Today is 'Bike to Work Day' in Austin (and across the country), with more than two dozen “fueling stations” offering free snacks and drinks to Austinites on two wheels. While the percentage of Austinites who commute by bike is growing, it still remains low relative to peer cities outside of Texas. On average, only two percent of people in Austin regularly use a bike to get to work, though that percentage can be much higher in parts of the urban core.
Austin ranks 91st on a list of 154 cities nationwide for bikeability according to Walk Score, while the state of Texas is in the bottom half of states for bike-friendliness, according to the League of American Bicyclists. The state ranks 30th, up a few places from last year. While Texas has made some incremental improvements in cycling-friendliness, like a 'share the road' campaign and other safety improvements, there’s a long way for the Lone Star State to go.
In Austin, the city has put together a bike master plan that includes an all-ages biking network. If fully built, the network would reduce the amount of car trips downtown by 20,000 a day, a seven percent reduction. But funding for projects in the plan is coming along in bits and pieces, and as a result, the city’s network of bike trails and bike lanes — especially protected bike lanes — remains patchwork.
To learn more about what Austin and Texas could do to increase everyday bike use, we spoke with Robin Stallings, Executive Director of Bike Texas, a statewide cycling advocacy group.
KUT: What is Texas doing right when it comes to being a bike-friendly place? What could it do to become better?
BIKE TEXAS: “We have a lot of room for improvement. Most of the gains are being made at the city level, where bicycling is improving in many places. But at the state level, it’s been much slower progress.
A certain amount of money comes to Texas [from the federal government] for bicycle and walking improvements, and some of that is discretionary. And the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is transferring away to other uses 100 percent of the discretionary money for biking and walking improvements. So they’re not spending a penny that they don’t have to on cycling infrastructure.
But there are some things that are relatively low-cost and are helpful, and they’re doing those, but they’re not doing as much as we think they could be.
The places that are increasing and improving their bicycling are doing so because they make people feel safer. And that’s the elephant in the room — what are you going to do to make people feel safer when they’re riding on a bicycle?"
KUT: There were two bills in the state legislature this session aimed at increasing bike safety. One bill would have made it illegal for drivers to pass someone on foot or bike with less than three feet of room. Another would have required red lights to be used on the back of bicycles at night. Both bills never made it out of committee and won't pass this session — what impact will that have on cycling in Texas?
BIKE TEXAS: “We’re disappointed about that. We think both bills would have saved lives. 450 pedestrians and cyclists are killed every year in Texas, which is a significant number of the 3,500 annual road fatalities in Texas. So those bills would have directly addressed that problem, saved money and improved the quality of life.
Twenty-three cities in Texas have already passed a safe passing ordinance [including Austin], encouraging the legislature to pass it. It’s very similar to the texting-and-driving bill. We hope that passes, and we think that can also be a good measure.
Unfortunately, it will be another two years for a safe passing and vulnerable road user law. We did pass it overwhelmingly in 2009, we got a bill that was pretty solid. And instead of the bill-signing ceremony that we expected, it was vetoed by then-Governor Rick Perry.”
KUT: What about on a more local level? What could Austin do to improve bike use and safety?
BIKE TEXAS: “We think this Austin Bicycle Master Plan, with its protected bike network, is going to be transformational. It’s the kind of thing that could be a game-changer for putting Austin on the map for being a great bike city.
It’s really about quality of life, not so much about the bikes. We think that is the thing to do — get that plan built.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.