People tend to make a couple of wild assumptions when anyone voices support for public investment in bicycling infrastructure. No, bike advocates do not necessarily want you to completely replace every single car trip in town with one powered by pedals. It’d be nuts to expect all the state workers who live in Buda to opt for Schwinns instead of Excursions to reach their downtown jobs. Of course, a hearty high-five is due to anyone who actually does that, but also, you’re maniacs.
See, the real idea is to get people to ditch their cars for shorter trips, and no other area in Austin is better suited for that goal than dense, mixed-use downtown. If you live on Rainey Street but drive to work at, say, Whole Foods, it’s time to sit down and reconsider some life choices.
Of course, that’s a tougher sell than I usually expect. It’s kinda like Barton Springs: When rookies dip a toe in the frigid water for the first time, they develop all sorts of anxious preconceptions that are generally overcome only with a good and friendly shove off the edge. Once they’re in the water — or at least, after a few seconds of swearing and acclimation — their lives have changed for the better, prosperity reigns anew, and America celebrates another triumph of the spirit. Just like biking, ya dig?
I’m not here to shove anyone, but I will offer some blunt encouragement: Get out of your cars, gang.
For trips within downtown, biking is faster, healthier, cheaper, and better at helping you reconnect with your inner twelve-year-old — which, by the way, is probably a better approach for dealing with work stress than operating two tons of steel and rubber through crowded urban streets on the daily.
As for safety, the city has improved our bike lane network by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of room for improvement. The sanctity of existing bike lanes is all too frequently violated by…well, let’s see:
- Inconsiderate parking by delivery vehicles
- Rideshare drivers performing an illegal curbside pickup or drop-off
- The city’s transportation department people doing…uh, stuff
- Random muttonheads who don’t appreciate that forcing cyclists to take a car lane isn’t terribly safe and discourages the less-bold among us from fully embracing the potential of their bikes.
- Apathetic city and police enforcement, apparently?
Another mild irritation: The protected lanes on 3rd Street — the gem of downtown’s low-stress cycling network — are less than perfect. Aside from the sections where riders are obscured from cars by parked cars, the eastern section of the lanes sort of falls apart when they cross paths with busy valet services at several hotels.
Last but probably also least, some of these hotels operate their loading docks on 3rd Street, and inside those bays they keep the collected trash of dozens of floors of guests, residents, banquets, concerts, and bars. Of course, this is like a two-second inconvenience — but it smells!
The good news is that the Austin Transportation Department has plans to expand bicycle lanes in central Austin, including downtown. The city is one of several across the nation that is participating in The Big Jump, a resource-sharing initiative aimed at dramatically increasing bicycling rates over the next three years.
Part of the plan involves adding new low-stress lanes that appeal to cyclists of all ages, and we’ve got early indications that the bike lanes on Guadalupe and Lavaca will be bolstered with some form of rider protection — though specific details remain to be worked out, city officials tell me.
In the meantime, other plans are in the works to spruce up the trail along Shoal Creek. The southern end of this off-street urban trail has undergone renovations for what feels like several years, and the Shoal Creek Conservancy is now eyeing improvements to the rest of it — including an ambitious idea to extend the trail all the way up to the Domain. For downtown riders, the trail is a bucolic escape from the noisy streetscape outside and serves as a sort of western antipode to the car-choked I-35.
As for the heat and the hills you’ll encounter while riding, yeah, both can be tricky. But remember, we’re talking about mostly short trips here, the kind where your car’s air conditioner wouldn’t even begin to make an appreciable difference until you’ve almost arrived at your destination.
Besides, outside of summer’s yearly hellscape, Austin’s weather is pretty dang nice — it can be an excuse sometimes, but if everyone keeps driving single-occupant vehicles, the temperatures are only gonna get worse. For hills, might I suggest an electric bike? Best of both worlds, right there.
— Caleb Alan Pritchard (@cubbie9000) June 23, 2017
I dig that Austin is no Amsterdam, and so long as we have something like 75,000 parking spaces in the downtown of a state capital that serves as an employment center for a sprawling five-county region, cars on the road are pretty much inevitable. But as space becomes scarcer and the threat of climate change looms, actually walking the walk of the “moving people instead of cars” talk is gonna have to happen somehow.
At the risk of overstating things, if you haven’t yet experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of downtown on a bicycle, I would tell you that you have not lived an actualized life and true happiness will forever elude you. If I’m wrong, I will buy you a beer at next year’s Congress Avenue Ciclovia.