Fresh Updates on the Dallas Bike Plan
Dallas bike politics came under the microscope at two recent events. Guest contributor Tamar Wilner provides a first-hand account.
City Council Bike Plan Update
On April 3, the City Council gathered to hear a long-delayed update on the city bike plan. Assistant city manager Jill Jordan presented the latest on the plan’s implementation, highlighted a few concerns (namely, money) and then, I’m guessing, steeled herself for the onslaught to come.
Key points from her presentation (see her slides here):
So far, the city has completed 136 miles of bike facilities (including 125 miles off-road and 11 miles on-road), out of over 1127 miles planned. The goal is to complete everything in ten years.
Comparing Dallas to other cities, we seem to have a lot of bike infrastructure – but if you restrict the comparison to separated facilities only, we go from leading to lagging.
The 2012-2014 project phase is focusing on areas near downtown, and will cost about $975,000, not including maintenance.
The Dallas Street Department has $500,000 a year to implement these facilities.
Beyond 2014, work will expand to a much more extensive network through Dallas neighborhoods.
This will be funded through the Street Department’s $500,000 a year and about $575,000 in 2012 bond funds, spread over four years.
But at these currently allocated funding levels, there’s no way the planned improvements will be completed in 10 years.
Possible funding sources include future bond programs, the city’s General Fund, grants and private donations.
Some “best practices” Jordan said the city is considering:
Bike boulevards: these are low-traffic streets changed to emphasize bikes and make cars the ancillary use.
Bike traffic signals: special signals used in combination with normal traffic lights, to tell cyclists when they can cross.
Bike highways: meant for longer distances and higher bike speeds. Jordan said the city has always intended to place a bike highway along the Trinity.
Usage monitoring: counting how many cyclists are using which facilities.
I found her take on education a little wide of the mark. “Bicyclists running stop signs are not a good thing. You also need to wear your helmet,” Jordan said, seeming to place the emphasis more on tsk-tsking the cyclists than on ridding motorists of their common misconceptions (such as “cyclists must stay all the way to the right”). Whether that was because of time constraints, or whether the city’s cycling education priorities are really as skew-whiff as it appears, is something we as advocates need to investigate and address.
I’m new to both cycling advocacy and the sport of Dallas politics, but from what I understand, the councilors hit many of their usual talking points. Several from the south side of the city warned Jordan to take better account of their citizens’ needs. District 4’s Dwaine Caraway, demanding a link from Cedar Crest Golf Course to Bishops Arts, went so far as to say, “I’m not going to fully participate until we put this on the map and we find the money.” Carolyn Davis of District 7, meanwhile, had an axe to grind about green paint. Jordan tried several times in vain to explain how MLK isn’t like downtown, and therefore isn’t a prime green paint candidate, but Davis interrupted each time. Her message seemed to be: I don’t care what the difference is, I just want my green paint.
Still, the council members’ attitudes were largely positive. None seemed to doubt the importance of increasing cycling participation in Dallas, or the need for more infrastructure. District 6’s Monica Alonzo impressed me by pointing out the importance of education. “It’s important to educate, not just [cyclists,] but everyone driving along city streets,” she said.
Perhaps the most sour note came from Mayor Rawlings himself, who reminded council members that cycling may not be the prime concern in all neighborhoods. For some citizens, potholes could be a higher funding priority.
And perhaps he had a point. Throughout the discussion the councilors avoided addressing the biggest impediment to cycling infrastructure: lack of funding. It wasn’t a budgetary meeting, of course. But Rawlings’ warning served as a good reminder that, as bike-friendly as the council may seem in this sort of setting, their real test will come when it’s time to budget.
Meet the Candidates
Just days after that crash course in bike politics, came the “meet the candidates” bike tour of District 14, organized by Dallas May. The district, which encompasses Uptown, Oak Lawn, and M Streets along with parts of downtown, Lakewood, and Greenville Ave as far as Northwest Highway, is the most hotly contested in the city: seven candidates are vying to fill Angela Hunt’s seat when she steps down. Most were in attendance, including David Blewett, Kevin Curley, Chuck Kobdish, Judy Liimatainen, Jim Rogers and Philip Kingston – only Bobby Abtahi failed to ride, though he did stop by at the start, at Randall Park.
The tour was a casual affair, with candidates and voters striking up conversations as they rode (though it’s a little tough to get time with each candidate as you also seek to avoid potholes and door zones).
Occasionally, we stopped to exchange views about the different infrastructure and obstacles we encountered. After hitting the end of the Santa Fe Trail we got our first taste of sharrows. Kevin Curley made his distaste for these known. Then it was down through Deep Ellum (whoops, not District 14, but hard to avoid), across downtown’s weird green diagonal stripes and disappearing lanes, past Klyde Warren Park and up to McKinney Avenue to do battle with the trolley tracks. I saw a couple near-misses – Chuck Kobdish admitted afterwards to nearly getting eaten. Judy Liimatainen suggested the street was just too crowded with uses and structures to admit a new bike lane, but that one could probably be installed on a parallel road.
After that we headed east to Greenville Ave, a cruel mistress for cyclists as far as I’m concerned. In our discussion at this final stop, I was a little baffled to hear several suggestions that bike lanes be installed on the wide sections, such as between McCommas and Richmond, as if that were a problematic part of Dallas that needs addressing. Hell, if all Dallas were extra-wide roads like that stretch, I’d be a happy bunny. You can ride far enough from the curb to be easily seen, and people still pass you with room to spare.
The cyclist’s nightmare, as far as I’m concerned, is lowest Greenville: yes, the urban gem spearheaded by Angela Hunt herself. Look, the extra-wide sidewalks are lovely and the flashing-sign crosswalks are great, but cyclists have no choice but to take the lane, in a VERY congested few blocks, with drivers VERY agitated as they either a) try to find parking to go drink or b) try to get onto Ross, Munger, etc. to go home. Oh, and just when you think it’s widened to two lanes so you can let motorists pass, it suddenly decides er, nope, back to one again. A dedicated bike lane on the calmer stretch of lower Greenville would be pointless, if it had no bike-friendly blocks to hook up with on the north and south.
Was the ride a useful exercise? Yes and no. From our brief exchanges I got a few hints of the candidates’ opinions on bike infrastructure, but nothing comprehensive. I certainly couldn’t vote on the basis of this event. But it did seem a good way of reminding candidates that cyclists are an important group of voters, and that on May 11 we’ll be looking for someone who can make real, concrete changes.
Where do we go?
The two events also suggested some of the dangers that crop up when politicians finally start engaging with the issue of bike infrastructure. Sometimes the conversation veers from what makes sense and what works, to what will appease certain groups (“We want green paint too!”), or hit certain emotional buttons (“Greenville Avenue’s great, so let’s give it a bike lane.”) The key now is to harness this newfound enthusiasm and steer it towards evidence-based decision making on what will increase ridership and keep cyclists safe.