What the North Star Can Learn from the Lone Star

This past week I attended a conference in Austin, Texas. I had only ever been to cruddy parts of Texas before, but was excited to see a city I had heard great things about. People told me about the great music scene, amazing food, and beautiful parks. I knew they have bike share and had my Austin B-cycle app on my phone before my plane hit the ground. While I spent most of my time sitting in hotel conference rooms, I had almost a full day to explore before the conference began and made the best of every break and evening. While I had been told a lot of positive things about the city, this post is about three things I was most impressed with: AMAZING bike infrastructure (was not expecting that at all), public art that built a sense of place, and benches.

OMG Bikes!

I spent most of my free day exploring the city by bike, clocking just over ten miles. I was surprised to find miles of connected separated bike paths. I hardly had to stop to check a map because the way-finding signs along the route directed me exactly where I needed to go. I was impressed that as separated lanes ended they blended into low traffic side routes, often with contra flow bike lanes. There was never a question of where to go. In Minneapolis I have never felt comfortable in contra flow lanes, but these were clearly marked and car drivers seemed to expect bicyclists. Also, every stop light on these routes had a bike only light phase (without even pushing a button!!).

Protected lanes on Fourth Street near Trinity.


The above picture are lanes on Trinity Street. Two way bicycle lanes at street level, the commuter rail line, and one lane of car traffic. Notice all the bike racks. There were bike racks everywhere.  This set up only ran about six blocks, but ran under an interstate and seemed to provide an important connection out of downtown. At rush hour it was packed with bikes.

Protected lanes on Third Street. There is one on each side of the street.

These lanes on Third Street ran all the way across town. There was one lane on each side of the street, riding in the direction of traffic.  I appreciated that it was street level, the concrete curbs, and intersections. It might be difficult to see in the pictures, but the stop line for cars was very far back, requiring auto traffic to make full, right angled turns which makes bikes and pedestrians more visible. Some busier intersections had bike boxes to give priority and placement for left-turning bikes.

Protected lane on Trinity Street. Car traffic is one way.

Each of these routes had varying treatments that were dependent on context. For example, the Third Street lanes started where off-road paths through parks ended. The separated lanes ran for about two miles, where they met a “T”. The roadway ended, but a bike and pedestrian bridge spanned a section of railway and a dry creek. On the other side of the bridge, Third Street was narrow and seemed to serve largely as loading for businesses. The bikeway at this point became a contra flow lane. There is a lesson for us in seeing how different treatments can be combined to make one, clear route.

Protected lane in a residential in East Austin.

I biked two miles from downtown to East Austin for dinner at Counter Culture and was surprised to find these bollard separated lanes in a residential neighborhood. Right after I took this picture a family with kids on bikes went by.

Austin B-Cycle station

They have cruddy lanes, too.

Not everything is amazing. There were plenty of these types of bike lanes, too, and an intense bridge crossing where an unprotected lane ran next to very fast traffic. However, unlike Saint Paul not a single driver revved their engine and sped up at me and I was never sworn at once. This is at least a weekly occurrence in Saint Paul. I felt safe the entire time.

Also, note that Austin appears to have a thriving business community even on streets with protected bike lanes. There appeared to be plenty of parking.

OMG Art!

Art can add a sense of place, but sometimes municipal art projects feel forced or corporate (Peanuts statues anyone?). Maybe all these murals were planned, but they felt organic. They felt part of the place. They also helped defined a place. I knew I was headed into a different part of the city because the art changed.

These next few pictures were downtown, near the main entertainment district. Most (excepting the one on the Mexic-Arte Museum) were music-themed or had musical elements. As I walked north to the state capitol building, the murals changed to more historic elements such as people or scenes from Texas history.

Mural outside the Mexic-Arte Museum

Mural on “The Strip.”


Mural on “The Strip.”

On my journey to East Austin, I found more Mexican-inspired murals, as well as murals reflecting the businesses in the area. The last picture was on a pedicab company called Dikes on Bikes.

Mural in East Austin

Mural in East Austin.

Mural in East Austin.

OMG Benches!

Benches. This seems like a small thing, but Austin is hot, like super hot. In May it was 98 degrees with 60 percent humidity. There were benches under boulevard trees everywhere. It was great. Walking in heat is tiring and there were tons of shady spots to sit. Sometimes it’s these little things that make a huge difference.

Benches and trees!

Art, tree, benches, and separated bike path – the quad-fecta!!

I only saw a tiny bit of Austin, but I want to go back. As I rode down their protected lanes, I was thinking about Summit and Snelling and how some of these concepts could help improve safety at home. These ideas exist. They are working in other places. At my conference the Chief Performance Officer of Austin, Texas, spoke. She was talking about open data, not bikes, but that led to talk of their strategic plan. They made a choice to prioritize bikes and pedestrians over cars. I could tell.

Cat that struck a pose on Rainey Street




Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.