When it comes to safe and accessible bike transportation, Austin comes up dry compared to rainy cities such as Portland, Ore., and Seattle. But the perfect storm of bike transportation progress may finally be upon us. More people are bicycling, and grassroots advocacy for better bike infrastructure is stronger and more organized than ever.
In that context, the city just released a 10-year update to its Bicycle Master Plan, full of international best practices and long-awaited local reforms. And the two transportation rainmakers hired by the city last summer, new Director of Public Works Howard Lazarus and Robert Spillar, who fills the new post of Transportation director, say they feel strongly about making bicycling a big part of Austin's multimodal transportation future. "I want to supercharge bikes as a mode of transportation," said Spillar, who formerly served as Seattle's director of traffic management. Bike facilities are "important to the health of the community, to quality of life, and to the economy."
"If Rob can think it, we can build it," Lazarus chimed in, adding that the bike plan, along with updated trails and pedestrian plans, will be included in an interactive transportation plan under development. Coming from a private-sector job in New Jersey, Lazarus said he was surprised bike commuting isn't more widespread given Austin's environmental image; he and Spillar have agreed to bike to work at least once a week. "In the Northwest, there's a huge number of people riding to work every day in suits," Spillar said. "Here, I'd like to try to change the perception that bicycling is primarily a recreational sport versus a major asset to how people get to work and commute around this community."
Bicycle advocates have expressed optimism that the two officials can put Austin on the map as a bike-progressive city. Having participated intensely in the city's yearlong Street Smarts bike mobility task force in 2007, the League of Bicycling Voters was eager to launch a dynamic pedal-powered program. This January, it introduced Project Catapult to identify and promote projects designed to move Austin forward as a bicycle-friendly city. LOBV President Rob D'Amico cites the Lazarus-Spillar meeting as its impetus. "There was tremendous energy in the room and a feeling that great things were going on," D'Amico said, "but at the time, there weren't a lot of huge bike projects on the table, and the ones that were weren't moving forward very quickly." In addition to seeking a clear timeline for implementing the new bike plan, LOBV has listed its Top 3 priorities under Project Catapult, for submission to the city in mid-March:
1) Nueces Bike Boulevard: a bike highway that discourages auto traffic through the placement of barriers at intersections, including signage denoting the route as a bike thoroughfare and the removal of some stop signs. (Lazarus and Spillar say they intend to fund and execute this project and that initial planning has begun.)
2) Public Education: Based on the recommendations of the Street Smarts Task Force, such a program would provide information on existing bike routes and educate cyclists and motorists on road safety, among other topics.
3) South Austin Bikeway: a major new route from Ben White Boulevard to Lady Bird Lake at Congress Avenue, which could include on-street parking modifications and special climbing lanes on hills. The project would address concerns from businesses about parking.
The updated bike plan was released for public comment Feb. 18 (available at Austin public libraries and www.cityofaustin.org/bicycle). It goes before the Austin Neighborhoods Council Feb. 25 and various boards and commissions in April. The city will host a bike plan open house on Wednesday, March 4, at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Rd., and City Council will consider the plan for adoption in May. The plan pools knowledge from local and international studies and accounts for land-use changes and growth since its last update in 1998. The plan has been approved by every applicable city department, and Austin Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Project Manager Annick Beaudet says she's confident it'll be passed based largely on community support. "I've been in Austin for 25 years, and I've never before noticed the degree to which today's bike community understands the importance of their involvement in getting bike projects passed and implemented," said Beaudet, an avid bike commuter and racer. She's particularly enthusiastic about the plan's call for more public process and oversight in road construction projects, banning parked cars in bike lanes, creating north-south and east-west corridors for novice cyclists and families, and more education and promotion of Austin as a bicycle town. (For example, she wants to distribute free blinking bike lights – mandatory for night riding – featuring the Public Works logo.)
As for funding the estimated $250 million bike plan, Lazarus and Spillar say cash exists from previous bond elections, which they hope to supplement with future bond dollars. Lazarus expects his decision to merge the Public Works Department's Child Safety Program with the Bicycle Program will increase the program's clout and resources while saving money. Beaudet said budgeted bike-lane projects often piggyback on already funded road-improvement work, offsetting cost. Plus, she said, "We've submitted for over $2 million in stimulus funding for bicycle lanes and shared-use paths." D'Amico said he's concerned the economic downturn will be an excuse for underfunding bike projects, "even though they're a drop in the bucket compared to other areas." But securing political will, not dollars, is what he sees as the largest potential roadblock to better bikeways.
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