The Fate of Houston's New Bike Plan Is Pretty Much in the Hands of Drivers

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Judith Cruz Villarreal has heard some version of “Get your ass on the sidewalk!” countless times while biking through Houston, in the bike lane. Despite the fact that drivers are protected by a ton of metal, they're often the ones yelling, Cruz Villarreal said, often unaware that bicyclists are just as entitled to use the road as they are.

“They always want to push us onto the sidewalk,” she said. “A lot of people don't know that we're allowed to be on the streets, that it's illegal for us to be on the sidewalk.”

That's the attitude from drivers that Cruz Villarreal and hundreds of other bike commuters like her regularly experience. Houston is a car city. While City Council has made several efforts in recent years to make bicycling safer — like requiring drivers to give cyclists three feet of space when passing, and announcing a plan to end bike fatalities — cycling in Houston remains dangerous. Within a year after City Council passed the safe-passing ordinance, there were still 950 bike-related crashes — 250 of which were hit-and-runs, as we reported last year. Much of the problem is due to the lack of protected bike lanes (there is only one in the city) and the lack of connections among different bikeways, making it much more likely that bikers will have to deal with heavy traffic at multiple points on their trip.

While the ambitious bike plan just released by the city has been called the solution to a lot of these issues, the problem is that its future is in the hands of drivers. Save for projects already funded through ReBuild Houston, the plan is largely unfunded, meaning it may depend on bond referendums and votes from all of Houston's drivers — not just the 0.5 percent who commute on bikes — to provide the $300 to $500 million this plan may cost.

Which has people like Cruz Villarreal and other cyclists wondering: Will any of this matter if drivers' attitudes don't change?

Released last week, the Houston Bike Plan marks the first time the city has drawn up a comprehensive blueprint to overhaul Houston's biking infrastructure in 23 years. In the next couple of decades, it seeks to add more than 1,600 miles of bike lanes, 700 of which may materialize in the next five years, and add key connections from downtown lanes — like the random Lamar Street lane that doesn't really connect to anything — to off-street trails. Right now, just half of Houston's roughly 500 miles of bikeways are “high comfort," meaning the lanes are well separated from car traffic, and the vast majority of those lanes are on trails running east to west along the Bayou. Only 39 miles of high-comfort lanes exist on actual streets—and that lack of accessibility can easily deter casual or beginning bikers from commuting.

The new Houston Bike Plan would change that on a mass scale. But if it's going to depend on support from Houstonians, then attorney John Clark, who represents injured bicyclists, said that the city is going to need to start campaigning to raise the public's awareness about why this plan is so crucial.

Since Saturday alone, he said, he has learned of three people hit by cars — one accident was fatal, one involved a drunk driver and another was a hit-and-run. Last year he represented the family of Chelsea Norman, who was struck and killed in a hit-and-run while cycling home from Whole Foods, and he spoke at City Hall months later, after cyclists brought their bikes and staged a “die-in” on the front lawn to raise awareness about victims like Norman.

Until the city can establish a sense of urgency among drivers about this problem, he said, it's unlikely the bike plan will go very far. Here's some of what Clark told us:

“Half of my clients are hit-and-run victims. That tells you something about the fourth-largest city in the nation, when people are literally left in the street to die of their injuries. When you have issues like that and attitudes like that, it doesn't matter what a plan says; the voters aren't going to come around until they understand that this is an epidemic. It's a public awareness issue that needs to be transformed first and foremost. 

Angie Cabrera, with the biking group Toxic Shock, said it's the Houston Police Department's responsibility, too, to start ticketing drivers for not following the three-foot-rule when passing bikers (and sometimes, she said, yelling at them to get off the road). That way, at least there is an actual incentive to start learning how to share the road. “They need to start having more police on bicycles so they can realize what bicyclists are going through,” she said. “I don't think they enforce it, because they don't realize how it works. I think they're just kind of turning a blind eye to it, and because of that, drivers are just like, 'Eh, I can do whatever I want, because nobody is going to make me respect the cyclists.'”

The fact that the Houston Bike Plan could take ten to 20 years to fully materialize could be either good or bad for the cycling community: good because with time, attitudes might change; bad because, as Clark put it, drivers need to learn how to share the road right now.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, which partnered with the city to help develop the plans, said that some projects will be prioritized over others, such as constructing those key connections at dangerous intersections. He addressed a room full of more than 100 bikers Tuesday night in what was his last annual meeting before stepping down from the post this spring. And while the turnout was encouraging, to Payne, the people who didn't attend are just as important as those who did.

"There are about a million and a half people who own bicycles in this area," he said. "A percentage of those people have the bikes sitting in their garage, and they may say, 'Gee, I would love to ride my bike all around the city — that would be delightful.' If those people actually did something and engaged, we would be able to deliver this infrastructure and improve our city and the quality of life for generations to come. United, we will be successful. Divided, we will be...sort of at the mercy of single-occupancy vehicle drivers."

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