I am cruising on my vintage bike, my silver and purple handlebar streamers making a subtle whish as I pick up speed. My ride is shaded by an exquisite canopy of mature Live Oaks, and I can smell barbacoa tacos from a food truck and a large Meyer lemon tree in bloom. An art car passes by, and I ding my bell and wave since my bike is an art bike of sorts, decked out with rhinestones and tinsel. I like to interact with people I pass because it makes me feel connected to the city. I’ve randomly biked by people I know walking on the sidewalk, shouted their name, and exchanged a high-five. I wave and smile at others blasting music and grilling out in their front yards. When I bike through the neighborhood on the weekends, kids on bikes playfully try to race me, pedaling alongside for a block and then turning back home.
Biking is full of these encounters, especially when biking on streets with low traffic and at a slow, easy pace. This ability of the bicycle to enable fun, random encounters is what makes riding a bike in a city like Houston so delightful.
And delight is an important factor in making cycling appealing to those who identify as “interested but concerned” in riding a bike. Maximizing the fun of riding a bike could be the gateway for more people simply because biking is more enjoyable than other modes of transportation. No matter how good an audio book might be, listening to it while stuck on Loop 610 at rush hour is just not that fun.
Fun is feeling energized after biking to the post office and, on your way home, deciding to stop for barbecue. Fun is meeting up with friends for dinner and then all biking off together with your blinky lights illuminating the street. Fun is discovering new murals and street art in the Third Ward when you bike to an event at UH. Fun is getting easy exercise while riding a bike to work. I could keep going.
I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of cycling in Houston. Yes, it can be emotionally draining, and Houston is recognized as one of the most dangerous cities to ride a bike. Cycling has been my main form of transportation for the past 10 years in different cities (Chicago, Providence, Boston), and my harrowing experiences are too numerous to list. The close calls I’ve had have led me to bike the way I do now. I choose the easiest, safest, most fun route I can.
Even when I bike exclusively on low-stress streets in Houston, I still have major barriers to overcome — dangerous intersections and high-speed roads (like Waugh, Kirby, and Almeda.) This is where the network of existing low-stress streets dissolves, because the lack of safe connections makes cycling dangerous, stressful, and completely not fun.
There is a direct relationship between the existence of good bike infrastructure and personal choice. With a network of connected, low-stress bicycle facilities in place, cycling becomes the better option because it is a fun, easy, and safe way to commute. The way we get around is then reframed when we make choices based on ease. Make cycling safe and fun, and people will begin to choose cycling over driving. This is important for how we are thinking about remaking our city and what the recently released Bike Plan could mean. More people riding bikes more often means improved air quality, improved health, and an improved quality of life for everyone, including people who don’t bike.
Houston can become more bikeable if we make the critical connections in the existing network and aggressively implement neighborhood bikeways that maximize the fun and ease of cycling. A neighborhood bikeway is a low-traffic street that is specifically designed and engineered to make cycling safe. A neighborhood bikeway can become the best way to run errands, to connect to a bayou trail, to get to work, or to bike with family. Neighborhood bikeways have the potential to weave together our weird, wonderful, disjointed, and fantastic collage of a city in a way that allows people to truly experience the uniqueness of Houston. We have a bustling city that is lush and beautiful, with good food, a thriving arts scene, job opportunities, great public institutions, and interesting people. It is also vast and disorganized with multiple employment centers and various clusters of housing density spread across the megalopolis. Bike infrastructure has the potential to act as the thread that makes it easy to traverse this place. The bicycle can be the catalyst that changes the way we get around our city and, in turn, change the very nature of the way we connect to where we live.
Everyone should have the choice to bike to the library, to meetings, to work, to pick up their kids from school. Everyone should be able to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather on a bike, to stop along the bayou and take a selfie with the bluebonnets or to bike with friends and family and share a good laugh. Cycling today in Houston is, for many people, done out of necessity. It’s harrowing, emotionally taxing, and extremely dangerous. It’s not full of flowers, colorful murals, laughter, and high-fives. It’s not, but it could be.
Houston’s Draft Bike Plan Lays Out Ambitious Vision for City’s Future by Raj Mankad on February 18, 2016