Dallas' Former Bike Czar Tells Newbie Riders to Go Play in Traffic
Paul Michael Summer figures he was 30 before he learned how to ride a bicycle. Oh, he knew how to pedal one well enough before then. Like many people his age—he's 59 now—Summer started bicycling to school in the fifth grade, carefully riding against the flow of oncoming traffic in Lake Highlands, just like his parents taught him.
But that was the wrong way, said a helpful cop who stopped him one day and corrected his style. Ride with the traffic, the officer told him, but stay very, very close to the curb.
That wasn't quite right either, but the lesson stuck with him when he left home to attend art school in San Francisco, where cars whizzing past him on the city's dizzyingly steep streets terrified him.
Next came a stop in Austin in 1972 to continue his education both as a student and bike rider. While he was there, the city installed some dedicated bike lanes by rolling stripes down the sides of a handful of roadways. Summer was relieved and at last felt protected by the stripe. It was a much better way to ride.
Wrong again, he'd later conclude.
It wasn't until he returned to Dallas that Summer really learned how to ride a bike, he says. In the early 1980s, intimidated by the city's notoriously hostile streets, he hooked up with a group of riders that left every Saturday morning from a bicycle shop near Southern Methodist University. The group's leader encouraged the 20 or so cyclists to abandon the curb and move into traffic—to "take the lane"—when they felt unsafe. Summer watched incredulously as motorists responded by not mowing down his fellow riders but instead treated bicycles as just another vehicle.
That was an "ah-ha" moment for Summer, who believed he at last had the skills to make it as an urban cyclist. "There's no place I can't go on my bicycle," Summer thought.
His enthusiasm for cycling eventually landed him a position in 1991 as Dallas' bike coordinator, where his job was to promote cycling. Summer settled happily into his City Hall office and began implementing a philosophy called "vehicular cycling" that likely would have horrified that fifth-grader pedaling through Lake Highlands.
"How have we gotten to where we no longer see cars and bicycles as being compatible?" wondered Summer, who had initially planned to develop at least a few bicycle lanes in Dallas but instantly reversed course. He now believed that cyclists fare best if treated like any other vehicle. So, he replaced dangerous drain grates with more bicycle-friendly designs. He tweaked the sensitivity of traffic signal sensors to recognize a bicycle's presence. And in 2006, he had the last bicycle lane in the city ripped out. Dallas, under his vision, was becoming a dream city for "vehicular cycling."
And that, to hear his critics tell the story, is one reason why P.M. Summer is no longer the city's bike czar. Once again, he was caught riding against traffic. This time, he got nailed.
Cyclists can be divided—very roughly—into two camps. First, there's the recreational riders who pedal for fitness or fun. They include the spandexed road warriors who hammer through the streets, always looking for a route that lets them pedal longer and faster with the fewest stops.
Then there are the utilitarian cyclists who ride to get somewhere—work, shopping, etc.—either because they don't have a car or because they want to reduce their carbon footprint.
Dallas has never been a particularly friendly city for either type.
It's not as if the city has ignored cyclists altogether. Dallas drafted its first "bike plan" in 1985, creating maps for a number of bike-friendly streets. That was the plan Summer was appointed to promote when he became bike coordinator, but funding cuts stymied his efforts in 1995, and 13 years later, the rest of the country saw Dallas as a bicycling failure. In 2008, Bicycling magazine rated the city as the country's worst place to ride a bicycle—not exactly the sort of publicity you're looking for when your job title is bike coordinator.
On the heels of the rating, a new cadre of local cyclists arose and urged the city to better accommodate bikes. This new group of advocates differed from the hard-core road warriors and was a far cry from the "vehicular cyclists." They didn't want to debate an SUV for the right of way on the road; they just wanted to ride their bikes in a comfortable and safe environment. They rallied the city to design the streets to physically separate bicycles and cars.
The sort of projects popular with these new riders worried Summer because he had seen the effects of such construction before. In 1997, Summer helped to open the Katy Trail. The three-mile paved path along an old railroad bed proved hugely popular, though Summer eyed the trail nervously. There were fewer cyclists on the street after the trail opened, he noted, as cyclists instead strapped their bikes to racks on their cars and drove to the trail.
"It really alarmed me," Summer recalls. "The more there were special facilities built, the less often people would ride their bikes on the street because it reinforced their fear as opposed to empowering them."
In 2005, desperate to inspire the Dallas bicycle advocacy community, Summer launched "Cycle Dallas," a personal blog to promote vehicular cycling as the best way to ride. It wouldn't be long before the city officials discovered the blog and realized that a city employee was sculpting policy based on personal belief, not popular positions.
