In Austin, Posts and Paint Bring a New Bike Bridge From Good to Great

All photos: Nathan Wilkes

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Here are a few images from Austin bikeway engineer Nathan Wilkes that show how a protected lane can cheaply add a lot of value to a larger project.

The bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Little Walnut Creek, visible in the top right background above, officially opened Monday after 17 years of planning. It created a direct link between Hart Elementary School and the residential neighborhood to the north — but the link also required pedaling on a wide street that many people would see as unsuitable for children.

Furness Drive before the new bike lanes. Image: Google Street View

The new bidirectional protected bike lane, Wilkes wrote in an email, “is on both sides of the bridge and makes seamless transitions between on and off-street infrastructure.” The 1.1-mile biking improvement cost $20,000, compared to $1.2 million for the bridge itself.

Planning for the protected lane started in January, and installation took four days.

Here’s what the kids’ new route to school looks like:

Gaye Fisher, a nearby resident, said she had been the bike lane project’s “biggest skeptic” when she heard about it, believing it would always be unsafe for elementary schoolers to bike on these streets. But after the lanes were installed last weekend, she said, she changed her mind.

“The posts that divide the bike lanes from the major traffic, they tell people to slow down and respect the space,” she said. “It looks great.”

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  • Kevin Love

    Although better than nothing, the use of the knockdown sticks really does not warrant calling this a “protected” bike lane. As the name implies, the knockdown sticks are designed to knock down and actually provide zero protection.

    There do exist bollards that are designed to withstand the impact of a motor vehicle. If those bollards had been used, then I would agree with calling this a protected bike lane. Otherwise, no.

    We can see from the photographs that the children and their parents themselves do not believe that they are safe on this route. They consider it so unsafe that many of the children have been inspired to wear racing cycle helmets. That is a clear vote of non-confidence in their safety.

    For an example of a route to school that really is safe, please see this video. Note the bridges and bridge approaches.

    http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/cycling-to-school/

  • Dan

    Racing helmets are widely believed to be necessary in biking in the US. I never wear them, nor have I ever had a head injury on my bike in my entire childhood or the year or two I have been riding as an adult.

    I agree the pollards are cheap though.

  • Oh please, the use of helmets means they dont think the rotue is safe? The route could be 100% bike only for miles and kids would still wear helemts.

    Why? They’re kids. Their balance is poor. They make poor decissions. Sometimes they simply topple over.

  • ELS

    I have very limited experience bicycling anyplace that isn’t Austin, so I can’t speak to the rest of the U.S.; but bicycle helmets here, while not mandated, are expected. Shop ride rules always stipulate that you wear one. Letting your kid ride down a quiet street without one could quite possibly lead to your neighbors calling Child Protective Services on you.

    Once, not wearing one to ride to a social gathering, I had a slight acquaintance grab me by the arm and loudly exhort me to “Wear a f***ing helmet!” …as her cigarette dangled from her free hand.

    I don’t agree with the attitude, but that’s what it is. That lane is extremely safe by Austin standards – those knockdown sticks clearly delineate the set-aside space as belonging to cyclists in a way that mere paint, forget about the presence of a cyclist, does not; so the use of helmets merely reflects the attitude that cycling itself is inherently dangerous.

    All that said, facilities like this boost cycling and are a great way to change that attitude. (Though it’s worth mentioning that the local news station’s “balanced” reporting on this facility included interviews with parents in cars who were frustrated at losing a convenient place to park while dropping off their kids.)

  • BBnet3000

    Those kids in the Netherlands only have grass between them and the cars! Physical separation is important, but I don’t think it need be so strong that cars cant physically cross over. A design that ensures that cars DONT cross over is the important part.

    As for the helmets, most places in the US require that kids wear them, and its generally part of the biking/parenting culture here regardless.

  • Gezellig

    Actually, after some initial training kids are pretty good at it.

    Non-helmeted kids going to school on a 100%-bike route:

    These kids live in a place that has one of the if not the the lowest bike injury rates in the world. This suggests the pervasive protected infrastructure is what really protects people.

  • Gezellig

    “Once, not wearing one to ride to a social gathering, I had a slight acquaintance grab me by the arm and loudly exhort me to “Wear a f***ing helmet!” …as her cigarette dangled from her free hand.”

