If you’ve only seen Dallas from the driver’s seat of a car, you don’t know what you’re missing!
A year ago, I knew nothing of Dallas except what I’d read: it’s one of our nation’s most sprawling, low-density, car-centric mega-metros; its many freeways are enormous and clogged with traffic; its arterial roads are jammed with impatient hostile drivers in huge vehicles; it’s the worst city for cycling in the U.S. (according to Bicycling Magazine).
Upon discovering CycleDallas last summer, I was presented with a different image of Dallas: a pleasant, livable, inner ring with a dense mesh of quiet streets; up to a 12% biking and walking mode share in the inner city (although low overall); an 800-lane-mile signed bike-route system (and map) using cyclist-selected roads; a besieged bike-ped coordinator who steadfastly refused to buy into symbolic, potentially-dangerous bike facilities in that already-rideable urban core.
Last week, LisaB and I got a chance to go to Dallas. As our unique travel plans would have it, we were able to launch rides from various parts of the city and surrounding suburbs.
Wednesday we explored in Downtown. Lisa and I cycled on parts of the bike route system, the inner neighborhoods, the downtown business district and some larger thru-roads (here’s the route).
Aside from some construction detours and a few confusing one-way streets, we found downtown cycling extremely easy. We rode into downtown via bike routes 220 and 65 (PM Summer gave us a printed map book Tuesday evening). The streets were quiet and scenic, perfect for any level of rider who can balance a bike and follow the rules of the road. Downtowns always feel intimidating to novices, but most are actually excellent cycling environments. Downtown Dallas traffic was more docile than most big cities I’ve ridden in (including Portland, OR). Riding down Elm street between high-rise buildings, we found ourselves alone on the road behind a platoon of cars, arriving at traffic lights just as they turned green. Riding back out of town we took bike route 190, then deviated onto Abrams, a busier thoroughfare, to sample the experience. We certainly had a lot more traffic interaction on Abrams, but we claimed our lane, motorists changed lanes to pass and our passage was easy and pleasant.
Thursday we were staying at the Four Seasons in North Irving. Lisa was busy at a conference all day, but I was on vacation. I planned to take Trinity Rail Express (clued in by Steve A, who we met for dinner on Tuesday evening) into Dallas from Irving, but I puttered too long and then discovered that the trains stopped running regularly after 10 AM. Concerned that I might miss the train, I looked at the DART bus schedule. I have to admit, I’m transit retarded after two decades in Orlando. The express bus station was a mile north and the train station was 4 miles south. I had to make a decision. The DART website was somewhat confusing, so I decided to ask the conceirge.
It was a total brain fart for me to think the concierge at the Four Seasons would have a clue about mass transit! She, of course, didn’t. She managed to offer lots of information I did not need or ask for and waste enough time that I had no choice but to head for the bus. That’s one way to make a decision.
I arrived at the bus station as the bus I wanted was pulling out. I then discovered that the next bus would not depart for an hour, contrary to what the concierge told me. I certainly wasn’t going to sit around a desolate transit station for an hour, so I called PM Summer and asked for route advice to ride from Irving to downtown Dallas.
PM gave me a direction to head, then got to work on a route for me as I started riding. He then emailed turn-by-turn directions which I followed with help from the GPS on my iphone (pulling over to memorize 4 or 5 turns at a time). It was an excellent adventure! I experienced just about everything—industrial, commercial, suburban, residential, urban, 2-lane, 4-lane, 6-lane, wide and narrow lanes, a construction zone… and a loose pit bull.
Besides the dog, everyone else I encountered was respectful and courteous. I was passed safely by hundreds of cars, SUVs, pick-up trucks and heavy trucks. I was never honked at, endangered or mistreated in any way. In fact, I was surprised to find most motorists reduced their speed when passing, even on multi-lane roads. On 2-lane roads with wide lanes, many waited for the oncoming lane to clear so they could give additional clearance, despite my lane-sharing position. This unusual experience has been corroborated by other vehicular cyclists in Dallas and can be seen in the Dallas Run videos shot by Brian DeSousa.
After a long lunch with PM, I took the Trinity Rail Express (TRE) back to South Irving and rode back to the conference hotel. That was the first time I’ve had a chance to take a bike on a train. The train didn’t have bike cars like the one in San Jose, instead cyclists use the wheelchair car.
The TRE was a great way to traverse 10 miles in 18 minutes! Bike-friendly transit is such a huge asset for extending the range and usefulness of the bicycle. Here’s my route for the day (the TRE line is between the RR icons).
Friday Lisa and I moved to a hotel located on the service road at the High Five interchange of U.S. 75 and I-635. This became a starting point for several more rides.
Friday evening, we used the DART rail line to meet the CycleDallas gang for happy hour. The DART station is on the opposite corner of the High Five from the hotel. That intersection is an example of how emphasis on high-speed auto travel can destroy connectivity for other modes. It is not possible for a pedestrian to travel efficiently from the hotel to the DART station, even though it is only 1/2 mile away. PM gave us a 2 mile bike route that was easy to ride, but would be intimidating for the uninitiated. There is an infrastructure solution in the works for that interchange.
Returning from the festivities, my lack of transit skill put us on the wrong train. We ended up about 6 miles from the hotel. Always up for an adventure, we decided to ride the bikes rather than backtrack on the train. The route consisted of 6-lane roads and freeway service roads. We felt just as safe and respected at night as we had during the day.
