On tour: Is Houston the next bicycle capitol of the US?

Houston


“Houston is the sleeper — the next big bicycle city that nobody knows about yet,” Tom McCasland told us on Thursday.

I was, of course, skeptical. My impression of Houston so far was all potholes, unpredictable driving, the chaotic geography of a city without zoning, and only a few sightings of hardy bicyclists. A conversation the night before with our host, a bike advocate, hadn’t altered that impression much. Besides, aren’t Southern cities, big and grey and built for cars, supposed to be harder to “green”?

But McCasland offered to take us on a bike ride to prove his point, and Joe and I weren’t about to turn him down. While Joshua cooked up some magic in the basement of Georgia’s Market (downtown’s only, if fancy, grocery store), we set off.

The thing that sets Houston up for success, McCasland told us as we drove out of downtown, is that the business community, including the oil companies and airlines that are the city’s biggest employers, is all for it. Quality of life is the reason, a lure for energetic, young new hires. As things currently stand, “it’s a tough sell to bring people here.” But there’s hope, in the form of cheap right of way around the city’s many bayous and a plan to transform an existing piecemeal trail system into a world class bicycling network.

McCasland is currently serving as interim director of the county’s beleaguered housing authority; until being tapped to clean up that agency last month, he was at the nonprofit Parks Board, where he led the gargantuan effort to put together a $500 million plan to build a 300 mile network of off-street bike trails that will link up the entire city.

The funding mechanism for this plan is a complex patchwork, including a large federal TIGER grant application that was just submitted. A bond measure will be voted on later this year to raise matching funds for a major chunk of it. Thanks to the business community’s support, McCasland told us, “It’s not a question of if we win this, but by what percentage.”

We saw a small scale success story first hand at our first stop, the Blue Line Bike Lab bike shop. The owner, Fred, had agreed to lend Joe and I bikes for the afternoon so we could check out the bayou trail network and its current gaps. When the shop opened seven years ago, Fred recounted, “People were like, ‘You’re geniuses!’ And we were like, ‘Well yeah, we know, but what are you talking about?’” They figured it out two years later, when a new section of the bayou trail network was built a block from their door. Business boomed.

Houston

We set off on a ride down that paved trail. After passing uneventfully through a residential neighborhood for several blocks, it ended in a sharp curb and a field of broken glass and gravel. The lot turned into a truck path, which ended at a decrepit railroad bridge. We took a sharp right down a singletrack path along the edge of the bayou far below us. It’s the site of the future trail “that will connect the two largest working class neighborhoods in the city with downtown,” as Fred had put it earlier. “When that happens, biking in this city is going to blow up.”

The next part of our route was through private property; we had the choice of taking surface streets or riding down along the bayou’s edge. We chose the latter and ran with our bikes down the steep concrete incline to coast along by the water and look up at the gaps in the system. After a while we scrambled up another steep embankment, lifted our bikes over a tall railing, and were back on city streets, taking the lane on a five lane arterial.

McCasland’s vision is basically the Minneapolis model of bikeway development. As such, it might not be so far fetched. After all, Minneapolis’s extensive off-road greenway system (which I visited on tour last year) connects the major areas of the city; people can then get to most of their exact destinations on neighborhood streets and a slowly increasing network of bike lanes and crossings. Once that had happened, and a few key on-street connections were made, Minneapolis went from barely on the radar of bike mavens to winning the #1 ranking in the country, with nearly the ridership stats to back that up.

If Minneapolis, then why not Houston? I’ll be rooting for them.

Here’s a slideshow of photos taken on our ride:


Update: Houston has just won its first $25 million towards building out the bayou bikeway system.


This is a dispatch from the month-long Dinner & Bikes tour of the south and midwest; we’re putting on a vegan dinner a talk about bicycling, and bike movies in a different city each night. I’m blogging as I go — find the updates here.

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13 Responses to “On tour: Is Houston the next bicycle capitol of the US?”

  1. Christopher April 23, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    I’m very optimistic about where things are going in H-town too. Glad you got a sense of that on your visit.

  2. Erik Sandblom April 23, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Bayous! Clever! It’s so interesting to see how different cities approach cycling.

    Great pictures and well written.

  3. Erik Sandblom April 23, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Oh and I applaud your choice of headwear! :)

  4. David Wallin April 29, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    i ride this very trail dailey mostly for fun and health and sometimes related to my business even though i rather do business related rides more oftem but need more showers stations along trails in Houston, these dediicated trails are it, i probably wouldn’t ride nearly as much if i had to mix with the cars.

  5. Mike May 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I’m really surprised by this. I’m in NW Houston on business for a few days, and I haven’t seen a single cyclist or bike lane. In fact this part of the city seems openly hostile to pedestrians too. I don’t think I’ve seen a single sidewalk either.

    • Guest May 3, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Mike, Houston is a big, sprawly city built on the back of the Energy Industry, so I’m not going to take offence at what you’ve seen. But I wonder how far out in the northwest you’ve been staying. Because even if it ain’t Austin (or Portland) there is no question that we’ve got a lively cycling crowd, from fixie hipsters to sporty speed-racers; many of these species can be found within the “Inner Loop” formed by highway 610 — especially after 5 weekdays or on weekends.

    • Steve May 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm #

      Nope, he’s right. Houston is a huge city, and your little neighborhood in Montrose or the Heights is about as far from representative as it can get. Northwest Houston – Westheimer to 290 outside the loop – is a total wasteland. There are virtually no routes across the Katy (I-10) on which a cyclist does not take his life in his hands. The “bike lanes” on streets like Richmond and Briar Forest are 18 inches wide, and frequently interrupted by broken and radically tilted pavement. If that isn’t enough, a frighteningly large number of drivers appear to think that the “bike lane” designation is a suggestion that they may ignore at will. Try it out here some time – you can find me on Briar Forest most Tuesdays and Thursdays around lunchtime, alternately pedaling and praying.

  6. foofanu May 3, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    SW Houston has wonderful trails and is a hidden gem in that respect. I live in Sharpstown 1, and am one mile from the Braes Bayou trails that will take me all the way to the Zoo, Hermann Park, Rice Village (they’re only 8 miles away, not far on a bike). And I live in one of the cheapest subdivisions in the city. I’m so ready for this.

  7. Steve May 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    I’m sorry, but one brief tour of one of Houston’s “golden” neighborhoods is not a good way to get a glimpse of just how incredibly unfriendly Texas in general and Houston in specific are to non-motorized 2-wheel vehicles (motorized, not so bad). The Heights sucks up about 60% of the budget for cycling improvements, while folks “outside the loop” must dodge potholes big enough to swallow Suburbans and need armored tires to survive the debris – nails, broken glass, dead armadillos – left in the gutters waiting for the next tropical storm to wash it away.

    Houston is about as likely to become America’s next cycling capitol as it is to become the next XC skiing capitol. At least in the case of skiing, there;s an excuse – but for cycling, Houston, Harris County and Texas all display a continual lack of will to do anything but talk about being bicycle-friendly. That, and maybe fund a few projects in neighborhoods where the swell folk like.

  8. blindeyes May 30, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    Houston sucks for riding your bike. Unless your on a dedicated bike trail then that’s a different story. As far as riding on the public streets, forget it. I was stopped on the sidewalk right next to the entrance of a parking lot off Westheimer and some POS intentionally swerved his truck at me telling me to get out of the road. Road??!! I’m on the fucking sidewalk. Then this scumbag had the nerve to stare me down as if I’m in the wrong.

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