The Butler Hike and Bike Trail around Lady Bird Lake officially reopened this week, but with a new twist: It’s temporarily one-way.


And although runners, walkers and cyclists are allowed to use the 10-mile loop, officials are discouraging them from doing so, asking that people exercise closer to home instead. To encourage that, the city has closed parking areas around the trail — along with parking lots at all parks within the bounds of MoPac (Loop 1), Barton Springs Road, Interstate 35 and 15th Street — to reduce crowding.


This week, crews from the Trail Foundation, the nonprofit organization that works to maintain and enhance the Butler Trail, are installing 200 temporary one-way directional signs. Traffic will flow clockwise, the same way as the mileage markers that start at Vic Mathias Shores. The full conversion to one-way traffic should be complete by Friday.


City officials say the new clockwise traffic pattern will reduce face-to-face contact and lessen the likelihood that trail users will spread the coronavirus, which is transmitted through aerosol-borne droplets expelled when people cough or sneeze, or that linger on surfaces. The decision was made in consultation with the Public Health Authority and the city’s Equity Office.


"Based upon feedback and observations of trail usage, we thought it would be prudent to try a one-way direction and see if that allows for increased physical distancing, while allowing folks to get exercise but still be in compliance with the stay-safe order," said Kimberly McNeeley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. "We also want to stress good etiquette, like letting people know when you’re passing."


Dr. Elizabeth Douglass, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Texas Dell Medical School, said people who choose to use the trail should give fellow users a wide berth, and vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, should consider carefully before heading there.


"People should really respect the recommended distance and not pass right next to people," Douglass said. "I think it’s a matter of people being patient."


People with mobility impairment will still be allowed multidirectional use of the trail, and crossings like the Pfluger and Crenshaw pedestrian bridges will remain multidirectional because they are part of the city’s transportation corridor.


The Trail Foundation has spent about $6,000 making and putting up signs so far. When the city’s "stay home-work safe" order, which allows people to leave their homes for exercise, was first ordered in mid-March, Trail Foundation employees installed a series of signs to remind users to cover their mouths and maintain a 6-foot distance. More signs were installed for the Easter closure. The new one-way signs are the third round of signage in a month.


"Our purpose there is simple. The trail on a high-activity day can have 7,000 to 10,000 people," said Heidi Anderson, executive director of the Trail Foundation. But unlike most parks, where people can spread out, the trail features narrow pinch points, where it’s difficult to maintain the 6-foot recommended separation.


That’s why the foundation is encouraging people to stay away and let the trail rest, she said.


"The trail is such a valued place for all of us, but in this moment the trail, when busy and packed, cannot accommodate that," Anderson said. "It’s been a struggle for us because it’s against our grain and mission to discourage people from coming. We love this place and it offers wonderful access to nature, but in this moment, it also presents some hazards."


The change has some trail users raising an eyebrow. Steve Mallett, a residential real estate agent who lives in Dripping Springs, drives to Austin several days a week to run with friends before dawn.


"My first thought was that can’t be based on any kind of science and it seems sort of random to me," Mallett said after running the trail Tuesday morning. "A couple of times we caught people running slightly slower than us, so instead of whizzing by them going the other way, we were next to them for a minute or two. It can’t cut down on any kind of contact."


He says he knows he can run elsewhere — and he has — but no other spot compares to running the loop around Lady Bird Lake. "It’s the jewel of Austin as far as we’re concerned," he said.


City officials initially thought that the stay-at-home order would decrease trail usage organically, but counters positioned along the trail indicated the opposite — trail usage increased. During the last week of March, a counter at the Roberta Crenshaw pedestrian bridge underneath MoPac registered 21,694 users, versus 18,415 during the same week in 2019.


With those numbers in mind, city officials closed the trail — and all city parks — Easter weekend. Closure signs and yellow tape went up at trailheads, but counters still recorded about 2,000 people a day using the trail against the order. Most of the signs were gone by Monday morning.


Park rangers have been at the trail educating users about using the trail properly. The Austin Police Department can issue tickets to those who violate the order.


"We’re just getting hammered by complaints and confusion, and are trying to get the word out," Anderson said. "This is such a difficult time you can’t make everybody happy. This is a moment where there’s no perfect solution."


Around the trail, parking areas at MoPac both north and south of the river have been cordoned off, along with overflow parking areas on Stratford Drive, parking next to the maintenance yard on the east side of Zilker Park, parking at the Dougherty Arts Center and Butler Park on Barton Springs Drive, the lot behind the Parks and Recreation Department’s main office, and lots along Riverside Drive. The lot next to South First Street and Vic Mathias Shores will be open and parking in front of Barton Springs Pool will remain open.


"The closure of parking reinforces our message — please stay home, but if you come, follow best practices," Anderson said.


For more information about Austin area park closures, go to www.austintexas.gov/parkclosures.