Though it boasts a growing biking culture, Houston is the only major city in Texas without a safe-passing law requiring motorists to share the road with cyclists and others. City leaders now want to change that.
City attorneys proposed an ordinance to the City Council’s public safety committee Wednesday that officials said should come up for a vote soon. Bike advocates cheered the proposal, but said they hope it will be amended to more closely mirror a model ordinance, drafted by Austin-based nonprofit BikeTexas, that is working its way through the Legislature.
Fourteen other Texas cities, most using BikeTexas’ proposal, have approved safe-passing laws since Gov. Rick Perry’s 2009 veto of a bill that would have required drivers to keep a minimum distance from cyclists. Nationwide, 39 states have adopted safe passing laws.
Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, said making safe-passing laws as uniform as possible will improve efforts to educate drivers about the need to share the road. The model ordinance, he added, has been picked over by scores of lawmakers and has solid compromises built in.
Fines of up to $500
“This is important so that they pass the state law,” Stallings said of Houston’s efforts. “It’s an educational tool and very valuable, as an ordinance, to begin that process of education, but it’s going to be more effective once it’s more universal.”
Houston’s proposal would require drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing and 6 feet when trailing, and would require them to change lanes to give cyclists more room, where possible. Violators could be fined up to $500.
The ordinance also would protect pedestrians, runners, stranded motorists, construction workers, tow truck operators, riders on horseback and other “vulnerable” road users.
f the cyclist is violating traffic laws or not using an available bike lane, the protections would not apply. The latter provision concerned cyclists, who said that idea doesn’t consider the condition of Houston’s bike lanes.
“They’re narrow, they’re full of crap, the pavement is in bad shape. And because you’re in this bike lane, cars figure you’ve got the bike lane, so they’re coming by within inches and they’re going 40 to 45 mph,” said cyclist Tom Compson.
“If you have to swerve to avoid an obstacle, a pothole, then you have to go into the lane,” said Compson, “and believe me, you’ve got to have nerves of steel.”
Debate over distance
Others questioned whether allowing delivery trucks to be 6 feet behind a cyclist really constitutes a safe trailing distance. Several speakers on Wednesday relayed stories of being struck, or nearly struck, by passing vehicles. Councilman Jack Christie said he, too, has had close calls with cars while cycling.
The BikeTexas model ordinance does not define a safe trailing distance and handles bike lanes by echoing existing law, which states that cyclists must ride as close as “practicable” to the curb. The model ordinance also requires a greater passing distance for commercial vehicles than for passenger cars and light trucks.
“Our thought was we don’t want officers out there wondering, ‘Well, I don’t know how to classify that vehicle,’ ” said Don Cheatham, general counsel in the City Attorney’s office. “We’re more interested in whether he thinks that’s safe conduct or unsafe conduct.”
Other items discussed Wednesday included how specific the definition of a vulnerable road user should be – a person in a wheelchair legally is a pedestrian, but that might not be clear to someone reading the ordinance, said Councilwoman Ellen Cohen – and whether motorcycles are in need of protection or whether other users need protection from them.
Looking for feedback
City Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian said the point of the hearing was to gather feedback from cyclists.
Mayor Annise Parker believes the city should move on the issue quickly, Spanjian said, noting that cycling in Houston is growing with help from a successful bond issue for trails last fall and an expanding bike share program.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who chairs the public safety committee, has advocated for “complete streets,” those designed with cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists in mind. A safe-passing law is a logical extension of that idea, Gonzalez said.