Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dallas' Does Bike Lanes

For those that know me personally, it may be a bit of a shocker to hear; I just have a hard time getting motivated blogging about Dallas' new bike infrastructure. I am really just weary of constantly sounding negative about the City's attempts to urbanize itself. I occasional feel that even though I am trying to give an objective, unbiased opinion, it comes across as overly pessimistic. Occasionally, something like Klyde Warren Park or Third Rail Lofts comes along that is very solidly urban and actually prove that I can like something Dallas does to its urban core.

Sadly, the City's attempts at bike infrastructure downtown follow the same, tiring pattern.

Allow some background information before I continue. In 2011, the Dallas Bike Plan was released. It was put together by the Toole Design Group, who is based out of Seattle and has offices nationwide. FULL DISCLOSURE: I was apart of the planning process of this report. For the most part, it was a solid plan. Like any planning study, there were some things I thought could have been better, but the whole was a really solid plan to move Dallas' biking infrastructure and culture forward.

However, as is always the case, politics comes into play. First, Dallas staffers told folks that it was too expensive, that ordinances would have to change, that intensive public information and meetings would be needed (click here for an Dallas Observer account). Then, thanks to intense pressure, it was able to get done.

That's the messiness of planning. Two very different planners could tackle the same issue and, with the same data and input, come to radical divergent conclusions. Add in the political process, either the will to get it done, or the desire to block it, or something in between and the reality that plans get half-implemented or just sit on the shelf is easy to see.

When it comes to bike infrastructure in Dallas, it has been all the above.

A plan done by a consultant is really the best-case scenario for a city. When the consultant turns in the final product, they are done with it. Should the municipality like it, they can then set the wheels in motion to get it implemented. If they don't, they can put up the required road blocks. And, in most cases, they decide to implement the politically pleasing ones while ignoring the ones that could be harder to explain to the constituency or donors. Again, it has been all of the above with Dallas.

Add in the bonus that the infrastructure implemented was done by someone who doesn't ride a bike, and the downtown portion severely underperforms.

There is at least one positive from the changes downtown, and those are actually the least intrusive and expensive. Several streets have had a bike emblem painted in right lane. While some don't like this, I can at least support it. It helps to illustrate to drivers that bikes do belong on the road.

Main street bike emblem. The bike shares the lane with vehicular traffic.
There are some whose placement is suspect. Most of the time, they are directly in the middle of the street, and the ghost lanes painted at the intersection help to indicate the cyclist is supposed to ride over this portion. The problem is that, like motorcycle drivers, bike riders prefer not to ride in the center where the oil leak lane is. The traction is different and occasional debris and other substances can be flown in the air. Most will ride on either side. My personal preference is just to the outside of the slick, as it also lets drivers know that I am in this lane and they should pass in the next lane.

Notice the darker part in the middle, indicating where oil drip has occurred, is right in the middle of the bike lane.
The ghost lane indicating the bike should ride in the middle.
As I mentioned in the Belo Garden critique, the lanes tend to change to correspond with the on-street parking. Cyclists will avoid changing lanes when it is unnecessary. Every time they change lanes, there is a chance, however, small, of getting in an accident. Doing it more than is necessary just adds too many small chances. Eventually, one of those will hit...literally. A system that automatically builds that in is poorly designed and/or implemented.

Otherwise, I do like the bike markers in the street. It is just the rest of what has happened downtown I don't like.

There are two bike lanes added to downtown, on the directly parallel streets of Wood and Jackson. The right vehicular lanes were removed and a buffered bike lane, resembling a cycle track, were put down. There is no discretion towards the existing part of the street, as they run over storm grates and drains, manhole covers and other obstacles.

There is a problem with vehicles pulling over into the lanes on both streets. It happens all day, everyday on both streets.

Three vehicles are in the bike lane on Jackson.

A maintenance is vehicle blocking the lane on Wood Street.
Both of those pictures were taken immediately when I arrived. I didn't have to wait for it to happen. This happens so much that even if cyclists do use the lanes, they have to keep going in and out of them. This is why most cyclists downtown will ride on Elm, Main and Commerce.

Another wrinkle is the property on the north side of Jackson has a bus lane that prevents vehicles from stopping there. If a delivery driver needs to make a quick stop at AT&T's corporate headquarters, should they block the bus lane on Commerce, block the bike lane on Jackson or go all the way to the subterranean loading dock off of Wood? Technically it should be the later, but we all know they won't. Heck, I wouldn't if it was an in and out delivery. What about taxi drivers? Where should they pick up and drop off passengers? There is no suitable solution here.

Bottom Line is that these two lanes are just in a poor location and then poorly designed on top of it.

One of the things some of the bike improvements have done is something I consider akin to an urban sin, take away on-street parking. While the bike lane could provide the buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians, nothing compares to a parked car. There is nothing like on-street parking. It gives every transportation user a benefit, even cyclists. Car drivers tend to travel slower next to parked which benefit riders too (just be careful to avoid opening doors).

