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Bicycle Advisory Council keeps Austin on two wheels

Friday, September 12, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

Bicycling is big in Austin. When you are the home of Lance Armstrong, even with his tarnished image, you’re bound to have a lot of two-wheelers on your roads, and Austin does. In fact, USA Today recently named Austin as one of the Most Bicycle Friendly Cities in the country.

With the city’s hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes, including the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, Austin has one of the largest bike-riding populations in the U.S.

Austin didn’t get that way without a dedicated riding community and a lot of planning by the city. As Austin has grown, city staff and policymakers have worked to develop and update bicycle infrastructure, policies and programs to suit the needs of the cycling community. Input from those cyclists is an important factor in this process, and the citizen-run Bicycle Advisory Council helps to provide that.

The council advises the Public Works Department staff and releases bicycle-related policy recommendations to other departments, entities and jurisdictions, including the Urban Transportation Commission, Travis County and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Former Bicycle Program Manager Annick Beaudet tells the Austin Monitor that the council now also advises the Transportation Department. The reason, she said, is that the Bicycle Program moved from Public Works to Transportation in the past year, since the most recent bylaws were published.

Beaudet added that the Bicycle Advisory Council could trace its roots back to City Council’s adoption of the 1996 Bicycle Plan. “Since then,” she said, “the Bicycle Advisory Council has existed in various forms over the years, in response to City Council policy.”

Bicycle Advisory Council Chair Mike Kase told the Monitor that, while the council is not an advocacy organization, it strives to provide policymakers with the “cyclist’s point of view” so that they can make more informed decisions.

“I think that the council wants to basically have safe riding or safe riding facilities throughout the city for all cyclists,” Kase said. “We want the beginning cyclist to feel as comfortable and confident riding on the streets and the roads of Austin as the more experienced adult rider.”

Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Engineer Nathan Wilkes said the council serves as a “sounding board” that “helps staff get informed about bicycle issues and have kind of a two-way communication with the bicycle community.”

Wilkes said that staff works with the council on a variety of projects. “Sometimes it’s little details. They might say that a bike lane next to street parking is a little too narrow … or they might say, ‘We would like you to take a different approach at this intersection or this conflict area,” he said. “In some cases, they may say, ‘We’d rather you take a different approach on the whole project.’”

Wilkes added that, although staff has a “working relationship” with City Council the Bicycle Advisory Council and “certainly takes their recommendations into consideration,” it is not obligated to do so.

The council released its most recent recommendation in July, which relates to the “distracted driving” ordinance. It recommended the removal of bicyclists from the distracted driving recommendations put forth by the Distracted Driving Study Group and from any ordinance update, which may come from these recommendations. (See Austin Monitor, Aug. 5)

In this case, it appears that staff and City Council did not implement the Bicycle Advisory Council’s recommendations. The ordinance that City Council adopted on Aug. 28 still applies to bicyclists. It will take effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

Transportation Department Senior Public Information Specialist Marissa Monroy told the Monitor that staff would be seeking Bicycle Advisory Council input on an update to the 2009 Bicycle Master Plan on which the City Council will ultimately vote.

Monroy said that staff would consult official boards and commissions, including the Planning Commission and Urban Transportation Commission, before taking the plan to the Bicycle Advisory Council for a recommendation. She added that staff hopes to bring the plan to City Council sometime in November.

Kase said he believes that implementing the Bicycle Master Plan will help the city keep up with population growth, which he sees as its greatest current challenge. “We’re playing some catch-up right now,” he said. “There’s a very good head of steam worked up to try to make all of this work for everybody.”

The Bicycle Master Plan, Kase said, is “connecting the dots on existing bike lanes and bike infrastructure.”

Another current policy issue that the Bicycle Advisory Council has released a recommendation on is the Urban Trails Master Plan. Its members wrote in June that the council supports the implementation of the plan “with the understanding that there will be a ranking for trails incorporated into the plan.”

The current draft of the plan does include a two-tiered ranking system that prioritizes trails based on a predetermined set of criteria. Kase said that, in his opinion, the draft satisfies the council’s recommendation, though he could not speak on behalf of the rest of its members.

Kase added, “The plan will provide a connecting link of off-street paved trails that are great for recreation and transportation.”

City Council began a public hearing on the plan on Aug. 29, though it has postponed the remainder of the hearing and any action until its regular meeting on Sept. 25.

Monroy said that staff is very happy with the relationship it has with the Bicycle Advisory Council, especially as it relates to making the streets of Austin less intimidating to potential cyclists.

“Going forward, we see that relationship only strengthening, with a lot of the bicycle initiatives that we have,” Monroy said. “We see that relationship being a really powerful one in the city.”

The Bicycle Advisory Council will hold its next meeting on Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. in the large conference room on the eighth floor of One Texas Center.

 

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