What Bike Plan? UT Fails to Embrace Bike Culture

The fall semester has only begun, but freshman Cedric Mitchell has already learned the basics of bicycling on the UT campus. He was recently ticketed by UT police for riding with no brakes, and now he is unchaining his bike from a signpost near the Littlefield Fountain, maneuvering it from behind another bike lashed against it.

"I think it was pretty lousy," Mitchell says of his ticket. "They got cars all out on the street where we're supposed to ride but don't do anything about that." Warned that he could also be fined for parking against signs, Mitchell points at a nearby bike rack, almost full even though the main body of students is just arriving, and asks, "Where are we supposed to put them? It's full as hell."

UT's bike rack lack may stem from planner's preferences that students use their feet and not their wheels for class-to-class commuting.

photograph by John Anderson

During the school year, thousands of UT students save time and parking fees using their bicycles to get to classes, but unlike other major universities, UT does little to accommodate bikers except cite them for traffic violations. The campus has been described as "inhibitive" of bicycle use in a 1995 survey produced by Urban Community and Regional Planning graduate students, who listed danger from car traffic and a woeful lack of parking as primary problems. The university has no system of bike lanes, nor any office in charge of designing or maintaining bike facilities. Considering that college campuses often lead on environmentally friendly issues, it is ironic that an Austin Public Works and Transportation administrator, commenting on the city's initiatives to expand bike routes, singled out the UT campus as a place that is "just not with it."

Austin Gleeson, chair of the university's Master Planning Committee, says the future will bring "considerable upgrades to bicycles' status as transportation" on campus, including bike lanes, 9,000 new bike rack spaces, and increased emphasis on bicycle traffic enforcement. Students this year will see little change, however, except a considerably augmented force of bicycle patrol officers making sure bicyclers obey stop signs and keep off sidewalks. Gleeson said the infrastructure improvements cannot be made until the university creates enough centralized parking areas to get cars off the streets.

That is not likely to happen soon. According to Gleeson, university planners are not convinced that bicycle use will ever significantly ease the flow of the campus' 60,000 people-trips per day. The university's primary goals are to centralize auto and bicycle parking and create a pedestrian campus, says Gleeson.

Architecture professor Susan Handy, who coordinated the 1995 report on bicycle accessibility, agrees that bicycles are unlikely to change current traffic levels on campus, especially since a more recent survey soliciting faculty and staff's interest in commuting by bike "did not fare well." A further problem, notes Handy, is that on a crowded campus, bikes and pedestrians do not mix well.

But former UT student Annick Souhami, who, as a university staffer with the College Traffic and Safety Program, consulted on Handy's report, says the real problem is UT's lackadaisical attitude toward bicyclers. For example, Souhami says, a new UT employee she knows who was frustrated at finding no secure place to lock his bike could not even find an office that would respond to his complaint. And in front of Robert Lee Moore Hall, bike racks have been placed in an area where bikers must illegally use sidewalks to reach them. "How bike-unfriendly is that?" says Souhami.

"Parking is just awful, bike racks are full to the max," says Souhami. Yet, she notes, the remarkable thing about students is that they want to bike and are not easily dissuaded.

"Bless their hearts," says Souhami. "They ride and ride and ride, regardless of how crappy it is."

-- Kevin Fullerton

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