The Story Behind A Bicycle Friendly America: Houston
The League’s Bicycle Friendly Community awards are more than just a seal for a community to put on signs along a bike trail. To earn an award, communities must fill out a comprehensive application for review by our team of experts and every application earns the applicant community feedback on what it should be doing next to be even better for people who bike. By acting on the feedback, communities demonstrate a commitment to put in the work needed to earn a coveted upgraded award on their next application.
In our Fall 2022 round of Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) awards, the city of Houston, Texas, renewed its Bronze-level BFC award and was recognized, along with 31 other cities and towns, for its bicycling efforts. Houston’s participation in the Bicycle Friendly Community program shows how even the largest, car-centric communities are committing to building environments more welcoming to people who bike. Over the years, we’ve seen how Houston is raising its efforts to meet our increasing standards.
“We take our renewal at the Bronze level as both an indication of the increasing expectations of BFCs and a challenge to redouble our efforts on all fronts in order to achieve our bike plan’s goal of becoming a Gold-level BFC by 2027,” said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the City of Houston’s Planning & Development Department. “With over 500 miles of planned and existing high comfort bikeways, regionwide educational and encouragement programs, and growing partnerships between the city, county, state, non-profit, and advocacy organizations, Houston has made significant progress and, overall, we are proud of the paradigm shift taking place to make it a city more welcoming to people who ride bikes.”
Advocates and city leaders in Houston have built thoughtful programs centered around improving community biking and cultivating a thriving bike culture, despite Houston’s reputation as a car-centric city. In fact, the BFC program review team strongly considered promoting Houston to a Silver-level designation in this round to recognize the city’s progress and momentum to date, but ultimately decided to keep the city at Bronze while it works to tackle big barriers to biking like sprawling land use and high-speed roads.
With a land footprint of almost 670 square miles, the City of Houston is home to over 22,000 miles of roadway. Just over 65% of these roads are high-speed (over 35 mph), and none are low-speed (at or below 20 mph), due in part to statewide laws in Texas that set a statewide minimum speed limit, even for local roads. While the city’s ambitious bike plan has helped bring new bike infrastructure to Houston’s roadways, the total bikeway network reported on Houston’s 2022 BFC application is still only 2% of the city’s total roadway network – a metric the BFC review committee would like to see improve before Houston earns Silver.
Still, the city is making great strides in addressing these challenges. Below are just a few examples of Houston’s stand-out efforts noted by the BFC review team.
Houston Bikeway Prioritization Methodology
City staff and the Bicycle Advisory Committee developed a prioritization method for implementing Houston’s 1,800-mile bike plan, in which equity is factored at a high level to ensure the city is “building bikeways where the need is greatest”. Points toward priority implementation are based on the percentage of households who don’t own a car, location in a low/moderate income census tract, and location in a Complete Community, which is a designation given to 10 historically under-resourced Houston neighborhoods.
Pop-up Bike Lanes
Once top-priority biking projects are identified, the city schedules pop-up bike lanes to show the community what is possible with improved infrastructure. Pop-ups are generally held on a weekend day and are coordinated with wider community events, including street fairs, school events, and remembrances. The pop-ups are well received by the community and result in residents engaging in the bike planning process and biking more even before facilities are built.
Bike RX Program
Bike Rx is a health equity program run by the city’s premier bike share system Houston BCycle, the American Heart Association and Houston’s Legacy Community Health Clinic. The program provides free bike share memberships to qualifying patients of Legacy Community Health Clinic as well as route maps, helmets, and log books to track their rides.
When a patient who would benefit from increased levels of physical activity goes in for an annual exam with their provider, a health advocate trained on the BCycle program walks them to the nearest BCycle station and shows them how to check out a bike and use the system. Patients are then given a key fob, which they can use to check out any one of BCycle’s traditional or electric-assist bikes at more than 140 stations located throughout Houston.
Other Stand-out Initiatives
- Equity & Accessibility: Houston’s bike education fleet includes one Pedego Stretch for adults with disabilities and an electric tricycle.
- Equity & Accessibility: Houston’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities reviews standard bike designs and site-specific plans, resulting in capital improvements that work for travelers of all abilities and helps to remove barriers to cycling for people with disabilities from past designs.
- Engineering: Houston’s Bike Plan Network GIS Map
- Engineering: Houston’s city council voted to purchase a street sweeper sized for protected bike lanes. This was based on an in-depth analysis of the city’s bike infrastructure maintenance needs by the Houston Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) and city staff. The investment in maintaining city bike lanes will raise the usability of the bike network for all riders. There was even a #NameTheSweeper contest to get the community involved in naming the mini street sweeper.
What’s Next For Houston?
Every community that applies to the BFC program receives feedback from our expert team of reviewers. The feedback is tailored to the community’s unique circumstances and includes the voices of people who bike in the community who responded to the League’s public survey. For Houston, our reviewers’ top recommendations for improvement include:
- Continuing to work to implement the Houston Bike Plan and expand the low-stress, high-comfort bike network.
- Ensuring Houston’s Complete Streets policy is followed for all projects, and that compliance is tracked.
- Working with other communities across the state of Texas to advocate for the DOT to allow localities across the state to set lower and more appropriate speed limits on urban streets.
- Developing a more robust evaluation process for Houston’s pop-up bike lane program so the program can be used more effectively to make the case for long-term investments and permanent improvements in the bicycling network.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can improve bicycling in your community or how to become a Bicycle Friendly Community, visit bikeleague.org/community. Applications are currently open for our Spring 2023 round of awards and will close on February 15th at 11:59 pm PT.