Hell on Wheels

by Beau Adams


Stephen Lassiter is not a hipster.  He is an Integrity Analyst for Magellan Midstream Partners in Tulsa and he rides his bicycle to work every day.  Last year, he logged over 3,000 road miles.

His maiden voyage occurred a couple of winters back—a ride among the debris of a brutal storm—indeed a conspicuous season to attempt cycling. Part of Lassiter’s job is to find creative solutions. It didn’t help that the city’s bus schedule was becoming terminally unreliable in the wake of the ice and snow accumulations during the snowpocalypse of early 2011.

“The blizzard took out all of the buses and even after the roads were cleared, they were having a hard time getting them back on schedule. They were basically telling you, ‘Don’t know when your bus is coming. Just wait out there.’ So, I thought, maybe I could just try and ride my bike to work.

“I had already been thinking about it. My bus (210 Harvard) goes along most of the bike route on Third Street anyway. It’s the same route, so why am I just sitting here waiting on a bus?”

Even though his employer had offered to subsidize his parking downtown, Lassiter was always looking for ways around that expense. When he discovered that they’d buy him an unlimited bus pass if he opted out of the parking subsidy, he was intrigued.

“I tried that in December of 2010. It was the last day of the year and I figured nobody is going to be at the office anyway, if this doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal. And it worked. So, I kept riding the bus through January and I started riding my bike to the bus stop, throwing it on the bus and then parking it for free at the BOK Tower.”

Several months later when the blizzard hit, Lassiter saw an opportunity to make the leap from public transportation to a human-powered commute. “It was way easier than I thought.”

Lassiter’s choice of conveyance finds him in rare air in Oklahoma, where a scant 0.2 percent commute to work by bicycle. If you know 500 Okies, statistically speaking you only know one that gets to work via bicycle.

Before he biked to work, Lassiter tried and often failed at maintaining more traditional workout regimes. “I was working out at the gym during the workday. I would take time out of my day and try and work out three days a week. But then some weeks I might be too busy, so I would only get to work out two days or I might even miss a whole week. You can always find excuses. But now that I have worked this into my life, it’s effortless for me to keep in shape.”

He still uses the gym at work—to take a shower. “I’ll walk through there some mornings and see people in a spin class. It’s kind of comical because I think, these people got up really early to drive down here to ride a stationary bike.”

Lassiter’s commute hasn’t been with out its travails. “A lot of drivers will sort of send a message to let you know that they think that you don’t belong out there with them. There is just something about being in a car that makes you angry.”

Photo by Travis Hall.

* * *

It was a simple ride to the Waffle House. Or so she thought. “I was riding with a group of friends and some drunk hillbillies in a Jeep were throwing bricks at us. And when they got up to me, the guy is poised like this”—she extends her arm as if to spike a volleyball—“and when he realized that I was a woman his jaw drops, he puts his hand down and they drive away.”

She, Ren Barger, has an explanation for this, a theory.

“A lot of the aggression towards cyclists is the result of resentment about the cost the motorists pay for their car or their poor health, and that frustration turns into aggression. Sometimes drivers see cyclists as sending a message of judgment towards them for not having more initiative to be on a bike.”

Unfortunately, she might be on to something. Barger is the executive director of The Hub, a non-profit organization that puts Oklahomans back to work by lending them bicycles to use as transport. Spend even a little time with her and you realize that her mouth is only doing its best to keep up with her turbo-charged brain. Not yet in her 30s, Barger has spent a good deal of her life on two wheels. From a bicycle messaging post in Chicago to running The Hub, she has seen the destructive force present in the interaction between driver and cyclist. She has theories, with stats to support them.

According to data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009, while only 12 percent of all trips in the U.S. were taken by bicycle or on foot, the number of accidents involving them accounted for 14 percent. Still, less than 2 percent of our federal transportation budget goes to providing a safer route for non-motorized travel. While Oklahoma ranks 41st among states in commuting to work by bike or foot, both Oklahoma City and Tulsa rank incredibly high in number of fatalities (46th and 47th out of 51 cities studied, respectively).

