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New bike boulevard plan raises questions from all sides

Thursday, April 15, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The updated proposal for a so-dubbed bicycle boulevard that would be located in downtown Austin took hits from all sides as it made its debut before the city’s Urban Transportation Commission (UTC) on Tuesday. Though the happy middle did make itself heard at the hearing, speakers from both the League of Bicycling Voters  (LOBV) and a coalition of property owners continued to hammer away at their vastly differing takes on what they each saw as a flawed plan.

 

For the LOBV, the latest version of the boulevard doesn’t make the affected sections of Rio Grande and Nueces Streets friendly enough for Austin bicyclists. For the property owners, concerns about the rigor applied by the city to its vetting of the plan — specifically in terms of its traffic impact analysis (TIA) — raise questions about whether it has been thoroughly examined. 

 

What would turn into a long evening started out with a brief presentation by the City of Austin’s bicycle program manager, Annick Beaudet. In it, she detailed the now widely reported changes her team made to the plan after hearing from various stakeholders.

 

Though speed cushions, enhanced bike lanes, shared lane markings called “sharrows,” and other bike-conscious improvements remain, and the boulevard zone has been expanded to include sections of both Nueces and Rio Grande streets, more dramatic automobile traffic calming devices have been removed from the proposal.

 

At the hearing, LOBV President Rob D’Amico expressed his displeasure with the updates. “The idea was to make the street special so that when you put your tire on Nueces, and you rolled on that street, you knew that you were welcome,” he said.

 

“I think much of the vision has been lost,” he added. Though he said that his group was in favor of the proposed changes to Rio Grande Street, D’Amico told commissioners that they didn’t want them to be installed “at the expense of what needs to go in on Nueces.”

 

“A bike lane, however valuable in some circumstances, is not a bike boulevard.“ he said.

 

For Susan Harris, the owner of Site Solutions at 18th and Nueces and a member of Austinites for Downtown Mobility, questions remained. Harris, who served on the steering committee for the project, told the UTC that she “fundamentally disagree(d) with (Beaudet) about the wisdom of building a bicycle boulevard on a commercial street in downtown Austin.”

 

She then told the UTC that, if the city is going to be “intellectually honest about the need to build extensive bicycling facilities throughout the downtown area,” it needed to answer some questions. For her, these included whether the TIA’s conclusion that the changes associated with the boulevard would have no appreciable impact on traffic was accurate and up to city standards.

 

The UTC did its best to answer Harris’ questions. After commissioners Sheila Holbrook-White and Dustin Lanier took turns grilling Beaudet and the party responsible for the TIA — HDR’s Heidi Ross — about traffic impacts, UTC Chair Richard MacKinnon jumped in and put everything together.  

 

“There were some concerns about the intellectual honesty of a TIA that can, on one hand say that a bike boulevard can reduce motor vehicle traffic on the street, but then on the other hand say (it would) have no appreciable effects (on) motor vehicle traffic on the street,” he said. “My impression … is that the TIA is not restricted to simply Nueces, it’s actually looking at the entire area, and that, when you compare the volumes of traffic on Nueces to the volume of traffic on, say, Guadalupe, Nueces (has) a very small portion of traffic.”

 

The bike boulevard plan will continue its trip through city government. On May 11, Beaudet says that her team will return to the UTC with a full presentation that will include 3D animation of the boulevard. 

 

Council Member Chris Riley, who has been an avid cyclist for years and rides his bike through downtown to work, said after the plan has gone through the various commissions and been presented to City Council, he expects the city to proceed with the Rio Grande portion of the plan. That would mean removal of four stop signs and installation of traffic circles at those locations plus beautification of the street. Riley made his comments in a conversation after the meeting.

 

Riley noted that the Nueces portion of the plan can’t really be done until the city has completed work on a water line under that street — expected in spring 2012. The best time to do work on Nueces would be after the water line is completed and the city is ready to resurface the street, Riley said. He also indicated that he wants to see how the Rio Grande changes work before 2012, although he was not sure how long it would take to get the traffic circles done.

 

“I do still like the bike boulevard,” he said, agreeing that “in a perfect world it would just be one” street, rather than two.

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