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Austin a Top 10 Bicycling City?



"A city like Austin is growing so much, cycling is ruined there."
Lance Armstrong [full quote]
Austin Chronicle:  "[The Austin Bicycle Plan] 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 Bike 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)

Bike-Friendliness of Selected U.S. Cities
Rank
City
Bikeability
Score
Population
Rank
1
Boulder, CO
86
~300
2
Minneapolis
79
48
3
Ft. Collins
78
163
4
Ann Arbor
76
229
5
Tempe
75
145
6
Eugene
75
150
7
San Francisco
70
14
8
Portland
70
29
9
Boston
68
21
10
Philadelphia 68
5
11
Madison
67
82
12
Washington, D.C.
65
25
13
Seattle
64
22
14
Tucson
64
33
15
New York
62
1
16
Chicago
62
3
17
Miami
57
44
18
Oakland
57
46
19
Los Angeles
54
2
20
Houston
49
4
21
San Diego
48
8
22
Austin
45
13
23
Pittsburgh
39
61
24
Cincinatti
37
64
25
Tyler, TX
38
~300
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 the top bicycling cities in the America,*  but it's a reputation that isn't really deserved.  In fact:

  1. Austin gets a dismal Bike Score of 45 ("Somewhat Bikeable") from WalkScore.com, which ranks us a pitiful 22nd out of the 25 U.S. cities that it ranks for bikeability.
  2. 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 lumped together.)
  3. 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.

Here's what's wrong with bicycling in Austin:

  1. Bike lanes for cars, not bikes.  Cars are legally able to park in many of the bike lanes (!), with the City's blessing (e.g., on Shoal Creek Blvd.).
  2. No bike lanes on new roads.  City planners sometimes ignore cyclists' needs when building new roads, such as with the new Mueller subdivision.
  3. No bicycle boulevards.  Twelve cities have bicycle boulevards.  Austin is not one of them.
  4. 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)  And Austin ranks a pathetic 159 out of 200 cities for driver safety. (2014)
  5. 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 examples.
  6. 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 among 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)
  7. Cheating cyclists out of voter-approved bond money, 1980s & 90s.   "In the early 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)
  8. Cheating cyclists out of voter-approved bond money, 2005-06.  "Voters passed $150 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)
  9. 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 note to the Austin City Council, commending them for their efforts (below).  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 the congratulatory letter from TBC to the council, followed by a critique I sent to the council.  None of the councilmembers responded to that, except for Willie Lewis, who wrote only, "Thank you for your information."



Austin was the #7 U.S. city for bike theft in 2002, according to Kryptonite.

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 discussion list
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 PROGRAM
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 City.
 
 
Does any City Councilmember actually have any concrete plans for addressing any of the above issues? I doubt it.
 
 

Former 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 bicycle facilities.
 
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.
 
Sincerely,
 
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 Transportation.]
Also check out our coverage of the City Council.


Dan Connelly 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 Excerpt

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:  September 2014




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Another site by Michael Bluejay...

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