Austin a Top 10 Bicycling City?
"A city like Austin is growing so much, cycling is
Lance Armstrong [full quote]
: "[The Austin
was adopted just over 10 years ago, and updated two years later to
include detailed routes. Reading the plan without having
actually bicycled around town, one might guess Austin must be a bike
utopia by now.
"Well, it's not. In many cases, biking to a destination
across town using a relatively direct route ranges from difficult to
downright dangerous, and the further out from inner city neighborhoods
you travel, the dicier it gets. Equally pathetic, over the last 10
years, while the regional population (Travis, Hays, and Williamson
Counties) has grown to more than two million, the estimated percentage
of trips made by bike, according to the Capital Area Metropolitan
Planning Organization, has remained at a dismal 1%. Since May is
Austin! Month, it's a likely moment to consider the thus far
unimpressive local progress on improving biking facilities and
opportunities, and what might or should be done about it." (2006)
of Selected U.S. Cities
|Bikeability scores are from WalkScore.com on 12/31/12. As of that date,
these are the only 25 cities that WalkScore has calculated a
bikeability index for.
Austin is sometimes rated as one of
top bicycling cities in the America,* but it's a reputation
that isn't really deserved.
- Austin gets a dismal Bike Score of 45 ("Somewhat Bikeable")
from WalkScore.com, which ranks us a pitiful 22nd out
the 25 U.S. cities that it ranks for bikeability.
- Austin doesn't rank in the top 19
bicycle-friendly cities rated by the League of American Bicyclists in
2012. (We're at the Silver level, where places #20-57 are all
- The Austin
metro area also ranks #18 for pedestrian danger even though we rank #34 by population, meaning it's way more dangerous
here for pedestrians than other areas are.
wrong with bicycling in Austin:
- Bike lanes for cars, not
bikes. Cars are legally able to park in many of the
(!), with the City's blessing (e.g., on Shoal
- No bike lanes on new roads.
planners sometimes ignore cyclists' needs when building new roads, such
as with the new Mueller subdivision.
- No bicycle boulevards.
Twelve cities have bicycle
boulevards. Austin is not one of them.
- Lots of hit-and-run drivers.
Austin has the special shame of having a hit-and-run rate that's 50% higher than the national average. (2012)
- Weak prosecution of at-fault
drivers. At-fault drivers in Austin frequently get
weak to no penalties for hitting cyclists, even when the cyclist dies,
or the driver was drunk, or both. Sometimes it seems that the
best way to get away with running a red light in Austin is to kill a
bicyclist while you're doing it. Here are tons
of older examples and some more recent
- Not as many cyclists as the top
cities for cycling.
• Austin ranked in 120th place among 375 cities for the
percentage of commuters who bike to work. (2010 Am. Community Survey)
• Austin ranked 22nd among the 70 largest cities for the
percentage of commuters who bike to work from 2000-2010. (Am. Community Survey)
• We're not
among the top 10 metro areas for percentage of people biking to work. (2009 Census; Austin's explicit rank not listed)
• We rank an abysmal 57th
cities greater than 250,000 people for the percentage of car-free
households. (2000 U.S. Census)
• (However, Austin does have the
2nd-highest percentage of bike commuters (1.88%) among the largest 15
cities in the U.S.) (Governing, 2011)
- Cheating cyclists out of
voter-approved bond money, 1980s & 90s. "In the
Eighties, voters approved almost $2 million in bonds to implement the
Austin Bikeway Plan, which called for a comprehensive citywide network
to include 160 miles of new bicycle lanes, and other policies designed
to break down barriers to continuous cycling. The result, according to
a 1993 report of the Austin Transportation Study: only 49 miles of bike
lanes were set aside, and of these, all but six are being used for
parallel parking by motorists. Few of the other recommendations of the
Austin Bikeway Plan were implemented, including bike route signage,
provision of wide outside lanes on new road projects, and bike lane
maintenance. Ironically, over half of the $2 million in bonds approved
by voters was transferred from its intended use for bike lanes to
pedestrian and trail projects. And, incredible as it sounds, $368,000,
or about 20% of the total, went to fund the Veloway at Circle C, a
facility that allows exercise-deprived suburbanites to burn off the
accumulated stresses of week-day commuting by riding bicycles around in
a circle on weekends." (Austin Chronicle, 1996)
- Cheating cyclists out of
voter-approved bond money, 2005-06. "Voters passed
million in transportation bonds in 2000 (Proposition 1), which was
supposed to be spent at $15M per year for ten years, and was supposed
to include bike projects. In March 2006, Councilmember Raul
Alvarez asked the city to reveal how the money had been spent so
far. The answer was that the first $67.2 million ALL went for SH
130 right of way, and not a penny for any of the the other things
promised to the bond voters on the ballot, including bike
projects! As a result of Alvarez' request, $10 million was
proposed (with about $5 million so far for sidewalks). If you read the Chronicle article, you will see that $20 million
was being promised for bike and ped projects just before the election." (Roger Baker, 2005-06)
- Not enough biking trails.
