Sunday, November 18, 2012

Opening of the Bill Coats Bicycle Bridge

[I will not be posting to this blog next Monday, November 26.  I will be visiting with my family for Thanksgiving and will not return in time to post.  Weekly postings will resume on December 3rd.]

From the Houston Chronicle

Last Friday, the brand new Coats Bike Bridge across Braes Bayou was officially dedicated.  I have mentioned this bridge and the rather awful bridge it replaces before, back when this new bridge was under construction.  I was unable to attend the dedication on Friday, but went by on Thursday and the bridge and the associated underpass into Herman Park were open and functional.  The bridge itself is gorgeous; it is supposed to evoke the image of bicycle wheels.  It is definitely much more functional than the bridge it replaces. What I find most exciting about this event is the evidence it provides for the continuing and significant commitment the Houston community has to recreational and cycling infrastructure.

From the "Per Square Mile" blog

From the above map (taken from the highly recommended "Per Square Mile" blog), it is apparent that the City of Houston does a good job providing parks for its residents.  Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, and does much better than the three larger cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  To be fair, we are behind the 6th largest city, Phoenix, and many other cities in the top 10 are not shown, but with the exception of Albuquerque (the 32nd largest city), we are right up there with the best cities among those studied in parkland per capita.

Similarly, in the last election, Houston area residents approved by an over 2 to 1 vote a bond to support continuing improvement in both parks and bicycling infrastructure:

City of Houston Prop B

Precincts Reporting: 992 out of 992 precincts 100%

CandidateVotesVote %Winner

(From the TV station KHOU website.)

Although the focus of reporting has been on the Bill Coats bridge per se, in fact, an associated underpass going under MacGregor Way is at least as important.  The stated goal of these two infrastructure improvements is to restore access to a piece of Hermann Park that had been cut off by MacGregor Way, a very busy street, and by Braes Bayou, as shown on the map below:

From the Houston Chronicle.  This map shows the underpass, the Coats Bridge, and the new section of Hermann Park they open up.

Even though the bridge is explicitly named the Bill Coats bicycle bridge, my prediction is that it will be a lot more useful to pedestrians than it is to cyclists.  The part of Brays Bayou trail on the south side of the bayou really doesn't add much that benefits cyclists, whereas access to the previously cut off park will be very important to pedestrians.  The underpass will be of greater value in that it connects the carriage path that goes through Hermann Park to the Braes Bayou trail, eliminating a somewhat hair raising crossing of MacGregor Way.  Although my preference for day to day riding is a paved path, the dirt and gravel carriage trail is of extremely high quality and is currently heavily used by both pedestrians and cyclists, both for recreation and for commuting into Texas Medical Center, shown on the map above. The transition between the paved path through the underpass and the carriage trail is shown in the pictures below:

The underpass seen from the Bayou side.  Note that the trail leading through the underpass, under MacGregor Way, is paved with concrete.

The transition between the concrete path through the underpass and the dirt and gravel carriage trail through Hermann Park.
Beyond being simply functional, the carriage path has a lot of charm in its own right, as shown below:

The Hermann Park Carriage Path

A charming  bridge on the Carriage Path

When you cross through the underpass, you have no choice but to ride on the carriage path.  However, as you continue on into Hermann Park, you eventually reach a point where you could continue on the Carriage Path or ride on the park road with the cars. In the past, I had assumed that the carriage path was only for pedestrians and had always ridden on the roads. Now that I know otherwise, this presents an interesting choice.  Early weekend mornings, the park roads are quiet and represent the obvious choice, but as is seen in the picture below, the park roads can be quite busy during the week, making the carriage path an attractive alternative:

The road (with cars, buses, and cyclists) is on the upper left, the continuation of the carriage path (with joggers) is on the lower right.

