A biking revolution is possible in Austin


Below is the average daily high temperature for each month in Seville, Spain. (Fahreinheit in parentheses)

As you can see, the summer months are scorching, with average highs of 96.8 in July and 95.9 in August. Does that sound familiar? That may be because it’s practically a carbon copy of Austin, shown below.

So the next time you hear somebody say that people simply won’t bike here because it’s too hot, or the next time you find yourself tempted to think that yourself, consider that Seville has a summer every bit as loathsome as ours and yet bikes account for 6% of commutes and 9% of all non-work trips. In contrast, the bike mode share in Austin is 1-2%.

The weather is hardly ideal in places where bike ridership is even higher, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where a whopping 41 percent of workers commute by bike despite winters where the average temperature is in the 30’s and it rains every other day.

But let’s not get distracted by the Dutch or the Danish. They’re so far ahead of us in the bike game that drawing comparisons to them isn’t particularly useful. Let’s stay focused on Seville, which 15 years ago was in practically the same situation as Austin. From the Guardian:

For many years Seville had only about 0.5% of journeys made by bike, with roads choked by four rush hours a day, due to siestas.

A small group of cycle campaigners spent years vainly pushing for change, among them Ricardo Marques Sillero, who recalls first arguing for bike lanes in 1992. “I’ve been doing this so long my hair was a completely different colour when I started,” the silver-thatched university academic says.

His campaign eventually gained support from the United Left (IU), a political alliance led by the Communist party. In 2003 elections the UI won enough council seats to jointly govern with the Socialists, and managed to get the cycling plans in the coalition agreement.

I’m not a commie myself, but I’d become one if I thought it’d help us get some decent bike infrastructure. Fortunately, I don’t think we need to call the Bolsheviks in quite yet. All we need is a big, beautiful bond on the November 2020 ballot.

How much will it cost? 
The Wheel Deal, the proposed mobility package crafted by transportation wonk Julio Gonzalez and a couple other transportation activists, includes $684 million to build “America’s best bike network.”

Does that sound crazy? The fact is, that amount of money is spent on road projects in the blink of an eye, without anybody noticing. The protected bike lanes, wide shared use paths and urban trails created by that level of investment, however, would be a community treasure that future generations would zealously defend.

But could that community treasure be got cheaper? In Seville the surge in biking is attributed mostly to a 50-mile network that cost about €32 million in 2006. Alas, Seville is about four times as dense as Austin. That’s just one of many ways density saves you money.

The 2014 Bicycle Master Plan pegged the cost of a comprehensive “All Ages and Abilities” bicycle network at $151 million. The authors of the plan described such a system as one that would ensure enough comfort and safety that more than half of city residents would feel comfortable biking at least occasionally (compared to the 17% who said so at the time).

Five years after the Bicycle Master Plan, it’s clear that $151 million isn’t nearly enough. City staff has said that it will cost $170 million to finish the plan –– $47 million for on-street improvements and $123 million on urban trails.

The reason that Gonzalez’s proposal is so much higher than other cost estimates is that he appears to be geared entirely towards urban trails. The $684 million is based on building 342 new miles of urban trails, at an estimated cost of $2 million per mile.

In fact, I think the payoff from protected bike infrastructure could be far greater than what took place in Seville. For one, the proliferation of scooters means there are tens of thousands of more potential users of protected bike lanes and urban trails.

Other advocates have chimed in with competing proposals. Jay Crossley, who heads Farm & City and whose top issue is safety, has proposed $275 million as part of a $6 billion mobility package ($4.4 billion for transit).

Long story short, I would like to see an updated analysis from transportation engineers on what it would cost to do the following:

1. State-of-the-art bike paths that are separated from cars by solid barriers on every major corridor

2. Protected bike lanes on every street where car speeds average over 30 mph

3. A shitload of new urban trails

Yes, number 3 is not very precise. I don’t know how many new trails we should build, but I know they would make biking an attractive proposition to even more people than protected bike lanes by providing a riding experience that is entirely divorced from the exhaust fumes, traffic lights etc.

What’s important, above all else, is that the powers-that-be, notably the mayor and Council, take bike and pedestrian infrastructure just as seriously as high-capacity transit. It’s very likely that a few hundred million dollars on bike lanes and urban trails would get more people out of cars than a multi-billion dollar investment in transit, at least in the short-term.

And no, that is NOT to say that the transit investment isn’t absolutely necessary. Mass transit, like highways, are expensive to build. That’s just how it is. But it’s something that every major city needs.

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