Is Houston America's Future Bicycling Capital? Tom McCasland Thinks It Is, and Is Making It So

Categories: Ridin' Dirty

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John Nova Lomax
Soon this could be one of hundreds of thousands of Houstonians having fun on a bike.
Tom McCasland has long believed that Houston is a sleeping giant of a bicycling city, and these days Houston appears to be waking up and stretching its legs.

Today Yale Law grad McCasland serves as the interim head of the Harris County Housing Authority, but even before he began his previous position with the Houston Parks Board, he was doing yeoman's work in improving the Bayou City's bike network. While his spearheading of a plan to to turn Houston's many miles of CenterPoint utility easements into bike trails came to naught at the last state legislative session, that dream remains a possible future reality for Houstonians.

In the meantime, other plans are afoot, and McCasland recently squired a distinguished cyclist around town, a visiting dignitary from no less a bike hub than Portland, Oregon. Elly Blue runs the cycling blog Taking the Lane, and she came to Houston as part of a nationwide tour assessing cities and their bike-friendliness and initiative.

Blue was impressed enough by McCasland's tour and talk to wonder the following:

"Is Houston the next bicycle capitol of the US?"

Yes, that's right. A cycling advocate from Portland has dared wonder publicly if this allegedly car-narcotized, Interstate-streaked, strip mall-obsessed Purgatory of rampant antipathy to bikers and hikers alike will soon outstrip not just Austin but also Seattle, Minneapolis and Chicago as the most bike-friendly town in America.

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John Nova Lomax
A skyline view from a newly opened stretch of trail running alongside I-10 and White Oak Bayou.
Blue confessed in her post to some skepticism.

"My impression of Houston so far was all potholes, unpredictable driving, the chaotic geography of a city without zoning, and only a few sightings of hardy bicyclists," she wrote. "A conversation the night before with our host, a bike advocate, hadn't altered that impression much. Besides, aren't Southern cities, big and grey and built for cars, supposed to be harder to 'green'?"

The next day McCasland took her on a ride, one that pretty much matches our commute home from work. After stocking up on some provisions at Georgia's Market, which Blue misidentified as downtown's only supermarket (Phoenicia, yo!), Blue, McCasland and another man set out northwestward through the Heights on the MKT trail and kept right on going where it dead-ends at the Shepherd/Durham overpasses. There the paved trail turns to dirt as it traverses a meadow swaying with tall sunflowers and crawling with bunny rabbits in the morning and evening.

There's a sharp right turn out a burned-out rail bridge over White Oak Bayou there -- McCasland tells Hair Balls that part of the city's latest grand biking plan is to dynamite it and rebuild it as a bike/pedestrian thoroughfare. The trail will then continue along White Oak Bayou's banks and connect with the existing trail that begins at West 11th and TC Jester and heads north through Timbergrove, Garden Oaks, Oak Forest and all the way up to Acres Homes.

McCasland's expedition next headed down to the banks of the concrete bayou and rode back towards town, leaving the water's edge near what I think must have been Studemont.

Along the way, McCasland apprised Blue on the details of the countywide plan, and reiterated the same and more with Hair Balls in a subsequent interview.

Basically, the county wants to turn hundreds of miles of existing greenways, many of which run alongside our bayous, into recreation areas and trails. Paving trails through these greenways will serve not just cyclists, but also joggers, walkers, skaters and parents with strollers. They will offer schoolchildren safer paths to school, and McCasland adds that the linear parks offer safe havens for wildlife, and will also serve a role in area flood control.

McCasland says that the greenways "will wind through nearly every community in the City."


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44 comments
Everestbabystep
Everestbabystep

I want to add something important: the right bike matters immensely for a commute or even an enjoyable recreational ride around Houston. Don't buy into the bike racing ethic that is so popular now in biking media. You definitely don't want to ride a racing config with hard skinny tires and clip-on pedals and a superlight frame. It won't get you there much faster and you'll hate the experience after a few days or months. 

There is a cool website and marketplace (written by an ex-racer) if you want to educate yourself about biking in its most practical form: www.rivbike.com  I find myself nodding in agreement and laughing sometimes about the insight. Meanwhile my racer friends laugh at me for such a site, but it's real and true and well-written and is one of the best about biking.

