Monday, December 24, 2012

Gaps and Connections

"It's long past the time for us to what I like to say 'string the beads' to connect the [bike] trail segments to connect Houston" Mayor Annise Parker said at a news conference... (Chris Moran, The Houston Chronicle,June 22, 2012)

It has been wonderful living in Houston under two mayors who support cycling, Bill White and Annise Parker. As a result of their stewartships, Houston has experienced a steady improvement in bicycling infrastructure. If I were to make one suggestion for future development of that infrastructure, it would be to look for places where relatively modest investments could produce large gains in functionality. With this in mind, I find Mayor Parker's comments, quoted above, heartening. In this post, I will discuss both places where the existing infrastructure connects nicely together, and places where improvement is in order. As an example, I will be focusing mostly on the Braes Bayou hike and bike trail because that is the part of the infrastructure with which I am most familiar.

As I previously posted, the Coats "bicycle" bridge is gorgeous and wonderful to ride on, and it does make all of Hermann Park available for the first time, but what it doesn't do is significantly extend the Houston cycling infrastructure. Interestingly, some adjacent improvements do just that:

This picture illustrates both an improvement and a gap. The concrete trail coming in from the bottom right of the picture is new, and almost eliminates the dangerous crossing of Alameda Road, greatly facilitating safe cycling all the way from Gessner in the west of Houston to McGregor park in the east. However, in the center of the picture, a few dozen yards of missing trail can be seen. Practically, this is no big deal, this short stretch of dirt is quite ridable. Symbolically, however, it represents a perplexing gap in an otherwise wonderful trail system.

There is a second gap in the trail, between the Coats bridge and the Medical Center:

This short, downhill gap extends from the end of the old trail at the very bottom left of the picture to the start of the new trail on the middle left.

This second gap is the more difficult of the two because of its steepness.  I find neither gap particularly challenging, but my wife has trouble with this second one. To my mind, more important than any real problem these gaps cause is their symbolism. They send the message that the trail is not finished, discouraging people from using it.

In contrast to the gaps noted above, the crossing of highway 288, a freeway that would otherwise represent a very dangerous crossing, has been very nicely done:

Another nice feature of the Braes Bayou trail is east of highway 288. There, the Braes Bayou trail connects with another trail, the Columbia Tap Rails to Trails path:

This is not my favorite bike trail in Houston. For one thing, it crosses a street every block:

However, Columbia Tap does represent a route from the Braes Bayou Trail to downtown Houston, a ride that otherwise would traverse some fairly busy streets. Unfortunately, once it reaches downtown, Columbia Tap dumps you unceremoniously on the east side of downtown with no safe path to anywhere else. In the Houston Chronicle article quoted at the beginning of this post, the focus was on connecting two other trails, the Heights Bike Path (actually a multi-use path) and the Buffalo Bayou path. Should the Columbia Tap path be connected as well, this would result in a continuous path from well to the north of Houston to the south side, and from the west side to the east. In addition to being of great recreational value, this would provide a safe bicycle commute between downtown and the Texas Medical Center as well as to a number of significant residential neighborhoods.

Whether for recreational use or commuting, it is important that major trails, such as the Braes Bayou trail, be connected to the residential neighborhoods they serve. The connection between the Braes Bayou trail and my neighborhood is acceptable if not perfect. I travel to the Braes Bayou trail via Brompton Street, a street not listed on the City of Houston's Bikeways map, but which is listed as a "bicycle friendly" street by Google. I frequently disagree with Google's designation of particular streets as "bicycle friendly" and would rate Brompton Street as a B- at best. By contrast, some of the neighborhoods west of me have better connections, however.

There is a rather unusual connection between the City of Bellaire and the Braes Bayou Trail. The City of Bellaire has a rather nice "super sidewalk" style path along Newcastle Street:

This path terminates at Beechwood street on the border of Bellaire. Just across Beechwood is a sewage treatment path and signage would not encourage one to bicycle through:

And yet, if one persists past these signs into the parking lot, one finds a bike path on the far side:

Definitely a mixed message! And yet, this somewhat confusing route represents a very good connection between bike infrastructure in Bellaire and the Braes Bayou trail.

When I first reviewed the Braes Bayou trail, I commented on two lovely new bridges across the Bayou that had been added:

Although I did not mention it at the time, as much as they were lovely, I wondered if they were the best use of resources. One of them replaced and existing, run down yet popular bridge, so upgrading that was probably a political necessity. The second bridge appeared to be a bridge to nowhere. I revisited this bridge recently and found that connecting paths had been completed and this now represented a connection to a lovely, adjacent neighborhood:

This is what the path looks like as it leaves the neighborhood to cross the bridge to the Braes Bayou trail:

I would like to close with a rather unrelated point, but one which is of concern to a number of Houston trail users. As part of the very unusual weather we have all been experiencing, Houston has suffered from droughts. The soil in Houston is such that it contracts significantly when dry, and a consequence of that is trail cracks:

This crack is just the right size to hold a bicycle tire. The City of Houston has been diligent at filling these cracks, but as fast as they fill them, new ones open. These are especially dangerous to commuters bicycling home after dark. I don't know what the solution to this is, but it is definitely a "gap" which limits the utility of our otherwise excellent trail system.

MAF Test Results

My Garmin 500 lost the data for my ride today, so there is no update on MAF testing from what I posted last week. (I will be reviewing the Garmin 500 in a future post.) Next week I will be posting a description of my first month of my aerobic training regimen along with measures of its effectiveness.

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