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Bike Houston

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Bike safety is also car safety

It’s been two years since bicyclist Chelsea Norman was killed by drunk hit-and-run driver Margaret Mayer. The city has taken numerous steps to help make the streets safer for bicyclists. How are we doing on that?

“I personally don’t feel that the streets are any safer,” said Hector Garcia, who helps organize cycling events around Houston.

Up-to-date, verifiable counts for cyclist fatalities can be tough to obtain, but online databases and Houston Chronicle archives show that nine bicyclists were killed this year through Nov. 29 in the Houston area, excluding crashes in rural areas of counties adjacent to Harris County. That compares to 14 in 2014.

Even with the likely decline, however, cyclists say more must be done to reduce accident rates, especially inside Houston’s city limits.

[…]

Outreach to local politicians, meanwhile, has increased since Norman’s death, said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston. To some extent, the advocacy group’s growth can be traced to the attention Norman’s death and others received in 2013.

“Cities and conditions change when people get involved,” Payne said. “Cycling, civil rights, you pick the issue. Houston has the cyclists. For too long we were a highly-fragmented group. United, we are getting recognition and a seat at the table.”

The city, with some prodding by Payne and others, is developing a bike master plan. That in itself is progress, Payne said.

“The city must set goals on how it wants to evolves and come up with a plan to get there,” he said.

Change will be gradual. Bike lanes and other features would commonly be added as streets are repaired or redesigned, meaning it could be years before new infrastructure is in place. Designs for improvements to Alabama and T. C. Jester incorporate bike amenities.

Payne says progress since Norman’s death has been limited.

“While not strictly a failure, I would have liked to have seen the city council and the mayor take a more aggressive stand on issues like distracted driving, speeding and DUI,” Payne said.

Recall that Mayer and Norman’s collision had fatal consequences, based on the investigation and trial, because Mayer had been drinking, not because Norman was on a bike.

“These are behaviors which are killing very large numbers of Houstonians, mainly people in cars, and we know that we can make improvements here with a bit of courage,” Payne said.

That’s something that I think tends to get overlooked in the often-polarizing discussion about bike safety in Houston: A lot of the things we could do to make the roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists would also make them safer for cars and their occupants. That’s largely because the vast, overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by drivers. As this recent NHTSA press release notes, “NHTSA research shows that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor. In contrast, vehicle-related factors are the critical reason in about 2 percent of crashes.” (See this Reuters story and this Ars Technica story, which is where I found that NHTSA link, for more on that.) Anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of drivers doing the sorts of things they do that lead to accidents makes us all safer. That includes things like Complete Streets, texting while driving bans, continued education and outreach about drunk driving, actually enforcing existing ordinances like the Safe Passing law, and more. We all know you can’t fix stupid, but you can mitigate against it.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

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: [email protected]

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.

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.

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.

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.

The other three foot rule

This is a little bold for my taste.

A Houston bicyclist is testing a year-old safety ordinance intended to ensure motorists don’t get closer than three feet from riders.

While riding in the designated bike lanes of the Memorial area this month, Dan Morgan has been filming drivers who hit a flag pole sticking out three feet from the side of his bike.

“The whole purpose of the flag was to demonstrate that we exist on the roads,” said Morgan, 47, an automation safety manager. “That flag could have been a person.”

He’s been met with anger from motorists who aren’t acquainted with the law, as seen in the videos he’s collected on his YouTube channel. Most motorists shown are angry about their cars being damaged.

Via Hair Balls, you can see some of the videos Morgan has shot on his Facebook page; here is one example. Note that Morgan is in the little bike lane by the curb – there’s plenty of room to pass him safely. I admire what he’s doing, though I don’t have the cojones to do it myself. We all know there are some reckless bicyclists out there, who ride unpredictably and who ignore the rules of the road. I’ve shaken my fist at more than a few two-wheeled idiots. But whether you like it or not, bikes have the same right to the road as you do, and it’s your responsibility as a driver to pass them safely. Remember, in any confrontation between a bike and your car, the bike and its rider are going to lose, badly. Do you want that on your conscience? If you have to slow down for a few seconds to safely pass a bike, do it. You’ll still get where you’re going. People need to live this, and HPD needs to enforce it. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

Did I mention that HPD needs to enforce this law? Turns out, they’re on it.

In Houston, cops are taking a novel approach to arresting jerks who cut off cyclists. They’re going undercover on two wheels, and when things get too tight for the law, they’re calling in for support.

In 2012, if you were cycling around the country, Houston ranked as one of the worst cities to make a stop. Out of 51 American cities in the last Alliance for Biking and Walking report, listed from low to high cyclist fatalities, Houston beat out other lethal cities for number 41.

