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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.

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African American Cyclists — And Others — Weigh in on Race and Biking

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Yesterday I wrote about a complicated subject: the links between biking and race in the United States.

It’s the first in an ongoing series over the next three months that will finish with a report about ways that marginalized Americans are pushing for protected bike lanes and other quality infrastructure. In our first post, we looked at the fact that African Americans use bikes at a slightly lower rate than other Americans even though African American heads of household are twice as likely to live without a car.

We asked “Why don’t more African Americans ride bicycles?“, and as we hoped, we’ve received many thoughtful replies so far. Here are a few. I’ve boldfaced some of the writers’ key points.

Marven Norman, vice president of the Inland Empire Biking Alliance in central California:

Every single day, I continue to see hundreds of people of color(s) on bikes bumping along on sidewalks or hugging curbs of hostile arterials. Yet, absolutely nothing is done for bikes in those areas where they’re often most needed. For example, there’s not even so much as a ‘sharrow’ in a lot of LA south of I-10. The “MyFiguerora” project stops right by USC and the enhancements on MLK aren’t even worth talking about in the context of connecting the community further than again, USC. The same trend is repeated in other cities all throughout SoCal and is a pattern I’m sure any community activist in other parts of the country can relate to as well: black/brown communities lack bike accommodations.

Then there’s the issue of the metric being used. The fallacy of measuring bike demand/usage solely by ‘commute trips‘ rears its ugly head highest when we’re discussing the segment of the population that has higher unemployment than the population at large. As it is, people are more apt to jump on their bike for a ride to a shop maybe 2 miles away than to ride 10 to get to work. (Yes, I’m aware that of plenty people actually do ride farther than that, myself being one of them on occasion.) Yet, measuring only commutes, especially given the aforementioned biases, continues to result in in the conclusion that there’s no reason to build anything.

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How One-Day Plazas and Bike Lanes Can Change a City Forever

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition installed this pop-up lane and intersection treatment at an Open Streets event to show neighbors what a protected bike lane could look like.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition installed this pop-up design at an Open Streets event to show neighbors what a protected bike lane could look like. All photos courtesy of Sam Rockwell.

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.

Sam Rockwell rides his bike every day from his home in Minneapolis to his office at BlueCross BlueShield of Minnesota in Eagan, 12 miles away, where he spends his days plotting ways to get other people riding their bikes too.

By all accounts, Minnesota is doing a pretty good job on that front. One way Rockwell — and his co-conspirator at BlueCross, Eric Weiss — are looking to make healthy, active transportation even better is by installing temporary “pop-up” infrastructure around the state so people can take new street designs for a test ride.

Despite relatively high levels of biking, Minnesota has somehow neglected to install even a single on-street protected bike lane — though Minneapolis has approved a plan to build 30 miles of them by 2020. Weiss, Rockwell, and the advocates they work with use pop-up installations to help local leaders and residents see how the infrastructure will look.

“We get that, ‘We don’t support it because we don’t know what it is; we’re never going to know what it is because we don’t have any,’” Rockwell said. “There needs to be some way of breaking out of that cycle.”

The pop-up strategy, he argues, is the way. “These are low-cost, quick and easy initiatives,” he said. “And also low-risk, because in the case of the pop-up cycle track, they put it up for one day on a number of different days throughout the summer, and then they just lift it out. It’s non-threatening.”

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Long Beach Gets Moving on Southern California’s First Highway Teardown

Image via Longbeachize

Removing a piece of the Terminal Island Freeway (red) would free up acres of land for new park space. Map: Longbeachize

This week, Long Beach put out a request for bids to tear down a stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway, opening up 20 to 30 acres for new park space. Brian Addison at Longbeachize explains why it’s a long time coming and very good news:

It’s been named one of the top  “Freeways Without Futures” in the nation and described as a “perfect example of obsolete infrastructure.” It has been a blight on a neighborhood that sees some of the least amount of park space in the entire city.

Now, the project to remove a large portion of the Terminal Island (TI) Freeway in West Long Beach has officially gone out to bid in an RFP… It marks a major event in Southern California’s urban design history, being the first freeway removal project that mirrors existing projects such as the removal of both of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway.

