Making Biking More Fun and Less Scary

The Atlantic Cities magazine ran an article that got us talking. Here are a few excerpts from the Atlantic Cities piece:

City streets can be scary places, especially when you’re on a bike and everyone else is rushing past you in cars. Our streets can also be deadly places: in 2010 [PDF] 618 U.S. cyclists were killed on roads. Fully one-third of bike fatalities happen within intersections. The prospect of getting smashed into the asphalt keeps all but the most fearless cyclists off of many city streets. Scary streets mean a less bikeable city.

“Nobody wants to ride their bike in the left lane of a six-lane road with 40-mile-an-hour traffic. It’s crazy,” says Peter Furth. He’s a civil and environmental engineering professor at Northeastern University and co-author of a new report out from the Mineta Transportation Institute that looks at how varying levels of “traffic stress” on different city streets can limit where people are willing to ride.

“The difference between bicycling and other modes of transportation is that if you aren’t willing to risk your life on a dangerous road, you often simply can’t get from here to there,” says Furth.

Furth says that much of the problem has to do with typical transportation planning in the U.S., where streets are designed primarily as pathways for cars to move across as quickly as possible. The residential streets that make up most of a city’s road system are much more amenable to bike riding than the larger traffic streets, but when residential meets arterial the network of bikeability is breached. That means fewer parts of the city are easily connected and fewer people are likely to consider a bike as a viable transportation option for going across town.

Lots of people already bicycle around in Austin. Young adults (our workforce and future leaders) are choosing to drive less and opting in favor of more social and active forms of mobility like biking and walking. This is a positive movement that should be supported, especially in recognition of an ongoing national health crisis which is largely attributed to inactive lifestyles where diabetes, obesity, and depression are pervasive.

Movability asked Annick Beaudet, Bicycle and Urban Trails Program Manager for the City of Austin, “So what is happening in Austin to make roads safer and more inviting for bicyclists?”   Beaudet says, “Austin has a more robust commitment than this City has ever seen before to the design and construction of safe cycling and walking facilities. We understand that a lot of people may not yet feel completely safe bicycling on the streets today. So we are beginning to design facilities for families and adults who may be casual or occasional bicycle riders, not just the ‘confident and fearless’ riders.”

Beaudet says, “An example of this design concept is the new bike boulevard on Rio Grande.  The downtown portion of Rio Grande feels like a neighborhood street and is very comfortable, utilizing traffic calming at intersections to create a closer speed difference between bicyclists and motorists. A new signal at MLK recognizes bicycles and we carried the lane through intersection to communicate clearly where to expect bicycles. At the north end of the bike boulevard near MLK, where there is a lot of cross traffic as well as pedestrians and cyclists, we have installed a separated bikeway.”

The next big bicycle project will be on Barton Springs Road where the City will improve the signals and lane markings in order to better communicate how bicycles cross Lamar. Also, separated and protected bike lanes will be installed on Barton Springs Rd from Lamar to S. 1st Street to provide safer bikeways from Zilker Park to Congress Avenue with connections into downtown via the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, 1st St., and Congress Ave.

“The City understands,” says Beaudet, “the problems [facing cyclists] better than we ever have in the past. Most of the safety problems are at intersections and connectivity along the major corridors with lots of auto traffic.”  We are proactively looking at how Austin can develop complete streets that work well and safely for all users of all abilities, but we also need to fix the little problems that make the big differences in the system to allow for smooth connections.”

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There is also a need to improve the behavior of cyclists.  They aren’t exactly the same as cars and yet “rules of the road” apply equally for cyclists and to auto drivers.  And when people see a bicyclist ignore a stop sign it becomes a symbol of bad behavior, even if more motorists are ignoring that same stop sign. As Engaging Cities notes, legal conflicts will only worsen as more people bicycle. One example of ways states are attempting to smooth these conflicts are more specific stopping laws for each mode, which Texas does not have in place yet. States like Idaho and Montana allow bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs who’s design  purpose is to slow cars (tons of steel moving at higher speeds) to reduce dangers at intersections.

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