In either case, the Hermann Park roads and paths represent excellent entrees into the mid-town neighborhood of Houston, so the MacGregor Way underpass represents a welcome way to move between this neighborhood and the Braes Bayou bike path. Having said that, the most exciting part of this latest development for me is not the development itself, but what is promised for the future.  From the November 15, 2012 Houston Chronicle article on this project, "The [newly connected part of Hermann Park opened up by the bridge] connects to a Brays Bayou pathway - part of the Harris County Flood Control District's $535 million Project Brays - that eventually will follow the stream from Barker's Reservoir to the Houston Ship Channel." Extending the Braes Bayou trail to the Houston Ship Channel would be a lot of fun all by itself.  The Houston Ship Channel is a fascinating piece of Houston geography and history that is currently fairly inaccessible to bicycles.  To me, however, the truly exciting part of this promise is the connection to Barker's Reservoir, a.k.a. George Bush Park, about which I have posted previously.  This would connect a bike path close to my home to what I consider the crown jewel of Houston cycling infrastructure and would provide an opportunity for some significant rides (on the order of 50 to 100 miles), all on protected bike paths.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Buying a Commuter

The Breezer Uptown 8, a dedicated commuting bicycle with an amazing collection of features.
My wife started commuting to work by bike last April.  The social, financial, and personal benefits of this change have proven to be substantial.  The social benefits of bicycle commuting are widely known. Besides the reduction in fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production, my wife's bicycle commuting have saved us from buying a second car with all the environmental impact that would entail.  The financial benefits of avoiding the purchase price, taxes, and repairs of a second car are similarly obvious.  However, a big source of additional savings comes from not having to pay for parking.  Texas Medical Center (TMC) where my wife works is the largest medical center in the world, and as such, is very large, very busy and very crowded.  As a result, parking in TMC is expensive indeed, and canceling my wife's monthly parking contract had a significant impact on our budget. The personal benefits of bicycle commuting were the a surprise.  It takes less time and is less stressful for my wife to bicycle to work than to drive to and park in the busy TMC. In addition, although the ride is only 3.5 miles long, the 7 miles a day makes a noticeable difference in her fitness. The point of all of this is that we are highly motivated to remove even the slightest impediment to her bicycle commuting and can justify a significant investment to do so.

Aerial view of Texas Medical Center.  If you look at it on Google Maps, Texas Medical Center is almost as large as all of downtown Houston. (Image from Wikipedia by permission.)
Commuting by bicycle worked great until the days started growing shorter and daylight savings time ended.  Before that, there was plenty of daylight for the ride home even though my wife left work late to avoid the peak of rush hour traffic.  However, between the shortening of the day and the fall back of an hour, she now has the difficult decision of riding home in the dark or contending with rush hour traffic.  She has been commuting on her Surly Cross Check equipped with a Catseye Opticube HL-EL300, an inexpensive, battery-powered headlight, but has found that this provides too little light for a comfortable ride home after dark.  In addition, worrying about the batteries, although objectively a small issue, is one she finds distracting.  Thus, the temptation to revert to car commuting was growing. To stave this off, we have been in search of a perfect commuter bicycle.

The obvious question is why not just put a better light on the bike she has? In thinking about the "perfect light", we decided that one powered by a front wheel generator hub had the most appeal, and my wife didn't want to encumber her "fun" bike with such a hub. Similarly, although commuting with her existing bike has been working OK, the switching of bags back and forth each week to accommodate commuting during the week and fun riding on the weekends is a hassle that we would enjoy getting rid of. Once we contemplated a dedicated commuting bike, features like fenders and a full chain cover offered themselves as desirable upgrades. Finally, although my wife loves her Surly, stepping over its diamond frame is a challenge she loves less each year, so we were interested in looking at step-through frames.  Houston is very, very flat so a single speed bicycle would seem to be in order. Getting rid of the derailleur would both improve reliability of the bike and allow the use of the desirable chain cover.  That said, my wife finds starting from a traffic light or other stopped situation stressful and appreciates a lower gear to facilitate such starts. The obvious solution is an internally geared hub. A three speed hub would probably be more than adequate, but given the reasonable price of seven and eight speed hubs, they are in the running as well.

