Cycling extends the catchment area for transit


Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

Cycling in Cities - Austin Tx

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX


Cycling in Austin, TX

This review will comment on cycling in Austin, its cycling infrastructure, and first steps in moving toward European designs. A visit to the city in February 2012 provided the observations.

Austin is a city with 1% cycling mode share and an infrastructure that could accommodate much more than the 7,900 daily cyclists.



Cycling in Cities - Austin TX












Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

For years, a colleague has been speaking to the virtue of cycling in Austin after every visit to family there. In February, 2012 I had an opportunity to have that experience first-hand. A conference found me in San Antonio. A short Amtrak train ride took me to Austin. A short walk of half a kilometer got me to a large and interesting bike store and a bicycle for the day.




Two Austin staffers and cycling enthusiasts graciously took the time to show me the city’s cycling infrastructure. Most of the afternoon of cycling was on road. So, on the next visit I will have to spend my time cycling the river trails. Unfortunately time and trip schedule did not allow me to experience cycling back to San Antonio. So another train trip and a very pleasant evening walk through downtown brought me back to the hotel. The walk happens when public bike stations are not conveniently located at points of traffic originators, such as train stations and hotels.

© H-JEH (Jack) Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group Inc. 2007-2012., Velo.Urbanism 2012

This review will comment on cycling in Austin, its cycling infrastructure, first steps in moving toward European designs, the city, a friendlier place to live, and then some final comments.


1a Cycling in Austin

Austin is a sprawling city of 770 square kilometres or about 7 times the landmass of the City of Vancouver. Austin’s population is about 790,000 according to the 2011 census data or 30% more than the City of Vancouver in comparison. The downtown core of Austin is at a different scale than that of Vancouver with significantly less population density. For a city with such low population density, the challenge for providing an effective network and cycling infrastructure becomes more problematic. Somehow, the city has faced the challenge and provided a North American style cycling capacity that exceeds many other cities. Maybe having a cycling mode share in the 5% to 7% at its university with about 50,000 students has helped that. Currently, 1% of the population cycles to work, certainly an opportunity for growth for a city with a young population. What is evident when cycling around the city core is the forward thinking of staff.

So, for Austin on an average day there are 7,900 people cycling to work or for other trip purposes. With the infrastructure that is in place there should be many more people cycling daily, at least 40,000. “Why not?” may be the question. Is it the weather with a temperate winter climate and a few hot summer months that distracts people from cycling? Is it the cycling infrastructure in place, maybe just not appealing enough to motorists who could be the future cyclists? Is it the infrastructure or network design toolkits being used by the city? Is it the cycling network, maybe not extensive enough? Or, is it the role that cycling plays in the city’s urban form and urban land use, better referred to as densification?

Is there an appetite for more cycling within the city? Well 50,000 students provide 2,500 or one third of the cycling trips. So, under certain conditions, there seems to be potential.


1b Austin with its 7,900 daily cyclists - Cycling traffic is growing but!

So, why has cycling not grown to the levels of other North American aggressive cycling-cities considering Austin’s cycling infrastructure and design attitudes. Let’s look and compare Austin’s performance to other cities and what we can learn from that.

The City of Vancouver is a city with about a third of the population of Austin and 15% of the landmass. The city has about three times the daily cycling activity. With about 5 times the densification of Austin, people live closer to their destinations. It is a city where car usage is declining with each year for almost the last two decades. It is a city where transit plays a dominant role and where bikes-on-transit is encouraged. It is a city where a new rapid transit line reaches its 3-year ridership forecast in 3 months. It is a city where single occupancy vehicles usage has dropped to 50% and to 30% in the downtown area. Transit usage across the city is at 17% and 30% in the downtown area. While the transit system has been expanding significantly, demand for transit continues to outstrip supply in peak periods. Cycling is a year round occurrence. The network is citywide where expansion will bring all residents within 500 metres or 5 blocks of a facility. The network consists of a backbone off-road seaside path and another path along a rail line. The paths are supplemented with an expansive network of neighbourhood cycling streets with very extensive traffic calming. Bike lanes are being expanded along with separated bike lanes. Increased cycling visibility at intersections is happening with coloured bike boxes that facilitate cycling turns. European cycling facility techniques are being introduced. With such measures applied to one of the four bridges leading to downtown, the cycling traffic has increased to 7,600 on peak days within 2 years of implementation and the yearly average cycling traffic is at half of the average daily cycling in Austin. A basic off-road network designed for commuting, supplemented by a city-wide quiet cycling road network, expanding bike lanes using European techniques, targeted city densification direction, and a viable cycling-friendly transit system allows a less populated city to grow cycling to 3 times the level of Austin.

