Will City's Bike Plan Ever Hit the Road?
llustration by Doug Potter
Texas is a wide open state. From the comfort of your car, you answer the call of sinewy stretches of blacktop leading you out toward adventure: windows down, stereo on, you celebrate your unlimited speed and mobility. Until you near Austin, and then reality sets in - with lots of starts and stops, congestion, pollution, traffic, and frustration. For those commuters dissatisfied with this scenario, the Austin City Council has a plan. It's the Austin Bicycle Plan Part II, the fulfillment of over 20 years of vehement activism from a smallish but dedicated group of cyclists. It is also among the first council-sanctioned remedies for Austin's growing transportation needs. The plan, approved last week, is divided into two sets of bike routes - Priority I and Priority II - and aims to make much of the city accessible by bicycle, by connecting its randomly scattered bike lanes, easing conflicts between cyclists and drivers, and encouraging new riders to come into "the system." City councilmembers say that bikes are an essential part of their vision for Austin's (as yet undefined) transportation future.
"There are so many discussions going on about alternative transportation," says Councilmember Jackie Goodman. "For some people, it's easy to forget about bikes, because we don't make it easy for them." She added that among transportation alternatives, for example, cyclists could account for as big a percentage in traffic reduction as the proposed State Highway 130 that is designed to divert cars from Austin's overburdened I-35.
As a public policy issue, the implementation of the bike plan would be among the best indicators of whether Austin can follow through on its vision of being a truly visionary city. Or whether we are, in fact, just like everybody else - Houston, for example, save for less humidity and hipper retail stores.
Unfortunately for bicycle activists, the local precedents have not been promising. Various strategies for integrating bikes into Austin's transportation system have been kicking around since the late Seventies. Many believe it was a series of half-baked plans and halfhearted efforts that resulted in the current, rather dangerous and hostile environment for bikes in Austin today.
According to everybody - everybody from bicycle activists to the City Council to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) - the time has come to make a change. A no less unlikely suspect than the Texas Legislature last session directed TxDOT to develop a "Share the Road" education program, modeled on the state's fabled "Don't Mess With Texas" campaign. The idea here is to encourage harmony on the highways among travelers of all kinds. Paul Douglas, Director of Intermodal Transportation for TxDOT, says times have changed at the historically road-and-vehicle-oriented agency. "We have reached a point where a lot of people who work on highway projects in urban areas are learning to properly incorporate bicycles and pedestrians," Douglas said. "I have switched over from cajoling and pleading to being an internal consultant, telling people how to do it."
The changes in attitudes have not been prompted as much by a sudden overflowing of environmental magnanimity as by economic realism. Austin's continued frantic growth, accompanied by increased traffic congestion and air pollution, have not only threatened our venerated quality of life, but also threatened to place Austin in non-attainment of Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards. Non-attainment would bring a bunch of federal air quality regulations down on Austin, which would likely include stricter emissions standards for cars, as well as tighter regulations for businesses producing pollutants. But because the next EPA measurement will occur in 2000, the potential drop in traffic and pollution that we'd get by implementing the bike plan will be only barely realized, if at all.
"It's going to take a concerted effort on the part of individual drivers and government entities to put a dent in the air quality issue" in time for the 2000 measurement, said Paul Helliker, director of Austin's nonprofit Clean Air Force. Furthermore, the six-year bike plan implementation schedule approved by the council, while impressive for its boldness, may be overambitious; especially with the many transportation projects likely to vie for limited funds in coming years. "It's pretty much impossible to achieve in that time frame," acknowledged Keith Snodgrass, director of the city's Bicycle Program. Even if the money were there, he said, construction of some of the planned bike routes on main corridors like Lamar and U.S.183 are contingent upon major road work that is not expected to be completed within the next six years. But timing obstacles aside, Snodgrass said, Austin is as good a candidate as any to get more people on bikes. "Cities with high bike use have a major university, a younger population, a lot of technical and professional people, and conducive weather. We have a lot of the indicators."
TxDOT's Douglas agrees: "If you have a system that's friendly enough, as many as 10% of people might use that as an alternative to starting up their car: `I think I'll leave the car parked just this one time while I go to the 7-11'." Moreover, he added, the short trips for which motorists would most likely switch to bicycles are the ones that cause the most pollution; on these "cold start" trips, the engine never gets to its most efficient operating temperature.
Anti-pollution activist Helliker said bikes fit in well with the city's current plans to manage growth. He cites Smart Growth and plans for redevelopment of Mueller as initiatives that will prevent sprawl and allow commuters more options. "Austin faces a crossroads in terms of defining how it's going to be structured," he said. "We're starting to transition to an area becoming less dependent on private automobiles. But we need light rail, a network of bike trails, and a bus system with a more efficient design that is linked with other forms of transit." Overall, he added, the bike plan "seems a reasonably small investment in what could be a major change in transportation patterns for a lot of people. If we change the infrastructure, we'll see Austin developing in a different direction."
Told 'Ya So
The bicycle activists have known it could be this way all along. The bike subculture in Austin is long-established, thriving, idealistic, and proud. Their transportation mode of choice is cheap, it doesn't waste energy or pollute, and it improves their health. In a world seen through their eyes, a critical mass of others has chosen this option, too, and they cruise down the uncrowded roadways, through clean air and under blue skies, with nary a fear. ("I bet within 20 years, Congress Avenue isn't open to automobile traffic," speculated Fred Meredith, editor of Cycling News and a member of UT's Traffic Safety Advisory Board). But fast-forward to reality and they're dodging dense traffic, choking on fumes, and fighting with motorists who see them in generous moments as a nuisance, and in less generous moments as target practice.
At last week's council meeting, the activists lined up to praise the ordinance and the council that passed it. "Everything we want is in here," said Tommy Eden, chairman of the Bicycle Advisory Council Facilities Committee, before qualifying that he'd like to see some better pedestrian and bicycle facilities at the I-35 / US 183 interchange. But implementing the bike plan that everyone loves is going to cost money. The network of shoestrings that's held Austin's bike planning process together until this point is going to need real support from the city to make the next leap forward. The only real funding for bicycles in Austin - besides Snodgrass' city salary - comes from the Austin Transportation Study, which passes on about 7.5% of federal transportation funds, about $700,000 per year each to the bike and pedestrian programs.
So for now, the Bicycle Plan Part II remains just that - a plan. Its estimated cost, when fully implemented, is between $25-35 million, but the plan as approved commits no money. Each section of it will have to come back for individual approval by the council. Snodgrass is asking for a $5 million bond issue to be placed on the ballot for the September bond election to go toward implementing the plan. With citizen input, he has prioritized those routes - mainly serving downtown and the university - that should be tackled first. He may get his wish, and in fact, Councilmember Goodman wants to see even more than the $5 million Snodgrass requested placed on the September ballot. "This is a pretty critical bond election," she said. "Right now is when we can make our mark."
This Week in Council: Acquisition of the JPI tract in Southwest Austin will be considered and council makes its long-awaited decision on the proposed Triangle development.