Rick Schwertfeger, a Southwest Austin resident for 26 years, said he uses his bicycle primarily for fitness and recreation and occasionally takes his bike to streets south of William Cannon Drive.
Narrow streets and lacking facilities in some places are among challenges area cyclists face, Schwertfeger said.
As Austin City Council weighs options for the next city mobility bond election, bicycle and pedestrian advocates are urging the city to include funding in the next bond for carrying out the city’s bicycle and sidewalk master plans.
Advocacy group Bike Austin recently launched a petition calling for the city to completely fund its Bicycle Master Plan and build the most critical missing sidewalk segments and urban trails. The goal is to have 20,000 signatures by May for the informal petition, said Miller Nuttle, campaigns director for Bike Austin.
“I think our bike plan is one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen: [about]220 miles of protected bike lanes [and]50 miles of urban trails,” Nuttle said. “We’ll leapfrog Portland and other places.”
The challenge, he said, comes down to funding.
“I think that any funding the city can get for increasing its bicycling infrastructure is very desirable because … we don’t have the connectivity we need,” Schwertfeger said.
Planning efforts underway
Nuttle said the best option to fund the entire Bicycle Master Plan would be to call for a mobility bond. Bike Austin has discussed this option with Mayor Steve Adler and other City Council members, and Nuttle said it is a likely option.
Adler said there has not yet been a decision on whether to proceed with a bond proposal in 2016, but he said at a January community forum that a bond election may not take place until 2018.
“It would be my hope that we could actually move forward on some mobility [initiatives]this year, and I’d like us to be able to do that. I am impatient, and I think that our city is impatient and wants things to happen,” Adler told Community Impact Newspaper.
Austin overhauled its Bicycle Master Plan in 2014 after a shift in bicycle planning occurred throughout the U.S., said Nathan Wilkes, Austin Transportation Department active transportation designer.
“In the traditional approach, painted bicycle lanes on busy streets was good enough, but there’s a lot of data that showed the response to protected bicycle lanes and other all-ages infrastructure was about four times the magnitude,” he said.
The city developed what it calls its All Ages and Abilities Network, a $150 million plan of on-street bicycle facilities and off-street urban trails for all ages to use. The network would include bike facilities throughout suburban areas to connect residents to transit and other hubs such as Lakeline Mall and Circle C.
At current funding levels, Wilkes said it would take decades to fully realize the bike network. Bond funding and partnerships with other transportation agencies are potential funding options, and if fully funded, the network could be implemented in five to 10 years, he said.
The Sidewalk and Special Projects Division in the city’s Public Works Department is nearing completion of updating the Sidewalk Master Plan, manager John Eastman said.
Staffers will incorporate feedback from council and create a draft for public review and adoption by City Council in late spring or early summer. The current plan was last updated in 2009. Eastman said the city sometimes defers sidewalk projects along priority corridors where redevelopment is occurring.
“[Developers will be] required to put in sidewalks,” he said. “In addition to that they’ll have to dedicate right of way to build nicer, wider sidewalks we can’t build within the existing right of way.”
On Feb. 3 the City Council’s Mobility Committee received staff briefings on the process for a public conversation to identify potential transportation projects and funding, said Ann Kitchen, District 5 Council Member and mobility committee chairperson.
A Feb. 11 council resolution launched a public conversation about what projects the city should be funding and how to fund them, Kitchen said.
“A mobility bond for 2016 would be part of this conversation and is one of the potential funding options,” Kitchen said.
The goal is to hold public conversations in March, April and May and have a proposal for review at a public Mobility Committee hearing June 8, she said.
“We have a lot of transportation needs, and so it’s absolutely essential for us to prioritize those needs and figure out a way to pay for them,” she said, adding bike and pedestrian facilities must be part of the discussion.
To develop a bond package, the city would set up a stakeholder process and reach out to constituents in its 10 geographic districts, Adler said.
If the city does not move forward with a bond election in 2016, in the interim the city plans to complete some bicycle and pedestrian improvements with its Quarter Cent Fund, Adler said.
The fund’s creation stems from a light rail proposition defeated in 2000. Capital Metro, Austin’s public transportation provider, agreed in 2001 to share 25 percent of its annual revenue—money previously allocated toward light rail—with the city to fund transportation projects.
Council approved a list of Quarter Cent Fund projects Jan. 28, and $3 million will be spent on bike facilities and $17 million will be spent on pedestrian facilities.
Adding protected bike lanes could help increase the number of people using bikes as their mode of transportation, Nuttle said. A city of Austin survey showed 55 percent of residents who responded would bike using protected bike lanes.
“Bicycling and walking are an integral part of Austin and our social fabric and are widely popular,” Nuttle said. “You may not see [bicyclists]in your neighborhood if you live out of the urban core, but the survey the city did suggests half of your neighbors want to be riding their bikes but they feel like they want a safe place to do it.”
Mike Vermeulen, who lives in the Westcreek Ranch neighborhood in Southwest Austin, said he is a bicycle enthusiast and does not own a car. He said cycling infrastructure here is not as strong as in some other U.S. cities.
“Is it ever going to take enough cars off the road that I-35 doesn’t become a mess between here and San Antonio? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that little bits don’t help along the way,” Vermeulen said.
Adler said he does not know how likely it is that Bike Austin’s call for bicycle and pedestrian funding will be incorporated into a bond package. The scope of projects to be considered is large, Adler said, citing I-35 improvements and corridor plans for Airport Boulevard and South Lamar Boulevard as examples.
Looking at mobility in the area holistically is a focus for the Mobility Authority, said Dee Anne Heath, director of external affairs.
“That can’t just be a toll road discussion—and it’s not. Transit comes into that, shared-use paths, all of the above,” she said.
Circle C resident Wes Robinson said he would support incorporating bike plans into a mobility bond.
“I think there are a lot of people who ride bikes in Southwest Austin who don’t feel comfortable riding into downtown because of the [lack of facilities],” said Robinson, a cycling instructor and former board member of the Austin Cycling Association, which is now Bike Austin.
Robinson commutes to Northwest Austin occasionally and said there are strong facilities in Southwest Austin, but bike lanes in some areas such as on Brodie Lane are narrow and do not provide much separation from vehicles.
Schwertfeger said Brush Country Road and William Cannon Drive is another challenge for cyclists.
A few projects are in the works that aim to provide more bike and pedestrian facilities. In January, City Council approved Quarter Cent Fund projects including the Barton Hills Cycle Track as well as adding bicycle facilities along Jones Road, Kitchen said.
The Mobility Authority will hold Oak Hill Parkway study workshops in 2016, said Elizabeth Story, public involvement manager for engineering firm Atkins Global. The study has identified possible traffic solutions for a potential
$650 million project at Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71, known as the Y at Oak Hill.
Story said project plans include 7 miles of sidewalks and 7 miles of shared-use paths—10- to 12-foot concrete paths separated from the road, usually by a strip of grass, she said.
A draft environmental impact statement may be released by the first quarter of 2017, Story said.
Traffic in Southwest Austin is projected to continue to grow, Heath said.
“With the people moving to this region, congestion is going to continue to increase,” Heath said.
Additional reporting by Amy Denney