In November 2008, Summer was removed from his position as bicycle coordinator and transferred to another department. A month later, the city pledged to support and partially finance a $300,000 plan to overhaul the old bike plan. Bike lanes would get a second chance in Dallas.
The goal of building cycling infrastructure is to encourage more people to ride their bikes, thereby encouraging a more active street life. But, says Richard Wharton, a friend of Summer and fellow vehicular cycling enthusiast, a cheaper and more effective solution already exists and has always existed. "Education is by far the cheapest solution for getting more people on bikes...We should have been doing this for decades."
But we haven't been. We never accepted the notion that proper cycling means aggressive on-street riding. Rather, we rode in cul-de-sacs far out in the suburbs.
"Somewhere along the line the community at large decided that educating people to be better bicyclists was not a priority," Wharton says, "and it fell off the map."
Over the decades, bicycling has enjoyed certain peaks. In the mid-'90s, when we were flush with cash, mountain bikes were a hot Christmas present. Today, with the economy circling the drain, cycling makes economic sense. The nationwide green movement and city planners' efforts to draw residents back to urban centers and away from the suburbs are also giving cycling a boost.
From most every angle, the time is ripe to figure out how to get more people using bicycles. The question is how, which brings up the true division between vehicular cyclists and, well, just about everyone else: Should bike supporters insist on more education or the construction of bicycle infrastructure?
John Forester is the grumpy godfather of the vehicular cycling movement. The author of two books, Effective Cycling and Bicycle Transportation: A Handbook for Cycling Transportation Engineers—works that persuaded Summer to oppose bike lanes—Forester argues that teaching people to ride a bicycle like any other on-road vehicle is safer than caging bicycles in lanes.
"Millions of Americans think that a bike lane stripe makes cycling safe," says Forester, who is 80 years old and delivers each sentence with the fury of a hissing snake. "It doesn't." Instead, cyclists should learn to make proper turns, how to pass other vehicles on the road, how to take the lane at an intersection and how to stop at red lights and stop signs. "So many things that motorists are expected to know."
Forester accuses the cycling advocates who are pushing cities across the country to install bicycle infrastructure of doing what's popular, not right.
"They advocate bike lanes," Forester says. "They say all around the world bike lanes have just brought in hoards of new cyclists. And then you ask them how they ride, and they ride in the same way I do. Vehicular style! Because they know it's safer and better. And yet they're advocating bike lanes because it brings in more people...That's why they're ideological hypocrites. This business of trying to reduce motoring by increasing the number of cyclists is their ideology."
Forester's ideology, however, is based less on love of safety education than in what he sees as a civil rights battle to have motorists accept cyclists as their on-road equals.
Until the mid-20th century, according to Forester, bicycles were expected to ride on the roads according to the same rules as motorists. In 1944, the uniform vehicle code was updated to order that bicycles stick to riding as far to the right of the road as possible and that they ride in paths, if provided, rather than the road. These rules, Forester stresses, were dreamed up by motorists.
"Who gets the traffic laws written? It's the motorists. There was no understanding that cyclists were anybody but incompetent children who should be kept safe by shoving you off the side of the road. This is called bike safety education," Forester says sarcastically.
Perhaps it's true that bikeways bring in more cyclists, but they were invented to "segregate" cyclists, says Forester. "That's because cyclists are inferior!"
It's not hard to understand why some vehicular cycling advocates have tried to distance themselves from Forester's rants and promote vehicular cycling education as a safety tool. "In the advocacy community, the very term vehicular cycling has some emotional baggage attached to it, which is too bad, because it's the easiest way for people to be safe on a bike," says John Schubert, the 57-year-old former vice president of the League of American Bicyclists, an organization representing the interests of the nation's 57 million cyclists. The league doles out gold, silver and bronze bicycle-friendly awards to cities, which Dallas covets.
Schubert, along with Summer and Forester, accuse the league of abandoning its mission to defend cyclists. They say the league is following a popular trend of supporting the building of bike lanes at the expense of safe riding.
They consider Boston a prime example of what they see as the league's wrong-headedness. For many years, a vehicular cyclist was the bicycle coordinator there until Bicycling magazine rated Boston as the nation's worst city for cycling. The old bike coordinator was replaced in 2007, and the city immediately installed five miles of bicycle lanes and pledged to build more. Boston moved off the worst list, and Dallas took its place in 2008. Summer, likewise, was soon replaced as a new group of local bicycling advocates rose up and began to demand the city do more for them.
