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bike trails

Bike plan finally gets approved

Long time coming.

Houston has a bike plan.

Though there’s no clear plan to pay for it and ongoing concerns with exactly where the planned trails and lanes will be located, City Council approved the bike plan on Wednesday morning.

Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis voted against the plan, citing various concerns with the force with which the city will require bike lanes in some neighborhoods and the cost, estimated at up to $550 million.

Travis said he fears the costs will be much greater, and thus far Houston lacks any way to pay for it.

“You start looking at the cost and it becomes exorbitant,” Travis said.

Even those who approved the plan acknowledged the city must respect neighborhoods that don’t want bike lanes along their streets, be willing to amend the plan and find ways to pay for it that do not reduce road spending.

“The last thing we want to do is develop a plan that pits bicyclists against the motorists,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster.

You can see the bike plan here, and the Mayor’s press release is here. The plan was approved last summer, and was tagged by Council two weeks ago. Here’s a preview story with more about what the plan means.

Developed and modified over nearly 18 months, the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others.

To improve Houston’s lot, supporters and city planners said the area needs high-comfort bike lanes where people feel safe riding.

The city has an extensive trail system popular with riders but it does not cover large portions of where people live and work in Houston.

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements. On Tuesday, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials announced construction would start soon on a long-awaited bridge spanning Bray’s Bayou.

“This is a big step in building complete communities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the crossing helps connect neighborhoods north and south of the bayou on the east side that were often cut off from the city’s trail improvements over the last decade.

The bridge, when completed in about a year, will connect more communities to the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg, too, officials said.

Those connections are key. Without them, advocates said the only people riding – especially in non-ideal conditions – are committed, confident cyclists. Leisure riders and others are left out.

Core riders, meanwhile, said the current network of 495 miles relies heavily on 165 miles of shared space with cars along Houston streets to connect good places to ride. Those shared lanes – such as along Fairview – offer little buffer between cyclists and automobiles.

“It’s like taking your life in your hands,” said Steven Mulligan, 29, who lives in Midtown and rides daily to his job near Loop 610 and Richmond.

Just a reminder, the plan prioritizes different routes, some of which will require little more than paint to designate, and there are various funding sources available for other routes. As far as using Rebuild monies goes, if the roads in question are being redone anyway, I don’t see the problem. Reducing the number of short trips people take during the day alleviates traffic and frees up parking. Making it safer to bike, and making people feel safer while biking, is the key to getting more people to choose that option. I look forward to seeing this work.

More bayou bike trails

Nice.

Laying out the particulars for a new trail section along White Oak Bayou, Chip Place saw something out of place where the trail crossed the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near T C Jester.

It was the stairs connecting the two trails.

“Look at that,” Place said, pointing from the new stairs to the stellar view of downtown Houston. “I said ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to capture this.'”

Starting Friday, the stairs – along with two miles of fresh trail to southeast of T C Jester – are ready for runners, cyclists and others who want a new view of the area.

“It is always fun to create a park and see how people will use this,” said Place, managing director of capital programs for Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit that promotes parks in the city.

Part of the parks board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 efforts, the new segment of the White Oak Bayou Greenway runs from Studemont Street and the Heights trail to the T C Jester trail.

[…]

The new two-mile section – minus an unfinished spot below Yale Street – extends the White Oak trail to about 11 miles, making it the largest continuous portion completed thus far. By mid-2017 that will lengthen to 15 miles once key connections to downtown and the trail is extended from Antoine to the city limits. Once all of its segments are connected, Brays Bayou Greenway will be the longest of the trails at 30 miles, from the Houston Ship Channel to Eldridge in far west Houston.

“I really do believe Houston is at such an exciting point in the public realm,” said Beth White, the parks board’s president.

White, who took over the nonprofit nearly six months ago, moved to Houston encouraged by the “vast” opportunity to develop a large-scale trail system.

“All of the things that cities need to be resilient are being looked at,” she said. “Open space, alternatives in mobility, it’s all right here.”

I’ve been watching this go in – you could see the progress of the construction from the I-10 service road as you approach Studemont – and I plan to give it a ride in the near future. The one thing that is unclear to me at this time is whether it connects to the Heights trail, which among other things would connect it to downtown. There’s a separate trail that begins in front of Stude Park and takes a different route into downtown, but this new one stops a little short of that, and would need a bridge across the bayou to make a connection. It’s a good addition to the area, and will provide a non-car means of local travel for folks in the new housing being built on Studemont across from the Kroger.

City bike plan finalized

Here it comes.

Bicycling advocates – fresh off finalizing a plan for Houston’s bike future – face the challenge of getting formal city approval of their ideas as they incrementally piece together what could be a $500 million investment.

Changing attitudes, however, have proponents optimistic that most if not all of the 1,800 miles of bike lanes, trails and shared use paths will be built in the next decade.

“We are starting to get the right people in the room,” said Geoff Carleton, who consulted on the bike plan and spoke Monday before City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee. “Those conversations are taking place from Metro about transit accessibility, and the city when it designs a street is asking the right questions about the best way to use it. … those things are happening much more now.”

If fully built, the bike lanes and trails would provide an alternative to driving that’s not easily available to most Houstoninans for trips ranging from workday commutes to visiting a park on weekends. Moreso, supporters said, it will signal an important shift in the city’s commitment to keeping riders safe, lowering dependence on automobiles and reducing vehicle emissions.

“There is growing recognition that we need to rethink our mobility paradigm,” Houston Planning Department Director Patrick Walsh said.

[…]

Accomplishing all of the plan, however, will take a large investment over the next 20 years, estimated at more than $550 million based on the highest cost projects. Funding for the projects could come from the city’s street money, its share of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 1 percent sales tax and state and federal dollars that can be spent on city infrastructure projects. Houston has trailed some of its peer cities in securing federal funds related to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

Despite the price tag, the plan has support from a host of local groups, including Bike Houston and various neighborhood groups and Houston Parks Board. Compared to billions in highway spending – a plan to widen Interstate 45 alone is estimated to cost $7 billion – the investment in better bike lanes is minimal, when incorporated into other road improvements and trail enhancements.

See here and here for the background. You can see the final report and all other information on the plan here. It’s important to remember that a lot of funding for this will come from the Bayou Greenways project and existing CIPs, and from grants from H-GAC and the federal Department of Transportation. A significant portion of the plan involves simple and inexpensive changes like restriping streets and taking lanes from low-traffic streets like Austin and Caroline downtown, in similar fashion to what was done on Lamar Street. There’s much that can be done for very little, and by adding this capacity you are giving people more non-car options for short trips, which in turn makes it a little easier for those who have to drive and park. It also makes things safer for the folks who have to get around by bike. There’s a lot to like here, now we just need to get it approved and on its way. The Press and KUHF have more.

Meet the toucan light

The first of its kind in Houston, though maybe not the last.

Not that kind of toucan

The new traffic signal suspended above Appel at Yale and Seventh is a first for Texas, but also an adjustment for residents – some of whom are unsure of its benefit.

Called a toucan, as in “two can go,” the signal gives pedestrians and bicyclists a red-yellow-green signal and stops vehicular traffic with a traffic light at the touch of a button. In other spots around Houston, pedestrians can activate walk signs or flashing red lights. Cyclists along Lamar receive a special traffic light along the street’s green cycle path.

