How Dallas Is Making Transportation a Central Part of Tackling Climate Change – Next City

How Dallas Is Making Transportation a Central Part of Tackling Climate Change

Participants in the 2017 Dallas Bike Ride, a recreational car-free ride around the city. Advocates are hoping that the city's Climate Action Plan does more to promote biking as a form of transportation, not just recreation. (Photo by Dallas Bike Ride / CC BY 2.0)

In Dallas, 80 percent of residents drive to work alone. Carbon emissions are up 133 percent between 1990 and 2017. So it’s only fitting that the city’s in-development climate action plan has a major focus on transportation.

After significant drought in April of 2015 followed by a May so wet that the city received its total annual rainfall in that month alone, the city “started looking more seriously at resiliency and infrastructure and thought ‘maybe this climate stuff has something to it,’” says Susan Alvarez, director of the Dallas Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainability.

In order to make the changes the city needs to see, the process of moving the Dallas Climate Action plan from idea to implementation has been moving along at a clip that is often unfamiliar to city bureaucracies.

The Paris Climate agreement, in which Dallas participates through Climate Mayors, “says we have to have a plan in place by 2020, so we worked backwards and really expedited it,” Alvarez says. Kicking off the climate planning process in February of 2019, an internal planning taskforce that convened the city alongside external stakeholders like advocacy groups and the electricity and gas companies that power the city.

Equity has also been front of mind as Alvarez and company conducted meetings across the city to gather input from residents. “We gave people rides, we had stuff for kids in case parents wanted to come, and we put the meetings on Facebook so people could watch in their jammies,” she says. “We wanted to focus on areas where there might be an equity component at plan to make sure all voices are included.” The plan is currently open for public comment with a goal of presenting a final plan in April of this year.

Because Dallas is one of roughly 200 municipalities that compose the Dallas metro area, communication and collaboration with other cities has been key, particularly when it comes to transportation. By participating in and working with the metro area’s North Central Texas Council of Governments, Dallas hoped to bring other cities on board to boost the potential of moving the climate needle in the region, especially when it comes to the interconnected transportation systems that span the metroplex. Eight other cities in the council have joined Dallas’s efforts so far.

The transportation element of the plan, is currently comprised of four high level strategies: shifting the city’s surface transportation system towards fuel-efficient vehicles; reducing trips where people drive alone; incentivizing walking, biking and public transit options through land use policy; and ensuring that walking, biking and public transit are reliable and safe under all conditions.

What those goals look like on the ground means everything from fully electrifying Dallas’s bus fleet by 2040, extending public transportation options between other cities, working with companies like Uber and Lyft to create specific pick up and drop off zones to decrease congestion as well as ensuring that micro-mobility options like scooters and bikes and equitably distributed across the city.

Even though the specifics of the plan are yet to be formally determined, the shift is a welcome one for Heather McNair, the president of BikeDFW, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting biking as transportation. “As an advocate for alternative modes of transportation, we are cautiously optimistic to see [transportation] being a big part of the conversation happening now, which is a real shift from before,” she says. “Where we’ve come from in the past is that alternative modes of transportation have been more of an afterthought than something that’s been more of a primary mission or goal of the city,” as evidenced by Dallas’s 2011 Bike Plan that went nowhere fast.

McNair highlights the importance of working with nearby cities to make biking a truly viable option for commuting. “If [bike infrastructure] doesn’t connect out to suburbs that are working in the same direction it becomes a challenge. You have to have connectivity to make it something that’s usable as a means of transportation.”

She also sees the slow shift away from cars in Dallas as a generational one. “We also have a generation of young people coming up and moving to the city who are coming from other places where they’re used to biking or taking public transportation,” McNair says. “It’s also a generation of young people who don’t want to or can’t spend money on a car, so they need some alternative mode of transportation.” She sees this as one element of a perfect storm of factors coming together to create the transportation momentum she and other advocates have been waiting for.

As the city begins to transition from idea to a codified plan with implementation goals, Alvarez is pushing to see measurable metrics across the 95 identified action items within the eight areas that compose the climate plan. “We’re also going to need to communicate data in a way that’s understandable to the public,” she says. “I think that’s going to be critically important to the ongoing longevity of the project. We don’t want a pretty plan that sits on the shelf.”

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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