Ghost Riders

In Houston, bicycling is known as a killer sport.

And free of the hassles of big-city driving like red-light cameras, speed traps, gridlock and parking expenses and hardships, and/or the hassles, sense of helplessness and occasional low-grade horror of riding the bus, many Houstonians have found that their attitude to their hometown has transformed.

"You get to see the city in depth," says Keri Smith, an assistant professor at UT Dental School. "It can be really nice in the evenings when the sun is shining off the tall buildings." Wayne Ashley, an academic adviser at the University of Houston, says that even the most familiar places reveal hidden charms, like an "amazing ethnic grocery store" he found hiding in plain sight in an otherwise boring strip center, and a tree-lined street of 1920s bungalows concealed among humdrum new condos. "Houston is full of these very cool areas, but they're really tough to find if you're speeding past them at 40 miles an hour," Ashley says. Local artist Johnathan Felton touts it for its aesthetics and potential for stress relief. If he's got the blues over a fruitless job search or a fight with a girlfriend, he'll sweat it out on his bike. "I'll fill up my water bottle, hop on my bike, get on a trail and it's like, 'Trees!' 'Flowers!' Birds!' Families!'"

Klotz agrees. He says Houston has a peculiar beauty, one almost devoid of natural amenities like hills, lakes and rivers. He waxes poetic about a secret "ninja route" from the Heights into downtown, one that bypasses the human waste-befouled Houston Avenue pedestrian underpass in favor of a back street/rail yard/gravel road detour that features a large homeless shelter as a primary landmark.

Local artist Johnathan Felton touts cycling as a natural high and stress reliever.
Chris Curry
Local artist Johnathan Felton touts cycling as a natural high and stress reliever.
Some say Dan Raine, the City of Houston's Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, has an unenviable job. Even his best efforts can anger half the cycling community and all of the motoring community.
Chris Curry
Some say Dan Raine, the City of Houston's Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, has an unenviable job. Even his best efforts can anger half the cycling community and all of the motoring community.

"Houston," Klotz sighs, audibly missing his old hometown, even from the mountain idyll that is Charlottesville. "You love it because it's made of garbage."
_____________________

With few natural amenities, Houstonians have to build their own environment, Klotz says. A world-class bikeway would go a long ways toward doing that, and one is in the works. Indeed, it has been in the works for 17 years now.

In 1992, under the administration of Mayor Bob Lanier, the city announced plans for a 350-mile network of bike trails and on-street bike routes. At the time, Houston was still hung over from the Oil Bust. Yuppies were only just beginning to resettle the rotting urban core, and Houston was still hemorrhaging affluence to the suburbs. Lanier, as ever thinking like the real estate developer he was, touted a bikeway network as a good amenity for the city to have in order to compete with places like The Woodlands and Sugar Land. More pressingly, there was pressure from the federal government. Houston took a beating under the terms of the 1990 Clean Air Act. With the ensuing Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, the feds offered matching funds to wean some locals from their cars.

One year later, the Houston Comprehensive Bikeway Plan was approved by City Council, and the year after that, it was funded to the nationally unprecedented tune of $34.3 million by the federal government, with the Houston Metro Transit Authority chipping in another $8.9 million.

And in 1997, a full five years after the plan was announced, ground was finally broken. There would be 63 miles of hike-and-bike trails along the bayous and on abandoned rail lines. There would also be 128 miles of bike lanes, often described at the time as being similar to those in "a college town," presenting an image of wide, smooth cycling avenues teeming with buff young people cruising down tree-lined streets. The remaining 169 miles would simply be designated "bike routes" and would be posted with plenty of signs admonishing drivers to share the road. It was announced then that the entire project would be "close" to complete by 1999.

Lundeen was thrilled. "This is huge," he exulted in the Houston Chronicle in 1997. "This is the biggest undertaking of any city in the country." Wurth also remembers being overjoyed. He proudly hung a huge wall map of the proposed bikeway network in his shop. "I was so stoked and happy, like this was my dream deal, you know? Society was changing more the way I wanted it."

But after Lanier left the mayor's office and Lee P. Brown took over, Wurth's map started to seem like a cruel joke. Year followed year in Brown's administration, and the most exciting projects — the dedicated bike-only trails, often laid down along abandoned rail lines in the Rails to Trails program — met delay after delay. At the end of 2002, all bikeway projects ground to a halt when the city declined to budget even the money that would guarantee it triple returns in federal matching funds.

"Half the shit on that map never happened, and the rest just turned out to be striping the gutter of a road," Wurth says. "Like, 'Go stripe Antoine, the first three feet by the sidewalk, and then never maintain it.'"

Meanwhile, millions of dollars flowed into the hands of consultants and the people who consult about consultants. City Councilman and current mayoral candidate Peter Brown, an architect in private life, was hired in 1995 to helped design a bike trail along White Oak Bayou. In 2004, work had not yet begun, and he told the Houston Chronicle that the city had spent $6 million paying "program managers," as people who oversee consultants are called. Brown said the waste was downright "frightening."

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