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Bike Austin hopes to break cycle of inequity, congestion

Thursday, April 21, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Advocates of two-wheeled and two-footed transportation alternatives are building momentum in their campaign to put millions of dollars in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements on the November ballot.

More than a dozen people testified in favor of funding the city of Austin’s Bicycle Master Plan and Urban Trails Master Plan at the Bond Oversight Commission’s Wednesday morning meeting.

In addition to the public testimony, the commission received briefings from city staff on both master plans and also voted unanimously to set up a special work session to hear more input ahead of drafting a bond recommendation for City Council in May.

The support for the Bicycle Master Plan came less than a week after Bike Austin launched its formal effort to put the money to fund it on the ballot. Last Thursday, the nonprofit released its “Pathways to Equity” report, which frames a citywide bicycle network as a means of narrowing Austin’s socioeconomic divide.

In the group’s downtown Austin offices on Wednesday afternoon, Bike Austin Executive Director Mercedes Feris told the Austin Monitor that the organization is trying to overcome stereotypes about people who choose to bicycle.

“I think the prior perception before this report was that bike lanes only serve a certain type of demographic. And we believe that this report really proves differently,” Feris said.

Indeed, the brief report cites 16 different sources to make its case that cycling is not the sole domain of the be-Spandexed weekend warrior in West Lake.

“Despite the common perception of bicycling as an activity of the affluent, people making less than $25,000 a year account for roughly 40 percent of the Austinites who use bicycles regularly to get to work,” the report states, pointing to an article in Governing submitted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The report also notes that the American Automobile Association estimates that the average cost of owning a car is $8,220 per year, or 13 percent of the annual median family income, according to Forbes. The cost of owning a bike, the report says, is $308 per year.

“I think the investments that we talk about in the report and that we’re pushing for in the bond will have a bigger return on investment in terms of helping Austin achieve its goal of affordability and equity – and, by the way, congestion, too – because it could take a lot of car trips off the road,” said Bike Austin Advocacy Director Miller Nuttle.

Specifically, the Bicycle Master Plan predicts that a complete build-out of the $151 million network will remove 20,000 cars from Central Austin streets. By comparison, proponents of the failed $600,000,000 urban rail proposal in 2014 said that project would have removed 10,000 car trips daily.

Another point of departure from the rail campaign two years ago: The Bicycle Master Plan would bring tangible improvements to all 10 City Council districts. Of course, in the outer rings of the city dominated by car-centric planning – and where lower-income families are more likely to find affordable housing – the challenges to creating a safe bicycle network increase. Nuttle said that in areas such as District 6 in far Northwest Austin, connecting the network to transit service is imperative.

Nuttle did concede that in a growing city such as Austin, road capacity freed by people choosing to ride bikes could likely be filled by new drivers, which would keep the city’s gridlock more or less static. But, he added, that’s no reason to oppose bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure investments.

“The congestion in this city is going to be bad for a while,” Nuttle said. “The question ahead of us is, ‘Do we invest in alternatives to it now, so that if people are able to get out of their cars and start riding, then they can, and do it in a way that makes it safe for the lowest-income Austinites right now?’”

Following up, Feris emphasized, “It’s about options.”

Currently, Council is weighing its options on what bond question, if any, to put on November’s ballot. In addition to attending the Bond Oversight Commission’s special May 5 work session, residents can provide input through the Mobility Talks initiative, which is collecting information through May 8 before a June 8 briefing of the Council Mobility Committee.

Council has until August to make a final decision to set the November ballot.

Photo by Richard Masoner made available through a Creative Commons license.

This story has been corrected to reflect the actual cost of the 2014 Rail Bond.

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