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Why don't more people in Austin bike to work?

A cyclist in a T-shirt and shorts, no helmet, is biking down an unprotected bike lane on South Lamar Boulevard. Traffic is busy next to him. Ahead, a black SUV is preparing to merge into traffic from a driveway.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A cyclist navigates an unprotected lane on South Lamar Boulevard. While Bike to Work Day promotes the perks of pedal-powered commuting, concerns over safety loom large for many potential riders.

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Austin loves to think of itself as a bike-friendly city. But 99% of people commuting to work don't do it on a bicycle, according to the latest census data. There's a gender gap, too. Twice as many men ride bikes to work as women, the data show.

Most bike commuters are in Central Austin with vast swaths of the region unable or unwilling to ride a bicycle to work.

Why do so few people commute by bicycle? Austin has no shortage of obstacles: sweltering heat, sprawling layout, long rolling hills and even the air quality on some days.

E-bikes fix a lot of these problems. Austin Energy this year doubled its rebates for the electric rides.

But e-bikes don't guarantee your safety. Fear of getting injured or killed by a car is the biggest reason people don't ride bikes, research indicates.

One of the most comprehensive analyses of existing studies from around the world found things like "fear of motorist aggression" and "poor quality and condition of dedicated bike lanes" are the biggest barriers to cycling.

More than 55% of Austin residents would ride in protected bike lanes if they were available, one of the few polls on cycling here found. The survey of more than 600 residents in every ZIP code was conducted by the city in 2013 and informed Austin's official bicycle plan.

A protected bike lane in Austin might have flexible posts separating it from the rest of the street (costing $30,000 to $50,000 per mile) or concrete curbs separating it (which range in price from $500,000 to $5 million per mile).

A man in a silver jacket with helmet is riding his bicycle in a protected bike lane. The lane is painted green. On one side of him is the sidewalk. On the other side is a row of parked cars.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Protected bike lanes offer cyclists varying degrees of separation from motorized traffic. In this lane on Guadalupe Street, parked cars form the protective barrier.

"I just kind of got spooked," said Grace Matthews, an attorney who used to bike to work downtown from her home in South Austin. "I saw an ambulance one time with a bike laying out and somebody had clearly been hit. I don't know if they were OK or not. And just kind of decided it wasn't worth the risk anymore."

Sometimes cyclists are hurt and their courage is shaken.

"I was pretty confident, a pretty strong rider," said Matthew Duncan, who works in medical administration. "I collided with the side of their vehicle, went face first into the pavement and their rear tire ran over part of my arm. Road rash. Busted a tooth out. Hit my head pretty hard."

Even after recovering, he kept riding, but had a few more close calls.

"I just said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Duncan said he eventually concluded.

Rhodney Williams, a volunteer with the Austin Ghost Bike Project, understands these concerns all too well. The organization places white bikes around town where cyclists have been killed.

"I ride a bike a lot. And whenever a crash happens and someone actually dies, it becomes kind of personal," Williams said.

The most recent ghost bike he helped install is at Lamar Boulevard and 12th Street. That's where 56-year-old Roger Crain was cycling when he fell into traffic and was hit by a pickup truck, Austin police said.

"If you get into why aren't people riding bikes, part of that is just it can be fairly dangerous," Williams said. "[Even though] Austin is probably one of the safer cities in the U.S. to ride bikes."

A ghost bike, painted white, chained to a pole. A sign attached to the bike says, "Roger Crain: December 19, 1966 to April 18, 2023." There is text below that but harder to read. The sign says, "Please do not remove this sign." There is a single red rose attached to the bike.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
A "ghost bike" installed on Lamar Boulevard near 12th Street honors Roger Crain, who was hit by a pickup truck after falling from his bike into traffic.

In 2017, the city looked at putting a protected bike lane on the stretch of Lamar Boulevard where Crain was killed. But the study was terminated after it became evident Capital Metro would be expanding bus-rapid transit down the corridor as part of the Project Connect plan.

Capital Metro generally likes to add protected bike lanes, sidewalks and/or shared-use paths along high-frequency MetroRapid bus routes. But the expansion of the line down Lamar Boulevard is still in the early design phase.

"So often, when you see one of these deaths involving a person on bicycle, when you look at the location, in almost every case, you'll find that it was in a place where the city has been planning protected bike facilities, but has not yet built them," said Chris Riley, a former Austin City Council member who now sits on the board of the nonprofit Safe Streets Austin.

Four cyclists have been killed on Austin streets this year — the highest number at this point in the year since 2017, according to police records. Two of the deaths were hit-and-run crashes. More than 60 cyclists were involved in car crashes in which a police report was filed.

Austin's official bicycle plan — adopted in 2014 — calls for building 370 miles of protected bike lanes. Right now, the city is more than halfway there, with around 240 miles. Not all of that is built by Austin. Some of those miles are alongside highways constructed by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority or the Texas Department of Transportation.

The city is constructing 10 to 15 miles of protected lanes per year. While that is a low number compared to some European cities, it is comparable to a lot of bike-friendly American cities. And it's pretty high by Texas standards.

Still, at that pace, building out a bike network will take decades, especially considering a new bike plan being developed calls for 1,200 miles of protected bike lanes, neighborhood bikeways and shared use paths.

Bike projects underway now include the new protected lanes on Slaughter, the overhaul of Airport Boulevard to add shared-use paths on both sides of the road and the installation of more bike racks city-wide.

Austin could start construction as soon as this year on protected bike paths from Ben White Boulevard to Barton Springs Road, said Anna Martin, an assistant director at a newly merged agency that combines Transportation and Public Works departments.

 A draft plan from the city of Austin shows plans for South Lamar Boulevard. A new raised and protected bike path — among the most expensive the city constructs — is planned for one side of the street. A new shared-use path is planned for the other sie.
City of Austin
A draft plan from the City of Austin shows plans for South Lamar Boulevard. A new raised and protected bike path — among the most expensive the city constructs — is planned for one side of the street. A new shared-use path is planned for the other side.

"A lot of the easy stuff has been done in the early years," Martin said, referring to projects that allow the city to add bike lanes without taking away space from cars or parking. "The projects that are left are hard ones that require conversations with the community about tradeoffs."

Those tradeoffs have stymied some projects, including a plan to install two-way bike lanes on both sides of South Lamar Boulevard between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road. The road is owned by the state, which apparently has been reluctant to remove two or more car lanes. The project was supposed to be finished last year, but construction hasn't even started.

An aerial view of South Lamar Boulevard between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
This section of South Lamar Boulevard between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road was supposed to have two-way protected lanes on each side installed last year. But the road is owned by Texas and the state has been slow to approve the project.

Jack Craver, a political reporter who writes the Austin Politics Newsletter, says Austin talks a big game about getting people out of single-occupancy vehicles but isn't doing enough to allow other types of transportation to compete with cars.

"There's this tendency to think everybody drives here because the culture or it's Texas, you know, [driving] is just so much easier. But it's easier because all of our infrastructure focus has gone into making it as easy as possible to drive," Craver said. "Nobody has the guts to say, 'All right, we're going to take away some of that space from cars and dedicate it to something else.'"

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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