Tom McCasland has long believed that Houston is a sleeping giant of a bicycling city, and these days Houston appears to be waking up and stretching its legs.
Today Yale Law grad McCasland serves as the interim head of the Harris County Housing Authority, but even before he began his previous position with the Houston Parks Board, he was doing yeoman's work in improving the Bayou City's bike network. While his spearheading of a plan to to turn Houston's many miles of CenterPoint utility easements into bike trails came to naught at the last state legislative session, that dream remains a possible future reality for Houstonians.
In the meantime, other plans are afoot, and McCasland recently squired a distinguished cyclist around town, a visiting dignitary from no less a bike hub than Portland, Oregon. Elly Blue runs the cycling blog Taking the Lane, and she came to Houston as part of a nationwide tour assessing cities and their bike-friendliness and initiative.
Blue was impressed enough by McCasland's tour and talk to wonder the following:
Yes, that's right. A cycling advocate from Portland has dared wonder publicly if this allegedly car-narcotized, Interstate-streaked, strip mall-obsessed Purgatory of rampant antipathy to bikers and hikers alike will soon outstrip not just Austin but also Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago as the most bike-friendly town in America.
Blue confessed in her post to some skepticism.
"My impression of Houston so far was all potholes, unpredictable driving, the chaotic geography of a city without zoning, and only a few sightings of hardy bicyclists," she wrote. "A conversation the night before with our host, a bike advocate, hadn't altered that impression much. Besides, aren't Southern cities, big and grey and built for cars, supposed to be harder to 'green'?"
The next day McCasland took her on a ride, one that pretty much matches our commute home from work. After stocking up on some provisions at Georgia's Market, which Blue misidentified as downtown's only supermarket (Phoenicia, yo!), Blue, McCasland and another man set out northwestward through the Heights on the MKT trail and kept right on going where it dead-ends at the Shepherd/Durham overpasses. There the paved trail turns to dirt as it traverses a meadow swaying with tall sunflowers and crawling with bunny rabbits in the morning and evening.
There's a sharp right turn out a burned-out rail bridge over White Oak Bayou there -- McCasland tells Hair Balls that part of the city's latest grand biking plan is to dynamite it and rebuild it as a bike/pedestrian thoroughfare. The trail will then continue along White Oak Bayou's banks and connect with the existing trail that begins at West 11th and TC Jester and heads north through Timbergrove, Garden Oaks, Oak Forest and all the way up to Acres Homes.
McCasland's expedition next headed down to the banks of the concrete bayou and rode back towards town, leaving the water's edge near what I think must have been Studemont.
Along the way, McCasland apprised Blue on the details of the countywide plan, and reiterated the same and more with Hair Balls in a subsequent interview.
Basically, the county wants to turn hundreds of miles of existing greenways, many of which run alongside our bayous, into recreation areas and trails. Paving trails through these greenways will serve not just cyclists, but also joggers, walkers, skaters and parents with strollers. They will offer schoolchildren safer paths to school, and McCasland adds that the linear parks offer safe havens for wildlife, and will also serve a role in area flood control.
McCasland says that the greenways "will wind through nearly every community in the City."
The easements already exist due to their flood control purpose, and they have been waiting over 100 years to be used for recreation and transportation purposes. Voters need not worry about where these projects will be built. With few exceptions (such as Buffalo Bayou West of Shepherd), the trails will follow the major bayous in Houston, ensuring that each community receives it share of the bayou greenways funding.
McCasland estimates a $200 million price tag for the project. A significant chunk of that sum would come from the general public should a proposed parks bond measure pass this fall; McCasland believes that the rest will come from individual donors, foundations and a $30 million federal TIGER grant that the city has just applied for.
McCasland told Blue that he believes the bond measure will pass. He believes that Big Bidness in this city has finally come around to the idea that quality of life is good for the bottom line.
As she wrote:
The thing that sets Houston up for success, McCasland told us as we drove out of downtown, is that the business community, including the oil companies and airlines that are the city's biggest employers, is all for it. Quality of life is the reason, a lure for energetic, young new hires. As things currently stand, "it's a tough sell to bring people here." But there's hope, in the form of cheap right of way around the city's many bayous and a plan to transform an existing piecemeal trail system into a world class bicycling network.
And as we can tell you by personal experience, biking to work transforms not just your body and soul but also the way you view living in Houston. I've traded in exhaust-choked seas of taillights and skies full of billboards for wildflower-scented, birdsong-buzzing trails crossed by rabbits and garden snakes. It's one of the last best ways to enjoy a little country living in an increasingly citified metropolis.
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Things have already gotten a lot better, thanks to the Bill White administration's actual implementation of a Bikeways plan the Lee Brown regime announced and then did nothing to build. Now I can hop on my bike in my driveway in Timbergrove and not have to worry about street traffic in my lane until I get to the corner of Commerce and Travis downtown.
But things can get so much better. Here's hoping that "America's cycling capital" will soon join "great eating town" and "most diverse city in America" as another thing about Houston that the nation and world will underrate and ignore us about, not to mention yet another thing that we do better than Austin.