Metro Vancouver is about 3 to 4 times larger than Austin, both geographically and by population, while exceeding Austin’s daily cycling trips by almost six times. Densification is however less by 25%. Cycling in Metro is feasible supported by regional urban cores, rapid transit network, an extensive bus-transit system, and an expanding cycling network.

Calgary is another city in contrast. The city is built around the concept that cars are needed to live here. The two cities are similar in landmass. However Calgary is more populated (+40%) resulting in higher densification (+30%). The city has a basic rapid transit backbone system that now takes 50% of the downtown trips. The city also has a very extensive network of off-road bike trails along its rivers that need upgrading to commuting design levels. The city provides free car parking 6 kilometres and farther from downtown adjacent to the river bike trails system. Along with expensive downtown car parking costs, driving the car from home to one of these free parking areas and then cycling the rest of the way has increased entry into the downtown area to 10,000 cyclists per day. Extensive and expanding snow clearing program for these off-road bike paths leads to significant winter cycling even when the temperature drops to minus 20 or 30 degree Celsius. The city has a system of bike paths in road right-of-ways leading from the river bike trail systems to and through big box shopping areas facilitating cycling shopping. Beyond that, the city is just starting on bike lanes. Beyond the C-Train rapid transit system, the transit system is just experimenting with appealing to cyclists with a very limited number of bike racks on buses. Overall, cycling in Calgary is about 3 times that of Austin.

So, where does the comparison lead to? Learning from the European cycling-active cities highlights physical separation, visibility of cyclists, intersection priority passage, wayfinding that overcomes navigation frustrations, trip time, transit integration, and cycling culture ingrained into cities’ daily lifestyle as key factors for cycling growth success. From these North American cities, separation of cyclists from motorists with a backbone network of off-road bike trails, an extensive cycling network, cycling integrated into land densification, and a service-extensive transit system that is cycling friendly are some of the key factors that lead to cycling growth. Marketing the images that driving is not the only way for a desirable lifestyle and that cycling and cycling-transit are socially acceptable alternatives also assists in cycling traffic growth.


1c Austin as a cycling city

With a bicycle, as one tours cities in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australasia, one notices a variety of approaches towards providing cycling infrastructure to the locals. For some cities, cycling is an important option for travelling while in others the roads are not very conducive. However, each city makes a contribution towards an ideal cycling city. Each city has a layer of cycling infrastructure, network, or social marketing that should be in an ideal cycling city.

For Austin, the layers that stand out are:

• Density of cycling facilities within the core

• Designed for social cycling
• Back-in, drive-out car parking adjacent to bike lanes
• Traffic circles (small roundabouts) designs for reducing conflict and providing mini-parks

City’s approach to cycling
• Forward thinking of cycling staff – Including narrower traffic lanes.
• Cycling facilities within the city the responsibility of one group, no matter the public ownership of lands (municipal, parks, etc.)
• Ordinances supporting safe cycling – passing laws.

Now, the next comments will be on the cycling infrastructure within the urban core of the city and the city’s approach to it.


Part 2 – Austin’s Cycling Infrastructure

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

For a city with such low population density, the challenge for providing an effective network and cycling infrastructure becomes more problematic. Somehow, the city has faced the challenge and provided a North American style cycling capacity that exceeds many other cities. What is evident when cycling around the city core is the forward thinking of staff.
The first section focused on cycling in the city of Austin and comparing it to select other cycling cities. For this section, the attention is now focused on the city’s advancement of its cycling infrastructure.


