On a rare warm day in February 2010, Steve Austin began a bicycle ride from his home in Ashland Park. He is almost finished with it.
Austin didn't set out intending to ride all 416 miles of Lexington streets inside New Circle Road. But the more he rode that afternoon, the more he thought it wouldn't be that hard.
"Finding the time and the right weather was my biggest challenge," said Austin, a vice president at Blue Grass Community Foundation.
Austin rode mostly on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but occasionally during heavy weekday traffic, always starting from his home. With a yellow highlighter, he marked off each street on a well-folded city map, but he didn't keep track of his total miles ridden. He has only a few streets left to go.
"I was really doing an experiment to see if Lexington is a bikeable city," he said. "The answer is yes. We tell ourselves it's not because of traffic, but inside New Circle Road is really compact, although it's more hilly than it looks from a car."
Austin, who was trained as a landscape architect and land-use lawyer and has spent much of his career as a city planner, said that viewing Lexington from the seat of a bicycle has given him a new perspective.
For one thing, he was impressed by how courteous drivers were to him. And he was struck by how nice Lexington's older suburban neighborhoods are — even the less-affluent ones. "But we missed a lot of opportunities as we grew from the core by not building greenways along the creeks to connect them," he said.
"You can live in a great suburb and still have to drive to everything," he said. "Retro-fitting the urban fabric to make it more pedestrian- and bike-friendly is going to be one of our challenges over the next few decades" as gasoline prices rise and the population ages.
But that won't be as difficult, or expensive, as it might sound. Austin discovered that New Circle Road is no more than a 30-minute bike ride from anywhere inside it, and the city is filled with lots of streets going the same direction.
"You can ride almost anywhere without getting on a busy road — a Nicholasville Road, a Richmond Road," he said, adding that Liberty, Mason Headley and Parkers Mill roads can be just as treacherous.
Austin said small things could make a big difference, such as signs marking good bike routes and cut-throughs at key points — a bridge over the creek behind Lafayette High School, for example, or a pathway behind Picadome Golf Course — that would allow cyclists to avoid busy roads.
"Those are incremental costs compared to the benefits we would get for the city," he said.
Such small improvements could encourage more bicycle commuters. The U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey found that only about 1 percent of Lexington's 143,000 commuters bike to work. "What would it take to get to 10 percent?" Austin wondered.
Austin now bikes to his downtown office several days a week, and he rides around his neighborhood some evenings with his son, who recently got a bicycle for his 9th birthday. Austin, who also has taken up jogging, said he has lost more than 20 pounds and is trying for more.
Austin said his journey also helped him notice things about Lexington that have nothing to do with biking — for example, how some of Lexington's nicest neighborhoods are only a stone's throw from some of its most dilapidated.
"Yet we've kind of compart mentalized things," he said. "We have mental blinders."
Austin also noticed University of Kentucky flags on homes in almost every neighborhood. "It sounds kind of cliché, but UK athletics is the unifier, the common reference," he said.
It made him wonder: How powerful would it be if every Lexington child could attend a basketball game in Rupp Arena, if only once?
"I think it's important for us to get to know our city better," he said. "And you just don't get it from the windshield of a car."
Reach Tom Eblen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.