December 26, 2014 -- It would be hard to argue that bicycling in Houston is not on the upswing, with many millions of dollars approved and numerous policies passed in recent years, all aimed at welcoming and protecting riders.
City planners and cycling advocates see significant gaps in this progress, however, from uncertainty about the kind of cyclists Houston wants to serve to questions about what projects should take priority on which streets.
To fill these holes, city planners in the coming weeks will launch a $500,000 effort to produce a citywide bicycling plan, the first such comprehensive effort since 1994. Houston has set aside $100,000 for the plan, which will be led by outside consultants, and is raising the rest from private partners, said Pat Walsh, director of the city Planning and Development Department.
"This project is long overdue," Walsh said. "The city has changed much in 20 years, the support and use of bicycling has increased significantly in 20 years, and we feel it's time to revisit our planning for bicycle activities."
Noting several recent cycling deaths, Walsh said the city must improve rider safety by building a network that all riders feel comfortable using and that reduces conflict between bikes and cars. The effort is needed not just for recreation but for mobility, he said, particularly as younger generations seek less dependence on cars and it becomes more expensive to expand roads as Houston grows denser.
"Every day, Houston becomes a more bike-friendly city," said Mayor Annise Parker, "but what we haven't done yet is to take our old bicycle plan off the shelf, dust it off and really focus on … does it meet the needs of today? Does it take into account the many changes that we're making? Does it move us forward?"
The largest change in the city's cycling landscape in recent years has been the Bayou Greenways program, driven in part by $100 million in bonds voters approved in 2012 to help build 150 miles of trails along the city's waterways. Houston also is using local and federal dollars to fill in gaps in existing trails. The city's B-Cycle bikesharing system has exploded from about 2,000 checkouts in 2012, when there were only three stations and 18 bikes, to more than 68,000 between Jan. 1 and Oct. 13 from more than 200 bikes at 29 stations.
Parking, traffic lanes
Parker in recent years has sought to make city policies more welcoming to cyclists, as well. City Council passed a safe passing law that compels drivers to give cyclists a buffer, and the mayor signed a policy that requires all road and sidewalk users - cars, bikes, pedestrians - to be considered in planning and construction decisions. In updating the city's parking rules last year, the council also allowed businesses to offer fewer parking spaces for cars if they provide extra parking for bikes.
City officials also are converting a traffic lane on Lamar Street into a protected, two-way bike route across downtown, connecting Discovery Green to Sam Houston Park, both of which link to nearby trails.
Still, these new rules and investments have not necessarily made the streets safer for cyclists, as highlighted by the recent criminal trial of a driver who struck and killed a cyclist last year. Many motorists, meanwhile, complain the city's cyclists ride dangerously.
Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, which is helping fund the planning process, said the initiative is a criticial step in the city's evolution and, ideally, in the evolution of individual cyclists' mindsets. Most cyclists today ride recreationally, he said, but safer routes would let more people ride comfortably around their neighborhood, then discover it is feasible to run a few errands or even to commute by bike.
National data suggest perhaps 1 percent of riders brave traffic, regardless of the conditions, he said, about 7 percent ride a bit and would like to ride more, and about 60 percent say they want to ride more but don't feel safe doing so. This last group should be the main target of any policy study, Payne said.
"It's about addressing the safety issue and about having separate bikeways so that people have both the perception of safety but also the reality of greater physical separation from cars," he said. "We need to develop infrastructure that people 8 years old to 80 years old feel comfortable using. It's not just about this aggressive, fast-paced cyclist, who's typically a middle-aged man, white guy, affluent. We're trying to meet the needs of a wide range of society."
The general idea, Payne said, is to use the Bayou Greenways trails, which typically run east-west, and future trails envisioned along electric utility corridors, which often run north-south, as bike highways.
As high-speed, congested city streets are due to be rebuilt, protected bike lanes may be added. And on neighborhood streets, with slower speeds and fewer cars, cyclists could get striped paths similar to those on city streets today.
owever, Payne said, the paths ideally would be much wider, in line with 5-foot national standards, and better maintained.
Because these on-street improvements will take many years, Walsh said, part of the planning effort also will seek to identify "low-hanging fruit" - quick, cheap improvements with potentially high impact.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez was among several City Council members backing the idea.
"I'm a strong supporter for growing our bicycle infrastructure and cycling safety. That's where the city needs to go," he said. "There's been some planning, but not something at this level. We need something on steroids, if you will, to take us to the next level."
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