City Council approves funding for bicycle detection technology

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Photo Credit: Lex Rojas | Daily Texan Staff

Cyclists in Austin will soon be able to use their smartphones to optimize travel time on busy intersections. 

Austin City Council voted Thursday to accept $200,000 from a Texas Department of Transportation grant for the installation of 12 bicycle signals and bicycle detection equipment at 20 intersections around the city. The City Council will provide an additional $50,000 to the project, which was proposed in the 2013 Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Two bicycle detection systems will be located near the University campus, including one at Rio Grande St. and Martin Luther King Boulevard, according to a 2013 proposal by the Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Bicycles are difficult to sense at intersections because they are much smaller than cars, according to Director of Transportation Robert Spillar. The proposed bicycle detection equipment would involve an app on a cyclist’s smartphone, which notifies the traffic light a cyclist is waiting for the light to change.

“There is a separate project that we have to build: a bicycle application for smartphones that would … communicate to our signal system, but it would not prioritize bicycles to the system,” Spillar said at the Council meeting Thursday. “It would just send a signal to the traffic signal: ‘hey, I’m here and waiting.’”

Computer science senior Clay Smalley said he thinks bike infrastructure is a good use of city funding. 

“It’s making Austin livable without requiring everyone to have a car,” Smalley said. “That’s a huge thing that I really like — being able to go places without a car.” 

District 1 Representative Ora Houston voted against the resolution. The lack of sidewalks in her district worried her and took first priority over bicycle signals, according to Houston.

“It seems to me that with all of the congestion in the city, there needs to be some prioritization of the bicycle master plan,” Houston said. “The reason I asked if there was a law against bicycles riding on sidewalks is to point out the fact if we can work together, we can make sure people using a cane or electric chair or walking have someplace to navigate besides the bike lanes, which is where they are now.”

Houston also said the price tag on the bicycle signals and detection was heftier than advertised.

“There was a $200,000 grant and $50,000 of bond money to leverage that grant,” Houston said. “There was language talking about design standards, and there was no money attached to that. This is an additional $45,000, so it turned out to be $95,000 from the bond and $200,000 from the grant. I wanted to have a conversation about if this made sense to people.”

Despite the cost, Smalley sees the $250,000 as an investment in mobility of all kinds.

“Over time, as you make a thoroughfare more friendly for people riding their bikes, it allows them to travel places without a car, and because of that, there is a lower barrier of entry just to getting around the city,” Smalley said. “Transportation around the city is essential for economic mobility, social mobility. You hear all the time about people taking three buses for two hours just to get to work. This is something that would help them a lot.”