This week, Deathproof and special guest Kate the Hazard Mitigation Planner visited the Katy Trail, a 3.5 mile long elevated bike and walk trail running through the heart of Dallas. Constructed in the early 2000s, it reuses an abandoned rail line (driven by the Rails to Trails Conservancy Program) transforming existing bridges and pavement over and above traffic into pedestrian/ bike space. It’s a much-hyped project for alternative (non-car based) transportation and on paper, I can see why: it runs north-south through the city (with minimal meandering), it connects to the Dallas transit system (the DART) and it backs up to a number of commercial and multifamily developments. In short, it generally supports the urban multimodal fantasy network we are all hoping to see in our fully automated, gay space communist future.
Today’s Route: The Back Door (Katy Trail in Dallas)
Starting Point: Katy Trail Ice House
(Unexpected) Ending Point: Airline Road and Beverly Drive
Distance: 3 miles
Estimated Time: 32 min (There and back)
Actual Time: 3 hours and 20 min (Long Taco Break)
Rating: One bourgeois cyclist with paneers and one safety cone
Soundtrack: The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
A Good Start
As a crusty, seasoned bike commuters much more familiar with road riding, Kate and I are already a little skeptical of urban trails systems in general. Still, after about 1 mile in, we both have to admit it is very nice. The trail is hemmed in green; bushes and trees buffer the path and overhang the road, couching the rider in in a cooling mist and penumbral shade. Kate remarks on how immersive the trial space is, how separate it feels from the concrete and asphalt wilderness just a hundred feet in either direction. It’s a strategic and surreal piece of silent green in loud, fast, busy city. Ever quarter mile or so, a trail entrance point breaks the tree canopy open.
These spaces are the pictures frames for the city below, offering vistas of the downtown. They represent pleasant interruptions, schisms of noise and light penetrating the ambience of constructed nature. Dallas people–kids, adults little group of friends, solo exercise fiends–traverse the trail at varying speeds. While the trail often has one path for biking and one for walking, it periodically narrows, mixing modalities and creating confusion over who has the right of way. But it’s a Saturday and the atmosphere is relaxed, and aside from a few hard core exercise folks, no one is in a rush.
On mile two, we snapped out of our forrest euphoria and started looking at what sat adjacent to the path. The trail backs up to a number of business parks, multifamily complexes, and individual homes. The view from the trail into these domestic spaces feels oddly intimate, in a kind of voyeuristic way; passers by see all the happenings of peoples back yards, from hanging clothes lines to patio furniture, children’s toys, potted plants, and the back ends of parked cars.
Some of these homes have fences to secure a modicum of privacy, while others create little to no barrier between the trail edge and their backyard, which I find pretty bold. The most friendly of these spaces that I saw along the way had placed a small ramp between the trails edge and their backyard, straddling a small drainage ditch that separated the public trail from their private green space. These folks, I realized, probably like the convenience of hopping on to the trail and were unperturbed by the idea that someone (perhaps an ill-meaning someone) could use the trails system, unmonitored, to enter their backyard at night.
Maybe these people had beaucoup cameras and alarm systems, so there was never any real danger. Still, it seemed to be a general display of good faith towards the fellow walker and biker folks on the the trail by adjacent neighbors. The Katy Trail, in its best moments, functions as something like a (highly over-engineered) but typical residential alley; it is a both a public route and a private one, both an open space and a closed off one, both a place to see and be seen. It’s the secret-garden backdoor to a great many big, old, urban properties that put on a good front but have now started to think about their rear-end too.
A Bad Network
Is the Katy trail an excellent recreational amenity? Absolutely. Is the trail an encouraging showpiece for central city walkability in Dallas? For sure. Is it an equitable transit environment that will contribute in a meaningful way to reduction of car based trips to home, work, or the grocery store? You bet your sweet ass it isn’t. It was only at mile three that the limits of the trail as a means of traversing the city (and its lack of integration with it) became really apparent.
Let’s start with the fact that the trail just…ends. At the intersection of Airline road and Beverly Drive, (for bikers, at least) the trail stops abruptly and unceremoniously. No sign, no warning, no apology. Just an end to the pavement, a goodbye as anticlimactic as it is unexpected. (Yes, I know that the trail actually continues on, in dirt and pebble form only, alongside the highway for another few miles; I grant also that plans are in the works for more pavement in the future. Still, give a person some notice, at least!) This trail is to urban mobility systems what ghosting is to a good tindr date: for how nice it was, you expected some kind of prior notice if it was going to just end on you. In the wayfinding department (and in the management of expectations department) the Katy Trail is a fairly obvious failure.