“A lot of people are very afraid,” Barger said. “They are attached to their devices of comfort and convenience. And a car is number one on that list. It’s insular and it seems safe.”

Bicycle safety advocates like Barger are who some in the transportation industry would call “1 percenters.” These are confident, well-trained cyclists who see themselves as part of the traffic pattern and do not necessarily wish to be arbitrarily removed from it. As I ride with her through the streets of downtown Tulsa one afternoon, I am aware of my own inherent irresponsibility as a cyclist. As we move along the network of streets connecting downtown Tulsa to the Brady District, I need direction. Our small talk is peppered with commands that I be more aware of my duties as a cyclist. “Move behind me on this stretch,” she said on a narrowing lane, “always make sure that you are signaling your turns as well, they may not see me do it.” I began to realize that the freedom one feels when riding a bike must be tempered with the responsibility of being a law-abiding member of a community. “I act as, and expect to be treated as, a motorist when I ride,” Barger said.

* * *

As difficult as it might currently be to get to work on two wheels in Tulsa, it could be worse. Bicycle Magazine recently ranked Tulsa number 35 in the top 50 cycling cities, and the engineers that are employed by Indian Nation Council of Governments (INCOG) have increased measurably the number of accessible biking enhancements in the city in the last couple of decades.

Take trails. Since 1999, the percentage of Tulsa metro residents with a bike trail within 2.5 miles of home has risen from 35 to 80, thanks to $18 million via the Transportation Enhancement Funds since 1991. The recently revamped River Trails Project, which has provided for separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians,was achieved in part by private funding from the Kaiser foundation to the tune of $12.4 million.

“I can make it to work on my bike from my neighborhood to my job downtown in just a few minutes. I don’t even have to find parking because I bring my bike up in the elevator and store it inside. I am doing something that we all have to do everyday. I am commuting to work. I’m just doing it by bike.”

James Wagner is senior transportation planner at INCOG, a group of engineers and city planners who make sure that the federal dollars allotted for the greater Tulsa area goes to the necessary projects. Wagner notes that the Tulsa Metro Area has benefited greatly simply by having a trails master plan in place since 1999.

Bicycle and pedestrian transportation is funded through a program called Transportation Enhancements. “That program is actually in jeopardy right now,” Wagner said. “They are essentially trying to eliminate it at the federal level.”

The political argument for eliminating enhancement funding focuses on where the dollars originate rather than where spending might be most beneficial. Wagner explains, “Federal dollars for transportation funding all come from the motor fuel tax, which is 18.4 cents for every gallon of fuel that we buy. Essentially, there is a mindset out there that because the money comes from the use of motor vehicles, it should be used to repair and build roads that automobiles use. And smaller programs, such as enhancements have come under attack because our gasoline taxes are not covering the costs of our highway repairs.

“The problem with this thinking is that you could eliminate all of the transportation enhancement projects and it wouldn’t come anywhere close to covering the deficit for our interstate system. You are literally talking about constant multibillion dollar projects versus intermittent million dollar ones.”

The many enhancement projects are not as costly as you might think. A simple re-striping of a suitable bicycle-commuting route can make a large difference for a few dollars. Wagner offers as an example the recent re-striping of Cherry Street from Peoria to Utica. The reorganization of the streetscape has narrowed the heavily trafficked area to two lanes, which slows cars down making it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Project cost: $13,000. “We are not talking about a lot of money to provide some quality enhancements.”

But even a little money does not come easy. As recently as last September, Senator Tom Coburn held up H.R. 2887 on the Senate floor after it had already passed the House. His argument was that he would like the transportation dollars to come through to individual states without the mandate that 10 percent of the funding to be earmarked for enhancements that he deemed unnecessary.

