Houston’s Plan to Make “Bicycle Interstates” Out of Its Utility Network

The blue lines show trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system. Image: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails
Rights-of-way controlled by the Houston utility company CenterPoint (the dotted lines) could combine with trails planned as part of the Bayou Greenways system (the blue lines) to create a grid of off-street biking and walking routes covering much of the city. Map: Utility Line Bike & Hike Trails

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Long lanes of grass alongside power lines are almost as ubiquitous in Houston as highways. There are roughly 500 miles of high-voltage utility rights-of-way criss-crossing the city, and they’re mostly just dead spaces, forming weedy barriers between neighborhoods.

What could the city do if it repurposed these underused spaces? Inspired by an article in Rice University’s Cite Magazine, Alyson Fletcher decided to write her master’s thesis at the Cornell University landscape architecture program on that question. She drafted a proposal to turn these linear, grassy areas into a “recreational super-highway” — and it’s starting to look like a real possibility.

In May, the city inked an agreement with CenterPoint Energy, owner of some 500 miles of utility rights-of-way across Houston. The agreement provides the city with free access to these spaces, some 140 of which are high-voltage lines with very tall towers and wide rights of way, which are well suited for trails.

For years, city and state leaders had struggled to overcome liability concerns on the part of the energy provider. Who would be responsible if someone was injured? CenterPoint didn’t want to be that party. So Texas lawmakers got together last year and passed a law resolving the liability issue for CenterPoint.

Designers at Rice University, the University of Houston, and SWA Design Group estimate the project could cost about $100 million to complete. Community activist Michael Skelly has been leading tours of the utility areas for people who want to learn more about the proposal.

Besides the low cost of land acquisition, the project has another important selling point: It complements the Bayou Greenways plan. As we reported last week, Houston plans to add 300 miles of trails and 4,000 acres of parkland along its 10 major natural bayous. But since most of the bayous are oriented east-west, the plan has limitations from a transportation standpoint.

Here's an example of what the utility corridors look like. Image: Alyson Fletcher
Here’s what the utility corridors currently look like. Image: Alyson Fletcher

Many of the utility rights-of-way, meanwhile, run from north to south. Developing trails along both the bayous and the utility lines would form a grid accessible to large sections of the city.

Tom McCasland, director of the Harris County Housing Authority, told the Houston Chronicle that the plan had the potential to change the way people get around the city. At the same time, he acknowledged that it won’t change the status quo on Houston’s car-centric major streets.

“What is so important about this is (that) these, along with the bayous, will serve as our bicycle interstates,” he said. “For those people who don’t want us out on the busy roads, this is the answer. Let us ride these, and then we’ll jump to the side roads to get to our final destinations.”

Most of the utility rights-of-way have design obstacles — road crossings, railroad crossings, or ditches — and overcoming them will take some investment in physical infrastructure, said Fletcher, who has completed her thesis and is now a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard.

But there are also some challenges that come with creating trails under high-voltage power lines. For one, CenterPoint insists these areas be free of trees. So supplying shade will be an important design element to make the paths comfortable in sultry Houston. There’s also some risk people could be exposed to slight electromagnetic or static shocks — so the trails will have to be designed to be as far from the power lines as possible.

Still, it looks like Houston leaders think those obstacles are surmountable. CenterPoint has committed $1.5 million toward the trails. This spring, the Chronicle announced that the first two segments will be built on a site near the University of Houston and near the Sims Bayou on the southwest side of the city.

  • Trails have been built along high tension lines in many places:
    http://www.pedestrians.org/topics/row-gallery.htm
    Like other trails, they tend to be quite popular.

  • Zap

    That greenway map would benefit from a scale. That network looks huge.

  • JimthePE

    Zap, Wikipedia says that the inner loop, I-610 is over 38 miles around. So, yeah, that could be pretty huge.

  • Streetsblog Network

    It’s 140 linear miles of bikeways on the utility corridors. Plus the Bayous plan is another 300.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Many cities and metro areas could benefit from building trails in their old utility corridors but most of the utilities say NO!!! Hopefully the naysayer utilities will learn a lot from this project.

    Also let’s hope the trails are also useful by design and not more fluffy overdesigned, feel-good stuff that becomes dangerous at speeds over 10mph.

  • I certainly appreciate that a power-line corridor trail is vastly better than no trail. However, shade trees are a wonderful element to have along trails — especially in a hot climate like Houston’s.

  • Giggity. I can’t wait.

  • Justin

    Theres quite a few of these in Dallas

  • One thing that can help is to have small local parks adjacent to the right of way. When it’s time to take a break, you go a few steps off the main trail to some picnic tables under shade trees.

    Another thing that can sometimes help is to run the trail close to the edge of the right of way that will get the most shade from trees outside the ROW.

    On really hot days, you might see a pattern of people using the trails early or late, rather than midday when the sun is highest and the temperature is hottest.

  • andrelot

    It depends a lot on liability laws, and also whether provisions still guarantee ample rights to the utility to manage a ROW (example: being able to close a bike path indefinitely, without any further assessment or authorization by city, should they need to make works on the power lines or pipelines nearby; absence of creation of easement rights should they decomission lines and want to sell the ROW for other purposes etc).

    In some states, law would all but guarantee a right to sue on basis that, once installed for years, a bike path over a privately-owned utility ROW would amount to a public easement that couldn’t be taken out of the community use.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    The Seattle Metro area has a few trails and bike paths on utility ROW that work wonderfully. The Chief Seattle Trail and the Redmond Powerline Trail both run under transmission lines.