Saturday we decided to ride to a DART Bike&Ride event at White Rock Lake. To get there, we used the White Rock Creek trail, which is accessible a mile west of the hotel. It’s a river trail with very few street crossings and the potential to be a quiet oasis away from urban noise. It has several immediate problems. One is that it is only 8 feet wide—uncomfortably narrow for 2-direction bike traffic, let alone other users in the mix. That is being corrected as the older paths are being reconstructed to current standards. A less-correctable problem is that the creek floods, covering the path in mud. A recent flood had left a layer of now-dry silt on the path. It wasn’t hazardous but it coated our bikes, legs and water bottles as we rode.
While lack of intersections is desirable for speed and ease of use, it also means lack of connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods. This is a problem we have with many recreational trails in Orlando. They are not being built as utilitarian facilities to enhance the road system, but as places for people to play with toys.
Personal safety is another concern with remote greenways. I would never ride such a trail at night or times when there was no other trail traffic. Aside from the obvious crime aspect, if a cyclist were to suffer a solo fall and be incapacitated, he might not be found for many hours. Even on Saturday morning, we didn’t see many cyclists on the trail until we got to the White Rock area. As one would expect, there were lots of cyclists on the White Rock Lake loop trail.
The DART event was great fun! We both enjoyed the opportunity to practice putting bikes on the bus bike rack.
To return to the Richardson area, we decided to explore more of the bike route system. Following the signs for Routes 73, 270 and 45 took us to within a mile of the hotel. Most of the roads were quiet, residential streets with just a few sections of 30 mph 4-lane roads. We again found excellent cycling conditions and cooperation from motorists. (here’s a map of our Saturday ride)
Keeping score, I’d say the majority of motorists were attentive and cooperative. We had no negative encounters, no territorial behavior and nothing that suggested oblivious driving. I had a handful of positive interactions in which motorists were exceptionally courteous and accommodating. They also thanked us for little courtesies like allowing them room to turn right on red and acknowledging their right-of-way at 4-way stops. We graciously declined a number of wave-throughs and the motorists always responded with smiles and friendly waves. It was clear that in the White Rock area motorists expect cyclists to violate their right of way and were pleasantly surprised when we didn’t.
Doing things right for cyclists
The Dallas bike route system is an amazing resource! It was created decades ago by principled cycling advocates who examined all possible facility types and designed a system utilizing the ones best for cyclists.
Dallas had excellent infrastructure to begin with—a grid street system with miles and miles of easy-to-navigate, quiet streets. This kind of system is a nursery for smart cyclists. It allows novice cyclists access to destinations without having to brave traffic. It allows them to learn to ride according to vehicular rules and principles that translate to any road and traffic situation. The combination of such an asset with enthusiastic cycling advocates who knew what they had and how to maximize it is a rare and beautiful thing in America.
The devil is in the details
On our first day of riding, Lisa and I noticed how smooth the speed humps were on the traffic-calmed bike-route streets—especially in contrast to the hideous, bone-jarring domes Orlando uses. I mentioned it to PM. He told me the story of how the speed humps were tested by cyclists before a design was approved! The details of traffic calming are grossly overlooked by “bike advocates” who are more obsessed with slowing motorists than making sure the devices don’t punish cyclists for the sins of speeding motorists.
Paradise in peril
The city of Dallas can’t control how the surrounding cities and suburbs develop. It can’t control the extreme low density and long travel-distances of its metroplex. What the city can do, and has under the leadership of PM Summer, is maximize its assets to serve utilitarian cycling. The Dallas bike plan should be studied as a positive example of cycling advocacy and accommodation, but instead it has been derided as “bike unfriendly” because it didn’t include bike lanes.
In the years since the bike plan was developed, several destructive forces have chipped away at cycling in Dallas.
Nationwide social norms regarding cycling have steadily deteriorated because industry-driven advocacy has focused on symbolic accommodation and ignored fundamental social and access issues. Those influences have permeated the Dallas bike culture, like every other. As a result, the new generations of mostly-recreational cyclists don’t recognize the assets they have, so they clamor for the kind of symbolic “solutions” popular culture says they need. It’s such a tragedy that national advocacy movements have sought to dumb down bicycling by catering to misperceptions rather than lift it higher with education and empowerment.
In addition, misguided advocates have fed the mythologies of danger with their myopic focus on safety devices vs safety skills. It is widely recognized that helmet laws decrease cycling, yet the city of Dallas passed an all-ages mandatory helmet law.
In recent years, political forces manipulated by land speculators and planning firms seeking government contracts have brought pressure upon the public works department to abandon its principled approach and implement symbolic “accommodations.” These forces have managed to manipulate naive cyclists and ignorant politicians, but their motives are not for the safety and well-being of cyclists.
If the city can find the political will to throw off the parasites and nurture its assets through low-cost solutions, it can become a shining example of a “better way.” Encouragement, which most advocates think must be painted on the pavement, can also be achieved through intelligent social marketing… for a lot less money. Education, too-often shunned by so-called bike advocates, overcomes all inadequate infrastructure solutions by providing recipients with the skills and confidence to reach every destination. The choice is so simple. Spend millions of taxpayer dollars on symbolic facilities what won’t make cycling any easier, or spend a lot less money on education and encouragement to show people how to use the existing assets with confidence.
It remains to be seen if Dallas can save a good thing from destruction. If it can’t, a real treasure and learning opportunity will be lost.