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City to consider Rainey Street closure pilot

Thursday, June 20, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City Council directed the city manager Wednesday to immediately initiate a shared streets pilot to improve mobility and safety in the Rainey Street District.

The pilot is to consider restricting vehicle access in some areas to reduce conflicts between cars, pedestrians, bikes and scooters.

Noting that a motorist hit a scooter user earlier this month on Rainey Street that resulted in serious injury, Council Member Pio Renteria said he is most concerned about addressing cases such as that one, which are usually occurring on weekend nights.

Rob Spillar, director of Austin Transportation, said the evening Sixth Street closures from Thursday to Saturday could provide a good model for what the pilot may look like.

“I understand the purpose is we’re trying to accommodate non-automobile traffic as best as possible,” he said. “The need for safety parameters will dictate just what can occur within the closure.”

Michael Abelson, president of the Town Lake Neighborhood Association, countered that the characteristics that make such a closure feasible on Sixth Street are not present in the Rainey Street District.

“Please remember that Sixth Street is on a matrix and you have ways to get in and out,” he said. “Here we don’t have any type of matrix; all we have is Lady Bird Lake, Waller Creek on the other side, and then we have IH-35 on the side around us, so we need help.”

In addition to the lack of connectivity, Abelson said the dense residential buildings place even more demand on the district’s streets.

“Currently, there are around 11 high-rises in Rainey,” he said. “There are another 11 that are currently proposed to be developed; on top of that there’s probably space for another seven to 10 that could be developed. We’re talking about 25 to 30 high-rises in less than one-quarter of one square mile.”

The details of the pilot are still unknown. The Transportation Department has recently begun work on its own Rainey Street Mobility Study, but Marissa Monroy, the department public information officer, said various scenarios for the area are still being drafted and analyzed at this point.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said the point of the resolution is to initiate a conversation with staff and stakeholders about whether street closures could be a helpful tool for improving safety while encouraging residents to get to the district in ways other than driving their own vehicles.

C.J. Sackman, managing director of Sackman Enterprises, worried that the pilot wouldn’t adequately address the district’s need for better emergency vehicle access points, pointing to the severity of the recent incident where the scooter user was struck by a motorist.

In addition, he said, street closures that could redirect traffic into those areas could create a dangerously congested situation.

“The concern is how much time will go by with a real risk every Friday, every Saturday and every Sunday,” he said.

Mayor Steve Adler said the city has no plans to launch a pilot that would constrict emergency vehicle access.

“Obviously, if we have a pilot that can’t provide access to residents and can’t provide emergency services, I would assume we’re not going to launch a pilot.”

Tovo added that a model for emergency vehicle access to the district should already exist, since automobile access is already restricted there during the South by Southwest festival each year.

The resolution passed unanimously with Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Natasha Harper-Madison off the dais.

Photo by Steve made available through a Creative Commons license.

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