2a Bike lanes

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

As mentioned, bike lanes are encountered frequently. Some bike lanes are narrow as the width dimensions tend to be taken from curb faces, not from the functional roadside edge of curb and gutters where road dirt, broken glass, and other objects are deposited by the sweeping effect of passing cars. However, social cycling is encouraged on many bike lanes separated from cars by narrow painted lines or by painted buffer strips. These lanes are in the 2.1 m to 2.4 m width (7 to 8 ft. wide lanes), wide enough for two cyclists to be side-by-side and engaged in conversation.

The next significant growth of cycling will need to support social cycling of two people side by side. The experience of bike trails along waterways highlights the desire of infrequent cyclists for social cycling.

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

In fact, even on some Chicago streets, social cycling by racer and randonneurs-types has been limited to two side by side from 3 or more.







2b Parking your bike

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX
Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX







It seems that bikes parked on residential balconies are not objectionable in Austin as evidenced in the downtown core. It may lead to questions on bike parking requirements for residential buildings and also for new office and residential building applications.

Are these requirements inadequate or leading edge requirements? Nevertheless, residents do seem to be more satisfied when their bicycles are parked by their apartment units.

Bike lanes get you to destinations and then what? In many cities, cyclists need to compete with dog walkers for tree and sign post space to tie up bicycles or dogs.

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

In Austin, there is a competition between pubs for getting bike corrals installed on the street in front of their establishments. Now, in this city some retailers know the value of cyclists as customers. Then the question begs if bike corrals in front of pubs also allows the police to use their resources elsewhere than patrolling the streets for car drivers during pub hours.



Other businesses have joined in to attract cyclists as customers with distinctive bike rack parking within a few steps of their front doors.

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX
Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX
Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

As an example, Whole Foods has bike racks in front of their main entrance door protected from the weather and with bike repair stands and tools for quick adjustment or repairs. Bicycles are protected with an overhead roof constructed with bike frames providing the structural component for holding up the roof.

There is nothing like a bit of bike art to decorate the bike-parking wall and attract customers, using wheels and other bike parts.


2c Bike parking rack art located in front of coffee shops.

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Retailers seem to be using bike racks to call attention to their establishments. Combining bicycle-parking functionality with art does draw notice to retail storefronts and contribute towards making the street and neighbourhood more liveable and desirable. One coffee shop retailer demonstrates the value of this approach on a major arterial road.




Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX








2d Crossing the Colorado River peacefully

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Many cities have found the value of separate bridges for pedestrians and cyclists to cross major geographic obstacles such as rivers. The crossings are more pleasant allowing one to enjoy the natural environment of a place with less traffic noise and less pollution affecting the crossers. The sounds of birds singing replace the noise of cars and trucks.


Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Austin is no exception with its bike-ped bridge across the Colorado River. Austin’s implementation of a bike-ped bridge does provide some very interesting features. There are defined walking lanes not as most bridges frequently encountered with conflicting, scramble passage where different users travel at different and incompatible speeds. In this city, seniors have their space with separation from distracting, faster travelling cyclists. Cyclists can continue with their trip at trip time and speeds that attract them to cycling. The walking lanes are on the outside with the bike area in the middle. Pavement colours and textured surfaces define which is which. Exiting off the bridge uses off-ramps and also a bike-ped traffic circle for affecting downhill speed. Bridge surface marking defines well the presence of pedestrians and cyclists.

A bit of bike art on the bridge enhances the crossing experience.


2e Cyclists’ passage through private building intersections

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Potential conflict areas are highlighted with bike paths on road right-of-way marked through private driveways creating greater awareness with motorists that cyclists may be present.







2f Traffic Circles or Roundabouts

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX
Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX
Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX







Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX







Others debate the appropriateness of placing a circle structure in the middle of an intersection that regulates the movement of vehicles, motorized or not, and passage of pedestrians without stop signs. Austin’s implementations provide interesting design details that enhance the passage experience for cyclists. Unlike many municipalities, Austin’s bike lanes lead directly into these roundabouts. Unlike many European cities, the passage of cyclists within the roundabouts or traffic circles is not as well defines as it could be with marked and coloured bike lanes without grade separation from car traffic. There is clear educational signage for motorists and cyclists on how to behave for the passage. There are designs to help control approaches to roundabouts and to place obstacles for drivers and cyclists in the way for making illegal and dangerous left turns. There are designs to slow down motorists closer to the speed of cyclists thereby encouraging both cycling and walking through the use of corner bulges.