Main Street was already a bicycle-friendly street. They didn't have to do much. I really feel it was made worse in some cases. Another example is the Central Expressway portion.

The bike land coming from Deep Ellum under Central Expressway

Under the freeway between downtown Dallas and Deep Ellum has never been a pedestrian or urban utopia. What it did have was a decent street with infrastructure to support Deep Ellum. What I mean is it was basically a mixed-use area for cars; freeway above, parking at surface and on-street, it was also easy to use for pedestrians and cyclists as well.

The addition of the bike lanes eliminated on-street parking, and though it wasn't extensively used, I have noticed that the cars traveling on this section seem to be going faster than before. I may be injecting my own bias in there, for what it's worth.

From a biking standpoint, what was once an easy pass by the freeway exit has turned into something a bit more complicated.

The bike lane past the Central Expressway exit on Main Street

According to state law, bikes are no different than motor vehicles in moving traffic. Prior to this lane, bikes could easily navigate the exit, just as the cars do. They had the full portion of the lane to maneuver if a vehicle didn't obey the yield sign.

However, with the addition of that lane, along with the ghost lane markings, the margin of error on this portion for cyclists is much greater. Expecting a cyclist to move from the far right of the street, equivalent to where the shoulder and on-street parking was, to the far left in a short distance, expecting the drivers to see and act accordingly is a recipe for disaster. For this reason, many cyclists have not used this lane when on the street. They continue to use the street, like before.

Any infrastructure design that increases the risk of cyclist injury is fundamentally flawed.

There is also a slight irony to how the city approaches the lanes too. In a large portion of downtown Dallas, there is an ordinance that prohibits riding on the sidewalk. It isn't often enforced, but tickets have been written from time to time. The Southern boundary is Young Street from Houston to basically the freeway by Deep Ellum.

The City closed the Houston Street Viauct for construction of the Oak Cliff streetcar. The detour is on the Jefferson Street Bridge, where the formerly one-way corridor has been converted to two-way and a bike lane connecting downtown to Oak Cliff was added.

The end of the Jefferson Street Bridge bike Lane.
Where the sign instructs riders to get on the sidewalk and the half-block stretch to where the sign says they can't ride on the sidewalk is adjacent to Young, where the City decided it should be illegal for bikers to ride on the sidewalk. 

I am aware that in construction zones, detours have to be made to accommodate construction crews. I would have less of a problem with this if there weren't any obvious alternatives.

Market Street is a one-way north of Young. Why can't cyclists go straight? Why do they have to turn left for a half-block, then have to make a U-turn and go back over that same half block. I understand that making a left across two directions of vehicular traffic is dangerous, but to not have the same option as drivers going the same direction is silly to me. The left lane is already going to be vacant as northbound traffic is on the east side to allow for two-way travel. There is no harm in letting them go straight. It also wouldn't violate the law of the City that told them to turn. Many cyclist just cut through to the left anyway and either go straight or turn on Young. It is not the safest thing to do, but it is the more convenient option.

It is these examples that clearly indicate that the person or folks who planned and implemented the downtown bike infrastructure isn't a cyclist. All too often, they either consult a manual to see what they accepted industry standard is, or, more likely, the traffic engineer does consults the AASHTO manual, which is close to a one-size-fits-all approach. The irony is most cyclist, as was the case with the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, would willingly give their input. We'd rather see it done to a higher standard the first time. But, as the evidence on the ground shows, the input clearly wasn't sought.

Ultimately, this kind of planning will set back Dallas in the long run. If it doesn't make sense for people to use it, they won't. Then the "it's never used so why do we keep doing it" argument will surface and it becomes politically harder to do something that really can benefit everyone.

There are other parts of Dallas that have better bike infrastructure. The following pictures were snapped on Bishop Avenue, a street that had way too much concrete when it was recently redone to accommodate bicycle infrastructure.

Notice the on-street parking on the right, bike lane in the middle and auto lane on the left.
Between the parking cars, buses, intersections and turning vehicles, there are myriad points of potential conflict between drivers and cyclists on Bishop Avenue.

While not perfect, there are plenty of potential conflict points with motorized travel, it is a good example of how bike infrastructure can work in Dallas. There will always be conflict points, no system can completely avoid it, but at least here, unlike the lanes in downtown Dallas, the myriad transportation options don't have to be in a perpetual state of conflict.

I am a guy whose primary transportation choice is bike. Ultimately,the downtown infrastructure has done very little for that kind of biker. I like the bike markers, but don't use the lanes, even when I am on that street. The design is so rough that it is hard to use as the designer intended. That just shouldn't cut it. I speak for lots in the biking community when I say what has been provided has not disappointed, and that is truly a shame.

Dallas has a very, very long way to go for it to make biking a legitimate urban transportation choice.


Ken Duble said...

The city gets it wrong in putting cycling lanes between moving traffic and parked cars. Exiting drivers opening their doors into the cycle path is still a problem.

Cycling lanes ought to be outside parked cars, with the cars buffering cyclists from traffic.

Branden said...

I could get behind that.