Back in August, I sent this New York Times travel story about Austin to my friend Melissa, who lives in Manhattan. The article made a big deal about what a suppsedly bike-friendly city Austin is. Melissa wrote back to me:
Looks fabulous! but Austin is sounding like a very bike-oriented city and I’m not a cyclist!!
Then today, the following exchange took place via email between us.
Melissa: A shout-out to a denizen of the bike-friendly city of Austin — are you a super bike aficionado?? do you cycle all over the place???
Me: I haven’t ridden my bike in a couple of years. Despite what certain propagandists put forth, I maintain that Austin is a typically American bike-unfriendly city whose current infrastructure is based around post-war car culture and freeway thinking.
In my opinion, Austin can only be called a relatively bike-friendly city because it has a veloway and lots of parks with bike paths and natural areas with mountain bike trails. But when it comes to biking on urban city streets, Austin is only slightly less bike-hateful than most American cities in that there are a few streets with designated bike lanes and some bike racks downtown. But other than that, like most other US cities, Austin is a million light years from Dutch-style bike culture. Perhaps I must apologize for my pessimistic or all-or-nothing thinking, but I think Austin (or any American city) cannot be called “bike friendly” until the streets are designed for bicycles FIRST, with cars as the concession, as is the case in Holland. Until that happens, I am going to bike on Austin streets only very reluctantly because it is just too dangerous trying to compete with cars. And until that happens, I have to think of biking as a recreational activity, not as a means of transportation. So when I want to bike, I throw my bicycle in the back of my pickup truck and drive to a bike-friendly location like a park, ride around, and then truck the bike back home when I’m done.
Now.. I am seeing more Dutch-style bikes on the streets in south Austin – but it’s usually 20-something year-old hipsters who’ve bought the bike because it looks cool & European. They’re not serious bike commuters, and they’ll ditch the bike when they can afford a Vespa or whatever the next trend is. I think that in a sprawling car-based city like Austin, serious bike commuters still use lighter bicycles that allow them to quickly dodge ignorant and aggressive drivers and pedestrians on sidwalks, since there are still so many streets with no other option but to ride on the sidewalk.
By the way, when I bike downtown, I try to avoid being killed by cars by riding on the sidewalk, but obviously this is a poor solution as well. Sidewalks are designed for WALKING, not biking, and the discrepency between pedestrians’ speed and bike speed creates the dangerous possibility of collision unless I slow down to walking speed. At which point I ask myself why I’m on a bike in the first place. So again, city streets must be redesigned and rethought not as “streets”, but as arteries with distinct and safe lanes for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorized vehicles.
I want to drive less often and lessen my carbon footprint, but because my workplace is only accessible via a major five-lane highway, bike commuting is just not an option for me. My current apartment lease is up at the end of November, so I am looking for a new apartment in a location that’s on the 333 bus route that has a stop at my campus. I would love to be able to bike to work, but it’s just too dangerous.