Senator Jim Inhofe, meanwhile, recently partnered on legislation with California Senator Barbara Boxer to enact the MAP 21 transportation bill. Although the bill’s passage in the Senate received eventual support after the bipartisan agreement not to kill the enhancement component, Inhofe noted initially that the bill’s “priority was to make sure that Oklahoma and other states have the flexibility to implement the highway program in a way that is best suited to their needs. In this bill, states will no longer be required to use the Transportation Enhancement funding for beautification projects such as the construction of bike paths, landscaping, and scenic byways.”

Any excitement about the passage of the bill was soon squelched as the members of the House elected not to bring it to a vote.

“They’ve kicked the can down the road another 90 days, which they have been doing for two years now,” said Wagner. “There were applications to ODOT (Oklahoma Department of Transportation) put in by various municipalities over 18 months ago that still haven’t been decided upon, because ODOT wants to make sure that they have secured funding before starting the projects. So what is happening, or not happening in Washington is literally holding up projects in our state which would provide safe biking and walking trails to primary and secondary schools.”

Barger says they’re blind. “In Oklahoma, it is a failure of leadership. We do not have the visionary type of young people in power who understand that we cannot afford to not invest in these small-dollar programs that will have big yields.”

Stephen Lassiter, whose cycling interest has turned into more than just a way to get to work, now chairs an advocacy group called the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). “If you believe that transportation should be federally funded and that it is in the federal interest,” he said, “than you need to believe that all forms of transportation are included in that interest, not just highways.”

ODOT Director Gary Ridley has a different take on transportation funding. Although he tends to be politically aligned with the legisla- ture (“I think that our congressional delegation and ODOT are of the same mind”), he’s more focused on spending federal funds to fix highways and bridges.“We have some 6,800 bridges on the state system,” Ridley said. “At the last reporting, there were 706 that were structurally deficient. A structurally deficient bridge is one that was never designed for the load that it carries or is in such a condition that it will no longer carry the load that it was originally designed for. We have about 500 bridges in the state system that were designed and built prior to 1932. Those are bridges that were built to carry Henry Ford’s model A. So, when I compare the things that we would like to have as opposed to the things that we need to have, my priority becomes pretty clear.”

Ridley admits that the overwhelming need for highway and bridge repair has to do with a lack of planning on the part of the federal and state governments over the years. He notes, “We built the interstate and we kind of forgot about it.” The highway system and its connecting structure now approaching an age where even our fuel taxes won’t keep up with necessary repair is a concern. “The deterioration of the system gets to a point that you wake up one morning to find that you have this multibillion dollar investment that has gotten to a point where it has become unmanageable.”

In his large, tastefully appointed office, Ridley’s countenance begins to change when I ask him if it seems fair that transportation enhancement funding seems destined to be squeezed out by more bills like the one recently sponsored by Inhofe and Boxer. For the first time during the interview, he moved his eyes off of me and fixed his gaze somewhere outside his ample window, some three stories above ODOT’s manicured grounds. “Over the last few years, we have had over 500 people that have been killed on the roads that I am responsible for. If you know the improvements that can be made on a section of highway to reduce fatalities and you have the ability to correct it then you have the obligation to do so. There are some things we would like to do, but there are other things that we must do.”

So if bridges trump bike paths, where is the money for enhancements going to come from?

“Certainly communities that wish to have bicycle paths and walking trails have the ability to accomplish that with their own funds if they so desire,” Ridley reminded me. To those advocates who might believe this is nothing more than political lip service, I would present to you Project 180.

* * *

Project 180 is a roughly $160 million program with a goal of reclaiming 180 acres of downtown Oklahoma City to increase walkability and connectivity. And it’s underway.

“We are on an aggressive schedule,” said Shannon Cox, media director for the project. “Two packages of this project are already complete; the third will be done by the end of the month. The fourth by midsummer, the fifth by November and then six and seven next year.”

The packages provide for the redesign of streets and enhancements that start by thinking about pedestrians, then cyclists and finally motorists. “The streetscapes are uniform in design,” Cox said, “that way visitors will be able to make consistent visual sense of accessible lanes as they travel through the various sections of downtown. It’s kind of rough to move through this area today, but to be able to get this project done in just four years, it’s kind of like ripping a Band-Aid off.”

