Why Does Dallas Hate Cyclists?
They're important to our city's future. It’s time we start treating them that way.
On May 15, around noon, Mike McNair was returning home on his bicycle from running errands when a car plowed into him. McNair, a 45-year-old father of three children who are all sick enough to participate in the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is something of a hero in the North Texas cycling community. He was involved with the drafting of the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, he helped DART craft its bike policy, and he commuted on his bike from far East Dallas to his job as a graphic artist at a marketing agency in Irving, logging up to 200 miles a week in the saddle.
McNair can’t remember anything from that day, but here is what apparently happened: he was waiting on a residential street for a green light to cross Ferguson Road. The police report says McNair ran the light, and it faults him for the accident. The driver of the car, though, admitted to pushing a yellow, and his insurance company reached a settlement with McNair. Every one of his vertebrae were fractured, all of his ribs on his left side (the point of impact) were broken, his left femur was broken just below the hip, his pelvis was broken in three places, his tailbone was shattered, his spleen was lacerated, both shoulder blades were broken, his left clavicle was broken, and he had bleeding in his frontal lobe. His injuries from the accident, though, didn’t account for all his bills. In the hospital, he contracted a serious staph infection and fungal pneumonia, which led to 38 days in the intensive care unit on a respirator.
McNair is irrepressible. At this writing, in early November he had been back at work full time for two weeks and had but another two to wait before he could get back on a bicycle. His ribs were repaired with a new technique that uses titanium reinforcement. “My X-rays now look pretty impressive,” McNair says, bubbling with laughter. “My kids say I’ve got Wolverine ribs.”
If it seems like I’ve chosen the most sympathetic character imaginable to illustrate a point about bicycling in Dallas, then that’s because I’ve chosen the most sympathetic character imaginable to illustrate a point about bicycling in Dallas. That point: bicycling in Dallas is too difficult and too dangerous. Bicycling magazine called Dallas the worst city for cyclists—twice (in 2008 and 2012). As a result, only heroes do it. And the solution is simple. We need only change the way we think.
When the story you are reading is published online, there will appear, without question, comments from people who will assail Mike McNair and hurl insults at cyclists of every stripe for getting in the way of their cars. A number of years ago, golf commentator David Feherty wrote a story for D Magazine about getting run over on his bike by a car in Dallas. He did a turn with Krys Boyd on 90.1 KERA to talk about the experience and his long rehabilitation. Online and on air, a sizable number of people said: “Screw the cyclists! They are a hazard and should get off the road!” Words to that effect.
That attitude is the first thing that must change if Dallas is ever to achieve its world-class ambitions. Bicyclists are like children. They are slow. They are sometimes unpredictable. They weave and wander and clearly think the world revolves around them. They infuriate. But they are our future. So we should not only tolerate them, we should encourage and coddle them.
In October, Mayor Mike Rawlings brought forth an ordinance for approval by the City Council that would protect a “vulnerable road user,” aka a cyclist. The ordinance called for a safe passing distance and a $500 fine for motorists who “throw items at a vulnerable road user.” Several council members thought the ordinance should address the matter in more specific detail. “Do we have anything in this [ordinance] about pumping?” asked Dwaine Caraway. “It needs to be very clear that folks know you can’t pump in these bicycle lanes.” A retooled ordinance should pass the council this month. One hopes pumping is addressed.
But in response to the first version of the ordinance and to the newly painted car-and-bike shared lanes downtown, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Tod Robberson felt someone needed to speak up for motorists. “The prevailing attitude about bicycle riders is that they are inherently good,” he wrote on the paper’s Opinion blog. He said the ordinance should also address “bike riders who blatantly engage in bad behavior.” “Not everything they do is goodness and light. ... [I]f a motorist gets in their way, some have no problem flipping the bird or yelling out an obscenity.”
Truly shocking. Almost as shocking as pumping.
But Robberson’s post leads to the second thing that must change in Dallas. We need to understand what enlightened cities around the world have already figured out: bikes and cars can’t peacefully coexist. Painting shared car-and-bike lanes, or “sharrows,” won’t make the average cyclist feel safe enough to use them. So the few cyclists Robberson encounters are way above average. They are aggressive by necessity.
To generate any significant increase in ridership, we need to build bike tracks that provide a physical barrier to cars. After spending $35 million over the last five years on painted bike lanes, Seattle is now making the transition to bike tracks. In Bogota, only .4 percent of all trips were made by cyclists, until they built 174 miles of bike tracks. Now that figure is 5 percent. Seville (which, incidentally, has a climate similar to ours) put in 100 miles of bike tracks and went from .2 percent to more than 6 percent.
The 2011 Dallas Bike Plan calls for 132 miles of bike tracks. Sometime early next year, the first such protected lane will be built. It will span all 1.4 miles of the Jefferson Boulevard Viaduct.
Councilwoman Angela Hunt calls Dallas’ efforts to accommodate bikes “half-hearted,” and she says we should commit to building 10 miles of bike tracks every year for the next 10 years. Seville built that much in three. So did Bogota. She traveled to Bogota last year and saw for herself how bike infrastructure can transform a city (she’s quick to point out that she didn’t use taxpayer money to get there).
“I went to Klyde Warren Park the entire opening weekend,” Hunt says. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it will transform Dallas. And we created it out of thin air. We can do these things if we set our mind to it. Separated bike lanes are not that hard. But it takes political will. If we had it, we could do it.”
Not a single person will move to Dallas because of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. But what if we had the best bicycle infrastructure of any American city? In addition to political will, it would take some money. I bet Klyde Warren would like to ride to his park.