I tweeted out just after sunrise Friday that I was hanging out at the new Barton Creek bike bridge in Southwest Austin to see how many cyclists and others might be using the $14.5 million edifice. I noted that in the half-hour or so I was there, I had seen one commuting cyclist cross the 1,045-foot span over the creek gorge.
Not surprisingly, the qualifiers quickly started appearing in my feed. Well, you’re doing your count on a Friday, clearly a light commuting day. Don’t you know the kids are out of school? The high is supposed to be 100 degrees for the afternoon return trip, so naturally few people are biking. And, of course, “too soon” to make judgments (or even make a count), given that the bridge opened June 14. Come back in a year, I was advised.
Which I pledge to do, the Lord and the American-Statesman willing.
But here’s the deal: In three hours hanging out at the bridge from 6:15 to 9:15 a.m., in balmy mid-70s temperatures with a refreshing breeze, I saw just eight northbound commuters on bikes and one guy headed south to work (he said). I also saw three people on bikes just out for exercise, as they yelled back when I asked. And John Baxendale.
Baxendale, an administrator in the University of Texas chemistry department, commutes 25 miles from Lakeway by bike most days (I kid you not) and had gone miles out of his way just to take a gander at the new bridge. So he doesn’t count as a Southwest Austin cyclist for whom the bridge (and its shorter mates spanning Loop 360 about a half-mile to the north) might be a commute solution. More of a bike tourist, as it were.
“I just wanted to check it out,” he told me, having heard for 20 years that the project was in the works and then, over a five-year period, under construction. He noted that cycling outside of Central Austin on busy suburban streets is “about half leap of faith, half denial.” Then he got back on his bike and returned to the fray.
Just for the record, I also saw six walkers, two joggers, two small dogs and, jarringly, a pickup and a front-end loader creeping across the 14-foot-wide bridge. Crews are still doing some punch list stuff on the bridge.
The point is, I saw on average one commuting cyclist every 20 minutes, or three per hour. 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 write this fully aware that I will be flamed vigorously by the cycling community for even raising such an impertinent question. But the query comes in the context of a decade or more of ardent commitment by the city of Austin government to creating a robust on- and off-road cycling network. That program includes the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk, the expansion of several trails and bike lanes on many major arterial roads, often as part of a “road diet” that reduces a road that had four vehicular lanes to a two- or three-lane road.
And there is more to come. All of this has been done not only to encourage recreational cycling, which is a good thing but falls outside the transportation realm, but also with the policy aim of increasing the percentage of people who commute by bike. And there is plenty of room to grow in that regard. Austin, in a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report called “Modes Less Traveled,” showed 1.5 percent of the work force commuting by bike.
That is up from 0.9 percent in 2000, which in percentage terms is significant change: 66 percent. But at that rate of increase, assuming it could be sustained, getting to even 3 percent of Austin commuters astride bikes is pretty far away.
The Holy Grail of bicycle commuting, one that Austin cycling advocates often point to (and in some cases, visit as sort of two-wheeled pilgrims), is the Netherlands. According to a 2014 report by the Dutch government, 25 percent of all commuting trips in that coastal country happen on a bike.
As it happened, the night before my visit to the Barton Creek bridge, someone I follow on Twitter shared a City Lab article with the headline, “Cruising a Superhighway Built for Bikes.” It told the tale of an 11-mile, off-road path connecting the Dutch cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen. The article and an accompanying video sing the praises of the project — “the highway mostly scrolls above the bucolic Dutch countryside,” it rhapsodizes at one point — but includes no figures about the cost of the project or actual usage.
I’ll give the writer points, however, for noting that for those who might want to indulge in “more transit fantasy porn,” the article has links to other videos about the bike facility.
Just a reminder here: the Netherlands is largely a flat place, and Austin is not. And the high Friday in Arnhem was 76 degrees.
But the idea persists in Austin, and is more or less an article of faith at City Hall, that if you build it (meaning bike lanes and trails and, now, a big old bike bridge), the cyclists will come. Or, if nothing else, life on two wheels will become much safer.
This last point is undeniable. The Barton Creek bridge and the accompanying complex of trails and shorter bridges over Loop 360 connect to a continuous sidewalk along South MoPac Boulevard, and finally to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail. Cyclists who long had to brave the South MoPac highway bridges over Barton Creek (just west of the new bike bridge), or go east on U.S. 290 and use painted bike lanes on South Lamar Boulevard, now have a protected path all the way to downtown.
And using other trails, they could make it well north of the river without sharing the road with cars. No leap of faith, no denial necessary. And probably injuries avoided and lives saved.
And, just on an aesthetic level, the Barton Creek bridge is a beautiful structure affording gorgeous, leisurely views of one of the city’s most scenic spots. In time, as one of my Twitter correspondents suggested, more people surely will use it on a daily basis.
But $14.5 million is a heck of a lot of money for what, at least for now, is a glorified scenic overlook. The city has built it. And, at least so far, very few have come.