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Photo by Ryan Thornton

Temporary protected bike lanes coming to a section of Congress Avenue this month

Friday, June 12, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

In another effort to meet demand for social distancing and safe activity as local businesses reopen, City Council voted Thursday to set up temporary protected bicycle lanes on Congress Avenue north of Riverside Drive by June 30.

Mobility advocates said the protected lanes will be a benefit to all downtown visitors, including business owners along or near Congress, though many are troubled by the language in Council Member Kathie Tovo’s resolution requesting the lanes be installed north of Riverside to the “maximum extent possible considering the safety and access needs of all users.”

Noting the ambiguous language, Bike Austin launched an online petition last week calling for the bike lanes to be extended all the way to the state Capitol at 11th Street. The petition received nearly 1,500 signatures in under a week, but the resolution language was not amended.

In a comment submitted with a petition signature, one District 1 resident and downtown business owner said the extension to the Capitol would enhance the utility of the pedestrian mall of the Capitol Complex and make Congress “a true destination point.”

“If all you care about is economic development and getting businesses on Congress downtown back on their feet, you would want this and you would want the bike lanes to go all the way from Riverside to 11th Street,” Walk Austin’s Adam Greenfield told the Austin Monitor Thursday.

A primary concern among those who signed the petition is that the resolution language will be interpreted as cutting off the protected bike lanes at Third Street, where back-out angled on-street parking presents a design challenge and potential safety conflict between motorists and cyclists.

The city is convening a stakeholder process in coming weeks to gather input from downtown business owners as well as advocacy groups like Bike Austin to help overcome those design challenges. Austin Bicycle Mayor Holly Prendergast said she hopes stakeholders “recognize the value in these infrastructure improvements” and “take that into account when discussing concerns about parking and potential effects on sidewalk and street use.”

“That is really critical to provide connectivity all the way up to the Capitol and not to stop short of it,” former Council Member Chris Riley said. “Look at the comments that people have made … you’ll see downtown workers saying they really would like to be able to take their bikes to downtown but they don’t currently feel safe doing so; you’ll see people saying they would like to be able to support downtown businesses without trying to drive into downtown; you’ll see people saying they no longer feel safe using public transit and so they would like to be able to ride their bikes instead of taking their cars into downtown.”

Greenfield said the bike lanes would be a “taste” of a much grander vision for Congress that would include a major overhaul of infrastructure to give people on foot more sidewalk space and create zones on the sidewalk for public and private kiosks to sell food and drink or goods. He noted that opening up the blocks between Seventh and 11th streets for a dynamic “festival streets” design could easily accommodate large amounts of people during special events.

As with the city’s Healthy Streets initiative and the Shop the Block! pilot, the resolution allows for the possibility of adapting the bike lanes with a permanent design when the need for social distancing has come to an end.

“This is instantly going to be one of the most iconic bike lanes in Texas, if not the country,” Greenfield said. “I think once it goes in and people see it working it’s going to become extremely obvious why it was a good idea. I find it very hard to believe that there’s going to be anyone who wants to return to a six-lane highway full of cars over a much more pleasant bikeable, walkable street.”

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