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City works to prioritize non-vehicular transit

Monday, August 22, 2022 by Willow Higgins

ATX Walk Bike Roll, a collaborative effort to improve the city’s sidewalks, urban trails and bicycle paths, is rolling right along. Representatives from the project met with the Environmental Commission last week to discuss how things are coming along as the second phase of the planning process begins to wrap up.

With an equity focus in mind, ATX Walk Bike Roll has a multitude of goals, such as updating the modal plans on where to build urban trails, sidewalks and bikeways; incorporating maintenance into plans so paths don’t become neglected; and figuring out how to build the pathways efficiently and make them safer.

The project, which has been in the works since the start of 2021, has been in its second phase for about a year. In phase two, the team, which is run by Austin Public Works and the Austin Transportation Department, has worked on shaping the programs and policies behind their plan in addition to thinking about how they’ll build out and prioritize their network of pathways. A large part of this objective centers around community feedback, and figuring out where Austinites want to improve their sidewalks and trails.

The team surveyed Austin residents and found that the respondents were hopeful for places to bike, walk and roll for myriad reasons. While health and fitness ranked at the top, most respondents said getting places with ease, looking out for the environment, connecting with the community, and saving money were important as well.

While ATX Walk Bike Roll is an ambitious undertaking, the team leaders were confident that Austin has the resources and the community support to do the job, and do it well.

“Relative to other American cities, Austin is just investing tremendous amounts of time and effort into these areas, but it’s inertia, right? We went through decades and decades … where we literally had no funds devoted for sidewalk maintenance for something like 50 years,” John Eastman from Public Works said.

But things are different now.  

“There is a recognition and a desire among (Austin) citizens to (improve our pathways). And they’ve voted with their wallets. The bond issues that have passed here are frankly the envy of most other programs that we work with nationwide.”

The last time the city made a plan for sidewalks, 90 percent of the city’s sidewalk network was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and 80 percent was considered functionally deficient. Eastman said this was a product of focusing on the city’s network of streets, while in theory, Public Works should be maintaining all of its networks and infrastructure.

Environmental Commissioner Richard Brimer expressed concern over ensuring that the updated plans will encourage bike use for everyday travel and to popular local destinations.

“Part of the Environmental Commission’s scope of interest is to reduce the impact of vehicles on the environment, air pollution and that type of thing,” Brimer said. “Encouraging alternative modes of transportation, whether it’s walking or biking or ride-sharing, is important … so we’d like to see that type of programming.”

Nathan Wilkes, speaking on behalf of ATX Walk Bike Roll, chimed in to say that people base their transit decisions on whatever is the fastest, easiest mode of transportation, superseding other considerations like sustainability and saving money. So while the upcoming project will work to incentivize traveling by foot or by wheel for all sorts of reasons, the most important is likely to make these pathways efficient and accessible, and to figure out the areas of town Austinites would most like to be connected to.

This fall, the project managers will begin drafting a document before going back to the public and city boards and commissions for additional feedback. The plan is expected to be adopted by the spring or summer of next year.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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