In an age of thickening waistlines, a depleting ozone layer and sky-high gas prices, people are seeking alternatives when it comes to transportation, exercise and saving money. A remarkably simple answer addressing all three lies in an invention that’s been around for nearly 200 years: the bicycle.
To date, Houston boasts 302 miles of bikeways built and maintained by the City of Houston and an additional 200 more built by TxDOT, Harris County precincts, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the Energy Corridor, Houston Parks Board and many others. And it’s no secret that the recent surge of cycling popularity is due largely in part to the creation and renovation of numerous hike-and-bike trails along Buffalo Bayou. According to Anne Olson, president of Buffalo Bayou Partnership, these connective trails leading from downtown’s surrounding neighborhoods to the bayou, are key to making Houston a more bike-friendly city.
“In the car culture of Houston, people want to see more bicycling and walking options to their places of work,” Olson says. The new trails and pedestrian bridges stretch from the neighborhoods to the bayou creating a seamless path into the downtown area.
Trails currently under construction or newly opened can be found on Buffalo Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Keegan’s Bayou and Sims Bayou reaching north, south, east and west of the downtown area. Additionally, a primary focus of Buffalo Bayou Partnership and the City of Houston is to connect the gaps in trails that are currently in existence on the east end and from the Heights.
The future of biking on the bayou can be visualized in BBP’s massive Shepherd to Sabine project, which has already begun and will be finished in 2015. When planning for the renovation, BBP reached out to members of the bicycling community in order to better incorporate biking needs into the plans. Houstonians can expect wider sidewalks, lush landscaping free of invasive plant species and more pedestrian bridges.
But biking in Houston extends beyond the trails and onto the streets as more and more Houstonians are considering it as an alternative to driving. Houston saw a 62 percent increase in the number of people commuting via bicycle between 2005 and 2010, according to a survey done by the League of America Bicyclists.
This percentage is likely to climb, with millions of dollars in private and federal funding directed toward renovating and creating bikeways for the city.
“We have developed the nation’s first free online bicyclist education course (bikeed.org) and are continuously working with METRO to improve and expand bicyclist access to bus and light rail transit.” said Dan Raine, bicyclist-pedestrian coordinator for the City of Houston. Thanks to this collaborative effort, METRO allows bike boarding on the front of their buses and on its trains,enabling people to use the public transit system to carry them to the desired general area with their bicycle taking them the last leg of their journey. In March 2012, METRO reported 11,425 bike boardings, up 13 percent from the previous year. Total boardings since METRO initiated the program exceed 364,000.
The hope is that more Houstonians will find convenience in this kind of a dual transportation option as the green movement of bike sharing is established in Houston.
“Most people make short trips,” says Neil Bremner, co-owner of Bike Barn. “If people can start to use the bicycle for these short trips, it will make a difference environmentally.” These small changes can have a big impact in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to automobile usage.
With grant monies from the City of Houston and sponsorship dollars from Bike Houston, the Downtown District and Houston First, Houston will become one of 15 U.S. cities to launch B-Cycle, a bike share program that will make getting around downtown a whole lot easier. The program works by allowing riders to check out a bicycle from an outdoor station for a set amount of time and money.
The nationally popular bike sharing initiative, B-Cycle, is managed by a non-profit organization, Houston Bike Share. Local cycling store favorite, Bike Barn, has donated their services to keep the bikes maintained throughout the first year of B-cycle’s operation. The program launched May 2 with three B-stations located at Market Square Park, the George R. Brown Convention Center and City Hall, with 18 bikes available for use.
While Houston B-cycle in its early stages will primarily be functional for the downtown area and surrounding trails, the future is bright as $1 million in federal stimulus funds from the Department of Energy will expand the number of available bikes from 18 to approximately 200 by the end of 2012.
“New station locations will be targeted for densely populated parts of the city, including downtown, the Museum District and the Texas Medical Center with a goal of connecting those areas.,” said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for the City of Houston.
“Bike share is a great initiative for those who may not want to own a bike all the time but still enjoy biking. This [program] creates a way for them to expand their options for transportation and recreation.”
The signature B-cycle bike was uniquely designed for an urban bike share environment. The bikes feature graffiti resistant paint, lights and a basket in front for personal items. Riders can choose from three affordable rental options: a $5 day pass, a $7 weekly pass or a $50 annual membership complete with membership card. Bikes can be checked out for as long as 90 minutes before they must be returned to any of the three kiosks around downtown.
Every bike comes equipped with a GPS tracking device and RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) system that records the accumulated mileage and calories burned by the rider during its rented time. Annual membership holders need only swipe their card upon check out and their personal riding statistics are saved and can be viewed on the B-cycle website, Houston.Bcycle.com.
