Cycling in the Bayou City remains dangerous

As’ popularity’ in cycling rises, danger remains for the city’s bikers.

Houston is home to the largest cycling event in Texas, the BP MS 150. The 180-mile ride to the Capitol in Austin has become so popular that this year the allotted 13,000 spots filled up seven hours after registration opened.

People come from all over the country to take part in the event, but most participants are from Houston or nearby. Add in the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of Houstonians who attempted to sign up but didn’t clinch one of the coveted spots. One thing becomes clear: a growing number of people in this city like biking.

Unfortunately, Houston is not a bike-friendly city. Despite being in the heart of Texas with its ‘Southern hospitality,’ Houston could be called a decidedly unfriendly place for a cyclist to venture. Houston motorists are notoriously inconsiderate drivers. From 1994 to 2008, there were only two years in which Houston’s cycling fatality rate did not equal or exceed those of all other Texas municipalities combined.

Cisco Rios was one of the fatalities. In 2007, the 25-year-old was struck and killed by a delivery van on Old Katy Road. His friend Matt Wurth, owner of the Heights bike shop I Cycle, hung a bike painted white on a fence near the place Rios where died, the first such ‘ghost bike.’

In 1992, Wurth was one of many thrilled by the announcement of then-Mayor Bob Lanier’s administration of a planned 350-mile network of bike trails and street bike routes throughout the city. Five years later, ground was finally broken. But after Lee Brown took over for Lanier in 1998, the dedicated bike-only trails met more delays until finally all bikeway projects were abruptly halted in 2002 when the City Council refused to budget the money.

Wurth said’ half the trails and routes never materialized, ‘and the rest just turned out to be striping the gutter of a road.’ These ‘gutter lanes’ are dangerous for two reasons, said Wurth. First, cyclists somewhat inaccurately assume that other cyclists must use them and that they must be safe.

Second, even a motorist who simply looks out the window can see that the shoulder areas of most Houston streets are littered with metal debris and glass that almost ensure bike tire flats. Wurth thinks Rios’ death could have been prevented with a bike trail for him to ride instead of a street shoulder.

The city managed to make some progress since Mayor Bill White took office in 2004. Fifteen miles of new trails opened this year, and six more trails and four new bridges over Brays Bayou are planned for 2010. Also, if signed into law, the Safe Passing bill will make it illegal for drivers to come closer than three feet from a cyclist.

However, just six months ago, another ghost bike was made, this time for avid cyclist Leigh Boone.’ Boone was critically injured while riding on Westheimer and died two weeks later.

It is past time for the city of Houston and its residents to recognize the pressing need to make roads safer for cyclists, as well as give them their own protected places to ride. Biking as a means of transportation benefits everyone as it reduces the number of cars on the road and lowers the amount of air pollution.

Government inefficiency and bureaucracy are nothing new. Until there is a strong public mandate to protect cyclists, Houstonians can expect more years of delays and red tape.

But the government really is just people, and until the people of Houston make the effort to slow down and share some pavement with cyclists, we will continue to see white bicycles in memoriam of fallen riders.

Jared Luck is a communication senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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