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Is Houston becoming more bike-friendly? This developer says yes.

When Lava Sunder left Houston for college in 2012, the green paint was for homes and curbs indicating temporary parking. Now slivers of it criss-cross many Houston neighborhoods, turning thoroughfares into places where residents can opt for bike pedals over the gas pedal.

“It wasn’t like this a very long time ago,” she said. “You see something has changed.”

Sunder, who has worked on car-free development in Arizona and is committed to reducing vehicle use and e-bike adoption, caught the eye when she noted in a Twitter post how the Houston she had left and the one she had returned to seemed different to cyclists.

“Living (car-free) in my hometown of Houston for a while and I’m SO impressed with all the new protected bike lanes,” she wrote, noting that she felt like the city was one step away. “turning”.

What exactly happened, however, is difficult to determine, BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo said. On a Monday morning bike ride through Upper Kirby, Montrose and downtown Houston, Cutrufo and Sunder said there was a lot to cheer on but also a lot to do.

“You don’t want to be the person who always says what’s wrong,” Cutrufo said. “When there’s something like the Austin Street Bike Lane – something that’s a real improvement – ​​we want to celebrate that.”

Levy Park, near Richmond and Kirby, is an example. Although it’s locked between major boulevards and Interstate 69, the park is surrounded by local streets that are open to bikers – though riding through the park itself will get you a quick reprimand from the ever-present security.

From Levy Park, Sunder and Cutrufo briefly used Richmond eastbound to cross Kirby, opting for the main streets as lighter 10 a.m. traffic moved along. With the right timing and group biking, Cutrufo said, main streets are often passable, but also avoidable.

Cutting into the residential area south of Richmond, Sunder and Cutrufo rode Shepherd through an area devoid of any dedicated space for cyclists as neighboring crews tore it up as part of a street and sewer rehabilitation project. Bike paths through the neighborhood and into Montrose along Dunlavy are just signs and paint.

Many cities in the past five or six years have overtaken Houston by creating on-street bike lanes, often protected by on-street parking or reflective poles. As a result, Bayou Town is an afterthought when it comes to many of the metrics used to judge a town’s bicycle friendliness. Bicycle Magazine, which compiles a list of the top 50, never included Houston. Advocacy group People for Bikes, which uses a litany of criteria to rank cities, ranked Houston last year as 18 – 636th out of 768 cities compared.

What’s unclear, at this time, is how Houston will fare in the next two years due to Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ investments in local streets, City Hall pledging to expand bike lanes along some roads and new trails along various developed bayous. by the Houston Parks Board and area management districts. Through miles of trails and offerings, Houston is quickly catching up with safer separate lanes.

Objective: uninterrupted journeys

The new lanes on Waugh and Commonwealth are among the latest examples. Moving from Fairview to Waugh, Sunder said the difference was noticeable. Gone are the signs urging cyclists to ‘share the road’, as a new green strip and large concrete curbs mark the new dedicated lane for cyclists.

“It’s almost like Houston skipped a step,” she said later.

Protection, or the feeling of protection, can be an important factor in the frequency and users of cycle paths. The new greenways along Waugh, Commonwealth, Gray and Austin all feature large concrete curbs which are much more difficult for cars and trucks to cross. These curbs, while they cannot stop a thundering car or all disasters, are far more likely to provide a barrier to cyclists than the rubber bumps – often called armadillos – and plastic warning sticks that many cities have deployed to expand bike lanes.

“Concrete is so much better,” Sunder said, praising the lanes as exactly what more cities need.

The smooth ride ends on Waugh, a few blocks from Allen Parkway. The dedicated space gives way to sharing the street with speeders. The sidewalk could be an option, but uneven panels present their own dangers.

Upon entering the Buffalo Bayou trail system, however, conditions change dramatically. The trails dip and dip away from Allen Parkway, giving cyclists direct access to the western edge of downtown.

Sunder said the bayous offer Houston a unique chance to build fast, safe routes through dozens of neighborhoods, with trails being for bikes what freeways are for cars: uninterrupted access.

Being car-free for Sunder is a way of life and good business. Before staying with her parents last month, she spent three years in Tempe helping to develop Culdesac, a car-free development currently under construction. The neighborhood, built to accommodate 1,000 people, is billed as the first car-free community built from the ground up.

To get around Houston, Sunder commandeered the electric bike she bought her mom for Christmas. During the month, she visited various neighborhoods and trails and was impressed with many offers, especially the reconstruction of Bagby and the Austin Street bike paths.

Bobby and weaving under Interstate 45 where the Buffalo Bayou trails connect to the area around City Hall, Sunder and Cutrufo zoomed north on Bagby – taking advantage of the wide lane and timed traffic lights to give cyclists a head start.

Traversing downtown on mostly deserted midday city streets, the pair turned to Minute Maid Park to pedal Austin. Traffic was heavier, but the two-way lanes show that cyclists and cars can co-exist, Sunder said.

Joe Cutrufo, left, executive director of BikeHouston, talks with Lava Sunder as they ride their bikes Monday, April 25, 2022, in downtown Houston.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

“You’re never going to get away from cars, but how do you make sure people have the option of cycling safely,” she said.

Still a lot to do

Houston already has a way forward, Cutrufo said, as long as it continues. The city’s cycling map – for 1,800 miles of safe trails and protected lanes – outlines where trails are sought after and where they should align with recent work.

“These projects show what can be done,” he said.

City and Houston Parks Board officials were to officially open a 1.4-mile trail link along Sims Bayou on Saturday, hailing it as a way to bring bayou trail access to a often overlooked southeastern part of the city.

There are still many projects to be completed. Of the planned 1,800 miles, less than 400 miles have been completed. There are less than 30 miles of protected lanes on the street, down from less than 13 miles six years ago when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the city’s transportation system . Since then, Houston Public Works has hired a transportation planner and prioritized traffic calming in certain neighborhoods.

Yet advocates know that projects often face skepticism. After months of work, a handful of residents have raised concerns about plans to narrow 11th Street and add bike lanes as construction nears.

This may have derailed plans from previous years, but it seems unlikely to change or stop the 11th Street redesign. Neighborhood groups and cycling advocates have not backed down, and city officials have continued to support the plans.

Despite the positive analysis of Houston’s growing greenways, over time, traveling through Houston, Sunder acknowledged that she saw some of the challenges as well. A crosswalk on Westheimer between Virginia and Ferndale generally makes little difference to passing drivers. When she sent a quick video to Houston Public Works, it was a city-issued Jeep running a red light.

All the growth in interest in cycling comes as the region grapples with a growing road safety crisis, with pedestrians and cyclists bearing the brunt of it. The number of pedestrians and cyclists killed each year in Harris County rose from 113 in 2015 to 193 last year. The 24 cyclists killed in 2021 were double the 2016 total.

After going through Midtown, following Gray then Bagby to Spur 527, Cutrufo returns to the neighborhood, through an opening in the noise barrier near the freeway. The streets are pockmarked and treacherous, but otherwise open to bicycling.

“It’s obviously imperfect. Not every implementation has to be perfect,” Sunder said, charting with Cutrufo the way back to Levy Park. “It’s just good to see something.”

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John Smith

The author John Smith