Houston Population: 2,571,090
If 10 percent of Houstonians used B-cycle for 30 miles, it would equal 7,713,270 miles.
It would reduce traffic by 257,109 cars and carbon emissions by 3,702 tons.
It would save $5,657,684.
Houstonians would burn 362,523,690 calories resulting in 103,578 lost pounds.
Rolling with your homies
Trying anything new always feels a little safer with friends. While Houston has more bike groups and rides than you can count, here are a few groups that offer options for all levels of biking enthusiasts.
The Houston Bicycle Club
Houston’s largest recreational cycling club is geared to all riders regardless of age or experience. Started in 1964, the group has a long history of promoting healthy living and bicycle safety. Visit their website for upcoming rides and events around Houston and beyond. houstonbicycleclub.org
Critical Mass is a national event that occurs monthly in cities across the globe. The Houston chapter meets on the last Friday of the month at Market Square Park in downtown’s Historic District. Rides begin around 7 p.m., lasting an average of two to three hours and covering approximately 20 miles. houstoncriticalmass.com
This informal group of bikers gathers on the first Sunday of the month at Market Square Park. Rides typically traverse 25 – 40 miles exploring the bayous and beauty of Houston. Riders of all abilities are welcome, but a mountain bike or hybrid is necessary in order to handle the terrain.
Bayou City Outdoors
This multi-interest active group has an enthusiastic community of cyclists. Some of their most popular events include their Farmer’s Market Tour Ride and Houston’s Too Cool Tour Ride. bayoucityoutdoors.com
Choosing your ride
So you’ve decided that biking might be your cup of tea. But when faced with the challenge of actually selecting a bike that’s your style and speed, the plethora of choices can be overwhelming. Whether you’re a cycling novice or a two-wheeling expert, keep the following things in mind when you shop:
Step one: Target your objective. Before ever stepping foot in a bike store, answer the following questions:
1.How do you plan to use the bike? Will it be for transportation, recreation or both?
2.Will you be taking your bike off road?
3.Do you plan to train for a triathlon or competitive event?
4.Do you plan to use the bike to improve your fitness with longer, aerobically benefitting rides?
5.Do you plan to join a biking group and ride with others?
Step two: Get real with yourself. Consider your purchase history with other items of importance. Is all that glitters gold despite a high price tag? Or do you prefer trading less glitter for fewer dollars and cents? Bicycles come with all kinds of bells, whistles and high tech gadgets. Your purchase habits will play a factor in what level of bike you ultimately choose, so you should be familiar with what level of sophistication will make you happy.
Step three: Be budget conscious. Going in with a spending ceiling in mind will help the salesperson direct you to the bike that best fits your needs and wallet restrictions. It’s important to remember that while upgrading bike components is a possibility, it’s much more cost efficient when they are included as standard equipment on your initial purchase.
Step four: Selecting your bike type. According to Bremner, co-owner of Bike Barn, these are the four bikes best suited for city riding:
1) Comfort bike: Easy rider – Designed for easy pedaling, great for riding around the neighborhood. This bike is comfortable, easy to ride, has a comfortable saddle and will produce limited stress on your body.
2) Hybrid bike: Best of both worlds –this bike is designed for a fitness rider or commuter. It can carry you to work on the city streets and allow you to chase adventure on rougher terrain. It combines the stability and durability of mountain bikes but maintains its light weight and speed.
3) Mountain bike: Go everywhere, do everything. While designed for riding trails this bike’s durability is ideal for an urban environment. Should be used for recreation rather than commuting.
4) Cyclocross: The Commuter –Originally designed for cyclocross racing … this bike has some great urban features and can work well for a commuter. The bike looks like a road bike butfeatures wider tires, stronger wheels and a durable frame. Great for the cycling enthusiast heading out for urban commuting and getting around town.
Step five: Accessorize
You didn’t think you were done after buying your bike, did you? This is the fun part. The most commonly purchased biking accessories include helmets, tool kits, locks, pumps, cycling shorts and shoes. You’ll need to make room in your budget for these cycling essentials.
It’s an undeniable truth that biking is on the rise in Houston, and you’re going to want to be a part of it. Whether you’re looking to make a lifestyle change, or simply want to give biking a whirl, Houston has an option for you. So go!
Explore the bayou, bike to the park for a picnic, make some new friends in a cycling club. No matter how you spin it, biking will open your eyes to a new way of living and enhance your experience of the city. There are many adventures to be had that simply can’t be explored from the confines of your car.