Now that City Council has voted to adopt the Houston Bike Plan, the city must quickly and deliberately move forward with the plan’s implementation. My interest is not solely for our community’s collective quality of life. For me, success of the bike plan, and a future with city streets that are safer for people, is deeply personal.
On Feb. 3, my mother, Marjorie Corcoran, was killed on her bike commute to Rice University, when she was struck by the METRORail train near Hermann Park. She had been biking to work off and on since she first moved to Houston in 1980 to teach in the Rice Physics department.
It is in one of these missing connections that my mom was killed, where the Hermann Park Bike Path ends in a confusing crosswalk at Fannin and Sunset. Here, bicyclists mix with pedestrians, right-turning cars and the train. They come out on the other side of the crossing with the choice to either bike on the sidewalk or with busy traffic on Main Street.
The Houston Bike Plan identifies best practices for bike lanes and crossings that can fill in these missing connections and make it safe for families, kids and seniors to get from their homes to bike paths and other destinations. Safer bike lanes will encourage people to bike to work or school, provide connections to transit and promote active lifestyles in communities where obesity has become an epidemic.
It’s disappointing to me that there was even a debate as to whether to adopt the bike plan and that it was only passed by a narrow margin. Whether we ride a bike or not, we should unanimously agree that safer streets, more transportation options and fewer cars on the road will benefit us all. The Houston Bike Plan is not about prioritizing bikes over cars or about taking funding away from other roadway projects. It’s about a city where people may ride a bike and drive a car in any given day and where streets can accommodate both. The adoption of the bike plan should symbolize Houston’s commitment to the safety of everyone on our roads, and it’s the beginning of a process to now find funding and community support for specific bike lane projects.
For too long, Houston has prioritized attempts to ease traffic congestion over the safety of people using the streets. We can continue to widen streets and provide more space for cars, but more car traffic will always fill in that space. Meanwhile, what the city of Houston has to show for these efforts is one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the U.S., with 200-300 people (pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers) killed in traffic collisions annually. This number is similar to the local murder rate, yet we assume these traffic “accidents” are an unavoidable price to pay for our mobility. Many of these deaths can be prevented by rethinking the design of our roads. The addition of bike lanes on many major streets in Houston will have the added benefit of improving safety for everyone, reducing speeding in dense parts of the city – and ultimately reducing car traffic, too, as residents are given more options to get around outside of a car.
My mom was always physically active, and at 66 she had no health problems and continued to bike and run in her neighborhood every day. She wanted to maintain her health so she could continue her particle physics research and teach her grandchildren about science.
I will give birth to my first child next month, and she will never know her grandmother. And we will never know what discoveries might have come out of my mom’s research had she lived another 10 or 20 years. But, my daughter will still learn to ride a bike and how to get around the city outside of a car – and I hope she and all children her age in Houston will be safer when doing so. I believe we have before us an opportunity to choose a future where they will be.
Colleen Corcoran is a Houston native.