Photo: Flickr user Orlando_Z.

The city approved a bicycle plan in 2017 but 2019 could bring some of biggest changes yet.

Houston has earned its car-centric reputation but that doesn't mean people haven't been pushing for it to become more bicycle-friendly for years and even decades. With the adoption of its bicycle plan in 2017, the city is now poised to take some of the biggest steps forward in recent years, adding new bike lanes, confronting roadway safety and even joining the Vision Zero movement, which as Houstonia magazine pointed out in a recent article, comes after "years of backlash against Houston’s status as the largest American city not to join." 

One of Kinder Institute's own researchers, Dian Nostikasari, has been documenting just how important this work is for Houston. She's shed light on the understudied issue of "near-misses," moving beyond traffic crashes to capture a more comprehensive understanding of safety challenges for bicyclists and others. She's surveyed residents in the city's densest neighborhood to learn more about mobility challenges and potential disconnects between current plans and needs. And she's consistently pushed for a planning approach that draws on community input to guide infrastructural changes to help increase safety and comfort for all road users. Now, she'll be bringing that insight directly to the city's planning department as part of Houston's Bicycle Advisory Committee, whose first meeting of the year is set for Wednesday. 

We talked with her about her work, the committee and this moment in Houston's evolution. This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The committee was formed back in 2017 to offer recommendations to the city’s planning department and there’s been a decent amount of activity in recent years toward making Houston more bike-friendly or at least having a serious conversation about that. Given your research and your personal experience, where do you think Houston is in terms of its bike culture and policy?

I think there’s been a lot of improvement in terms of, for example, adding BCycle stations around downtown and Texas Medical Center areas. Additional funding from the city and the county definitely is a first great step in terms of communicating to the public that bicycle-friendly Houston is important for the city’s overall quality of life as well as being able to connect people to important destinations. 

In terms of the bike plan, the advisory committee, funding for implementation, the city is moving toward the right direction and not letting the plan sit on the shelf.

I know people sometimes say, "It's been two years and we haven’t seen much," but when were thinking about transportation projects and infrastructure, I think it's actually at kind of the right pace. Obviously faster is better, but infrastructure projects are often long-term. 

From personal experience, I think safety is definitely key because a large number of trips that are made by car could be made by bicycle but a lot of people won't take that trip with a bicycle because of safety reasons. We do have this opportunity, we have some funding available and projects and opportunities to prioritize safety and connectivity. 

Connectivity is another big key goal that the city needs to have. We can have safe bikeways but if it doesn’t connect anywhere, people won't use it. We should also think beyond the downtown, TMC area because we know people are biking in other parts of Houston, so thinking about how we can connect those people to their destinations is also important. 

There are these two subcommittees, one for education and for infrastructure. Your research definitely highlights the need to think infrastructurally, what evidence-based recommendations will you be looking to build on from the existing bike plan?

Retrofitting projects presents opportunities to improve safety in a relatively low cost and short-term way....painting, signage, addressing the gaps.

I hesitate in saying, this is what I want to pursue. In terms of bicycle infrastructure, sometimes it's simple. Sometimes it's providing connectivity and then the comfort level of people riding bicycles and whether you want bikeways to be protected lanes versus shared lanes. I think if we could just do those basic strategies citywide in a more comprehensive manner that would still make great strides. 

When you talk about light signals and all those additional elements, that’s the design where once you know a bikeway is going to be constructed you think about how do we want to design this thing? And yes, those are very important but I think taking a step back and thinking about where are the places that we could prioritize in terms of implementing the plan. That requires communicating with the leaders in the area, residents, making sure that if we do build something we build it right. 

The first committee agenda of the year is a busy one, with updates on the Build 50 challenge, Safer Streets effort and even a discussion of a possible Vision Zero plan, which thus far has proved elusive to the city but the mayor has promised action on. How are you feeling about taking on this role now? Do you think Houston is ready to get serious?

It’s a very exciting time to be chosen to sit on the committee because we have the Build 50, we have people and leaders who are increasingly aware that our safety [status quo] is unacceptable. We have some idea of where we’re going to get money to build these projects and hopefully more in the future. There is momentum and something hopefully that will keep on going. 

A lot of your research relies on collecting really personal reflections from road users, whether it’s pedestrians, bicyclists, folks pushing strollers or using wheelchairs, transit users, etc. Can you talk a little bit about your personal experience as a multimodal individual in Houston? 

I wasn’t biking [when I first moved here]. I think I was interested but concerned. I do enjoy biking, but it was not an option. It started becoming an option once the infrastructure was available, once I saw that people were actually doing it. Although safety is still a concern.

I’m thinking about mothers with young children, where you have to constantly think about their safety first and having infrastructure that communicates to you that it will provide a safe place and a reasonable protection for all road user. I think that’s always been our focus in our research: if we improve our infrastructure for our most vulnerable users, it is improving safety for all road users including car drivers. 

I think coming here has encouraged me. It is possible to bike in a city like Houston that is still car-dependent and it’s important to think of people riding bicycles as a part of transportation world. And I ride the bus when I can, but I’m very fortunate because I am a choice rider. I can choose whether I need to drive or take a bus or ride a bicycle to some extent because the choices are available to me but we have to think about people who don’t have those choices. 

The Kinder Institute likes to say it’s a think and do tank and an appointment like this definitely counts as “do.” What does think and do mean to you as a researcher?

It means that even when I’m thinking about new research projects, questions, I think toward how the research could have an implementation goal in mind and could help people who are thinking of implementing our recommendations. Another important part of that is thinking about how the research addresses concerns of people’s lived experiences and puts engagement as one of its most important elements. Engagement doesn’t always mean public participation, it can mean engagement with stakeholders, the community, leaders, an approach where you think of your research as situated in real world context and not just its own very interesting vacuum of ideas.