Bicycles are becoming an increasingly popular mode of transportation in Downtown, Neartown and in the Heights, where more options have become available for getting around on two wheels.
Among measures expected to boost cycling are the new safe pass law, the B-Cycle bike rental program and plans for a trail system through the Bayou Greenways project.
“It’s really important to give people transportation options,” she said. “We want to improve our major roadways to do that and improve air quality.
“There are more bicyclists on the street and they grow everyday,” Spanjian said. “The mayor is extremely interested in bicycle infrastructure. Her commitment, coupled with the public’s craving for bicycle commuting, is why you see this momentum, this explosion in biking.”
Signs of the city’s increasing friendliness to cyclists include bike racks outside some businesses and on Metropolitan Transit Authority buses.
Recent approval of Houston’s safe pass ordinance provided an assurance for Houston cyclists. The law requires vehicles to keep 3 feet away when passing cyclists. Trucks or commercial vehicles must keep a distance of 6 feet.
The penalty is $500 per violation.
“That’s a huge victory for us,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, who works in program development and research for Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to improving regional quality of life. “It immediately makes our streets safer for everybody.”
Spanjian said bicycle sharing through the B-Cycle program, which is sponsored by the city and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, has taken off since its establishment. She reports that there are 130,000 rides a week through the rental program.
“We’re giving people bikes to ride,” she said.
The program is expanding, thanks to a $750,000 commitment by Blue Cross and to U.S. Department of Energy funding. Residents throughout Downtown, the East End, Midtown, Montrose, the Museum District and Hermann Park will have access to the bike-rental stations.
Rental bikes are now available at 18 new locations including four located along the light rail line. The self-service stations are available from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.
Membership in the program is available by day, week or year. All bikes are equipped with lights, a lock and a basket. Riders can take the bike anywhere and lock it up, even if no kiosk is available.
Membership rates are $5 for 24 hours, $15 for seven days or $65 for a year. Usage fees for each checkout range from free for the first 60 minutes to $2 for each additional 30 minutes.
Usage is averaging 1,300 boardings a week, according to the mayor’s office.
A map showing locations for the bike rental docks is at http://houston.bcycle.com.
The Bayou Greenways project will create a system of trails around bayous, said Chelsea Young, pedestrian-bicycle coordinator for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning entity working to improve cycling infrastructure in the region.
Bayou Greenways will be funded through a $100 million bond issue approved by city voters in 2012 and through private fundraising.
“That’s a big thing,” she said. “You’re looking at benefits across a huge area. The value applies to a lot more people.”
Young regularly rides a bike around her home in the Heights.
“It’s easy, and it’s fun,” she said. “You save money, and it’s social. Plus businesses are accommodating bicycles more.”
Young has noticed more cyclists in the neighborhood lately.
“I definitely feel there has been a major push,” she said. “The initiatives from the city have helped a lot.”
H-GAC is compiling statistics of bike path use in the city, Young said.
“The thought is that by counting walkers and bikers, you can have a baseline,” she said. “Then that can help validate funding for projects.”
There are automated counters at two locations in the Heights area.
“It’s good to know who is out there, so we can create better connections,” she said.
Ultimately, neighborhoods are key in the establishment of a successful bicycle commuting program, Crossley said.
Crossley’s dream is the development of a “neighborhood greenways program” – a grid of residential streets with low traffic volumes, giving cyclists and pedestrians priority.
“Neighborhood greenways are the missing link,” he said.
“It’s crucial. We need high quality hike-and-bike infrastructure, but all of that will be for naught if you can’t get out the door, if your neighborhood isn’t safe.”
Crossley is part of the Complete Streets movement, which works to make roadways safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
About 40 percent of Houstonians do not drive, whether it is because of age, disability, income or preference, he said.
“We should make our streets safe for all uses,” Crossley said. “We’ve actually seen some big wins lately.”
Crossley believes that helping bicyclists will improve the environment in the city and the health of its residents.
“We have terrible traffic problems,” he said. “All those have to do with the fact that we’re subsidizing sprawl. We need to turn that around.”
He said public interest in alternate forms of transportation has increased.
“I think we’re on the leading edge of change in Houston,” Crossley said. “We’re definitely taking the right steps now, but we have a ways to go.”