The centres of these circles are used as park space. In some cities, these spaces provide for urban gardening experiences.


2g Intersection passage not a mountain biking experience

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Austin makes cycling a bit easier through intersections with roads having right turn lanes and without bike lanes. Instead of cyclists needing to share raised intersection islands with pedestrians, island cuts are provided for cycling passage at road elevation.

With design care to infrastructure details with cyclists in mind, cycling is attractive to more people. The following comments will first focus on Austin’s cycling infrastructure design toolkit moving towards European cycling-active cities concepts and then on techniques the City of Austin utilizes for making the city a cycling friendlier place.


Part 3 – Moving towards European Designs

For a city with such low population density, the challenge for providing an effective network and cycling infrastructure becomes more problematic. Somehow, the city has faced the challenge and provided a North American style cycling capacity that exceeds many other cities.

What is evident when cycling around the city core is the forward thinking of staff.

The first section focused on cycling in the city and with comparisons it to some other cycling cities. The second Part described North American design thinking as it was implemented in Austin. For this section the attention is now focused on the city’s advancement of cycling designs towards European thinking.


3a Visibility of cyclists on bike lanes

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Visual identification of cyclists’ space that separates it from car space can be a powerful motivator for people to cycle. Cycling levels in European cities demonstrate the value. In Austin, some bike lanes use this technique providing greater visibility of cyclists. Some bike lanes are of concrete construction while driving lanes are asphalt. It appears that there is no cost difference between the two construction techniques in Texas.





3b Cyclists’ visibility crossing highway off-ramps

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

Crossing off-ramps from highways is made much less stressful for cyclists of all cycling comfort levels as bike crossing are coloured in green. Even more significant, instruction signage is posted for motorists clearly depict the coloured crossing and the priority of cyclists. So, it is very evident and clearer from the signage that cars must come to a stop for cyclists or cede right of way while cyclists cross the off-ramp lane.


3c Physically separated bike lanes

European experience has shown that true significant cycling growth only happens when there is physical separation of cyclists and motorists. In fact, the same could be said of cyclists and pedestrians. Separation may be provided within road right-of-ways and off-road. Certainly, special attention needs to be given to intersection design, high visibility of cyclists, and priority of cyclists through intersections. North American bike trail experiences also show the growth potential of these types of trails no matter if alongside water bodies, rivers, or along abandoned or active rail trails.

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Austin has a street that provides separation for all modes of transportation - cycling and of commuter trains, cars, and pedestrians. Commuter train tracks serve outline towns. The city is also embarking on providing more vertical separation of bike lanes from general traffic lanes. The city is also trying out some buffered bike lanes wide enough for social cycling.




With design care to infrastructure details with cyclists in mind, cycling is attractive to more people. With introducing European design thinking into the city’s cycling infrastructure, cycling will be even much more attractive to potential cyclists, now drivers. The final comments will focus on techniques the City of Austin utilizes for making the city a cycling friendlier place.


Part 4 – the City, a Friendlier Place to Live and Final Comments

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

Provision of an effective cycling environment in a city goes beyond cycling infrastructure and network. It includes promotion of cycling as a viable transportation option. Beyond that, cities can make cycling more viable through vision, policies, goals, targets, and strategies that may be municipal organizational in nature or affects the conduit of other modes of transportation. Austin has undertaken some initiative that will lead to positive effect on growth of cycling traffic.



4a City Organization - One Group Planning Cycling Facilities

In Austin’s urban core, one does not need to cycle too far to come upon another cycling facility from marked bike lanes to bike paths to river trails.

One of the most significant opportunities for expansion of desirable cycling facilities is the city taking on the role of designing and maintaining cycling facilities on parks property especially the linear parks along the rivers. With consistent design principles applied to on-street and off-street cycling facilities and reshaping these for commuting, then Austin will have a product to offer that will attract motorist as the price of car fuel increases with time

Having one group responsible for the design and maintenance of cycling facilities, no matter which public organization is responsible for the land, should be the goal of all cities.


