Saturday, February 1, 2014

Terry Hershey Revisited

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post in which I recommended the hike and bike trail in Terry Hershey Park as one of "the crown jewels of the Houston biking infrastructure." I'm afraid I am going to have to withdraw that recommendation, not because the park or the trail has deteriorated, but because, in my opinion, cyclists have become increasingly unwelcome there. My original post referred to paths that traverse two adjacent parks, Terry Hershey Park and George Bush Park. My comments in this post apply mostly to Terry Hershey Park and only a little bit to George Bush Park; George Bush Park remains virtually as attractive to cyclists as when I originally described it.

What has changed in the last year? A number of things, some of them being changes in my perception, and some being changes to the trails. The final straw that inspired this post was the following comment on the Facebook page of Houston Critical Mass1:

I have a tiny rant, and i wil prolly get flamed.. and that's fine.. I agree.. share the roads.. Cars need too. it's the law.. and they should do so with caution.. But i have seen more than a few times on here, other groups and in real live.. cyclsit getting pissy over the shared path at Terry Hershy and other Hike/bike paths.. That is a little hypocritical to me.. Yesterday afternoon I was at TH, broad daylight doing a causal cruise with kids.. nothing fast.. Park was packed.. It was a wonderful day... and here comes all these road cyclist riding through going 17-20 mph yelling at kids and such to move over and whatnot.. Dont be an ass.. It's a park.. for kids and families.. I use my brain.. if i want to have a nice fast ride on my roadie I won't go to a park that caters to families and kids at 3pm on a wonderful day.. If i want to haul ass i go early morning to George Bush.. You want cars to respect us on the road(and i agree).. respect the walkers/joggers, families and kids at the public parks.... End rant [] Ohh yeah.. and one "speed racer" dude yelled at my GFs 10 year old "MOVE OVER" again,. you wanna [b]e Lance armstrong don[']t go to a family par[k] at 3pm.. I don't.

Within the first day, this engendered about 30 comments, almost all agreeing with the poster, only one or two disagreeing. And this is not an anti-cycling group, this is Critical Mass, made up of some of the most vehement bicycling advocates on the planet. Regrettably, I am probably one of the "pissy cyclsit" the poster refers to, and this post details how that came to be.

I first rode the Terry Hershey/George Bush trail at the end of 2010 and it was love at first ride. A few weeks later I took my wife along and she was as enthusiastic as I was. What made these trails so attractive to us is that they are long (37 miles round trip, up to 40 miles with a few side trips) and there is no automobile traffic. Note that my wife and I are senior citizens and have health issues that make us even more fragile. Thus, the absence of cars is a big deal. The first time I rode these paths, I stopped and read the instructions on the signs that are scattered along the trails:


The rules seemed reasonable. In fact, the requirement that "Bikes & Skates Yield to Pedestrians" seemed positively attractive in that it acknowledged that bicycles were explicitly allowed on the trail. If I had been paranoid, I might have worried about the poorly defined rule "Excessive Speed Prohibited", not that, as an old man, I would expect to be one of the faster cyclists, but only because it begs the question, "What is excessive?" I will note that there is another sign (which I haven't photographed) that says something like "Speed Limit 10 MPH When Passing Pedestrians" but so long as I could bumble along at my 15 mph or so between pedestrians, that was fine with me. Besides, it was a beautiful day, why make trouble, right? Had I been paranoid, that might have caused me to similarly wonder about what exactly "Yield to Pedestrians" meant, but especially given the last rule, "Keep To the Right", it seemed obvious. The pedestrians would be keeping to the right (as would I) so as I came up behind pedestrians, if other users were coming the other way, I would wait, but when it was safe, I could pass on the left and continue on my way. I noted that common practice seemed to be to call out "On Your Left" or to ring a bell when passing so as not to startle the pedestrians, and that I did. Occasionally groups of pedestrians would take up both sides of the trail, occasionally they would be less than gracious when I called out "On Your Left", but that's life, I was following the rules, so no big deal. No big deal until one day a new group of signs appeared:


