Bicycle advocates are gearing up for an uphill climb during the next state legislative session, and it's a hill they're all too familiar with.
In 2009, cycling advocates got a taste of victory when lawmakers approved legislation that would require a 3-foot cushion between motor vehicles and “vulnerable road users” such as pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and wheelchair users. But Gov. Rick Perry, a cyclist himself, surprised legislators and cyclists by vetoing the measure. Since then, cities across Texas have approved safety measures and road projects that include miles of bike lanes. And some cities have adopted their own ordinances meant to make cycling safer, requiring cars to give riders more room on the road.
That's progress, according to cycling enthusiasts, but there's still much work to be done. Austin may be home to world-famous cyclist Lance Armstrong, but the state is ranked 46th in the number of people who walk or bike to work, according to a 2010 survey funded by the Centers for Disease Control. And no Texas city ranked in the top 25 in that category, although Austin ranked 16th in biking rates alone. Even in cities that approved safe-passing laws, very few tickets have been issued. And, of course, the state's $25 billion budget shortfall will take up most of lawmakers' time and attention, leaving little for issues like cycling. “There is plenty of job security for bike advocates working in Texas,” said Jeff Miller, president and CEO of the Alliance for Biking & Walking.
Despite its relatively low level of walking and biking commuters, Texas ranked 10th-highest in the survey among states in fatality rates for bicyclists and pedestrians. Lawmakers who worked on the safe-passing measure in 2009 have vowed to fight for it again in 2011.
State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed safe-passing laws in the House and Senate, respectively, in 2009. Ellis, who is a cyclist, has long advocated for the law. For Harper-Brown it’s also a personal cause. Her granddaughter was injured when she was run off of the road by a car while riding her bike.
The bill, SB 488, passed unanimously in the House and had only five no votes in the Senate. But Perry vetoed the law, writing that it created a special class of road users and that motorists who were found at fault in an accident were already subject to fines and other penalties.
Since that defeat, cycling advocates have worked to get cities to adopt safe-passing ordinances. They’ve succeeded in five: Helotes, New Braunfels, San Antonio, Austin and, most recently, El Paso. A number of others have considered the ordinance but have yet to make it law.
But in the five cities that have safe-passing measures, only seven people have been cited for violating the ordinance, according to the municipal courts in the four cities where the ordinance has been in place for some time.
The most citations came in Austin, which in October 2009 became the first Texas city to adopt such an ordinance. As of Nov. 23, the city had cited four people. The other three citations came in San Antonio, where the ordinance was adopted in February.
But few tickets don’t mean the laws aren’t working, said Robin Stallings, the executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition. “This bill has always been more about education and less about punishment,” Stallings said.
Knowing they face a skeptic in the governor, cyclists have already asked for a meeting. “We’re not going into the governor’s office to convince him not to veto it,” Stallings said. “We’re going to listen to his concerns.”