City approves parking in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd.!

 

At its March 2, 2006 meeting, the Austin City Council officially gave the green light for cars to park in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek Blvd. What we (and their own staff) asked them to do instead was to simply have parking on just one side of the road, so there would be plenty of room for a car-free bike lane on each side of the road. But only Councilmember Alvarez and Mayor Wynn voted for car-free bike lanes; the other five councilmembers voted against (Leffingwell, Kim, Dunkerly, McCracken, and Thomas).

They asked staff to test striping plans on other roadways and maybe a year from now they'll revisit the issue. Ha. If they wanted car-free bike lanes, they would have voted for them.

Obviously this was a major blow, but we haven't quite given up yet. We have a couple of more ideas up our sleeves, and we'll report about that here when something happens. In the meantime, you can check out the movie of my presentation to the City Council (QuickTime, 2.2Mb), or just read the text if you have a slow connection.

Here's a summary of the issue:

  • We're not trying to eliminate parking on Shoal Creek. We're just trying to have parking on one side of the street, so there will be plenty of room to stripe a car-free bike lane on each side of the road.
  • There was never any compromise with the neighborhood, despite the popular myth. The neighbors had unlimited parking on both sides of the street (in the bike lanes) before the city restriped the road, they have unlimited parking on both sides of the street (in the bike lanes) now, and what they want, and what the Council is about to approve, is unlimited parking on both sides of the street (in the bike lanes).
  • Cars already have the traffic lanes, and they have the driveways. Must they take our bike lanes too?
  • The City's plan violates AASHTO safety guidelines. (American Assoc. of State Highway & Transp. Officials)
  • City staff has repeatedly recommended OUR PLAN to council -- parking on one side of the street, and car-free bike lanes. Staff has told council point-blank that the plan they're about to adopt violates national safety standards.
  • Approving parking for bike lanes opens the City up to lawsuits. Injured cyclists and their families have successfully sued municipal governments when the cities failed to provide safe conditions for cycling. By thumbing their noses at safety standards in the face of City Staff telling them not to, the Council is practically begging for a lawsuit.

People continue to misrepresent this process as a compromise (implying that cyclists got something, parking motorists got something, drivers got something, neighborhood got something, etc). In fact, any rational observer can compare conditions before this change to conditions now and make the following judgement: Parking won. Period. Cyclists got less than they had before, and far less than they should have had. The neighborhood got curb extensions (even though they won't work). Cyclists got the middle finger. -- Transportation expert Mike Dahmus

The history of the Shoal Creek Mess

by Michael Bluejay

Call me crazy, but I think the phrase "bike lane" implies a lane for bicycles, not cars. That's true in most places, but not in Austin, Texas. In Austin it's legal for cars to park in many of the bike lanes, rendering them useless for their supposed purpose. Why even call it a bike lane, why even paint that stripe down the road, if cyclists can't actually use it?

For a moment it looked as though things would get better. Around 1998, the City's Bicycle Program started the process of quietly banning parking in bike lanes on various roads around town, one street at a time. In July 2000 they unveiled a plan to ban parking in the bike lanes on Shoal Creek, by having parking on only one side of the street, and wide, car-free bike lanes on both sides. This should have been win-win: neighbors would still get more than adequate parking, and cyclists would get car-free bike lanes.

Cyclists and most of the neighborhood supported the original plan. It was opposed by only a tiny handful of neighborhood residents who demanded unlimited parking on both sides of the street, not just one side. But to appease them, the City embarked on a lengthy planning and "compromise" process that "compromised" away all the benefits. The result: Cars can still park in the bike lanes. They're just a little wider now. Here's how it works:

This picture says it all.

We got screwed.

 

Thanks, City Council!

  

Here's the history of the different designs.

Original Design. A "bike lane" on each side of the street, where cars often parked.

Plan A. The City's Bike Program suggests creating a dedicated parking lane on one side of the street, and separate, car-free bicycle lanes:

This would allow for car-free bike lanes while still allowing cars to park on Shoal Creek. But of course the City couldn't implement something so logical.

Plan B. A public hearing was held on July 5, 2000 in which Shoal Creek residents overwhelmingly supported the no-parking-in-bike-lanes plan, with perhaps 100 supporters vs. only 5 or 6 dissenters. However, the neighbors suggested alternating the parking, so that the parking lane is on the east side of the street on certain segments of Shoal Creek and on the west side of the street on other segments. The City agreed to that modification in August, and started test restriping in September. The City had some concerns about the effectiveness of the plan, especially because it seemed that cars were swerving into the bike lane when going around curves, so the City held public hearings to evaulate the plan and explore other options.

