Last year, the Trail Foundation nonprofit tasked with the stewardship of Austin’s beloved Hike-and-Bike Trail kicked off a community engagement process soliciting feedback from locals, part of a comprehensive safety and mobility study outlining how the city’s growth has impacted the trail’s environment and the experience of its hikers and bikers — and how we can confront these challenges with new improvements.
The goal of the study — conducted in partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments along with design firms Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates, Studio Balcones, and Scott Oldner Lighting — was to assemble this feedback along with the partnership’s own research to determine potential design interventions and other improvements for the trail, intended to keep its environment and user experience intact, or ideally improved from current conditions, as the city continues its expected growth over the next few decades.
Despite the impact of the pandemic, which put the kibosh on all the group’s anticipated in-person engagement events, the Trail Foundation reports that the study received the highest levels of community engagement in the history of the organization — we’d like to think our call to action didn’t hurt!
So what’s next? The report issued this week by the foundation and its partners indicates that the two major priorities of the public revealed by the engagement process are trail width and surface conditions, both of which you can link to the simple issue of increased user volume. There’s also the lower-priority but still apparent safety concern of inadequate or unsuitable lighting in some areas.
The Study addresses pathway concerns, including erosion, surface issues, compaction, pinch points, unstable material such as loose gravel, shoulder paths, and low water crossings. Current trail conditions contribute to safety issues for both pedestrians and cyclists on the Trail and can limit the Trail’s accessibility.
The Study also outlines areas on the Trail with lighting issues and opportunities. Issues include excessive light glare and trespass, as well as areas that have low headroom that are unlit and where users have reported feeling unsafe.
— The Trail Foundation, Safety and Mobility Study
After all, the foundation reports that density around the trail has doubled over the last 10 years, and it’s expected to double again by 2040 — more people using the trail contributes to erosion, and narrow sections of its path combined with higher numbers of daily users creates a squeeze. It’s not rocket science, but fixing the problem isn’t always as easy as simply widening the trail in these areas — as we’ve seen from perhaps the trail’s most famous choke point at Longhorn Dam and the ambitious “wishbone” bridge proposed to fix it, some of the trail’s existing paths simply lack the space for expansion in their current condition.
Any segment of trail less than 12 feet wide will need a solution, which could be widening, double trail, alternative trail or route, or creating a boardwalk. If none of these are feasible, the user behavior of the trail must be controlled or the quality of the trail user experience will diminish. In some locations, the use and demand of the trail is so high that this threshold for minimum width will have to be greater than 12 feet.
Based on local and national guidance and standards (summarized in more detail in the existing conditions section), this study recommends the trail be at least 14 feet wide with 2-foot shoulders on either side of the trail. In locations where this is not easily achievable (such as at Zilker Park and near Rainey Street), a double trail should be implemented. Near the Hyatt and the Congress Street [sic] underpass, a boardwalk could eventually be utilized to expand the trail width; until then, slow zone strategies should be piloted.
— The Trail Foundation, Safety and Mobility Study
This challenge is compounded by the appearance of a community concern in the engagement process regarding the trail’s lack of separation between cyclists and folks on foot, creating safety concerns that only increase at these pinch points. As we’ve seen at the city’s first “dual-track” trail at Boggy Creek, it’s possible to design a trail environment that divides these uses while still delivering a connected experience — it just represents a higher cost, and finding the funding for such projects is a later step.
Despite the comprehensive and detailed approach of the 117-page study, its major recommendation isn’t particularly sexy, making it far more likely to be accomplished in the near future: the authors recommend investment in slope stabilization and erosion control projects along the trail, fixing up washouts and areas of loose gravel before they degrade further and represent costlier projects later. After those practical concerns are addressed, the study advises the start of trail widening efforts in problem areas, starting with those east of I-35 — one of many recent attempts to address historical park and infrastructure-related inequalities in this region.
Still, even with these more practical priorities the study doesn’t shy away from grander design concepts for the future of this public amenity — the slides below show various improvements to target areas of the trail, which will presumably become higher priorities once the basic erosion control projects are complete. You can click each of the images below for a larger view — each color-coded pair of slides shows possible future improvements to a different area of focus along the trail:
These improvements, though obviously highly conceptual, are useful for understanding the Trail Foundation’s perspective of how the trail could change over the next several decades to accommodate growth, with features like more prominent trailheads for easier access and new “boardwalk” sections to reroute pinch points or provide separate paths for cyclists. The boardwalks show up in the slides below:
If you’d like to learn more about this study and its results, the Trail Foundation is hosting virtual community engagement meetings tonight and tomorrow to present and explain the report in further detail. Of course, you’re always free to read the study yourself — it’s pretty long, but it’s not in French or anything.