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Big wheels turning: Bike culture in DFW

Posted 9:09am on Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012

I felt like I'd just seen a flash mob, or had been involved in an experiment to test my threshold for body odor.

It was a few months ago at Malone's Pub on a Sunday night, and my pool game was suddenly interrupted by a rambunctious group of sweaty, smelly and loud people. The bar was soon overrun by them, to the point where I couldn't get a drink for about 15 minutes. And then, in the blink of an eye, they vanished like a fast-moving storm, leaving only a few empty bottles in their wake.

What just happened here?

The bartender told me that it was a bicycle pub crawl that met every Sunday and rode to different bars. When I started looking online to find the group, though, I was surprised to find out there wasn't just one such group, but many. And that most of them were just 2 or 3 years old.

In 2008, Bicycle Magazine named the Dallas-Fort Worth area as one of the worst places to ride a bicycle in the nation. The article cited lack of institutional support and bad traffic, among many other reasons, why biking culture had long been unable to flourish here. More than a decade earlier, Fort Worth had passed a bike plan that focused more on recreational cycling, and didn't address people who use bikes as primary transportation. The plan was decried by critics as a half-measure.

Flash-forward to 2012, however, and Fort Worth is one of a growing number of U.S. cities that has adopted a more progressive bike plan and started to take bicycling seriously as an alternative form of transportation.

In some neighborhoods, especially downtown, West 7th and south Fort Worth, bike racks are already stationed outside many area businesses, and groups like the one I encountered at Malone's meet regularly. Even Mayor Betsy Price, a well-documented cycling enthusiast, recently donned the spandex and held a "rolling town hall meeting." (See sidebar.)

Biking proponents point to the economic advantages of being able to fit more people into an area and creating less overall traffic congestion. They also tout the environmental impact of having fewer cars squandering gas on the road. Places such as Austin and Portland, Ore., have seen entire sections of town transformed into what urban planners call "complete streets" -- which are safe, pedestrian-friendly roadways where people can live, work and shop.

"The Near Southside is becoming the city's most bike-friendly district," said Mike Brennan, a planner for Fort Worth South Inc., which has been one of the major proponents of Fort Worth's bike plan.

Brennan and others point to a number of recent events as proof of the viability of the complete street. During Open Street Event and Arts Goggle, a number of Near Southside roads are closed off to cars. Pedestrians on foot and bikes nonetheless fill the area, which feels more accessible because it isn't junked up at every intersection with idling automobiles. (Remember those block parties you used to have when you were a kid? It's kind of like that, except with grown-ups.)

But can a movement that has taken root in a few neighborhoods in Fort Worth really have an impact that reaches across the Metroplex? I eventually found the folks I had first encountered at Malone's: The Night Riders are one of many bicycle groups (don't call them gangs) that have emerged in the past few years in Fort Worth. They were even nice enough to let me tag along on a recent ride.

My night with them gave me some insight into the trials and triumphs of urban biking. There were a lot of stops on the way, an issue with the police, numerous amazed onlookers, some good beer and one anemic, OCD journalist who was just holding on for dear life. This much was certain, though: There appears to be a real cultural shift occurring in Fort Worth -- it's not just a bunch of hipsters looking for an excuse to drink.

Transforming the streets

On the patio of the Chat Room Pub, a hip, bunker-esque dive bar on Magnolia Avenue, in the heart of south Fort Worth, an eclectic group of rowdy bicyclists gathered around the bar's owner, Brad Hensarling, who stood atop one of the patio's picnic tables.

"When you get back from the ride, get a drink ticket, and your beer is on me," he said, to a loud round of applause.

The Night Riders have met at the Chat every Sunday and Wednesday for nearly three years. They ride the streets of Fort Worth to boozy waypoints throughout the city. There's no formal membership; everyone who shows up is considered a Night Rider.

I was scared I wouldn't fit in, but the group was so diverse in age, gender and ethnicity, it could have been a McDonald's commercial (though the bearded man was well represented). I was also a little shocked at the total lack of form-fitting spandex bike pants. One of those bearded men, Tony Drewry, let me borrow a bike, and he was nice enough to volunteer to shepherd me through my first ride -- the Mr. Miyagi to my Jane Goodall.

After a brief safety lecture from the group's founder and ride leader, Mark Troxler, a fit-looking 20-something, whose full beard was relatively manicured, the throng jumped on its various bikes and swarmed the neighborhood, hooting and hollering loudly. Our first stop would be the Central Market patio, which seemed to me an unreasonable distance for a first-timer. Drewry assured me that I wouldn't die.