Plan C. Consultants hired by the City then touted the following plan:

6' ParkingLane | 4' BikeLane | 10' carLane | 10' carLane | 4' BikeLane | 6' ParkingLane

The problem with this plan was that the bike lanes get shrunk to make room for all the parking, and there wasn't enough room for cyclists to avoid getting doored by parked cars -- not to mention the fact that large parked vehicles will extend well into the bike lane. Many cyclists opposed the plan for this reason. (Here's a diagram of the plan.) However, some cyclists favored the plan because the car lanes would be narrower than in the other plans, which would theoretically slow down car traffic on Shoal Creek, increasing safety.

Plan D. By October 2002 the the Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) modified Plan C to combine the 6' Parking Lane and the 4' Bike Lane into a combined 10' Parking/Bike Lane, with colored asphalt. This new Plan D is thus:

10' Parking/Bike Lane | 10' car lane | 10' car lane | 10' Bike/Parking Lane

With at least six feet for vehicles to park, that leaves almost no room cyclists, unless we enjoy the risk of getting doored, or slammed by a parked vehicle suddenly pulling out of the lane. Apparently car-free bike lanes is too much to ask in supposedly bike-friendly Austin.

Implementation: In 2005 the City finally implemented this Frankenstein plan (D), but with an added twist: they installed sporadic planters in the middle of the parking/bike lane which pushed cyclists even closer to car traffic as they tried to get around them (if they didn't crash into them first):

Anyone who rides at night knows that bicycle headlights aren't nearly as powerful as car headlights and the risk of cyclists crashing into these things at night is very high -- especially when the paint on them starts to fade. And of course, inexperienced cyclists and children who try to go around them (rather than squeezing into the few inches between them and the stripe) run the risk of being taken out by car traffic approaching from behind.

John Schubert, technical editor for Adventure Cycling magazine, has written an illustrated article showing how dangerous the new Shoal Creek Blvd. is. As he says:

"Nowhere else in traffic engineering would someone dream of posting a traffic control device that road users would need to disobey to save their lives.  When we stop crying, let's laugh this one off the table."

In late 2005 the City realized the traffic islands were a bad idea and voted to remove them. But they kept the parking in both bike lanes.

Another push for Plan A:

In September 2005 victory was within our reach: City staff said they'd been getting a lot of complaints about the curb islands, and asked the Council to approve the original plan that was first brought over five years ago: no curb islands, parking on just one side of the street, and a car-free bike lane on both sides of the road. Yippee! And the Council would probably have been willing to rubber-stamp that idea, except....

The Austin Cycling Association rep stepped up to the mic and told the Council not to do it! He told them, in no uncertain terms, that the ACA's recommedation was that they make no changes on Shoal Creek. Gee, with advocates like these, who needs enemies? This action by the ACA was nothing short of shameful. I would have spoken at this Council meeting myself except I was out of town.

Below are the ACA rep's comments as they appeared in the transcript of the Council meeting. (In the original transcript, do a Find on "austin cycling".)

