Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Biking in Dallas: The Comedy

For any following the City of Dallas quest to become more bike friendly, the Dallas Morning News ran a Metro Section article Tuesday about a tour elected officials took to see the current bike infrastructure on the ground. It is behind the paywall, but I recommend the read.

I know I have promised a post on the new bike lanes downtown, but a brief synopsis is this: I am underwhelmed. The article gives a good felling of why, even from the beginning with the headline. "Tour-by van- looks at bike lanes" says it all. People who don't ride design a system for riders and then are perplexed when riders don't use the system.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a flaw of the planning profession in general. The jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none certainly apply to many-to most planners. Some consult a book, see what other cities or counties have done and apply it without context. The system designed by bikers in Portland, for example, may not work here. Just because they see results, doesn't mean Dallas will.

From the article:

In a white city van, four City Council members and several staff members rode past Fair Park through Deep Ellum and downtown and into Oak Cliff to view the different ways Dallas has installed bike infrastructure.
The city's central connection of bike lanes stretches from Victory Park to near Fair Park and leads from the Katy Trail to the Santa Fe Trail.

But it isn't the easiest path to navigate, council members agreed. Because of the inadequate signs and variations in the types of lanes used, bicyclists are often left to figure out where they're supposed to be - while riding in lanes shared with cars. 
Council members were also concerned about the narrowness of some lanes downtown, particularly along Jackson and Wood streets. In some places, the bike lane runs into the storm sewer.
Those touring the lanes saw lots of striping laid down for bicycles. What they didn't see much of were people on bicycles.

Whether it was because of the time of day, the cold weather, a lack of interest of something else, the lanes weren't attracting many users.

Changing that will be the true test of how well the new lanes work.

 I won't go into too much detail of the lanes themselves, as I believe that is worth a post on its own. What I want to address is two-fold.

First, Dallas isn't alone, but I know it the best. They put up a mismatch of infrastructure, some convenient to the biker, some for the street layout, some convenient to the cars. This combination can actually nullify the first one and it no longer is convenient to cycle any amount of distance. Then the cyclist, both hard core and recreational, don't use it and what was built for them sits empty.

A lot of times in planning, the phrase "just get something on the ground" is used as a way to put a policy in place with the rationale that the public will see it and opposition will fade as people see it in use. This is a great example of why I don't like that approach as a one-size-fits-all tactic. In this situation, folks who don't want the lanes are going to point here and say "why build it here if no one uses it there."

The final result ends with no new infrastructure added because the initial ones were implemented poorly and no one uses it. This isn't a good outcome for anyone.

Ultimately, the big stumbling block lies with the city staffers and elected officials who are reluctant to take space now used for cars and allocate them to another mode. Somehow, in order to achieve balance, that has to happen. You can't add any meaningful infrastructure while leaving a seven-lane-wide roadway with a median intact for autos to achieve high speeds. Those high speeds make cycling, walking and transit uncomfortable and therefore inconvenient. As a result, only car-use is convenient and the only mode used on a wide basis. Cities, like Dallas, tread water if their starting point is to leave the auto-only roadways alone.

The second point is this. How many times have we heard alternative transportation won't work in Dallas because Dallasites just love their cars? I have maintained people don't love their cars, they love convenience and I still haven't seen anything to contradict this. Cars are still the only thing that is convenient across the region. There are small patches scattered here and yon where a car isn't needed, but nothing wholesale to really put a dent in regional vehicle miles traveled. I have talked a bit about why DART comes up short. Walking is too fragmented, even in walkable areas. In the DMN article linked, the biking infrastructure is noted for being to erratic and mismatched. The only thing that is close to be seamless and convenient is the car.

From coast to coast and even internationally, places that have a legitimate choice and offer convenient alternative transportation options, their citizens choose alternatives. In places that don't, folks don't choose it on any meaningful scale.

Dallas can do it, but I just wonder if there will ever be enough people to hop out of the van to ever get it done.

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