Friday, August 24, 2012

Cycling in Houston, Texas: An Overview

Skyline of Downtown Houston, adopted from a montage from Wikipedia Commons.

When our family was getting ready to move from Boston, MA to Houston, TX about 25 years ago, close friends of ours who had grown up in Houston and who knew about our interest in cycling, warned us not to try to ride our bikes in Houston: "Texas drivers are not used to bicycles. They'll kill you." they said. I was in my cycling interregnum at that point, so their warning really didn't make any difference. I went bike riding with my boys a few times, but basically I had no occasion to test their advice. However, when I decided to take up cycling again 4 years ago, I recalled their warning. I carefully plotted out the 5 mile bike ride from the bike shop where I picked up my renovated Bianchi to my home to avoid as many busy streets as I could. (The trip was pleasant and uneventful, and these carefully chosen streets have been part of the venues of many subsequent bike rides.) Since then, I have been amazed and grateful for the many cycling opportunities afforded by the City of Houston, the County of Harris, and various other government agencies. This post is an overview of cycling opportunities in Houston. I plan to go into some of these opportunities in more detail in future posts.

Braes Bayou, near Texas Medical Center.  The bridge is part of the Multi Use Path along the bayou.
A nickname for Houston is the Bayou City. What is a Bayou? According to Wikipedia, it is "an extremely slow-moving stream or river (often with a poorly defined shoreline), or ... a marshy lake or wetland". Although this may have once been true for Houston bayous, many of Houston bayous look like canals to me. This is presumably the result of their having been modified for flood control. That notwithstanding, the three main bayous of Houston; Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, and Braes Bayou, have been utilized by local governments as sites for recreational multi-use paths which are heavily used by walkers, runners, skaters, and cyclists. These trails vary from 5 to 20 miles in length and are completely free of traffic. The number of cross streets is reduced because of the limited number of bridges that cross the bayou. In some cases, the cyclist needs to face traffic when crossing these streets, but in other cases, the bike trail goes below the bridge used by cars making the crossing car-free and safe. There are also two or three similar paths built on the site of abandoned railroad lines.

There are a number of streets with dedicated bike lanes in Houston. These bike lanes are not of very high quality; they are narrow and the surfaces are often uneven and dirty. Nonetheless, they can sometimes make the difference between an unacceptable degree of risk and a relatively safe ride. For example, 43rd Street is a very busy and fast road, carrying large trucks moving at 50 miles an hour, but because there is a bike lane between the White Oak Bayou trail and highway 8, this provides a very acceptable extension to one of my standard rides. Finally, there are signed "bike routes" with nothing special about them except for the sign. I suppose these might have long term benefits for making drivers aware of cyclists, but personally I have not seen that these provide much in the way of short term benefits.

Variety of cycling infrastructure near downtown Houston.  Multi Use Paths are in grey or green, bike lanes are in blue, and signed bike routes are in red or orange.  A high resolution PDF of the Houston cycling infrastructure can be obtained from the Houston Bikeways Program
Of course, bicycles are vehicles and, in most cases, have the same right to use the roads as do cars. Despite my friend's warning from 25 years ago, I have found Houston drivers to be reasonably accommodating for the most part, and Houston is filled with wonderful and varying neighborhoods with many low traffic streets perfect for even nervous cyclists like my wife and I. These streets are neither formally recognized nor documented, so one simply has to ride around and find them on one's own. What is safe and car free depends very much on time of day and day of the week as well. One of my early discoveries was that downtown Houston, a death trap during the week, is completely empty and a delightful place to ride early Sunday morning.

Two other interesting bits of Houston cycling infrastructure are the Alkek velodrome and the Rice University bike track. I regret to say that in 25 years, I have never been to the velodrome, but it looks very interesting and visiting is high up on my to do list. The Rice track, on the other hand, is a facility I use all the time. This track is carved out of a parking lot, is about a third of a mile around, and is completely flat (e.g. it lacks the banked corners of a velodrome.) Despite the lack of banking, riding at my old man pace, I have never had to slow down for the corners. The Rice bike track is my favorite place to do my least favorite cycling, interval training.

Almost everything I have described so far is within the city limits of Houston. There are a number of delightful country rides within a few hours by car. Again, this is a mixed bag. Some country roads are very busy and fast and I don't feel comfortable riding them. Drivers seem to agree, and tend to be annoyed and unfriendly towards cyclists on such roads. There are others, however, where you can ride for an hour and never see a car, and the drivers you do see are more relaxed and accommodating. On some roads, bicycles vastly outnumber cars on weekend mornings. I have become a real fan of the Texas countryside; it is somewhat barren by East Coast standards, but once you acquire a taste for it, it is teaming with wildlife and the small towns have an authentic country look and feel which I have not found elsewhere.

Texas countryside.  One of the bike rides near Fredericksburg.  Yes, farm animals are on the road.
The City of Fredericksburg, Texas is about four and a half hours' drive from Houston, so strains the definition of "Cycling in Houston", but nonetheless deserves special mention as the self-styled "Bicycling Capital of Texas". Local cyclists have created a unique resource consisting of 18 well documented bike rides in the area varying between 19 and 88 miles in length. Information about these rides is available on the web and as downloadable PDFs. In addition, this website contains a wealth of information on safe cycling practices for the area, housing options, local attractions, and the like. Early in our return to cycling, my wife and I spent a lovely long weekend in Fredericksburg, rode a few of their routes, and found them to be everything promised.

One advantage Houston has over many cities is that one can bicycle here year around. The coldest days in winter do require warm clothing, but none are so cold as to preclude riding. Truth be told, however, summers can be brutal. The bicycle club I belong to, the Houston Randonneurs, schedules a brevet once a month. However, the July brevet begins at 6 pm and is run during the night, and there is no brevet scheduled for August. Nonetheless, summer rides, especially in the early morning, are possible.

It seems that Houston is always under construction. In terms of cycling infrastructure, this is both a blessing and a curse. On the good side, Houston's cycling infrastructure is continuously getting better and more extensive. One of my favorite rides is the multiple use path along White Oak Bayou, and the day I reached the "end" and found a couple of more miles of path, including a lovely iron bridge and some of the prettiest parts of the bayou, was a good day indeed. On the bad side, construction either of the cycling infrastructure itself or of adjacent areas frequently compromises the infrastructure. The White Oak bayou path, the Terry Hershey park path along Buffalo Bayou, and the Rice track are all more or less compromised as I type this.

In summary, I am sure that many cities have more impressive cycling infrastructures than does Houston. Nonetheless, due in large part to two cycling friendly mayors in a row, Houston is a fine place to be a cyclist.

No comments:

Post a Comment