    The Tolt Pipeline Trail makes no real provisions for walkers or cyclists (steep grades and no river or highway crossings) The Seattle Water Dept. has simply opened the existing maintenance road to the public. People walk and bike on it all the time and it creates a convenient shortcut or place to stroll in many of the neighborhoods it passes through. I wouldn’t call it a major transportation corridor however, but its nice for local use.

  • Neat idea. These are generally pretty straight shots along utility corridors, so should be ideal for setting up as high speed bikeways suitable for serious bicycle transportation. There will have to be some enduring public rights to these easements once the city puts in millions in development costs as well as legal rights for the utility owners to temporarily close down or restrict passage during major repairs or other work requiring safe conditions be maintained. Hopefully, some smart minds will work it all out.

  • Jeff Knowles, AICP

    I think the biggest takeaway for other areas of the country is that the city was able to embrace a vision for a larger trail network, acquire 500 miles of ROW with one deal and act to resolve liability for the utility. Typically trail developers have had to negotiate piecemeal with the utility one easement at a time.

  • corbett french

    Of course. Don’t fix the roads. Don’t look after the budget. Don’t ford up the police or fire dept that have been financially strained. Lets pay attention to this. And telling people they can’t smoke in parks. Or try to pass LGBT legislation the majority of Houston said was a stupid idea in the first place. Mayor Porker ladies and gentleman. The moron herself. At least she’s not Bloomberg?

  • country club

    I don’t necessarily think that these greenways should be bike lanes. I actually do think roads are a better start (because cyclists on roads are never going to go away). But I do think these greenways should be re-purposed. How many more community gardens, sand volleyball courts, baseball fields, soccer fields, UN-paved trails (mountain biking and trail running), putting greens, frisbee golf courses etc. could we fit into the city?! The issue of shade is probably the most difficult one to deal with. As opposed to trees, consider the use of solar panels and/or rain water catching systems (nearby residents could use for tending to their community garden, or rain water could supply fountains for cooling) to provide some relief. I think maintaining the green is key to keeping these areas cool.

  • ChristopherJK

    I have to wonder if it would be possible to plant trees that only grow 20-30 feet and thus do not interfere with the high level wires on these utility corridors. That would create shade for bikers without interfering with the utilities.

  • Joe R.

    This is freakishly like the idea of bike superhighways I’ve proposed in NYC, except of course Houston has plenty of room at grade for them. I really hope this gets built. It would be a great demonstration of the utility of high-speed bikeways helping to make bicycles as transportation viable. I’ve little doubt once these are built, they will foster development of supplementary on-street bicycle infrastructure to go the proverbial last mile.

  • 0paul0

    Toronto, Ontario has the Finch Hydro Corridor Bike Trail. It follows powerlines. It’s about 15 km long, so far. I’ve biked it and I found it to be workable, but not as scenic as Toronto’s wooded ravine trails. Trees along a trail are nice both for shade and because they slow the wind. Also, power lines are typically located away from business districts, and business districts are often where cyclists (and everyone else) wants to go, so powerline trails don’t constitute a complete trail network. Bike lanes on major streets are also essential.

  • Bruce Wayne

    Will people cycling in the opposite direction still be able to throw coffee on you?

  • lop

    Given the scale involved the proverbial last mile is closer to ten miles, longer than most people bike except for recreation, which is probably what these paths will be used for. It won’t demonstrate that bikes are good for transportation, but reinforce that they are used mainly for recreation in car dominated cities. It’s not at all like the viaducts you want to run over the sidewalks of every major street in the city.

  • Joe R.

    It’s only people driving who throw stuff at cyclists, knowing the cyclist probably can’t catch them.

  • Joe R.

    Well, it’ll be a grid of mostly non-stop bike paths, so conceptually it’ll be similar. Not sure how far people in Houston will need to ride in order to make useful trips, so you might be right about it being used mostly for recreation. The climate in Houston isn’t exactly conducive to biking, either, for at least the hottest 4 to 6 months of the year. Still, if these increase bike mode share even to 1% or 2% in a city like Houston, which is now downright hostile to cycling, they will have proved their worth as far as I’m concerned. Houston will never be another Amsterdam, or even another NYC, when it comes to bikes. It’s just too hot and too spread out for that to happen.

    I should also note that as a velomobile network these would function great. The distances involved aren’t too great at all for velomobiles. Of course, you have that pesky cost issue to solve. Few people are going to spend $10K on a velomobile. I’m also sure 99% of the people in Houston don’t even know what a velomobile is.

  • The height limit for trees under the power lines is probably more like 15 feet, which isn’t really enough for shade trees. Particularly since they need to cut them shorter than that to allow for growth between trimmings. Major blackouts have been caused by high tension lines shorting out on trees that got too tall, so the power company will probably be pretty strict about the height limit.

  • The velomobiles (The Elf) that they build out of Durham, NC are ~$5,500 – some cyclists pay that much for a good road bike. Plus, prices may come down over time.

  • peterpan

    You don’t need the trees. The trails along our bayous now are pretty much devoid of trees. You’re just riding at the top edge of the bank and the trees are usually closer to the street if they are there at all. Just need to drink more 🙂

  • cornell

    Euro style on street bike lanes are not going to happen for the same reason it won’t happen in Toronto: Houston and TO do not have european climates. I love cycling so I’m ok riding to work when it’s 100f + then changing into work clothes. Many people would not, nor would others (and I) ride to work in a Toronto winter.

  • Fango Wolf

    You obviously don’t ride with Houston motorists

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