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For many years, and two apartments, I made a two-to-three mile trip to and from work on a bike older than me by two decades. It was not always fun, especially on days I would pedal up the one hill on route slowly enough to not break a sweat in DC’s deeply humid summers. But it was always a revelation to me to get from point A to B using nothing by my own power and two wheels.
That same bike has sat abandoned on my patio in California, even before we were all working from home. The distance would have been about the same: one mile to a train and a mile and change to the office. The weather is much more forgiving. The bike is the same cheap, but sturdy model I’d ridden for years. So what happened? I tried to do the route a few times. Nearly every time I concluded the same thing: the road and the car drivers around me felt far less safe.
Maybe I just got older and more risk-adverse, but the difference between the routes I took in DC and the route in San Francisco is pretty obvious: more protected bike lanes, and more routes on slow-moving streets.
My experience is not unique: the literature of what makes biking safer – and more enjoyable – in cities is pretty conclusive: roads that have dedicated, protected or buffered bike lanes, and lower-speed traffic on roads that don’t. As the electricity sector lowers its greenhouse gas emissions, most states’ largest – and still growing – share of climate-warming emissions comes from transportation. Trains and EVs are great opportunities to cut out pollution for longer trips, but locally, bike lanes could cut down on driving from shorter trips — Americans make a shocking number of trips under three miles in cars. But actually getting bike infrastructure built has proven to be a lot more difficult.
In the past month, I’ve seen two reports on cities in the U.S. that have either made significant build outs to their bicycling infrastructure or have increased their share of commuters using bikes. Not all the cities are big, and not all of them are particularly known for their bike cultures. But one city appeared on both lists: Austin, Texas. What’s happening there?
A goal helps, but buy-in from city officials and funding helps even more
One of the crucial things to understand about Austin and biking is that it was starting from a relative low point. Between 2000 and 2019, the city increased its share of regular bike commuters by almost 20%, but its total share of bike commuters in 2019 was still only 1.3%. That’s still more than twice the U.S. national average.
Austin’s rapid build out of bike paths is very recent but has precedent. In 2014, the city passed a plan for the “All Ages and Abilities Bicycle Network,” and a 2016 ballot measure funded street improvements, including biking and pedestrian projects.
The city also became part of the Final Mile program in 2018, which provided financial support if the mayor was willing to make a public goal of a specific number of miles of bike lanes within two-to three years. (The second report is a contracted analysis of all Final Mile cities by the funder, Wend Collective – aka a Walmart heir – by the Urban Institute).
Austin laid down its marker at 100 miles. But the money didn’t go to the city – it went to non-profits, a project manager and engineering consulting to support that goal from the outside, while the city made specific calls on where and when the infrastructure was built.
As I can attest with this newsletter, a self-set deadline with some external pressure can be clarifying. Austin hit and exceeded their goal in 2021 – and the vast majority of the new lanes were “secure” - i.e. protected or buffered in some way.
But crucially, Austin got their own residents to support even more specific funding: A ballot measure passed by 67% in 2020 created $120 million in funding for bike paths and urban trails through a property-tax supported bond. By the end of 2021, 50% of their 2014 plan had been built, and the city now plans for more than 200 miles of bike infrastructure.
Repaving and other opportunities
Nobody likes a pothole. Austin’s expansion of bike infrastructure has been helped by the city’s relatively aggressive repaving schedule, which is on a 10-year schedule, instead of the more common 20-year turnover. City planners told both reports this gives them more opportunities to combine repaving with changes to how the street is laid out. Boston also did this on a smaller scale, using repaving stimulus funds to quickly build out 40 miles of bike lanes at the end of the aughts.
And Austin, like other cities in the U.S, made some changes to its roads during the pandemic, including protected bike lanes along one very crucial street: Congress Avenue, which runs immediately south from the Texas state capitol in downtown, and connects to existing parts of safer bike lanes running west and east. Now it’s becoming permanent.
Different cities, different goals
I don’t want to overstate it: Austin’s growth in bike infrastructure is the “improved” not “best” category. Cars are still far and away the primary commuting share, but the city is one of the fastest growing in the country, and that means a lot of possibility for changing how people get around.
But what about some of the other cities in these two reports?
In Chicago (a 53% increase in bike commuting to 1.7%) and New Orleans (a Final Mile city), city planners took a different tact: building most of its new bike infrastructure in one neighborhood. This avoided installing most of the infrastructure in wealthy, whiter neighborhoods — groups of people that are already over-represented in biking in cities — and also as a proof of concept: here’s what a fully realized neighborhood bike network actually looks like.
Seeing more biking infrastructure in cities actually get built is encouraging, but there’s little evidence beyond anecdotes at the moment on whether the bicyclist themselves are showing up: 2020’s American Community Survey (a sort of longer, survey-style version of the Census) didn’t ask only about biking or walking commutes. Plus, the impact of the pandemic on commuting over all is still far from settled.
Want to know what your city looks like in terms of bike commuting - at least before the pandemic?: The League of American Bicyclists analyzed American Community Survey data for 40 cities across the U.S, including breaking out who is more likely to walk and bike to work in each.
California regulators are delaying a vote on a controversial proposal to slash incentives for home solar systems as they consider revamping the measure.
Wisconsin bill reveals fight over control and profit from shift to electric vehicles
Bellingham, Washington joins the list of cities blocking gas hookups in new buildings.
The race is on between states to grab infrastructure law funding for building out EV chargers. Wyoming’s highway agency is trying to get their arms around what they’re going to do.
The nation’s largest grid operator has a giant backlog of applications for solar projects seeking to connect to the grid.
The U.S. updates it’s sea level rise maps and projects a rise of an additional 10-12 inches by 2050 with regional variations. For more localized scenarios, take a look at this interactive map.
In a new report, Missouri regulators repeatedly accuse St. Louis-based utility Spire of misleading customers this summer and fall as the company navigated troubles with a key natural gas pipeline.
Hawaii is going to pay for households for sharing solar energy with the grid at useful times.
The big number: 12.8% of 2021 car sales in California were plug-ins.