Can’t we just buy some urban trails?

Library:Shoal Creek Trail
The beginning of the Shoal Creek Trail, near the new Central Library. Urban paradise.

It’s great news that Austin voters approved a $250 million housing bond. The other $675 million of bonds –– transportation, parks, flood mitigation, museums/cultural centers –– is probably warranted as well.

The overwhelming support for the housing bond, as well as support for candidates who envision a denser, greener city, shows that Austin has an opportunity to be ambitious in the coming election cycles.

2020 should be another great year for liberal turnout. That’s when the time will be right to put a game-changing high-capacity transit system on the ballot, whether it’s light rail or robot buses that travel in dedicated lanes.

But just as important, it’s time we invest big in pedestrian and bike infrastructure. We could accomplish so much with relatively few dollars. The centerpiece should be a major investment in urban trails.

It really shouldn’t be a hard sell. First, everybody loves urban trails when they’re put in place. Pleasant, safe, green transportation. Pleasant, safe, green recreation. Isn’t that what life in a progressive paradise should look like?

Second, considering that voters pretty casually approved nearly a billion dollars on a bunch of other bond measures, the cost of dramatically enhancing bike/pedestrian infrastructure (AND offering a major recreational amenity) is relatively low.

The 2014 Bicycle Master Plan, which focuses on maximizing bike infrastructure throughout the city, estimates that for $150 million the city could achieve an “all ages and abilities bicycle network” that would significantly boost bicycling. Most people, you see, aren’t crazy enough to bike on the open road with Texas drivers. But if you give them protected bike lanes, urban trails and the like, a lot more people start to warm to the idea.

Similarly, the Urban Trails Master Plan of 2014 highlighted 47 miles of “Tier 1” trails and 360 miles of “Tier 2” trails. The estimated cost-per-mile is $2 million. Nobody in their right mind is talking about getting 360 miles of trails built anytime soon. But what if they did? I can think of worse things to spend $720 million on. An interconnected system of urban trails where people can walk, bike or scooter in safety and (as much as possible) in the shade is something that would truly benefit everybody.

So I’m not advocating for $720 million right off the bat, but what about $150-200 million?

People didn’t used to bike much in Portland. Then the city built a crapload of urban trails. Now 7% of Portlandians bike to work. Bikers didn’t used to dominate Copenhagen, but after a ton of changes, and now more than 40% commute by bike. In Seville, Spain, where summers are as hot as they are here, an 87-mile protected bike lane led bike mode share to jump in five years from 0.7 percent to 7 percent in three years.

Based on attitudes about biking collected in a survey, the authors of the Bicycle plan estimated that the $150 million bike network would lead 55-60% of city residents to feel safe biking, up from the current 17%. I can’t vouch for the projection, but it’s clear that a lot of people would be willing to bike if it didn’t involve traveling on busy streets.

The increase in bike riding would also prove beneficial to the 39-44% of Austinites that the study estimates have no interest in ever getting on a bike. To wit:

The 20,000 additional bicycle trips to central Austin as a result of the $151 million all ages and abilities bicycle network results in the same increased motor vehicle capacity as the MoPac Improvement Project, a $190 million 11-mile urban freeway project adding a single managed lane in each direction. This demonstrates that the investment in the all ages and abilities bicycle network is on par with other large mobility projects in managing regional congestion.

I rest my case.


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