I like to think Austinites pride themselves on their sustainable lifestyles and bike rides around a sunny Zilker park. Do not mistake me, Austin is an amazingly bikeable city, especially in the downtown area near UT Campus, but this is largely because of the city’s density there. Outside downtown is a different story. Though Austin is very dense in comparison to other Texan cities, the capital still has its share of long roads, highways, and shady bus stops. As such, it is not bike-friendly in all areas. Bike lanes are sparse, electric scooters dominate sidewalks, and at night, one sometimes has to bike through pitch-black neighborhoods to avoid hectic cars that would otherwise run you over. Needless to say, the city’s infrastructure for cyclists could be improved. Especially in comparison to Angers, France.
My past semester in Angers involved biking to classes every morning. Then biking for food afterwards, and around downtown, and back home. Out of all my bike rides, I have only been (almost) hit once. And it was my own fault, for not looking both ways. In Angers, cyclists take priority on the road. In almost all areas of the city, there are bike lanes, bike shops, and racks. Roads are often narrow and filled with pedestrian activity, forcing drivers to ride a little slower. Most of the faster traffic flow is contained in areas away from neighborhoods. These factors fit together to generate a pleasurable cycling environment across Angers. Although it was not just the biking infrastructure, but the city infrastructure as a whole that facilitated the experience.
Angers is a very dense city with shops, bakeries, and areas of interest around every corner. Roads do not continue for too long, and everything is within half a kilometer’s walk. The city’s efficient melding of residential and commercial spaces ensures there is little wasted space. An area of comparison in Austin would be South Congress. Along South Congress are numerous stores packed close together with cafes, hotels, and parking spaces. The street is constantly bustling with activity and is fairly pedestrian friendly, save for the five-lane road running through it. Despite how efficient the street is, it is only comprised of single-floor buildings and lacks more permanent residential spaces. The separation between residential and commercial areas is no coincidence.
Urban sprawl in the United States is an anomaly compared to most European countries. In Austin, the issue of urban sprawl is noted as the “single most significant urban issue for Austin and Central Texas.” Part of the issue is the resulting dependence on automobiles. Because so much of the city is wide and spread out, walking to grocery stores or parks appears daunting and unrealistic. More people feel forced to take cars, resulting in increased carbon emissions. Among issues highlighted in the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan (ATCP), sprawl can negatively affect water quality and neighborhoods, and with growing suburbs comes an increase in commuting. In a 2013 report titled “Life-Cycle Energy Implications Of Different Residential Settings: Recognizing Buildings, Travel, And Public Infrastructure,” it was noted that some suburban homes could consume 3.2x more embodied energy than that of its densest cousin; this was after examining four Austin neighborhoods based on total energy consumption, factoring in transportation and electricity use.
In comparison, French policies and attitudes in the mid-1900s resulted in more collective structures being built, and an incentivized preference for more single-family housing. State policies in response to the baby boom, post-war reconstruction efforts, and Algerian re-integration urged the government to create a solution to housing shortages. The solution took the form of compact living spaces, increased public transportation and introduction of bus and bike lanes. Additionally, the State actively avoided urban sprawl, strategically working towards urban polycentrism. Informed planning and a series of environmental strategies, transportation policies, and regulations put in place around 1965 contributed to a more controlled development of France’s urbanized regions.
Though it is impossible to restructure Austin completely, we can take small steps towards sustainability and improved biking conditions. And it is not like the city does not recognize this. The city of Austin has made enormous strides in improving biking infrastructure and walkability. In 2014, the city released the Austin Bicycle Master Plan, continuing on efforts made previously to benefit cyclists in areas like South Congress, South Lamar, Guadalupe, Cameron Road, and St. Johns. In 2016, mayor Steve Adler supported the publishing of the 2016 Sidewalk Master Plan, aimed at improving sidewalk quality and regulation. These steps towards improved urban infrastructure are great news for cyclists. Because its not just the exclusion of bike lanes that’s the problem, it is the fundamental barrier of urban sprawl and land usage.
In a 2008 survey based on cyclist attitudes in Austin, Texas, 80.5% of participants agreed “more compact and efficient land use can encourage additional bicycle ridership. The long distances associated with low-density urban sprawl make cycling less feasible” (Marlin, 73). Urban sprawl and great distances can be the deciding factor between a person taking a car, or deciding to bike. In France, where urban sprawl is minimal, bikers are seen in tremendous frequency. Heck, every year, France hosts the famous Tour de France, a legendary biking competition! Sprinkle in the amazing support for cyclists and lanes, and France becomes the premier biking-aficionado destination. But what is there to say Austin cannot become a biking capital as well? As someone hoping to live in Austin by 2021, I would be happy to see the city take a chapter out of France’s book to improve cycling infrastructure. I loved biking to class, stores, and downtown in Angers. Why not make it a joy to bike to class, stores, and downtown in Austin too?
Blog Post by Timothy Nguyen
A lone yellow bike I spotted in Paris, France on my way to Sacre-Couer. Bikes are an extremely common sight among the city’s metro stations, landmarks, and roads.