Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bike Route

The legend for the current bike map put out by the Houston Galveston Area Council, the closest thing to an official Houston bike map that exists as of today.

As I mentioned in my last post, the city of Houston, Texas is in the middle of a bicycle renaissance. This renaissance is not without its controversies, however. For example, the government and associated private organizations pushing this renaissance are focusing on getting bicycles off the streets onto multiple use paths and dedicated bike lanes. Make no mistake about it, my wife and I are enthusiastic users of both of these infrastructures and celebrate every time they are expanded. However, besides being a recreational cyclist, my wife is a utility cyclist whose daily commute is entirely on city streets. Even in our role as recreational cyclists we find it that it is always necessary to do some street cycling to get to the paths we wish to ride. It seems unlikely to me that the necessity for street cycling will never go away, and thus as much as we support the multiple use paths, we are equally interested in improving the street cycling.

Of course, my wife and I are not alone in our interest in street cycling. Many cyclists, the members of Houston's Critical Mass for example, are more interested in making bicycling on the streets safer and better than they are in off-road cycling. That said, it is not as if nothing is being done to benefit street cycling. The City of Houston recently passed a safe passing ordinance requiring that non-commercial vehicles do not pass "vulnerable users" (including cyclists but also horseback riders, pedestrians, and others) any closer than three feet, and that commercial vehicles provide twice that clearance. There has been criticism of the level of enforcement of this ordinance, but it was passed and the city is engaging in a discussion of the enforcement issue. Critical Mass has something of an outlaw vibe so keeps its distance from the city government, and sometimes behaves in ways that annoys voters, but despite this, the city has been fairly tolerant of Critical Mass. Having said all that, what more would we have the city do to improve the on street cycling experience, and how might they encourage it if they wished to do so?

One thing that would definitely improve my street cycling experience would be to provide information as to streets that are particularly comfortable for cyclists, and perhaps even warnings for streets that are more challenging or even dangerous. There are many potential sources of such information, from Map My Ride and Strava to Bike Shop, Club, and Organized Ride routes to Open Street Map and Google Maps to the City of Houston, Bike Houston, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.  I have used all of these to one extent or another, and my common complaint is that I often disagree with the recommendations; I find recommended roads uncomfortable/unsafe either absolutely or relative to non-recommended alternatives. One thing I have long hoped to do on this blog is to devise a way for me to rate the various roads I have ridden, but have not yet figured out how I want to do that. In any case, this would not be a good solution for the community, few of whom read this blog. This recently came back to my attention when my wife and I were on a neighborhood ride, and I noticed which streets were designated as Bike Routes and which were not.

On the above map, I have outlined the streets I ride to go from the City of West University Place, where I live, to the beginning of the White Oak Bayou multiple use trail, one of my wife's and my favorites. The start is shown in the lower left of the map, the beginning of the trail at the upper center. Where my route does not correspond to official bike routes/bicycle friendly streets, I have marked it in red. Relevant to this post, there is a long vertical line near the beginning of the ride, parallel and two blocks to the west of an Official Bike Route on WOODHEAD ST. I find Woodhead Street very busy and dangerous, especially compared to the misnamed Hazard Street that I ride.

Upon coming home, I checked and the street signs corresponded to the bike map put out by the City of Houston and bicycling recommendations of Google Maps, but were in dramatic contrast to my experience-based preferences. So what should I do to share my opinions with the cycling community? One approach I have successfully taken in the past is to suggest that Google update its maps. Although I am eager to do this in the case of a clear mistake, I feel uncomfortable having my single opinion overwrite whatever consensus had lead to Google Maps current recommendations in matters of judgement. Instead, I wanted to enter into a conversation with that consensus to inform and update the recommendation only after a suitable dialogue has occurred. But what was that consensus, where does Google get its recommendation? As I was considering this, I was being solicited by Bike Houston to renew my membership. In the past, I have not been pleased with the help I have been able to get from Bike Houston so was reconsidering the wisdom of such a renewal, so I thought to kill two birds with one stone, and ask for their help. What an improvement from my previous contact! Although they were unable to answer my question directly, they responded quickly and in a friendly manner, and then forwarded my question to the relevant city official. The city official promptly followed up and told me the following: 1) Google Maps gets its information as to bicycle friendly streets from the City of Houston who updates Google regularly. 2) The City of Houston is well aware that some of their recommendations are less than perfect, and as part of their development of a comprehensive bicycle plan, are redefining the whole concept of the signed bike route.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Bike Houston is developing nicely as an advocacy group for cyclists in Houston and I will be enthusiastically renewing my membership next month. More good news is that the City of Houston is working on better defining bike routes and is responsive to cyclists (e.g. me.) The bad news is that I am not sure that the City of Houston has fully engaged with the issue nor appreciated the power of crowdsourcing as a solution. Specifically, this is what Cathy Halka, who is Planner Leader of Transportation Planning in the Planning & Development Department, City of Houston emailed to me:

In [the Houston bike] plan, there will be a list of facility types, one of which will include “Neighborhood Shared Streets.” This is the new nomenclature for a “Bike Route” which is a facility that has historically been used by the City and features a Bike Route Sign on along the roadway. This tool will be used sparingly, and only where a high level of comfort for the rider may be provided (e.g. low volume, low speed streets that provide critical connections in the bike network and may not need additional features to be comfortable to riders of all abilities)... and will identify major bikeway corridors throughout the City, but not those finer grain networks through neighborhoods. Therefore, there may be local routes (those Google BikeFriendly Routes) that are not reflected on the Houston Bike Plan map, but are key connections for local area residents to get to the citywide network.

