Houston presents ambitious vision for bike path network
Houston Bike Plan includes nearly 1,800 miles of paths, would be implanted in stages
Planners with the city of Houston this week presented the product of more than a year of research, planning and public meetings in the form of the Houston Bike Plan. The 374-page report is the city’s first in-depth, long-range plan for its network of bicycle paths and trails in more than 20 years. It includes plans for 1,789 miles of bike paths, and the upper range of its budget would cost as much as $500 million.
That’s a large number, sure to make some eyes roll … and not one that seems likely to get a lot of traction. However, Mary Blitzer says that’s not the number to focus on.
“That figure that you see, $500 million, that’s a long-range figure, over 20 years, as the entire city of Houston is rebuilt,” says Blitzer, who is the interim executive director for Bike Houston, a nonprofit organization that worked with city planners to fund and build the plan. “That’s not really what we’re planning for. It’s good that we’re thinking long-term. But, the focus is on more short-term projects.”
Those short-term projects include 130 miles already in the city’s budget with funding identified. The plan also has 10-year projections that will range in price from $25 million to $50 million, a figure that Blitzer sees as eminently reasonable.
“That’s between $2.5 and $5 million a year over those 10 years. For a city like Houston, with an annual budget of more than $2 billion, that’s nothing at all. What I find really remarkable is what it accomplishes with a small amount of money.”
The Houston Bike Plan’s vision of the city’s network of trails and paths includes a broad range of types of pathways. The goal of 1,789 miles of bike paths would comprise 816 miles of dedicated on-street bike lanes, 668 miles of off-street bike paths or trails and another 305 miles of shared on-street pathways.
The planners categorize the different forms of paths as high comfort or low comfort, essentially gauging how safe would a normal bicycle rider feel on a given street or path. A dedicated, off-street bike trail would provide the most comfort, whereas a city street that has no separated bike lane and traffic moving at 40 miles per hour would provide a low level of comfort. However, a high-comfort path doesn’t need to include new infrastructure or a separate trail of its own. Neighborhood streets with low speed limits and less traffic also are categorized as high comfort, as are two-lane city streets with dedicated bike lanes and a speed limit of 30 miles per hour.
“It’s meant to be an intuitive term,” Blitzer (pictured) says, of the high-comfort designation. “What’s unique about the plan is that we’re considering what’s needed in context. It’s really a cool way to consider design. What is any Houstonian, any person, comfortable riding on?”
The plan fits within the context of the city’s Bayou Greenways project, which is building a network of trails along the city’s bayous, and its Vision Zero initiative, which has a goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. The research gathered to build out the plan revealed that a third of the car trips taken in the city of Houston are less than 3 miles. That’s a distance that can be reached within 15 minutes by bike and one that can sometimes take even longer in a car in a city with Houston’s level of traffic congestion.
“That’s what this bike plan is about, getting thousands, millions more people out on bikes.”
To reach that point, though, the city staffers who put together the plan are considering a bond election in 2017. While it includes a 10-year plan for projects that would cost as little as $25 million, there is also another set of projects over that timespan that would cost between $68 million and $100 million. And, that would require a bond proposition, in all likelihood.
The Houston Bike Plan is a city of Houston project. Bike Houston funded about a third of its costs and helped provide research and organize community feedback, but it is a product of the City of Houston Bikeways Program. Representatives of the program presented the plan to the Houston City Council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee Monday, June 20. It will go for a vote before the entire council by August or September, and Blitzer expects it to be approved.
“It should pass,” she says. “It’s a fantastic plan that really identifies where we need to go. It doesn’t commit any money right now. There’s really no reason for anyone not to vote for it.”