Everestbabystep
Everestbabystep

Cool piece, thanks John for the perspective. Let's hope and donate and be vocal about this. It's a heartening sign if we can do this in America's Energy Capital, or whatever we're called.

okdave2003
okdave2003

"Here's hoping that "America's cycling capital" will soon join "great eating town" and "most diverse city in America" as another thing about Houston that the nation and world will underrate and ignore us about, not to mention yet another thing that we do better than Austin."You don't have to make digs at other cities and beg for the praise of America in every piece you write.  Here's to hoping Houston becomes the bike-friendliest town it can be.

2labz
2labz

Well, whoopee-tang. The Heights has a bike trail. I am so-o-o-o impressed. Not.

My word - will you people ever learn that there is more to Houston than the Heights and Montrose? Jay-sus, people! The Bayou City covers almost 600 square miles, so what some NearTown dude apparently thinks of as "Houston" is in reality a piddling little piece of it. 

David Houston
David Houston

I'd really like this to be so, but the roads around here are very dangerous for cyclists and often even for pedestrians.  Houston is just not a cycling conducive city. Still, if I ever get my home finished, I'll make a point of cycling from Montrose over to Hermann Park, preferably through the neighborhoods, part of of the way, to avoid the heavy Westheimer traffic, and particularly when it's time to queue for a ticket for the Miller Outdoor... The only decent place I know with some semblance of a cycle lane is found at Bunker Hill.

Anse
Anse

Not long ago, I did my best to avoid trashing Austin while defending my town. I *think* I was successful...but now I am forced to acknowledge one thing that Austin is better at than Houston. Our capitol city is better at large-scale urban planning; their process is messy and full of red tape, but at least their citizens are better at embracing a common vision, and in the end, they're better at getting projects like this off the ground and eventually completed, however long it may take.

This is the one thing Houston could learn from our brethren in Central Texas. Get this idea going already. I have about four miles to cover in my commute, each way. If they can make it possible for me to do it on my bike without feeling like I'm gonna die in traffic, I'll happily jump on my Huffy and park the car.

Craigley
Craigley

This city is full of morons.

CienHuevos
CienHuevos

Even without dedicated trails, Houston is already a great town for bike commuting. I've been riding from my home in Lindale Park to my job at Shepherd & 59 for years now, and the only mildly scary part is the crossing over Memorial/Allen Parkway.  And anyone who thinks Houston's drivers are pendejos should try getting around in Austin sometime...

Matt
Matt

yes it is a little challenging logistics-wise but oh so rewarding once you get into it. To be honest I didn't enjoy my first few times, but pretty soon I was a believer.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Rainstorms happen everywhere. That is not a unique Houston phenomenon. And you don't have to ride through them. You can take shelter or find some other way home.

Matt
Matt

meh. As someone who used to ride every day to work (weslayan to downtown) and still gets on the bike whenever I can, I'm not very positive about biking in Houston.1. the weather (duh)2. people are too used to the car lifestyle. Yes this is a gross generalization (please don't give me your personal counter-example), but I know way too many people who live ITL and very much could be going around biking or even walking to places, yet react with horror when you mention doing so. I've noticed when I go to the Saturday farmer's market on Eastside I generally am the only biker in attendance, when you might think this would be the ideal target demographic. Same thing at Whole Foods, though the new HEB at Montrose generally has bikes parked on the bike rack (props to them on their bike area btw).3. the roads are really awful. I already knew this from driving, but it goes to a whole 'nother level when you're biking. And this includes some of the nicer areas in town

With that said as mentioned previously there has been a ton of progress made, notably on the infrastructure side. Also we now have b-cycle downtown, which I hope does well.

Still, all ranting aside, if even .5% of people start biking regularly for errands or their commute, it'll be great news.

GlenW
GlenW

I started riding my bike to work when I was relocated to a building less than 4 miles from home. No trails or bike lanes are on my commute, but I do find an easy ride through neighborhoods, save the lousy potholes and patch jobs in several places. Houston seems like an ideal place for biking due to its flatness. More riders should increse awareness among drivers and someday it will not be that unusual, and hopefully safe, for a worker to commute on his bike.

