Rise of the Bikes

Austin pedaling hard toward mobility improvements

At an April 2 meeting intended to gain community input on the recently initiated update to the city of Austin Bicycle Master Plan, project manager Annick Beaudet told attendees that in many ways, conditions exist for the perfect storm of bike-mobility progress: impending local smog violations, auto-traffic overloading of area roads, increasing climate awareness, and a citywide zeal for fitness. Beaudet and her staff hope to channel this energy into achieving the bike plan update's three key goals: institutionalizing cycling as a transportation mode, improving safety, and increasing bike commuting and utilitarian cycling for short, nonrecreational trips. Originally enacted in two parts, in 1996 and 1998, the plan is about 35% complete, according to Beaudet, who said it isn't so much being overhauled as refreshed. Moreover, the update will reprioritize some projects to attract new bicyclists.

The refresher in large part will come from recommendations made by the city's Street Smarts Task Force, which was formed in response to a proposed mandatory helmet law in 2006. Bicyclists by the hundreds descended on council chambers demanding that the city work to make cycling safer and more viable. The task force's resulting 10 months of work embody the local cycling community's long-held bike-transportation goals and include national best practices and new concepts tested in bike-friendly cities worldwide. Divided into Infrastructure, Educa­tion and Promotion, and Law Enforce­ment subcommittees, the task force's broad composition includes representatives from the medical community, Austin Police Department, City Council, Texas Department of Transportation, Austin Cycling Association, Austin's Yellow Bike Project, and the League of Bicycling Voters, in addition to regular bike commuters.

Some key recommendations include increasing the program's staff and budget, especially for promotion of bicycling facilities and initiatives; getting parked cars out of striped bike lanes; developing off-street bicycle networks and a Downtown bike/pedestrian zone; installing showers, lockers, and secure parking around town to encourage bike commuting; and setting up a city board to shepherd the updated bike plan to fruition. Also recommended are a variety of traditional and creat­ive bike facilities citywide and integrating bicycle considerations into planning and zoning code-making.

The recommendations, estimated to cost around $55 million, have gone before 14 city departments and are expected to reach City Council by April 24. The increasing appearance of cyclists on Austin's roads may be evidence of a growing bike groundswell – perhaps one with formidable political clout, if the well-attended Austin Cycling Association's April 7 City Council candidate forum is any indication. But it remains to be seen whether the political will exists to invest earnestly in cycling improvements. To see candidates' responses to the League of Bicycling Voters' questionnaire, see www.lobv.org; see the complete Street Smarts Task Force bike-plan recommendations (and make your own comments) at www.ci.austin.tx.us/bicycle.

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