The City's own survey showed that only 68% of Austinites are satisfied with the
number of walking & biking trails. (2009)
And as Old Guy on Two Wheels points out, while San
Antonio police ran an undercover sting to catch drivers who pass
cyclists too closely, our own police chief in Austin would rather
lecture cyclists about wearing helmets.
The first time Austin got a "top cycling
city" award, the Texas Bicycle Coalition [TBC] sent a congratulatory
to the Austin City Council, commending them for their efforts
But really, what IS good about local cycling
really couldn't have been credited to the city council at that point,
which had done nothing or even
worked against us far more often than they helped us. Below is
congratulatory letter from TBC to the council, followed by a critique I
sent to the council. None of the councilmembers responded to
except for Willie Lewis, who wrote only, "Thank you for your
TBC's letter congratulating the City Council on Austin's
first Top Ten ranking
- Dear Mayor and Council Members,
- You are to be congratulated!
- The latest issue of Bicycling Magazine ranks Austin in the
top ten of North American cities in which to ride. It is by your work
and that of former City Council Members that Austin is the bicycle
friendly city that it is.
- The criteria for making the top ten includes the Yellow
Bike Project, bicycle racks, bike trails and an active bike commuter
population. All of the things that the City supports. The article in
Bicycling has a photograph of the city skyline and a great photo of one
of the Yellow Bike Project members carting yellow bikes around to be
distributed. Activists, commuters, recreational riders, racers and
transportation cyclists all look forward to continuing the tradition of
leading the nation in bike friendly action.
- As President of the Austin Cycling Association, the largest
cycling organization in the area, I am proud to be able to say Thank
You to each one of you.
- Preston Tyree, President, Austin Cycling Association
- Education Director, Texas Bicycle Coalition
Jan. 21, 1999
Michael Bluejay's response
- From: Michael Bluejay
- To: Texas Bicycle Coalition
- Garcia, Gus - Austin City Council
- Goodman, Jackie
- Griffith, Beverly
- Lewis, Willie
- Slusher, Daryl
- Spelman, Bill
- Watson, Kirk-Austin City Council
- CC: austin bicycle email
- Date: Jan. 24, 1999
- Dear Councilmembers & Texas Bicycle Coalition:
- If Austin is one of the Top 10 North American cities for
cycling, then that only demonstrates how terrible North America is for
cycling and not how wonderful Austin is. Reviewing the details, it
certainly appears that the City Council deserves more blame than credit:
- #1: PARKING IN BICYCLE LANES
- It is legal for cars
to park in most bicycle lanes in the City. So why even call them
bike lanes? If cyclists can't use them, then what's the point? I
addressed the previous Council about this issue, but the Council didn't
express any interest in addressing it. Eric Mitchell wrongly stated
that it was already illegal for cars to park in bike lanes. Gus Garcia,
Willie Lewis, and Bill Spelman's representative (Mike Blizzard) said on
my radio program that they supported car-free bike lanes, but so far
there's been no action from Council. Due to non-action by the Council,
other bicycle advocates have been working with Transportation &
Public Works to establish car-free bike lanes. But even if they succeed
in getting cars banned from more bike lanes, another problem that
remains is enforcement. I see cars illegally parked in the bike lanes
in my neighborhood on Rio Grande and Nueces nearly EVERY DAY [two of
the few bike lanes where it's already illegal for cars to park]. The
police usually come if I call them about it, but they don't take the
effort to ticket cars unless someone calls it in. On this issue, the
council deserves blame and not credit.