Chris Watkins
Chris Watkins

This makes me want to go out and ride! I bought my house specifically so that I could ride to work. Summertime can be rough, but with proper planning (leaving the house earlier), the temperatures are manageable.

titanhater2000
titanhater2000

Can't wait to smell all the stinky people who bike to work during our brutal summer.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Some concerns I have is if more trees have to be cut down along the bayous so the trails can be made. Corrosion is a serious issue, and by cutting down trees, it will only accelerate. Also, fewer trees means the air quality might take another hit, though I do not know how large the extent would be.Another concern I have is what material will be used to build these paths. Asphalt will only leach into the nearby bayous, with the resulting pollution traveling downstream into the ocean. Are any of these environmental concerns going to be addressed? I know more paths sounds good, and I do enjoy the existing paths, but I do not believe that they should take precedence over the environment  

William Philpot
William Philpot

I recently took up biking to lose some weight, and just be more active overall. I wish the trail that ran into Timbergrove could somehow extend into Spring Branch. I'd love to be able to safely make it across Hempstead Highway/610 and into Timbergrove/The Heights by bike. As it is right now I can ride a little bit around the neighborhood but biking on Long Point/Hammerly is a death wish, so I typically only get a solid ride if I go out to Terry Hershey.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Dude, I've walked 200 miles of Houston, So spare me your suburban reverse snobbery. I have hoofed it from Intercontinental to Spanish Flowers and from Hobby to Downtown and from Beltway 8 and the Gulf Freeway to Warren's Inn and the entire lengths (or very close to) of Westheimer (twice), Telephone Road, Shepherd, Bellaire, Navigation, Clinton Drive, Long Point, Washington Avenue, Richmond, Bissonnet, Harrisburg, and South Post Oak. I know Houston is bigger than the Inner Loop. And the Bike Trail in the Heights goes pretty much uninterrupted from downtown to Victory Lane in Acres Homes, and if you read this article carefully, it is stressed that this is a countywide deal.

CienHuevos
CienHuevos

Plan your route, equip yourself correctly (helmet and headlight, please!), and make a conscious effort to ride defensively, and you can get anywhere around here in a decent amount of time without depending on a dedicated bike lane. If you wait for the city to roll out a red carpet with padded bumpers, you're really defeating the purpose. 

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

 Most of the Austinites I know would vehemently disagree. They say Cap Metro is a disaster, that the road system is a joke and getting worse every day with no solution in sight....

Yes, they have greenways and nicer parks than us...right now.

BTW, where is your commute? Maybe I can advise.

CienHuevos
CienHuevos

Dress to get wet and carry dry clothes in a waterproof backpack. My kingdom for windshield wipers on my glasses, though...

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

1. The weather is only rough five months a year.  2. That can change. It will change soon, I predict. Eastside is in a bad spot for bikers -- Richmond is perhaps the worst arterial to ride on the SW side ITL. 3. Get a mountain bike. Everybody wants to ride those skinny wheels and I just don't understand it.

Tom McCasland
Tom McCasland

Two very legitimate concerns. Regarding trees, there is money budgeted to do plantings where permitted by Harris County Flood Control District, which will likely be between the top of the bank and the road or nearest private property. Trees for Houston is talking to the Houston Parks Board about how they can help provide native trees in large enough numbers for this project. That said, I suspect there will be the occasional incident when a tree will need to be cut for the trail, but the plantings should far out number the trees. Also, inside Houston city limits, many of the bayous do not have trees immediately along the banks where the trail will likely run.

I share your concerns about asphalt even though it is better for runners. As planned, the trails within the city limits will all be concrete. This will prevent leaching and the serious cracking during times of drought that caused injuries to cyclists along the trail on Brays Bayou.

okdave2003
okdave2003

grass is pretty good at preventing erosion.  i would think tree loss would be minimal anyways as the bayou trails that already exist seem to weave through them and only a few areas of the bayous actually have thick trees.  as far as air and water quality...if this project removes cars from the streets then that will far outweigh whatever minor impact a paved bike trail will have.  the bayous are already highly polluted (although it is improving every year) as they serve as beautified storm drains.

