Cisco Rios lived to ride his bike. The 25-year-old waiter longed to ditch his job and make that passion his livelihood. His buddy Matt Wurth, owner of Heights-area bike shop I Cycle, said that Rios told him that he wanted to take up Wurth's trade and move with his Australian fiancée to Seattle. There the two young lovers wanted to start a new life together in a cyclist's paradise.
But in the meantime, Rios was couch-surfing, running out the string of his life in Houston. He often stayed at the apartment of his friend and fellow cyclist Ricky Jiminez. Cisco's car had died, so his bike was his sole means of transport. "He would take it on the bus with him," remembers his close friend and riding partner Ahmad Cherry. "Wherever his day would take him, he went on a bike."
Often, those days would take him past Wurth's shop at West 18th and T.C. Jester, where he got most of his repairs. Wurth says his bike mechanics loved to see Rios come in, because Rios always insisted on tipping them extra. His friends always loved to see him too. Ask him how he was doing and he would tell people he was glad to be alive; his motto was "Hakuna matata," a Swahili phrase he likely nicked from Disney's The Lion King that translates as "There are no worries."
Cherry and Jiminez often joined Rios on adventures all over town, often on the Terry Hershey bike trails in West Houston by day, or night-riding from the Heights to downtown. Cherry remembers a fun night they shared at a Denny's on Washington Avenue. "The waitress noticed we were all on our bikes, and she asked us if we had a name for our group," he says. "Francisco said, 'Yeah, we're the Night Rider All Stars.' We burst into uproarious laughter. At the time, I thought it was the dorkiest, uncoolest thing anybody had ever said. But ever since then we've been the Night Rider All Stars."
In 2007, they took part in the annual Shipley-sponsored, 28-mile Tour de Donut. An odd charity race that matches endurance cycling with unhealthy eating, it offers riders as many doughnuts as they can consume at rest stations, with time credits awarded for each pastry consumed. Rios was highly competitive, Cherry remembers, and over the course of the day, he consumed a huge amount of doughnuts, a dozen at one station alone, by one account. [Cherry claims Rios ate 28 that day; the official Tour de Donut results page has him down for a mere 15, still enough to place him seventh out of about 400 riders.] Jiminez recalled that Rios had brought along some milk to wash the doughnuts down, and he made the mistake of drinking it after it had ripened in his bike bag. "He never touched another doughnut again," chuckles Jiminez.
Rios was sick for about a week afterwards, Cherry recalls, and his illness brought on an epiphany. Not only did Cisco forsake doughnuts, but also alcohol and junk food of all kinds. His love of cycling had squeezed out most of his vices.
But not all, as he did retain his passion for the Houston Texans. Along with other friends, Cherry and Rios were in the habit of packing a van full of bikes, parking off Main and then pedaling the rest of the way up to the gates at Reliant. After the final gun, the better to dodge parking-lot traffic, the friends would race back to their bikes, mount up and speed off to a sports bar to catch the rest of the day's gridiron action.
On December 30, 2007, Sunday's kickoff for the season finale against Jacksonville came and went with no sign of Cisco. Cherry was worried — it was not like Cisco to miss a game, ever, and his whereabouts had been unknown since Friday evening, when he had been headed to a party. "It was like, 'Hmm, I wonder where he is, but I know he went to the party on Friday, so he probably met somebody cool,'" Cherry says. "But when he wasn't at the game, I was like, 'Okay, something's wrong.'"
From the grandstands at Reliant, he called a mutual friend. Not yet fearing the absolute worst, he asked her to check for Rios in the hospitals and the jailhouses. She found Rios in the morgue. As Cherry heard the devastating news, the Texans scored a touchdown. "There were 70,000 people cheering and I had just found out my best friend died and I'm crying," Cherry says.
Friends later pieced together Cisco's last ride. That Friday night, Rios had been en route from Jiminez's apartment to Cherry's place. From there, he was heading out to the holiday party. At some point before arriving at Jiminez's, he stopped in I Cycle one last time, and dropped about $150. "His drive-train was all wore out," remembers Wurth. "He got new sprockets, a new chain, a total tune-up, an upgrade of all his running gear."
Rios wouldn't get to enjoy his revved-up bike for long. Pedaling down — or near, as accounts vary — the shoulder in the 7000 block Old Katy Road near the Hempstead Road fork at around seven in the dark winter evening, Cisco was rear-ended by a beer delivery van. He suffered massive head trauma and died at the scene — the 11th and last Houston-area bicycle fatality of 2007. "It was terrible," says Wurth. "I saw pictures of the accident scene. It threw him like several hundred feet. He just nailed him. There wasn't much left."
Today, a bike painted white hangs from a fence near where Rios died. Wurth placed it there — the first such "ghost bike" memorial in Houston. It wouldn't be the last.