The toucan takes the signal to another level, said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works, who oversees traffic management.

“The (traffic) volumes on 7th are not really there,” he said. “It will never meet the warrants for a regular traffic signal.”

However, the trail – often bustling with joggers and cyclists and strollers – has enough demand to command its own green lights to stop traffic. Trail users can activate the signal with a button, similar to pedestrian crossings at major intersections. Drivers stop as they would in any other traffic signal circumstance.

“It’s a traffic signal to them, no difference at all,” Weatherford said.

The timing is set to give pedestrians time to cross the street. As trail use increases in various spots around Houston, Weatherford said the toucan signals could be installed in other spots where practical and when funding allows it.

[…]

Trammell Crow Residential, developers of two apartment buildings along Yale near the trail, paid for the toucan’s analysis and construction, estimated to cost between $150,000 and $200,000, said Ben Johnson with Trammell Crow.

The company agreed to pay for the signal during discussions with residents skeptical about the developments, which are expected to increase traffic on Yale.

The city will pay for maintenance and operations, including the cost of electricity to operate the signals.

The trail’s new location, however, has alarmed some. To line up the signal with Seventh, a requirement of state traffic codes, the trail curves headed east and deposits cyclists and pedestrians on the east side of Seventh into a median installed in the middle of the street.

The center location is less safe, said Shirley Summers, as she pushed her daughter Molly, 2, in a stroller.

“Cars turning right can’t see where I’m going,” she said last week.

I’m glad to see this, because crossing Yale at that location is indeed scary – traffic is heavy, there’s four lanes of it, and pretty much nobody pays attention to the speed limit. If this works as hoped, I’d suggest the city look at installing another one of these on 11th Street where the trail that runs along Nicholson crosses, because it’s the exact same situation. A word of warning, via a comment on Facebook, is that cars apparently don’t always respect the light at the head of the TC Jester trail. Having now driven past this light on Yale headed northbound, I can tell you that it’s actually kind of hard to see the light as you approach it from 6th Street. There’s a tree on the east side of Yale that blocks your view of the light (or at least, it blocked mine) until you’re quite close to it. Might be a good idea for the city to look into that, and also for HPD to have some traffic enforcement there in the early going. I sure hope this does what it promises to do. What do you think?

More on the draft bike plan

From the Chron.

The Houston Bike Plan identifies $300 million to $500 million in improvements aimed at encouraging cycling and bringing more accessibility to every corner of the city via paths, off-street trails and safer lanes where cyclists share the road with drivers.

A key goal of the plan is to generate discussion about how to proceed as interest in cycling increases in Houston, officials said.

“Once we have consensus on how to make Houston a great place to ride a bicycle, we’re then going to need to look very carefully at all of our funding tools on how we can actually implement this as quickly as possible,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said. “I just don’t think we’re quite there yet. That’s the next step.”

[…]

Bike advocates acknowledged that the plan’s goal – creating a 1,600-mile bike system in Houston over 20 years – would not be cheap, but they said sticker shock should not dampen enthusiasm for the plan’s ideas.

“You are always going to have your naysayers because some people in Texas love their cars and don’t think anything should change,” said Regina Garcia, chairwoman of BikeHouston, one of a handful of groups active in developing the plan.

A short-term list of projects compiled as part of the bike plan would increase miles of high-quality bike lanes and trails to 709 in the next five years, including 328 miles of on-street, high-comfort lanes. Most of those lanes can be built cheaply by restriping roads and adding signs, at a cost of $24 million to $45 million.

“I don’t think there’s going to be some dedicated fund or anything to specifically deal with this,” said Councilman Larry Green, chairman of the city’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee. “I believe, for the most part, the way we really get it done is as we rehab streets and repair streets.”

Proponents, enthused by the draft report, cheered its release while downplaying its immediate impact.

“It does not commit any city dollars,” said Mary Blitzer, government and grants director for the nonprofit BikeHouston. “Money is going to be figured out on a project-by-project basis.”

See here for the background. The vision is great. Finding funding is the key, and the more funding that can come from non-city sources, the better. I wish I could predict how this will play out, but I have no idea. Mayor Turner will have a lot of influence over the outcome, but most of the push is going to have to come from everyone who wants to see this happen. If that includes you, show up to the CIP meetings and make sure your Council member knows how you feel. The Press has more.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

Bayou trails update

Coming along nicely.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative will build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along the city’s nine waterways, a $220 million effort that Mayor Annise Parker says is “one of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to work on as mayor” – and which is only now gathering steam.

“It’s a transformative project designed to string the beads of existing trail systems into an integrated whole,” Parker said, “but also designed to put accessible park and green space into every neighborhood of Houston by putting trails along all of the small rivers that cross the city.”

The ambitious plan advanced Wednesday as City Council approved $19 million for the next phase of trails in north Houston and also cleared the way for the purchase of land on which some of the trails will run.

[…]

Bayou Greenways’ construction progress has been modest thus far as the parks board designs the new trails and slogs through the dual permitting process of the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the parks board’s Catherine Butsch, as both entities have jurisdiction.

About 3.5 miles of trail have been built, mostly along White Oak Bayou, but Butsch said the pace is likely to increase sharply.

Construction is to start soon along a section of White Oak in the I-10 corridor. That follows the recent openings of a new bridge near T.C. Jester and 11th Street over White Oak, and of a new trail section from Antoine to Alabonson.

Along Brays Bayou, a trail section from Mason Park to Old Spanish Trail opened last year, and that segment will soon be extended to the University of Houston.

On Sims Bayou, construction is scheduled to start on the two trail sections at the far eastern and western edges of the city limits by year’s end, in tandem with design work on the middle sections.

Design also will start this year on two sections of trail along Greens Bayou and on a far western section of trail planned along Brays.

“When it is completed by 2020, we estimate that six out of 10 Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of one of these Bayou Greenways,” Butsch said. “That’s really enhancing access to park land. We’re really able to use our natural resources, our bayous, in a special way like no other city.”

I love this project, and I believe it will do a lot to make Houston a better place to live. We have all these bayous, we should be taking full advantage of them. A lot of the funding for this is privately raised as well, making it a better deal overall. I’m especially looking forward to the White Oak/I-10 work, but it’s great to see this happening farther out as well.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.

WhiteOakBayouPathAlabonsonAntoine

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.

[…]

Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

Your input for the Bike Plan requested

I’ve written before about the Bike Plan the city is currently working on, to improve all facets of bike travel in Houston. This effort, now in Phase 2 of 6, depends heavily on input from the public, and the time to give that input is now. Phase 2 is about defining the goals of the plan, and towards that end the following input is being sought:

On-line Survey: Help us define the issues important to you. The survey takes about 15-20 minutes, but will affect bike planning in Houston for years to come.

Interactive Maps: Identify where gaps within the existing network. Discuss where you want to bike? Help us locate key trail connection locations, and more!

Blog Forum: Review daily posts and provide feedback, or post your own questions and start a discussion!

