Mar 22, 2010

Byrne Gives Celebrity Boost to Austin Cycling

By Ryland Barton

The crowd gathered at Austin’s Paramount Theatre to hear Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. But the iconic musician wasn’t there on that evening last fall to reminisce on the punk years or belt out his trademark “Burning Down the House.” He was there to speak on a panel about bicycling in cities.

Clearly, some were there simply to see the legendary man who composed hits like “And She Was” and “Once in a Lifetime,” but judging from the hundreds of bicycles out front, Byrne’s celebrity was not the only reason the theater was packed.

The panel, “Where We’re Going And Where We’ve Been: Bicycles, Cities, and Transportation in Austin,” was put together in September 2009 by the Austin Public Library and presented itself as a springboard to Austin’s gaining status as a bike-friendly town. In addition to Byrne, panelists included Rob D’Amico, president of the League of Bicycling Voters; Annick Beaudet, bicycle pedestrian coordinator for the city of Austin; and urban planner Jana McCann.

Having biked through many of the world’s major cities, including 20 years two-wheeling around New York City, Byrne’s advice to Austin was to forgo adding pieces of infrastructure such as parking garages and highway ramps, and instead create more street-level public space for pedestrians and bikers.

5210byrne1“The solution to traffic is not to build more and bigger roads,” Byrne said, presenting a slide show of his recent bike ride down Lamar, passing parking garage after parking garage.

Byrne cited the work of Jane Jacobs, an American sociologist whose book The Life and Death of American Cities outlined the importance of neighborhoods and street-level interactions in urban environments in creating vibrant and cohesive neighborhoods.

McCann described Austin as a “vibrant place” because of its music scene, but criticized the public spaces of the city, saying their only charm arises from “griminess.”

“We don’t have very engaging outdoor spaces in downtown Austin” or a great sense of neighborhood, McCann said. “The bicycle enterprise should be thought of as community building.”

Beaudet, who is working for the city to implement projects like the Lance Armstrong Bikeway through downtown and the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge extension, talked about the city’s $22 million 10-year plan to build and promote biking. “People will bike when there are good places to bike,” Beaudet said. She suggested that the reason more people don’t bike in Austin is that many streets do not provide enough space.

5210byrne2Beaudet hopes that by 2020, of the 500,000 Austinites commuting to work, 25,000 will get there by bike. U.S. census numbers say about 6,000 Austinites report regularly using bikes to get to work.

One concern for Austin cyclists is the lack of protection under traffic laws.

D’Amico told a story of a cyclist who was injured when a driver opened the door of a parked car. The cyclist was cited for negligent driving.

“If there’s more cyclists out there, then laws are going to be warranted to protect more cyclists,” Beaudet responded.

A new municipal law requires a three-foot safe zone between cars and bikes — six feet for commercial vehicles. The city already had a law on the books fining drivers up to $500 for bike lane violations.

Beaudet also announced a plan to turn Nueces Street from a “road to nowhere” into a “bicycle boulevard” from Third Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard. Bicycle boulevards are streets in which bicycles are given the center lanes of traffic and barriers allow cars access to only individual blocks for local traffic. Transportation bonds passed in 2000 will pay for the $350,000 project, which should be done by spring 2010.