Letter to Council on Shoal Creek Debacle

A subcommittee of the City Council is getting some kind of an update on the Shoal Creek Debacle. I just sent this email to them.

Dear Mayor and councilmembers:
My name is Mike Dahmus, and I served on the Urban Transportation Commission from 2000 through 2005. I cast the lone vote in opposition to the plan which (with modifications) ended up being constructed on Shoal Creek Boulevard. During my terms on the UTC, I served as the lone member who utilized both an automobile and a bicycle to commute to work — i.e., I’m not a pure cyclist, and I’m not a pure driver. I used Shoal Creek Boulevard as part of my bicycle commute for years and occasionally drove it as well.

I understand you’re going to address this issue in a subcommittee meeting this week, and I thought I should comment.
For those of you who don’t bicycle; Shoal Creek Boulevard is, without hyperbole, the most important route in the city for bicycle commuters. (It has a lot of recreational traffic as well, of course). It forms the spine of the route between northwest Austin and central Austin – alternate routes either are far too hilly for normal use (to the west) or do not connect with routes which can get cyclists across the Mopac/183/360 barrier.

Years back, Shoal Creek’s turn came up in the “let’s do what every other city does and put up no-parking signs in our bike lanes” process. Since the bike program staff at the time knew that Shoal Creek had long blocks and (some) short driveways, they offered a compromise plan which would have allowed parking on one side of the road, with smaller-than-typical bike lanes on both sides. This plan was opposed by the neighborhoods, for whom on-street parking was the priority over through cyclist travel.

Years ago, thanks to neighborhood pressure, Shoal Creek Boulevard was reclassified from a minor arterial to a residential collector (an inappropriately low classification by engineering standards). This allowed the neighborhood to then push back against that eminently reasonable plan to allow parking only on one side of the street (neighborhood partisans could declare that SCB was a ‘residential street’ and that therefore parking was more important than through traffic). The bike program plan was rejected thanks to a few neighbors who valued both-sides on-street parking more than cyclist safety.

At this point, as I’m sure many of you remember, the neighborhoods got Councilmember Goodman’s approval to start a planning process which ended with the absurd plan by Charles Gandy which none of your engineers would sign their name to, and which made Austin a laughingstock in other cities around the country. The modified version of that plan (removing the stripe between the ‘bike lane’ and the parking area) is nearly as ludicrous, but since it’s not marked as a ‘bike lane’ is nominally acceptable to engineers, I suppose.

The Shoal Creek Boulevard plan as implemented is a liability problem for the city of Austin (although not as bad as the original Gandy “10-4-6” plan would have been, since city engineers were smart enough to remove the “bike lane” designation). Sufficient space does not exist for a cyclist to safely pass parked cars and remain in the bike lane, yet drivers in the through traffic lane expect them to do so. This is a textbook example of bad traffic engineering (when one street user performs a safe and legal manuever, another street user should not be caught by surprise).

This isn’t about the curb islands, by the way. The safety obstacle for cyclists is parked cars. The curb islands must be passed in a fairly narrow space, but there’s zero chance that one of them is going to open their door while you’re passing it.

But what the curb islands and striping HAVE done is encourage more people to park on the street; increasing the frequency of the street user conflict which will eventually result in a serious injury – a car passing a cyclist while the cyclist is passing a parked car.

This entire process was nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by the City Council. Your job is to make decisions, not to encourage a make-believe consensus when none can be found. There simply is no way to reconcile both-sides on-street parking with car-free bike lanes (and, by the way, the rest of the world views parking in bike lanes as an oxymoron). A decision either way would have been better than the mess you left us with — and cyclists are getting hurt already as a result.

I urge you to learn from this horrible mistake, and remember that your job is to make the tough decisions. Shoal Creek Boulevard has already been ruined for bicycling commuters – please don’t take this precedent anywhere else.

Michael E. Dahmus

  • Oh…and by the way, this driver does NOT expect bicyclists to pass cars in the right lane when it is impossible to do so. In fact, I take great care in passing them and will drive behind them until it is safe. Many other drivers don’t either and err in favor of bikes and cross the yellow line now especially on curves. I’ve had several near misses because people are trying to travel in a narrower lane on curves. It doesn’t help that so many drive those giant vehicles. When we had a conventional bike lane, many many bikers were not in it either because the gutter was rough or because they were riding several abreast or just because. Which, to me is fine, because cars and bikes could coexist if people drove more slowly. ALL of my heart-stopping near misses with bikers on my street came when backing out of my driveway or when bikers ran stop signs (much rarer but it happened). There are still many bikers on the street in spite of its ruination in your view. I rarely feel I’ve threatened them now that I can pull out of my driveway forward. I’m especially concerned about delivery trucks and yardmen’s trailers backing out of driveways after you convince them to make the driveways the only parking.