Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cycling Heights Boulevard

Extracted and edited from the official City of Houston Bike Route map. The blue line going top to bottom in the center is the Heights Boulevard bike lane, the topic of this post. Notice that about a third of the way from the bottom it crosses a green line which branches on either side; these are the White Oak Bayou, MKT, and Buffalo Bayou Bike Trails, respectively. (Dotted lines are planned bike paths that are not yet completed.)

I have previously mentioned Heights Boulevard and its magnificent bike lane as part of the route I take to Canino's Farmers' Market. In the past, my wife and I have sometimes bicycled to Canino's to do our shopping, but due to road construction in the area, that is not currently safe. Besides being part of the route to Canino's, Heights Boulevard also crosses the MKT Bike Trail, making it an important entree into the Buffalo Bayou trail of downtown Houston. However, from where we live, there are better ways to get to Buffalo Bayou. So, until recently, the facts that Heights Boulevard is less than two miles long and that it doesn't currently connect to any other routes we were using caused us to neglect it. That all changed with the reopening of the White Oak Bayou trail, yet another route accessible from Heights Boulevard. Last week, my wife and I rode down Heights Boulevard on our way to White Oak Bayou and we were astonished by some new sculpture that had been installed there. We didn't stop and take pictures then, but a few days later I was back out there and was able to photograph both these new sculptures as well as some other aspects of this bike lane.

Let me start by getting the bad news out of the way. Although the Heights Boulevard Bike Lane is magnificent (unlike virtually every other bike lane in Houston), sometimes people abuse it. My brother-in-law is a UPS driver, so I hate to start by picking on them, but I will:

UPS truck, parked smack in the middle of the bike lane.

It has been my experience that UPS drivers are fairly casual how they park. The driver above, for example, parked right in the middle of the bike lane. To get around him, I had to swing into traffic, an action which is both unsafe and annoying to people driving cars. It was not all that a big deal, but it is also not an uncommon occurrence. As I was returning from my ride, I saw a UPS truck (I don't know if it was the same one or not) doing exactly the same thing on the other side of the street, though in that case blame was spread around a little by the FedEx truck right in front of him. Seriously, I don't want to pick on UPS drivers. I am a big online shopper and thus a beneficiary of their services. Further, they may block the road but never for long; they are usually on their way (and out of mine) in under a minute. My point is more general. People view a bike lane as common ground available for whatever uses present themselves, such as a place to put garbage cans for pickup:

The automobile lane is on the left, a parking lane is on the right, and a bike lane in between, right were the trash cans are.

Now to the good. Besides the clean, wide, and well-marked bike lane, Heights boulevard is blessed with a beautiful, wide green space down the middle (more on that later), gorgeous Victorian homes, and a vibrant cafe scene:

Don't let the cars out front fool you, this cafe, like all in this wonderful neighborhood, actively solicits bike traffic with an attractive bike rack out front:

Besides noting the bike rack, note that not everyone puts their garbage cans in the bike lane.

There is a green space down the middle of Heights Boulevard which is more than just a traffic divider. It is more like a long if somewhat narrow park. This park has a well-used jogging trail but it also contains public displays. One of the most famous of these is a memorial for local residents lost in World War II:

These features, as lovely as they are, have been there since we first started riding Heights Boulevard. What has it done for me lately? Last week, as my wife and I crossed under Highway I10 and into the neighborhood of The Heights, we noticed an odd sight in the green space on Heights Boulevard:

"Oh dear!" said my wife, "What has happened to that poor church?" "I think it might be a sculpture." I said, and within a block or two, all doubt was removed by an encounter with a giant, patch-work dog:

In case anyone is worried, no, my bike is not leaning against the sculpture.

And so it went, block after block, amazing sculpture after amazing sculpture:

These are not all the sculptures on Heights Boulevard, there are more

Bicycling through pristine wilderness is glorious, but given a city as full of charm as Houston, urban cycling ain't bad either. In my opinion, this is urban culture at its best.

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