Public Meetings: To kick off the Houston Bike Plan, five public meetings were scheduled during the last week of May, and all four weeks of June! To learn more about the two remaining meetings on Tuesday, June 23rd and Tuesday, June 30th check out our website to learn more.

o Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Tuesday, June 23rd 6pm – 8pm
6500 Rookin, Houston, TX 77074 (MAP)
RSVP on the Facebook Event Page.

o HCC Memorial City Performing Arts Center / Theater II, Room 411
Tuesday, June 30th 6pm – 8pm
1060 W. Sam Houston Pkwy N., Houston, TX 77043 (MAP)
RSVP on the Facebook Event Page.

Meeting in a Box: This is your instruction guide to have your own community meeting on the Houston Bike Plan. Click on the interactive links provided to download materials to assist you in conducting your own community meeting and gathering feedback for the Bike Plan. Pick and choose from the activities below or do them all. Thanks for being a part of the Houston Bike Plan!

– Project Website: www.HoustonBikePlan.org

– Email: bikeways@houstontx.gov

See here for more. Just scanning through that forum linked above, let me say that I wholeheartedly endorse this idea. I don’t even consider biking any farther south than Washington Avenue because there’s no good way to get there. Make your voice heard, and make sure you ask candidates for city office that you encounter what they think about this. Thanks very much.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Safe passing law update

The city of Houston has an ordinance requiring vehicles to give bikes a three-foot buffer on the streets. How much of an effect has it had so far?

A law authorizing police to ticket drivers for encroaching on bicyclists and pedestrians has yielded fewer than a dozen citations in the 20 months it has been on the books, though law enforcement officials and biking advocates said they are reluctant to use enforcement as a measure of success.

“You don’t have to ride around Houston very long to know that this is a very low number of citations given the frequency of the occurrence,” said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, which is working with city officials on cycling improvements.

[…]

Officers didn’t write a citation for violating the ordinance until Dec. 11, 2013, more than seven months after it took effect and 10 days after a Montrose-area cyclist was struck and killed by a driver who fled the scene. The fatal collision led to criticism of officials for not doing enough to enforce the safe passing law. The driver involved recently received a 15-year sentence, which some in the cycling community believe sent a message that bike safety would be taken seriously.

Since that first ticket, 10 more have been written, including four during targeted enforcement initiatives in February and March 2014. Those tickets, [Lt. Michelle Chavez, who oversees some traffic safety operations] said, came from multiple enforcement efforts.

“What we found is we really weren’t seeing egregious violations,” Chavez said of the operations, where police rode on bikes and reported violators to waiting patrol cars ahead. “Still, we know the cycling community does face people who are violating the law.”

Payne said cyclists estimate, based on anecdotes and observation, that a vehicle gets too close about once every time someone rides.

“My staffer who rode in six miles this morning said he counted three cars in the zone,” Payne said Monday.

Throughout the law’s creation and implementation, cycling advocates said raising awareness among drivers was the critical benefit. It was never about punishing drivers, but a tool to educate them to share the road, cycling proponents said.

See here and here for the background. It’s the outreach and education about this that most people are interested in, and while there’s progress there, there’s room to do a lot more. The comprehensive bike plan the city is working on should help; at the least, it will spell out what the city will be doing to make biking safer. The continued expansion of the off-road bike trails will help as well, perhaps with an assist from Neighborhood Greenways. Of course, as good and useful as off-road trails are, you don’t want to make it seem like that’s the norm and that riding on the streets is somehow exceptional. We all need to learn how to coexist safely. The Highwayman has more.

Neighborhood Greenways

I really like this idea.

Complete Streets means that our local governments prioritize the safety and comfort of all a street’s users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Fixing our streets will be a long-term project, but if we head in the right direction, we will have neighborhoods for our grandchildren to live healthier, happier and more prosperous lives.

Now is the time to make the next big push.

It’s time to build on the Bayou Greenways network, the remarkable trail system that brought together Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, the Houston Parks Board, voters and private funders. Bayou Greenways simultaneously improve flood control, add green space, and provide safe, attractive hike-and-bike trails. If we connect Bayou Greenways to other trails — including the Utility Line Easement Hike and Bike Trail concept — the Houston region will have a massive large-scale grid allowing safe long-distance trips.

That will all be terrific once you’re on that network, on one of those trails. But even if the trail network expands radically, before we can use it, we have to get there from our homes.

The Houston region needs something new — not just Bayou Greenways, but Neighborhood Greenways that would connect those trails to all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport.

[…]

Houston could add 200 miles of Neighborhood Greenways for $50 million — roughly the same cost as adding two lanes to one mile of freeway. We could connect most of the Houston region’s dense urban core — the Inner Loop and the same-sized area just west of the 610 Loop — with safe walking, biking, and driving infrastructure for less than 5 percent of one year’s regional transportation spending budget. For about 10 percent of that regional budget, we could connect most of the city of Houston. That small investment would create a Houston that is dramatically more family-friendly for generations to come.

See here for a full presentation of Neighborhood Greenways. The basic idea is to use side streets as connectors to bike trails and the like, with some modifications to these side streets to make them safer and more attractive to bikes and pedestrians. It’s another way to extend the already-growing network of hike and bike trails, since in order to take advantage of them you have to get to them in the first place. It’s a concept that’s being used in other cities, like Portland and Seattle. The cost of all this is fairly small, and there are federal funds available. What’s not to like? As I’ve said before, there’s no one big solution to reducing traffic and adding capacity. There are a lot of smaller solutions that together add up to much more. It’s up to us to take advantage of these smaller solutions.

Creating a bike plan for the city

Moving forward.

It would be hard to argue that bicycling in Houston is not on the upswing, with many millions of dollars approved and numerous policies passed in recent years, all aimed at welcoming and protecting riders.

City planners and cycling advocates see significant gaps in this progress, however, from uncertainty about the kind of cyclists Houston wants to serve to questions about what projects should take priority on which streets.

To fill these holes, city planners in the coming weeks will launch a $500,000 effort to produce a citywide bicycling plan, the first such comprehensive effort since 1994. Houston has set aside $100,000 for the plan, which will be led by outside consultants, and is raising the rest from private partners, said Pat Walsh, director of the city Planning and Development Department.

“This project is long overdue,” Walsh said. “The city has changed much in 20 years, the support and use of bicycling has increased significantly in 20 years, and we feel it’s time to revisit our planning for bicycle activities.”

[…]

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, which is helping fund the planning process, said the initiative is a criticial step in the city’s evolution and, ideally, in the evolution of individual cyclists’ mindsets. Most cyclists today ride recreationally, he said, but safer routes would let more people ride comfortably around their neighborhood, then discover it is feasible to run a few errands or even to commute by bike.

National data suggest perhaps 1 percent of riders brave traffic, regardless of the conditions, he said, about 7 percent ride a bit and would like to ride more, and about 60 percent say they want to ride more but don’t feel safe doing so. This last group should be the main target of any policy study, Payne said.

“It’s about addressing the safety issue and about having separate bikeways so that people have both the perception of safety but also the reality of greater physical separation from cars,” he said. “We need to develop infrastructure that people 8 years old to 80 years old feel comfortable using. It’s not just about this aggressive, fast-paced cyclist, who’s typically a middle-aged man, white guy, affluent. We’re trying to meet the needs of a wide range of society.”

The general idea, Payne said, is to use the Bayou Greenways trails, which typically run east-west, and future trails envisioned along electric utility corridors, which often run north-south, as bike highways.