GOOD MORNING MAYOR WIN AND MEMBERS OF COUNCIL. TRUCILLO, IT'S BEEN IN SOUTH LOUISIANA TOO LONG. I'M PAST PRESIDENT OF THE AUSTIN CYCLING ASSOCIATION. CURRENTLY 1400 MEMBERS, STILL GROWING AND AS YOU KNOW SHOAL CREEK IS A MAJOR MIKE ISSUE WITH THE CYCLING COMMUNITY. THE ACA BOARD MET LAST NIGHT TO DISCUSS THE CURRENT PROPOSAL AND WE HAVE BASICALLY A TWO-PART COMMENT ON THAT. OUR FIRST RECOMMENDATION IS DON'T CHANGE ANYTHING. THE EXISTING PLAN, EXISTING SYSTEM IN PLACE WAS PUT IN PLACE WHETHER YOU CALL THE PROCESS CONSENSUS OR SIMPLY THE LEAST NUMBER OF DISSATISFIED PEOPLE, THE POINT IS IT WAS PUT THERE BY A -- BY PRETTY WELL EXECUTED PROCESS. AND -- AND TO REMOVE IT AT THE COST OF ABOUT A QUARTER MILLION DOLLARS WHEN THERE ARE LOTS AND LOTS OF OTHER BIKE ROUTES AROUND THE CITY THAT COULD STAND TO BE IMPROVED. MESA RIGHT NOW, FOR EXAMPLE IN THE SPICEWOOD AND -- SPICEWOOD AREA IS ALL CHOPPED UP BY SOME SORT OF CONSTRUCTION, BEEN THAT WAY FOR ABOUT A YEAR. THE BIKE LANE ON WESTBOUND LAKE AUSTIN BOULEVARD WAS DAMAGED BY A CREW DUMPING SOME UNCONSEQUENCE STATED CHIP SEAL THREE YEARS AGO, LEFT THERE, THE CITY CREW CAME ALONG AND PAINTED THE BIKE LANE STRIPES ON TOP OF THAT, BASICALLY ON TOP OF GRAVEL. INTERESTING. STAYED THERE UNTIL THE NEXT BIG RAIN. THAT HAS NEVER BEEN REPAIRED BY THE WAY, STILL THAT WAY AFTER THREE YEARS. SO OUR FIRST RECOMMENDATION IS DON'T DO ANYTHING PRECIPITOUS WITH SHOAL CREEK, LEAVE IT ATE ALONE. IF YOU REALLY ARE DETERMINED TO CHANGE SOMETHING. WE WOULD LIKE TO RECOMMEND TWEAK CHANGES TO THE PROPOSAL FROM COUNCIL STAFF. ONE WOULD BE TO TAKE THE TWO BICYCLE LANES AND INCREASE THEM BOTH BY ONE FOOT. ON THE PARKING LANES SIDE, THAT GETS CYCLISTS AWAY FROM THE DOOR ZONE OF THE PARKING SIDE. GIVES THEM ANOTHER FOOT TO GET OUT OF THE CURB ON THE OTHER SIDE. GETS YOU BACK THE 10-FOOT LANES THAT COUNCILMEMBER MCCRACKEN WAS INTERESTED IN KEEPING. WAS THERE A -- A QUESTION OF TERMINOLOGY, YOU KEPT ASKING ABOUT DESIGN SPEED, MAYBE WE SHOULD BE ASKING ABOUT THE SPEED THAT [INDISCERNIBLE] ACTUALLY USE. I THINK YOU DON'T CHANGE DESIGN SPEED BUT YOU PUT NARROW LANES IN AND PEOPLE DRIVE SLOWER BECAUSE THEY ARE PERCEIVED THREAT LEVEL IS A LITTLE BIT HIGHER. OKAY. SO THAT MAY JUST BE A MATTER OF TERMINOLOGY. ANYWAY, THAT IS THE POSITION OF THE AUSTIN CYCLING ASSOCIATION. WE RECOMMEND STRONGLY THAT YOU NOT CHANGE ANYTHING. WE CAN FIND LOTS OF OTHER USES FOR A QUARTER MILLION DOLLARS OF CITY FUNDS. BUT IF YOU REALLY WANT TO CHANGE SOMETHING, THEN TAKE THE EXISTING PLAN AND LEECH THE CURB ISLANDS IN ON THE PARKING LANE SIDE. THEY ARE NOT DOING ANY DAMAGE. THEY ARE NOT DANGEROUS. THEY PREVENT ANYBODY FROM USING THAT PARKING LANE AS A DRIVING LANE, YOU WILL SAVE APPROXIMATELY A THIRD OF THE COST OF THE PROJECT BY LEAVING THOSE IN PLACE, AND THEN REMOVE THEM ON THE OTHER SIDE IF YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING. BUT OUR FIRST RECOMMENDATION IS DON'T DO ANYTHING.

Faced with opposition by the ACA, the City Council was probably uncomfortable in passing the car-free bike lanes proposal brought by staff. So they directed staff to hold a public meeting to gather citizen input, and to have a committee come up with a striping proposal. I attended the public meeting on Oct. 15th, 2005, as did cycling advocates Patrick Goetz, Lane Wimberly, and Tom Wald, and we all pushed for car-free bike lanes. Residents of the Shoal Creek neighborhood mostly pushed for the opposite: unlimited parking everywhere, all the time.

Since I've published about how the ACA has effectively screwed Austin out of car-free bike lanes on Shoal Creek, ACA members have sent me a considerable amount of hate mail. Whatever. The fact remains that if the ACA had simply told the Council that car-free bike lanes were a good idea, instead of telling them to do nothing, then we'd probably have car-free bike lanes on Shoal Creek. I'm simply reporting that fact.

