Cyclists, to put it in the most polite terms possible, had a few complaints when I wrote a column last June about the newly opened bike and pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek, alongside South MoPac Boulevard.
I had counted cyclists and pedestrians for three hours on the 1,045-foot, $14.5 million facility — the total cost includes two much shorter bridges hopscotching Loop 360 a bit to the north — and arrived at 13 people on bikes and eight walking or jogging. Nine of those appeared to be morning commuters, I noted, given their travel direction and luggage.
My point: $14.5 million was a lot to spend for so few users.
The reaction, including from my American-Statesman colleague Pam LeBlanc, a committed cyclist who covers fitness for the paper, was swift and angry. The story had 127 comments online.
Yes, the temperature was in the 70s when Ben made his count, they said, but the high later that day was predicted to be 100 degrees. Bad day for cycling. It was a Friday, a lower commuting day. He took the count in the summer, so college staff and student traffic was suppressed. And Ben also should go on the weekend, when a lot of people no doubt use the bridge to access Barton Creek or Loop 360. And why differentiate between commuters and recreational users when no one does that with traffic counts on streets and highways?
But most of all, you idiot, they said (or implied), the bridge had been open only NINE DAYS. Give people a chance to discover that it’s there and adjust their commuting habits. Rome — and even traffic on MoPac — wasn’t built in a day.
As it happened, I had to leave town the following week because my daughter was ill. So I suggested Pam might want to offer a rebuttal in my column spot that week. She most definitely did.
“First, can we give the project a wee bit more time before we condemn it?” she wrote. “To rate the success of a new piece of infrastructure just days after its unveiling isn’t fair.”
So I resolved then to come back to the bridge in the spring, when the weather would be mild and the University of Texas and other colleges would be in full swing — on a non-Friday, too — to do another count. Or rather, several counts, both weekday and weekend. Which I have now done. I went out to the bridge from 6:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. on consecutive Thursdays, March 29 and April 5, and then from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 22.
None was a rainy day. The temperatures ranged from 56 degrees to 65 degrees, and the high each day was below 80.
What were the numbers? The first Thursday, I counted 17 cyclists and three pedestrians — or 7.6 cyclists and 1.3 pedestrians per hour. On April 5, it was 19 bikes and six pedestrians for a rate of 8.4 bikes and 2.7 pedestrians per hour.
On Sunday, as people had predicted, traffic picked up. I counted 56 cyclists in three hours, 18.7 per hour, and 33 pedestrians (many of them joggers this time), 11 per hour. So, on weekdays, nine to 11 people an hour were using the bridge, and on Sunday, the figure rose to about 30 per hour.
What to make of these figures remains the critical question.
I called Preston Tyree, an inveterate cyclist and a Mueller resident I have known for years, and former Austin City Council Member Chris Riley, who serves on the Bike Austin board.
Tyree and his wife, he told me, have one car, a 2012 model with just 16,000 miles on it. He said he has used his electric-assist bicycle (human-powered but with a motor that can be switched on when needed) or his three-wheeled, adult trike every day since June 6.
Tyree couldn’t pinpoint a usage number for the bridge that signifies success, but he predicted that e-bikes are about to take off and that they will make long two-wheeled commutes much easier. Riley noted that Austin’s bike network essentially ends just south of the new bridge, something that will change over time as the Violet Crown Trail and other extensions to the southwestern suburbs are built. Without an “all ages and abilities” bike system, he said, most potential users can’t get to the bridge safely.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said.
Tyree and Riley both have persuasive arguments, or at least artful talking points. Maybe somewhere in between.
One more bit of context in the form of something I’d reported more than once during the several years of the Barton Creek bike project’s gestation and construction but did not mention in the column last June. Building the bike bridges allowed the Texas Department of Transportation to eliminate a highway shoulder on MoPac’s southbound side along the bridge, a usable but dangerous path that hardier cyclists had used for years to get across the creek’s considerable chasm.
TxDOT, in place of that shoulder, added a lane for vehicles for about a half mile there, eliminating a constriction where MoPac had narrowed from three lanes to two. The cost of doing so was only a few hundred thousand dollars, but TxDOT kicked in $4.4 million for the bike project because its construction allowed the addition of the vehicle lane. So at least some portion of the bridge’s $14.5 million expense benefits people in cars by easing a bottleneck.
And, as I pointed out in the original column, for those who do choose to commute by bike, the bridges and associated paths mean there’s now an entirely off-street way to cycle from south of the creek to downtown or to points farther north (on the Shoal Creek trail) or farther east (on the Lady Bird Lake trail). For cyclists, that will mean saved lives and forgone injuries over time.
How do you value that? Impossible to say. Policymakers choose to make public investments all the time — and choose not to make others — doing subjective math, mixing safety in there with other advantages. There’s no strict formula.
Austin will be making similar policy decisions in the future. If lanes are added to Loop 360, and a third vehicular lane is needed in each direction on the Pennybacker Bridge, what happens to the thin bike and pedestrian lane set off by concrete barriers? Should an auxiliary bridge be added there at a significant cost, given all the cyclists who use Loop 360’s shoulders?
Driving to my Northwest Austin home last Sunday at about noon — after my latest bridge count — I saw 24 cyclists on the Loop 360 shoulders during one 10-minute drive.
What about South Pleasant Valley Road over Longhorn Dam, which has four lanes and skinny sidewalks on each side? Capital Metro would like to dedicate a lane on each side for transit, and there could be pressure to add vehicular lanes on that vital East Austin route. Both Longhorn Dam and the Pennybacker Bridge appear as bike routes on the city’s latest bike master plan.
The bike bridge, which is beautiful, by the way, isn’t going anywhere, no matter the cyclist and pedestrian count now or in the future. This is, literally, creek water under the bridge.
Perhaps it’s time to just go with the flow.