As high-speed, congested city streets are due to be rebuilt, protected bike lanes may be added. And on neighborhood streets, with slower speeds and fewer cars, cyclists could get striped paths similar to those on city streets today. However, Payne said, the paths ideally would be much wider, in line with 5-foot national standards, and better maintained.

Because these on-street improvements will take many years, Walsh said, part of the planning effort also will seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” – quick, cheap improvements with potentially high impact.

See here for the background. The main goal is to promote safety, largely via BikeHouston’s Goal Zero Fatalities, but also by the continued improvement of off-road bike trails, which will be getting a major boost in the coming years. Houston is a much more bike-friendly city than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The more we can get people to swap cars for bikes for short trips, the better our roads and our air will be going forward. I look forward to seeing how this progresses.

Heights bike trail connection update

Good news from Swamplot:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

OVER THANKSGIVING weekend city workers opened a portion of the proposed hike-and-hike trail that will one day link downtown and Acres Homes.

Work began last October on this new section, one that heads west from the MKT hike-and-bike trail’s former official western terminus at Lawrence Park, under the N. Shepherd Dr. and N. Durham Dr. overpasses, and over White Oak Bayou, west to Cottage Grove and north towards an eventual link with the existing White Oak Bayou trail.

This link legitimizes an unsanctioned though fairly popular “ninja route” long used by off-trail cyclists, who had been pedaling the gravel path from the park to a rickety, burned-out White Oak Bayou railway trestle known to as the “Bridge of Death,” seen below in a 2012 photo.

Click those links above, and see also here for the background. The last bit isn’t quite done yet, but this is some good progress. I look forward to checking it out sometime after the holidays when things are a bit less hectic.

Downtown dedicated bike lane delayed a bit

Aiming for the end of the year now.

Conversion of a traffic lane on Lamar into Houston’s main bike route through downtown has been delayed as officials finalize plans and wait for in-demand humps known as “armadillos” to arrive.

Department of Public Works and Engineering officials initially said work would start on the lanes in September and finish in a few weeks. Now they hope to have cyclists cruising the green lane along Lamar by the end of the year, said Jeff Weatherford, the city’s traffic operations director.

One of the last steps will be installing “armadillos” – rubberized humps that separate vehicle lanes from the nine-foot-wide bike path. A European company is the only supplier of armadillos, and with their growing popularity they are on back-order, Weatherford said.

[…]

Creating the lane required some tough choices, Weatherford said, and weeks of work remain. Officials chose Lamar because other streets from Discovery Green to Sam Houston Park either had higher traffic volumes or posed greater risks for cyclists because of drivers entering and exiting Interstate 45 and Allen Parkway.

The bike lane will occupy the southernmost lane of Lamar, a space now used for parking except during peak commuting periods.

The conversion to a two-way bike lane will take about six or seven weeks, Weatherford said, with work occurring on weekends to avoid commuting traffic. Because the bike lane is on the south side of the street, new street crossings are planned near the two parks. City law prohibits cyclists from riding in crosswalks – technically, they should dismount and walk the bike across – though the law is rarely enforced.

“Still, I want it to be something that doesn’t force someone to break the law,” Weatherford said.

See here for the background. I work near where this work is going to be done, and I’m looking forward to it. I plan to take some pictures once the lane has been painted green and those “armadillos” have been installed.

A bike lane to connect to bike trails

Makes sense.

Houston may get its first protected on-street bike route as early as October, as city officials prepare to convert a lane of Lamar Street downtown into a two-way cycling path connecting the popular Buffalo Bayou trails west of downtown to Discovery Green and points east.

The nearly three-quarter-mile connector, from the east end of Sam Houston Park to the edge of Discovery Green, will be painted green and separated from the remaining three lanes of traffic by a two-foot barrier lined with striped plastic humps known as “armadillos” or “zebras,” said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Signals will be added at intersections to direct cyclists headed east on one-way westbound Lamar. Officials hope to begin work in September and open the lane in October.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, said the 11-block dedicated lane will be a crucial link to safely get cyclists from the Buffalo Bayou trails to the well-used Columbia Tap Trail east of downtown that runs past Texas Southern University. A link from that trailhead to the George R. Brown Convention Center is under construction.

“The key here is that physical separation, which makes cyclists feel more comfortable, that their space is defined,” Payne said. “When you’re on a bike route you’re right out there with the traffic. The whole objective here for Houston is to develop infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable, safe and encourages them to get out of their houses and out of their cars and use their bicycles both for recreation and for transportation.”

[…]

Jeff Weatherford, who directs traffic operations for the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, said Lamar was chosen in part because the lane being converted is devoted to parking except during rush hours.

The other available streets that had a parking lane to give were Walker, McKinney and Dallas, but Weatherford said Walker and McKinney see higher speeds and more traffic movement because they become Interstate 45 on-ramps. And along Dallas, downtown boosters plan retail-oriented improvements. Lamar is the default choice, he said.

Average traffic counts show Lamar also carries fewer cars daily than the other three streets considered. At its busiest, between 4 and 5 p.m., Lamar averages 1,240 vehicles between Allen Parkway and Travis. East of Travis, the counts drop sharply; the blocks of Lamar closest to the convention center, at their busiest, see fewer than 200 cars per hour.

There are a few complainers, of course, but there always will be for something like this. You can see with your own eyes that Lamar is less trafficked than Walker or McKinney, and the connections to I-45 are definitely a key part of that. What makes bike trails effective as transportation, not just as leisure or exercise, is connectivity. The trails themselves are great because they’re safe, efficient ways to travel by bike. Connecting the trails in this fashion makes them that much more effective and gives that many more people reasons to use them. Is it going to magically un-congest our streets of vehicular traffic? No, of course not. Nothing will do that short of a massive paradigm change. But it will give a larger number of people the option of not being part of that congestion, for little to no cost. What more do you want? Houston Tomorrow has more.

Biking in Dallas

They’re pretty far behind other Texas cities in infrastructure and general bike-ability.

City leaders, including Mayor Mike Rawlings, are eager to boost Big D’s cycling options — and soon. They’re looking at everything from more bike lanes to off-street trails, from bike-sharing programs to raising awareness about how bikes and cars should share the road.

What caused a 36-year-old engineer who’s lived in the bike-loving cities of Austin, Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz. — but who’s also tackled major highway projects for the Texas Department of Transportation — to become the bike czar in car-centric Dallas?

The Dallas Morning News pedaled alongside [Ashley] Haire to find out.

Like most non-natives living in Dallas, she was lured here by a job.

Haire had been doing postdoctoral work at Portland State University. Portland was where she “drank the Kool-Aid” on biking, she said. In the 21/2 years she lived there, she put only 6,000 miles on her car.

“It became the lifestyle, in every sense of the word,” she said.

But TxDOT had an opening for a project manager on the massive reconstruction of Interstates 30 and 35E in downtown Dallas. Her education is in civil engineering, with degrees from the University of Arizona and the University of Texas at Austin.

And so, a couple of years ago, she came to Dallas to make the jump from bikes to freeways.

[…]

What are Haire’s thoughts on Dallas’ hot-button biking topics?

The helmet law? Haire wears a helmet whenever she hops on a bike, but she supported the City Council’s decision to repeal the helmet requirement for riders older than 17. Adults can make their own informed decisions, she figures.