More public meetings, Dec. 2005:

Following the Oct. 15 public meeting, the City surveyed residents and cyclists with election-style "ballots". Unfortunately the only cyclists able to submit a ballot were members of the Austin Cycling Association or Austin Ridge Riders because (the City said), they were unable to verify the authenticity of ballots that came from anyone else. (For residents they sent ballots to all the addresses that existed in the neighborhoods, and for cyclists the ACA and Ridge Riders could supply membership lists, but there was no way to "verify" that someone off the street submitting a ballot was really a bicyclist. Yeah, this does seem like a lame excuse, especially when the City sent 5500 ballots to residents and only 870 to cyclists.)

The results of the balloting were presented at a Dec. 5th Transportation and Land Use Subcommittee meeting, about which Patrick Goetz reports:

"The majority of residents who bike voted for Option 2, car-free bike lanes. Sondra Creighton [head of Public Works] got up and once again made it clear that staff supports the car-free bike lane option. A woman from the TTI [Texas Transportation Institute] got up and presented the results of a survey they conducted of other cities to get an 'outside' opinion of what Austin sshould do on SCB....[she] clearly recommended Option 2.

"[Then] a group of 'stakeholders', including 'Rolf Remshard' (i.e., Gordon Moore, or whatever his name is) and most of the group that voted for curb islands in the first place has been meeting with Brewster McCracken. The new plan is to conduct five pilot studies (which would include Option 2, the original 7-ft. bike lane with parking striping, a new option where the bike lane would be separated from the travel lane by a physical (but rounded) barrier, the curb island plan, and the parking chicanes), and use the pilot studies to decide what works best. No, I'm not making this up -- it passed unanimously, and Public Works has been tasked with figuring out how to make it happen."

It's insane that the City is ignoring the obvious solution: Put parking on one side of the street (which provides plenty of parking), and have car-free bike lanes on the roadway. This is what's supported by transportation experts, cyclists, a good chunk of the neighborhood, and the City's own professional staff. Of course the City might have already chosen this obvious solution had the ACA not lobbied against it

 

March 2006: The Death Knell

On March 2, 2006, the Council voted 5-2 to keep the existing striping, with cars in the bike lanes (Councilmember Alvarez and Mayor Wynn dissenting). This time, though, the ACA rep who had previously spoken against car-free bike lanes now spoke for them. That was very welcome. Unfortunately it was apparently too late.

Here's what I sent to the email forum after this meeting:

First, I want to thank the community for its support on this issue. LOTS of people came down to City Council yesterday, although most had to leave before it was heard at 5:30pm. I also want to recognize that Stan Truxillo from the ACA, whom I previously criticized for telling the Council to not touch Shoal Creek (rather than to put in car-free bike lanes), this time told the Council specifically that the ACA wanted car-free bike lanes. And he was there all day long waiting for the chance to do so. Lots of people also used the "Email your Councilmember" feature, and a few kicked in some bucks to help me fund my research and petition-gathering effort. I'm also heartened by the interest expressed on this list about the issue yesterday and today.

Why didn't they go with the staff recommendation? Beats me. The cynic in me says that it's a class issue, and the wishes of the wealthy neighbors (some of whom are probably campaign donors) might have figured into it. Another issue is that the three councilmembers on the LUT approved the striping plan, and didn't want to appear weak or inconsistent by changing their minds. Finally, they might simply just not care. Many people think that parking for cars is more important than safe travel for bikes. The people who park in the bike lanes certainly feel that way, as do most of the neighbors.

You should have seen my presentation. I showed the pictures from BicycleAustin of vehicles taking up the *entire* bike lane, not just most of it. I showed, with pictures, how a cyclist trying to get around a parked car either has to ride in The Door Zone and risk getting doored when a motorist unexpectedly opens their car door in in the cyclist's path, or else venture out into the traffic lane where they risk getting run over from behind at worst, or slowing down traffic behind them at best. I showed a picture I took on Shoal Creek the previous day of a child cyclist, maybe nine years old, faced with those same two dangerous options. I showed pictures of motor vehicles illegally crossing the double yellow line to avoid cyclists who were avoiding parked cars, one of them *completely* crossing the yellow line and driving exclusively in the *oncoming* traffic lane. I relayed several cases of cyclists who have been killed by The Door Prize, including pictures of the accidents scenes and their tombstones. I pointed out that this is not just theoretical, people *die* from this. And finally I ran down a laundry list of cyclists or their surviving families successfully suing City governments after getting injured or killed when the cities failed to provide safe roadways, often winning multi-million dollar judgements. A couple of the cases were very similar to the Shoal Creek issue. By the way, it's not just staff's recommendation to have car-free bike lanes, the current striping plan also *violates national safety standards*. I mentioned staff's recommendation and the violation of national safety standards several times in my presentation, also.