Bill
Bill

 Take Campbell Road south of I-10 - there are some good bike lanes running through the villages. 

Robert
Robert

William, I'm in the same spot\predicament as you.  I love to ride, but I'm just north of Longpoint and it is a death trap for pedestrians and cyclists alike (Hammerly though is pretty doable, there is at least a bike lane and less overall traffic). I've had issues on Hempstead as well, crossing it is fine, but traveling along it can be rough. Right now my favorite long ride from our area is Hammerly to Antoine, Antoine to 43rd, and then from there hop onto the trail down into Timbergrove.  That one passes under 610 (unless its inexplicably closed off again). Not ideal for a commute into downtown, but not a bad ride.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Unsolicited advice: get a mountain bike with good and thick tires, don't be scared to ride the sidewalk on streets like Long Point and Hammerly, and learn the back roads as best you can.  

2labz
2labz

Sorry to have to burst your bubble, but just 'cause you can walk here doesn't mean that the vast majority of Houston doesn't just plain suck for cyclists. Heck, at least 40% of Houston has sidewalks (a laughably small percentage, in truth). After all, cyclists are supposed to share the streets with the moving vehicles - someone needs to share that information with most drivers - while pedestrians (at least in theory) get a separate surface. 

Oh, sure, there's one nice trail. Well, that does 3.9 million of the 4 million people in the metropolitan area absolutely no good - is a trail from downtown to a whole three miles outside the north loop gonna get me from Jersey Village to Westchase or from Willowbrook to West Oaks? That one trail doesn't make Houston a great biking town any more than presence of Mata Hari made Houston a great Indonesian restaurant town. Doggoneit, I miss that place...

Austin blew about two years of their cycling improvement budget on a single humongous bridge (Lamar/Colorado River) because the people managing somehow got the idea that the city's cyclists spent their entire lives riding around Town Lake. The same narrow view afflicts Houston, where funds are automatically earmarked for a few small neighborhoods because that's where the cool people live. Countywide? not likely - any money (if ever there is any)  will end up in the Heights and Montrose with perhaps a few pennies to repaint the stripes on Richmond, where they've been worn off by all the cars driving in the bike lane. 

David Houston
David Houston

I've been cycling all my life, but the Houston roads (in the main) are just not safe to ride.  Some drivers are very inconsiderate and intolerant of all other road users.  I am always reminded of this when I drive through Montrose, and see a bicycle chained to a lamp-post where a young cyclist was killed.  I've been hospitalized myself in the past with a head injury after my bicycle was hit by a small truck!  There's a lot more to safety than just putting on a helmet.  Until such time as the city takes into consideration modes of transport other than cars (and the air quality & pollution that comes with cars), Houston is not a safe place to cycle.

Matt
Matt

1. "only" five months? That's over 40% of the year, but admittedly if you commute early in the morning/late at night weather is not that big a deal2. Out of all those shoppers, surely some could give it a try (and to be faire I've seen a bike now and then). Anyone living in River Oaks, Montrose, Upper Kirby, etc really doesn't have any excuse.3. I'm not buying a mountain bike just for that reason, but for someone who doesnt own a bike yet your advice is very sound

I guess I'm not entirely negative on the prospects of biking culture in Houston, but still I do not think it will ever be one of the top biking cities in the US (not sure what the headline means anyway. Is "capitol" suppose to be "capital"?). I appreciate articles like this, if they get just a few people to consider biking then great. Maybe it's just that our definitions of bike-friendly differ. I think Houston might become bike-tolerant, but bike-friendly? I doubt it. But I could be wrong, that's the beauty of opinions.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Thanks for the reply.:D

H_e_x
H_e_x

Eh, I just think paving near water might not be the best idea because of leaching chemicals.

William Philpot
William Philpot

Sounds like a pretty good ride. I might see if I can't do it on Sunday. I reverse commute to Eldridge, so all my rides are just for fun.