Trek Cocoa.  Full chain cover, dress guard (a plus), internal gears, and fenders.  Add a front generator and light and a rack, and it is perfect.  This bike is definitely in the running. My wife is not, however, in love with its appearance.

An invaluable resource in exploring the options available to us has been the "Lovely Bicycle" blog.  Its author is a fan of commuting bicycles and has reviewed an amazing number them.  Ironically, the first bicycle I came up with in a Web search that seemed to meet our needs perfectly, the Breezer Uptown, was panned on Lovely Bicycle.  This did not eliminate this bike from our consideration, but it did cause us to look harder at other options.  Most of the commuting bicycles favorably reviewed on Lovely Bicycle are unobtainable in Houston, but from those suggestions we were able to add the KHS Green to our list, and searching the web added a few more.

Last Sunday, after having done our Internet homework, we set out to a few of Houston's many fine local bike shops to look at our choices.  We had tentatively identified the KHS Green 8, The Specialized Daily 3, the Trek Cocoa, and the Breezer uptown 8 as bicycles we wanted to see.  We identified shops that carried each of these bikes from their manufacturers' websites. However, in no case did these shops have in stock the exact model in which we were interested.  In addition, we ran out of time before we made it to the shop that carries KHS bikes, and the shop that reportedly carried Breezer bikes in fact does not.  Despite these setbacks, we learned a lot from the test riding my wife was able to do.

The first shop we visited was listed as a Trek distributer, and we went there to see if they had a Trek Cocoa.  They did not, but my wife was able to test ride a comfort bicycle with 26 inch wheels and a more conventional hybrid with 700c wheels, the closest thing they had on the floor to the bike we came to see.  The first of these had a very low step through frame (like the Breezer, shown above) and the second a more moderate step-through (like the Specialized Work, shown below).  To my great surprise, my wife significantly preferred the handling of the second bike to the first. Was this because of the difference in the wheel size, the difference in the step through, other differences in frame geometry, or something else?  This is important because the Trek Cocoa, which we had gone to the shop to try, has 26 inch wheels, similar to the bike which my wife did not like. The bike shop staff opined that the frame geometry of the Cocoa made it likely that my wife would like it, and they offered to get one in for us with the understanding that if she didn't, we would owe them nothing. On this basis, the Trek Cocoa is definitely an option. What we learned is not an option is purchasing a bike without trying it first, which also lets out a custom bike. Because there is apparently no distributer of Breezer Bikes in Houston, the Breezer Uptown 8 is eliminated by our inability to test ride one. Finally, we learned that my wife has no problem with a frame with a higher step-through, expanding our range of options.

The second shop, where we went to look at the Specialized Daily 3, is the shop where we purchased our Surlys and with whom we are very happy.  From our experience with the Surlys, we know that they are willing and able to customize bikes for the difference in cost between what the bike comes with and what we want, a very good deal.  Although this shop did not have a Specialized Daily 3 with a step through frame, they did have similar models to try, and also pointed us towards a model of the Specialized Work that we had not previously noticed that also came close to what we were looking for.

Specialized Daily 3 (upper) and Work 3 (lower) bikes.  Two similar bikes feature 700c wheels, 7 speed hubs, fenders, and chain guards (but not full chain covers.)  Both would require addition of a generator hub and light in front and a rack in back.  The Daily features an extraneous front basket.  Because these bikes come from a local bike shop we know and trust, these bikes are high among our choices.
My wife has not decided on a bike yet. When she does, I will post on what she picked and why.  However, we have learned a lot about what is available. More generally, we learned that the combination of searching the web to learn what's available and to get detailed specifications combined with in person visits to the local bike shops is an invaluable combination, much more useful than either by themselves. Finally, it seems to me that the bicycle market changes rapidly, and that fashion as much as technology dictates what is available.  A few years ago, internal geared hubs were all the rage. This year, we saw hardly any in the bike shops, and the selection of practical, commuter bikes in general seems to be reduced. A few years ago my love for the Bianchi brand and their local distributor would have definitely put a Bianchi commuter on our list, but Bianchi is offering no internally geared commuters this year. We have become true believers in the real practicality of bicycle commuting and look forward to the day when every serious bike shop will routinely offer a selection of no-nonsense commuter bikes with excellent lights, fenders, and a full chain cover along with the latest offerings of fashionable road and mountain bikes.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Update on the White Oak Bayou Trail

