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.

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