Cycling's Catching On In Texas, For A Very Texas Reason

Apr 2, 2014
Originally published on April 2, 2014 9:54 pm

For years, cyclists have faced long odds in Texas, where sprawling highways teem with trucks. Dallas was ranked the worst city for bicycling in the country, several years in a row. But in recent years, the two-wheeled form of transportation has begun to gain ground.

It's no surprise that progressive Austin — where the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong still lives — has plenty of cyclists.

"It works here," says cyclist and pedicabbie Austin Matherne. "Also, the way that downtown is set up, all the entertainment districts are so close together that it really is a viable transportation option for us."

But these days, bicycles are becoming a bigger conversation across the state, as traffic snarls grow worse. The traffic in Dallas, Austin and Houston routinely makes top 10 lists when it comes to most congested U.S. cities. So besides Austin, the state's other major cities, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston — where oil and gas companies dominate the economy — are leading several pro-cycling policy changes.

"At the city level, it's absolutely amazing. It's on fire," says Robin Stallings, who heads Bike Texas, the statewide advocacy group that pushes for bike-friendly policies. "Not everybody has room for a truck if everybody's in a truck. So we need to at least get some people out of their trucks to make room for the rest of us."

To get there, Houston approved more than $100 million in bonds for bike trails. San Antonio plans to triple bikeable streets by 2020. Dallas unveiled plans to lay out a new network of 1,100 miles of bike lanes over the next decade. All of this is rooted in a very Texas kind of reason: City leaders realize bike lanes are good for business.

"Companies like Samsung and Google are looking at the bicycle facility infrastructure before they decide what city they're going to locate in. So this is really being driven by economics in Texas. It's not all about people seeing themselves on a bicycle, but seeing what it does for the quality of life in a city," Stallings says.

Last December, the capital city became the fourth in Texas to start a bike-sharing program. Anyone with at least $8 to spend can rent a bike and ride it around and drop it off, at any of Austin's 40 bike-share sites.

"It's nice when I don't know where I'm gonna be meeting people or I'm going out for happy hour and I want to hop a ride to the next spot," says Austin cyclist Shawn Ironmonger.

But for cycling culture to catch up to car culture, a long road lies ahead. Census numbers show in Dallas, only 1 in 1,000 people cycles for transportation. The average for the country's largest cities is 16 times higher. And some of the state's biggest barriers to cycling are practical, not political. Commutes are long, and summer temperatures fall somewhere between hot and hellish.

"Once it gets to where I need a real good shower once I get somewhere, I can't really do it, for commuting," Ironmonger says.

When it comes to attitudes about a different form of transportation, pedicabbie Matherne says the car-only cohort still isn't so willing to share the roads.

"I wish there was a way to change people's view of that. Maybe, maybe it will slowly start happening," he says.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block broadcasting this week from member station KERA in Dallas. For years, cyclists have faced long odds here in Texas where city roads are clogged with trucks and cars. In fact, Dallas was ranked the worst city for bicycling in the country for several years in a row. But, as NPR's Elise Hu reports from the capital city of Austin, there are signs of hope for those who prefer transportation on two or even three wheels.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: We're traveling by pedicab in Austin, Texas, which is a pretty popular way to get around.

AUSTIN MATHERNE: There's a lot of us out here and, I mean, you watch us go by every 30 seconds, you know.

HU: That's pedicab driver Austin Matherne. Yes, somehow I wound up taking a pedicab in downtown Austin from a guy named Austin.

MATHERNE: Would you like (unintelligible) go on, go on, man.

HU: If you're not familiar with pedicabs, they are bicycle rickshaw combos. Some are covered, most are open-air rides. In this Texas city where the disgraced Lance Armstrong still lives has long been a progressive cycling-friendly place.

MATHERNE: It works here. Also, the way the downtown is set up, all the entertainment districts are so close together that it really is a very viable transportation option for us.

HU: Bicycles as a transportation option is becoming a bigger conversation across the state as traffic snarls grow worse. Austin ranks high among the most congested mid-sized cities in America. So besides its burgeoning pedicab businesses, bike sharing has also gotten going here. Earlier this year, the capital city became the fourth in Texas to start a bike-sharing program.

Anyone with at least $8 to spend can rent a bike, ride it around and drop it off at any of the city's 40 bike-share sites. Despite having a bike of his own, Sean Ironmonger rents one to go out.

SEAN IRONMONGER: It's nice when I don't know where I'm gonna be meeting people or if I'm going out for happy hour and then I want to, like, hop a ride to the next spot or whatever.

HU: That the blue city in a red state is friendly towards cycling isn't that newsy, but these days, the state's other major cities, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, where oil and gas companies dominate the economy, are actually leading several pro-cycling policy changes.

ROBIN STALLINGS: At the city level, it's absolutely amazing. It's on fire.

HU: Robin Stallings heads Bike Texas, the statewide advocacy group that pushes for bike-friendly policies.

STALLINGS: Not everybody has room for their truck if everybody's in a truck. So we need to at least get some people out of their trucks to make room for the rest of us.

HU: To get there, Houston passed more than $100 million in bonds for bike trails. San Antonio plans to triple bikeable streets by 2020. Dallas unveiled plans to lay out a new network of 1,100 miles of bike lanes over the next decade. And all of this is rooted in a very Texas kind of reason: City leaders realize bike lanes are good for business. Robin Stallings.

STALLINGS: Companies like Samsung and Google are looking at the bicycle facility infrastructure before they decide what city they're going to locate in. So this is really being driven by economics in Texas. It's not all about people seeing themselves on a bicycle, but seeing what it does for the quality of life in a city.

HU: But for cycling culture to catch up to car culture, a long road lies ahead. Census numbers show in Dallas, only 1 in 1,000 people cycles for transportation. The average for the country's largest cities is 16 times higher. And some of the state's biggest barriers to cycling are practical, not political. Commutes are long and summer temperatures fall somewhere between hot and hellish. Sean Ironmonger thinks there is such a thing as too hot for cycling.

IRONMONGER: Once it gets to where I need a real good shower once I get somewhere, I can't really do it, for commuting.

HU: And attitudes aren't quite there yet. Matherne, the pedicabbie, says the car-only cohort still isn't so willing to share the roads.

MATHERNE: I wish there was a way to change people's view of that. Maybe, maybe it will slowly start happening.

HU: Making Texas more cycling friendly is an uphill climb, but money motivations are moving it forward. Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.