- #2: FAILURE TO FUND THE BICYCLE
- The Council has historically under- or non-funded the
Bicycle Program. Here's the opening from a late 1997 letter by Rick
Waring, former Coordinator of the City's Bicycle Program:
- "Dear Mayor Watson and City Council members: I am extremely
disappointed. The 1998 budget you approved has zero dollars in
allocations for bicycle and pedestrian program needs and service
provision. Frankly, this is one of the reasons I resigned my position
[as the City's Bicycle Coordinator]. We initiated and built the program
without a budget for three and a half years. With the election of your
progressive council, I was certain that finally City leaders would show
their commitment and provide badly needed funding for bicycle and
pedestrian access and safety. You did not, but I should not have been
surprised; Austin has a long history of lip service without real
commitment to bicyclists and pedestrians. Witness allowing parking in
bike lanes and lack of maintenance of existing bicycle facilities."
[The complete letter appears at the end of this email.]
Here again, the council deserves blame and not credit.
- #3: CREATING THE HELMET ORDINANCE
AND FAILING TO FULLY REPEAL IT
- A couple of years ago the City Council created what was
probably the most unpopular ordinance in Austin history when it enacted
the bicycle helmet ordinance. But the council didn't just ignore the
will of the people, it ignored the facts -- that on average, only 1-4
cyclists die in Austin each year, that some of those who die were
wearing helmets ANYWAY, that many more pedestrians and motorists die
than cyclists and THEY don't have to wear helmets, that motorcyclists
are not required to wear helmets, etc. Disturbingly, the council felt
it was more important to try to force the use of a piece of equipment
that *might* help us once we've been hit rather than PREVENTING US FROM
GETTING HIT IN THE FIRST PLACE (by getting cars out of bike lanes, by
funding the Bicycle Program, etc.). Also disturbingly, the council was
completely unconcerned that its local police was using the helmet
ordinance as an excuse to arrest cyclists left and right and throw them
in JAIL. (And for comparison, when was the last time you heard of a
motorist being not just ticketed, but taken to JAIL for not wearing a
seatbelt?) And despite the fact that at the time 70% of the no-helmet
tickets given to kids were given to black & Hispanic kids, the
council kept the helmet ordinance intact for kids when amending it. An
advocate from the League of Bicycling Voters informed me that
councilmember Slusher refused a compromise on the helmet ordinance
which would have kept the ordinance but removed the penalties, since
Slusher insisted on having a punitive ordinance. I also witnessed
Slusher misleading the citizenry at the helmet ordinance hearing and
tricking them into giving up their speaking time, promising that a
"repeal" was imminent, when in fact the council intended not to repeal
but rather to amend, and kept the law intact for kids. Here again, the
council deserves blame and not credit.
- #4: POLICE HARASSMENT
- I've lost count of how many cyclists I've met who were ARRESTED for minor traffic infractions. Not just
ticketed, but ARRESTED. Just recently my friend Jennifer Sigman was arrested and taken to jail for riding her bicycle on
the sidewalk downtown. The police in this City have no
accountability to anyone. The council's compromise earlier this year
was basically worthless since it did not provide for a Citizen's Review
Board. This is a major failing of the council. Here again, the council
deserves blame and not credit.
- #5: MOTORISTS WHO HIT CYCLISTS
DON'T FACE CONSEQUENCES
- About half of the serious car-bike
collisions in Austin are hit & runs. The council's continuing
treatment of cyclists as second-class citizens only reinforces that
same mindset in motorists and makes them unconcerned about hitting or
even killing us. These hit & run motorists don't face any
consequences because nobody knows who they are and they're never
caught. But even when the motorists are known, often nothing will
happen to them. Police officers routinely fail to ticket or charge
drivers who injure cyclists even when the drivers are clearly at fault.