    Yep! I’ve had similar experiences. People have a really skewed perception of how dangerous biking is, when it really isn’t that dangerous:

    http://www.nsc.org/news_resources/injury_and_death_statistics/Documents/2014-Injury-Facts-43.pdf

    In the US you’re more likely to die choking on your lunch than you are to die on a bike. And you’re way likelier to die walking around. And neither of those, still, is anywhere near as likely as dying from heart or lung-related diseases, which are incredibly common.

    Yet this is how skewed our culture is–a smoker, no less, feels the need to chide someone riding a bike. That’s some crazy cognitive dissonance/denial.

    “I have very limited experience bicycling anyplace that isn’t Austin, so I can’t speak to the rest of the U.S.; but bicycle helmets here, while not mandated, are expected. Shop ride rules always stipulate that you wear one. Letting your kid ride down a quiet street without one could quite possibly lead to your neighbors calling Child Protective Services on you.”

    It does look like Austin requires helmets for people under 18, though they are thankfully not mandated above that age.

    “the local news station’s “balanced” reporting on this facility included interviews with parents in cars who were frustrated at losing a convenient place to park while dropping off their kids.”

    Haha, yeah, when most of those kids probably live within biking distance. Ummm…unless there’s a special reason you generally don’t *have* to drive your kids 3 blocks to school, people.

  • Joe R.

    Why? They’re kids. Their balance is poor. They make poor decissions. Sometimes they simply topple over.

    I wonder then how me and every single kid I knew survived to reach adulthood back in the 1960s/70s when bike helmets didn’t exist? The idea that children need helmets to ride a bike is ridiculous. At best such helmets prevent a very small number of injuries/deaths. However, they cause many more deaths than they prevent by creating a disincentive for kids to ride, which in turn may translate to a lifetime of obesity/poor health. I can say with certainly I would never have had any interest whatsoever to ride a bike as a child if I had to wear a helmet. I can also say with certainty that without riding, I would be in my middle age weighing 300+ pounds, and probably with heart disease. Cycling helps keep my weight in check. It also helps clear my head. I pity the kid nowadays who may never discover the joy of feeling free, wind in their hair, because of overprotective adults who think they know better.

    Let’s end mandatory helmet laws for children. They’re misguided at best, harmful at worst.

  • Gezellig

    There’s a good TED Talk on how problematic mandatory helmet policies are and how detrimental such policies are to overall bike safety:

    Helmet policies are not based on good data or science, but culturally based faulty assumptions/lack of direct experience with the activity. Even though driving is far more dangerous statistically, many more people drive than bike so they have the sense that it’s comparatively a safer activity. Meanwhile daily reports of car carnage persist as mere background noise because we’re so used to it.

    Again, the Dutch proved the way that works. Though they had an injury/death rate 2.5x as high as the US in the 70s it’s now many times lower than the US. Right about the 70s-80s is when they really started implementing pervasive separated infrastructure.

    Meanwhile a handful of English-speaking countries (parts of the US, parts of Canada, all of Australia, etc.) started focusing on helmet laws and Stockholm-Syndrome-y vehicular cycling advocacy, both of which have been a dismal failure in terms of encouraging more people to bike and bike safely.

    If you think about it it’s pretty messed up to say “we as a society created this dangerous environment–now the burden is on YOU, bike person, to keep yourself safe. And if you do get hurt it’s probably your fault” whereas the Dutch approach pragmatically acknowledged if you change the infrastructure you greatly reduce possible conflict points in the first place and it makes the rules clearer for everyone. Our current status quo is still effectively victim shaming.

  • andrelot

    The goal of these soft bollards is to segregate space clearly, more or less like a raised curbside clearly delimit ROW of pedestrians and vehicles.

    If you truly want a design that will prevent an uncontrolled vehicle from going over the bike lane, you need either close spaced high-resistance bollards or concrete barriers.

