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Bike Guru Gil Penalosa: Striped Bike Lanes Aren't Enough to Make Dallas a Cycling City

"Come any closer texting Lexus driver and my Bumps of Despair will eff you up."
"Come any closer texting Lexus driver and my Bumps of Despair will eff you up."

The City Hall staffers who last year tried to toss road blocks in the path of a City Council plan to stripe 840 miles of bike lanes in Dallas -- that's 840 miles more than what the city has now -- might be pleasantly surprised by part of what Gil Penalosa will have to say at his "Urban Bike Systems" presentation at 6 p.m. today at 1500 Marilla. (UPDATE: Everyone's invited.) Turns out that Penalosa, an internationally renowned advocate for making cities more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, doesn't like those stripes either.

Don't even bother mixing paint, he says. Stripes don't work.

And what about dedicated hike-and-bike paths like Dallas' beloved Katy Trail?

Nice enough but ... meh.

"A bikeway is nothing," Penalosa told Unfair Park on Tuesday when we reached him as he was preparing to board a plane in Austin, on his way here after another speech.

His thoughts on striping might please city bureaucrats who claimed last year that painting bike-lanes is too expensive, too legally entangled, too impossible in Dallas.

The rest of his message, however, will likely have them and a good chunk of car-loving Dallas doing spit takes.

"This is not about painting lines," says Penalosa, executive director of the Ontario-based 8-80 Cities, which promotes creating livable, park-filled cities filled with walkers and bikers. "This is about creating a physically protected area."

By that, he means building lanes that offer cyclists more protection from a texting Suburban driver than a strip of paint provides, by adding things like bollards and other traffic dividers. And he's not talking about a few recreational paths, either: If a city like Dallas really intends to get more people biking and walking, Penalosa says, it must have miles and miles of interconnected lanes like those.

"You need to create a grid that actually connects places of origin to places of destination," including links to public rail and bus lines, says Penalosa. That means that bikes could become a means of functional transportation, instead of a chance for dedicated recreational riders to show off how nifty they look in spandex and loud cycling jerseys. Things like more bike racks, striped lanes and bike trails are "nice to have," he says, but they only serve people who are cycling already. "There's not a city in the world that has more than 10 percent of the population cycling that doesn't have protected lanes," he says.

The point is, he says, bike proponents need to stop assuming that everyone is 30 and athletic fit. Biking and walking to work, parks, stores and schools is something everyone from age 8 to 80 should be able to do safely -- hence the name of his organization.

And there's more: Speed limits on neighborhood streets should be lowered to 20 mph or less. About 100,000 pedestrians are injured in traffic annually in the United States, he says, and 20 mph is a good, survivable number.

Then there's this: Eliminate right turns on red, he says. Install more street lights, and time to give pedestrians a fighting chance to cross the street before becoming a grill ornament. Intersections and arterial streets should be redesigned to improve sight lines and allow safe, easy use by pedestrians and cyclists.

Naturally, Unfair Park wondered if Penalosa, the former commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation in Bogota, Colombia, had ever been to Dallas. We pointed out that our recent big, shiny, new Calatrava bridge doesn't even allow pedestrians.

Turns out, Penalosa has been to Dallas a few times -- "I don't think Dallas has done enough," he says -- and he knows a few things about Texas too. It's population is booming, expected to increase by about 30 percent by 2030, according to U.S. Census projections. Without a change in culture, that will be a population of fatties -- around 1 in 3 Texans are obese now, he says. And, of course, the state's air is polluted, its cities' freeways jammed.

In other words, we're going to be rebuilding a good chunk of our cities anyway to accommodate all those new bodies, so why not start building urban spaces that are healthier and less enslaved to cars? Dedicated bike grids, lower speed limits, more parks and more walkable communities isn't a revolution. It's urgent, and patience and excuses are not an option in the face of a demographic onslaught and health crisis.

"This is not a financial issue, and this is not a technical issue," Penalosa says. "This is a political issue ... any Calatrava bridge is more expensive than bike lanes."

Other cities have stepped up to adopt these schemes, he says, from Chicago and New York to Seville, Spain, which, he points out, has a hot climate like Dallas'. In 2006, he claims, 0.2 percent of Seville's population were cyclists. In three years, the city created 100 miles of protected bike lanes and that number hit 6.6 percent; the goal is to reach 15 percent in the coming years.

What those cities and others had, was political leadership willing to step up and lead.

"Politicians are afraid of being pioneers because they are afraid of being shot in the back," Penalosa says.

True. And in Dallas, the guy with the gun might just be working at City Hall.


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