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.

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Kimberly Thorpe
Contact: Kimberly Thorpe