Expanding hike-and-bike trails? She’s all for it, even though she notes that hike-and-bike trails come under the park department, not her office. She said the Dallas system is quite good. The key, she said, will be better connecting those off-street trails with on-street infrastructure.

Bike-sharing? She’s a fan of those programs, which feature rental stands at various locations where people can pick up or drop off a bike. But she worries that Dallas doesn’t yet have the biking infrastructure to support a citywide program.

Dallas is the only one of Texas’ five biggest cities to not already have a bike sharing program, and El Paso is working out the details with B-Cycle as we speak, with a goal of beginning operations early next year. I don’t know what the specifics are for biking in Dallas and the challenges that Ashley Haire will face, but some things like sharing road space and motorists’ attitudes are universal. I wish her and her city the best in getting up to speed.

Bikes on buses update

Keeps going up.

More METRO bus rides are bringing along their bicycles to complete their trip and get from point A to point B.

In June, the number of bikes on buses hit a record 21,941, a 32 percent increase over June a year ago. For the first nine months of this fiscal year (Oct. 2013 to June 2014), bike boardings rose 50 percent over the same period a year ago to 178,401.

Biking in the city is a trend that’s being promoted by city and county officials. METRO’s Kingsland Park & Ride bike partnership included $84,000 donated by METRO to build a bridge, path and parking that leads to a trail expanded by Harris County. The city donated bike racks for parking.

The trend continues, as did the good B-Cycle news. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important for these networks to intersect and act as extensions of one another. The more we can do to facilitate nor-car travel, the better off we’ll all be. That includes the drivers, who will find themselves in less traffic. Adding other kinds of capacity will also serve to add capacity to the roads.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

City strikes two deals with CenterPoint

One on street lights, and one on bike trails. Both are great news.

All 165,000 of Houston’s streetlights will be converted to more efficient LEDs over the next five years, halving electricity use and cutting air pollution in what Mayor Annise Parker said will be one of the nation’s largest such initiatives.

Also on Friday, the city said it had struck a deal to open up land under power lines for the construction of hike and bike trails, the result of years of negotiations in Austin to enact necessary legislation and months of local discussions. Both the trails and streetlights announcements involved agreements with CenterPoint Energy.

The switch from yellowish high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor and metal halide streetlights to bluish light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, may require no added city investment. Officials with the city and CenterPoint, which owns the streetlights, project that a long-term drop in maintenance costs will offset the up-front cost of installation.

LED lights draw less power and last longer than traditional bulbs.

Parker said the move would help the city reach its goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions produced by municipal operations by 10 percent by 2016. Once finished, the mayor said, the switch will save the city a projected $28 million in electricity costs over 10 years.

“In addition to being good for the planet, if we can cut energy consumption it’s also really good for the city’s bottom line,” Parker said.

[…]

Regarding the trails agreement, CenterPoint says there are 923 miles of right of way in Harris County, including 410 in the city of Houston. Those involved in the effort have estimated about 140 miles of right of way sit under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails.

In making the announcement, CenterPoint also presented a $1.5 million check for trail construction.

Houston voters in 2012 approved $100 million in bonds to be combined with private and grant funds for the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative to expand the city’s trail system along bayous.

The bayous largely run west to east, Parker said, requiring more north-south connections – and, conveniently, many transmissions corridors run north-south.

“We also have a lot of miles of bayou trails to install,” the mayor said, “but this allows us to make a more complete system.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the bike trails stuff, and here for the Mayor’s press release. It’s a beautiful thing being able to save millions of dollars without having to cut anything, isn’t it? The right-of-way trails have the potential to be transformative for the city’s – and the county’s – bike infrastructure. Like I said, great news all around.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

Bayou Greenways project moving along

Work is underway, land is being acquired, and money is being raised.

Now, the Houston Parks Board and its public partners hope to revive some of the city’s natural treasures through Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile trail system that, once complete, will wind along the bayous long seen as an interruption to Houston’s urban sprawl.

The initiative is at the heart of a bond package approved by voters last November that will provide $100 million in matching funds to double the number of trails to link existing park space and neighborhoods along the city’s many bayous.

While other bayou improvement projects in recent years have focused on public art, cafes and festival space, the Greenways initiative is about trails, native grasses and flood-resilient trees.

“This is very simple,” said [Roksan] Okan-Vick, president of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board that is leading the public-private project. “We will commit to keep it as natural as possible and meander a sensitively designed, single line of trail that connects to the neighborhoods whenever possible.”

[…]

As opportunities arise to buy grasslands or wooded lots, Okan-Vick said, up to 1,200 acres of new, small nature parks could jut from the trails.

She pointed to a city map with yellow ovals dotted over stretches of six bayous, marking the Greenways projects slated for next year. They include trails along White Oak Bayou between Antoine and Hollister, as well as connecting Brays Bayou trails between Mason Park and the University of Houston.

Another 21 red ovals highlighted areas where land must be acquired or trails built before the 2020 deadline.

The nonprofit has already acquired land along the bayous to complete 20 miles of the 80-mile trail expansion, breaking ground earlier this year on three smaller projects along Brays and White Oak bayous.

That last paragraph refers to the MKT to White Oak trail connection, which will connect two existing bike trails. The Parks Board is about 60% of the way towards raising its goal of $115 million by 2020, which will be matched by funds from the city that were approved in last year’s election. Fifty million of the funds raised by the Parks Board come from the Kinder Foundation, but they with a condition that Council agreed to last week.

The Kinder Foundation is poised to donate $50 million to the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative to connect Houston parks and double the length of the city’s public trails, but there’s a catch. The City Council first must turn over maintenance of the park lands to a nonprofit because of concerns that the city will not adequately maintain the newly developed properties.

The council is expected to approve the agreement partnering the city with the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, which would manage the maintenance of bayou trails with public funds.

The move is, in part, intended to dispel concerns from private donors who worry whether the city will have enough revenue and political support for the proper upkeep of the signature trail system once it is completed.

[…]

Supporters of the greenways project say the agreement before the council will provide assurance to taxpayers and donors that future city leaders cannot undercut their vision by simply moving or slashing city maintenance funds.

“Parks departments have tended to bear the brunt of tough times,” said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer. “This creates a dedicated fund that is more resilient.”

The legal agreement is structured differently from the Buffalo Bayou or Discovery Green projects, but the practical effects are similar.

Under the proposed arrangement, the city agrees to pay the park board up to $10 million a year for maintenance. Although the nonprofit likely will hire private companies and Harris County Flood Control to do some work, the city parks department would be the preferred contractor for the bulk of it, essentially bringing much of the funding back to city coffers.

Additionally, the agreement includes an annual 20 percent contingency fund the board can use for capital improvement projects, such as installing new lights or replacing aging trails, or for disaster recovery after flooding or hurricanes. The board would be required to present an annual report to the City Council on its plans and return any contingency money not spent within the year, Icken said.

If everything goes to plan, the city eventually will make money off the deal. An in-house analysis found that by 2020, when the trails are projected to be complete, the city would be collecting $20 million to $30 million more in property tax revenue than it is today because the improved bayous are expected to raise nearby property values faster.