Part of my trepidation about the ride stemmed from my ignorance about the civic efforts that have been made on behalf of cyclists in recent years. The seeds of this bicycle renaissance were, in fact, first sown in 2006, when the Fort Worth City Council began discussing the creation of a progressive bike plan. The next year, Fort Worth South Inc., a nonprofit group created by the city to promote the Near Southside, worked with the city to develop a new zoning code for the area. This code gave the neighborhood an updated look, with widened sidewalks and new streetlights. It also added street markings called "sharrows" -- denoting that bicyclists and cars share certain lanes of the road.

The next year, the first car-bike lanes were put in, Brennan said, and "almost immediately, we started hearing a lot of support from people riding their bikes down Magnolia. On weekends, we started to see bike groups convening. [Magnolia Avenue] was sort of their home base. Riders of all skill level were using that road."

It was around that time that Troxler, and his former roommate, Michael Sloane, started the Night Riders. They and two others had just finished a game of poker and wanted to grab a drink somewhere but didn't feel like driving. The four of them got on their bikes and rode to the Chat Room, where they met other folks who had ridden their bikes there. They all decided to ride out together on a bike-and-booze ride the next week.

There were about 20 riders on that first ride, and their ranks have swelled to as many as 50 or 60. A group planning committee communicates throughout the week on Facebook and decides where the stops will be. The group's leaders also notify their potential watering holes, to make sure it's OK if the group shows up. "We only go where we're wanted," said Troxler.

And although the ride is organized with beer breaks in mind, Night Riders actively discourages excessive drinking. Riding your bicycle under the influence is considered a DUI, the same as if you were operating a motor vehicle. So part of Troxler's safety instructions emphasize that people watch their booze intake, and at each stop, he encourages a "one-and-done" policy. (If you don't oblige, he threatens you with calling a taxi.) Only once in the group's history has anyone had to be cut off.

Groups like the Night Riders are part of what the city imagined when the council adopted its bike plan in February 2010. The plan will add more than 800 miles to Fort Worth's bike-transportation network, with the vast majority (a total of about 700 miles) being on-street lanes and shared routes. The goals of the ambitious plan are to triple the number of bicycle commuters, decrease bicyclist-related crashes by 10 percent, and attain official designation as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" the League of American Bicyclists.

Since the plan was adopted, the council has also passed a bike parking zoning ordinance, which mandates that developers install bike racks to accommodate cyclists; and the safe passing ordinance, which says that vehicles must give cyclists and pedestrians 3 feet of room when driving next to them. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the city was also able to install 11 miles of bike lanes and 91/2 miles of bike routes throughout Fort Worth, with more to come.

A friendly approach

Though it was hard for me to be social during the ride and continue to breathe, I did meet and speak with an engaged couple who met through the Night Riders. Jonathan McMillan and Lisa Thomas, who were set to be married last Sunday, first connected at one of the pub stops on a ride a few months after the group formed.

Thomas said she had a crush on McMillan. "But I didn't know he was a big chicken," she laughed. "So I asked him out."

Though Troxler discourages members from dating, to avoid the usually inevitable drama, McMillan -- who hails from Nova Scotia -- says he believes that "it was a rule that was meant to be broken."

Many of the Night Riders ride with other groups as well. There are numerous other bicycling confabs of various sizes around town (see the accompanying story), and a lot of them mean big business for the places where the riders meet and stop. At the Chat Room, for instance, most of the 40-50 Night Riders have a drink before the ride, and some have several after. The first round usually nets the bar about $150 in sales, Hensarling says.

"They are a very cool group, and they're good for the image of our bar," he said. "There's a great visual impact when people passing by see a big group here."

Julia McCleeary, senior planner for the city, explained that Fort Worth took a cue from other cities that have successfully implemented similar plans.

"You look at cities like Austin, Tucson, Portland and Seattle," she said. "The plans promote health, community, less traffic and getting people out of their cars. It brings people together as a community. People are starting to get familiar with their surroundings. It gives people a sense of being more connected to their environment, more than when they drive.

"It's not something you can create just by putting in some bike lanes," she continued, "but it helps."

This mindset, said Mike Brennan, is also being applied to other parts of an ever-expanding Fort Worth. The development along West Seventh Street is an example of how, by being cognizant of the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, developers can transform a neighborhood quickly.

"It's just an amazing example of how a roadway can be converted from an area that moves cars through as fast as possible, to one where now you can park on the street and take your bike," Brennan said. "They still need to work on pedestrian safety. But that's a significant accomplishment on the city's part."