According to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Houston is almost always the most dangerous place in Texas to ride a bike. The NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System — a breakdown of every fatal accident reported from every police jurisdiction each year — tells a forbidding story. From 1994 to 2008, with the exceptions of 2004 and 2006, Houston's cycling fatality numbers — on average, about 15 deaths a year — equal or exceed those of all other surveyed Texas municipalities combined.
There is also lots of anecdotal evidence. Veteran bike messengers will show you their scars, and it's hard to find a cycling commuter with several years on the roads who hasn't had a run-in or two with a car or dangerous pothole. All of them will tell you that drivers here are at best inattentive and at worst aggressive, and that it gets worse the farther from the city's core you go. Longtime cycling activist Dan Lundeen frequently rides from downtown to Fulshear and Richmond. He says the city's ring roads correspond to levels of danger for cyclists, with the Inner Loop being the safest, inside the Beltway a step down and beyond Highway 6/FM 1960 the worst.
A map compiled by suburban bike commuter Peter Wang, admittedly drawn from incomplete data, would seem to bear out Lundeen's premise. Wang's data comes from the In Memoriam section of the message boards at the Web site of local advocacy group BikeHouston, to which locals send news clippings of every fatal accident covered in local media.
Only ten of the 44 fatal incidents took place inside the Loop.
Cycle shop owners will tell you that the number one factor stopping more people from biking in Houston is simple fear. This is a city built for cars, and the residents are hardwired to the rhythms of the internal combustion engine. "Some people are afraid of cars, justified or not," Wurth says. "I tell them I ride bikes down North Main and they tell me I'm crazy."
And yet Houston, this reputedly hideous, inarguably sprawling and sweltering behemoth of a no-zoning, car-happy subtropical metropolis, could very easily be a cycling paradise. In some ways it already is, as Lundeen points out over a bowl of pho at a Midtown Vietnamese noodle house. "It's a great city for cycling of all kinds," he says, citing Houston's many cycling clubs for every type of bike, from hipster-friendly fixed-gear jobs to rugged mountain bikes. Lundeen himself was once a bicycle commuter. Now that he has eliminated his commute by working from home, he's a racer and rural rider.
And with both the MS-150 and the Moonlight Ramble, Houston has two marquee cycling events each year, not to mention a dozen or so MS-150 training rides on consecutive weekends leading up to the big race to Austin each April. No other city has as many, and, according to U.S. Census figures, there are already about 60,000 people in the city proper who ride bikes for transportation purposes. (That number is questionable, points out Gina Mitteco of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, because the Census lumps bicycles in with "other" transportation, and only counts those who ride to work, not those who ride for pleasure or to run errands. Mitteco says estimating the real number of cyclists in the Houston area is a very labor-intensive task that has stymied her organization's efforts more than once over the years.)
"We have pretty mild weather," says Wurth, whose definition of mild might be different from yours. "You can cycle year-round here and it's flat. It's not hard. You don't have to be a super-athlete to get around. The road network is pretty good." Wurth thinks a little signage — to educate motorists that cyclists do have a right to be there — would go a long way.
"The streets are laid out like a giant waffle," says Butch Klotz, a former bike messenger/car-less cyclist here who now resides in hilly Charlottesville, Virginia. Klotz — who was also the lead singer in noted local punk band 30footFALL — learned to appreciate Houston as a cycling town from his Virginia mountain redoubt, where he discovered cycling as primary transport was both more grueling and more dangerous than it is here. "If you don't want to ride on a busy street [in Houston], there are always quieter and safer ones running parallel to them," he says. "You can get pretty much anywhere you want to go on backstreets here." The trick is to learn them. Like most Houstonians, who tend to learn only the freeway spaghetti bowls and major-road grid, Klotz didn't know the maze of interconnecting back roads. Learning them was the key to his happy cycling life.
"I never felt as self-sufficient as I did once I became confident on my bike," says Klotz. "I got a good bike bag so I could carry stuff around, a hand pump and flat-fix kit, and I felt like I could go anywhere. Once you figure out how to navigate from West Dallas Street down to the Bike Barn on Kirby in the Village, all on back roads, you can go anywhere."
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.
"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."
Meanwhile, many of those aspects of the plan that were put in place — specifically, the bike lanes — failed to live up to Wurth's, and most other area cyclists', expectations. (The sign-posted bike routes are more popular.)
Wurth derides the bike lanes as "striped gutters." Far from resembling those in "a college town," Houston's narrow, often debris-strewn versions looked more like a slapdash way to quickly and cheaply enact flashy displays of fairly meaningless "progress" and grab those federal matching funds.