To the left is the old sign (shown at higher magnification in the previous picture). To the right (supporting my trusty Surly) is the new sign. As you can see, the new sign just repeats the second rule from the old sign,  "Bikes & Skates Yield to Pedestrians", except that it focuses exclusively on cyclists and adds a big red "WARNING" up top. So what, you might say, nothing new here, but I would beg to differ. Imagine you are a child again. Your family is going out to a fancy restaurant and, in preparation, you are admonished with a list of rules. One of these rules is "No Elbows On The Table." After you get to the restaurant, your mother looks at you and repeats, "No Elbows On The Table" with the "big red warning" being her tone of voice and facial expression. You look down, your elbows are not on the table as best you can tell. If you ever were raised by an actual mother, you understand that "nothing new here" is not the right response; you need to figure out, and quickly, what exactly you are doing that your mother equates with "elbows on the table." And thus for me and the new sign: what were cyclists (perhaps even I) doing that the government officials who have the power of signage construe as not yielding? I racked my brain with no avail so I turned for advice to what seemed to me to be the most mature and responsible of the cycling advocacy groups in Houston, "BikeHouston."

In order to feel like I had a right to seek the advice of BikeHouston as well as to support cycling, I paid for a one year membership. I knew they had a Facebook page, but wasn't sure how it was supposed to be used, so I sent an email to their "get information" email address, describing my question and asking how I might best initiate a discussion on that topic. Some days later I got an email back stating that my email had been posted to their Facebook page and comments to that post were attached to the email. The comments were scathing. Clearly I was a very rude cyclist indeed to even ask the question. I went to their Facebook page to attempt to discuss this, to figure out what I said that was wrong, and found that, not being a member of the Board of Directors of BikeHouston, I was not allowed to post there. I know, whine, whine, but I do think it is fair to point out that I never got an answer to my question; should I have wanted to reform my evil ways, I had no idea how to do so.

As I poked around on Facebook in a vain attempt to dialogue with BikeHouston, I discovered that Houston Critical Mass had a Facebook page. If there ever was a group more different that BikeHouston, the Ralph Nader of cycling advocacy, it is Critical Mass, the Ken Kesey of the same. However, I noticed the Critical Mass folks were very active and friendly, so when I came across a discussion that seemed to be on this topic, I put in my two cents which again were met with hostility. This time, I figured out where I went wrong. The point I was trying to make was that I wanted to know what these new signs meant, what the rules for using the trail were, and to advocate for rules that were fair to everyone and would allow my wife and I to continue to use this wonderful trail. Instead, I came off sounding like I was "anti-pedestrian". Because Critical Mass allowed me to post to their page, a dialogue resulted, the confusion was resolved, and I was given the opportunity to explain myself and apologize. The only problem was that after all that dialogue, I still had no answer to my question. At that point, I gave up. And there it lay until the "rant" with which I opened this post.

In the mean time, in the absence of clarification of the rules, what did I do? Besides triggering my paranoia, the new signage rallied the pedestrians who made their hostility towards cyclists (my wife and I included) ever more clear. As much as we, as elderly riders, appreciate the safety of the paths in Terry Hershey, we don't want to be hated by our neighbors, so we abandoned the park. It's not that we never ride there anymore, but we avoid it when it is busy, which is any weekend when the weather is nice This means my wife (who works) cannot use the park during ⅔ to ¾ of the year (early spring to late fall).

