An email from Bike Austin arrived in my in box recently. Forced to cancel events by the virus like many volunteer-run non-profits, they must do most of their work in cyber space. The email is about the take-over of certain streets by the Austin Transportation Department. Basically they set up plastic barrels and barriers that slow down cars and have signs instructing motor vehicles that the road is for local use only. The goal is to allow people to more easily walk, bike, skate, etc. with social distancing during pandemic times and maybe beyond. Is that such a bad thing? A Dude thinks not, I think.
Fewer people are driving due to many workers being forced out of their jobs or if they’re lucky enough they are able to work from home. Sounds logical, but according to Bike Austin, “The Healthy Streets program is urgently needed. But too many negative comments could threaten the program’s survival.” So wherever you live, read on. But if you live in Austin, definitely keep reading, because you can take action. I’ve drawn liberally from their action alert and hope this helps get the word out there.
BA recommends we help Healthy Streets by taking these 3 actions now:
In just months, the impact of Healthy Streets has been profound. We’ve seen what happens when streets are rebalanced for everyone, not just cars: people pushing strollers, children on bicycles, smiling neighbors waving to each other. This is a happier Austin and people want more.
The Healthy Streets program is crucial for safety and wellbeing. As the pandemic drags on, socially-distanced exercise is still vital. Street safety also remains a major issue: there have been 63 fatalities this year in Austin (compared to 53 at this point in 2019), including 3 bicyclists tragically killed in August. In a city aiming for zero deaths by 2025, this is the wrong direction.
A small number of negative comments could threaten Healthy Streets. If you support Healthy Streets, the City of Austin needs to hear from you.
If this is true, that three people died (another report said four), then that is even more reason for more spaces for people to bike with reduced car traffic. I had heard of one, but it was not in Austin, and the others are hard to track down information about. Here’s what we can do about it:
If you haven’t visited a Healthy Street yet, and with cooler weather here, now’s a great time. Bike Austin suggests we “Check out the locations above and then remember to give feedback.”
Who would be against such a program? Well, a piece on a local tv station back in May quoted one person who was against it. “I drive this street every single day,” said Jeannette Valdez, a lifelong East Austin resident. “For a lot of the people that were born and raised in this neighborhood, they didn’t even know what these barricades were for.” Valdez claims the barricades showed up unexpectedly and without any community engagement from the City. She went on to say that growing up she was taught not to play in the street there should be separate bike lanes since taxpayers are already paying for them.
That sort of provincial, Not In My Back Yar attitude is unfortunate, but understandable, especially if there wasn’t any public comment period. I can see how having to slow down to weave in and out of barriers while avoiding people walking and biking just to get to and from your home is a nuisance. But it seems like a small price to pay. What about the people who drive who also enjoy walking or biking? The news piece says nothing about whether Ms. Valdez ever enjoys a nice walk through her neighborhood without nearly as many cars zooming by. But if there’s one, there are more, complainers.
I can tell you my experience: The Healthy Street I rode on is pretty great. A street that has curves with cars parked on both sides and stop signs every block is much more pleasant and safer to ride now. The stops are still there, but once past the Healthy Street sign, it’s like your own private boulevard. At least until a car or walker comes by, then you’ve got to get out of the way. But overall I felt like it was a good compromise. Less people are driving, so why not follow more progressive cities like Seattle and San Francisco to make Austin walkeable, bikeable, and overall more liveable? No reason except resistance to change.
Let’s hope Bike Austin gets the word out there enough. Maybe this blog will help amplify the call a little bit. Common sense says keeping Health Streets is a no-brainer. But for those who are dependent on cars, it’s probably threatening to their world view. Maybe the will be delayed a little bit coming and going by the barriers and people in the streets. Life is tough and cars rule the vast majority of roads and of course highways, so it’s not a big deal when you consider that.
Another news station had a piece about business owners not being consulted. Their parking lots were blocked off so their customers couldn’t get in, or thought that they couldn’t, which amounts to the same thing. But that was addressed and access granted. Hopefully doesn’t recur.
We’ll see how many people comment for and against and take the survey, and whether that means the City’s ATD had to remove some Healthy Streets. Time will tell, but with any luck, cooler heads will prevail and Healthy Streets are here to stay. If you’re in Austin, I’d encourage you to respond to the links above and to forward it to as many allies as possible.
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