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City planners picture fewer cars on Congress

Monday, May 21, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Imagine if the main street of Texas had wider sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes and no pull-in parking spaces.

That’s one potential outcome of the city of Austin’s Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative.

Last week, the Public Works and Planning and Zoning departments debuted renderings of what they have dubbed as “alternatives” for the stretch of Congress between the state Capitol and Riverside Drive. Each of the concepts envisions reducing the number of lanes north of Lady Bird Lake to five, or even to four.

“We recognize strongly that what can happen in those big, crowded intersections like Cesar Chavez and Riverside Drive is more limited,” project manager David Taylor with the Public Works Department told the Austin Monitor on Friday.

The three renderings reimagine a typical downtown block without any of the pull-in parking spaces that disrupt the existing sidewalk. Each allows for some form of parallel parking.

“It’s definitely a challenge to imagine not having some accessible parking built into the avenue,” Taylor explained.

The current configuration of Congress Avenue dedicates 80 percent of its space to car lanes or parking. The three alternatives offered by Taylor’s team would reduce that considerably. Two envision only five lanes flanked by wider sidewalks, one 18 feet and the other 27 feet. The third alternative depicts four lanes with 24-foot sidewalks. All three feature bike lanes that run on the pedestrian path next to the street.

The idea is to strike a new balance between traffic flow and the increasingly residential and recreational nature of downtown.

“Of course these sketches we’ve drawn up are not meant to solve all those problems in one drawing. They’re meant to be illustrative of an alternative layout to help talk about the balance of vehicular space versus people space,” Taylor said.

Each of the alternatives accounts for Project Connect’s brewing plans for a downtown circulator, though none envisions anything other than rubber-tired shuttle service.

“Both we and Downtown Austin Alliance have said to Cap Metro that we certainly want to support a circulator. We think it’s essential,” Taylor explained. “But on the other hand, it needs to be a vehicle that moves in traffic and not a dedicated lane.”

The alternatives offered by Taylor’s team are simply a preview of what could be included in the project’s draft report due at the end of the summer. The final report is set to be delivered in the fall.

While the question of how to fund a radical reconstruction of Congress Avenue remains undetermined, Taylor predicted that voters might get to weigh in on it.

“While there may be some of this vision that we could implement sooner with the very limited funds that are available for discretionary improvements, if we really rebuilt the street it’s liable to take a long time and require some bond funding somewhere in the future,” he said.

Providing support for the city’s effort is the Downtown Austin Alliance.

“Congress Avenue is the cultural, historic and commercial spine of the city,” said Michele Van Hyfte, DAA’s vice president of economic development. “As the project progresses, it is hugely important to ensure the public’s voice is heard and reflected in the design elements of the avenue, such as increased pedestrian space, a proposed downtown circulator and protected bike lanes. We are thrilled to be involved in this process, and want to help create a Congress Avenue that is safe, inclusive and will function as a cultural destination for the city.”

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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