Five Things Dallas Needs to Become More Bike-Friendly, According to Cycling Advocates
Max Kalhammer is leaving City Hall at a key time for cycling in Dallas. During four years as the city's bike coordinator, he helped develop a very solid citywide bike plan and oversaw a remarkable expansion of bike infrastructure in the city. Downtown is now crisscrossed by shared bike lanes, and more substantial bike infrastructure -- buffered lanes and cycle tracks -- has begun to sprout.
Despite the obvious momentum, however, Dallas has yet to reach, or even really approach, the critical mass of bike facilities and ridership that will transform cycling from a weekend hobby into a viable transportation option. Part of what drove Kalhammer out was that his bosses at City Hall didn't always seem to share that goal.
That's going to have to change if Dallas is going to become a more bike-friendly city, but so will a lot of other stuff. For a blueprint of what needs to done and how to do it, we turn to Councilman Scott Griggs and Bike Friendly Oak Cliff co-founders Jason Roberts and Zac Lytle for some direction.
Replace Kalhammer: This is probably the simplest and most obvious step. Kalhammer didn't single-handedly will the new bike plan into existence, but things like the Jefferson cycle track wouldn't have happened, or wouldn't have happened nearly as quickly, without a dedicated city staff member who knows about and advocates for bikes. The good news is that the city is already looking for a replacement. The bad news, Lytle says, is that whoever is hired will have their work cut out for them.
"Its my hope that the City hires a new coordinator who is not afraid to push to get things done in the face of general apathy," he says. "Until things change at the mayoral and City Manager levels the bike coordinator will be an uphill task." And that brings us to No. 2.
Democracy: Voters won't pick Mary Suhm's replacement as city manager, but they can elect City Council members like Angela Hunt, Scott Griggs, and Lee Kleinman, all passionate about cycling. When you put a bike advocate at the horseshoe and combine that with constituents showing up and lobbying for progress, good things happen. Look no further than North Oak Cliff for proof. That won't always be enough to thwart the will of the city manager's office (see the plans for hike-and-bike trails between the Trinity River levees, that mysteriously vaporized), but that's how things get done.
"In the end, getting things changed is top-down, either mayor or [another top official] or it's community powered," Roberts says. The city staff members charged with implementing things are stuck in the middle. "They're just going to work on whoever's telling them what is the priority."
Cut the Red Tape: Dallas -- everything from the streets to the buildings to the city charter -- was designed with cars in mind. For the bike plan to be properly implemented, that mode of thinking will have to shift, as will the car-centric rules that are baked into every level of the planning process. "We've created a bureaucracy that has to be changed in order for us to get off the ground," Roberts says.
He likens this task to untangling a giant wad of Christmas lights.
The first strand to pull is the thoroughfare plan, the overarching blueprint for transportation in Dallas. One of the major hurdles, according to Roberts, is that it requires the city to notify property owners within 200 feet anytime it wants to so much as touch a road. With hundreds of miles of streets included in the bike plan, Roberts says that's a major headache and serious expense. Better to do away with that rule for biking projects, which make roads safer by slowing traffic and increasing pedestrian activity.
Griggs is less concerned about the notification requirement. "If there's one thing the city of Dallas does better than anyone else it's to hold public hearings and sending notices," he says. But there is a need for the plan to take a more integrated approach to transportation, focusing on bikes and public transit rather than just cars.
Doing that won't be easy, since it requires a modification to the City Charter, something that can only happen once every 10 years and has to be approved by voters. Luckily enough, the next opportunity comes next year. Both Griggs and Roberts say the time has come.
Connections: The city and DART recently finished painting shared bike lanes that connect the Katy Trail with the Santa Fe Trail and the Jefferson cycle track. It's progress, but it's only a start. For ordinary riders to start using bikes as transportation, they have to be able to get to their jobs and friends' houses and restaurants in a way that's convenient and safe. That means a more robust network of separated bike facilities and trails, which will require the city to stop slow-walking projects like Griggs and Hunt's Trinity River trails.
Ditch Helmets: Dallas began requiring cyclists of all ages to wear helmets in 1996, ostensibly to improve public safety. It's a non-issue to the spandex-clad weekend warriors at White Rock, but cycling advocates insist that it discourages more casual riders.
There are a number of studies out there that suggest that the marginal safety gains from helmet mandates are far outweighed by the negative impact on ridership. As an example, Roberts cites the struggling bike-share program in Melbourne, Australia, which he recently visited with Better Block, his urban advocacy organization. The people who run the bike share program identified that city's helmet law as the biggest obstacle to their success, since the casual rider who wants to hop on a bike for a few blocks to go to the store probably won't have their own helmet and probably won't want to wear a used one.
Even without a bike share program, Roberts says the same concerns will keep casual riders off the street in Dallas. It's just another rule to follow, advocates say, another piece of equipment to buy and carry and wear.
So. It's pretty clear what needs to be done if Dallas is to become a bikeable city. One advantage of coming late to the game is that other cities have already paved the way. The question is whether the city will embrace the challenge.
Griggs and Roberts are confident that more people will warm to the idea once more game-changing projects like the Jefferson cycle track get built. Roberts likens it the response to Klyde Warren Park.
But Dallas needs to act fast, Roberts says. More and more young, talented people are moving to places for quality of life reasons, and businesses and jobs are following. Fail to make cycling a reasonable transportation option, and both will stay away.
"The reality is we're not going to be a competitive city if we don't adopt these things," Roberts says.