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Safe Passage

Downtown Houston drivers and bike riders are about to enter a new dimension in sharing the road. This spring, a humble parking lane on Lamar Street will be converted into a revolutionary two-way bike lane, with special green paint and a raised divider – so much more than a single white stripe on the edge of a bustling thoroughfare.

The City of Houston Department of Public Works and the Downtown District have been discussing, since 2011, a protected bike lane that runs east west across Downtown’s grid.

“This will be the first lane of its kind in Houston,” says Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for the City of Houston. “This ane is different from the simpler bike lanes we’ve had for the past 20 years.”

“The new Downtown Park Connector is a big step for Houston,” says Michael Payne, executive director for BikeHouston, a nonprofit group working to make Houston a more bike-friendly city. “This lane is significant for two reasons. It’s the first protected bike lane in the city – a new kind of protected bikeway in Houston. It represents a coming of age for the city and it’s a validation for cyclists.”

“The second part of the new lane’s significance is that it connects Buffalo Bayou Park and Discovery Green,” says Payne. “And beyond the parks, it connects the trail systems of the west side of the city to the Columbia Tap Trail on the east side. These are two major bikeways that are already well-used.”

Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, calls the project exciting. “This is one more piece in the puzzle toward making Houston a walkable, bikeable city.” Skelly bikes to work frequently, and his company doesn’t pay for employee parking. Instead they pay for Metro cards, provide locker rooms with showers, and offer secure bike storage for employees.

“These sorts of lanes have been built all over the country and it’s been proven that if you build it they will come,” says Skelly. He’s talking about cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Austin, Seattle, San Jose and more than 50 other cities large and small. In Texas, such lanes have been established in Austin and Denton, north of Dallas.

Making the Connection

“The new bike lane is called the Downtown Park Connector,” says Spanjian. “It’s a two-way bike lane that is nearly a mile long.”

Spanjian says a big reason this particular bike lane came about is because of all the recent Buffalo Bayou trail improvements. “It became clear that we needed to connect Buffalo Bayou Park to Discovery Green and the Columbia Tap Trail on the east side. Our biggest gap was safe connectivity for those greenways,” she says.

Spanjian also points out the many B-cycle stations located Downtown. “We have over 13 stations now, so that’s around 120 bikes that can be checked out in addition to bike commuters and other cyclists that the lane will serve,” she says. Of course, each of the B-cycle bikes are used by multiple riders each day.

Dale Rudick, director of public works and engineering for the City of Houston, explains that various transportation and mobility studies prompted the need for a safe bikeway to connect the greenways on the east and west sides of Downtown.

“It was a collaborative effort with the Downtown District and the City to find a good solution for our mutual tenants and citizens,” says Rudick. “As Houston’s population grows, it’s important to have more extensive networks for all modes of transportation.”

Other streets, such as Walker, McKinney and Dallas were considered and evaluated for traffic volume. Walker and McKinney were eliminated because they connect to freeway ramps for I-45, and Dallas Street is being groomed as the signature street  connecting the convention center to shopping and hotels.

“The analysis showed us that Lamar Street was the best option,” says Spanjian. “The two-way track allowed us to take just one  lane (that was primarily a parking lane) from one street to allow cyclists to travel across Downtown more safely.”

Features of the Downtown Park Connector

Public Work’s Deputy Director of Public Works and Engineering Jeff Weatherford says the materials being used were chosen because they are durable and last for many years. “The special green paint is an environmentally friendly epoxy that takes longer

than most pavement paints to cure, but it is designed to withstand heavy vehicular traffic for 10 years, so for bike traffic that could be up to 20 years,” says Weatherford.

The design and materials also were selected to help safely flow cyclists through downtown’s grid. In addition to its green hue, the entire lane will have a dashed center stripe for two-way traffic. Weatherford explains the divider humps or “armadillos” that help clearly separate the bike lane from the vehicle lanes are to be installed in a slightly recessed groove that will make them less susceptible to being knocked off by vehicles.

Signage alerting vehicles to the bike route is to be installed at entrances and exits to parking garages along Lamar Street. At intersections, signage is to be placed at edge of the bike lane, near armadillos, for greater visibility. Separate bike signals that illuminate as a bike icon, will give cyclists a slight head start over vehicles.

Collaborated with Downtown Businesses

The Downtown District hosted meetings so the City could discuss plans with building owners, and as a result dozens of companies and individuals wrote letters in support of the project.

“Bob Eury with the Downtown District has been instrumental in getting the Lamar Street and neighboring businesses on board with the bike lane,” says Rudick.

Skelly notes that many businesses, including Kinder Morgan, Vinson & Elkins, HilCorp. and Morris Architects wrote to the City in support of the initiatve.

One of the individual supporters who wrote to the city is Tom Lloyd, director of crude oil marketing for Hess Corporation. Lloyd has lived in Houston for just over a year and a half and bikes to work frequently from the Galleria area. Like Clean Line Energy, Hess also has shower facilities and bike storage onsite, and Lloyd says a number of his co-workers bike to work as well.

In addition to reaching out to building owners and tenants, PSAs are being placed in elevators, and posters will be put up in lobbies in buildings along Lamar. Groups such as Bike Houston and B-cycle are spreading the word to cyclists and the greater community.

Becoming Reality

Construction, which began at the end of January, is expected to take approximately seven weekends (no weekday construction). Weather permitting, the Park Connector could be open as early as mid-March, but if rainy weekend weather hits during February and March then completion will be delayed a few weeks.

“We will certainly be monitoring how it works after it is opened and will continue to work with Michael Payne and BikeHouston

to make sure this project lives up to its goals,” says Weatherford.

Payne says that if the Downtown Park Connector lane is well-designed, the rules of the road will be clear to bikes and cars, especially with lane-divider bumps.”

“The tricky part is that we’ll have two-way bike traffic on a one-way city street. That’s why there will be special traffic signals with special timing for cyclists,” says Payne.

“A lot of people have expressed concern over having two-way bike traffic on a one-way street,” says Weatherford. “I tell them there has been two-way traffic on this street for years – they’re called pedestrians.”

Bike commuter Tom Lloyd believes that with just one lane to contend with, people will adapt easily. “The new bike lane is definitely a good thing, providing a much safer way to ride. This will certainly raise the profile for biking in Houston.”

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