As a regular bicycle commuter, I wanted to pedal furiously to Ben Wear’s house, avoiding gridlock traffic, and shout choice words in his ear after reading his column last week dismissing the new bike bridges in Southwest Austin as a “glorified scenic overlook.”
Wear, in case you missed it, staked out the new complex of bridges over Barton Creek and Loop 360 — a $14.5-million joint project between the Texas Department of Transportation and the city of Austin — barely a week after it opened. He stood at the trail head between 6:15 and 9:15 a.m. on a sultry Friday and counted the number of cyclists who used the 14-foot wide path to get to work. If they were just out joy riding, they didn’t count. Neither did pedestrians.
He tallied nine people — “on average one commuting cyclist every 20 minutes, or three per hour” — and proclaimed that “even if that number was off by a factor of 10 because of the heat and the other factors, that would mean all that money was spent to help about 100 people. You have to ask: Was it worth it?”
I’ve got multiple issues with Wear’s story, as do others in the cycling community.
First, can we give the project a wee bit more time before we condemn it? To rate the success of a new piece of infrastructure just days after its unveiling isn’t fair.
I remember the opening of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) when I was a kid. No crowds there, and I’m pretty sure it ranks as a wise investment today. Let’s look to the future. Cyclists had no advance announcement of exactly when the bridges would open, and people need time to adjust to a bike-to-work routine.
As reader Brandon Tucker wrote when I posted Wear’s column on the Fit City page on Facebook: “Ben, it’s not a Shake Shack. Let people discover this thing exists.”
Second, why pick one of the hottest days of the year for your tally? Some would-be commuters skip the ride when it’s blazing hot. Wear conducted his research in the morning, before the inferno fully cranked up, but the forecast called for fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk highs that day. Cyclists pay attention.
Third, what difference does it make if people are riding to work or just for fun and exercise? Do we make that differentiation when we’re looking at road counts? How many people drive MoPac on their way to the Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake or to a downtown restaurant? A lot.
But perhaps most importantly, I’m a firm believer that it’s going to take a multimodal approach to ease congestion here. Every cyclist who rides that bridge means one less car on MoPac and one less occupied parking space. It’s going to take an integrated system of buses, bike and pedestrian paths, trains and roads to make a difference in our growing city. We can’t just slap down more road lanes in an attempt to force feed the city more vehicles.
After Wear’s column ran, I heard from a peloton of cyclists who say they’ve been using the bridge for everything from commuting to work to getting to a pub crawl (thank you for not driving a car!). Others told me they didn’t know the route had opened, and some said they’ll bike when it cools off.
“This bridge is the perfect way for me to ride from south Austin to downtown SAFELY,” wrote Sarah Stewart.
“A one-morning survey on a day with a heat advisory sounds like a way to justify an opinion, not ask a valid question,” wrote Kent Browning.
“I’ve been traveling for much of the approximately 14 days the bridge has been open,” wrote Bret Cunningham. “Don’t worry, it will get used, Ben. And my wife and family will appreciate it keeping us safer.”
Infrastructure like this will help increase the number of Austin residents who bike to work. A 2014 report by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that 1.5 percent of the work force in Austin biked to work. That’s up by 66 percent from 0.9 percent in 2000. We’ve got a ways to go, but those numbers aren’t going to climb if we don’t spend some money up front to make people feel comfortable cycling.
We should encourage the trend. Biking is fun and healthy. Biking to work equals a free workout. And according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, more than 36 percent of adults in the United States are obese.
If you haven’t checked out the bridges yet, I’d recommend a ride. To get there from Zilker Park, take the multiuse trail along the northbound lanes of MoPac Boulevard south to Loop 360. From the south, access the bridges from the west side of MoPac via the Gaines Ranch Loop crossing over MoPac. If you’re on the east side of MoPac, it’s just north of the shopping center where Specs is located.
And please, enjoy the view. It’s a vast improvement over the taillights on MoPac.