Monday, March 2, 2015

Bayou Extensions

A new stretch of trail along Houston's White Oak Bayou, not yet ready for cyclists.
Things are hopping in the world of Houston Cycling. About a year and a half ago, our1 Mayor issued a Complete Streets executive order. This means that when the city plans street upgrades and repairs, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists are taken into account, not just motor vehicle users. Houston has just begun a major revision to its bicycle master plan. Houston's main bicycle advocacy organization, Bike Houston, has new leadership and has become much more active. All of this is not just talk, contruction of new cycling infrastructure is everywhere. In this post, I will discuss progress on construction affecting two of my most frequent rides, Braes Bayou and White Oak Bayou.

Braes Bayou

The third bike ride I did after I restarted cycling in 2008 was on the Braes Bayou Multi-Use trail. Until a few months ago, the trail ended at its West end at Gessner Road. The west end of that trail is now being extended. The extension past Gessner Road is a nice underpass, avoiding the necessity to deal with the heavy traffic on Gessner:

Sadly, a short distance later, there is an unfortunate grade crossing at South Braeswood Boulevard. Traffic is heavy and visibility is less than ideal, leading to a difficult crossing. I have to assume that the City of Houston was simply unable to engineer anything better. I predict that many users of this trail will choose to turn around at this point rather than risk the South Braeswood Crossing. The trail is currently closed at this point, here is a photograph showing both the grade crossing with traffic and the cable blocking further progress down the new trail:

Because I was born to be wild, and because I am curious, I fought the law by riding my bike around the barrier to explore what has been accomplished so far on the new trail. (Tracks in the mud next to the barrier suggest I am not the only Houston cyclist with anarchistic tendencies.) So far, the trail has been extended west by about a mile and a half, with apparently more to come. Among the trail features are one of the attractive, steel bridges that are becoming a common feature of Houston multi-use trails, and side paths into adjacent neighborhoods:

The main trail goes forward on the path to the left, crosses over the dark colored bridge, and continues forward in the same direction. The trails branching off to the left and coming back in the opposite direction on the other side of the bayou to the right represent access trails for the adjacent neighborhoods.

White Oak Bayou

I have previously opined that the extension to the Braes Bayou trail, described above, is a bit underwhelming, in that it adds little other than a few extra miles. The same cannot be said for the latest extension to the White Oak Bayou trail. Usually, I am not a big fan of urban rails to trails projects because they involve a lot of grade crossings, resulting in a rather interrupted riding experience. The current extension to the White Oak Bayou trail is an enormous exception to that generalization. In this case, use of an existing rail route eliminates two of the busiest crossings on the way to the White Oak Bayou trail; Shepard Drive and Durham Drive. Because these roads are so heavily traversed, overpasses were built on these roads over the railroad tracks so that passing trains would not disrupt traffic. Now that this railroad line has been abandoned, these same overpasses mean that the bike trail passes uninterrupted, under these busy streets.

I first explored the potential of this route on a ride organized by the Houston Parks Board back in 2013. At that time, the only way to cross White Oaks Bayou was over an abandon railroad bridge, made unsafe by the ravages of time and vandalism:

Being the timid person I am, I ended up walking my bike over this bridge. After determining that this bridge was unsalvageable, the City of Houston demolished it and replaced it with this attractive, modern bridge:

This trail extension is not yet complete, as noted in the photo at the top of this post. Although the trail extends the existing MKT trail by taking it across the White Oak Bayou thus connecting it to a new set of neighborhoods, it does not yet allow me to get to the current White Oak Bayou trail without crossing Shepard and Durham. The dotted line on the map below shows what remains to be completed to realize the potential of this extension:

The current White Oak Bayou trail starts at the upper left corner of the above map, and continues for a gorgeous 7.5 miles past the edge of the map. Currently, I access this trail via the red route along the top of the map, crossing Shepard and Durham best I can. The new trail extension is shown in red along the bottom of the map. The missing link is the dotted red line weaving more or less parallel to the left side of the map.

Fighting the infamously aggressive Houston drivers is something I find somewhat difficult and that my wife finds extremely difficult, and we very much appreciate being able to bicycle on Houston's traffic free multi-use trails. Thus, we eagerly await each trail extension that lets us ride on more trails and fewer streets. Thanks to the City of Houston for all the progress to date!

1) I actually do not live in the City of Houston. I live in the City of West University Place, a small community completely contained within the City of Houston. However, my opportunities as a cyclist are affected almost entirely by Houston rather than WestU, so on this blog, I write as an Houstonian.

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