Council did approve the agreement, so here we are. I’m excited about what this will mean for the city. Houston’s national reputation has improved considerably in recent years, but we’re still considered a flat and visually unappealing place, usually compared unfavorably to cities with hills and more varied terrain like Austin and San Antonio. I figure a project like this can go a long way towards dispelling the idea that there’s not much to look at in Houston beyond the skylines. Swamplot and Houston Politics have more.

Heights-area bike trails to be linked

Excellent news.

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

Houston’s expanding trail system will soon gain a new leg in the greater Heights area.

The addition will be part of Bayou Greenways 2020, a $215 million project aimed at creating a continuous network of hike-and-bike trails and parks along the city’s 10 major bayous.

“This is just one critical piece that will be a great help to the Heights area and the White Oak Bayou trail system,” said Heights resident Kevin Shanley, a former president of the White Oak Preservation Association.

The current trail along White Oak Bayou originally ran from 11th Street north to Watonga. As it grew in popularity, it was extended north from Watonga to Antoine. The expansion was completed last year.

In addition, a downstream section has been added from Stude Park to the University of Houston-Downtown campus.

Also in place is the Heights Hike & Bike Trail, which runs along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line in the Heights from south of 11th Street near Eureka across the Heights community.

The planned section of trail, 1.35 miles, will connect the Heights segment to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail. The project will include replacing a burnt-out bridge over White Oak Bayou. Groundbreaking on this section will take place this fall, Shanley said. The work could be done by fall 2014.

“When the first leg is complete, you’ll be able to ride from (the University of Houston-Downtown) all the way to Antoine,” he said.

Ultimately, the trail will extend much further west/northwest than that, but it’s the connection between the MKT (Heights) and White Oak trails that specifically interests me. I wrote about this two years ago in response to an earlier story by Marty Hajovsky about the effort to link these trails. In the embedded image above, it’s the purple line that represents what is to be built. Making that connection will do a lot to expand bike transit in this area, and I’m delighted to see it happen.

One of the many nice things about these trails is that for the most part they are off the streets and separated from traffic, which makes riding on them quite safe. There are places where the MKT and Nicholson trails in the Heights do cross streets, and in some places those crossings are a bit hazardous. In an earlier entry, Hajovsky wrote about efforts by the neighborhood to mitigate the dangers at these crossings.

Last month, the HHA board sent a letter to District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, Mayor Annise Parker and other city officials calling for safety improvements at six locations where the Nicholson/SP and MKT Rails to Trails bike trails cross major streets. For those of us who use those paths regularly, frequently with kids, as well as those of us who cross those paths in cars regularly (raising hands as I’m included in both of these groups), this would be a major improvement.

The six locations were identified in an independent traffic engineering study obtained by the Heights Association. According to a report in the HHA newsletter that goes out to members, the group claims that the changes should “enhance the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians without significant delays to motorists.” Here’s an excerpt from that newsletter:

The study recommends (1) installation of pedestrian hybrid beacons (“HAWK lights”) where the trail crosses Heights Boulevard, Yale, West 11th, West 19th, and West 20th; (2) installation of in-roadway lighting where the trail crosses White Oak, and (3) enhanced traffic signals and pavement markings at all six crossings. We note that the City has recently installed “bike crossing” pavement markings on the roadway approaches to the MKT intersections at 7th and Yale, 11th and Nicholson, and Columbia and White Oak.

Driving and riding over those six sites frequently, the safety problems are obvious. At West 19th, the Nicholson/SP trail splits from a single trail north of West 19th, to a split trail on both sides of the street to the south. It is so common to see children on bicycles, jogger or walkers darting across the road there to avoid oncoming traffic.

And since the bike trail covers what once were railroad tracks, the trail is on something of a rise in the street at all six of these locations. That makes the bike path hard to make out for oncoming drivers, whose cars are already “at pace” along all six of those streets. On white Oak and West 19th, with the shops, restaurants and bars, there are plenty of distractions already, further endangering trail users.

I personally would rank the intersections at Yale and 11th as the most dangerous because they’re the busiest and fastest-moving. Heights is basically two separate one-way streets, and I find that a lot easier to cross safely, and there isn’t as much traffic on 19th and 20th in my experience. The HAWK signals are still a good idea for all the locations – I’d like one installed at that White Oak crossing, too – but if I had to prioritize them, that’s how I’d do it. Houstonia has more.

Bike trails bill signed

CenterPoint rights of way

CenterPoint rights of way

The Chron has a brief blurb about Rick Perry signing the bill that will allow the CenterPoint rights of way in Harris County to be used as hike and bike trails. See here for the background, and here for a map of the two big rights of way that are in question; the map is embedded in this post as well. Compare this map to that of the Bayou Greenways, which will also have bike trails built along them in places where they don’t currently exist. The bayous run almost entirely east-west, while the CenterPoint rights of way are north-south. It’s easy to see the benefit of having them added to the hike and bike trail network, as they will provide connections between trails, all of which will be off-road. It’s sweet to finally clear a path for this, as it were, and to do so in a way that didn’t require sacrificing all notions of liability. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to be done – we’re probably three to five years away from seeing this completed – but this bill was a necessary first step, and the Houston bond referendum that was passed last year will provide an immediate boost. It’s a big deal, and another great amenity for the city and the county. Kudos to all for getting it done.

Bike trails bill

A bill that will clear the way for bike trails to be built on CenterPoint utility rights of way in Harris County has passed both chambers in the Lege and now awaits Rick Perry’s signature.

“We are really, really pleased to have finally put the ball across the goal line,” [author Rep. Jim] Murphy said. “Now, we can start building these trails that are sorely needed at a fraction of the cost.”

Though CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said there are 923 miles of right of way in the county, including 410 in the city of Houston, Murphy said about 100 miles run under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails. Brad Parker, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which helped negotiate the compromise bill, said there are 142 such miles of local right of way available.

“If you think about our bayou system, they run west to east, not a whole lot of north-south,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Using utility easements will allow us to vastly expand the opportunities for hike and bike trails and put some really critical connectors north-south.”

Houston voters last fall approved $100 million in bonds to expand the city’s trail system along bayous, to be combined with private and grant funds as the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative.

“What is so important about this is (that) these, along with the bayous, will serve as our bicycle interstates,” said cyclist Tom McCasland, director of the Harris County Housing Authority and former lobbyist for the Houston Parks Board. “For those people who don’t want us out on the busy roads, this is the answer. Let us ride these, and then we’ll jump to the side roads to get to our final destinations.”

Houston Parks Board Executive Director Roksan Okan-Vick said the bill would help put under-utilized land to good use. She said there is much to be done, however, from signing agreements with CenterPoint and determining which utility corridors make sense to funding the trails.

[…]

Clark Martinson, a cyclist and general manager of the Energy Corridor Management District, said his group’s plan for west Houston includes a north-south utility corridor west of Beltway 8 that would go from Brays Bayou all the way into Bear Creek Park.

“There’s an amazing number of people that are riding the existing trails. This just opens up safer routes for more neighborhoods,” Martinson said. “With these utility corridors, we’ll be able to tie in neighborhoods that are north of I-10. It gives closer-to-home, safe routes for families, too, not just the commuters.”