  • ELS

    True, and Furness is a pretty safe street to begin with – quiet, residential, wide, and doesn’t go through to anything. Really, this project was designed and implemented as a “kid road.” The neighborhood is divided by Little Walnut Creek; none of the neighborhood streets cross it, so before the ped bridge was built, the only way to get from one side to the other was by getting on I-35 to the west, or Cameron Road (a busy, major arterial) to the east. With the middle school on the north side of the creek and the elementary school on the south side, this opens up independent mobility for kids that didn’t exist before.

    Many in the neighborhood fought the new ped bridge tooth and nail, on the grounds that pedestrians = transients and pedestrian mobility is therefore a bad thing.

    Sigh.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I rode a bike for 14 years as a kid nearly everyday and NEVER once hit my head while riding. Kids are better cyclists than you think.

    I was living in Idaho for a year and hardly none of the kids rode with helmets there. It was so refreshing to see kids riding bikes all over their neighborhoods like I did when I was a kid in the 70’s and 80’s.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Here Austin goes again designing bicycle facilities that are useful only to 8yos. Experienced adult cyclists will now have to ride in a narrowed traffic lanes and will be subject to the full wrath of Texas’ SUV driving populace screaming “Get the ‘F’ in the bike lane!” (I know. I’ve ridden there). This IS NOT building for the 8 to 80 crowd!

    ELS below already pointed out that this roadway was already a pretty calm. A conventional bike lane on each side of the street would have served experienced cyclists and kids very well. The kids in Davis California have been getting to school on conventional bike lanes for decades! And those lanes are much more useful to all levels of cyclists.

    If the profession continues to build “kid” facilities I guarantee that there is going to be a major backlash from club riders who number in the hundreds of thousands. I already heard loud grumblings from club “cyclists” in a major western city about the near useless new protected bike facilities being built there.

  • UrbanUndead

    Yep, same here – just about every day that wasn’t raining hard, to school at minimum, with a big increase during the summer & on weekends. Tons of riding on dirt roads, to boot. I’m certain it would have dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit to have had to wear a helmet to ride my bike when I was a kid.

  • I’m against 90-95% of protected facilities (the one on Guadalupe near UT is horrible – and somebody’s going to get killed there in the next year or two I predict); but this one is fine – it’s obviously dedicated for young kids who would be riding on the sidewalk otherwise (if it even exists there; lots of streets like this in Austin don’t have sidewalks).

    Yes, every driveway is an intersection this way, but it’d still be that way with the sidewalk.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Then just let the kids ride on the sidewalk! As an LCI and bicycle planner I see very little safety benefit to this facility vs. letting the kids just simply ride on the sidewalk.

    See Michael. There are quite a few on Streetsblog alone that question the need for protected bike lanes and this is where people come to drink the Coolaid! 😉

  • LuisD

    I don’t know what conditions are like in your area, but here in Montreal the sidewalks are occupied by, y’know, pedestrians. Shared paths (cyclists and pedestrians) work when there is low volume and ample space. As soon as you have a modest degree of activity, different paths for pedestrians and cyclists become a necessity given the speed differentials.

    As a ped, you don’t want to be dodging fast-moving cyclists. It’s bothersome, stressful and doesn’t mesh with the idea of safe and relaxed walking. As a cyclist, you don’t want to be dodging pedestrians. It’s stressful and bothersome for you too.

    In most cases (but not all), keep pedestrians on sidewalks and cyclists on bicycle paths.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Agreed! But did you see that neighborhood? Its low density residential. Those photos clearly don’t show normal conditions. Kids on bikes could easily and safely share the sidewalk with peds. In most American neighborhoods kids do this ALL THE TIME!

  • Cali_ExPat

    Whoa, a lot of reaction from the vehicular cyclists among us. As a former racer, I have zero sympathy for the club riders and racers. Take the lane if you are such a good VC, or shut up. There is a chasm between your riding level and the general public, and by your own admission, you don’t need any help. These facilities are great at getting kids and sedentary adults riding for transportation, and I know you guys are only on these short segments for 10 minutes before you hit the country roads you want to ride on.

    Think of this as rider development, or in my case, the kind of facilities I like riding on when I’m taking my own kids somewhere. The idea that kids would be safer riding in the street or traditional bike lane is bull. It’s also bull that when a facility like this goes in, it makes VCs less safe.

