Houston Ghost Bike organizer Steve Sims was scrambling to find a bike for Sudipta Roy. Two days after a dump truck driver killed the 30-year-old woman at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Main Street near Rice University in April, Sims sounded the alarm on the Houston Ghost Bike Facebook page: “I hate that this has happened but we’ve officially run out of bikes.”
For five years Sims and a group of volunteers have monitored the rising rate of cyclist fatalities — over 50 since 2013, by their account. When a cyclist dies, a Houston Ghost Bike volunteer takes a can of white spray paint to a defunct bicycle or collects a pre-painted one from the organization’s inventory. The group then organizes a memorial service at the site where the rider died. Maintaining two-wheeled memorials dispersed across a 640-square-mile city takes large amounts of time, labor, and material.
“In a 60-hour work week, how do I meet my commitment to put out a 750-word article in the Chronicle, talk to you, and speak with a very aggrieved mother,” asked Houston Ghost Bikes co-organizer Mary Filley in an interview with Cite, which took place the same week she published an essay about the organization’s work in the Houston Chronicle. “I’m not a licensed grief counselor, but I’m becoming one,” she added.
The rising rate of cyclist, pedestrian, and driver fatalities makes a transportation overhaul a dire public safety demand, said Kyle Shelton from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. In 2017 Shelton co-authored a report on some of the city’s most dangerous intersections. Included in the report is Sunset and Main, where a METRO train killed Rice Professor Marjorie Corcoran one year before Roy’s death.
“We accept a level of violence — I don’t know if there’s a better word — on our city streets than I would argue we ever possibly should,” said Shelton. Auto-centric planning makes streets particularly dangerous. “All the standards and requirements are geared toward car traffic,” he explained. "Very few considerations are given to other road users.”
According to the City of Houston’s 2017 Bike Plan there are about 500 miles of bikeways throughout the city, but only half of these offer a “high comfort” buffer between drivers and cyclists. This network includes off-street paths, like the Brays Bayou Greenway Trail, and on-street bikeways, where cyclists either have their own lane or share a lane with drivers. Existing stretches of high comfort bikeways rarely span beyond a few miles, especially in the north-south direction, making it next to impossible for a cyclist to avoid close encounters with traffic.
Wiggins welcomed Mayor Sylvester Turner’s announcement in April that he accepts BikeHouston’s challenge to make 50 miles of Houston more comfortable, and presumably safer, for riders. The city is expected to focus on implementing low-cost traffic calming measures like road narrowing, which can be implemented in a short period of time.
Throughout Houston the buffer between those operating a 2-ton machine and those pedaling a 20-pound frame is scant, at best. “It’s not breaking concrete. You’re not redesigning. It’s simply striping,” explained Wiggins.
Houston has less than a year to make good on Turner’s promise by using a total of $11.1 million allocated by the city and Harris County, said Wiggins. If the effort is successful, it will mark the first move to implement the Bike Plan since its publication last year. The ambitious plan asks for over one thousand miles of new bikeways, as well as improvements to about half of the existing bike miles.
The Build 50 challenge applies only to roads in Precinct 1, a fraction of Houston, but it’s a step in the right direction, according to Geoff Carleton, transportation planner and project manager for the Houston Bike Plan.
“We have eight-plus-thousand miles of roadways in Houston, but only about 270 miles of high comfort bikeways, most of which are trails. So I think 50 miles of additional bikeways is a meaningful first step relative to where we’re starting but it’s certainly something that should be achievable as we build out a larger bikeway network that connects more people and neighborhoods,” said Carleton.
Successful implementation of the Houston Bike Plan could mean using the planning missteps of Houston’s past as opportunities to turn the city into a leader in multimodal transportation. “Because we have built our roads to accommodate so much vehicular capacity,” said Wiggins, “you can begin to retrofit our city to accommodate large numbers of people walking and large numbers of people biking just by using the right of way we currently have.”
High-comfort bikeways don’t just make it easier for folks on two-wheels, advocates say those roads promote a broader culture of street safety by giving more space, and therefore more options, for those not driving.
Part of that culture means a city where residents recognize that transportation is as much a basic human need as it is a way to get by, according to Oni K. Blair, Executive Director of LINK Houston. Once an official in the State Department’s Human Rights Bureau, Blair now works with the Mayor’s Office to expand options for safe transportation, whether that means more efficient public transit or less dangerous spaces for biking and walking.
But in order for Blair to fully realize her mission, perceptions and priorities have to change. “There is a need for City Council in particular, especially ahead of approving the city budget, to really understand pedestrian and bicycling safety issues,” she said.
While infrastructural changes can be expensive paths to safety, low-cost options exist, said Blair. She pointed to better enforcement of existing traffic laws governing driver-cyclist interactions and crosswalk paint as potentially life-saving tweaks. “This is not about recreation. Public safety is a priority for the city,” said Blair.
There were more than 67,000 crashes on Houston’s roadways in 2016 according to an analysis of the Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System by Farm&City. For every 100,000 residents, 2 people on bicycles, 12 pedestrians, and 43 people in cars or trucks died or suffered incapacitating injuries in 2017. Mayor Turner announced in May the expansion of his Safer Streets initiative, but he stopped short of declaring a comprehensive Vision Zero plan that cities across the world are implementing to halt traffic deaths and make mobility more accessible for all, regardless of mode or ability.
Today, I am announcing an expansion of an initiative called Safer Streets to improve bike and pedestrian safety across the city.
Safer Streets has been a pilot project in the five Complete Communities neighborhoods. The concept is working. Now I am expanding it across the City.
— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner) May 18, 2018
Activists say a safer road culture requires more than plans, initiatives, and policies. Lasting change will require addressing what Filley calls “the elephant in the room”: a persistent force of animosity and dismissal against cyclists harbored by officials, citizens, and the media.
Filley points to the rush to blame Roy for her own death. Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge suggested Roy was at fault before the completion of an investigation. A flood of commentators derided Roy on news sites and Facebook posts. Journalists delivered news of Roy’s death with passive lines like, “a cyclist was killed,” effectively shifting focus away from the driver who took her life.
In hopes of bridging the gap between those who ride and those who do not, Filley tries to communicate the need for mutual respect on the roadways. “This is about taking care of fellow citizens,” said Filley. “It’s not about drivers versus cyclists.”