Speedway must consider alternative transportation options

James Lentz

As construction progressed on the Speedway Mall, some students noticed that many of the newly laid bricks were chipping and cracking. The university noticed, too. The Daily Texan reports that the contractor has now agreed to replace the faulty bricks with ones strong enough to resist cracking.

The bricks aren’t the only issue students have noticed. As the throngs crowd the walkway between classes, they’re joined by students on bikes, skateboards and other modes of travel. There are no clear designated paths for different users of the space. Pedestrians must watch for speeding cyclists; people on bikes often attempt to pedal slowly behind clusters of students, waiting for the chance to dart around. Everyone is frustrated. Near-collisions are common.

The transformation of Speedway into a pedestrian mall has been considered at least since 1997. The official web page for the initiative states that “special interest representatives” for students who bike participated in the planning stage, yet the only indication of that is the plan’s resolve to “encourage alternative transportation” by adding bike parking. The UT bike coordinator did not participate in those conversations because the position did not yet exist. Those involved in the discussion say that the decision to force walking students to share the full width of the pedestrian mall with students on bikes, skateboards and other means was a conscious one; they claim that a bike lane was rejected as too unsafe.

It’s an understandable concern. We are often distracted by our phones or by conversation with friends. A casual observer of the mall will quickly notice how abruptly students sometimes turn to take a side path or to make a beeline for a student organization giving out granola bars. Bike lanes, the planners reasoned, would encourage cyclists to travel at speeds dangerous to distracted pedestrians, so better to keep everybody together. 

A lot has changed since the mall was first proposed. The University now has almost 16,000 motor vehicle parking spaces to serve the needs of 70,000 students, faculty, staff and visitors. We need to be looking for other options. Students have always used bikes to get around campus, but elite universities are turning to active transportation to address climate change, affordability, congestion and urban sustainability issues.

As a university of the first class, UT should be leading the way on infrastructure. There are design options that allow even distracted pedestrians to notice when they are crossing into a bike lane: The “Plaza Saltillo” project downtown — which is revamping the Fourth-Street MetroRail station into a multiuse pedestrian plaza bisected by a bike lane — will make the delineation clear using textured, cobblestone-like bricks between the paved path and the walking area. There could also be speed bumps or strategically placed planters or posts to slow people on bikes where the lane passes in front of staircases and sidewalks.  

The faulty bricks on the mall did not meet the design specifications. When the problem was noticed, UT took steps to correct the issue. For the benefit of all who use Speedway, UT should do the same by correcting the lack of facilities for students on bikes. 

Lentz is a civil engineering major.