    Congrats to Austin on this new facility, we need more like them, especially to schools.

  • Cali_ExPat

    Kevin,

    the law in Texas requires that kids under 16 (or 18) wear helmets, and racing-style is what they sell. Their presence doesn’t indicate any opinion on this facility, but rather the law in Texas and American cycling culture generally.

    While true that the flex-posts don’t provide a crash barrier, they do offer protection, mostly from inattentive drivers playing with a phone or stereo, which is the most likely risk. The distracted driver hits the post first, notices, then makes a correction before veering further into cycle lanes. It’d be nice to have rumble strips to, but true crash barriers are exceedingly rare in this country and abroad – they are impractical.

  • gneiss

    The sidewalks are less safe than a bollard separated bike lane in the street. In addition to the issues outlined above regarding interactions between people walking and those riding bikes, there is substantially reduced visibility for motorists when they cross into driveways or at street crossings, particularly with right hook crossings.

    Lets also not forget that there is a significant psychological effect. When you add bike lanes, you are saying to the community “bikes belong”, rather than being shoehorned in between cars and people walking.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Then add conventional bike lanes! This street doesn’t need these protected bike lanes. These bike lanes are for 8yos ONLY! Again they are totally useless for any cyclist with any amount of traffic tolerance due to the current traffic conditions. Read my other comments in this thread.

    I am very disturbed with this trend in my profession. I was living in a Western mountain town that built similar two-way bike lanes on one side of the street. The lanes had horrible sight-lines from the driveways it crossed. Even though the lanes had a painted “10mph Speed Limit” I saw adults ride them at 15mph and much more all the time! The experienced cyclists who understood the hazards were then forced into narrowed traffic lanes and subject to the full ire of drivers who couldn’t understand why the hell they weren’t in the bike lane.

    Again, kids in Davis California have been getting to school on conventional bike lanes and much better designed bike paths for decades!

  • Andy B from Jersey

    BTW, hard bollards create a significant crash hazard for cyclists. A cyclist is much more likely to crash into a bollard and if it is a solid bollard injuries are likely to be rather severe. Crash a bike into a flexi-bollard and a cyclist will likely be laughing it off.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Davis California has been getting kids to school (WITHOUT buses) for three decades on conventional bike lanes. And this is already a low traffic street.

    And as a skilled VC cyclist, I DO WANT HELP from the homicidal drivers out there with a conventional bike lane that replicates where I would normally be riding. Take the lane on this street and I guarantee you, you will have a driver trying to force in that useless bike lane with the bumper of their car. I also don’t see this facility as rider development as it violates traffic norms for the contraflow traffic.

  • ELS

    First and foremost, I think the goal of this particular facility is to create a perception of safety in cycling and walking for kids. As you can see from this local news story from 9/3, the perception of danger is a pretty major obstacle:

    http://www.kvue.com/story/news/local/2014/09/03/walk-to-school-is-long-dangerous—according-to-parents-near-hart-elementary/15041987/

  • sdrewc

    Wow. I’m a former Austinite (born and raised). I opened up this article and was excited that Austin got a new high quality bicycle facility. Then I made the mistake of reading the comments. Austin is NOT Davis. Davis is a town, and Austin is a city of 800,000 people. Davis is also an enclave of progressive bike culture that exceeds most of this country. I won’t argue that this it the most important bike facility that Austin needs, because that’s not the point. The point is that streets, all streets, should serve people: biking, walking, taking the bus, driving a car, whatever. It’s public space! Texas is still car country and the value of a project like this is that it says, “hey! this street — it’s not just for cars!” It says, if it’s successful, that bike infrastructure is a worthy investment.

    I’m appalled that there’s complaining about being forced onto a low traffic street because there are too many 8 year-olds in the way.

    And re: helmets. Maybe they’re wearing helmets because they are school children and their parents want them to be safe. Getting hit by a car is not the only way to hit your head while riding a bicycle. It’s a precaution like wearing a seatbelt. I’m an adult and a competent and comfortable VC, and I wear a helmet and have also hit my head hard. Some of you are comfortable without them, and that’s FINE. Some of us like the safety net though.

    I’m with Cali_ExPat — good job Austin.

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