Councilmember Leffingwell had the gall to insist that it was important for the Council to heed staff's recommendation on an unimportant zoning case which was heard right before the Shoal Creek issue, in which I think he was the lone dissenting vote if I remember right, and then easily ignore staff's recommendation (and not even acknowledge it) when the Shoal Creek issue came up.

So what now? I intend to file a lawsuit against the City. I'm currently looking into how much it will cost and finding an attorney to handle it. The Portland bicycle group sued their city under similar circumstances and the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

I can already hear the objection: The time and money could be better spent on other issues. I disagree emphatically. This issue is precedent-setting for all other issues. If we allow the City to gleefully ignore staff's recommendation and NATIONAL SAFETY STANDARDS, to allow something is retarded as PARKING IN BIKE LANES, then don't expect us to ever get squat from the City again. And I'm not gonna say that "It's only a matter of time before a cyclist gets hurt on Shoal Creek" because *that's already happening*! I checked with APD and they told me that there have been injury accidents among cyclists on SCB *every single year* for the last several years.

I'll write again when I have more to report. Thanks again for everyone's support. It's not over yet.

-MBJ-

 And here's what Mike Dahmus sent to Councilmember Leffingwell:

Councilmember Leffingwell:

Thanks for the note, and I appreciate your careful interest on the matter.

If you have a moment, here's a picture of what the current state of affairs on SCB looks like. (Imagine no stripe between the bike lane and parking lane here, and you've got Option III, or current striping).

Note that the CRV is a typical-width vehicle (not particularly wide); the pickup truck parked on the side is parked legally within a short distance of the curb.

I've been working for car-free bike lanes on Shoal Creek Boulevard since 2000; and believe me, there is no doubt among those who study traffic engineering what the correct course of action is. There was no doubt expressed by TTI. There has been no doubt expressed by city staff. The idea that the safe course of action is not known is a fallacy spread by those seeking to selfishly preserve on-street parking on BOTH sides of this transportation artery.

If Austin desires to re-invent the wheel, it could certainly do so while simultaneously striping something on SCB which actually meets engineering standards in the meantime. The fact that we are not doing that suggests to me that the motivation for the pilot projects is perhaps not safety as stated, but instead the desire to find something which placates noisy parking-on-both-sides interests.

I understand your position that you did not "vote to implement Option III"; however, I doubt a jury in a negligence trial would find that a compelling argument. And believe me - this street is now that dangerous. A design which came much closer to implementing AASHTO standards in Cambridge (Boston) resulted in the death of a cyclist in a "vehicle overtaking

cyclist that 'swerved' to avoid opening door in car parked too close to bike lane'" scenario.

Even the bike lanes in Option II, in some peoples' opinion, suffer from insufficient space to avoid the "door zone", of course; this is the "compromise position" which the bicycling community accepted on SCB in order to preserve the neighborhood interest of at least some on-street parking (far from the neighborhood's claim that cyclists are asserting a demand to road space without compromising anything in return).

But the amazing thing about "Option III", or "Option De Facto", is that the cyclists on this facility are in danger whenever they pass a parked car even if that car's door never opens. The original pictures of the Charles Gandy design make this quite clear - it is possible, even likely, that a cyclist could be sandwiched in between a normal-width vehicle and a parked SUV or pickup truck, with insufficient room to proceed, sustaining serious injury or even death. And if the cyclist swerves out into traffic to avoid the parked vehicle, there is a fairly high chance that an overtaking motorist will be ill-equipped to stop in time - again, serious injury or death. Even the very experienced cyclist, such as myself, must "take the lane" early and often; resulting in more friction on the roadway (think road rage).

I don't know how anybody can look at that picture above and allow the current state of affairs to continue - were I a city lawyer, I'd be forbidding it. Or at a bare minimum, I'd be removing SCB from the city's bike route system and heavily discouraging bicycle travel on that roadway to avoid getting nailed for the "attractive nuisance" problem.

Again, thanks for your time. I know that this situation is a difficult one to handle; but at this point everybody who studies transportation has come down on one side of this issue, and the City Council and a few neighborhood partisans on the other side. There's not going to be a magic way out of this mess - the Council is either going to have to go against the wishes of the neighborhood folks, or is going to be by default incurring a substantial legal and even larger moral liability.

Mike Dahmus

Where do we go from here?

  • I'm exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against the City. After six years it looks like we've exhausted all other options.
  • The Austin Cycling Association is continuing to press the city on their restriping tests on other roadways the results of which will allegedly be applied to Shoal Creek at some future date. Here's a page about the ACA's advocacy on this issue.

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