City-by-city changes

My ride with the Night Riders didn't always follow the bike routes or paths, but that's not to say it was either rudderless or poorly organized -- it was just the opposite. The group stopped at every busy intersection and followed traffic signals. Cyclists have the same rights, and have to follow the same laws, as motorists. A rider would arrive in the middle of the intersection and act as a de facto traffic cop. The rider stayed in the street until the group had passed.

The group was also very communicative. It was like a high-volume game of telephone every time a car was coming or the group was about to turn. There were more than a few gawkers, who stood on their front porches or in their yards, mouth agape, as the procession of bike bells and riders cruised through the neighborhood.

We did encounter some swaths of street that were clearly not planned with cycling in mind. There was a sharp turn under the Vickery Boulevard bridge, near University Drive, that was particularly harrowing (for me, anyway), because of the lack of a clear line of vision.

Although Fort Worth still has a ways to go before it will be as bike-friendly as Portland or Austin, it is nonetheless emerging as a model for the rest of North Texas. Some other area cities have proposed bike plans, though only Arlington's has approached the ambition of Fort Worth's, and that was quickly compromised in the face of mounting opposition. A group called Save Our Streets Arlington was opposed to the $60-million-plus cost. A compromised version of the plan narrowly passed. The scaled-down $55.3 million version is focused more on recreational riding in linear parks.

Denton recently passed a bike plan that will involve redesigning 70 miles of roadway during the next 10 years. Shared lanes and dedicated bike lanes will connect the busiest sections of Denton, including the University of North Texas campus, the Denton town square and the A-train station. The cost for the plan was only $200,000, which has many wondering if lack of funding will stop its implementation.

One organization, Bicycle Friendly Grapevine, has drawn direct inspiration from Fort Worth: Its mission, too, is to get that city recognized as an official "Bicycle Friendly" community. A bike plan in Dallas passed last December that proposes adding 472 miles of new bike lanes to city streets. The plan's stated goal is to triple bicycle ridership in the next 10 years.

There's also encouraging news for those who would like to see the entire Metroplex become more cyclist-friendly and connected. The Texas Transportation Authority recently announced plans to launch a bike-sharing program, possibly as soon as next year. Through the program, bikes will be available for rent from stands. Renters simply swipe their cards at the rack -- known as a station -- and bring the bike back when they are done. The T also plans to apply for a $1 million federal transit grant for about 200 bicycles and 20 to 22 stations. If it gets the grant, the agency will ask employers to sponsor bike-sharing stations, at a possible cost of $20,000 per year for three years.

Hello, officer

After about an hour of riding, we finally got to Central Market. We stayed for about half an hour, but it seemed like 10 minutes to me. Not that I would have cared at the time, but I'm sure we were all very stinky. I swigged down a Rahr Blonde lager and mounted my loaner bike. I was already starting to feel saddle sore; it was not a good day to be scrawny.

The most harrowing part of the ordeal on the ride back was the hill in front of the Fort Worth Zoo. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I had to get off my bike and walk for a few minutes. I was the only one who couldn't take the hill. Drewry later joked that they took that route to "welcome" me.

The group also encountered a police officer who told us all to ride on the sidewalk, because it was safer. Cyclists, by law, have the same rights as cars. Riding on the sidewalk is more dangerous, because there is less room to adjust or move out of the way. Instead of explaining the law to the officer, the group continued biking in the street.

There was never a moment when I felt out of place, in danger or like I was holding up the group. Toward the end, my legs were about to fall off. But, to be fair, they feel that way going up stairs sometimes. At about 10:30 p.m., the riders met back at the Chat.

After the ride, as promised, Hensarling passed out free drink tickets. The vast majority of the riders stuck around and took him up on his offer. I had two and went home to nurse my tuckered body. Drewry and a few others told me they had more loaner bikes and encouraged me to come back and ride again. I'm certain I will.

Though Fort Worth South Inc.'s Brennan hasn't been on the Sunday Night Rider ride, he has been on the Wednesday one.

"The network of people that you meet there is the coolest collection of people, and everyone gets to meet and hang out with one another," he said. "That creates an amazing community spirit and social bond, and it carries over to supporting businesses that are here."

City planner Julia McCleeary, meanwhile, is not only a bike advocate -- she is also an enthusiast. She said that the community spirit that the groups foster are very promising for a traditionally automotive-minded town like Fort Worth.

"Once you're exposed to the world of biking, it's so exciting," she said. "You're like a child, seeing things and smelling things that you couldn't in a car."

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