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Cycle Tracks in Austin

Any cyclist, at some point, has heard: “Get out of the road!!” or, more curiously: “Pay taxes!!” What’s with all the hostility? Why wouldn’t cyclists ride on the road? (Furthermore, why does riding a bike imply that cyclists don’t pay taxes???) After all, bikes are legally defined as moving vehicles (not to be confused with motor vehicles), so cyclists are bound to a whole set of laws and city codes dictating where and how to ride bicycles.
This tension between motorists and cyclists is growing behind the vast urban expansion of Central Texas, putting more vulnerable road users at daily risk. Cycling accidents accounted for 2.8% of all road collisions in 2011, up 0.5% from 2010. Unfortunately, the number of injurious accidents rose as well. The City of Austin has answered to this rising danger by implementing “cycle tracks.”
Cycle tracks are two-way buffered paths separated from the road by pylon barriers. Their purpose is to allow cyclists a safe opportunity for movement along popular traffic corridors. Austin houses three cycle tracks beside common use roads- Bluebonnet Drive from Meldridge to South Lamar, Rio Grande near UT, and parts of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway- with more planned for the future. The city anticipates by 2020 5% of all commuters will be cyclists; making cycle tracks and other vulnerable road user opportunities a critical piece of Austin’s ever-changing infrastructure.
This type of infrastructure is backed by Austin’s adoption of Complete Streets policy. This policy holds “the simple and basic concept that streets and roadways should be designed and operated to be safe and accessible for all transportation users whether they are pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, or vehicular motorists.” Complete Streets also calls for early consideration of cyclists and pedestrians when planning new developments and reconstruction to roads. The impact of Complete Streets has proven so successful that Texas Legislature is considering adopting it as statewide policy.

To keep roads safe and sidewalks free to pedestrians, lawmakers passed a 3-foot rule in late 2009, requiring all motorists to give at least 3 feet of space between vehicles and cyclists. This law isn’t just pointed to drivers; cyclists have a responsibility in taking advantage of safe causeway solutions, such as bike paths, and for following traffic laws. While this law can be difficult to enforce, it is designed to protect all road users.

Some argue that cycle tracks and the difficulty of enforcing the 3-Foot Rule sends a poor message to motorists—cyclists don’t belong on the road. Because cycle tracks place a physical barrier between driving and riding space, critics claim drivers pay less attention to cyclists entering intersections or merging where the path ends. More strongly, though, cycle tracks may prove to drivers that cyclists belong on a separate causeway. The 3-Foot Rule could evoke similar emotions since drivers feel cyclists should exclusively use bike paths when available or ensure THEY are operating 3 feet from the vehicle, not the other way around.

These concerns are certainly a consideration for Central Texas as the area continues booming. To see the proposed changes through 2020, view the Austin Bicycle Plan.

How do you feel about cycle tracks? Are they important stepping stones to an urban infrastructure or an unfair message to the purpose of cyclists as road users?


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