More, in this case, will likely mean the addition of some bike lanes in the future, though many of the utilitarian cyclists in Dallas aren't completely sold on the idea. At October's "Critical Mass" ride, for example, most of the cyclists thought bike lanes were helpful if only for the awareness they brought with them. Critical Mass is a national bicycle awareness project in which cyclists meet the last Friday of every month and ride the streets, deliberately disregarding traffic lights and inconveniencing cars.
Colin Clarke, who founded the Facebook page for Critical Mass Dallas, says awareness is what Dallas really needs right now. While it's true that during group rides like Critical Mass traffic laws are disobeyed, Clarke says the good outweighs the bad taste left in the mouth of drivers who have to wait for somewhere between 40 to 100 cyclists to clear an intersection.
"My thought is this," Clarke says. "For five minutes, drivers can slow down and wait for us to cross an intersection. I want to teach them that it's not the end of the world to slow down. It doesn't have to be rush, rush, rush."
Clarke, 29, has been a cycling advocate since he quit driving a car in 1999, but has never seen so many other supporters joining the cause as today. "It's blown up considerably in the last year and a half," Clarke says.
These new cycling advocates are not necessarily united behind a drive for new bike lanes. Clarke, for instance, would like to see more street signs—a yellow diamond with a bike inside—all over the city, on every street. "Just beat it into the driver's head. We're here. Watch out!"
Jake Kazmirski, whose job during October's ride was to stop the flow of traffic while the Critical Mass riders passed through intersections, has nearly been hit twice by cars in Dallas. He wants bike lanes. "If there's nothing to the roads but signs, what's a car supposed to do? 'Uh-oh, this is a bike route, better watch out?' No way."
But not even Paul Hakes Jr., the Dallas-Fort Worth Ghost Bikes coordinator, sees bicycle infrastructure as a critical safety tool. Ghost Bikes is a group founded in New York City to promote awareness of bicycles by locking a white bicycle to a sign post near every spot where a cyclist died from a collision with a motorist. "We need more awareness," Hakes says. "I'm not opposed to bicycle lanes, because it gives new riders a sense of security. However, experience-wise and statistic-wise, they're actually more dangerous than not having them. There's more people struck in them than out of them in cities that have them." (Bicycle infrastructure advocates disagree.)
The problem with the vehicular cycling advocates, says Hakes, is that they fail to account for the reality that new riders are scared of riding in the street with cars: "Their fears of getting out in traffic overwhelm their desire to ride."
One reason Clarke has seen such a dramatic increase in local bicycle supporters lately is largely thanks to the emergence of a fresh-faced advocate, Jason Roberts. The 34-year-old Oak Cliff resident leads the city's new corps of bike advocates, who follow his blog, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, for bicycle news and group rides. The rides put on by BFOC often draw more than a hundred cyclists.
Roberts is less focused on the best conditions for cycling. What he cares about is the best conditions for getting more people to bicycle.
What's driving him, Roberts says, is his own mortality. Life's short, and if he has to live here, why not make Dallas the kind of city he'd like it to be? Having traveled to Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, with his indie-rock band, and other cities and European countries on his own, he wants Dallas to shake off the car stranglehold and become a more "livable" and "walkable" city. A bicycle-friendly infrastructure, including bicycle lanes, is critical to his plan.
"My angle was more about what kind of street do I want," Roberts says. "It wasn't so much as wanting bicyclists but that I want to have the street that was active and alive and engaged, like you have in Manhattan, Copenhagen, with vendors out on the streets, people out of their cars, walking."
To this end, Roberts cites study after study that notes a significant increase in the number of cyclists after bicycle lanes are created. According to the New York Department of Transportation, after New York City installed some 200 miles of bicycling facilities, ridership increased 66 percent over two years. In July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that said more bicycle infrastructure leads to more cyclists, which leads to weight loss and better health.
Roberts decided to become the go-to guy in Dallas for the advocacy of bicycle infrastructure after clashing with Summer in spring 2008.
Inside City Hall, Roberts sat down with Summer for the first time. Roberts then knew nothing about the historic rift between vehicular cycling advocates and everybody else, nor that Summer himself was a vehicular cycling advocate. "I'm naïve," Roberts says. "I go in and say, 'We want to have bike lanes put in over in Oak Cliff.'"
Summer told him no way, that bicycle lanes are a bad idea and would never work in Dallas. After the meeting, Roberts entertained the possibility that he could be mistaken about the benefits of bike lanes. After all, what did he know? The only reason he wanted them was because he saw them in other cities. Roberts spoke to others in the cycling advocacy community in Dallas and visited Portland. He learned that Summer "was a Forester."