4b Traffic lanes designed to support lower driving speeds and safe car parking.

There is a widespread believe or hypothesis that road speed closer to the speed of cycling will have dramatic effect on people wishing to use cycling as a mode of transportation. Municipalities could reduce local road speeds closer to the 15 to 18 or 20 kph (9 to 12 mph) that most people cycle at.

Another approach is to narrow traffic lane widths to the point that will induce slower drivers’ speed, hopefully approaching cyclists’ tolerance for acceptable speed differential to car movement. Austin’s direction is to use 3.0 m lane width (10 ft. lanes), not the more common 3.35 or 3.66 m wide lanes (not 11 ft. or 12 ft.). Undocumented studies have shown that narrower traffic lane width tends to slow driving speed down. In one test, driving speed slowed down by 5 kph. For this to be effective the attitude of motorists towards speed on city streets needs to be changed and that will only happen with a wide network of narrow traffic lanes within a city.

Of course, traffic-calming measures are another technique to use.


4c Back-in Angled Parking Spots

Cycling in Cities - Austin TX
Cycling in Cities - Austin TX
Cycling in Cities - Austin TX Cycling in Cities - Austin TX
Cycling in Cities - Austin TX

It is interesting to see how the topic of back-in parking causes strong opinions. Is it better to have drivers back in to parking spots when oncoming traffic expects a car to back in and then leave a parking spot with good visibility of oncoming traffic including cyclists? Is it better to have motorists back out of a parking spot blindly with adjacent parked cars blocking the driver’s view? Politicians, retailers, engineers, and others join the discussion with passion. One political candidate even tried to make it an election issue. Drive out with good vision of oncoming traffic or back out blindly, that seems to be the choice. Which way is the safer option? That seems to be the crux of discussion. Austin direction is for drive-out, back-in angled parking with educational signs on how to properly use the parking spots posted for drivers education. Signage is posted on traffic signal poles in advance of back-in parking spots and on the poles adjacent to the parking spots. Angled parking is used adjacent to bike lanes on arterial roads. Concrete curbs are strategically placed to prevent cars from overhanging pedestrian sidewalks


4d City ordinances supporting cycling

While some provincial and state governments are reluctant to fashion laws affecting cyclists on roads that would improve the cycling environment, some cities have taken up the slack and done so. Austin is one such city.

Austin has an ordinance in place to support safe passing of cyclists. The safe passing ordinance stipulates that all vehicles must give at least 0.9 m (3ft) of clearance when passing vulnerable road users. For trucks and other commercial vehicles, the distance is 1.8 m (6ft).


4e Bike art contributing to enhancing the liveability and energy of a city

Cycling in Ciites - Austin TX

Cycling transients beyond a mode of transportation and can be a form of civic art. In Austin this is evident in the artistic approach to bike parking facilities and the use of bicycles as local art along cycling routes, such as the bike-ped bridge over the Colorado River.






Final Comments

Cycling is not an end goal in itself. It is part of delivering a liveable, energetic, sustainable, green community. It is part of each neighbourhood’s urban plan with transportation capacity and supportive land-use densification that can achieve target active transportation mode shares. It is part of a solution where densification is sufficient to create demand that will make transit profitable for the routes through the neighbourhood. It is part of a solution where local cycling traffic is created to justify high-quality cycling facilities through the neighbourhood. For separated cycling facilities densification should provide a minimum cycling traffic of at least 1,000 trips per day. It is part of a solution of feeding transit stations and frequent service bus stops from homes that create profitable routes and where secure parking is available. It is part of a solution of feeding customers to local retail stores. It is part of a solution of feeding students to their schools.

© H-JEH (Jack) Becker, Third Wave Cycling Group Inc. 2007-2012., Velo.Urbanism 2012










Unless stated otherwise, photographs are the property of the article author(s)
©Photograph by H-JEH Becker, 2013
©H-JEH Becker, Velo., 2013