Citywide Bike Plan: a Modest Beginning

The Vicious Cycle

by Nelson England

Bicycles don't belong on the road." How many Austinites would agree with that statement?

More than you would suspect, says Tim Cookingham, owner of a bicycle tour business and a longtime cycling commuter. Though he credits the majority of Austin motorists with sympathetic treatment of cyclists, he says the idea persists that bicycles are toys for children. Motorists think that because bicycles move slower they are impediments to traffic rather than part of the traffic themselves. This attitude is perpetuated by the failure to include bicycle access in the city's street and traffic planning process. Since bicycles aren't given their space on the road, they often seem to motorists to be occluding their space. For the past year, city cycling planners have been working on a new plan designed to remedy this situation. They hope to take the first part of the two-phase plan to the city council for approval this month.

Austin's past is strewed with the remains of bicycle plans as well as land-use plans, documents representing the efforts of dozens of citizens who struggled to preserve inner-city quality of life while billions of dollars were being spent on a freeway/arterial system designed to speed automobile commuters in and out of town. In the early Eighties, voters approved almost $2 million in bonds to implement the Austin Bikeway Plan, which called for a comprehensive citywide network to include 160 miles of new bicycle lanes, and other policies designed to break down barriers to continuous cycling. The result, according to a 1993 report of the Austin Transportation Study: only 49 miles of bike lanes were set aside, and of these, all but six are being used for parallel parking by motorists. Few of the other recommendations of the Austin Bikeway Plan were implemented, including bike route signage, provision of wide outside lanes on new road projects, and bike lane maintenance. Ironically, over half of the $2 million in bonds approved by voters was transferred from its intended use for bike lanes to pedestrian and trail projects. And, incredible as it sounds, $368,000, or about 20% of the total, went to fund the Veloway at Circle C, a facility that allows exercise-deprived suburbanites to burn off the accumulated stresses of week-day commuting by riding bicycles around in a circle on weekends.

With this past, Austin citizens might well ask themselves what reason there is to believe in yet another bicycle plan. Actually, there are two good reasons to be optimistic. The first is a 1991 federal law called the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The law calls for a more balanced approach to transportation planning, to ensure that automobiles do not completely commandeer urban space. More importantly, it provides federal funding to metropolitan planning groups like the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) to increase the odds that some money is spent on bicycle projects. The ATS has already approved $3.4 million for bicycle projects since 1992, and Capital Metro has begun kicking in another quarter of a million per year as well. (ISTEA funding does require a 20% local match, so cyclists plan to ask city voters for $5 million in bonding approval sometime before 1998.)

A second reason for optimism is that cyclists now have a dedicated Bicycle Coordinator, Rick Waring, to champion their interests in the city's Department of Public Works and Transportation. In Phase One of the new bike plan, Waring is asking the city council to approve a set of policies that guarantees cyclists a rightful place on the city's streets. The second phase, due to be completed in eight months, will provide a detailed city-wide bicycle route system. The plan asks the city to provide facilities for three groups of cyclists. Class A cyclists are experienced cyclists who are primarily interested in speed and direct access to destinations. Their main needs are for wide outside lanes on major arterials and ways to get across barriers like freeways. Class B cyclists are less confident about negotiating in traffic and require well-defined separation of bicycles and cars by means of striped bicycle lanes on selected arterials and collectors. Class C cyclists are children who need bike lanes, paths, and slow traffic streets to get them safely to schools and recreational facilities within their neighborhoods.

Some of the most important provisions for cyclists can be made at very little cost simply by repainting stripes on the road. For example, arterials with four 12-foot wide lanes can be restriped to provide two 11-foot inner lanes and two 13-foot outside lanes. The wider outside lanes allow motorists to pass cyclists without leaving the lane. Waring has already begun to review all city street maintenance projects and has scored some early successes by having wider outside lanes provided on sections of Stassney and Riverside Drive, as well as having bike lanes restored after they had been removed on Mesa Boulevard.

This right of "project review" to ensure that bicycles be considered in all phases of transportation planning is one of the more important requests in the bicycle plan. It may also be the most controversial. Some developers object to a requirement that they provide wide outside lanes for bicycles on collector streets in new subdivisions, at a cost of $150,000-200,000 per mile. Waring may ask the city to provide incentives to offset part of their costs. Developers also object to a requirement for bicycle/pedestrian paths between subdivisions. According to Fred Meredith, editor of Austin Cycling News, one of the main reasons cyclists have trouble getting around in Austin is because there are so many isolated subdivisions with only one road in and out, connecting to a major arterial. "Developers say that they want it safe for their residents so that there is no high-density traffic, no strangers, and no crime," says Meredith. "Well there are also no kids getting to school without going on a major arterial, and no people walking or biking from one neighborhood to the next."