Around the same time, Dallas City Council members were in Portland and Vancouver learning how those city governments built walkable cities. While city council member Angela Hunt tweeted from Portland how amazing the city was and how much she was learning, on Summer's blog, he was busy teasing her efforts.
On November 1, 2008, Summer wrote that city leaders were blown away by the "number of young neo-urban hipsters hanging out in coffee shops, bookstores and brewpubs" in Portland. The officials, Summer wrote, wanted to know how to emulate that in Dallas and soon found their answer. A planning and design firm in Portland, credited with helping cities across the country build bicycle infrastructure and win bicycle-friendly awards, explained the need for bike paths. Once Portland installed bike lanes, wrote Summer, "the coffee shops, bookstores and brewpubs sprang up, [and] the young (and not so young) neo-urban hipsters soon followed in droves. Portland was revitalized, the Metro and streetcars were running, the coffee and ale flowed, and the streets hummed to the sound of post-modern literature being discussed and to The Decemberists."
That was the final straw for Roberts.
In early November 2008, he launched a blog for Bike Friendly Oak Cliff. In one of his first posts, Roberts decided to call out the divide in the cycling community. In a post titled "Why doesn't Dallas have bike lanes?" Roberts asked readers to reflect on their experiences in other cities, and then he explained why Dallas is different.
Writes Roberts: "So you've probably been on vacation in some über-cool city like Portland or Boulder, and/or overseas to Amsterdam or London, and noticed hundreds of residents, young and old, on bicycles meandering slowly around bike lanes built through the heart of their respective downtowns. Then you hopped on a plane, landed in Dallas and sat in rush-hour traffic, while thinking, 'Where the hell are our bike lanes?' Good question...and a complex one."
Roberts, in the post, goes on to explain how he got involved in bicycle advocacy over the last few months and how much he has learned about that world. Primarily, in every city that has recently installed bike lanes, there's been opposition from this group referred to as vehicular cyclists.
That same day, Summer responded on his own personal blog in a post titled "They want bike lanes in Oak Cliff." Although never referring to the group by name, it was clear who he was talking about, especially when he linked to the BFOC Web site in his post.
Summer accused the "new-urban hipsters" of Oak Cliff of wanting their community to resemble Portland, "the new 'Disneyland's Magic Kingdom' of American communities (where the poor are shipped out of town, and federal subsidized housing is provided for liberal arts majors working at Starbucks... I'm not making this up)." And later in the post: "We have entered the time of the 'pernicious fad' (as John Schubert puts it), where people think you can't ride your bike without first having a bike lane. That's rightly called the Cyclist Inferiority Complex."
Summer was removed that month from his position. Many point to Angela Hunt, who has taken a leading role in bringing the city bicycle lanes, as the person who lobbied the city manager to remove Summer. While she wouldn't admit as much, Hunt didn't deny that she strongly disagreed with Summer.
"All I could tell that the bike plan was," Hunt says, "was a map of on-street bike routes. I couldn't see that it was very visionary or suited to most of the cyclists I know.
"We have to respond to the larger community, and that's going to be to create bicycle infrastructure. The last couple of decades that have been philosophically opposed to any change or improvement to bicycle infrastructure to separate bicycle lanes have proven to be a complete and utter failure," Hunt says, citing the rarity of seeing cyclists on the roads in Dallas.
Hunt says she saw Summer's blog late last year and "found it very condescending of options and antagonistic to bike lanes."
The following month after Summer was removed, the Regional Transportation Council approved $300,000 in funding to update the city's bike plan, which had been largely untouched since 1985. The project would be administered by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and the city of Dallas would oversee the selected consultant, who would design the new plan, which is expected to be completed in 2010.
Dallas' new bicycle coordinator, Max Kalhammer, admits he doesn't feel 100 percent comfortable bicycling in Dallas, but no matter what, Kalhammer says, the city will complete an overhaul to the current bike plan under his watch. His focus is on accommodating the majority of cycling commuters. For now, his team is busy reviewing maps of Dallas and figuring out where new bike routes need to be designated. There must be a way to connect the light rail with bike routes, so that people can have a practical alternative transportation system.
The debate and controversy fueled by the clash between Roberts and Summer has given the city real momentum that won't disappear, Kalhammer says. "The possibility of the plan just sitting on the shelf is very remote."
The logistical challenge of designing and implementing safe bicycle lanes is a nightmare. If Dallas designs bike lanes the way Houston did, which is to say painting 2-foot-wide stripes on the sides of busy roads, Hunt says, "I'd be ashamed, and I'd move." She wants to see lanes separated by cement, though she's going to leave the designing to the consultants.