Tom Compson, of Bike Houston, said the extension of a trail along a north-south utility corridor that parallels the railroad tracks through Memorial Park and the Galleria would allow a safer route for Galleria bike commuters, keeping him from “taking my life in my hands” in the bike lane on Wesleyan.

“It’s very encouraging,” Compson said. “I don’t think you could find a bike advocate that would be opposed to it.”

The bill in question is HB200; see here and here for the background. The main question had been the amount of liability that CenterPoint would face for allowing this use of their rights-of-way, and in the end I think a reasonable balance was struck. There are a bunch of these throughout the county, and they’re all fairly wide swaths of green land on which the big transmission towers sit. It makes a whole lot of sense to use them for this purpose, and the timing is excellent after the passage of the bond issue last year. We’re still a ways away from anything actually getting built, but this is an important hurdle to clear, and I expect we’ll begin to see some plans and some activity in the next few months. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Bike trail on utility rights-of-way bills filed

This is a big show of support for making bike trails on CenterPoint’s rights of way happen.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 633 and state Reps. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.

In a prepared statement, the lawmakers cast their proposals as a way to cut time and cost in trail development.

“The people of Houston have said loud and clear that they want more hike and bike trails,” Ellis said in a statement. “But it has become very difficult to acquire the land in urban areas like Houston that is suitable for development of trails. This legislation is a unique and innovative compromise solution to develop new trails without undue delays and excess cost.”

See here for the background. I’m not a lawyer, but comparing the text of the original bills that were filed by Reps. Sarah Davis and Jim Murphy, HB 404 and HB 258, to the updated bills HB 200 and SB 633, the main difference seems to me to be that the original bills basically exempted the utility from any and all liability, while the updated bills “[do] not limit the liability of an electric utility for serious bodily injury or death of a person proximately caused by the electric utility’s wilful or wanton acts or gross negligence with respect to a dangerous condition existing on the premises”. That, frankly, was my main concern, so I’m glad to see that saner heads have prevailed. It may be that CenterPoint is still getting away with something here – again, I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t know what level of protection CenterPoint would have without this bill – but on the surface at least this looks better to me. Barring any further revelations, I’ll be happy to see this pass. Hair Balls has more.

How much protection from liability do they need?

State Impact asks a good question.

The electricity industry is among the biggest of the big spenders on lobbying the Texas legislature. So when bills are introduced giving the industry extraordinary protection from law suits, you can bet somebody’s going to cry foul.

“It’s a very unusual bill,” says Andrew Wheat at Texans for Public Justice, a corporate watchdog group in Austin.

Wheat’s talking about HB 404, introduced by a Republican representative from Houston, Sarah Davis. The bill is almost identical to HB 258 introduced by fellow Republican from Houston, Jim Murphy.

Both lawmakers say their bills are to allow the construction of hike and bike trails in Harris County on utility-owned rights-of-way, those big ribbons of green that cut across cities. Though primarily for the tall transmission line towers, the rights-of-way would make perfect places to build trails. (Houston voters recently approved $166 million in bonds to fund new trails.)

The owner of such rights-of-way in the Houston area is CenterPoint Energy. It has refused to allow the trails. Why? In an email to StateImpact, a CenterPoint media liaison said it would permit trails “if — and only if — the Texas Legislature provides additional liability protection to CenterPoint from people entering its rights of way.”

What has resulted, though, are bills that would give what lawyers say is almost blanket immunity to CenterPoint Energy should someone get hurt on company property while using it for recreation, even if CenterPoint was “grossly negligent.”

At the request of StateImpact, Richard Alderman, the associate dean of the University of Texas Law Center, took a look at the proposed legislation.

“It’s extremely broad and offers almost unlimited protection from liability beyond what any other entity doing the exact same thing under the exact same circumstances would have,” said Alderman.

He questioned why a new law was even necessary since Texas already has a “recreational use statute” which he says provides substantial protection for property owners when their land is used by others for things like hunting, hiking or biking.

“Frankly, under the recreational liability statute, I doubt there are very many law suits based on somebody who has a hike and bike trail,” said Alderman.

This came up in the 2011 session, but the bill filed by Rep. Davis didn’t go anywhere. I’d certainly like to see these trails built, but I don’t see why CenterPoint needs any special protection. As the story notes, trails like what would be built here already exist on utility-owned rights of way elsewhere. If CenterPoint already has a significant level of protection from liability, and if Oncor in Dallas didn’t need a law written for them to let its right of way be used for this purpose, then why are we even having this discussion? Perhaps what we really need is a little pressure on CenterPoint to drop the unreasonable demands, not to accommodate them. Via Swamplot.

Who doesn’t like parks?

The usual suspects – cranks, malcontents, and the Harris County GOP, that’s who.

Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot asks you to pay for part of that plan, of course. Not with increased taxes, though, [Mayor Annise] Parker insists. The bond measure asks voters to authorize $166 million in borrowing that the city plans to pay back through existing property tax collections.

Parker has said she would consider the Proposition B projects a legacy achievement in what she hopes will mark her place in city history as “the infrastructure mayor.”

But Dave Wilson, who has formed a PAC to oppose all five city bond measures, and like-minded anti-tax activists see a price tag, not just green space and infrastructure.

They have not targeted Proposition B specifically. Instead, they say the five propositions – combined with tax hikes proposed by Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College on the same ballot to pay for borrowing to fix those campuses – amount to too deep a dive into taxpayers’ pockets by government that cannot be trusted to spend money wisely.

While the measure calls for $166 million in taxpayer spending, it actually would cost $291 million to pay back with interest, according to one city estimate.

In a resolution opposing all city bond measures, the county Republican Party states: “Some of the proposed projects, such as creating ‘an integrated system of … bicycle trails’ seems a frivolous use of tax dollars when the city says it cannot find money to test thousands of stored rape kits.”

The resolution does not acknowledge that bond money cannot be used to pay for crime lab operations and other functions.

Of course, the city has found a way to pay for the rape kit backlog. It’s even one that I’m sure no Republican will ever, ever have to contribute towards. What could be better than that?

Honestly, I don’t get the Republicans’ opposition to this. There’s no tax increase. There’s never been a better time to float bonds, with interest rates at historically low levels. The city will only borrow as much as a private fundraising effort will generate. Everyone agrees that amenities like parks and bike trails are key to attracting businesses and knowledge workers to a city. The C Club, which last I checked was populated almost entirely by Republicans, has endorsed the parks bond. Even Republicans like riding bikes. What am I missing? Yes, I can see that this is part of a larger effort to sink all of the bonds, and whatever else you think of them the HISD and HCC bonds will have tax increases accompanying them. But that lack of distinction between the bonds shows that this is all about reflexive ideology and not about any policy rationale. I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s all very unserious.

One more thing: The story sidebar lists CM Oliver Pennington as an opponent to the parks measure. While it is true that CM Pennington voted against putting the entire bond package on the ballot, he also called himself “particularly supportive” of the parks bond. It is possible to distinguish, even if the Harris County GOP won’t do it.

Ashby Heights

Here’s the next frontier in unwanted development.

A residential development proposal that’s been on and off in the Heights since 2004 is back on, reviving neighborhood opposition to the project and catching the attention of the mayor.

Canadian developer Group LSR is requesting a multi-part variance that, if approved, would allow it to move forward on a building with as many as 84 units along the hike and bike trail. The site is at the east end of E. 5th Street, which dead ends just after it intersects with Oxford.

