Shoal Creek Showdown

Neighbors and cyclists compromise on Shoal Creek Blvd. project -- but city staff has other ideas.

This stretch of Shoal Creek Boulevard  has become subject to a turf war between bicyclists and residents.
This stretch of Shoal Creek Boulevard has become subject to a turf war between bicyclists and residents.

The now two-year-old tiff over how exactly to resurface Shoal Creek Boulevard -- from Foster Lane (near Anderson Lane) south to 38th -- may be resolved in the next several weeks, with city planners expecting to decide which of two competing designs to forward to the City Council.

The project began innocently enough in 2000, when city planners had the bright idea to dedicate a bike lane, separate from parking, while repaving Shoal Creek as part of the Austin Bicycle Plan -- which, considering the number of cyclists who regularly use the boulevard, seemed like not a bad idea. But this being Austin, where no public works project can slip by without the neighbors having an opinion, the situation soon crumbled into roiling community debate between neighbors and cyclists.

Residents along that stretch of Shoal Creek generally liked the idea of a bike lane -- except that it would erase parking along one entire side of the street. City planners pointed out that the area has plenty of parking space; there would be room for everyone's car even with parking available on just one side of the road. This wasn't acceptable to neighbors, accustomed to parking directly in front of their houses.

So the city started reconfiguring its plans to include parking on both sides of the street. Where did that leave the bike lane, still avidly sought by area cyclists? That's where things got complicated, and for the past year and a half, city planners and a Shoal Creek working group have tried to formulate a scheme to satisfy all concerned parties.

City planners say they're considering two designs for final approval, one devised by transportation consultant Charles Gandy's firm Livable Communities Consulting at the city's request. This calls for six feet of parking space along one side of the road, next to a painted four-foot bike lane. The Urban Transportation Commission endorsed this plan by a 5-1 vote (only Commissioner Michael Dahmus dissented) earlier this fall, and it has support from both neighbors and cyclists as a nice compromise.

But the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Dept. finds Gandy's plan too dangerous for cyclists, because they'd be squeezed between parked and moving cars, said Meghan Wieters, principal planner with the department. And, Wieters said, the planned 10-foot space isn't wide enough for both parked cars and moving bikes. City staff and traffic engineers prefer that a parking lane be at least seven feet wide; otherwise, side mirrors and opened doors, especially on larger cars such as SUVs, protrude into the bike lane and force cyclists to choose between hitting a parked car and swerving into moving traffic. Dahmus and several cyclists have agreed with the city's position in postings on the Shoal Creek e-mail listserv. "We're trying to weigh everyone's opinion and find as simple a solution as possible," Wieters said.

So the city came up with a "hybrid" plan -- a 10-foot, multi-use shoulder that could be used for either biking or parking. This plan may be safer for cyclists, but it seems to please no one, Wieters said; the bikers lose their designated bike lane, and the plan calls for sidewalk "buildouts" in certain sections to discourage parking.

Members of the UTC, the neighborhood, and the Shoal Creek working group say Gandy's plan is safe enough for a residential street such as Shoal Creek, and that city staff is rigidly holding to national lane-width standards that aren't necessarily applicable on such a low-traffic road. "Charles Gandy had done a reasonable job of bringing people together," said the UTC's Carl Tepper. "In the beginning, the neighbors and bicyclists were ready to go to war over this, and by the end, he had them singing 'Kum-ba-yah.' Everyone involved thought it was safe. If they think that plan is dangerous for bicyclists, city staff probably need to go live in a rubber room."

But city officials indicated they're leaning toward their hybrid plan. "On Shoal Creek, from the staff's perspective, the higher need is for the bicyclists," Wieters said, "because there are a lot of people biking on it and there isn't really a parking crunch in the area." Once city officials decide on a resurfacing plan, they will forward it for final approval to the City Council, which must choose between the city staff proposal and the UTC-endorsed Gandy plan. After that, of course, the city must find a way to pay for either, which in this era of shriveled budgets will be no mean feat.

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