Texas-based freelance writer Mark Dent has been published in the New York Times, Texas Monthly, Slate, VICE, the Dallas Morning News, and many other publications.
After a disastrous experiment with dockless bike sharing, the famously auto-centric Texas city is trying to be more friendly to bicycles and pedestrians.
In January 2018, there were nearly 20,000 rentable shared bikes on the streets of Dallas. A slew of private bikeshare companies like Ofo and LimeBike had descended, seemingly overnight; suddenly, this car-centric Texas city boasted the biggest dockless fleet in the country.
Today, they’re almost all gone. The dockless invasion led to chaos on streets and sidewalks, as well as a headline-grabbing rash of creative anti-bike vandalism. In June 2018, the City Council stepped in, enacting regulations that forced bikeshare companies to pay $21 for each cycle in their fleets and to clean up any messes left behind by customers. Those dockless bikes that hadn’t been burned in effigy or hung from trees were recycled for scrap. About the only reminder of this experiment is the occasional abandoned silver V-Bike splayed on the grass at White Rock Lake. “Rarely have these systems failed with as much gusto as the one in Dallas,” Texas Monthly concluded.
The spectacular flameout of dockless bikesharing seemed to support the notion that Dallasites are fundamentally hostile to two-wheelers. They’re too attached to their pickups to tolerate any other personal transportation mode, and the city’s sprawl is too vast to make riding viable. There’s plenty of other evidence for that idea, too. According to census data, only 0.3 percent of the Dallas population bikes to work. That’s a woeful 17th out of the 20 largest U.S. cities, ahead of only Charlotte, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. Using the ratings system devised by People For Bikes, a national bike advocacy organization, Dallas earns a grim one-and-a-half star rating. (Austin nets three stars.) For the last several years, Dallas has budgeted only $500,000 annually to improve the small amount of bike infrastructure it has, which isn’t much.
But die-hard Dallas bike advocates saw something else in the brief dockless boom: They pointed out that residents and tourists alike were eagerly riding the shared bicycles throughout the city, despite intense August heat and a lack of bike lanes. And as new city regulations opened the door to electric scooters, residents are now plying those same streets aboard tiny motorized two-wheelers. Maybe what this really shows is that Dallas is due to rethink its infrastructure. (On the other hand, people lit bicycles on fire.)
As Dallas grows, the city faces a reckoning over what it wants to be: Can it embrace the characteristics that many of America’s most popular cities are emphasizing—better walkability and bikeability, more dense transit-oriented housing development—or will it cling to the highways and sprawl that have long defined the city?
For decades, Dallas has been a drive-thru city. In the last half of the 20th century, municipal leaders approved a variety of projects designed to make the region a convenient landing pad for suburbanites. Three highways, I-345, I-45, and I-30, carved through once-bustling neighborhoods on the borders of downtown. That development pattern made the city center a less-than-attractive place to live. In 2000, downtown Dallas’s population was around 2,200. Between 2000 and 2010, with rapid growth in the suburbs, the city’s population grew by just 0.8 percent. This was during the decade when a residential revival was transforming business districts and downtowns nationwide.
“We’re always sort of last,” said Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of the Coalition for a New Dallas. The organization has started a movement to raze I-345 and replace the stretch of highway with surface boulevards, in an effort to reconnect downtown with neighborhoods that were isolated by the interstate.
But Dallas has started to get aboard the downtown revival bandwagon. The city’s population has increased by 12 percent since 2010, and downtown is now home to 11,000 residents. That number is still small for a city center where 135,000 people work and illustrative of the lack of new housing, particularly affordable housing, where demand has increased.
One factor holding back growth: Dallas largely lacks city neighborhoods with high rates of walkability, bikeability, and other density-related amenities. A study by George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis found Dallas to have only ten walkable areas, comprising 0.2 percent of the city’s overall land mass. These areas—affluent neighborhoods like Uptown and Oak Lawn—are 37 percent more expensive than the regional average.
Advocates for building more bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure are also frustrated by a lack of coherent planning from city officials. “We’ve got sort of a donor class that picks pet projects that may or may not align with the city’s vision,” Kennedy said.
There have been some success stories: In 2012, the city completed a project to cap the Woodall Rodgers Freeway with a five-acre green space called Klyde Warren Park, which connected Uptown with the Arts District and downtown. But there have also been several expensive failures.
