The following post was submitted by Catherine Crago, Head of Strategic Initiatives and Resource Development at Housing Authority of the City of Austin, to provide further detail about Smart Work, Learn, Play — one of the Charles Benton Next Generation Engagement Award winning projects.


How Smart Can a City be if Some of its Residents Aren’t Connected?

Austin aims to be a Smart City, one where all Austinites can use transit to access healthcare, work, learn, and enjoy the riches of Austin. In the 2012 Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, city leaders planned for livable, interconnected communities throughout Austin that provide ample pathways to prosperity. Understanding transit’s importance in planning for growth and creating these interconnected neighborhoods, Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared 2016 the Year of Mobility and directed public attention to this pressing issue.


Nevertheless, today there remain deep disparities in Austinites’ access to adequate mobility options. For 5,000 families living in public housing, transportation is a persistent, systemic barrier to achieving self-sufficiency. Our residents often lack the literacy – including digital literacy – to make smart transportation decisions, and this can have devastating repercussions on families’ lives. For some, transportation is a life-or-death necessity, and inadequate transportation options can cause them to miss doctor’s appointments or spend their already limited funds on taxis. Others find themselves unable to easily leave the neighborhoods around their home and explore the cultural, educational, and economic opportunities Austin provides.


These realities raise pressing dilemmas for Austin’s future. How equitable can our transportation system be if the residents who rely most on public transportation to achieve self-sufficiency are not connected?


Smart Work, Learn, Play

In October 2016 the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) and HACA’s nonprofit subsidiary, Austin Pathways, developed the Smart Work, Learn, Play initiative. As part of this project, we recruited a cohort of Mobility Ambassadors, and stipend-paid HACA residents to meet their neighbors where they are to improve mobility opportunities. Building on an award-winning digital inclusion program that aims to put an internet connection, digital literacy training, and a computer into every HACA household, Austin Pathways recruited Mobility Ambassadors to apply best practices in reaching low-literacy, digitally divided low-income households to:

  1. Make smarter transportation decisions using a wide variety of transportation options;
  2. Gather the data transit organizations and HACA needs to make improvements;
  3. Advocate for change as engaged citizens.

To achieve these goals, Mobility Ambassadors have actively engaged with their communities, transportation policy leaders, and private transportation companies to develop new transportation solutions. They have learned how to conduct Participatory Geographic Information System (PGIS) interviews to gather information on where HACA residents experience the most mobility problems, and how they would like to see Austin’s transit network improved. They have collectively spent 62 hours on public outreach to local policy leaders, as well as 85 hours building relationships with external partners like Capital Metro, the University of Texas at Austin Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and the Austin Department of Transportation.


Local Impact

Through their work, Mobility Ambassadors have brought their concerns to the attention of those who have the power to change the system. Based on the initial success of the program, for example, the Transit Empowerment Fund in March provided a $50,000 grant to expand our impact to communities in south Austin. With this growth in funding and recognition, Mobility Ambassadors expanded their purview and developed meaningful recommendations for city leaders and policymakers.


In May 2017, nearly 50 HACA residents met in City Hall with staff from Capital Metro, the Austin Transportation Department, and other local transportation organizations. At this forum, Mobility Ambassadors revealed their unique insight during a discussion about improving Austin’s mobility inequities. Three Mobility Ambassadors gave speeches about lessons learned from their experiences as ambassadors, which included interviewing Arabic-speaking residents in the Thurmond Heights public housing community and starting a petition to reinstall a bus stop that previously took residents to the food bank. They also recommended action steps for city officials to take. Specifically, they suggested improving outreach to linguistically isolated communities in north Austin, creating more direct lines of communication with low-income communities, and improving pedestrian safety for seniors at crosswalks.


As leaders with intimate knowledge of what their communities need, Mobility Ambassadors attracted the city’s attention. Later this year, as part of Austin’s efforts to reduce pedestrian fatalities in the Vision Zero campaign, Mobility Ambassadors will participate in street teams that will provide outreach to improve street safety where it is needed the most. Through this project, Mobility Ambassadors will apply their innate skills to improving their communities and advocate for needed change. In this way, the Smart Work, Learn, Play program is promoting our residents’ sense of self-efficacy and self-sufficiency.


What Other Cities Can Do

Austin is one of many cities grappling with entrenched transportation inequities. HACA’s Smart Work, Learn, Play program can provide lessons for other cities as they develop new approaches to addressing this problem and improving communication with underserved communities.


Other cities could draw two main lessons from our program. First, the initiative’s growth speaks to the importance of building strong working partnerships. Austin Pathways’ Smart Work, Learn Play program experienced initial success because we developed partnerships early on with a range of organizations in different sectors, including academia, local government, tech, transit, and nonprofit. These relationships expanded our collective brain trust and presented Mobility Ambassadors with new skills, opportunities, and experiences. This cross-sector cohort also enabled us to take fresh approaches to our work, such as by using Human Centered Design to plan resident interviews. Without their support we would not have gotten off the ground.


Second, Mobility Ambassadors’ progress underscores the importance of developing new lines of communication between cities and digitally divided communities. To plan for new growth and innovation, transportation improvements must be guided by public feedback and innovative mechanisms to receive and review this feedback. Online feedback tools alone, for example, will significantly under-represent opinions from under-connected communities. Cities can empower local leaders in their communities to become voices for change, and provide them new avenues to incorporate their needs into city policy.


Austin Pathways’ Smart Work, Learn, Play program has demonstrated that Austin’s public housing communities are uniquely in tune to the needs and changes of the city. By unlocking our residents’ potential, we can help craft a future that promotes opportunities for all of Austin.