But Houston could turn itself around, especially now that it’s implementing a “Goal Zero” bike safety program that aims to keep all its cyclists alive. Last Tuesday, Mayor Annise Parker announced a series of changes to the way the city went about its transportation business. Among those changes: Sting operations from plainclothes policemen riding bikes to catch drivers who pass cyclists too closely for the city’s three-foot mandated standard.

“We asked them to put police officers in plain clothes on bicycles with support in the area, so if someone did pass them too closely, they could call on their support to pull over that driver and issue a citation,” explains Mike Payne, executive director of BikeHouston, the organization that originally went to the mayor’s office with the idea. “They just started running special missions, if you want to call them that, where they send people out to different neighborhoods to do this. And they start writing citations and warnings.”

Consider yourself warned. Pass bikes safely, and you won’t have to worry about it.

Goal Zero Fatalities plan for bikes adopted

From the Mayor’s office:

Mayor Annise Parker today announced the City and BikeHouston are joining forces to launch a major bike safety campaign to enforce and educate motorists and cyclists about the existing Safe Passing Ordinance, as well as create a Bicycle Master Plan for the City.

“As the name of this program implies, the goal is to end cycling fatalities,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Whether on a bike or behind the wheel, we have to abide by the rules of the road and learn how to share the road safely. Unfortunately, a spate of recent bicycle fatalities on Houston streets indicates there is much work to be done in this area. As a first step, I am dedicating $50,000 toward the cost of a Bicycle Master Plan that will guide our future decisions regarding placement of dedicated on-street bike lanes and infrastructure.”

City initiatives such as Houston Bike Share and trail expansions have encouraged more cycling. Those numbers are expected to increase as Bayou Greenways 2020 projects are built and the City implements its new Complete Streets approach and Sunday Streets HTx.

“BikeHouston believes today’s steps will help make our city a safer place to cycle and an even better place to live, work and raise a family,” said Michael Payne, Executive Director of BikeHouston. “By investing in safe bikeways and setting specific targets to increase cycling, our city’s leader’s will become our country’s leaders in dealing with the challenge of creating healthy, economically sustainable communities which attract the best companies and employees.”

As part of the enforcement component of the campaign, the Houston Police Department has instructed officers to ticket drivers who violate the City’s new Safe Passing Ordinance and cyclists that disregard their responsibilities to obey traffic laws. The stepped up enforcement includes undercover sting operations along roadways popular for cycling. The Safe Passing Ordinance mandates at least three feet of distance when passing and at least a six foot buffer when behind a bicyclist or other vulnerable road user. HPD has produced a PSA to help educate the public about the ordinance. The PSA will be available to disperse through television, radio, internet, YouTube, and social media sites.

“I want to ensure everyone feels safe on Houston’s street,” said Mayor Parker. “By working together we can become one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the nation.”

The Mayor’s Office will work closely with HPD, the Planning Department, Public Works and Engineering, the Municipal Courts and BikeHouston on the campaign.

Basically, the city is adopting BikeHouston’s Goal Zero Fatalities plan, at least in part; BikeHouston calls for a ban on using cellphones while driving, and I rather doubt that’s in the works. Be that as it may, the Chron adds some details.

City leaders and bicycle safety advocates announced a plan Tuesday aimed at eliminating cyclist deaths in collisions with cars.

The announcement, which follows two recent cyclist deaths, includes the development of a Bicycle Master Plan, a public awareness campaign about a recent city ordinance intended to protect cyclists and stepped-up enforcement against drivers and cyclists who flaunt the law.

Mayor Annise Parker said the city would dedicate $50,000 to the bike plan, which will guide future bike lane locations as well as infrastructure to accommodate cyclists, such as barriers separating cars from bikes, connections between roads and trails or more off-street bike trails.

[…]

As for enforcement, Houston Police Department has conducted seven stings, mostly around downtown, along Washington Avenue and in Midtown, said HPD spokesman Kese Smith, and will expand to other areas. The stings generated three citations and a warning to motorists for violating the city’s safe passing ordinance.

That law, adopted last May, mandates a buffer of at least three feet when passing and of six feet when following a cyclist or other “vulnerable” road user such as a construction worker. Six months after the ordinance’s passage, the city had cited no violators.

HPD Capt. Larry Satterwhite, whose team conducted the stings, said the ordinance is difficult to enforce.

“It is very difficult to identify this violation without a complaint. Judging what’s three feet and what’s not is very difficult to do,” Satterwhite said. “My officers are communicating back to me that for the most part, motorists are giving wide berth. We’re happy to report that.”

