A rapidly growing city that’s struggling to define itself, Austin contains multitudes. It’s relaxed and friendly, yet high-tech and competitive; it has some of the most beautiful green spaces of any metropolitan area, and some of the worst traffic. And if locals aren’t arguing about an issue, it’s probably not worth trying to accomplish. This chapter provides some insight into the many factors that give Austin its unique character.
Planning a trip to Austin can be complex. As the Calendar of Events shows, there’s almost always something going on in town. But if an event is interesting enough to draw crowds of out-of-towners, as many are, there’s likely to be a run on hotel rooms. Similarly, while it can be uncomfortably warm in summer, that’s also when many outdoor activities are at their peak. Try to figure out your priorities, and see if they match your budget: Although Austin’s supply of hotel rooms is growing, it’s still far from keeping up with tourist needs. Naturally, rates are at a premium when the demand is high.
Read anything about Austin and the most common characterization you’ll find of the city is “laid-back.” First-time visitors may therefore be shocked to encounter bearish traffic, pushy drivers, and a downtown that’s beginning to look a lot like Houston or Dallas. “Keep Austin Weird”—the ubiquitous slogan on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and mugs—has become less of a declaration of pride in the city’s iconoclasm than a plaintive plea for a return to kinder, quirkier times. While Austin is still known as the country’s live music capital, the success of the tech industry has earned it another nickname: “Silicon Hills.”
So the struggle for Austin’s soul is ongoing. Who’s winning? It depends on where you look and who you talk to.
A love of the outdoors is key to Austin’s identity, and that remains unchanged. The parks, nature preserves, rivers, and lakes that thread through and around town are revered with an almost religious fervor. Austinites of all walks of life run or amble on the hike-and-bike trail edging downtown’s Lady Bird Lake; even Lady Bird herself, late in life, enjoyed being pushed around it in her wheelchair. Access to, and preservation of, Austin’s green spaces are taken very seriously, reflecting the city’s strong environmental consciousness and devotion to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Austin prides itself on being one of the most accessible cities in the United States, and leads the nation in green energy production. It has the most aggressive recycling and energy conservation programs in the state.
The city’s legendary passion for live music hasn’t abated either. On any given night, you can find great bands playing around town, and at very reasonable (for the audience) prices.
There’s the rub. Austin’s musicians, along with other creatives, are being priced out of many of the city’s neighborhoods—especially the ones that host the clubs and bars where they play. To cite just one example: There’s now a gated community in South Austin right across the street from the Continental Club, a magnet for striving bands since 1955.
It’s not just musicians who are being displaced, of course. Longtime lower- and even middle-income residents can no longer afford to live in central city neighborhoods that have become trendy. The premier example of this in recent years is East Austin, historically a Hispanic and African-American area. From 2000 to 2016, the median family income in the neighborhood rose from $28,929 to $69,570. The result? Austin was the only one of the fastest growing U.S. cities to see a decline in its black population between 2000 and 2010.
Austin’s overall population (currently at 947,000) is exploding; it’s estimated that some 150 new people move to the city every day. Many are in search of jobs with tech giants like Dell, IBM, National Instruments, and Oracle—and, increasingly, Apple. The company’s north Austin campus is the second largest one outside of Cupertino, California, and in late 2018, Apple announced that it will be building another 133-acre campus about a mile from the original site, adding at least 5,000 jobs to the 6,200 already there (and potentially 15,000 more in the future). That will make it the largest private employer in Austin.
All this has resulted in a real estate boom, but little in the way of affordable housing. Visitors only need to look at downtown for evidence. What began with a move to convert
former warehouses and commercial lofts into residential housing has turned high-rise. At 56 stories, the Austonian is the tallest building in Austin and the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi; when completed in 2019, the 58-story Independent will overtake it in both respects—and unit prices will range from $600,000 to $3.5 million. Downtown hotels are literally skyrocketing, too, with the openings of the JW Marriott (32 stories; 2015), Aloft/Element (31 stories; 2017), and Fairmont (37 stories; 2018).
As housing for the affluent continues to metastasize in the urban core, middle-class families are fleeing to the suburbs of the north and northwest—which has helped create out-of-control traffic, with frequent jams and delays on the freeways, especially I-35.
Though it’s likely too little too late, Austin has been working on solutions for reducing traffic and urban sprawl. Capital Metro Rail, a commuter line running from the northern satellite community of Cedar Park to downtown, started service in 2010, and to the east of town, Hwy. 130 was completed in 2012 (a toll road, it’s officially Pickle Parkway, after Jake Pickle, who represented the Austin area in Congress from 1963–1995). Both have the goal of getting cars off the central roads. Also in 2012, the city created Imagine Austin, a 30-year plan to make the city more livable; a key element, CodeNEXT, aims to revise the city’s old zoning code to increase density and affordability.
Transportation bonds to finance an electric streetcar system have been voted down twice, but many believe that a 2020 plan, which would connect downtown to the university, Zilker Park, the airport, and some central neighborhoods, is likely to succeed. Demographics may help—millennials are more likely to use public transportation, ride-shares, bicycles, and electric scooters than previous generations.
Time will tell. Austin may never be truly weird again—if it ever was—but it may become more weird-friendly.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.