Bump in the Road for Bike Boulevard
City switches gears on Nueces bicycle plan
"First they took the word 'Nueces' out and began calling it the 'Downtown Bike Boulevard Project,' and now with this plan, they've essentially removed the word 'bike' as well." That was the reaction of Rob D'Amico, president of the League of Bicycling Voters, when the city of Austin's Public Works Department released its draft plan for a bicycle boulevard through the western side of Downtown on Tuesday.
The first half of his statement is true – in the draft, much of the traffic calming and other devices intended to benefit bicyclists have been moved from Nueces Street, as originally proposed late last year, and over to Rio Grande Street.
The second half is up for debate – city bicycle program coordinator Annick Beaudet defended the plan vigorously, and the bicycling community is not necessarily of one voice on the matter. As for the business owners who opposed the project altogether, their representative did not return phone calls as of press time. The plan will now work its way through the city's boards and commissions process and is currently scheduled to go to City Council on May 13.
Quite different from the plan LOBV offered – which would have removed four-way stops on Nueces and implemented a number of devices including "partial diverters" to discourage through traffic – city staff is recommending the addition of "enhanced" bicycle lanes (possibly marked with different colors) along Nueces, from 13th to MLK and Third to Seventh, with "sharrows" (lanes marked for shared use by cyclists and autos) between Seventh and 13th. Also, staff wants the speed limit reduced from 30 mph to 25 mph. Meanwhile, Rio Grande would see drop-off/pick-up insets for Austin Community College and Pease Elementary, back-in angle parking, a new traffic signal at Fifth, plus speed cushions and other traffic-calming devices. And there are other elements of the plan that D'Amico does like, such as a new bridge connecting Fourth and Rio Grande to the Shoal Creek Trail and Lance Armstrong Bikeway.
The battle over the boulevard has been intense in recent months, with business owners along Nueces insisting that reducing traffic would harm them, as well as kill off future redevelopment of the area. The LOBV pointed out that most of the businesses are appointment-oriented and that autos would not actually be banned from the street.
"What once was a vision for defining a key corridor to move Austinites in and out of Downtown by bicycles has turned into a plan for pushing bikes to the side to make sure cars aren't burdened," D'Amico said. He said LOBV will now work to get the draft amended in the boards and commissions.
"That couldn't be further from the truth," said Beaudet in response. "This staff recommendation is responsive to stakeholder input while still creating an amazing bicycle boulevard, an amazing bicycle facility, to preserve and enhance bicycle mobility. ... I am so proud of this recommendation."
The cycling community was never monolithic in its opinion; some had touted Rio Grande as the better option all along. But D'Amico had begun attacking the plan before it was released (he participated in negotiations over its design) and was rebuked by Hill Abell, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop. "After having read it, unlike somebody else that's been commenting on it for the last couple of days, I'm in full support of it," Abell said. "If you ... read [in the staff report] all the reasons that Nueces simply cannot support what would be considered a true bicycle boulevard, it makes perfect sense, because you can't have a bicycle boulevard with traffic levels truly over 3,000" cars per day. Abell said that the Austin Cycling Association is reserving judgment on the plan until they've read it.
The city expects traffic count might increase when Nueces is extended to connect with Cesar Chavez Street as part of the Seaholm project. Another major factor is that a water line replacement for Nueces is scheduled for 2011, "making any significant surface infrastructure improvements to Nueces not as attractive as Rio Grande," according to the report.
"One of the frustrations that I feel and some within the cycling community feel with the LOBV is that they're simply looking at what's the very best for bicyclists. I appreciate that. That's where we have to start. But then we have to be willing to take in input from all the people in our community that will be impacted," Abell said.
"We started with a concept, and we went through this process, and we came out the other end with a better project," Beaudet said. "I stand behind it. ... We've done our job as a bike program to provide good bicycle facilities in this area, and we've also done our job as planners to serve the public interest in listening to all the other stakeholder issues and concerns and other things going on in that area related to development, related to economic growth, related to a lot of things. I hate to use this analogy, but there's a lot of spokes in this wheel."
What kind of reception might the project get at council? Council Member Chris Riley – who doesn't own a car and cycles to City Hall – has a mixed but generally supportive view of the draft. He said he supports the Rio Grande improvements, but "I'd like to see similar improvements on Nueces as well." He disagreed with D'Amico, saying, "The recommendations would make the area significantly more bikeable and would go a long way toward achieving the signature facility envisioned in the bike plan."
The staff's recommendation and supporting documents can be downloaded at www.cityofaustin.org/publicworks/bicycle-public-input.htm. It goes before the Urban Transportation Commission on Tuesday, April 13.
The city has shifted bike boulevard plans from Nueces to Rio Grande, with features to include speed cushions and traffic circles.
See the full map of the bike boulevard recommended by city staff here [PDF download].