If you're the kind of person who regularly rides a bike in or around downtown, the grand opening of Houston's first protected bike lane last month was a momentous occasion.
As part of the effort to make Houston a more bike-friendly place, city workers last month painted a strip of Lamar Street green, installed plastic humps on one side of the bike lane to separate it from the remaining three lanes of car traffic, and installed some nifty bike-signal street lights. The dedicated bike lane stretches from the Buffalo Bayou trails to Discovery Green on the east, making it much easier for cyclists to cross downtown safely.
I've taken the lane a number of times since it's opened, and while it's certainly a welcome improvement, riding it back and forth for the past week has made it abundantly clear that, while a nice gesture, a downtown bike lane isn't a silver bullet that will suddenly make Houston more bikeable. Here are a few cautionary tales from my past week riding the Lamar Street lane.
The "grand opening" that wasn't Sure, it's great Mayor Parker and other city staff got out on March 26 to celebrate the grand opening of the new green half-mile, although certainly more cyclists would have showed up for the ribbon-cutting if it hadn't been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Parker and supporters donned helmets, mounted some bikes and took a quick stroll on the newly-painted green lane. That kind of public support is surely a good thing for bike mobility in Houston.
Only problem is the whole lane isn't exactly open yet. Construction at the old Macy's site has the lane closed off for a block. Which wouldn't be so much of a problem if you were always riding with traffic. But if you're heading east, you aren't, so you have to ride against downtown traffic for a block, or you have to hop, in Frogger-like fashion, across several lanes of oncoming traffic -- in the middle of a construction zone, on a bike -- to get back in the proper lane.
Which actually brings me to my next point...
You're (almost) invisible Any time you take cyclists out of regular street traffic, there's a risk you'll only make them less visible to motorists.
Unlike the Heights bike lane -- where cyclists essentially have two dedicated lanes, each on the right-hand side going with traffic -- on one-way Lamar street cyclists go with and against traffic. If you're headed east toward the Discovery Green, you're facing traffic and everything's pretty simple. When you cross the street, you can see what cars ahead of you are doing.
But if you're riding west toward the Buffalo Bayou trails, you're in a somewhat awkward position every time you come to a traffic light. Sure, there are signs reminding cars turning left to yield to cyclists, but I've yet to encounter a driver that actually pays attention to those signs. On numerous occasions I had to slam on my brakes while riding through a green light because I got cut off by a driver who wasn't paying attention (or didn't care) while turning left.
Bike Lane ≠ Parking Spot
Apparently for some drivers, a bright green lane painted white bicycle symbols is just another place to park.
By last week, several photos of cars parked in the green (including police cruisers) started circulating around Facebook and Twitter. Judging from my rides downtown, workers at the Four Seasons have been using the bike lane as another spot to park cars as valet guests cycle in and out of the hotel.
See Parker's response when someone on the Critical Mass Twitter feed groused about the problem:
— Annise Parker (@AnniseParker) April 3, 2015
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Looks like some of those new no-parking signs even started popping up this weekend. Happy riding, Houston.
Update 4/8/15: Laura Pettitt, director of public relations over at the Four Seasons, tells us now that they're aware of the issue, they've taken steps to stop valets from parking in the bike lane. Here's what Pettit told us in an email:
"[W]e've circulated the images to our staff in total to sternly reinforce our standards, and ensure all employees are keeping an extra-watchful eye out to discourage anyone 0 guests or otherwise, who might attempt to park in the bike lane.
We're in MASSIVE support of the efforts to make the downtown core safer for bikers (and pedestrians too), and encourage our guests to take bikes out to Buffalo Bayou."