Dan Raine, the City of Houston's Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, acknowledged that the striped gutters were a quick fix. In an e-mail interview with the Houston Press, he cited "the great pressure to expedite the creation of bikeways to meet air quality goals," and wrote that "the shortest path to meet these goals was to re-stripe roadways to create bike lanes."
Wurth believes that the majority of striped bike lanes are actually harmful to cyclists. For one thing, he says, they encourage motorists to believe that cyclists must use them. In fact, cyclists are entitled to the same rights as any other vehicle operators; riding in the bike lane is optional. (Lundeen says that he has even had the same argument with a police officer; anecdotally, quite a few police are ignorant about local cycling laws.) Second, Wurth says the bike lanes are dangerous even if there are no cars on the road. "The pavement's all broken up, there are missing sewer covers and storm grates," he says. As they are also liberally sprinkled with broken glass, bits of metal and nails, Wurth calls riding in them "the fastest way to get a flat tire in this city."
"We send out street sweepers to clean bike lanes when we receive e-mails and photos of debris, but there are not enough street sweepers to clean all the bike lanes on a high-frequency basis," Raine says. He also points out that another advantage of the bike routes, as opposed to the lanes, is that large vehicles travel closer to the curb when there is no bike lane, and that the air they disperse sweeps away debris.
Lundeen further contends that the bike lanes lull motorists into a false sense of security and don't cede enough space to the left of each cyclist. "Drivers don't worry as much about cyclists when cyclists have their own lane," he says. Furthermore, the roads on which the bike lanes were painted are supposed to have been divided up into two ten-foot lanes for cars and two four-foot lanes for bikes, but Lundeen suspects that road crews measured out the ten-foot lanes for cars first and then gave the bikes whatever was left over, whether or not that measured a full four feet. And he says he has seen places where the crews have painted a stripe right through the middle of pre-existing potholes. (Raine, an avid cyclist himself, cites the Heights Boulevard bike lane — which does indeed look like one in a sylvan college town — as a shining example of one that is well developed. Lundeen agrees, but it seems very much the exception to the rule.)
The more exciting aspects of the plan — the dedicated, no-motor-traffic bike trails — have been much slower in coming. Wurth wishes that it was a simple matter of "just going out there and throwing down some fuckin' concrete," but he has learned that building these trails involves cutting through bales and bales of red tape and obtaining sign-offs from any number of governmental agencies and business interests. "There's the Parks Department, Public Works, flood control," he says, adding that sometimes the City and Harris County butt heads and/or cross wires. "If it crosses any railroad tracks, there's the railroad. TX-DOT has to pay for it and it has to meet federal guidelines...You're talking about like a dozen agencies for one little project."
Neighborhood associations, citing the possibility of increased crime or ease of access to their homes, have strongly opposed at least three of the plans. Lundeen attended a meeting for a planned bike route (not even a trail) along Briar Forest on the west side; there, one resident was concerned that the sign-posted route would "cut the neighborhood in half," almost as if a rail yard were planned.
According to Wurth, the White Oak Bayou path was originally slated to run along the waterway past West 11th Street and hook up with the Nicholson Street trail and then head downtown, but a few residents of the Timbergrove Manor subdivision have stymied the plan. "Their property lines extend all the way into the center channel of the bayou — just in that one little section," he says. "Normally there's an easement there. So essentially a few holdouts in that subdivision put the kibosh on that whole plan." And so now cyclists are forced instead to traverse a rugged, dangerous stretch of busy West 11th and to cross one-way, speeder-laden Shepherd and Durham to get to the Nicholson Street trail.
"It's unbelievable all the things that have to happen to get these things going," Wurth acknowledges. "But they can throw up a big-ass stadium for a football team in record time." (See "Ghost Riders: Easy Come, Easy No".)
In 2001, four years after all the hoopla that greeted the bikeway plan, Bicycling magazine ranked Houston (in a tie with Atlanta) as the worst cycling city in America. While a great many area cyclists disagreed, few took issue with the magazine's critique of the bike lanes aspect of the bikeway network.
Wurth claims that nobody is going back to monitor the bikeway's progress. "Nobody's asked, 'Are these bikeways good? Are people using them? Are they meeting expectations? Are they encouraging cycling?' I would give it a big fat F, the whole thing."
Raine disputes the contention that the bikeway is not being evaluated. He says that it is, "with great consideration of safety, the need for connectivity and overcoming barriers to mobility."
Lundeen is less harsh than Wurth, but he too hates the bike lanes. "I can't in good conscience recommend that people use the on-street bike lanes," he says. And he concurs with Wurth's grade. "At least the way it was implanted," he says. "Repairs are not done. If the goal for the bikeway is to get more people on the road, I don't think it does that."
