A few days ago I was checking out at the Central Market on North Lamar Boulevard when a man dressed in a bike jersey and shorts turned in my direction. “Nice,” he said, noticing my helmet. “It’s terrible out there,” he cautioned, nodding towards the street outside. “Good luck.”
I would need it.
A visitor to Austin might assume that we are an extremely bike-friendly city — even one of our signature Snapchat geofilters features a tandem bicycle. Google’s proposed route from Central Market to West Campus takes a biker on Lamar, showing it as a designated “bikeable” road.
These maps are misleading. Most streets labeled as bikeable are nothing more than normal, busy streets. North Lamar is labeled as accessible to bikers, but no one who has seen Lamar at rush hour would be willing to enter the fray without the protection of a car.
As of now, biking does not feel like a sustainable option. Protecting and expanding biking infrastructure would significantly improve the city’s bike friendliness and safety, so students should advocate for and support legislation to achieve these goals.
Austin is the fittest city in Texas and the 15th in the U.S. by the American College of Sports Medicine. We rank high for our availability of outdoor parkland, and we have a reputation for being outdoorsy environmentalists. But the numbers tell another story. Walk Score gives us a comparatively low bikeability rating of 22nd out of 25 in the U.S., and this isn’t just a matter of personal taste but of legitimate self-preservation. Nationally, Austin ranked 159 out of 200 in best drivers by AllState and was cited as having some of the country’s most dangerous intersections.
But perhaps most disturbing for bikers and potential bikers is exposure to traffic and the dearth of designated bike lanes. Bike lanes in Austin are often hazardous and interspersed. For example, Guadalupe Street’s bike lane between 27th and 29th Streets cuts off, forcing bikers to quickly merge with cars going three times as fast. When bike lanes aren’t available, or are little more than poorly-maintained shoulders, cars practically brush up against bikers — not much protection from inattentive, distracted or texting drivers.
Austin saw a record number of traffic deaths in 2015, up 62 percent from last year.
One heinous hit-and-run case on MLK put a bicyclist in intensive care last spring, and local injury lawyers say these cases are on the rise. Individual cases fall in line with larger increases in dangerous hit-and-runs in Austin, a trend that has continued despite 2013 legislation that enacted stricter penalties for hit-and-run drivers.
Biking shouldn’t be this way. Bike lanes can alleviate traffic, reduce our carbon footprint and smog levels, lower traffic fatalities and help save millions through medical costs through its protective health benefits. These societal benefits deserve societal protection, not subjugation to dangerous conditions.
Instead of letting bicyclist resort to attaching pool noodles to their bikes in a sad attempt at keeping cars at bay, the city (and state) should support the creation of bike lanes and boulevards that separate bikers from life-threatening traffic. Students should advocate for better bike paths in and around campus and vote for Prop 1 on Nov. 8. The proposition will commit $20 million to the improvement of bicycle infrastructure and $15 million for intersection safety concerns.
These steps just might make my future trips to Central Market a little less ominous.
Hallas is a Plan II and health and society sophomore from Allen. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @LauraHallas.