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As temporary Healthy Streets close, permanent version prepares to open

Friday, May 28, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

As Austin’s Healthy Streets program winds down, with less than four miles of the temporary slow streets remaining, the city is preparing a new pilot program for 10 permanent Healthy Streets.

The pilot will “test the application of our Healthy Streets principles – calming traffic, opening up street spaces to people walking, biking, driving, parking, and generally just interacting safely in shared street space,” Laura Dierenfield with the Transportation Department told the Mobility Committee on Thursday.

Healthy Streets was a response to the need for more outdoor space during the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, countless similar programs have arisen in cities around the world.

City staffers are currently deciding where to put the slow-streets pilot, making sure the streets are distributed in an equitable way around the city. If the pilot is a success, slow streets could become an integral part of the city’s pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

The pilot is part of ATX Walk Bike Roll, a comprehensive update to the city’s sidewalk, urban trail and bicycle master plans, all of which are several years old. Dierenfield said more updates will be available this summer.

Though there are no immediate plans to get rid of the remaining temporary Healthy Streets, funding will only last until September, according to an April memo. The remaining segments include:

  • Bouldin Avenue/South Third Street from Live Oak Street to Barton Springs Road
  • Comal Street from Nash Hernandez Sr. Road to Rosewood Avenue
  • Avenue G from 38th Street to 56th Street

Unless more funds are authorized, these segments will also be closed. Dierenfield said that plans to wind down Healthy Streets have “generally prompted an outcry of ‘please don’t take these away.’” 

“Along the way, there’s been an amazing amount of community enthusiasm for this work,” Dierenfield said, adding that around three-quarters of the feedback ATD received on Healthy Streets was positive.

The memo explained that administering the temporary Healthy Streets is costly and time consuming. All the barriers are rented from third-party vendors, and staffers must check on the elements daily to make sure they’re still in place.

While the temporary Healthy Streets use movable barriers and cones to slow cars down, the pilot for permanent streets could see more hefty elements like concrete barriers or immovable planters to slow drivers down, saving staff time – and the city money – in the long run. It is unclear whether the pilot streets would be limited, like the temporary streets, to local traffic. 

Neighborhood streets, particularly those with no sidewalks, are the most suitable for Healthy Streets. “When volume and speed is low among motor vehicle users, we can share space,” Dierenfield explained. “Whereas when volumes of motor vehicles and speed of motor vehicles are high, we need to separate.”

The city has integrated lessons from Healthy Streets into projects already under development. Dierenfield mentioned that the design for the Cherrywood Neighborhood Bikeways project changed to include a landscaped pinch point, mimicking the temporary chicane barriers on Healthy Streets, instead of speed cushions to calm traffic.

Overall, the slow-streets movement, accelerated by the pandemic, has the potential to reshape how many of the city’s streets look and feel for all users. “Lower speeds, lower volumes equal shared space and a lot more flexibility in how we can use city space, which you know, the lion’s share is in our streets,” Dierenfield said.

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