The end of the trail also coincided with my needing to pee very badly. While this is not in itself a problem with the trail (green spaces do not generate in me total incontinence) it does reveal its inadequacy as an environment habitable to humans on the go. The trail has almost no bathrooms, or at least only one every mile or so. This is not something you have to contend with as a road-rider, as you regularly pass businesses and buildings. In the absence of a toilet, I was able to make use of the dilapidated metal shed at the end of the trail as ass-cover; as I squatted in the grass besides the highway (in full view of the cars entering the intersection in either direction) I pondered this thought some more. A truly public transit system, like a subway, takes people’s bowels into account. It builds sanitary infrastructure into its ethos. It becomes a place safe for passing bodily functions (even if, as in the case of the NY subway, it means feeling comfortable to pee on train tracks). It recognizes its responsibility to provide this to people who are in a hurry, far from home, and quickly enroute to somewhere else.
People actually engaged in transit–and not on the way to a picnic, a hike, or a combination picnic-hike-yoga retreat–also need more cover from the elements than the Katy Trail can provide. The trail has no shade structures, no tents, no tables with umbrellas. This became apparent to us right around the time that the clouds opened and the rain started to fall hard. Kate, ever resilient and a captain of understatement, biked silently behind me as I dashed, desperately, back down the trail, looking for cover. At Cole and Krox, the trail opened up to a little urban village and we scooted under the outdoor canopy of a clothing store. The rain continued. We waited. It rained some more. After about 20 more minutes, we gave up on standing and waiting–we locked the bikes up and took off for the Mexican restaurant down the street, where over some tortilla soup and teas, we discussed whether or not we should take off our wet shoes and socks under the table and bitched about how far away we seemed to be from everything.
Despite what Berkeley geography scholar and professional belly-acher John Stehlin has to say about the unfairly assumed linkages between rising property values and biking (or bike share programs) the Katy Trail is exactly what proponents of equitable transit options are critical of when they notice a strong correlation between white people on bikes and neighborhood displacement: there does seem to be an awful lot of bikers who are also gentrifiers. Why?
The association is real, but it is not because bikes cause gentrification; it is more complicated than that, and in order to understand the relationship, we need to first understand that there are two sets of people who bike: the very rich (who can afford to live in the central business district and who have ample time to test out daily routes) and the very poor (those who cannot afford a car and utilize a combination of busing and biking to get to work). As a bike commuter in Austin, I met these folks all the time, typically at 4:30 in the morning at a rapid bus stop, bag packed full of a change of clothes, starting the first leg of a 2 hour commute that will involve high speed roads with no lights or sidewalks.
All that is to say that the people who need to bike, the most vulnerable, are already biking on roads where there is no special infrastructure supporting them ( and just because you don’t notice them does not mean they aren’t there: see every goat path along every major road in your city to understand what I mean). Cities might want to help these folks but they don’t have the budget to do it on their own. If you see new infrastructure going in, it is probably related to a new and expensive housing or mixed use development–someone is selling lots and building townhomes and they are about to make a boatload of money. They are also about to build a walkable neighborhood with good connectivity–which, because it is newly built, will be out of the reach of all low income people because of how affordable housing incentives work (i.e., affordable housing incentivized by HUD standards targets the median income earners of a city–the remaining middle class–and not the truly low income folks).
So this is a bit of a catch 22 as far as multi-modal (but heavily bike focused) transit enthusiasts are concerned: the more bike-safe routes and improved bike infrastructure would help your bottom line (given that low income people pay the highest percentage of their income in transit costs) the more likely you are to live in a badly connected area that was not designed with biking in mind. Conversely, if you have the resources to move to a bikable area (either the historic city core, or new urbanist walkable communities that are coming back into fashion) the more likely it is that you are in an income bracket where you can afford a car, and therefore don’t really need those resources. In these communities, biking is an amenity, not a required modality.
So ultimately, we have to ask: which set of users to we want to build bike infrastructure for? The ones who need it but have no way of asking for it or paying for it, or the ones who want it (and don’t need it) but ask with the loudest voice? Who has a stake in this, really?
The Bianchi crowd can learn how to ride athletically on the street and appreciate urban environments as part of the experience of bike recreation; The Huffy crowd is never going to be able to take that loopy, unlit, combination urban/nature trail to their job at the strip mall Best Buy. The Katy Trail is a pretty sexy piece of Dallas infrastructure, but it is also Dallas’ answer to the Highline: it can be used by everyone, but only the mostly privileged groups, whose central location and open schedule allow them space to take advantage of it, will constitute the real user base. In this case, developer subsidized infrastructure is the back door to gentrification, laying down the path to displacement years ahead of the new homes and residents.