Interestingly, the "rant" and even moreso, the comments on the "rant", came closer to answering my original question than anything heretofore. To summarize that answer, I went through the comments and create a profile of what the cyclists of Critical Mass thought was the right way to cycle in Terry Hershey Park. Is it really appropriate to use a discussion between people on Facebook to define the rules for using a public resource? I would have said no, but in the absence of any official clarification, I feel like this is the best guidance I have about how to deal with a poorly defined yet contentious issue. With that proviso, here is what the Critical Mass suggested:
  1. Ride slowly in Terry Hershey Park. (10 comments)
    • Don't exceed 11 mph. (1 additional comment)
    • Family/casual riding only in Terry Hershey, not constant riding at 15 mph. (1 additional comment)
  2. Ride somewhere else (general category)
    • Ride the trails in George Bush Park instead of the trails in Terry Hershey Park. (4 comments)
    • Don't ride either the trails in Terry Hershey Park or the trails in George Bush Park. (1 comment)
    • Don't ride on the trails in any of Houston's parks. (4 comments)
    • Train on country roads, not in the park. (3 comments) 
  3. Ride early in the day before there are crowds. (2 comments)
  4. Shout "On Your Left." (1 comment)
  5. Widen the path so there is room for everyone. (1 comment)
  6. Don't criticize walkers no matter how much they ignore the rules. (1 comment)
  7. Form a group to "deal with" problem cyclists. (1 comment)
    • Yell at "asshole" cyclists. (1 additional comment)
  8. Become ego-less. (1 comment)
  9. Join a team. (1 comment)
  10. Don't have kids. (1 comment)
  11. The poster is wrong, there is no problem. (1 comment)
If I were to distill this discussion into a phrase, it would be "if you are annoying the pedestrians, then you are either riding too fast or at the wrong time." I don't agree with this sentiment, but in practical terms, that is exactly the behavior my wife and I have been driven to. In contrast to views expressed in some of the comments, moving our cycling to country roads is far from a perfect alternative. Although we ride on some country roads some of the time, between high speed limits and variable shoulders, we do not feel these are all that safe. As someone who pays plenty of taxes, I feel the government should provide infrastructure for bicycles, and the City of Houston claims to agree2. Of course, funds are always limited and everybody cannot have everything they want. If a path usable for a cyclist like me through Terry Hershey Park is not in the cards, I have to accept that. That said, I am sad that my wife and I have largely lost the use of a wonderful resource, one that I would have thought could be shared.

How do I think the Terry Hershey trail could be shared, and why do I think that is appropriate? I have made my argument above as to why I think providing venues for cyclists (in addition to roads) makes sense. It is not possible in the foreseeable future that public money could be found for separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists; pedestrians and cyclists will have to share paths just as cyclists and cars will have to share roads. However, if these are truly going to be multi-use paths rather than pedestrian paths on which cyclists are occasionally tolerated, I think the rules for such paths should reflect that. Bicycles are not allowed on sidewalks and should not be allowed on some park paths; I think it makes perfect sense to reserve many such paths for casual strolling. I think that for paths that are defined as multi-use, the behavior of both cyclists and pedestrians have to be different than what cyclists would do on the road and pedestrians would do on the sidewalk. All users; walkers, walkers with strollers, walkers with pets, families with children, runners, skaters, and cyclists; should stay to the right side of the path. Dogs on the path should be trained to stay to the right (to heel). Young children on bikes should be enthusiastically welcomed, even knowing that they are slow and sometimes wobbly, but use of this path should be seen as a place to introduce children to the rules. Walking and talking in groups is a perfect use of the path so long as it is constrained to the right side. Cyclists need to accept that there will be occasions, more of them when the path is crowded, when they will come up behind a pedestrian, when it is not safe to pass, and will need to patiently ride at walking speed as long as necessary; pedestrians should never feel that they need to step off the trail to allow cyclists to pass. Once it is safe, cyclists should pass slower users with caution but slower users should expect to be passed and should behave predictably. To me, this would make perfect sense in Terry Hershey Park and would represent a good balance between competing uses of it beautiful path, currently advertised as multi-use. However, when even the riders of Critical Mass disagree with me, I have to admit defeat and mourn the loss of the Terry Hershey "multi-use" Path to cyclists like me.



Footnotes


1) What Critical Mass is and is not is difficult to explain, but at this point in the discussion, it is probably simplest to think of it as a cycling advocacy group. A more nuanced and technically correct description of Critical Mass can be found on Wikipedia.

2. In a way, what has happened in Terry Hershey Park is a wonderful problem for the City of Houston to have, to have created a city service so popular that it is being over-subscribed. Would that it cause the city to deal proactively with the issue!


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