Austin report: Reduce car lanes, add bus and bike lanes to Guadalupe

The Drag isn’t working well for anyone, Austin officials acknowledged in a Guadalupe Street corridor plan released Tuesday.

So rather than serving everyone poorly, the report says, Austin should revamp the one-mile stretch of Guadalupe along the University of Texas campus to better serve bus riders, bicyclists and pedestrians — by reducing access to people driving cars.

The $33.7 million proposal unveiled Tuesday might be among the list of projects that staffers would recommend to the City Council next spring. The council would then decide whether to proceed with those projects using the mobility bond dollars that voters approved in 2016.

The Guadalupe plan calls for:

• Adding a dedicated bus lane in each direction of Guadalupe, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 29th Street.

• Reducing the number of car lanes on that stretch, from two lanes in each direction to one in each direction.

• Removing the on-street parking on that stretch, providing space for protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks along much of the Drag.

• Converting a stretch of Nueces Street that runs north of 24th Street to two-way traffic, giving drivers an alternative to Guadalupe.

• Revamping 24th Street, from Lamar Boulevard to Guadalupe. It currently has two car lanes in each direction; the plan would take it down to one car lane in each direction plus a center left-turn lane and an eastbound bike lane (westbound cyclists would share the road with cars).

• Adding a southbound bike path on a stretch of Nueces and a northbound bike path on Hemphill Park, providing access where a nearby portion of Guadalupe lacks room for bike lanes.

Taken altogether, the city report says, these changes would move more people along the corridor, although fewer cars would be getting through.

“I’ll be super blunt: (The plan) will probably not help vehicle traffic,” said Lee Austin, a traffic engineer with the city who worked on the report.

“It’s a tough decision to make here,” she added, “but Austin as a whole has a made a decision that we don’t want to prioritize giant, multilane roads.”

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The Guadalupe corridor is one of the busiest in the city. With the UT campus to the east and off-campus housing to the west, about 7,500 pedestrians cross Guadalupe going east-west during rush hour every night. The street is also a major north-south thoroughfare, giving access to about 2,000 cars to downtown and campus during those hours.

Widening the road isn’t an option due to the proximity of the UT campus, a university-controlled retaining wall and mature trees, the report says.

City staffers studied many scenarios, including the possibility of prioritizing cars and moving buses and bikes off the Drag. That scenario wouldn’t improve congestion, Austin said.

But if the city improves bicycle, pedestrian and transit access along Guadalupe, she said, it can accommodate three times as many people as cars alone.

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Capital Metro expects the dedicated transit lanes would keep its buses running on time — saving up to three minutes per trip — and those “time savings alone will attract 218,000 new riders annually,” the city report says.

“While we understand the at-a-glance reaction among some will be it’s not good for autos or whatever, if you think bigger picture about the challenges we face trying to improve mobility in Austin, prioritizing people movement …. (it) actually makes a ton of sense,” said Todd Hemingson, the agency’s vice president of planning and development.

Faster trips also translate to more reliability, Hemingson said, which national statistics show will entice more riders.

Susan Somers, a board member of AURA, an Austin organization that advocates for urban density and transit, said in an email that the group applauded the city’s commitment to a dedicated right-of-way for public transportation.

“(The plan) represents an important policy shift toward allocating more space for transit in our corridors,” Somers said.

Removal of on-street parking will leave fewer spaces for people to visit shops lining the Drag, but the city report suggests many people using those spaces are actually running across the street to campus, not popping into those stores.

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Austin, the city engineer, said some stores have their own lots and parking garages, and streets to the west accommodate business traffic. Elimination of parking on Guadalupe might also reduce accidents between buses and parked vehicles, the report says.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes the Drag, said she often hears from constituents wanting to see improvements. This might be their answer, she said.

“This is an idea that has a lot of merit,” Tovo said.

But she still has questions, primarily about the projected impact of shifting traffic from Guadalupe to Nueces and Lamar.

“We certainly want to encourage people to use other modes of transportation, but we will have people who need to be in their cars,” Tovo said, “and we need to consider that a solution for Guadalupe may not be a solution that’s applicable in other areas.”

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