I was wondering when this issue was going to flare back up. Surprised it took so long. Before I get into the meat of the issue I would like to commend the City of Austin bicycle staff. I sense that your jobs can be incredibly frustrating from time to time. You are largely technical people immersed in a mostly political environment. I think that Austin has made huge progress over the 10 years I’ve lived here. That progress is, in no small measure, the result of your hard work and dedication. I also sense that you are rapidly becoming a one-issue department. We are on the threshold of paralysis and many other important projects may suffer.
At last week’s Bicycle Advisory Council, we spent most of our time discussing this development. City staff members briefed us on the plan of action discussed in this update (Downtown Bicycle Boulevard Update). The first thing that gets your attention is the absence of the word “Nueces.” More on this later. The bicycle department is preparing a staff recommendation that it will present to various city commissions and boards over the next month. Ultimate goal is to present briefing to City Council in May. What’s not stated in this update is the very sense of paralysis that this issue is starting to generate. There are a lot of stakeholders on this issue and some of those are very powerful. Additionally, the ultimate decision makers on this issue live in a purely political world. Engineering decisions do not pass simply on technical merits. After all the discussion the Bicycle Advisory Council passed a resolution in support of a bike boulevard on Nueces Street and recommends engineering solutions outlined in the LOBV Bike Blvd Plan. As a non-voting alternate member, I support that resolution. It’s important for the decision makers to hear that opinion.
So now the issue flares up again and we are starting to hear voices of alarm. Austin on Two Wheels blog post yesterday about the update and the glaring absence of the words “Nueces Street.” I’m less alarmed about the potential compromises in the pending staff recommendation. I am somewhat alarmed about the hiring of a former Chamber of Commerce economist to do the economic study. The Chamber of Commerce has been auto-centric for quite some time and I particularly don’t like their support of corporate subsidies and tax-breaks in the name of business promotion. This is the same group of people who probably support squandering tax money on a study to see if we need another behemoth convention hotel in the hopes of attracting more visitors to the city. But I digress.
While I would dearly love to see a full on bike boulevard somewhere in the downtown area (and Nueces is a nice candidate for many reasons), I have to acknowledge the need for compromise. We could drive a stake in the ground on this issue and eventually win. But I fear we could galvanize incredible forces that would fight us on every other issue for years to come.
So here’s my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth and I welcome all comments (please just keep it civil):
While there are some engineering recommendations and many examples of how to build a bike boulevard, there is no defacto standard for a bike boulevard. Bike boulevards in the U.S. range from full on bike only streets to traffic calmed shared streets. And Austin is so far unique–no city to date has attempted a downtown bike boulevard. Any solution that calms traffic, attracts bicycling, allows businesses to operate and maintains property values is a huge win. We can call it a bike boulevard and move on. The recent Alliance for Biking & Walking 2010 Benchmark Report showed Austin as one of the better cities in the U.S., but the absence of a bike boulevard was conspicuous.