Friday, February 8, 2008

Honey, They Shrunk our Bike Lane

Frisco is blessed with an abundance of open space… for now. But as we continue to grow, that open land is being gobbled up by new homes, strip malls and schools faster than Homer at a donut buffet. Even relative newcomers to our sleepy berg can wax rhapsodic about the “old days” when there was “nothing in that field but a bunch of cows.”

Luckily, our elected officials – both past and present – have made recreation areas a priority. Just in the last 10 years, we’ve seen the development of parks like the Frisco Commons, Harold Bacchus Park and countless neighborhood parks. Residents on the rapidly-expanding west side of town can look forward to B.F. Phillips Park in the near future. And if you haven’t seen the plans for Grand Park, you really should take a look (Park Master Plan; Lake View; Overall View).

These parks offer a wide variety of recreation opportunities. Baseball, football and soccer fields abound for the team-sport minded. Trails wind through several parks, for those interested in a nice hike or run. And there are ample wide open fields to just run and play.

Getting to the parks, however, can be tricky. Sure you can load up the kids in the SUV and cart them across town. But some of us prefer to get exercise going to and from the park as well. With the skyrocketing prices at the gas pumps, bicycles are becoming an appealing alternative. Sadly, getting around Frisco on a bike often means harrowing encounters with high-speed traffic. Given the challenge of riding a bike from my home in Plantation Resort to my favorite park - the Frisco Commons- I discovered that the choice came down to risking a ride along Preston, or taking my life in my hands on Hwy720 (Main street, east of Preston). Neither was an appealing proposition. With some careful planning, and an adventurous spirit, however, I ultimately found a path that kept my exposure to a minimum.

As a youth, and before I hit that magic age of 16 and got my driver’s license, I loved riding my bike to school. It offered the perfect alternative to a school bus fraught with spit-wads, while avoiding the embarrassment of waiting for my mom to pick me up in our stylish, green Ford Gran Torino station wagon. But scoping out the path for my son to get from home to Wester Middle School became another exercise in creative, suburban cartography.

In 2002, Frisco’s Parks and Recreation board published the city’s first “Hike and Bicycle Trail Master Plan.” This 55-page volume starts with the ambitious aim of making “Frisco a bicycle and pedestrian friendly community by determining how and where to provide safe trail linkages to schools, businesses, parks and open space.” The plan outlined three kinds of trails: open space hike and bike trails, trail connections and on-street bicycle routes. For on-street routes, the plan recommended widened lanes, as opposed to dedicated, striped bike lanes, and mapped out several routes throughout town, including north/south routes on Teel Parkway, Hillcrest, Coit, Independence and Custer. Travelling east and west, bicyclists could use Rolater/Stonebrook, El Dorado, Panther Creek and Virginia Parkway.

Sadly, plans for a bike trail along Panther Creek had to be scrapped due to right-of-way issues and a need to provide immediate traffic relief in the northern part of the city. As City Councilman Jim Joyner points out, only a small section of the street would accommodate the trail, leaving it isolated. And meetings with the “cycling community” indicated that many of them don’t care for the debris-strewn lane along major thoroughfares anyhow.

This leaves us to consider how to provide the kind of bicycle routes through Frisco that will help achieve the vaunted goal stated in the original master plan. If on-street routes are cost-prohibitive and undesirable, that leaves us with off-street or open space trails along the natural creeks which wind through town. Unfortunately, many of these are locked up in private property tracts that show no indication of near-term development. So our elected leaders are left with the challenge of crafting zoning and development ordinances that require developers to provide access to existing parks and trails. Both of our announced mayoral candidates, Matt Lafata and Maher Maso, have expressed a dedication to developing the trails system, with an eye toward joining it with the larger Collin County trail plan. But when the all-terrain rubber hits the road, it will be interesting to see what concrete plans they can put forward to achieve these goals.

In the meantime, the Parks and Recreation department has already begun revamping the Hike and Bike Trail master plan. A couple of town hall meetings have been held, and another is planned for later this month or early in March. If this is an issue that’s near to your heart, I encourage you to participate in this meeting. Let your voice be heard to ensure that our city continues to make bicycle trails a core part of our city-wide development, even if it costs a little more to build or slows down a new road by a few months. In the meantime, grab a city map and pedal on over to your favorite park this weekend.

Don’t forget your helmet!

1 comment:

Foo said...

Nicely done, Allen. I'm glad I stumbled on to your blog!

Despite logging around 2000 road miles a year with local cycling clubs, I really haven't given a lot of thought about the North Central Texas Council of Governments' (NCTCOG) Regional Veloweb, these past few years. It's not that I don't care so much as that I'm not sure that it's going to get done until after it's of little use to me.

I periodically read articles in local papers about what great strides are being made toward making the bicycle a viable mode of transportation, but I don't see it. When my wife and I built a new home in Allen four years ago, the city's trail master plan played a big part in the decision to do so. But you know how these things go: when the inevitable budget shortfalls surface, it's typically “luxuries” like hike and bike trails that get pushed to the head of the line for the chopping block. I actually set up a meeting with the city's landscape architect, back then, to learn more, and when I asked about bike lanes he told me that they had been considered but were ultimately rejected on grounds that the city didn't want to expose itself to liability. The thinking, he said, was that if the city provides a specific area where cyclists are supposed to ride and then one of them gets hurt, it could be viewed as the city's fault.

But I digress. What I really wanted to share was a recent epiphany I had regarding why bicycle travel is more problematic in areas like Frisco and Allen, versus Richardson and Plano (for example). In those older suburbs, the streets seem to be laid out on more of a grid. Not only the main roads, such as Renner, Custer, and so forth, but also the less-traveled side streets that connect the neighborhoods, one to another.

Now think about Frisco. Part of the issue, as you have noted, is that there's a lot of undeveloped area to cross (or circumvent) in the process of getting from point A to point B. Think about the way the newer neighborhoods are laid out. They tend to be dizzying mazes of cul de sacs, bends and loops. They have one or two places at which to enter and exit the development, nearly all connecting directly to a busy main road. I haven't asked around, but I assume that this design is intended to make the neighborhoods safer by thwarting cut-through traffic. It's not a bad goal, but the side effect is that bicyclists – many of whom would prefer to stay out of the way and not irritate the motorists – are left with few options. No connecting side streets and not many connected trails.

So, until 2025 (or whenever it is that NCTCOG is actually planning to get serious about the VeloWeb), I guess I'll have to be content to do my bike riding in a pack, on weekends, and stick to burning a tank of gas a week to get around to all the other places I need to get around to.