Even in the inner city, years of automobile-dominated transportation planning have left cyclists with few options for getting between many neighborhoods without riding on major arterials. Meredith, who commutes by bicycle from Manchaca to his office on West Fifth, takes a 15-mile circuitous route through South Austin neighborhoods. By car, he would have a straight 10-mile shot on MoPac. "What Austin needs is bicycle highways like they have in Europe, where cyclists can enjoy the same benefits as motorists," says Austin Planning Commission member Dave Sullivan, who commutes 12 miles by bike from Clarskville in West Austin to near I-35 and Parmer Lane. Bicycle Program Planner Keith Snodgrass, whose job is to design the route network for Phase Two of the bike plan, says that such a highway could be in Austin's future. If the Union Pacific Railroad, which operates its rail line along MoPac, agrees to relocate its freight line to east of town, it would free up the center median of MoPac for both commuter rail and a bicycle commuter highway. In the meantime, providing major central north-south corridors for cyclists is a high priority for Snodgrass and Waring. Some of the current funding is being spent to make Shoal Creek Boulevard bicycle-friendly from US183 to its connection with the Shoal Creek Hike and Bike Trail on 38th Street. Downtown, Brazos and Colorado could become major bicycle corridors, while south of the river, Congress and South Fifth are likely candidates.

Waring and Snodgrass are also asking for better enforcement of laws against motorist harassment of cyclists. Most harassment comes from motorists honking, yelling, or "flipping the bird," but it can become dangerous when an impatient motorist intentionally cuts close to a cyclist while passing, or pulls over sharply in front of him. On the other hand, motorists often complain that cyclists frequently violate traffic laws. Waring agrees, and is asking for better enforcement of cycling violations as well. Because of the bicycle's small size and flexibility, cyclists are tempted to run stop signals and ride the wrong way on one-way streets. However, cyclists say that they are often pressured into illegal maneuvers in order to get around on a street system designed for automobiles. For instance, cyclists often run red lights because the detectors placed in the street to trigger a green light for cars are not sensitive enough to respond to lightweight bicycles. Another example: a law requiring cyclists to stay in the right lane except when turning left can make it difficult for them to reach the left lane in time for a turn, forcing them into conflict with motor traffic.

"Safety experts recommend that you maintain a strong presence in the lane," says Tim Cookingham. "You need to give motorists the impression that you have a place in the road and that they need to take action to get around you rather than squeezing you off the road."

Rick Waring favors an integrated system of paths, lanes and bicycle-friendly streets, though he also defends cyclists' rights to any part of the arterial system. But he warns, "You have to have a death wish to ride on roads like Lamar, Burnet Road, and Manchaca." A few Austin cyclists brave such high-speed arterials in an exhibition of grim determination to maintain their rights, though most veteran cyclists prefer to zigzag through side streets in order to avoid the frenetic pace and exhaust fumes of the arterials. Even though statistics show that few cyclists are struck by motor vehicles from behind, two of the four Austin cyclists who died in accidents last year were hit from behind on major arterials.

The new bike plan calls for systematic compilation of statistics on bicycle accidents, something that until now has only been done in a few sporadic studies in other parts of the country. These studies show that 50% of bicycle accidents are falls, often caused by cyclists having to brake suddenly in order to avoid cars that swerve in front of them, but only 18% of cyclist injuries involve actual collisions with cars. In his book, Effective Cycling, author John Forester writes that one alarming trend revealed in the studies is the unwillingness of the justice system to prosecute speeding motorists who strike cyclists. The public tends to identify with the motorists, says Forester, while cyclist victims are seen as partially responsible for their fates because they ventured out onto the "dangerous" roadways.

"Just reducing the speed of the roadway may mean that you don't have to do anything else to make it bicycle-friendly," says bicycle planner Snodgrass. But since most of Austin's street system is designed to move cars as fast as possible, police say that they can't consistently enforce speed limits all over town. For a new breed of traffic planners, the solution is "traffic calming": redesigning streets in order to make it physically difficult to speed on them, thereby forcing cars to share space with slower traffic. The new bike plan calls for cyclists to work with neighborhoods that desire traffic calming. One proposal is for "bicycle boulevards," streets where barriers are placed every two to three blocks that allow bicycles to pass, but that stop through-traffic of motorized vehicles. Residents would still be able to drive to their homes, but they would enjoy the advantages of a quiet street with low-flow traffic. Another version of the bicycle boulevard would allow through traffic, but would use speed humps throughout its length to slow down cars. Encouragement of bicycle commuting is a major goal of the plan. Austin shares most of the characteristics of cities with high bicycle usage, including the dominating presence of a university, a mild climate, and an athletic, environmentally aware populace. Yet only about one in a hundred Austinites commutes by bike to work. Waring believes that this figure would increase dramatically if more employers would provide showers and bicycle parking facilities. A big boost for bike commuter flexibility will come when Capital Metro installs bicycle racks on 260 of its buses this year. Commuters will be able to bike between home and bus stops, or bike on only one leg of their commute. Bike racks will also help cyclists travel by bus across some of the formidable freeway barriers that plague them now. Waring's goal is to increase bike commuting to 8% of work trips by 2015, comparable to some cities in Oregon and California.

This goal may well be modest for city planners, given the economic benefits that could be gained. Waring says that a shift of only 2% from car to bicycle usage would save the city millions of dollars per year in expenses from things like road construction and maintenance, and traffic enforcement. The city's environmental department ranks increased cycle commuting as the second most effective measure for reducing air pollution. If only 6% of Austinites cycled to work, it would reduce emissions of ozone precursors by 13 tons a day. Add to that the benefits of reduced water pollution, noise, accidents, and congestion, and you're no longer talking kid's stuff. n