Saturday, May 25, 2024 May 25, 2024
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How Bikes Could Transform Dallas

The city's new plan to accommodate pedal-pushers isn't perfect, but its timing is.
illustration by Polly Becker

Our fair city has adopted the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan. The unanimity with which the City Council accepted it was equal parts staggering and ominous. By all means, though, bicyclists and those who love them should feel free to pop champagne corks. But they shouldn’t get too excited. Because we did this already, in 1975, when Dallas passed its first bike plan. Then another one passed in 1985. Which was revised in 1996. And revised again, in 2002. Given that history and, having had a hard look at our latest plan, I bet we’re not done yet.

The 2011 plan proposes adding 472 miles of bike lanes to city streets. That’s a worthy goal, considering a recent American Community Survey by Deakin University in Australia ranked Dallas last of 18 major American cities studied when it comes to the number of bicycle commuters and female bicyclists. Our numbers were half those of cool, crisp Phoenix. The plan’s stated goal is to triple bicycle ridership over the next 10 years, which would put Dallas above Phoenix in the ranking. We’d be 17th instead of 18th. Maybe the goal’s not that ambitious, but it’s still a step in the right direction.

My criticisms of the plan lie with its application at specific streets. Main Street in downtown, for instance, will get bike lanes that are separate from car traffic. But traffic on Main is light enough that bikes can safely share space with cars. Elm and Commerce streets, one block to either side of Main, exist as vast, deserted caverns lined by zombie buildings, and yet there is no plan for improvements on them. On the other end of the spectrum, the plan calls for bikes to share lanes with cars on Abrams and Skillman, both busy enough that no cyclist could feel comfortable with the arrangement. The plan also lacks a design hierarchy that would call for (potentially) more significant streets to receive a higher level of design treatment. Copenhagen, for example, has “cycle tracks,” where plantings buffer bike traffic from both pedestrians and cars. Our plan calls for cycle tracks, too, but they are placed in random locations, seemingly without reason.

Despite these shortcomings, the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan has a chance to be profoundly transformative in ways the previous efforts were not. I expect it to shatter its modest goals if implemented correctly, not because of the specifics of the plan itself but rather because of that great god of market-driven adaptation, demographics. This bike plan grew out of an emerging culture of bicycle nostalgia locally, nationally, and globally. Thirtysomethings like me are the ones who have been pushing for this new plan, and we’re the ones who remember how bikes gave wings to the adolescent versions of ourselves. We could explore as much of the world as our spindly, growing legs could stand.

There’s more at work here than nostalgia, of course. Urban historian Lewis Mumford wrote in his sweeping polemic The City in History that “an effective network requires the largest number of alternative modes of transportation, at varying speeds and volumes, for different functions and purposes.” A successful city understands and accepts that the average person is rational and will choose the mode of transportation best suited to the context of his trip.

Context is important because it can offer guidance to those who resist change. “It’s too hot to ride a bike.” Then ride when it’s cooler. “I don’t want to sweat in my work clothes.” Then ride on the weekend, to the bar or grocery store. “I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament.” That excuse has merit, but it shows why bicycle infrastructure is necessary. To cycle today means to ride within a culture of fear, so we paint only the unknown future with that brush, assuming the worst-case scenario.

Building bicycle infrastructure is not only critical from a public safety standpoint (as we saw so unfortunately with the fatal bicycle-pedestrian accident on the Katy Trail), but also the long-term economic viability of Sun Belt cities built entirely around the car. The fact is, we’ll never know how many cyclists might emerge until safe, useful infrastructure is in place (which is why transportation projections ought not to determine policy). Any contradictory opinions are as useless as a unicycle on the Dallas North Tollway.

Constructing a city for the car alone shackles all to the burdens of car ownership and maintenance costs. In a city with a poverty rate of 23 percent and household transportation costs approaching 25 percent of income, fewer and fewer can afford to participate in the local economy, getting from point A to point B, without a miserable two-hour DART bus commute. Without choice in the transportation network, Sun Belt cities will go the way of the Rust Belt. A monoculture of transportation follows a monoculture of the very industry that produced it into collapse. Nobody thought Detroit would collapse when it was dubbed the Paris of the West. Paris, however, is alive and well. And so is bicycling in that world-class city.

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