Bike Austin calls for immediate improvements in response to latest death

A white bike was placed along E. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in memory of Jessica Saathoff. Photo credit: Patricia Schnaub.

Bike Austin joins many others in mourning the loss of Austinite Jessica Saathoff. On Thursday, March 28, an SUV driver struck and killed Jessica as she rode her bike on East Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard just east of I-35, near UT’s baseball stadium. Jessica’s tragic and needless death underscores the urgency of the making MLK and other Austin streets safe for all users.

The City of Austin has left hazardous conditions in place on MLK for far too long. The city owns and controls the portion of MLK from Lamar Boulevard to Airport Boulevard. From Lamar to I-35, the street has bike lanes on each side. But east of I-35, MLK has no bike lanes – just two lanes of fast-moving traffic in each direction. The city has recognized that this design is associated with a high crash rate.

The city’s Bicycle Master Plan, adopted in 2014, calls for physically protected bike lanes on the whole length of MLK. Through its Corridor Mobility Program, the city has developed preliminary plans for shared-use paths on both sides of MLK east of I-35. After conducting surveys and other outreach along the corridor, the city released results in December 2018 showing that many people have been biking on MLK. Additionally:

  • 57% of respondents reported that they would bicycle more with the proposed improvements.
  • 71% would feel safer while walking or biking with the proposed improvements.
  • 89% supported the recommendations for biking improvements.

Unfortunately, the city has not yet prioritized funding for these improvements. As of today, the city’s only commitment is that the recommendations “may be funded for design and construction as future funding sources become available.”

Jessica’s death marks the second time this year that an Austinite has been killed while riding a bike in the central city. On January 28, the driver of a Capital Metro bus struck and killed Anthony Diaz while he was riding his bike on San Jacinto Boulevard on the UT campus. Austin’s 2014 Bicycle Plan calls for protected bike lanes on both San Jacinto and MLK; but in the locations where these crashes occurred, neither street has any bike lanes at all.

To its credit, the Austin City Council has called for faster progress on improvements like those needed on these streets. In a resolution approved unanimously on March 28 – the morning before Jessica was killed – the Council stated its support for the City Manager’s efforts to accelerate timetables for planned bicycle, scooter, transit, and trail infrastructure projects.

But we can do better. The city of San Francisco recently set an impressive standard for responding to the death of a cyclist:  Within a week after Tess Rothenstein was killed by a driver on March 8, the city had removed parking where the crash occurred and installed a protected bike lane.

It should not take years to fix the dangerous conditions on East MLK. We have plans in place; all we lack is the determination to implement them. Given the Council’s resolution last Thursday, we urge the City Manager to move forward with improvements on East MLK immediately.

If we’re serious about ending deaths on our streets, we need to take each death seriously and do what we can to prevent another. Fixing East MLK Boulevard now won’t save Jessica Saathoff, but it may well prevent other deaths in the future.

What can you do to support safer biking in Austin? Let the city know you support full funding and implementation of Austin’s Bicycle Master Plan.