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Navigating the Urban Obstacle Course

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Bikes, pedestrians, buses, cars, pedicabs, joggers, barricades, construction sites, pedal powered bars mobile partygoers, the streets of downtown Austin are a non stop show. At times it can be a bit on the tricky side to navigate. As a dog walking city dweller I spend two to three hours a day walking the streets of downtown. After three years of this I have noticed a few things that might be helpful to those who might be new to the downtown area.

1. Intersections with pedestrians and traffic. Our traffic signals have a little problem. When the pedestrian signal turns to “walk”, the traffic signal for the right turn lane turns “green” at the exact same time. Pedestrians start walking across the street and cars start turning right-into them. Pedestrians have the right of way of course but both are looking at a signal that says “go”. Cars start their turn and end up sitting trapped in the middle of the intersection because they have to stop for pedestrians. This often results in honking from cars behind and frustration. The car driver can actually end up still sitting there waiting on pedestrians to cross through the entire light cycle. As a driver I have had people step out right in from of me (while staring at their phones) while I am halfway through the turn. As a pedestrian I have had cars come right at me while I am halfway across the street. This is a seriously flawed system. What to do? Here are two suggestions. As a driver I have learned to look first for pedestrians waiting on the corner that will cross in from of me when the light turns. If they are there I don’t move when the light turns green. I wait until they are almost all the way across to go. As a pedestrian I look directly at the driver in the right turn lane and make sure that I make eye contact with them before I cross the street. If they look back at me I know “they got me” and they won’t launch into me while I am crossing the street. Same goes for intersections with stop signs. Most drivers will let you cross first if they see you. Also when you are crossing the street, don’t “dawdle” Put your phone down, look around and get across. The person waiting in the car knows they only have a few seconds before their light turns back to red.

2. Parking garages. These can be another tricky spot for both drivers and pedestrians. Most parking garages act like blind intersections. Cars are basically popping out of a tunnel. They cannot see you walking down the sidewalk until their front wheels are already on the sidewalk. Same for the pedestrian. If you are approaching a parking garage exit as a pedestrian it is a good idea to actually stop and look around the corner into the building before walking across it. Many garages have lights, bells, or mirrors to help you see cars on their way out. Once very important note here. If the parking garage is exiting onto a one way street I promise you most drivers will be ONLY LOOKING ONE WAY as they come out. If you are walking up from the other direction, they will never see you. What to do? If you are a driver, slow down as you cross the sidewalk and look both ways even it is a one way street. There are no one way sidewalks! If you are pedestrian take note of a parking garage exit and pause before walking across it. Even better to take a peek inside and see if there is a car coming.

3. Bikes. Biking is a big deal in Austin. From the logo-emblazoned spandex crowd to the tourist in a rent-a bike with a basket, bikes are everywhere. As silly as it sounds, the bell on the handlebar is the best thing going for both bikers and pedestrians. If you are walking down the street a bike is almost completely silent as it zooms up behind you. (especially in you have your headphones in). I think we have all been startled by a bike suddenly grazing our shoulder as it appears out of nowhere and whizzes by. If I hear the bell behind me I know they are coming and I either hold my course steady or move slightly to the right so they can get by. I am not sure if this is a real rule or not but bikes do tent to pass on your left. Jumping left when you hear the bell is not a good idea. This simple thing really helps us both. If you don’t have a bell on your bike I strongly suggest getting one. It really does work.

Austin is a great walking city. There is so much to see. The landscape literally changes daily with all the new construction. Oftentimes I stumble into some kind of parade or festival that I didn’t even know was happening. I am sure there is a lot more than can be added to my short list here. If you are reading this on the DANA website feel free to add your comments or observations. I am sure there are many perspectives on this subject. Hopefully my few tips here can help you breeze through town with ease. It would be a lot cooler if you did…. See you around town!

Grant Eriksen