It doesn’t make financial sense to spend $1 million to keep three hike-and-bike trails open to a handful or two of bicyclists overnight. But it poses a moral dilemma to close trails that permit cyclists to bypass congested streets during hours they are more likely to encounter drunken or drug-impaired drivers.
Those dueling perspectives are why the Austin City Council continues to postpone what on the surface seems like a fairly simple deal — to keep trails open at night or close them. Earlier this year, the council initiated a pilot program for the three trails — Butler, Shoal Creek and Johnson Creek. In opening to cyclists (but not pedestrians) beyond curfew hours, the city aimed to test demand of late-night commuters wanting alternative transportation, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. But the demand didn’t materialize, according to Austin police.
Austin police who patrolled the 23 miles of trails during the evening and morning hours over the past few months said they encountered about 10 people per night riding bikes on those trails, or about one every 45 minutes. It takes about nine officers to cover the patrols and keep cyclists safe. The city had allocated about $350,000 for the patrols for the pilot program. Extending it through another budget year would cost $1 million.
Police Chief Art Acevedo said he would have to divert patrols and resources from community policing initiatives to the trails to keep them safe. That would have been a mistake, given the importance of community policing in preventing and fighting crime. Cutting overtime as the council has done could mean reinstating curfews, which make trail use illegal during those hours. But that is not the best solution given the hazards cyclists face on downtown roads.
A compromise seems the right way to go. Council Member Chris Riley, a cyclist who pushed to lift the trail curfew, wants the council to consider some alternatives to reinstating curfews when the council takes up the issue on Thursday. One of those is to identify key segments of the trails that cyclists are using to bypass dangerous sections of roads, Riley told us. In that way, the trails can steer bicyclists around, over or under roads that are not designed to accommodate vehicles and cyclists safely. Acevedo said as long as such bypasses were small in number, his department could use existing resources to patrol them without hindering neighborhood policing efforts.
Another option, Riley said, is to leave all three trails open 24 hours for cyclists only, as they are now, without adding extra police patrols, beyond what could be done with existing resources: “None of the cyclists are asking for additional cops,” Riley said, but he added that it is Acevedo who is authorized to determine how the department’s resources are deployed.
Acevedo said the department would be better situated in 2015, when 47 new officers have been hired and trained, to adequately police the three trails. Up to then, he wants limited trail use, such as Riley suggested. He acknowledged the problem with downtown streets and the dangers bicyclists encounter from heavy traffic and drunken or impaired drivers. And it is true that bicyclists don’t help themselves when they fail to obey traffic rules.
Whatever happens Thursday won’t likely end the debate over patrolling center city trails around the clock. Riley noted that the boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake, built with transportation bond dollars, is expected to be completed next summer. With 1.3 miles of bridge and trail, it will be open 24 hours. You could have a situation where it is legal to ride on the boardwalk but illegal to ride on trails to which it connects. That is too weird, even for Austin.