An interview with Austin Mayor Steve Adler on the city’s ambitious, 400+ mile bike network.
In Austin, Texas, a more than 400-mile bike network is being built in record time. As of September of this year, 215 miles of the all ages and abilities network are complete, connecting protected bike lanes, neighborhood bikeways and urban trails. Impressively, Austin’s investment of $460 million to complete the network by 2025 exceeds the commitment recently made—and widely celebrated—by Paris, France ($291 million, with a 2026 completion date).
We spoke with Austin Mayor Steve Adler to discuss the ways the city rallied around the network’s construction, the major challenges to achieving comprehensive mode shift and how transit and bike projects benefit drivers, too.
PeopleForBikes: Why is this all-ages and abilities bike network important to the city of Austin?
Mayor Steve Adler: We have to do a better job of giving everyone in our city more equitable, safer and convenient transportation choices. People of all ages — whether they’re a child or in their eighties — and of all backgrounds have to feel comfortable and secure moving freely in Austin. People are not going to survive if it takes an hour and a half to commute to their medical office, to care for their kids or to get back and forth from their job. We also set climate goals in this city which we won’t reach unless we’re able to get people to make a mode shift.
For people who aren't from Austin, can you explain the two transportation bonds that passed and why they were such a big deal?
Two really important bond initiatives went before Austin voters last November, which, due to the pandemic, was an exciting time to take a bond initiative to voters. Many cities backed off of taking bonds to voters in that period of time for fear that people wouldn't tax themselves. Of our two bond proposals, one passed by 58% and the other by about two-thirds. The first one was really to bring mass public transit to our city in a way that people would actually use.
We went to voters and said, “Let’s not focus on one transit line, let’s focus on the city and adopt a whole regional plan.” It required people to vote to increase their city property taxes by about 20.4%. But we were able to do that because people recognized that we needed to get this done. That was a $7.2 billion project and at the same time it was going to the voters, it was suggested that surely we could free up half a billion dollars to actually improve active transportation projects in our city, which would only complement and support the other proposition on the ballot.
We had the infrastructure in place. The elections were in place. The campaign and the messaging were supportive of one another. Advocates were supportive. We figured we should do them both while the time was ripe and fortunately, we were successful.
So this support from the public helped accelerate the buildout?
We set what we thought were pretty ambitious goals and frankly, I would've been really proud if we had just met those original goals. But then we had a community that indicated that it was ready to open up the pocketbook and really develop these multimodal choices faster. At the same time as we were getting our community together to approve a multi-billion dollar urban rail system and transit overhaul, it became apparent to us that we could also accelerate the goal we had of building up the bicycle network. It was popular and people wanted us to do it.
How have different players in the city come together to make this happen?
It took a lot of grassroots work — a lot of the bicycle advocacy organizations in our city really helped position our community to be able to do this. We have some very strong bicycle advocacy organizations in this community — smart folks, strategic folks — that have always been pushing this agenda. But I think Austin really did come together on this and part of it is it fits with the culture of who we are in this city. Things happen fast when cities and communities are being their best selves, and this is just who we are.
How has the city built support for the network from residents that do not bike or will never choose to bike?
There are some people in our community that say that they're never going to give up their cars. And to those people, I say, "Great, but wouldn't you like all the other people in their cars to get off the roads so that you have more space? Let's give more options for the people that you'd like to see leave our roads.” That one's hard to argue with.
The other thing we hear a lot is that's not going to happen in Texas. That it’s possible in a Scandinavian country, but not here. So we show people that in the early seventies, those countries were as car-centric as we are today.
You also hear from people that no one will ever do this in Texas because it's just too hot and that the climate doesn't lend itself to it. And I say, “I hear you on climate, it can get a little warm here. Go ahead and get yourself an electric bike.” Then I show them a picture I took in Oslo, Norway, where it was below zero and the snow was coming down pretty heavy and people were dressed warmly and still using their bikes. When people are used to doing something because it’s easy, convenient and safe, they keep doing it, no matter the weather.
Austin is rare in that it’s coordinated between city transit organizations, advocates and the community. The city is promoting bikes, but in concert with transit and even drivers — why is that a winning strategy?
When you address the issues of transportation and mobility — and if you really are putting a certain effort into driving equity and opportunity — then you have to take a holistic approach. There is no one mobility solution that's the answer for everyone or in and of itself. It has to be an integrated system. You can pick pieces of that system but that’s going to leave people out.
Our challenge is to have a comprehensive mode shift. The good thing about moving forward holistically is that the transit people are supporting the bike programs and vice versa because we’re all supporting the same concept. Seventy percent of the people that are traveling to Austin downtown right now are doing it alone in their cars. We can't survive that way on lots of different levels. The way we get from 70% to 50% by 2039 isn’t just bikes and it isn’t just transit. It isn’t just one thing — it’s everything.
How do safe and equitable mobility options benefit Austin's larger goals?
There are so many things that are going right in Austin right now — it's kind of a magical place. It's the fastest-growing large metropolitan area in the country and has been for the last five years. We are just hitting on so many cylinders, but we’re not hitting on every cylinder for everybody. If we're going to be able to preserve the magic that is Austin — the kind of the culture that keeps things weird and supports innovation — we have to maintain diversity in our community. And that is the hardest thing to do when you become the “it” city because so many people want to come and everything becomes so expensive so fast.
A mass public transit system and an all-ages and abilities bicycle network are both great for people's lives. These are all things that enable everyone to participate in a community, which is really important to our economy because our economy is all about the people. It will also help us to meet our goals around climate change. For Austin to get to a zero-carbon footprint by 2040, it's going to require us to take another look at how we're doing transportation, getting more and more people in fewer and fewer vehicles. This work fits in with that.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see in Austin when it comes to large-scale, equitable mode shift?
There are challenges in any community, Austin included, when it comes to achieving real equity. To a large measure that's because so many of the systems and institutions are built around systemic challenges like racism. Those things are built-in. So if you actually want to change things, you have to be pretty disruptive.
We're trying to do that in this city with homelessness and policing — disruptive change — to rethink how we do those kinds of systems. The same thing is true for transportation. And that's hard because people like to live with incremental change. I would say that the biggest challenge is recognizing that there's a lot of inertia working against you and that sometimes the needed change is going to have to be disruptive, and that can be tough for any community.
What’s your 10-year vision for Austin? Paint a picture of life and the city’s streets for us.
Twenty years from now, I hope life on the street just looks active and involved, with lots of people doing many different things and the streets being used in a variety of ways. I want everyone in Austin to have the ability to be able to come together and to move with one another and talk to one another in an environment that is safe, friendly and accessible to everyone. We have a lot of that already in our communities, we're just not using our streets in all the different ways that they could be used. That’s changing in many ways right now.