AUSTIN. This city is on a roll, except at rush hour. Then, in spite of what seems like more lanes than Brunswick has bowling alleys, traffic on I-35 is slow all the way from Georgetown into the city proper. In the city itself, traffic regularly stops altogether, making it just a little more difficult to be laid back in the once funky capital of Texas.

Fortunately, I arrive on a Saturday afternoon. Traffic is moderate and the only thing I am really worrying about is when, if ever, I will feel warm. With the temperature around 50 and traffic moving at 70 to 75, the wind chill factor is similar to the surface of Mars. A biker has two choices: roll on the speed and shed therms or get run down by traffic.

As some would say: life isn't fair.

I left Dallas a bit embarrassed. Stopping at a gas station, I realized that I have not owned my dream bike long enough to have filled the gas tank. It is used, nicely broken in, with a fresh service and tire change from BMW Motorcycles of North Dallas, but I haven't had enough riding time to empty the first tank of gas.

I fill it for the first time. When I go to lock the tank-lid, I discover that I don't know how. Reluctantly, parked at a busy Dallas intersection, I find the manual and read. Combine that with a friend's neatly wrapped slices of banana-nut bread in my tank bag and I suddenly feel more like a child leaving home with cookies and milk than a grown man starting a 2,400 mile motorcycle trip along the U.S./Mexico border.

Actually, it's a good thing I've got the banana bread.

I had hoped to take the back road route, the one that goes through old, remembered Texas, perhaps stopping in Hico for meringue pie or in Hamilton for apricot fried pie, both places suggested by friends. But it is colder and later than I expected and I want to be in Austin before dark.

So I bundle up and head for I-35, the highway that is to Texas as the Nile is to Egypt. When I moved to Texas fifteen years ago I-35 was a long thread that connected Dallas, Waxahachie, Waco, Temple, Austin, and San Antonio. Each place was distinct and you got a sense of countryside between the cities.

Now the virtual river spills back and forth, flooding the rich silt of industrial activity over its banks. Each year, it floods deeper into old agrarian, extractive Texas--- the Texas of oil, cotton, cattle, and crops. If you look at the map of metropolitan areas in the United States you can see that the Dallas/Fort Worth area stretches North as far as Sherman-Denison and the Oklahoma border. It also extends a long finger East, through Tyler, all the way into Louisiana. To the South only a tiny patch of white space separates the Dallas metropolitan area from Waco.

It is in that white patch, in the middle of proverbial nowhere, that I encounter the only other biker of the day. Riding a black Harley, a very large person--- the kind usually nicknamed "Tiny"--- pulls up from behind. He's in full leathers and his head is covered with a black ski mask that appears to have no openings at all, making him look like a blood relative of the family immortalized in the "Texas Chainsaw Massacres."

Probably a real nice guy, I think. And I bet he doesn't need to read the manual to close his gas cap.

Waco begins a separate island of urbanization that stretches through Austin to San Antonio. Except for that white strip before Waco, Texas has a largely urban area that now stretches about 350 miles. To be sure, it isn't all high rises, glass office buildings, and trendy restaurants serving arugula and goat cheese. But it is largely urban, modern, and significantly removed from the primary economy, the one that takes stuff out of the ground or grows it in the ground, the one that is the foundation for everything else.

While the world has known that Dallas was a city of workaholics and dealmakers since JR made it famous, Austin has hidden its work addiction pretty well. It is, after all, the world capital of calm Good Old Boys. It's also the city that invented "slackers."

One clue that we're talking about cities that are twins at heart is a recent report from the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. The report noted that Dallas and Austin were pushing for the lowest unemployment rates in the state--- well below the national average. In both cities, sign painters are getting rich painting two simple words:

"Help Wanted."

At the same time, the two cities also had the highest labor force participation rates in the state. They were also more than 10 percentage points higher than the 67 percent national average. This means just about everyone of working age has a job. If you can sit in a chair and fog a mirror, you can probably get a job in Austin.

More important, everyone came to Austin to get the job. From 1990 to 1997 Austin's population grew by 26.6 percent, making it the eighth fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. Even more surprising is the population growth that occurred during the eighties: 44.6 percent.

This is no longer the sleepy, lowest cost-of-living city in America that it was during the seventies. Recently, home resale prices have surpassed Dallas, as has the overall cost of living. Today, the real estate market is so tight University of Texas students are suffering from "crowding out." People who can pay more rent shut out the students who aren't blessed with generous parents. Now the University is trying to catch up on the years of under-building that followed the oil and real estate collapse of the eighties. Cranes, building equipment, and new construction litter the campus.

And that's where the big economic secret is: on campus.

Regular reports tell us that we are spendthrifts. We're not just poor savers. We're non-savers, a nation that borrows everything and invests nothing, a nation squandering its future.

That is pure cow paddy. Look at that campus again. That's investment. Here in Texas it is being made for Texans by the state of Texas but it is also happening in every other state. Add the money parents spend on tuition, room, and board. Add the money kids are earning to cover their expenses. The total is a major sum. It's called savings: consumption deferred.

Economists Robert Formaini and Richard McKenzie, at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine, have taken this idea a step further. The personal saving rate is "an accounting construct," they wrote in a Dallas Fed publication last fall. Because it only deals with these sums in a very gross way, the much publicized savings rate fails to include the unused portion of the car, refrigerator, house or whatever that you bought this year but didn't use up. It fails to include personal spending on education. And it fails to include retained corporate earnings.

Adjust for those factors and what might be called our national "functional" savings rate has actually risen since the seventies. And that's just one glimpse of the future--- Texas' and the nations'--- that's visible from Austin's crowded expressways.

Tuesday:   San Antonio, the Alamo, and The Experience Economy