Can Houston become a biking paradise? Bike to Work Day pedals with a purpose
Scores of cycling enthusiasts and trail novices convened this morning at Memorial Park's South Picnic Loop for a morning ride of solidarity. May is National Bike Month, and today is National Bike to Work Day. Houstonians commemorated the occasion with an address by Mayor Annise Parker, followed by an epic course towards downtown's City Hall.
Parker was unavailable to participate in the ride because of a previous obligation to play in a charity golf tournament benefiting the East End's Gus Wortham Park.
"I'm a much better bike rider than golfer," she joked. "But this scheduling conflict really shows what an outdoor city Houston is. We have to remember there are lots of opportunities to do things in public parks and golf courses, and we are making a real effort to improve our bikeability in Houston." Parker spoke of the new bike trails being developed along Buffalo Bayou that should be open by the end of the summer.
"It hasn't always been easy to be a cyclist in Houston," Parker admitted. "Part of the problem is aggressive drivers, and we're going to crack down on that."
Her initiatives aim to separate bikes from conflicting vehicles with projects like expanding the preexisting 300 miles of bike trails and educating the business community about installing showers for employees who choose to ride to work everyday. Parker cited the "intrepid" city council member Jolanda Jones' efforts to enhance City Hall's own bike-friendly facilities.
The trail took riders through the Memorial Park Golf Course, around the back roads of Rice Military, and finally to the main thoroughfare of Washington Ave. A crew of police closely guarded the bicyclists' constant right of way, as crossroads choaked with increasing automobile traffic. At stoplights at Durham and Shepherd confused drivers mired in traffic leaned outside their windows to observe the critical mass of bicyclists. The sensation of comradery was palpable as the bikers crossed Buffalo Bayou and breezed into the streets of downtown.
Bicyclists were warmly greeted at City Hall with treats from Corner Bakery Café, Shipley Donuts, Clif Bar and Chick-fil-A. Bike Barn was on the scene, dispensing fresh brewed-to-order gourmet coffee. Addressing the crowd were council member Jones, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists Andy Clark and newly appointed and confirmed Metro board member, Christof Speiler.
The latter, "who actually puts his bike where his mouth is," explained Jones, spoke of the pro-bicyclist infrastructure already in place at Metro. For instance, Houston's fleet of buses is the only in the nation in which each vehicle is equipped with bicycle racks.
"With our Bikes on Buses program, we've seen incredible payback — 9,700 boardings a month on bike racks," said Speiler, who is also the Director of Technology and Innovation at Morris Architects and writes a transportation and urban planning blog, Intermodality.
"Even more amazingly, we're seeing a 94-percent year-to-year increase in bicyclist participation," he added.
Speiler explained how the symbiosis of biking and public transit provide a glimpse of the cross section of society — one of the most popular areas serving bike riders is the melting pot neighborhood of Gulfton. But Speiler isn't going to be resting on his laurels in his new position — he intends to include more bike racks on the new light rail lines, connect bikeways to transit centers and provide better information about the system's capabilities.
"People can get around this city without cars," Speiler declared, a heady statement affirmed by the mass of eager bicyclists standing before him.