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Downtown Commission defends cars on Congress

Friday, October 23, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

As the Austin Transportation Department continues to build out Congress Avenue’s protected bike lanes and make intersection safety improvements, the Downtown Commission wants to ensure that the changes will not result in reduced capacity – the number of cars able to get through the corridor in a given period of time.

Laura Dierenfield, a division manager with Austin Transportation, told the commission Wednesday the goal is to “rebalance space” for active mobility between Riverside Drive and 11th Street, but several commissioners sought to ensure that the benefits for pedestrians and bicyclists would not come at the cost of more traffic congestion for motorists. The commission passed a motion requesting that the Congress interim design be closely studied and “expeditiously modified” if vehicle capacity is ultimately shown to be reduced from pre-pandemic levels.

Commissioner Joel Sher brought the motion after noting that the Urban Design Initiative for Congress Avenue had been previously presented as a five-lane configuration, including a continuous middle turn lane. At the time, Sher said, the commission was assured vehicle capacity would not be reduced. In contrast, the department’s interim design features four general traffic lanes and dedicated left-turn lanes only at Cesar Chavez Street and the block between Fifth and Sixth streets.

“Prior to Covid, Congress was gridlocked from about Seventh Street all the way to Cesar Chavez on a daily basis at rush hour, and especially in the afternoon,” Sher said. “And now we’re going to less lanes. And at some of the two-way streets … I can see where people trying to make left turns at the same time or they’re making right turns where you have pedestrians, bikes and scooters, pretty much preventing any traffic from moving.”

Nathan Wilkes, a street designer at Austin Transportation, explained that the intersection at Cesar Chavez is a “perfect storm” for traffic congestion and contains no more room to allow any more vehicle capacity during rush hour.

“You cannot literally get another vehicle through that gateway in a peak hour,” Wilkes said. “You can get more people through that gateway, and the new configuration that is already in place at Cesar Chavez maintains the number of motor vehicles that are getting through … while significantly opening up the quality and capacity for people walking, bicycling, scootering, pedicabbing … etc.”

With the pandemic still at the forefront of people’s minds, however, Commissioner Jennifer Bristol said the city should recognize that some people are taking more advantage of options like curbside grocery pickup and might be more comfortable in their cars than walking on the sidewalk or other modes.

“People feel safe in their cars,” Bristol said. “They feel like that is a place where it’s their bubble; it’s their place that they can control.”

Despite individual preferences for comfortable social distancing, Dierenfield said the interim redesign is meant to “float all boats and be able to respond to all the ways that our community is choosing to get about … whether they’re sitting outside for coffee or whether they’re trying to get to and from a garage downtown.” Nonetheless, Dierenfield said the department will continue monitoring the redesign for optimized operations, safety and overall comfort for all modes.

Commissioners David Gomez, Meghan Skornia, Sam Sargent and Andrew Harrison voted against the motion. Before the vote, Skornia said, “Owning a car and being able to drive in a car and do curbside pickup in a car is a privilege that many people in Austin do not have.”

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