And even though the Tom Churchill case made it to a grand jury, the
grand jury failed to indict the motorist although he was clearly
at-fault. The council could set an example for the police and grand
jurors by treating cycling and cyclists with respect, but through
antagonistic action (e.g., the helmet ordinance) and lack of action in
other areas (e.g., cars in bike lanes, funding for the Bicycle
Program), it helps foster the attitude that cyclists don't matter. Here
again, the council deserves blame and not credit.
- #6: THE YELLOW BIKE PROJECT
- One of the reasons cited in the Bicycling article for
ranking Austin in the Top 10 was the Yellow Bike Program. Of course,
the Council deserves no credit for this because the Yellow Bike Project
is not a City program, it's a private non-profit organization. And the
Council's helmet ordinance nearly killed the whole program before it
even got properly established, with police officers arresting people
who tried to use the free yellow bikes without helmets. The Yellow Bike
Project was able to secure a shop space from the City in exchange for
providing the City with bicycles for employees to use, but the Yellow
Bikers had to go through a year of the City's red tape before they
could actually move into the space.
- #7: THE VELOWAY
- After not spending money for nearly a decade which had been
authorized by voters to build bike lanes and make other biking
improvements, an earlier City Council threw most of that money away on
the Veloway, a recreation & racing loop outside the (then) City
limits, which does absolutely nothing to aid cycle commuting in the
- Does any City Councilmember actually have any concrete
plans for addressing any of the above issues? I doubt it.
Bicycle Program Coordinator Rick Waring's late 1997 letter to the
Austin City Council
- Dear Mayor Watson and City Council members:
- I am extremely disappointed. The 1998 budget you approved
has zero dollars in allocations for bicycle and pedestrian program
needs and service provision. Frankly, this is one of the reasons I
resigned my position [as the City's Bicycle Coordinator]. We initiated
and built the program without a budget for three and a half years. With
the election of your progressive council, I was certain that finally
City leaders would show their commitment and provide badly needed
funding for bicycle and pedestrian access and safety. You did not, but
I should not have been surprised; Austin has a long history of lip
service without real commitment to bicyclists and pedestrians. Witness
allowing parking in bike lanes and lack of maintenance of existing
- In 1994 the City Council created the Bicycle Program
Coordinator position, but did not provide funding for the position.
This forced the Department of Public Works and Transportation to shift
funding to provide salary for the unfunded staff position. The first
words the Assistant Director told me when I started the job was "you
have no budget". I should have walked right out the door, but I
thought, "This is April and next fiscal year we'll receive funding." We
did not. In subsequent years, neither City management nor Council
provided any program or service provision funding. We did our best
"borrowing" from other budgets and using long-term debt bond funding to
provide daily services, but this was grossly inadequate and a fiscally
poor choice as well. Now all bicycle bonds are expended, yet you
provided no funding for the program. How do you expect staff to provide
services without funding?
- To soften the blow of providing absolutely no funding,
advocates were told of a transportation retreat to be held in October
during which reallocation of funds in the existing budget for bicycle
and pedestrian needs would be discussed. Of course, this would mean
"robbing Peter to pay Paul," but it would be better than nothing. Now I
hear the retreat is postponed until December. December? Do you really
plan to hold this retreat during the holiday season? I will not be
surprised if the retreat is delayed again and may canceled altogether.
I would ask when the Bicycle Plan, Part II will come forward for
adoption, but without funding it hardly matters.
- United States population is doubling ever 20 to 40 years
depending on the popularity of a allocation. Austin's is slated to
double in 20. Since 1990, registrations of motor vehicles in Travis
County exceeded population growth by three percent, yet the City
Council lacked the courage to create a pedestrian staff position.
Anyone who walks in Austin knows how much work is needed to overcome
years of neglect and inattention. Anyone who has worked in the
Transportation Department knows there isn't enough staff or resources
to do this job. And anyone who cares enough to examine recent results
knows very little of long-accumulated pedestrian demand has been
addressed. If it weren't for [the federal Americans with Disabilities
Act], even the disabled would probably still be ignored.