One consulting firm that stands in a good position to land the contract with the city is Alta Planning, the same firm Summer teased on his blog. Mia Burke, the founder, has helped hundreds of cities become more bicycle-friendly. "Step one is to create infrastructure," Burke says. "People will not bike in significant numbers if there are no bicycle lanes."
Burke disagrees with the arguments made by vehicular cyclists. "Bicycles are different than cars. Pedestrians are different from cyclists. How you create a bicycle-friendly community is you create conditions where bicycles truly can be a part of daily life." As to their argument that bike lanes decrease safety, Burke says, "It's a myth."
Either way, Roberts is focused on accommodating the majority of people. And in Dallas, the majority (and this nobody disagrees with) are beginner cyclists.
"I can bike vehicular," Roberts says. But that's not the point. If a planner wants to build for the fastest way from point A to B for a cyclist, perhaps bikeways aren't the solution. "But if I want to create a neighborhood that is vivacious, that has a high livability factor—where you can walk to the shops—it is the way to build."
On a recent Friday afternoon in late November, Dallas' former bike coordinator is getting ready to bicycle to the new public library at Lochwood. Summer's now the senior transportation planner for the city's Department of Sustainable Development and Construction, but he's taken the day off to work from his Lake Highlands home on consulting work for an advertising company that promotes a university in Uganda.
Summer is listening to a New York Philharmonic LP inside his post-modern-style living room adorned by a number of crucifixes on the walls. There are stacks of papers, books and newspapers on every table surface, open couch space, bookshelf and even on the floor. Once outside, Summer takes his bicycle from the garage. He has named the metal-frame, comfortable, commuter-style bike "The Archedbicycle of Canterbury," as the homemade stickers read. The tires of his bike crunch the thick layer of dead leaves hiding his driveway. "I don't rake them until they all fall down," he says, kicking back the kickstand and leaving his home behind.
Summer, although ever the testy blog commenter, is now insisting that he never bothered following commenters on his blog. Suddenly, rather than the arrogant and vitriolic former bicycle coordinator who appears on online media, Summer is just a 59-year-old dad.
He sits up nearly straight as he glides on his bicycle down the hill toward a stop sign. His hefty sides fill out his long-sleeve blue shirt. He's wearing a metal cuff around his right pant leg to keep the fabric from catching in the gear. He jokes about the time his co-workers at City Hall thought the cuff was a GPS tracking device.
But behind the seemingly harmless and friendly account of his behavior throughout this whole mess, he's still a passionate advocate of vehicular cycling. But is he as passionate as Forester, and for the same reason? His undershirt bears the graphic of a vertical, rectangular traffic sign that reads, in big lettering, "Bicycles are Vehicles," and then cites the Texas transportation code.
Approaching the stop sign, he raises his arm to make the official stop signal. He gets off the bike for an instant while waiting for a gap in the traffic. His opportunity arrives, and he kicks back on his bike, chin forward, eyes straight ahead, and pedals to the right hand side of the right lane. But not too far over. He's some 5 feet away from the curb, pointing out the sand and leaves resting in the gutter, where the bike lanes would be, he notes. Cars pass him in the left lane, rather than squeeze by him in the right lane.
"It's not a fight," Summer says. "It's not wrestling. It's a negotiated dance," he says of riding in traffic, quoting the words of a friend and fellow vehicular cyclist.
Summer swerves to miss broken and uneven pavement. He rings his bell before overtaking a parked postal truck; the letter carrier looks up at him. He extends his left arm and moves into the left lane of Easton Road briefly before turning onto another residential street. "This is typical of a bike route. It's a low-volume, residential local street that parallels a major thoroughfare," Summer says. He's on Bike Route 280, which parallels Garland Road.
He insists that the bike route system is not for vehicular cyclists but for people who don't have the confidence to ride on major thoroughfares. He continues to distance himself and the bike route system from a vehicular cycling ideological paradise. "Our system drove him nuts...because it was so convoluted," Summer says, recalling a time John Forester visited Dallas some 15 years ago. "Because it twisted and turned and used all these back streets." Summer laughs before continuing the memory: "Forester said, 'Why don't you just get on the big street?' Because not everybody's going to do that. It's the real world, John."
But when asked repeatedly about the true basis for his opposition to bicycle lanes, how they would make him feel, Summer abandons the restraint.
It means, says Summer, that "we're going to segregate cyclists officially—officially treat bicycles as second-class transportation users."
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