As a child growing up in Dallas, Bob Cook used to ride his bicycle a mile and a half to school every weekday. While that may not rate up there with your father walking five miles in the snow uphill both ways, the experience stuck with Cook, who says he has an affinity for what he calls "one of the most marvelous methods of transportation people have come up with."
In early June, around the time city officials were announcing a grandiose $37.5 million plan to construct 348 miles of hike and bike trails throughout Houston, the 55-year-old Cook decided to extend his cycling pleasure -- and do his part for the environment at the same time -- by pedaling to the bicycle shop where he works as a mechanic. And about a month ago, when Cook took a part-time job at a retail store in the Galleria, he continued his routine, braving the treacherous ten-block commute along Westheimer from his apartment just inside the Loop. Down inside the belly of the mall he'd then park in the Galleria's lower-level garage, chaining his bike to pipe along a wall since there are no bicycle racks in the parking areas. But Cook's pollution-free pattern ended three weeks ago when the Galleria's watch-men ordered him to cease and desist.
"One evening I came out and there was a ticket on the bicycle," says Cook. "It was from the security police at the Galleria and it said you can't park here. So I went into the security office to ask them where I should park, and they said the management of the Galleria did not want any bicycles on the premises."
While in the office, Cook told the security officials that he thought it strange that at the same time the city was promoting cycling, the Galleria would throw up a roadblock. Hoping that they would understand his logic, Cook let the officials sleep on his comments, then returned the next day on his beat-up ten-speed. He calls it a "commuter bike" and has outfitted it with baskets, racks, rear-view mirror and customized handlebars.
"I went back to see if maybe they had a change of heart," says Cook. "But they didn't even let me come on the premises with the bike. I asked them if I could park it there for the day since I was already there. But they said they didn't want any bicycles on the premises. So I had to park it out on the street locked to a lamppost out on Westheimer. Luckily, it was still there when I got off work. Now I'm back to the routine of walking or taking the car."
About the time Cook was having his problems with two-wheeled, self-powered transportation at the Galleria, another man was having similar problems around the corner at the Transco Fountain. Ted Keller, the Houston Press art director, says he was walking his mountain bike along the sidewalk north of the waterfall when he was stopped by a Transco security guard. Keller says the officer informed him that the entire area around the fountain, including the sidewalks and the street that runs north and south between Alabama and Hidalgo, belongs to Transco and that bicycles are prohibited there. Keller told the guard that it sounded fair enough. But seeing as how he was already there, he added, couldn't he just chain his bike to a pole while he explored the area around the fountain -- a part of Houston he had never really appreciated while driving by in a car?
"They said if I did that, they'd break the lock and impound the bike," says Keller, who then asked the guard what he should do with his bike if he wanted to stay and enjoy the fountain's serenity. "And he said, 'Well, park your bike at the Galleria.'" Keller decided to go home instead.
The Transco Fountain area is owned by Hines Interests (which also owns the Galleria). A company official confirms, without apology, that cycling near the water is not allowed.
"As long as they are on the city sidewalks, there's not a problem," says the spokesperson. "Inside the property, since it is private property and we do have a lot of public access to the park -- for safety reasons and liability reasons -- we do limit vehicular access."
As for the Galleria policy on bicycles and the difficulties encountered by Bob Cook, mall spokeswoman Sherry Carbonara claims there must have been some sort of mistake.
"We allow bicycles on the property, we just don't allow them inside the mall, for obvious reasons," says Carbonara. "If he has his bike in the parking garage, it's perfectly fine. That's a new one on me. We would encourage him to ride his bike to work. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding."
Carbonara was unsure if there were any bicycle racks in the mall parking areas. She said she'd call us back. She didn't. But we checked, and there aren't.
Galleria officials, however, might want to give some thought to installing some racks. And the folks over at Transco might want to think about changing their policy, too. Either that, or they might want to think about hiring more security guards. That's because, next spring, the city will begin construction of the first phase of Houston's massive hike and bike trail project. One of the first routes to be built will be the Galleria/Greenway Plaza/Medical Center Axis: 75 miles of trails, at a cost of $5 million, to be completed in 18 months. Four of those trails will converge on the Galleria and Transco from the north, east, south and west. And while the new paths may not convince Houstonians to leave their cars at home and bike to work, there's no question that bicycle traffic in the Galleria area will increase, especially on the weekends.
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A member of Mayor Lanier's transition team for hike and bike trails seems disappointed by the existing attitude towards bikes in the Galleria area, but not exactly surprised. "It seems mean-spirited, doesn't it?" says Sandra McMurtry, president of the Houston Area Bicycle Alliance. "There are routes that will go right through the Galleria area that will be designated as bike routes.
"I haven't had anyone come up and personally complain to me," she adds. "It's not been brought up in our meetings. But I have, from time to time, just among friends, heard that it's hard to find a place to park your bike in the Galleria. But we've been concentrating on the bike plan. So that's a separate problem that we haven't had a chance to address."
Bob Cook believes that, considering how much money is about to be spent on the hike and bike project, maybe it's time someone did address the problem.
"It's like when Oklahoma built that turnpike that ended in a plowed field," says Cook, comparing what's happening in Houston to the construction of the Ada-Sulpher Turnpike, which doesn't connect with any other major traffic arteries. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. You can't get there from here.