It would likely be a tough task to find a cyclist in Houston who thinks our city is "bike-friendly." You hear about bicyclists getting killed or injured in hit-and-runs somewhere in the Houston metro area pretty much every other week. Bike advocates say not to read the comments sections on any of those reports, because drivers will often say things like, “yeah, but it's the bikers' fault for not following the law!” Some appear to hate cyclists so much that they even started a petition to end the “illegal” Critical Mass social bike ride, saying, “Apparently, they consider it some kind of demonstration, but the only thing they demonstrate is selfish, childish, irresponsible, dangerous beghavior [sic] on our city streets.”
So when we asked about a dozen cyclists to try to think of the safest streets to ride in Houston, it was no surprise that at least a few simply said “none.” As one biker, Kelly Robinson, told us, “The word 'safe' and 'riding bikes on the street' really shouldn't be used in the same sentence.”
Robinson recommended sticking to the trails if you're looking for a safe ride. And it's true that Houston has poured more than $100 million in bond funding, approved by voters, into improving trails along the bayous. Robinson's favorite is the West White Oak Bayou Trail, near TC Jester, because some portions even offer some hill training. City Councilman Michael Kubosh, a recreational rider, said he often takes the Buffalo Bayou Trail underneath Memorial all the way to the 610 loop.
While trails are great for some leisurely riding on a sunny Saturday afternoon, they don't help for most commuters — especially since many of Houston's trails don't connect with bike lanes on actual streets. One of the biggest criticisms of the protected bike lane downtown on Lamar, actually, is that it doesn't really connect to anything.
The newly announced Houston Bike Plan is supposed to fix many of those problems, proposing to add hundreds of miles of new bike lanes and provide key connections among all the bikeways. It will also cost between $300 and $500 million (meaning voters, a.k.a. drivers, may have to approve future bond referendums), and could take more than a decade to complete.
So in the meantime, here are several streets that Houston cyclists say they feel the most comfortable riding. Not all of them actually have dedicated bike lanes, but the cars that drive on them, cyclists told us, seem to understand the rules of sharing the road.
6. Heights Boulevard
Sure, it's a high-traffic road. But it's also one of the only places in the city that have a wide enough bike lane separating cyclists from cars. On both sides, the right lane is wide enough for parked cars, recycling bins and bicyclists to co-exist with plenty of room, as cyclist Jamie Salinas told us. If bikers coming from the Heights want easy access to downtown, then there's also the Heights Biking Trail that crosses Heights Boulevard at 7th Street. It goes on a diagonal underneath the Katy Freeway, then east under 1-45 and gets you right to the University of Houston – Downtown.
5. McKinney Street
There's no bike lane at all — but apparently pretty much no cars ever drive on this four-lane street, according to some cyclists who frequent it. If you're trekking through East Downtown, then McKinney can get you to a lot of relevant venues, such as 8th Wonder Brewery, BBVA Compass Stadium, Warehouse Live and many new nearby bars and clubs.
4. Washington Avenue
It's a shared bike lane on the right, meaning there's no guarantee that during heavy traffic cyclists won't be riding next to, in front of and behind cars. But as long as it's not rush hour, cyclists we talked to said it's great for riding in groups — perhaps all the way into downtown — and cars seem to be used to encountering cyclists and not getting too close to them when passing. It probably helps that the City of Houston put up signs every few blocks to remind drivers to “share the road.” Kubosh, however, said he's concerned that the occasional parked car in that lane can cause safety issues for cyclists having to merge into the left lane to get around it, and that he wants to do something about that.
3. Navigation Boulevard
It's safe and empty enough that, according to Judith Cruz Villareal, plenty of cyclists use it for training and learning to ride faster. Cruz Villareal said it's solid from Jensen Drive all the way to Harrisburg Boulevard, the northernmost part of East Downtown. Another rider, Brian Rodriguez, described it this way: “If you're riding with a group of people, you can take up a whole lane without affecting traffic. There may be a couple train tracks here and there, but it's mostly flat and straight with very few potholes.” It's also right near the Buffalo Bayou trail, should you decide to take the more scenic route.
2. La Branch Street
If you're needing to ride from downtown into Midtown, then La Branch is probably one of the less traveled streets and a safer bet than most, cyclists told us. Once you pass through St. Joseph Medical Center, it's pretty much smooth sailing, and it's a great route for Houston Community College students to take to class. A couple of riders, including Angie Cabrera, said that if you're cycling past HCC, it's best to take a right and continue a couple of blocks until you hit Caroline Street, which runs parallel to La Branch. You can take that all the way through the Museum District to the Houston Zoo and Hermann Park.
1. Leeland Street
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Another street taking you through East Downtown that doesn't have a lot of drivers on it, cyclists said. From the Toyota Center, Rodriguez said, you can get to some solid coffee shops or restaurants on the east side. Once you hit Lockwood, Leeland turns into Telephone Street, which Rodriguez said he still feels comfortable riding on south toward I-45, which will get you a few blocks away from the University of Houston main campus. "Most of the drivers on the east side are pretty nice," Rodriguez said.
In fact, one Critical Mass ride leader told us that, when they ride through the East Side, they rarely ever encounter any backlash from angry drivers. "It's more like a parade," he said, "with people outside of their homes waving."
If only the rest of Houston were the same way.