I am not certain, but believe that not only will "those finer grain networks through neighborhoods" not be "reflected on the Houston Bike Plan map", but in fact will not be identified by the City of Houston at all. How will they be identified? How will Google know that they are "BikeFriendly Routes"? For those streets that are designated on the map, what feedback mechanisms will be available to correct any errors of judgement or to update this designation should traffic patterns change? I am far from sure that this is a job for the City of Houston, but how about for the leading bicycle advocacy organization in Houston? As pleased as I was with my email exchange overall, I did note with concern the the following from Willard Bruce of Bike Houston:

As Houston's bicycle advocacy group with only 4 staff and limited capacity, we would like ... questions [about bike routes] to be answered by the City in the Houston Bike Plan process.

My concern comes from the apology for limited resources and the passing of the buck to the City. There are many activities (such as the crowdsourcing of bike route information) I think are better suited to a non-governmental organization like Bike Houston than to the City government. However, if Bike Houston feels that they lack the resources to do them, then they will likely fall between the cracks and not be done at all. Rather than cry resource poverty, I would have preferred that Bike Houston would have encouraged me to volunteer, in this case, to work towards building an infrastructure for crowd sourcing bike route information. Bike Houston does actively solicit volunteers, but only within their pre-defined scope. Perhaps this is essential, it is very possible that if Bike Houston allowed their scope to expand too much, they would become ineffective. But what makes me sad about all this is that my intuition says that despite all this hard work and despite all this good will, the potentially useful task of classifying Houston streets as to their cycling suitability will never be done. I don't have a solution to this problem at the moment, but I continue to think about it. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pleasantly Surprised

"The advantage of being a pessimist is that when you are right, you get to feel smug, and when you are wrong, you get to feel pleasantly surprised."

Although I live by the above quote, I have no idea where it comes from. Just over a year ago, describing the extension being made to the Braes Bayou path along Keegan's Bayou, I posted the following:

"... as appreciated as every bit of new trail is, this extension is not a game changer by any means. It is not that long, nor does it facilitate the crossing any busy highways or other significant barriers. I suspect its only effect will be to make my standard Braes Bayou ride a couple of miles longer..."

This assessment was based on how far I expected the extension to go. At the time I made this assessment, the existing extent of the extension was represented by the green line on the map above. Based on my examination of aerial maps, I predicted the City of Houston would add the yellow part, and stop there. In fact, the finished part of the trail now extends through the magenta line on the map and the city promises to take it all the way to the end of the grey line. That would be a game changer, providing a safe route past highways 59 and 8, opening up a bike route from where I live to the wonderful trails at George Bush and Terry Hershey parks. My post was not quite as pessimistic as suggested by the above quote, it actually finishes with: "not a bad thing at that" and that has very much turned out to be the case. Previously, my most common Braes Bayou ride was 17 miles long. I could extend it to close to 20 miles with some less than perfect side detours, but with the new extension, my out and back ride with no side trips is 22 miles long, and by riding the eastern side of the path and taking the long way around back home, I managed a 32 mile ride the other day.

The above picture shows where the trail crosses Highway 59. I predicted this crossing would be too difficult for the city to attempt, and delightfully, they proved me wrong.

The above picture shows the current end of the trail. Up ahead looms the impenetrable and heartbreaking barrier of Highway 8. Having cleared Highway 59, cannot the city clear this final hurdle? They promise they can.

The above picture was taken just a few yards from the previous one; the dirt road extending past the end of the paved trail turns left and this is what you see. Just left of center is some promising new construction.

All and all, things are looking up for the Houston1 cyclist. We just elected a new Mayor, and although his cycling agenda did not by itself decide the election, he was one of the cyclist-friendly candidates. Houston's major cycling advocacy group, Bike Houston, has grown by leaps and bounds, has become much more professional and responsive, and is very active in partnership with the city government to improve the lot of the Houston cyclist. Finally, the Houston Cycling Plan continues to progress, having recently defined its ten year goal; to become a Gold-level Bike-Friendly community, as defined by the League of American Bicyclists. I could (and may) do entire blog posts on any one of these events, but I simply mention them now to put improvements to my local bike path into context. It's a good time to be a pessimist!

1) Yeah, yeah, I don't technically live in Houston, but I use the Houston cycling infrastructure and am a Houstonian in my heart.