Austin Transportation promises more community engagement with new Healthy Streets
The Austin Transportation Department is reviewing six new Healthy Streets candidates for the program’s second batch of streets open for safe, socially distanced bicycling, walking and rolling.
Since the program’s rollout, the department’s Director Robert Spillar said the Healthy Streets team has learned the value of a broader notification process that engages residents and business owners before setting up barricades and traffic cones.
The department has posted an interactive map of street segments under consideration where the public can indicate their support of or opposition to each new proposal.
On May 21, the city installed the first five miles of Healthy Streets on three street segments around the city, but business owners, residents and mobility advocates quickly objected to the lack of notice or public engagement of the decisions.
Denis O’Donnell, owner of East Austin country music bar the White Horse, said he had received no notification about Healthy Streets coming to Comal Street.
“Yesterday when arriving at our bar we found that the street was barricaded and closed for Healthy Streets,” O’Donnell said on May 23. “Our business will be lucky if we are able to reinvent an operating strategy that creates a safe and manageable environment that can have us break even to sustain this pandemic. We will need access to our business on Comal and not to render our parking lot useless in what is certainly our greatest time of need.”
Another resident responding to a department survey said the Comal Street segment of Healthy Streets is “serving to further burden” businesses and residents.
“However well-intentioned, I think this is a misfire,” the respondent said. “The handful of times I’ve driven by the closure over the weekend it’s been desolate with more cars trying to figure a way around it than residents putting it to use.”
Austin Transportation has since added signs to modify the stretch of blocks along Comal Street where the White Horse is located specifying that drivers are permitted to use the streets to access local businesses.
For the next batch, however, Spillar said in an update Wednesday that the team is taking a proactive approach with its outreach, partnering with community organizations and using yard signs, email and social media to solicit feedback on the new Healthy Streets proposals.
While each of the initial three Healthy Streets segments were entirely inside the city’s urban core, two of the proposed six new segments lie south of Ben White Boulevard.
One of these is similar to a route suggested on the department’s crowdsourcing interactive map, following neighborhood streets west of the intersection of U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 at Oak Hill. Another stretches roughly 2.5 miles south from William Cannon Drive to Slaughter Lane along a string of residential streets from Whispering Oaks Drive to Curlew Drive east of West Gate Boulevard.
The Curlew-Whispering Oaks segment does not reflect a route included in the crowdsourced map, but comments in the interactive map indicate support from some neighbors, with one resident of ZIP code 78748 calling it a “great choice for us folks in Way South Austin.”
The remaining four proposals include a north-south connector in Windsor Park, a three-mile loop in Brentwood, an east-west path just south of Far West Boulevard, and a 2.5-mile north-south spine through Hyde Park and North Loop from 31st Street up to Skyview Road.
Residents have been particularly vocal in support of the Avenue F open street through Hyde Park, but some have noted concerns about the challenge of providing safe crossings at major intersections like 45th Street, 51st Street and Koenig Lane.
The department plans to announce the next selection of Healthy Streets on July 2, followed by monthly announcements as long as the need for social distancing continues and the program expands.
Despite some concerns and even strong objections, the department said it has received mostly positive feedback from the public between its online map tools and its Healthy Streets survey. As of June 5, about 77 percent of survey respondents said they supported the program while 20 percent were opposed.
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