The White Oak Bayou bike trail was the second Houston bike trail I discovered after I restarted cycling in 2008. For the two and a half years before I discovered the trails in Terry Hershey and George Bush parks, the White Oak Bayou ride was my "long ride". With no detours, it is a 28 mile round trip door to door. Unfortunately, only 10 miles of that is on the White Oak Bayou trail, 5 miles each out and back, the remaining 18 miles are on city streets.  Over time, I found extensions to this route that I could use to increase the distance up to as much as 40 miles, but all these extensions were on city streets, making the ride even less about White Oak Bayou. The advantages of the White Oak Bayou trail are that it is beautifully paved, has few cross streets, and has some nice scenery in places, but its biggest disadvantage used to be that it was short. Last year, two things happened. First, construction began on an extension to this trail to make it longer.  A few months later, construction on Houston's major loop freeway, 610, created a block in the middle of the trail.  This post is an update on the progress on both these fronts.

I will cover the nine miles of city cycling leading to the start of the White Oak Bayou in another post since these same routes are a part of other of my standard rides, but once you get to the south end of the White Oak Bayou trail, you are greeted by a whimsical pedestrian bridge across the Bayou:

Unfortunately, that bridge doesn't buy very much, there are no bike trails or lanes or anything else on the other side, but it is part of the charm of this trail, one of the things that initially attracted me to it.  (One other thing to notice is that, like Braes Bayou, and unlike Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou "features" a rather depressing concrete lining over this part of its course.)  There is another, similar bridge at the north end of the trail, which used to be almost as pointless.  However, this northern bridge now leads to a whole new stretch of trail, as is discussed below.

Another attraction of this trail is a very high quality surface:

In general, this trail is a class act with lots of amenities, such as this sign explaining the local wildflowers:

In terms of street crossing, the White Oak Bayou trail has only two, making it intermediate between the many crossings of the Braes Bayou trail and the virtual absence of crossings in the trails along Buffalo Bayou.  Below is a picture of one of the many underpasses that are used to eliminate traffic crossings:

A feature of this trail that is unique in my experience and one which I find very charming is that bicycles have their own train crossing:

Sadly, about half way through the trail, construction on highway 610 has blocked the trail until some time in 2013:

As a bad citizen but good blogger, I blasted right through these signs in order to get a picture of the obstruction:

This blockage is about ten feet high, so there is no going around or over it.  The good news is that the city of Houston has provided a bicycle detour around this blockage.  The bad news is that this detour is on one of Houston's typically low quality "bike lanes:

This lane is narrow and dirty, filled with broken glass, and is along a very busy street featuring impatient drivers making it a most unpleasant and relatively unsafe ride.  If all this were not bad enough, on my way home I found that the city was performing construction blocking even this this detour!

So much for the bad news.  Once I made my way through this detour, I made my way across the north end bridge to what had previously been the end of the trail to find new concrete leading forward:

The new trail is even nicer than the old trail.  In the picture below, notice the delightful iron bridge which crosses a side channel that flows into the White Oak Bayou.  If you look carefully, you will notice that at this point, White Oak Bayou manages to free itself of its concrete shackles:

When left to its natural soil banks, the White Oak Bayou becomes quite pretty:

This extension adds 2.5 miles to the original 5 miles of the trail, resulting in a 15 mile out and back ride.  This is still shorter than many similar trails in Houston, but given how attractive this trail is, this extension is much appreciated. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the detour.  This detour is so unpleasant and unsafe, I'm afraid that the White Oak Bayou trail ride will not return to my rotation until the blockage on the trail is removed.