Enforcement definitely needs to be on the menu. BikeHouston’s plan calls for traffic cops riding bikes to be out there looking for safe passing and other offenders as they would for speeders, which I think is a sensible idea. I’m glad to hear that people generally seem to be obeying the law, but there’s nothing like the threat of a ticket to really get compliance. Beyond that, citing and where needed prosecuting at fault drivers in bike/vehicle collisions would go a long way, too. This is a good start, and I look forward to seeing the city’s bike master plan, but it is just a start. Let’s build on it from here.

Council approves safe passing ordinance

From the press release:

Mayor Annise Parker and Houston City Council Members today unanimously approved an ordinance to protect Houston’s cyclists and other vulnerable road users by requiring cars and other motor vehicles to keep a separation of more than three feet while passing, and trucks or commercial vehicles to keep a separation of more than six feet. The ordinance is effective immediately.

Vulnerable road users are defined as a walkers or runners; the physically disabled, such as someone in a wheelchair; a stranded motorist or passengers; highway construction, utility or maintenance workers; tow truck operators; cyclists; moped, motor-driven cycle and scooter drivers; or horseback riders.

“As a city, we need to protect everyone and anyone who uses our roads,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This ordinance will make our city even more attractive to those who want to enjoy traveling in forms other than by car.”

In addition to requiring safe passing and trailing distances from vulnerable road users, this ordinance prohibits any motor vehicle occupant from throwing or projecting any object or substance at or against them.

“BikeHouston is pleased to see this ordinance pass and proud of the Mayor’s continued efforts on helping Houston become a more bicycle-friendly city,” says Kathryn Baumeister, Chair of BikeHouston. “Houston is a city of cars, but also has a big population of people who rely on cycling for transportation and recreation. We feel it is important for cyclists and drivers of automobiles to respect one another on the road. This ordinance will help provide a measure of safety for the vulnerable road users.”

In addition to BikeHouston, several state and local leaders and groups advocated and/or voiced support for this ordinance, including: Senator Rodney Ellis, BikeTexas, AARP, Better Houston, Bikin’ Babes, Citizen Transportation Coalition, Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, Houston Tomorrow, Northwest Cycling Club and Richmond Rail.

Similar ordinances have already been enacted by Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

See here and here for the background. A similar ordinance was also passed by the Texas Legislature in 2009, but Rick Perry vetoed it, thus leaving it up to municipalities to take their own action. Via Houston Tomorrow, another version of this bill, HB 2225, has passed out of committee in the House and is on the calendar for today, which is the last day for House bills to be passed to the Senate. I’m not sure why Perry would be less likely to veto this bill than the prior one, but you never know. Regardless, kudos to the Mayor and Council for getting this done. Texas Leftist has more.

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 to the ballpark

From the CTC email list, this is very cool:

Bike to the Ballpark – May 1

Play Green Week at Minute Maid Park runs today through Sunday, May 1st. Throughout the week, the ballclub will be raising awareness of green initiatives. Join the Astros on Sunday, May 1st for the first-ever Bike to the Ballpark!

Register online for just $10 and receive

:

  • Ticket to Astros vs. Brewers
  • Free Bike Valet secure bike parking in lot D
  • Complimentary bike inspection by Bike Barn mechanics
  • Event packet & Play Green goodie bag
  • Chance to win a free bike, courtesy of Bike Barn!

Once registered, each fan will receive a confirmation email. Please bring this email as your proof of purchase to pick up your event packet and game ticket.

What: Packet pick-up

When: Friday, April 29, 2011 from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and
Saturday, April 30, 2011 from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Where: Union Station Lobby at Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

What: Late registration and group ride

When: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 9:30 am late registration, 11:00 am ride departs
Where: TC Jester Park, 4201 TC Jester Blvd, Houston, TX 77018 (map)

The group ride from TC Jester Park will follow a predetermined route leading to Minute Maid Park. The Houston Police Department and volunteers from Bike Houston and CTC will be on hand to lead the event, and provide traffic control throughout the route. Once at parking lot D, riders will receive goodie bags and tickets to the game.

What: Astros vs Brewers ballgame
When
: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 11:30 am gates open, 12:45 pm bike raffle, 1:05 pm game time, 7th inning first chance to be escorted back to TC Jester Park
Where: Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

Bike Houston and CTC volunteers, along with HPD, will be available beginning at the top of the 7th inning to escort riders back to the starting locations. Groups will be escorted from Lot D every 30 minutes beginning at the top of the 7th.

More information is here, and you can see a map of the five-mile route from TC Jester Park to Minute Maid here. It follows existing bike paths all the way downtown, so you’re separate from traffic almost the entire time. If I weren’t already booked up for Sunday, I’d do it myself. Maybe next year. Let me know if you decide to go on this, I’d love to hear about your experience with it.

