulfillment, sorting, and distribution centers.
Before heading back to the 40 Acres, the group made a final stop at the SH 130 Concession Company, the private firm that operates the publicly-owned toll road called “the fastest route from Austin to San Antonio.” Students learned how public-private partnerships contribute to infrastructure provision and how sound traffic and revenue forecasts can make or break their success.
Architecture student Kevin Choi called Transportation Quest “a tremendous eye-opener…into how macro-scale and regional transportation planning works and into the myriad challenges…that make it extremely difficult to achieve intended mobility goals.” Even so, after a full day, the eyes of more than a few students were shut as the sun dimmed and the bus rolled into the curb at Littlefield Fountain.