Walking through an unfinished section of Project 180 is an assault on the senses. I am certain that I have never heard more jackhammering in one place in my life. The dust flying off of concrete saws whips in the wind, temporarily blinding anyone downwind. But on the streets, I notice workers, lots of them. And in support of the workers, food trucks (I count seven in one block) offering tacos, sandwiches, hot dogs, and falafel. This project has created a micro-economy and the pay off is at the end of the street.

The Myriad Gardens package of the project is complete. Once a forgotten tract of land near an outdated event center, the gardens were replete with an algae filled “lake” and the deteriorating cylindrical Crystal Bridge, which when viewed from the appropriate angle, resembled an old soda can lying in some weeds.

Now the bridge has been updated, the lake made ADA compliant, and the surrounding grounds manicured and planted with drought-tolerant native plants. Walking and cycling paths abut rapidly moving water features and wind serenely throughout the 17 acres. Although I didn’t need it on the day I visited, shaded seating is afforded at every turn. This is the physical manifestation of well-laid plan.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this project is not its forward-thinking intermodal features or its aggressive construction timeframe (it just happens to be running right on schedule), but, rather, the primary source of its money: Project 180 is chiefly funded by the advanced payment of 25 years worth of ad valorem taxes on the newly constructed Devon Tower.

The tower, which upon its grand opening this fall will officially become the tallest structure in Oklahoma, is being built by Devon Energy group in place of what once was a parking garage. “So there is a huge difference,” Cox explained, “in the amount of tax revenue that parking lot was bringing in versus the amount that Devon Tower is bringing.”

Just four years ago, Prevention magazine dubbed OKC the “least walkable city in America.” Today, in addition to Project 180, there is a project underway for a central park to provide more green space and trails for downtowners. There is the “Core to Shore,” which necessitated the relocation of I-40 south of downtown near the newly developing Oklahoma River area. Connecting it all, the Sky Dance Pedestrian Bridge, an iconic structure that not only provides visual interest, but also creates a safe passage for bikers and pedestrians over I-40 and into downtown.

Have Oklahoma City and Devon provided an unintentional blueprint for replacing federal transportation enhancements? Should we be looking to private enterprise to fund civic projects that will not only make for more livable cities, but likely provide the companies themselves with a larger bullpen of potential employees? At the very least, it appears to be a solid public-relations move for an oil and gas industry that’s seen record profits in recent years.

* * *

Leaving the ODOT building and my interview with Director Ridley on a gorgeous April morning, I decide to walk across the expansive parking lot toward the State Capitol building. I haven’t been there since an elementary school field trip and I am longing to find something on the Capitol grounds that will provide insight into what I have come to consider another shortfall of my beloved Oklahoma. Perhaps I will find something chiseled in Latin speaking to the progressive nature of Okies? Maybe a Native American mural illustrating the benefits of a life lived in accord with nature, versus in domination of it.

Absent an eternal flame to gaze upon or a vast pool in which to reflect, I inspect the massive Capitol and its accouterment: A cartoonish oil derrick, the awkward scale and placement of several statues and bordering the grounds, the wide thoroughfares of concrete that hogtie the building and its grounds. One thing I look for and don’t see: a bike rack.

* * *

At the onset of our interview, Ridley warned me he’d be cutting our meeting short in order to attend another engagement “across the street” at the State Capitol. It was a fair enough request. I was graciously handed off to his public information officer and together we moved down to the first floor in search of additional transportation gurus to speak with. Two strangers, panhandling for time door to door, like trick-or-treaters.

After several attempts and subsequent failures to find another person in the department of transportation who might want to waste the better part of their lunch hour talking to me, I shook hands with the PIO and thanked him for his time and effort. As I headed for an exit, he reminded me that I was still sporting a visitor’s pass and offered quite graciously to escort it back to the lobby for me if I should like him to. As I turned back to the glass door leading to the parking lot, I noticed Ridley getting into his car.

The State Capitol is exactly 0.2 miles from the ODOT building. Google maps claims it can be walked in four minutes.