Why do so few people bike to work? Austin has no shortage of obstacles: sweltering heat, sprawling layout, long rolling hills and even the air quality on some days.
E-bikes fix a lot of these problems. Austin Energy this year doubled its rebates for the electric rides.
But e-bikes don’t guarantee your safety. Fear of getting injured or killed by a car is the biggest reason people don’t ride bikes, research indicates.
One of the most comprehensive analyses of existing studies from around the world found things like “fear of motorist aggression” and “poor quality and condition of dedicated bike lanes” are the biggest barriers to cycling.
More than 55% of Austin residents would ride in protected bike lanes if they were available, one of the few polls on cycling here found. The survey of more than 600 residents in every ZIP code was conducted by the city in 2013 and informed Austin’s official bicycle plan.
A protected bike lane in Austin might have flexible posts separating it from the rest of the street (costing $30,000 to $50,000 per mile) or concrete curbs separating it (which range in price from $500,000 to $5 million per mile).
“I just kind of got spooked,” said Grace Matthews, an attorney who used to bike to work downtown from her home in South Austin. “I saw an ambulance one time with a bike laying out and somebody had clearly been hit. I don’t know if they were OK or not. And just kind of decided it wasn’t worth the risk anymore.”
Sometimes cyclists are hurt and their courage is shaken.
“I was pretty confident, a pretty strong rider,” said Matthew Duncan, who works in medical administration. “I collided with the side of their vehicle, went face first into the pavement and their rear tire ran over part of my arm. Road rash. Busted a tooth out. Hit my head pretty hard.”
Even after recovering, he kept riding, but had a few more close calls.
“I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Duncan said he eventually concluded.
Rhodney Williams, a volunteer with the Austin Ghost Bike Project, understands these concerns all too well. The organization places white bikes around town where cyclists have been killed.
“I ride a bike a lot. And whenever a crash happens and someone actually dies, it becomes kind of personal,” Williams said.
The most recent ghost bike he helped install is at Lamar Boulevard and 12th Street. That’s where 56-year-old Roger Crain was cycling when he fell into traffic and was hit by a pickup truck, Austin police said.
“If you get into why aren’t people riding bikes, part of that is just it can be fairly dangerous,” Williams said. “[Even though] Austin is probably one of the safer cities in the U.S. to ride bikes.”
In 2017, the city looked at putting a protected bike lane on the stretch of Lamar Boulevard where Crain was killed. But the study was terminated after it became evident Capital Metro would be expanding bus-rapid transit down the corridor as part of the Project Connect plan.
Capital Metro generally likes to add protected bike lanes, sidewalks and/or shared-use paths along high-frequency MetroRapid bus routes. But the expansion of the line down Lamar Boulevard is still in the early design phase.
“So often, when you see one of these deaths involving a person on bicycle, when you look at the location, in almost every case, you’ll find that it was in a place where the city has been planning protected bike facilities, but has not yet built them,” said Chris Riley, a former Austin City Council member who now sits on the board of the nonprofit Safe Streets Austin.
Four cyclists have been killed on Austin streets this year — the highest number at this point in the year since 2017, according to police records. Two of the deaths were hit-and-run crashes. More than 60 cyclists were involved in car crashes in which a police report was filed.