Wednesday, April 23, 2014

White Oak Reopened At Last

Despite being entirely surrounded by the City of Houston, my home is in the independent municipality of West University Place. As a result, I don't get to vote for the Mayor of Houston. If I did live in Houston, I would almost certainly have voted for its current mayor, Annise Parker, and perhaps would even have written a check to her campaign. One of the many reasons I support her is that she supports cycling. That said, I am not blind to the fact that she is a savvy politician and that her position on any issue will be impacted by politics. Thus, her support of cycling focuses more on photo ops and publicity and less on actually facilitating cycling than I would prefer. From my childhood, I have a memory of reading a joke in Readers Digest Magazine about materials for a partially completed but inactive highway improvement project on which someone had spray-painted "Take me home, boys, the election is over." That's how I feel about this extension to the Braes Bayou trail:

This construction began shortly before Houston's last mayoral race and now sits inert. Even if it were under active construction, I'm not sure I see its purpose. Perhaps there is some master plan by which this will connect the wonderful Braes Bayou trail to something else, but from where I sit, I see very expensive construction that will only add a few blocks to this trail. This is especially ironic as the Braes Bayou Trail is interrupted right in the middle by two short dirt sections which are becoming less and less rideable with use, sections that could be paved at relatively low cost. Perhaps I don't have all the facts, but it seems to me that paving these dirt sections would have a much greater impact at much lower cost, but perhaps because it has fewer publicity opportunities, this option is not being pursued.

Similarly, the re-opening of the White Oak Bayou trail, one of my favorites, seems to me to be a case of political M√ľnchhausen Syndrome By Proxy, wherein politicians create a problem so they can get publicity from fixing it later. I discovered the White Oak Bayou trail in September of 2008, a month after I restarted cycling, and it became my go-to ride. My one criticism of this trail was that it was short, only 5 miles long. Thus, my 28 mile out and back ride on this trail consisted of 10 miles on the trail and 18 miles on city streets which vary from pleasant to terrifying. In July of 2011, I was ecstatic to see that this trail was being lengthened. That extension had not yet been completed, but it ultimately added 2.5 miles to the trail, changing the equation to 33 miles, 15 on the trail, 18 on the streets. However, in December of 2011, even before this extension had been completed, the trail was closed at the 2 mile point:

Dirt piled on the White Oak Bayou trail, completely blocking it.

The closure seemed justified, to facilitate important improvements on Highway 610, but in fact the only reason the trail was closed was so that dirt from the construction could be stored thereon. One might have thought that somewhere less disruptive could have been found to store the dirt. Although a detour around this construction was provided, this detour was, in my opinion, unacceptable. Signage on the trail indicated it would be closed until 2013, a one to two year closure depending on when in 2013 it reopened. Of no surprise to me, the trail remained closed through the end of 2013 and into 2014. Although closure received no publicity of which I am aware, there was a major story in the Houston Chronicle about its reopening:

The same stretch of trail as is shown above, now cleared of dirt.

Cynicism aside, my wife and I rode it last weekend, a few weeks after its re-opening, and had a wonderful time. We have missed this trail and are delighted by its return. The reopening coincided with the peak of the wildflower season. By the time we rode, the wildflowers were past their peak, but still quite attractive:

Bluebonnets at the bottom of the photograph and coneflowers at the top.

I started this post the way I did to make it clear that, despite my negative comments, I think Mayor Parker is as good as it gets in terms of political support for cycling. There are major extensions planned of White Oak Bayou trail which, unlike the extension to the Braes Bayou trail I wondered about above, will add significant value because they will connect The White Oak Bayou Trail to the MKT and Buffalo Bayou Trails, connections that will vastly extend safe riding opportunities. Some in Houston's cycling advocacy community worry that Mayor Parker is more interested in providing off-road opportunities for cycling than making it safer for cyclists to use the roads. I don't know if this is true or not, although that I do know she signed the safe passing law, a law which definitely makes road use by cyclists safer. In my opinion, safe cycling on roads is essential to make cycling in Houston possible and will be for the foreseeable future. That said, it doesn't take much imagination to look at existing bicycle/multi-use trails in Houston and at obvious extensions of those trails, and to see how easy it would be to produce an interconnected web of bike paths that would make a century ride, all on car-free trails, all within the city limits of Houston, entirely possible. I can't wait!

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