Lundeen says that Dan Raine has an unenviable job. First, his office is something of an afterthought in a city that sees big highways and increasingly rail as the glamour mobility projects. Indeed, Raine's office was left unfilled for more than a year after his predecessor stepped down. And then there is Raine's constituency. Cyclists as a whole have competing agendas, Lundeen explains. Some are commuters, some ride recreationally, some want more mountain bike trails in parks, while others want more signposted routes to help them get around town. Any measure Raine gets behind is bound to disappoint some of them, not to mention the vast majority of the motoring community, some of whom see any expansion of cycling facilities as a threat to the Houstonian Way of Life.
For his part, Raine insists that things have improved since Bill White, a cyclist himself, became mayor. Raine points to the 15 miles of new trails opened this year. The Columbia Tap Rails to Trails path, a long-delayed Third Ward-Downtown link, was finally completed this year after an almost-comical series of delays. (A 1997 Chronicle article stated that Columbia Tap "may not be complete until 2000," while a 2001 article predicted its completion in 2004. In actual fact, it was officially opened in March of 2009.) While the October 2 ribbon-cutting for the MKT Trail, a Heights-Downtown Rails to Trails link that spans White Oak Bayou, was recently pushed back to December 19, at least that is a delay of months and not years. Last month marked the completion of the Little White Oak Bayou trail, which connects central and eastern sections of the northern Inner Loop. Earlier in the summer, suburban trails were opened on Halls Bayou in northeast Houston and one more in far west Houston, and Raine says six more trails and four new bridges over Brays Bayou are slated for 2010.
Raine says his office is looking at connecting the often scattered bikeways and completing paths along all the bayous in the region. He also touts the city's bike safety Web site and updated bike map, and says Houston is on the right track, but that the changes cyclists would like to see will take time. With the arguable exception of Bob Lanier, White has done more for cycling in the city than any other mayor in Houston history, and Raine hopes that the next mayor will show as much interest. (Lundeen sees Houston's term-limited mayoralty as problematic for long-range projects like the bikeways plan. He believes the realities of relatively short stays in office favor the development of cheap, flashy improvements [like the bike lanes] over cohesive, enduring regional plans.)
As far as Wurth is concerned, White's work was welcome, but it was too little and too late to have saved his friend Cisco Rios. He believes that had one of the planned, long-delayed branches of the Heights-area White Oak Bayou trails been finished in 2007, Rios would have been on it and not the shoulder of Old Katy Road.
Rios's death galvanized Wurth. The process of Wurth becoming active is right there for all to see on the message boards of BikeHouston, where Wurth posted a eulogy of Cisco and a lament over the state of Houston's cycling environment. Other posters urged him to get involved, and he did. He ran for the board of BikeHouston and won a seat. He spoke before City Council and asked why its Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator position sat vacant for over a year, and put forth his friend Dan Raine as a qualified candidate. Raine got the job.
On a more personal level, he hosted Houston's first "ride of silence" in honor of Rios and other fallen cyclists. For the slow-paced 12-mile ride from Memorial Park to downtown and back, Wurth hired a bagpiper to play "Amazing Grace" and got Mario Pena, the brother of Leigh Boone (Houston's other ghost bike recipient; see "Ghost Riders: Way of Life"), to say a few words.
It's a good thing Rios was remembered so well by the cycling community. The world at large hasn't treated him as well. The driver of the van was questioned by police and released with no charges filed, though he and his employer — Silver Eagle Distributors — were later sued by Rios's family. The trial was ugly. Picking up on his couch-surfing temporary lifestyle, the defendant's lawyers portrayed Rios as a vagrant with no fixed abode and a reckless cyclist who was to blame for his own demise. They contended with some backing from the police that he had no light on his bicycle. Rios's friends all say he bought a light several weeks before the accident, as the Night Rider All Stars had been stopped and warned by a cop in Memorial for not having lights at the time. And everyone who knew him said he was very cautious.
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The Rios family lost. According to Rios's riding partner Ahmad Cherry, Silver Eagle's attorneys successfully argued that the driver was not on the clock and thus the company was not a party to any damages. Cherry says a suit is still pending against the driver alone. "I don't know what can come of that," he says. "Even if the guy loses, what are you gonna do? Take his CD collection? He's not an affluent guy or he wouldn't be driving a beer truck." (Neither of the two firefighters involved in the collision that killed Leigh Boone was charged with a crime, and the Boone family, not optimistic about its chances of winning in court against a city employee, has not filed suit.)
Cherry thought it was ironic that a beer truck would be his friend's undoing. "He gave up the doughnuts and the alcohol and then that Bud Light truck came callin' for him," he says. "It was like the alcohol was gonna get him one way or another."
Wurth says it wasn't booze that found a way to kill Cisco Rios. Cisco was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had Houston's approach to enacting its long-planned, half-finished bikeways plan not been so lackadaisical, he would not have been. Beer trucks are not allowed on bike paths, after all.