Thursday, July 24, 2014
Dallas' new bike czar is ready to roll; her thoughts on hot-button issues
Biking down Main Street, Ashley Haire experienced the pros and cons of Dallas’ cycling world all rolled into one.
The city’s new bike coordinator wheeled through so-called “sharrows,” lanes marked for sharing by cars and bicycles, as well as a stretch of dedicated bike lanes. But the options changed from one block to the next, confusing both bikers and motorists.
She pointed to two high-density neighborhoods — downtown and Deep Ellum — that are primed for bike culture to take hold. But she also lamented that riders would need to cross a major thoroughfare and go under two highways to get from downtown to Fair Park.
And though Haire noted that Dallas residents are by and large bike-friendly, one driver squeezed past her by veering into a lane mostly filled with parked cars. Another sped past her on the wrong side of the road. (Both cars ended up stopped at the next red light, just like Haire.)
“It makes the job a challenge,” she said, chuckling at the full view of her new gig. “I cannot ever say that I’m not challenged.”
Haire, who started in May, takes control of Dallas’ bike plans at a critical time.
City leaders, including Mayor Mike Rawlings, are eager to boost Big D’s cycling options — and soon. They’re looking at everything from more bike lanes to off-street trails, from bike-sharing programs to raising awareness about how bikes and cars should share the road.
What caused a 36-year-old engineer who’s lived in the bike-loving cities of Austin, Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz. — but who’s also tackled major highway projects for the Texas Department of Transportation — to become the bike czar in car-centric Dallas?
The Dallas Morning News pedaled alongside Haire to find out.
Like most non-natives living in Dallas, she was lured here by a job.
Haire had been doing postdoctoral work at Portland State University. Portland was where she “drank the Kool-Aid” on biking, she said. In the 21/2 years she lived there, she put only 6,000 miles on her car.
“It became the lifestyle, in every sense of the word,” she said.
But TxDOT had an opening for a project manager on the massive reconstruction of Interstates 30 and 35E in downtown Dallas. Her education is in civil engineering, with degrees from the University of Arizona and the University of Texas at Austin.
And so, a couple of years ago, she came to Dallas to make the jump from bikes to freeways.
“The ultimate irony,” she said.
On any given day, Haire might be riding one of the six bicycles she owns.
Riding with The News, she was on a pink Schwinn Super Sport from the early ’90s. She raves about her 1950s cruiser with dynamo lights. But her “baby,” her “prize jewel,” is an early ’70s Schwinn Paramount.
“I could talk about bikes for hours,” she said.
She doesn’t, however, own a mountain bike. Off-road treks are not her strong suit.
“I’m kind of a klutz with that stuff.”
Skeptical at first
Biking kept its hold on Haire even when she was at TxDOT.
Still, she admitted that she was skeptical about pursuing the Dallas bike coordinator position. If biking was such a priority for the city, she wondered, then why wasn’t there more to show for it?
“I was kind of stunned at how little bike infrastructure there was,” she said.
She was buoyed, though, that the city made the $85,000-a-year job one to be filled by an engineer.
That means she can not only participate in broader planning, such as updating and fine-tuning the city’s 2011 bike plan, she can also get into the actual design of bike lanes, rather than having to farm that work out to consultants.
“Hopefully, we can speed things up,” she said.
What are Haire’s thoughts on Dallas’ hot-button biking topics?
The helmet law? Haire wears a helmet whenever she hops on a bike, but she supported the City Council’s decision to repeal the helmet requirement for riders older than 17. Adults can make their own informed decisions, she figures.
Expanding hike-and-bike trails? She’s all for it, even though she notes that hike-and-bike trails come under the park department, not her office. She said the Dallas system is quite good. The key, she said, will be better connecting those off-street trails with on-street infrastructure.
Bike-sharing? She’s a fan of those programs, which feature rental stands at various locations where people can pick up or drop off a bike. But she worries that Dallas doesn’t yet have the biking infrastructure to support a citywide program.
The early goal for Haire is simple: Get more bike infrastructure on the ground.
Though there’s a limited budget for such improvements, she’s already deep into plans for bike lanes in a few new areas. She wouldn’t get into specifics, but suggested that Sylvan Avenue in North Oak Cliff has potential.
She’s been impressed that so many people in Dallas remain hopeful about biking’s future. But she knows there are inherent planning challenges to tackle, especially if the city hopes to make biking more than just a fitness option.
One of the biggest problems is that many thoroughfares — think Mockingbird Lane — are difficult to traverse on foot, much less on a bike. Riding along some streets is so tricky that bikers push onto sidewalks. That creates more problems.
At some point, she said, there will have to be tough conversations about turning some car lanes into dedicated bike lanes.
“I don’t even know what people’s fears are, as far as bike lanes go,” she said. “I know there are a lot of people who are opposed to them. And that’s unfortunate.”
Portland we’re not
Haire doesn’t like to compare the biking cultures in different cities. There are just too many factors in play, she said.
“It’s like comparing Earth and Mars,” she said.
But if she could bring one thing from Portland to Dallas, what would it be?
“Open-mindedness,” she said.
She paused and laughed.
“It sounds like an episode of Portlandia to say that,” she said, referring to the droll comedy, on the IFC cable network, that pokes fun at that city’s hipster ethos.
She paused again.
“But there are other ways of living, and it doesn’t have to be car-centric.”