CienHuevos
CienHuevos

Street tires (recessed treads, a little bit thinner than mountain biking tires) and thick anti-flat strips (StopFlat, Mr. Tuffy) pay for themselves pretty quickly in terms of getting to your destination quickly and without incident, especially if you're riding the shoulder on major thoroughfares.

William Philpot
William Philpot

 Mountain bike is going to be a future purchase after I get done buying a house. Right now I live right off Westview, which is a much nicer stretch of road than Long Point or Hammerly, but it looks like I'll be moving a bit further north cutting off my easy access to Westview. Are there any parking areas that provide easy access to the Timbergrove trail?

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Willowbrook to West Oaks? Jersey Village to Westchase? This some kind of Baker Street / Sherlock's Pub crawl?

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

It is legal to ride sidewalks in non-business areas, and pedestrians are few and far between almost everywhere in the city. The cops have never hassled me for it, and other cyclists have told me that cops (not knowing the law) have ordered them to get *On" the sidewalk.

2labz
2labz

You must live in "the golden triangle," John (Montrose, Heights, West U). Try getting from my house north of the Addicks Reservoir to the Westchase area without riding on a heavily-traveled street (60-plus MPH) without sidewalks. You just can't do it - the only ways to cross the Katy Freeway are on Eldridge and Highway 6. There aren't any side roads there, either...

I regularly ride on Houston streets on weekdays (I keep a bike in my office) and from my home on weekends. The streets are dangerously cracked and uneven and the gutters are filled with broken glass and trash. I've lived here four years and worked here on and off for fifteen, and I have yet to see a street sweeper clean the garbage out of the gutters. I don't think Houston even owns a street sweeper.

When I ride in those laughable bike lanes on city streets, I'm forced by the junk in the gutters into a 10- or 12-inch strip that's interrupted by broken pavement, puddles, and tilted storm-sewer drains. I've seen drains that are five inches higher than the surrounding pavement and drains that are tilted to allow a two-inch gap between them and the pavement. When you see things like that and the weeds that hang over some of the other "dirty bike stripes," you know that any claim that Houston is destined to be America's future bicycling capital should be written on the flanks of unicorns, 'cause it's pure fantasy.

BTW, a bicycle is by law bound by the same traffic regulations as a motor vehicle - "same rights, same rules." Cars aren't allowed on sidewalks, and I'm not sure bikes are, either.

And yes, that was definitely a freak accident!

David Houston
David Houston

Well I wouldn't normally ride on a sidewalk, and perhaps no one should be doing that anyway.  Since it not only puts pedestrians in danger, and Houston's sidewalks are often too narrow or in very poor shape, there's also the danger of fast moving vehicles going in and out of places.  Not sure that it's completely legal to do that anyway. 

You cannot ride a bike on the sidewalk in a business district, whatever that actually means.  Considering that most places in town are occupied by buildings used as businesses, and anything from a McD's, or Gas station to an Office Block is a place of business!  So it's probably NOT legal to ride on the sidewalk anywhere near any kind of stores or near anything that can be construed to be a business.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Again, stay off the main roads and ride the sidewalks when necessary. Sacrifice a little speed for safety. As for "Ghost Bikes," I know of only one in Montrose: the one at the corner of Dunlavy and Montrose. That rider was killed in a freak accident that could have happened anywhere. 

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

 I'm over 40 and kinda fat and I rode at least 11 miles pretty much every day through last summer's ungodly drought. If I can do it pretty much anybody can. Just stay hydrated and you'll be alright. People did live here before AC and cars.

Robert
Robert

You know, assuming I'm just riding for fun, I don't really mind the heat when I'm on a bike (with the exception of August, August is a punishment in Houston).  Most of the time, if I'm moving the breeze takes care of of keeping me cool.  Its when I stop that I get hot.

William Philpot
William Philpot

 When I say all my rides are fun, I mean I don't commute via bike. Biking down 10 to Eldridge would be suicide.

Reppin2
Reppin2

Biking is fun in Houston for a few months our of the year......but good luck with that from now until about October.Houston will never be a full time bike city.

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