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Mobility Committee hears the case for preventing cars from blocking bike lanes

Tuesday, September 13, 2022 by Samuel Stark

Members of the Mobility Committee heard an argument Thursday for implementing a program that would increase enforcement of vehicles blocking bike lanes in hopes of making the streets safer for cyclists.

Though the committee made no action regarding the future of the “bike lane bounty” program, City Council members who sit on the committee appeared to recognize the importance of deterring motorists from parking in bike lanes.

Council Member Paige Ellis noted that encountering a vehicle in a bike lane where it least expected is one of the most dangerous aspects of cycling in the city. “For (all) the millions of dollars allocated for bike lanes, if they’re blocked, they are completely useless,” she said. 

The Urban Transportation Commission unanimously recommended a bike lane blockage program earlier this summer. Presently, residents can use the 311 app to report a vehicle blocking a bike lane, which may or may not result in an officer following up. 

A problem with the current system is that, by the time an officer arrives at the flagged location, the offending vehicle has often left, Spencer Schumacher, a member of Austin’s Bicycle Advisory Council, told the Mobility Committee. Citing data he analyzed from the last 200 complaints on the 311 website, Schumacher said nearly 70 percent of the submissions were marked as “no problem found.”  

“Pretty much every delivery person knows this,” he said. “They know that as long as they’re there for under 45 minutes – under an hour – there is no way that they’re going to get a ticket, which is why there is this big disconnect.”

The same data revealed that protected bike lanes – separated by a barrier – have less enforcement than bike lanes with no blockade. Schumacher said there are fewer parking meters near these protected lanes, so an officer is less likely to stumble upon an offender.

“Which is why the UTC recommendation is so important …. What has ended up happening is protected bike lanes have become more dangerous than unprotected bike lanes because of these parking violations,” he said.

Schumacher also shared a tragic story depicting the dangers of blocking a bike lane. “I’ll end with telling the story of 3-year-old Elizabeth Grace Shambrook, who was killed in Chicago this summer, riding on the back of her mother’s bike when a city truck blocked the bike lane and led them into the back of a semi truck that dragged her down the street 20 feet and instantly killed her.”

If the program is adopted, a photo of a vehicle parked in a bike lane uploaded to 311 would serve as additional evidence in enforcing parking ordinances, Mario Champion, the author of the proposal, said. A city official would then determine whether the incident was a finable offense. “(The program) just uses the 311 mechanisms, which we already have, and provides an additional source of enforcement potential,” Champion explained.

Another component of the recommendation encourages Council to tweak the current ordinances permitting vehicles to park in bike lanes unless a sign is posted advising them not to. Champion said the laws needs to be reversed to say bike lane parking is never allowed unless a sign explicitly says so. 

City Council will now decide whether to adopt the program as law. 

“This is definitely something that’s been on the mind for me,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said. “I look forward to following up.” 

“I think these are really important recommendations and want to help get this type of enforcement happening,” Ellis said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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