There’s been an awakening in Houston. Have you felt it?
If you get the 2015 Star Wars reference above, high five. If not, it’s not important. What is important to our current discussion is the subtle shift taking place in the American cycling paradigm; a tectonic rumbling so slight many of the most astute observers of the biking world have missed it.
And it all has to do with the most unlikely of sprawling metropoles: Houston, Texas.
THE HOUSTON ANGLE
For nearly a decade, New York was held up as the hallmark of big-city cycling infrastructure in the US. Under the remarkable leadership of then-transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the Big Apple carved out over 400 miles of bike lanes and launched the largest city bike sharing program in the country between 2007 and 2013.
Three years later, Chicago would come from behind to nab the coveted top spot on Bicycling’s list of the 50 Most Bike Friendly Cities in America. The title for best major urban cycling destination, it seemed, had found its heavyweight matchup.
Or had it?
Conspicuously, one of the nation’s largest cities was absent from that 2016 cycling catalogue. Perhaps it’s because, at the time, Houston’s bike plan hadn’t been updated since the world wide web was making its public debut. Boasting the widest highway in the US, more urban sprawl than Los Angeles, and an average of 51.6 hours lost in traffic per commuter per year, the prospect of the Bayou City becoming a biking mecca seemed understandably far off.
But all of that is changing. And the consequences could be – in true Texas fashion – BIG.
Take a Ride Around the Next American Cycling Powerhouse:
PLANNING AND PATROLS
Let’s start with the bike plan we referenced earlier. On March 22nd, the Houston City Council voted to approve an updated version of the blueprint, paving the way for the city to add hundreds of miles of new cycling infrastructure in the coming years. The ambitious 10-year goal is to transform Houston into a gold-level cycling destination à la League of American Bicyclists, coinciding with what Governing Magazine calls the city’s surprising push towards urban revival.
To add to the optics of this transformation, Houston police have begun stepping up enforcement of 2013’s safe passage ordinance. In March, the department unveiled a newly developed C3FT radar allowing patrol units on bike to identify and ticket drivers who ignore the required minimum 3-ft gap between cyclists and automobiles. Fines can reach as high as $500 per incident.
But while plans and patrols are good talking points, there may be no better indicator of the seriousness with which the city is taking this pivot than the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative.
BAYOU GREENWAYS 2020
Unbeknownst to most of us not living in Southeast Texas, Houston is bisected by a vast network of slow-moving creeks called bayous (from the Choctaw word “bayuk”). For much of its modern history, these waterways have been primarily used as drainage ditches, with little thought given to either their aesthetics or their recreational potential. Until now.
“Bayou Greenways 2020 is one of the most ambitious and bold parks projects in the country,” says Houston Parks Board CEO Beth White. “Through this public-private partnership with Houston Parks and Recreation Department, we are creating a network of connected parks and trails along nine Houston Bayous.”
So why is this project such a game changer for the city? Well, let’s look at the numbers. By its scheduled completion date, Bayou Greenways 2020 will transform more than 3,000 acres of land along the bayous into greenways – publicly accessible greenspaces connecting parks, communities, and people like never before. That’s roughly 3.5x the size of New York’s Central Park, with large swaths passing directly through downtown Houston itself.
Winding throughout these linear parks will be an additional 80 miles of bike-friendly trails, more than doubling the current distance. By the turn of the decade, city cyclists will have access to an unprecedented 150 miles of car-free waterside riding.
Perhaps the most encouraging figure, however, comes from Houstonians themselves. Back in 2012, voters took to the ballot box en masse to pass a bond measure that accounts for $100 million of the projected $220 million it will cost to complete the Bayou Greenways initiative. Private fundraising and other efforts undertaken by the Houston Parks Board have nearly made up the difference, making this project one of the largest private-public partnerships in the city’s history.
“We are seeing people across the city embracing the bayou trails and also investing in the waterfront,” continues White. “A good example is a shopping center along White Oak Bayou that is installing windows in the rear of the building to highlight the trail and recruit restaurants. Furthermore, apartment complexes and the like are featuring the trails as an attractive recreational amenity.”
“It’s exciting to see the growing desire for active transportation across the city.”
So let’s bring this back around full circle. In that 2015 continuation of the classic Star Wars saga, the main character Rey transforms during the film’s progression – from a scavenger on a desolate desert planet to an unlikely galactic hero. If Houston, too, is attempting to undergo an evolution of its own – from a megalopolis separated by its suburbs to one brought together by its bikeable bayous – there really is only one thing left to say:
Stay the course, we’re with you.
If you cringed a little reading that, it’s okay. We did, too.