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Urban planner paving the way for bike-friendly Dallas

The Dallas Morning News: Urban planner paving the way for bike-friendly Dallas

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 12, 2010

By MELISSA REPKO / The Dallas Morning News

As Peter Lagerwey stands at the side of a road and pencils street widths onto a clipboard, he envisions a much different Dallas.A decade from now, he sees a vibrant city where more people pedal to grocery stores and to work, where bike racks line the front of coffee shops and restaurants, and where all kinds of cyclists – from the spandex-clad to the business-attired – share the road with lane-clogging SUVs.

For the 58-year-old urban planner from Seattle, bike and pedestrian paths mean more than paint and pavement. They build community.

His vision will result in the 2011 Dallas Bike Plan, revamping the 1985 version to increase connectivity between bike trails and on-street bike paths. The city's existing 365 miles of marked bike routes could ultimately double.

Lagerwey, a senior planner for Maryland-based Toole Design Group, is working on the $375,000 plan for the city along with local consultants Bowman-Melton Associates Inc. and Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. A $300,000 grant from the North Central Texas Council of Governments kick-started the planning process.

Restriping roads and affixing traffic signs will cost $30,000 a mile, Lagerwey estimates. In the end, Dallas wants to have up to 700 miles of bike routes.

But sticker shock may be a lesser challenge than building widespread support in a city where the car reigns.

"I can't go and do anything unless people are ready," Lagerwey said, "and I think Dallas is ready."

The benefits

Surrounded by gated properties and expansive lawns of a North Dallas neighborhood, Lagerwey is decidedly out of place. As he surveys a potential bike path, he sports an orange construction vest over a "Life Is Good" T-shirt. His white-gray curls spill out of a baseball cap that provides shade on a 12-hour summer day.

Every aspect of the streetscape is a clue. Speed bumps mean high traffic. Multiple driveways mean numerous hazards. And quick-changing stoplights mean treacherous intersections for cyclists, who need time to turn a corner or cruise through a crossroad.

Beyond the landscape, Lagerwey talks about the impact of a growing cyclist and pedestrian population. "Communities that have bicycling and walking have healthier people, happier people," he says.

Bike paths come with an economic benefit, he adds: "I've always noticed that where there's a lot of bicycling and walking, there's a lot of reinvestment."

Lagerwey's frequent references to safety and livability reflect his background as a community activist. Before he began his career in urban planning, he worked for Volunteers in Service to America in Anchorage, Alaska, and coordinated neighborhood associations in Grand Rapids, Mich.

He grew up hearing his father's whimsical stories about delivering groceries by bicycle in the Netherlands. And road trips with his family of "hikers, campers and climbers" – Mom, Dad, six kids and Grandma – inspired his sense of adventure and love for the Pacific Northwest.

While his graduate school classmates studied cul-de-sacs and highways, Lagerwey pursued independent study, dreaming up path ideas and reading about one of the first comprehensive bike plans in Geelong, Australia.

Whether in Seattle, Dallas or elsewhere, he frequents locally owned businesses rather than chains. Here, he stays at Belmont Hotel – a trendy independent with one of the best views of the city. His crumpled-up list of recommended restaurants and bars reads like that of a microbrew enthusiast. And he admits Dallas brewpubs rank among his favorite attractions.

The obstacles

When Lagerwey began as Seattle's bike coordinator in 1984, he says it wasn't all that different from today's Dallas. There were bike trails, he says, but few routes that made work commutes easy and safe. Along with his day job, he traveled from city to city, spreading the gospel of bike and pedestrian planning.

Back then, few cities were willing to be pioneers in bike planning. Most held back and watched.

Anticipating fast growth, Dallas' roads were built with many lanes. Today, some streets have unneeded lanes because traffic has been diverted to highways. To Lagerwey, that's space that can be transformed into an on-street bike lane with a stripe of paint or a concrete barrier.

He shrugs off Texas heat as a formidable challenge. To cope with sweltering temperatures, the city could consider tax breaks or other incentives for workplaces that build showers and locker rooms, which has helped in other cities, he says. Every city has its own geographic or weather-related obstacles: San Francisco is a city of hills. In Seattle, it rains often, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Lagerwey is used to working with resistance, even in cities considered early adopters of alternate transportation.

One Seattle bank wrote him a letter describing a bike rack as a security risk and warning him not to put one in front of its building. Five years later, the bank complained about being skipped over.

The story reflects Lagerwey's philosophy, a belief that in time, people will come around. Change takes patience. It's a Zen that Lagerwey has mastered.

His ability to overcome naysaying and build coalitions between large and diverse groups is why Jennifer Toole, president of Toole Design Group, says she chose Lagerwey for the Dallas project.

"He is just really good at public involvement," she said, calling him a longtime mentor. "I was always impressed with his ability to get people working together."

"If there was going to be someone who could be the face of this project," said Dallas bike coordinator Max Kalhammer, "it had to be someone like him."

Kalhammer said the bike plan should roll out over the next 10 years or a little longer – depending on city finances. Projects will spread from supportive neighborhoods to skeptical ones, using the first few to energize the next.

"You don't go to your biggest challenge first," Lagerwey says. "You answer the critics by proving them wrong."

Emerging culture

After a sweaty day of fieldwork, Lagerwey and his crew ditch their clipboards and head to Oak Cliff – the future site of one of the plan's pilot projects.

For one July evening, Bishop Avenue is a street in Paris. Eager onlookers line up near bocce ball courts of granite and sand, and an expected turnout of a few hundred swells to a crowd of 1,500.

Lagerwey spends the Bastille Day celebration like a usual evening, eating at a neighborhood haunt and talking to locals about biking.

The event's sponsor, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, might be the best representation of how bike culture can emerge, and thrive, in Dallas.

"They understand pedestrian and bike paths are the key ingredients to adding life and community to an area," he says.

The Oak Cliff advocacy group was born out of the discontent of its founding members.

Co-founder Jason Roberts, 36 and a father of two, marveled at cities like Portland and wondered why bike culture didn't exist in Dallas.

Seeking a small-town feel, he joined forces with other locals in 2008 to help improve the neighborhood, throwing community events, hosting bike rides, and partnering with nearby businesses.

"Either we move or we start making changes," Roberts remembers thinking. "We have to create the kind of city we want to grow old in, and we need to create the city we want our kids to grow up in."

With the national perspective of Lagerwey, the time is ripe, Roberts says – far different from 2008. That year Dallas was ranked the nation's worst bicycling city by Bicycling magazine, and the city ousted its bike coordinator, who opposed building bike trails.

"It's night and day," Roberts says. Lagerwey "has allowed everyone to have a voice at the table."

A city priority?

Warren Casteel, 56, has been similarly impressed by Lagerwey. But Casteel, a member of the bike plan's citizen advisory board, questions whether biking is a city priority.

He looks no further than the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River. The $119 million bridge – one of the design projects intended to put Dallas on the map – will carry six lanes of car traffic, but no bikes.

"Dallas will come out of this [drafting process] with a literally world-class bicycle plan," Casteel said. "If it will be funded and how it will be funded, I don't know."

In early December, Lagerwey will hand over his suggestions to the city and cross his fingers. It will take years to see if the plan is put in place and if new routes coax Dallasites behind handlebars.

Years from now, once his plan is a reality, Lagerwey says he'll come back to Dallas. He imagines seeing a bike-friendly city he helped create, once mere sketches on a surveyor's page. Perhaps he'll pull his road bike to the side of a trail to watch a family bicycle by.

The greatest reward, he says, is to see bike paths in use.