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

Today’s the day for the TIP

That postponed Transportation Policy Council meeting to determine how to allocate unprogrammed federal transportation funds happens today.

A proposal before the regional Transportation Policy Council last month could have clawed back $12.8 million in funding set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects and directed those dollars to road and freight rail work. At the urging of advocacy groups, the proposal was tabled to allow for more discussion.

The TPC — an appointed body of mostly elected officials that directs federal transportation funding in the eight-county region — will take up the issue at its meeting Friday.

“I’m hoping we can reach a compromise to where all of the (bike and pedestrian) funding is not lost, yet certainly understanding the need for roadway and rail funding,” said Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell, a TPC member.

[…]

In its 2011-14 transportation plan, the council has direct discretion over just $346 million in federal funds, $266 million of which already is allocated.

Some TPC members have proposed setting percentage guidelines on how the remaining $80 million should be spent: 1 percent on planning studies, 9 percent to 13 percent for alternative modes such as biking, walking and mass transit, and for air-quality projects, and the remaining 75 percent to 82 percent on roads and rail.

“I think there are going to be a lot of people in the broader community who aren’t in a particular interest group who say, ‘Wait a minute, of course, we ought to be giving 80 percent of mobility funds to actual mobility projects,’ as opposed to sidewalks or hike-and-bike trails,” [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

[…]

Advocacy group Houston Tomorrow has suggested spending 55 percent of the funds on roads and rail, and 34 percent on alternative modes.

They lay out their case here, with David Crossley adding more here. The meeting is this morning at the TPC’s office at 3555 Timmons, 2nd floor, room A. It’s open to the public, and the public comment period begins at 9:30, though there will be a TPC workshop beginning at 8:45 that you can also attend but not participate in. I look forward to seeing what happens.

TPC delays vote on TIP

Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’sTransportation Policy Council (TPC) unanimously voted on Friday morning to delay by thirty days its vote on a full $79.8 million allocation of unprogrammed federal transportation funds toward Mobility – roadway and freight rail – projects and a reallocation of $12.8 million from already committed pedestrian, bicycle, and Livable Centers projects to Mobility projects.

The 30-day delay will allow the public and elected officials to further explore how potential money from the federal Surface Transportation Program Major Metro (STP MM) and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) funds should be allocated within the Houston-Galveston region’s2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The decision came after elected officials heard from more than 20 business, bicycle, pedestrian, and political advocates in attendance, plus thousands of citizens who signed petitions and called officials’ offices during the week to voice their concerns regarding the manner in which federal funds were being distributed toward various transportation modes.

Rather than push a vote through, City of Houston Council member Sue Lovell requested that the TPC delay voting on the issue for 30 days so that elected officials could more carefully examine the options on the table and hear from their constituents.

See here and here for some background. Houston Tomorrow has an online petition that calls for roadway spending to make up no more than 55% of regional transportation infrastructure spending, which it says in accordance with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I don’t know enough about the 2035 RTP to comment on that, but I am glad there will be more time to discuss this issue. A press release from CM Lovell about the requested delay to the vote is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Why aren’t we investing more in non-road transportation?

Houston Tomorrow has some disturbing news.

A proposal to limit bike, pedestrian, and livability funding in the 2011 Transportation Improvement Program will come before the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) this Friday, February 25, at a public meeting in the H-GAC building at 3555 Timmons on the 2nd floor in Conference Room A.

The proposal calls for increasing road and freight spending while limiting projects that would improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit access, livable centers studies, and other projects listed as “Alternative Modes.”  Particular projects to be eliminated from the TIP are not yet determined, but all proposed projects are presumably listed in the Preliminary Project Scoping (pdf) provided by H-GAC.  Projects to be cut would include things like walkability projects in Midtown and a pedestrian realm project to provide better sidewalks and neighborhood access to light rail along the future East End Light Rail Line.

The proposal for shifting spending in the TIP does not appear to match the objectives or spending targets of the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.  Further, the code of federal regulations governing the RTP and TIP process mandates public involvement both early and continuously in key decisions in the programming process, but no such opportunity seems to have been presented to the public on this proposal.

Sections of the Houston Area Survey on transportation priorities and spending priorities to better plan for growth indicate that the priorities of residents of the Houston region are not aligned with the proposed changes to the 2011 TIP.

Bike Houston is organizing local opposition to this plan as well as other groups expected to publicly oppose the changes over the coming days.

I don’t see how this makes any sense, and for it to happen with so little fanfare is just wrong. I realize that we’re all up to our necks in action items and things to fight back against these days, but take a moment to look at Bike Houston‘s writeup of what this means, and consider joining in the call to rethink this. Hair Balls has more.