- I am encouraged by your efforts to support downtown
development in spite of the fact that this is an easy decision;
developers stand to gain and no neighborhoods oppose the increased
density. Nevertheless, those knowledgeable of what it takes to preserve
a fine city are grateful.
- Now make a tough decision. Via a budget amendment allocate
funding for bicycle and pedestrian services and make a strong statement
of their importance to the vitality, health and future of the city.
Please do not do this only in a surreptitious way by shifting funding
within an existing budget &emdash; while this would help, it does
not establish program funding nor does it publicly support using
bicycles and walking for transportation.
- I cannot know how tough your jobs are, but I have some
idea. I realize the pressure must be very intense and the criticism
never ending. I applaud you for your courage and willingness to serve.
While you have this opportunity, please take steps to establish funding
for these badly needed services. Although I was able to secure grants
for staffing and some program expenses for the present, grant funding
is not likely to be available for staff or program expenses in the
future. Thank you for your consideration of this request and for the
difficult jobs you do.
- Rick Waring.
- P.S. Please do not send this letter to City staff to write
your response. I would appreciate hearing from you about this critical
issue. I know you are busy, but you can dictate a reply to your office
staff and tell us what you plan to do, not what City staff thinks you
plan to do.
- [FYI: In 6/01, we learned that Rick Waring had become the
Bicyclist and Pedestrian Safety Program Manager for the Oregon Dept. of
Also check out our
coverage of the City
critiques the bikability of part of Austin
Posted to the austin-bikes email list, 7-8-00
This evening I went from my apartment near 6th and West
Lynn, via Campell and 5th to Whole Foods on Lamar, from there on to
Barton Springs Pool via Robert E Lee for a quick dip, then back across
the Mopac bridge off Stratford to home. Simple, right? Hardly. Consider
E. 5th: 3 lanes of heavy traffic. It's extremely
challenging to get into the right lane on this road, basically forcing
one to ride along the left lane until one reaches the Baylor light.
Hopefully a possible pending light at Campbell will help a lot here.
Very poor riding.
Lamar to Whole Foods: Heavy traffic, very poor riding
Lamar to Barton Springs Road: Periodic high-speed
2-abreast traffic going under the tracks and over the bridge. Extremely
poor riding. I passed a memorial to a dead pedestrian.
Barton Springs Road: Heavy traffic, narrow lanes,
and poor pavement. Very poor riding.
Robert E Lee: Remarkably heavy, high-speed traffic
& substandard width lanes. I passed a memorial, apparently to the
murdered police officer. Very poor riding.
Barton Springs again: See above.
Stratford: A good road for riding, although one
needs to watch the residential SUV traffic.
E. 5th again: See above. Turning left onto West Lynn
is an adventure, to say the least, with a rear view mirror. Without
one, it would be even tougher.
W. Lynn: A good road for riding.... maybe 100 meters.
6th St.: Very heavy traffic, narrow lanes. Unlike
5th, traffic here is at least somewhat fragmented. Still, riding is
very poor, especially in the rain (no rain this evening)
This ride, about the most basic thing one would want to do
around here, was strikingly unridable. It reminds me of the Bicycling
assessment of Austin as a top 10 cycling city. Clearly the editors
didn't do this circuit, or it would have made their other list.
Complete Lance Armstrong
Here's the complete excerpt about Lance Armstrong's remarks
about cycling in Austin, from the Austin American-Statesman, 8-4-01:
On Friday, he met with members
of the congressional Bike Caucus in Washington, lamenting Austin's
lightning growth and traffic problems.
"A city like Austin is growing so
much, cycling is ruined there," he told U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett,
D-Austin, and other members of the group. "In just 10 years -- ruined.
A place like Boulder, Colorado, is just ruined, also."
It's no surprise that Armstrong feels this way, given that a redneck tried to run him over
with his truck in 1998.
2012: Bicycling.com says Austin is #13 (out of 50) for
bike-friendliness of U.S. cities.
2001: Bicycling magazine ranks
Austin #2 of cities between 0.5-1.0 million people.
1999. LAB rates Austin as one of the Top 10 bicycling cities in
North America in 1999.
Page last updated: Jan. 15, 2013