More than 50 bicyclists took to City Hall Tuesday to rally support for the Houston Bike Plan as City Council prepares to vote on the proposal's future in the coming weeks or months.
The cyclists, some in spandex and even some in work clothes, rode together to City Hall from the BikeHouston headquarters in Midtown, then gathered for a rally before bringing the party up to City Council's public meeting, urging Mayor Sylvester Turner and council members to vote yes on the plan, which was made final in June.
“We really wanted to get the attention of the council and mayor that this is something that has the community's support,” said Mary Blitzer, BikeHouston's advocacy director. “It's something all other big cities have. We can do this — it's not rocket science.”
At the rally, BikeHouston leaders brought with them an actual treasure chest, meant to represent how the Houston Bike Plan is like sacred treasure to cyclists in Houston, and an all-white bicycle, the universal symbol across Houston memorializing cyclists who were hit and killed by cars on the street. And that's why cyclists say the bike plan, which would give cyclists more than 1,700 miles of safe bike lanes and trails, is so important.
As we reported in our cover story last month, nearly 1,700 cyclists have been hit on Houston streets since 2013, nearly a quarter of which incidents were hit-and-runs. Twenty-three cyclists were killed. The danger of cycling on Houston streets — both because of frequent close calls with hostile drivers and abundant potholes, cyclists say — has come to serve as a major impetus behind the bike plan. Given that Houston's biking infrastructure has not been comprehensively updated since the early 1990s, many of the city's lanes are in dire need of repair, and many busy streets lack infrastructure altogether, making commuting challenging.
“The only way to get from A to B in Houston, for most people on bikes, is to take secondary and tertiary routes,” said Daniel Burns, who is the road captain on the University of Houston's competitive cycling team and who says he uses his bike as transportation 90 percent of the time. “A lot of the time, you’re having to extend your route quite a bit to get from A to B because of the fact that main roads like Fannin and Kirby and MacGregor are not very bike-friendly. Cars kind of take over these roads and get annoyed if bikes are ever on them.”
Just on his way to City Hall, Burns said a driver in a large SUV got impatient behind him, started honking — then zoomed past him with a foot to spare. It's why the UH cycling team doesn't even go on rides in Houston, Burns said. “It's just not bike-friendly, and it's just not enjoyable,” Burns said, adding that he experiences close calls like that one on a daily basis.
Another rider at City Hall, Peter Eccles, said he came out to support the bike plan because he does not own a car, and commuting on bike is his primary mode of transportation. He just moved to Houston several months ago from Boston, where, he said, cyclists feel safe riding in all but a few isolated areas in the city. Not so in Houston, where Eccles said he is sometimes too apprehensive to ride on the streets and so he instead rides on the sidewalk, where it's safer.
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“Cycling needs to be part of the planning process at all times — not just when it's convenient, like, oh, we're building a park — we might as well put a bike lane here,” Eccles said. “Cars are involved in planning every step of the way, because that's sort of considered the default. But there are a lot of people here that don't drive. I think it's simply a matter of equity to be considering cycling as an option at all times, not simply like a fun recreational activity.”
City Council members seemed receptive to the plan during the meeting, but cautioned they were not ready to dive in headfirst, given that questions about how the plan will be implemented, how it will be funded and what the public review process will look like remain. Mayor Turner said he had not even reviewed the plan, and so discussing it in the open meeting was essentially pointless. Still, he noted that seeing so much enthusiasm and commitment to the plan among all the cyclists in the room — some holding up flashing bike lights — was encouraging.
BikeHouston is hoping City Council will put the plan up for a vote as early as next month. If implemented, the plan would cost between $300 million and $500 million to implement over the next ten to 20 years.
“The standards have changed so much in the 20-plus years since those lanes were put down, and that's really important,” said BikeHouston executive director John Long. “We need better bike facilities to encourage more riding, to make it safer for people to be out. Building better bike infrastructure is not just about making places for people to ride for fun. It's about real transportation.”