Brownsville, a Texas border town, is frequently cited as one of the poorest cities in the country. It also has one of the highest obesity rates.
But local officials have taken on some of the city’s health problems. And one of the key tools they’re using is cycling.
Planning Director Ramiro Gonzalez says it’s been about two years since the city of 180,000 people — 93 percent of them Latino — began its cycling push. City Commissioner Rose Gowen, a doctor, made health-based initiatives a key part of her agenda.
“It really started at the level of getting people active to improve [their] health,” Gonzalez said.
Since then, the city has implemented a complete streets policy and adopted the National Association of City Transportation Officials‘ Urban Bikeway Design Guide — which, unlike older American engineering guidelines, includes protected bike lanes.
The city has been putting that guidance to good use, adding about 30 miles of bike lanes in the last year.
But once you have bike infrastructure, how do you get people to use it? City leaders brought in livable streets expert Gil Penalosa, former director of parks, sports, and recreation for Bogotá, Colombia. He got the idea of an open streets or cyclovia event percolating. This year, Brownsville has held eight open streets events, which it calls CycloBia, clearing major downtown avenues of car traffic and opening them to active play. The city is planning two more before the year’s end
The first few started out with about 2,000 or 3,000 participants, but attendance has grown steadily. The latest event attracted more than 12,000 people.
One unique aspect of Brownsville’s CycloBia is that because of high summer temperatures, the city holds its open streets events at night. Gonzalez said he’s not aware of any other city in the country doing it that way. But the 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. hours seem to be working well.
Lisa Mitchell-Bennett wrote in the Brownsville Herald that she always found it unpleasant to bike with her children in downtown Brownsville until this event.
“The streets belonged to the people — all kinds of people — and it was beautiful,” she wrote. “While we easily crossed International Boulevard, a friendly man in a uniform asked us how we were enjoying the day. My daughter, usually shy with police officers, shouted out ‘It’s awesome!'”
For each event, the city has rented about 75 bikes from BikeTexas, an advocacy group based in Austin. People wait as long as 45 minutes for a chance to rent one.
“People inherently want to be active,” said Gonzalez. “But there’s always an excuse — ‘Well it’s not safe.’ What we’ve learned is if you provide a safe environment, people come out of the woodwork with their bikes.”
The next goal for Brownsville’s bike initiative is to develop a “bike shop,” a low-cost modification of bike-share: a city-owned facility where people can rent bikes by providing an ID or credit card.
Despite the city’s sprawling footprint, Gonzalez says residents have embraced cycling in a way that has surprised even leading proponents.
“Every time I go to one of these events, I find someone who says, ‘I’ve been biking all my life,’ or, ‘I bike to work,'” said Gonzalez. “A year and a half ago we probably would have said nobody in Brownsville commutes to work on a bike.”
“We just want to keep the momentum going,” he said.