In a move Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called "unprecedented," the city of Houston, along with Harris County Precinct 1, committed to 50 new miles of "high-comfort" bikeways within the next year. The announcement came just after the one-year anniversary of the city's adoption of the bike plan in March 2017. The announcement also followed multiple fatal crashes involving bicyclists the week prior.
"Too much is at stake," said Turner at a press conference Monday. "We must act quickly to make Houston a safer, more bicycle-friendly city." Crashes are up across the Houston region between 2015 and 2016, according to the latest report from the Houston-Galveston Area Council. In Harris County alone, there were 660 crashes involving bicyclists in 2016, according to the report, with 71 serious injuries and 12 fatalities. Regionally, roughly 54 percent of those crashes took place on city streets.
The city said it plans to combine its $1.1 million of capital improvement funds committed annually for the next five years in conjunction with $10 million dedicated to projects within the county's Precinct 1 under Commissioner Rodney Ellis. "This is a cooperative effort," said Ellis, who emphasized that increasing the area's bike infrastructure was also an equity issue, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Any of the county's contribution not spent within the next year will return to the county, he said.
"This is a good down payment but it's not going to get us all the way," said Patrick Walsh, director of the city's planning and development department. Each new mile of high-comfort bike lane is estimated to cost anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000, said Walsh, but he anticipates that the funding will stretch far enough to build at least 50 miles worth of new bikeways. "If there’s a lot of infrastructure involved, you could burn that money pretty quick," added Ellis. Overall, Walsh said he estimated some $50 million would be needed to implement the bike plan.
What each mile looks like will depend on the context. "It’s often going to be a dedicated space," said Walsh, but, "it may not have that barrier or it could be a shared space on a smaller street." In the past, said Walsh, the city had squeezed lanes into four-lane streets. "We're not going to do that anymore," he said. "The city is now fully committed to safe, high comfort bicycle facilities."
Several streets have already been identified to receive new bike infrastructure, including Hardy and Elysian in the Near Northside, as well as several in Midtown. The project will also target connections with bikeways in the city's green spaces, making a more robust network for both transportation and recreational uses, according to John Long, director of BikeHouston. "This is the kind of urban living that many people are looking for," Long said.
The funds will also go toward crosswalk improvements, new sidewalks and other infrastructure. "If we build the infrastructure they will come and they will use it," said Turner.
"Fifty miles is a high bar," Turner said. "That’s unprecedented in the city of Houston...but we love the challenge."
Though Walsh said the roughly $15 million was an important first step, he hoped it could inspire future funding from other county and city partners. "What we are hoping is that we can show the benefit," he said.