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Dallas Is Falling Far Short of Its Ambitious Goal to Become Bike Friendly By 2021

The city's current bike map (left) and what was planned (right).
The city's current bike map (left) and what was planned (right).
City of Dallas

Dallas is nowhere close to fulfilling an ambitious plan to create a citywide network of bicycle lanes.

In 2011, the City Council adopted a plan to create 1,300 miles of bike routes, including bikes lanes, street markings and multipurpose trails, that would promote "wide-spread use of bicycles" in the car-centric city. And it promised to do so by 2021.

But on the eve of that deadline, the city has built barely a tenth of the network.

"Our numbers are still not the greatest," said Michael Rogers, the city's head of transportation. But he emphasized that the focus has been on building safer, protected bike lanes rather than meeting the numeric goals set out by the 2011 plan.

"Even though we've only done 11%, we're trying to do them differently — more holistic — and in a safer way."

The $370,000 plan, funded primarily by a grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, was contracted by the city in concert with Dallas County, DART, DISD and local cycling advocates.

Then Mayor Mike Rawlings voiced his support at a ceremonial bike ride, remarking, "We’ve got to be a bike-able city."

It was a response to growing discontent within the city's bicycling community. In 2008, and then again in 2012, Dallas was ranked the worst cycling city in America.

But almost immediately, proponents worried that promise of the 76-page "master plan" wouldn't materialize. "If it will be funded and how it will be funded, I don't know," said Warren Casteel, a member of its citizens advisory board, in an interview with The Dallas Morning News in 2011.

The plan itself was circumspect on the matter. It proposed the city "partner with local events and hold other events to raise funds."

In the end, the city allocated little funds toward the plan's implementation.

"But at $500,000, we couldn't do a whole lot other than sharrows," said Rogers, referencing the widely maligned painted street markings that are designed to encourage drivers to "share" with bicycles. Recent research has suggested they don't make cyclists any safer.

Heather McNair, the president of BikeDFW, said sharrows are an "interim stopgap." While dedicated bike lanes are preferable, paint is sometimes better than nothing. At the very least, she pointed out, it makes riders feel welcome on the roads.

But Angela Hunt, a former City Council member who helped spearhead the plan, said that's not enough. "For too long, we've patted ourselves on the back as a city for painting streets and putting up signage, as if that's going to do anything substantive. It doesn't work."

She said that, even in its early years, the plan failed to live up to expectations. There was a lack of political will to dedicate the resources needed to implement it, she said. "We can do all the plans we want, have as many meetings as we want, but we're not going to change our behavior or our transportation system without real money behind it."

Several years ago, the city finally increased funding to $1 million a year. At the time, the plan was to bump that number by another $500,000 each year. That, too, Rogers acknowledged, never happened.

He said that his department can't implement the plan alone and said "a collaborative approach" is necessary. Rebuilding roads, he said, depends on funding from the Department of Public Works and taxpayer-approved bonds.

Dallas stands in stark contrast to Austin, which created a similar plan in 2014 and then funded it with a transportation bond. It included more than $20 million dedicated to new bike lanes. As a result, the city built out nearly a quarter of the planned network by 2017.

By then, Austin had moved up to seventh in Bicycling magazine's ratings. "More than 10 percent of Austinites who live within an 8-square-mile area around downtown now commute by bike," the publication reported. 

Crossing U.S. Highway 75

To understand the limitations of Dallas' current bicycling infrastructure, McNair presented a challenge: cross North Central Expressway in northern Dallas.

This isn't academic. One one side lies the Northaven Trail, which runs east to west linking Preston Hollow and other northern Dallas neighborhoods. One the other side are the Sopac and White Rock Creek trails, which connect downtown Dallas and Richardson.

But try to get between these trail systems, and you realize that many bicycle "routes" in Dallas are mere wishful thinking.

The best route, according to both Google's bicycle map and McNair, is a mile along Meadow Road, a four-lane artery between Walnut Hill and Royal with no discernible markings for cyclists.

Faded blue signs, remnants of the 1985 Greater Dallas Bike Plan, point to another route, marked haphazardly with faded sharrows. But it peters out at Forest Lane, which appears on the 1985 map to be a bicycle route but is now six lanes of heavy traffic.

Dallas' bike route signage is a remnant from an abandoned 1985 plan. Just barely visible: a pair of sharrows.
Dallas' bike route signage is a remnant from an abandoned 1985 plan. Just barely visible: a pair of sharrows.
Lucas Manfield

McNair has a word for what Dallas is lacking: "connectiveness." The city has built a lot of great trails, but it hasn't done a great job bringing them together.

"That's the low-hanging fruit that we should have the budget to work on," she said.

The Missing Oversight Board

The Dallas plan offered a simple way to hold the city accountable: Create a "Bicycle Advisory Board to monitor and track implementation of the Plan."

This board, McNair said, was never created.

"There is little question at this point that without an advisory board, the bike plan is just a good idea on paper lacking any real leadership in bringing it to fruition," McNair wrote in an email.

She's still fighting for the board's creation, nine years after it was first proposed. "Better late than never," she said in an interview.

Meanwhile, the city has struggled to assign someone the unenviable task of administering the plan. The position has historically had few resources and little support — all while laboring under the weight of unfulfilled expectations.

Max Kalhammer, the city's first-ever bike coordinator, was the first casualty. "It was a combination of things, and I can't deny that the conditions under which I was performing my job was a factor when making my decision," he told the Observer in 2013 after leaving the position.

After his replacement, Ashley Haire, stepped in a year later, Kalhammer slammed city leaders in a letter to The Dallas Morning News. "It couldn’t hurt to give Dr. Haire a program staff to help design, plan, coordinate, implement and monitor the Bikeway System," he wrote.

Haire lasted a little over a year. According to DMN reporter Robert Wilonsky, she was working "almost single-handedly" with "antiquated technology" that required her to design bike lanes by hand.

The city spent thousands on consultants to design bike lanes while it looked for a replacement. Jared White took over the assignment until last year, when he moved to a new position in the parks department. The position has gone unfilled since.

Filling the position is key, according to the city's own comprehensive climate plan, a draft of which was released last week. It noted that the bike plan "has not been fully implemented due to a lack of resources and no dedicated manager" and that "hiring an in-house bicycle advocate and coordinator to update the bicycle master plan and work through the existing implementation hurdles is key."

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Rogers said he's still looking for the right person. "We've had interviews, and I didn't believe we were at the right fit. ... I'm looking for someone who's really good at communicating with the public but also has the technical know-how to still move this thing forward." He expects to fill the position by the end of this month. 

Meanwhile, he said his priority is to "make safety first" using the money he has available. This means making sure that new infrastructure projects going forward have protected bike lanes. "We're seeing better quality projects that are coming out, that are not just to hit a number," he said.

Once safer infrastructure is in place, Rogers said, more bicyclists will hit the streets.

But, he admitted, "Right now, we're not quite there."

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