Most infamously, in the late 1990s, Dallas proposed constructing three signature bridges over the Trinity River, southwest of downtown, designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava. Two have been built. The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which opened in 2012, has no pedestrian component. The second, the Margaret McDermott Bridge, was to feature a main section for cars and a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, held up by one of two decorative Calatrava arches that cost $115 million. The main section opened in 2013, but because of safety concerns with the arches, the pedestrian and bicycle bridge has never opened. Another $7 million is needed for a fix.
On the surface, the dockless bikesharing experiment had the hallmarks of a similarly ill-conceived vanity project designed mostly to make Dallas look big. But Heather McNair, director of communications for the advocacy group Bike DFW, insists that the pilot did succeed on at least one level: It drew public attention. “Whether you hated it or you loved it you were talking about bikes,” she said. “You were thinking about bikes.”
And the brief dockless frenzy also help expose thousands of Dallasites to something that experienced cyclists have known for years: There was almost nowhere safe and convenient for a bicycle on the city’s streets. “Anyone who wants to bike isn’t quite sure of where or how,” said Amanda Popken, a local cycle enthusiast who owns an economic development and placemaking firm.
According to Jared White, the city’s departing bicycle transportation manager, Dallas had no bike lanes and no designated shared lanes until 2012. Last fall, Philip Kingston, a city councilman and one of the city’s biggest bicycling advocates, successfully proposed doubling the annual bicycle infrastructure budget from $500,000, a level that had remained stagnant since 2012, to $1 million. The allotment may rise to $1.5 million next year and $2 million in the future. It will be used almost entirely, Kingston said, for new bike lanes and sharrows.
The lack of infrastructure revealed through bikeshare lent urgency to Kingston’s proposal, and it followed other signs of incipient urbanism: In 2017, voters approved a bond deal for a project called The Loop, which ties together loose ends of several existing multi-use trails circling Dallas. Once completed, it would give residents a continuous 50 mile bike-and-hike trail around the city, offering residents a car-free entry into downtown, one of the few locations with sharrows and bike lanes. Around the same time, the City Council canceled a long-discussed toll road that would have run through a proposed park by the Trinity River.
To Kingston, these projects are critical if Dallas expects to compete with places like Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco for younger new residents. “To the extent we fall behind on giving people the things they want to use in their off-work hours … we are going to lose out,” he said. “We are absolutely not going to remain competitive.”
The challenge to catch up is significant. Dallas is several years behind the goals it set in a comprehensive 2011 bike plan: The city now has 65 miles of bike lanes and shared lane markings; it is supposed to have close to 700 by 2021. Funding issues have complicated The Loop project. Dallas faces falling public transit ridership even as population grows, thanks in part to the challenges of serving an increasingly spread-out base of residents. Direct bus and transit options from South Dallas into downtown and further north are scarce and take too long.
And the city’s bike-lane-making budget is dwarfed by other cities. Seattle is set to receive $65 million for bike lanes from 2019 to 2024. Even San Antonio, whose bike-commuting numbers are even worse than those in Dallas, has budgeted $1 million for bicycle infrastructure the last several years.
Popken once considered moving to Austin shortly after she returned to Dallas after college. But then she found Oak Cliff, a South Dallas neighborhood that offers a convenient grid for biking and walking—and a like-minded community that values those things. She realizes, however, that this remains a rare thing in Dallas: Most residents have never chosen or been forced to base their lifestyle around walking and biking, and they’re not necessarily eager to see the city to change.
“Maybe Dallas will continue to be a diverse city for lots of different types of people and be the major metropolis where you go to live a car-dependent lifestyle,” Popken said. “There’s something about the entrepreneurial spirit of Texas that Dallas will make its own identity.”
Kennedy said there is one benefit of Dallas’s habit of being late to the bike-lane party: Dallas can look at other cities that have already improved their non-driving infrastructure to see where they failed and succeeded.
But until that happens, those who walk, scooter, or bike in Dallas are likely to continue to face a challenging road. This March, Bike DFW hosted a meeting about urban cycling at the downtown public library. An instructor was there to encourage prospective bike commuters to find good routes on the streets and stay safe amid heavy Dallas traffic.
Besides this reporter, one person showed up.