City Gets Street-Smart About Bikes

Local task force formed at behest of Mayor's Fitness Council and Urban Transportation Commission gets rolling

Intent on finding new ways to make bicycling on Austin's streets safer and friendlier, a city-organized task force got rolling last week, with the backing of local cycling celebs Lance Armstrong and Mayor Will Wynn. "The Street Smarts Task Force will help move us in the right direction and make it easier for more Austinites to get out of their cars and onto their bikes," Wynn said. Street Smarts – whose 31 members include citizen bicyclists, medical and health professionals, transportation planners, motorists, and members of recreational cycling organizations – was formed at the behest of the Mayor's Fitness Council and the Urban Transportation Commission – which passed a resolution during the debate over a mandatory-helmet ordinance last August calling for a broad look at bike safety. The task force's recommendations will go to City Council in early 2008 to be adopted as part of Austin's Bicycle Plan, which was drafted first in 1996, sluggishly implemented over the years, and currently undergoing revision. The stated objectives of Street Smarts include:

Facilitating bicycling as a viable transportation option

Examining causes of recent bicyclist fatalities and injuries in Austin

Addressing Austin's severe congestion

Identifying barriers to bicycle use

Encouraging bicycling for its health benefits

Laying the groundwork for a citywide bicycle-safety education initiative

Linking parks and open spaces with neighborhoods

Annick Beaudet, project manager for the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Program, will be coordinating the task force. Many feel Beaudet, a devout transportation bicyclist, has breathed new life into the bike program. She's heading up the bike plan revision and expressed excitement about "implementing the bike plan with new eyes," giving it a "focused look by a group of professionals that considers policy changes, code amendments, and different ways of thinking about street cross-sections to better address bike facility challenges." Some possible policy adjustments, she said, could include a city-mandated minimum safe-passing distance for motorists overtaking cyclists (an idea that's also a proposed state law) and a revisitation of whether parking should be allowed in marked bike lanes. Beaudet also emphasized the necessity of Street Smarts conceiving a public-awareness campaign for the city. "There has never been a city-led program to promote bikes for transportation or a share-the-road safety-awareness campaign."

Mr. Safety himself, Preston Tyree, a national transportation consultant and certified cycling instructor, is a Street Smarts participant. He offered this week to provide to all task-force members a free Road One bicycle traffic safety course, which he instructs in conjunction with the Austin Cycling Association. Tyree hopes Street Smarts will raise awareness that "there are cyclists out there, and there's going to be more of them." He's also interested in follow-through on the city's bike plan and envisions a city-sponsored online bike-route-mapping system, providing searchable maps of Austin's most bike-friendly streets. "More people don't bicycle places because they don't know how to get there, and they're afraid to ride in busy roads."

The League of Bicycling Voters, an ad hoc faction of Austin's most committed and vocal transportation bicyclists, collided with former Mayor Bruce Todd in his efforts last year to see City Council enact a mandatory all-ages bike-helmet law. The LOBV backed the creation of this task force as a safety-improving alternative to a helmet law. "The LOBV is going to make sure that safety is at the forefront of everything this task force does," said LOBV President Rob D'Amico, also a Street Smarts participant. Though no one trumpeted a pro- or anti-helmet agenda during the task force's first meeting, "everybody knows the helmet law is a subtext," said D'Amico, who noted that the group is seeking data from an ongoing Seton Hospital study looking at helmet use and bicycle-related head injuries. He applauded the mayor for making Street Smarts such a high-profile priority. A city-funded public-education campaign "promoting the idea that bicycling can be a safe and economical way to stay fit and get around Austin" is among the LOBV's objectives, he said.

Habits and Preferences – Cycling, That Is

In 2005, 784 bicyclists were killed nationwide, and 45,000 others were injured in traffic crashes, according to the University of Texas. Hoping to decrease those grim statistics, UT transportation engineering professor Chandra Bhat is conducting a survey, in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, to collect information on Texas bicyclists' habits and preferences. If you ride a bike, Bhat could use your help. Complete the survey online in about 10 minutes; responses are confidential. UT hopes the information will help establish planning guidelines for the design of safe and efficient bicycle facilities, from bike lanes to bike racks.

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