I was, of course, woefully unprepared to bike to work.
Austin City Council Member Chris Riley, looking to publicize Bike Month and Bike-to-Eat Week, both of which start Wednesday, had suggested a group ride involving the transportation reporter. Always on the hunt for a column, and maybe some exercise, I said yes. Friday was the appointed day.
But there’s a reason I don’t currently bike to work. OK, there are several reasons.
Start with where I live, off MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) just south of Barton Creek. Which means I would have had to brave the MoPac bridge over the creek, where the northbound lanes don’t have a shoulder. In five years living there, I’ve seen maybe three cyclists joining us drivers in those freeway lanes.
So I agreed to meet Riley, along with city bicycle coordinator Annick Beaudet and Public Works Department director Howard Lazarus, on a street near Barton Creek Square mall.
But I don’t own a bike. Or a helmet. Or a bike lock. Or a backpack for a change of clothes and a hair brush. And I’m carrying a few extra pounds after falling off the jogging wagon several months ago.
Then, when I opened the front door about 6 a.m. Friday to get the paper, I heard the pitter-patter of raindrops. Beautiful.
By the time I arrived at our meeting spot, the rain, at least, had ceased. But the pavement was wet. And I’m less than a year removed from an unfortunate vacation incident in which I ended up going over the handlebars of a bike, fracturing a rib. I was a bit nervous.
So was Beaudet when I had to ask her how to work the brakes on the bike they lent me. After she adjusted the helmet to fit on my melon head (at this point, I was feeling a little pathetic), Beaudet had me take a couple of trial runs on the sidewalk. Then, at about 8:10 a.m., we set out down the bike lane on Walsh Tarleton Road. Car commuters in their beastly machines (see how quickly I got into the mindset?) zoomed uncomfortably close, and I was glad when we turned onto a quieter street.
Then we went down a hill on rain-slicked Old Walsh Tarleton Road at what Beaudet estimated was about 25 mph. I kept thinking about the vacation spill and the possibility of what a colleague calls “blacktop poisoning,” or “sudden deceleration syndrome.” Very tense.
Life was easier as we wound through Rollingwood, picking up city Transportation Director Rob Spillar on the way. Then it was back to a striped bike lane on Barton Springs Road through Zilker Park before making our way to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, on which we stayed the rest of the way. We rolled up to the American-Statesman parking lot about 8:40 a.m., making the approximately five-mile trip in a half-hour.
Counting the 15 minutes it took me to get through fog-choked traffic to our rendezvous spot, my commute was about 45 minutes, or about twice what it normally takes me to get to work. Over-layered for the occasion because of the quirky weather this week, I was pretty sweaty by the time we arrived, and tired. But a good tired.
If everyone would bike to work even one day a week, Spillar said, that’s 20 percent of the cars off the streets. But of course, as he knows, that is just not feasible.
Austin’s 260-mile network of bike lanes and trails, although the city has been furiously expanding it in recent years (including some “protected” lanes with light barriers between the bikes and the cars), still has big gaps like that Barton Creek problem. The city and the Texas Department of Transportation will soon begin construction of a bike bridge over the creek, eliminating that barrier in a few years.
But there are people who have to take kids to school, or aren’t in shape to ride a bike. Many people need their car during the day at work, or live so far away from work that it would take an hour or more to get there by bike. Others don’t want to risk injury, or worse, putting themselves out there in a vulnerable position just a few feet from cars and that unforgiving pavement.
Some people, even with shorter commutes, don’t have the extra time cycling requires. Or, frankly, don’t really want to exercise that strenuously or arrive at work soaked with sweat. That’s probably the largest group.
There’s a reason Bike Month is in May rather than July or August.
Based on a U.S. census annual sampling called the American Community Survey, about 1.9 percent of Austinites used a bike regularly to commute in 2011. That’s about twice what census numbers have generally shown for Austin and three times the national average. And it puts Austin in 11th place among American cities.
The city’s goal is to have cyclists make up 5 percent of commuters by 2020.
In some Central Austin census tracts, the portion right now is as high as 13 percent. The city map showing this did not include the tract I live in, where I suspect the number is very low.
But for one muggy day at least, I was part of that 1.9 percent. As I write this, I’m a few hours away from rejoining Riley and Beaudet with my borrowed bike and helmet for the ride back to Barton Creek Square.
The mall’s north parking lot features a spectacular view of downtown Austin. That’s because its elevation is much higher than down here by the river. To be specific, more than 250 feet uphill from the Statesman newsroom.