For years, many Austinites have used city trails to get home at night – finding the bike paths a much safer option than the congested, drunken obstacle course that defines some of the more popular Downtown roadways. For the first time, beginning June 1, people who choose to avoid the streets for their late-night commute will no longer be breaking the law – as long as they are on bikes, and as long as they stick to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, the Johnson Creek Trail, or the Shoal Creek Trail as far as 38th Street.
The original idea, formally proposed by Council Member Chris Riley, was simply to make legal an activity that many residents had been doing for quite a while, openly and with little incident. But making the practice legal – even for a pilot program – proved more complicated than Riley anticipated. Although funding for the pilot was ultimately supported by everyone on City Council but Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman, by that point the debate had generated enough backlash that few proponents thought it would be funded at all. When it was discussed at Council's Feb. 12 budget work session, Riley reminded his colleagues that the intention of the program was not to figure out a way to "spend a bunch more money" or best police city trails.
The original proposition was to open the trails for pedestrians and bicyclists alike, but that plan was scrapped after the Austin Police Department estimated the public safety cost would be astronomical. In December, APD Assistant Chief Raul Munguia told Council that to open the trails at night (currently they are officially closed from 10pm to 5am), his department would need about $3 million a year for overtime. Council balked at that estimate and put the plan on hold.
In early February, Council discussed the new plan that would incorporate park rangers, conceived in principle to help reduce costs. Instead, the annual estimate jumped from $3.1 million to $3.7 million – the ranger expense had simply been added on top of APD's staffing request. That still didn't sit well with the Council – they approved the concept of opening trails, but deferred a decision on funding. Two weeks later, the proposal had been scaled back to bikes only, lowering the potential cost in officer overtime to just over $1 million annually – if the program survives what is now a one-year, three-trail pilot. The overtime money is earmarked for two teams of two officers to patrol the trails on all-terrain vehicles. Council approved an initial $350,000 for this year's budget.
Council Member Laura Morrison was glad that the figure came down, saying there was "no way" she would have been able to support the larger estimates. (After the vote, she wondered just how reasonable $1.05 million annually would have seemed if it weren't being compared to a cost nearly three times higher.)
Lifting the curfew solely for bikes – which carry their own lights and are less likely than pedestrians to be targeted for crime – raised APD Chief Art Acevedo's "comfort level" and therefore lowered the cost. He explained that limiting the trails to bikes would make it easier to determine whether people on the trails were using them for transportation or malfeasance. "By limiting it to bikes, it affords us the opportunity to spot potential problems. ... If you are on a bike, we expect you to be on it, riding it, not hanging out in the park," he explained.
Robin Stallings, the executive director of BikeTexas, said safety fears should be considered in a broader context. While he knows of very few bike muggings in the state, each year approximately 50 bike-riding Texans are killed by automobiles. While it's a good idea to have city parks patrolled by police, he said, the actual risk of being assaulted is probably higher within the city's entertainment districts than on the trails.
Although he voted against the appropriation, Spelman believes the ultimate costs will be lower than projected and the threat to public safety less than feared. Riley has argued that all along, and he notes that the cost of police overtime is generally higher than what would be an annual, regularly budgeted expense in the future.
That's good news for bike advocates such as Stallings, who argue the trails are essential transportation infrastructure. As a next step, he fully expects to see the Boardwalk Trail at Lady Bird Lake – constructed in part with transportation funds – open around the clock when it opens next year. "I am certain that the boardwalk will be open for transportation uses, and transportation doesn't just stop after the daylight hours," said Stallings. "The Boardwalk Trail was sold as a transportation corridor, just like the [open all night] Pfluger bridge, and I believe it's going to get a lot of traffic in a very positive way. ... It's going to make Austin an even better place."
Riley envisions that eventually all of the bike trail infrastructure feeding into the Butler Trail would be available at all times, but he acknowledges that may require a paradigm shift in public thinking. "Really, the police ought to be able to respond to issues arising on the trail – on any trail – late at night," he said. "Ideally, we would just recognize the trails are there, just like the roads are there. Just as when you open a new road, you have your existing police force that is ready to respond to issues arising on that road, you'd have your police ready to respond to issues arising on the trail, and there wouldn't be a specific price tag associated with opening that trail."
For the first time, beginning June 1, people who choose to avoid the streets for their late-night commute will no longer be breaking the law – as long as they are on bikes, and as long as they stick to these three trails:
1) Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail
2) Johnson Creek Trail
3) Shoal Creek Trail
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