On Thursday, the planning commission, which votes on such issues, is expected to delay taking action on the variance for two weeks so it can have more time to consider the details.

When the developer first bought the land for the project in 2004, neighbors launched a grass-roots campaign hoping to stop the project. They said it would cause traffic, flooding and safety problems as well as threaten the urban bird and wildlife habitat. They set up a website and signed petitions.

This time around, the neighborhood has been working quickly to fight back, placing protest signs in their yards and making calls to City Hall.

The Heights Life has the details on the current fight against this development, which I have written about before. The photos in that first post have been archived; sorry about that. The main difference between this and Ashby is that this development can’t happen without variances, which Mayor Parker doesn’t seem inclined to support. One of the variances involves building a bridge from where 5th Street dead-ends at Oxford to where the condos would be. The full Chron story has a few more details.

One of the reasons for the request is that the developer owns only 35 feet of frontage along East 5th. Typically, 60 feet of frontage is required, though variances have been granted with far less than even 35 feet of space, according to the city’s Planning & Development Department.

[…]

The developer has considered other options, like accessing its site through Frasier Street, which connects to White Oak. But the city had concerns over that plan.

“We think the conditions of Frasier have changed,” said Suzy Hartgrove, planning department spokeswoman.

Hartgrove was referring to the explosive growth in new bars and restaurants that has occurred along White Oak.

Traffic there and along intersecting residential streets already has increased considerably, creating tension between homeowners and businesses.

Yes, traffic on White Oak was a concern when this project, whose name has apparently changed from Viewpoint In The Heights to Emes Place, was first proposed. Needless to say, with White Oak having since transformed into Washington Avenue North, that concern is even greater now. Frasier Street remains too narrow to handle any consistent traffic load. And then there’s the very popular Heights Bike Trail, which passes right by the proposed bridge location at 5th and Oxford. There’s a lot to be concerned about here. We’ll see what the planning commission has to say, but until then send some email and let your voice be heard.

Bike maps

The Chron has a request about bicycle trails.

Unfortunately, navigating via bicycle can sometimes be a difficult feat for people unfamiliar with these neighborhoods – especially downtown. While the central business district’s grid of one-way streets is easy enough, the bicycle routes for getting out of downtown are less obvious.

The ideal solution would be clearly marked signs and designated bicycle paths, but that will take time and money. Until then, the city could make sure that the maps at B-cycle stations do a better job of showing how to get to key bicycle paths. And putting mini-maps on the bikes themselves will help riders traverse Houston while sticking to designated bicycle-friendly routes.

I’ll take this request a step further. There needs to be a better map of the bike trail system online. I’m sorry, but the maps on Houston Bikeways just don’t cut it. They’re all PDFs, and they may be fine as printed documents, but even zoomed in they’re hard to read and don’t have enough street detail. You can see existing bike paths on Google Maps, but you can’t see designated bike lanes on city streets, and you can’t see what paths are currently under construction. There ought to be something easier to use, and it ought to be equally usable on smartphones. Having an app that can suggest a route in the absence of dedicated trails or lanes would be awesome, too. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.

One form of federal funding Texas has not rejected

Funding for bike trails is still welcome in the state.

As you may know, under the new federal transportation bill, MAP-21, bicycle and pedestrian projects now have more competition for less money than was available under previous transportation laws. The new bill also gives state officials more latitude in designating funds, and– most importantly– in deciding whether some funds are distributed to alternative transportation at all.

BikeTexas is happy to report that Texas did not opt out of Recreational Trails funding!

While rumors suggested that Texas would opt out of the program as allowed by the new transportation bill, and many national groups urged grassroots action, BikeTexas engaged in weeks of diplomatic communication with TxDOT, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Governor’s office. We received word a few days before the deadline that Texas is keeping the Recreational Trails money provided in the new federal transportation bill.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know how they did it, but I can think of a few other issues I’d like them to lobby for. Well done.

The B-Cycle era begins

At long last, Houston’s B-Cycle program officially kicked off last week.

Mayor Annise Parker, an occasional bicyclist, called the federally-funded program “a quick, easy alternative to being stuck in traffic or walking long distances in downtown.” She said the bicycles may help familiarize residents with downtown, an area she said many still consider “foreign territory.”

Mobility alternatives

Bike Houston Chairman Darren Sabom said the new program may help dispel Houston’s national reputation as an uncongenial, sprawling metropolis.

“People want to live, work, play and eat close to one another and not be in their car as much,” city sustainability director Laura Spanjian said, citing a recent Rice University study that found most respondents wanted to live in compact, walkable communities. “The love affair with the car is finally over, and providing alternatives to help people get around in the urban environment will be increasingly important.”

She said plans call for establishing stations, possibly connected to the light rail system, in the Museum District, Hermann Park and the medical center. Stations also may be located on Washington Avenue, in Houston Heights and at area businesses, she said.

The bikes are equipped with baskets, locks and lights and are easily adjustable to accommodate the height of riders. Users are encouraged to wear helmets, which can be purchased at City Hall’s visitor center. Patrons may access the bicycles from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Daily membership can be purchased at a station or online at www.houston.bcycle.com; weekly and annual memberships are available only through the website.

With membership, the first 90 minutes of each ride are free. A rider returning a bike after 90 minutes may immediately check it out again for another free 90-minute ride. Rides longer than 90 minutes, however, incur an additional charge of $2 per half hour. A smartphone app is available for riders to locate stations and determine whether bikes or dock openings are available.

I’ll be very interested to see what the membership numbers look like in a few months. If this has been a hit in San Antonio there’s no reason it can’t do well here. Putting a few stations near rail stops is a good idea, too. Two weeks ago, I had to take my car in for service. The mechanic we use is near where Montrose meets Midtown, so I figured I’d take my bike with me and ride from the shop to the light rail stop at McGowen and get to work that way. Which was a great plan until I was reminded that you can’t take your bike onto a train during peak hours, so I had to sit and cool my heels till 9 AM. A B-Cycle option would have worked better for me. Maybe next time.

As for Houston’s potential as a bike city, here’s a visitor’s view of the lay of the land.

“Houston is the sleeper — the next big bicycle city that nobody knows about yet,” Tom McCasland told us on Thursday.

I was, of course, skeptical. 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. 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”?

But McCasland offered to take us on a bike ride to prove his point, and Joe and I weren’t about to turn him down. While Joshua cooked up some magic in the basement of Georgia’s Market (downtown’s only, if fancy, grocery store), we set off.

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.

Link via Hair Balls, where John Nova Lomax writes about his experiences bike commuting into downtown. These folks explored the not-yet-connected junction between the MKT and White Oak bike trails (among other places), which will eventually make a whole lot more of the city accessible by bike from downtown. Houston’s flatness may make it less visually interesting, but it’s a huge asset from a bike-riding perspective. And yes, it’s really hot here three months out of the year, but the flipside of that is that it’s generally pretty nice the other nine months. The weather here is a lot more bike-conducive than it is in, say, Minneapolis, the bike-friendly city to which the author of that piece compared us. The potential is there, I just hope we use it. We have a two month head start on New York, if nothing else. Swamplot has more, and there’s more on the B-Cycle rollout from Dale Robertson.