The project is simple: the existing northern length of the freeway, following the development of the 20-mile long Alameda Corridor and the still-underway modernization of the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) by Union Pacific Railroad, is redundant. Not only do shipping companies use it less and less, the traffic itself matches those of 4th Street along Retro Row (some 13,700 [motor vehicle trips per day]). And if plans for ICTF follow through, you can drop that down to 8,700 [trips per day]–less than the traffic 3rd Street receives in the quiet neighborhood of Alamitos Beach.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit runs a response to a defense of slow-running transit projects. Greater Greater Washington shares research showing how Capital Bikeshare users change their transit habits. And the Bike League offers some suggestions for legal reforms that can help boost bicycling rates.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Dem Senator Whitehouse: House Bill Is “Pathetic” But I’ll Vote for It (The Hill)
  • House Directs Homeland Security to Develop a Plan to Protect Infrastructure (The Hill)
  • Julián Castro Takes the Helm at HUD (NBC)
  • Pension Funds Eye Infrastructure Investment, But Not in United States (Roll Call)
  • Study Shows Where Bike-Share Increases or Decreases Transit Use (CityLabGGW)
  • How Chuck Marohn “Recovered” From Sprawl-Building to Become a Champion of Strong Towns (Time)
  • Transit Advocates Oppose Next Week’s Road Funding Measure in Missouri (Governing)
  • Minnesota’s Nice Ride Finds One Way to Increase Bike-Share Use Among Low-Income People (Pi Press)
  • As Massachusetts Grows, It Has to Build Denser Housing (WGBH)
  • While Salt Lake City Waits for Streetcar, How About a Bus Circulator? (Tribune)
  • RideScout Exec Calls For “Right-Pricing” Transportation So Users Pay the True Costs (Roll Call)
  • A Fast Transit Response to a Slow-Transit Response to a Fast-Transit Argument (Human Transit)
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Why Do African Americans Tend to Bike Less?

Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, right, in Copenhagen with Downtown Denver Partnership Director Tami Door.

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

It took a week in Copenhagen for Albus Brooks to start thinking seriously about bicycling.

The Denver City Council member, 35, had never owned a bike. By the time he headed home from a study tour in Denmark last month, he knew those days were over.

“We biked every day, so I found myself, on a personal point, increasingly happy,” Brooks said, laughing, in an interview last week. “I was a very happy person by the end of that trip.”

So Brooks came home and bought his first bicycle, a Danish-style city bike. When he rode it to a meeting of other African American community leaders, eager to spread his conclusion that bike transportation could be as important as mass transit to improving central Denver, he got a first-hand lesson in the size of the task he had decided to tackle.

“I came in in a suit and a bike helmet,” he recalled. “These were all middle-class African Americans that do not ride bikes. And they looked at me as if I was an alien.”

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FHWA to Engineers: Go Ahead and Use City-Friendly Street Designs

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NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide includes engineering guidance for transit boulevards. Image: NACTO

The heavyweights of American transportation engineering continue to warm up to design guides that prioritize walking, biking, and transit on city streets. On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration made clear that it endorses the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which features street treatments like protected bike lanes that you won’t find in the old engineering “bibles.”

FHWA “supports the use of the Urban Street Design Guide in conjunction with” standard engineering manuals such as AASHTO’s Green Book and the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the agency said in statement released on Friday. FHWA had already endorsed NACTO’s bikeway design guide last August. The new statement extends its approval to the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, which also covers measures to improve pedestrian space and transit operations.

Federal approval of what were until recently considered “experimental” street designs means that more engineers and planners will feel comfortable implementing them without fear of liability.

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Decades in the Works, D.C.’s Silver Line Opens to Commuters

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By 10 a.m., more than 9,500 passengers had made trips that started or ended at the five new Silver Line stations today. Photo: @drgridlock/Twitter

Half a century ago, when Dulles International Airport was constructed in the farmlands of Virginia, planners were forming a blueprint for the Washington region’s new Metro system. Back then, they ruled out the idea of stretching the rail line 30 miles beyond the capital through rural counties to connect with the airport. Such a line would serve no purpose for commuters, they said, and would do nothing to help congestion.

But there wasn’t a total absence of foresight regarding the region’s potential explosion. Along with the airport came the Dulles Access Road — and through the center of it, a median reserved for future transit.

The new Silver Line, which officially opened to riders on Saturday after months of delays, runs along that exact path. Ultimately, the 23-mile extension — the largest infrastructure project in the nation – will connect not only to the airport but beyond it to Ashburn, Virginia. The $2.9 billion first phase laid 11.7 miles of new track along five new stations in Tysons Corner and Reston, expanding the Metro system’s mileage by 10 percent.

Today is the first weekday for commuters to try out the new line, which runs east from Reston through the city to Largo Town Center in Maryland. WMATA predicts ridership will be low at first, then eventually reach as many as 25,000 boardings a day. As of 10 a.m. today, more than 9,500 people had passed through the five new stations, the agency said.

It took over five decades for the Silver Line to get here. The last 20 years were particularly contentious, as the project overcame political strife, cost overruns, financing complexities, and construction delays.

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9 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Transit Still Struggling to Recover

Image: Ride New Orleans

The frequency and coverage of New Orleans transit service is nowhere close to pre-Katrina levels. Maps: Ride New Orleans

Next month will mark nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, flooding nearly 80 percent of the city. In the wake of disaster, the city has demonstrated remarkable resilience. Its population has rebounded to about 86 percent of where it stood before the flooding.

But a new report from transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans [PDF] shows the city’s transit system is nowhere near its pre-Hurricane strength. Evan Landman at Human Transit shares the details:

Some key points from the report:

  • In 2004, RTA’s peak fleet was 301 buses. By 2012, that number had dropped to just 79.
  • Revenue hours declined from over 1 million prior to the storm to fewer than 600,000 in 2012.
  • By 2012, only 36% of the pre-storm daily trips had been restored.
  • In 2012, no bus routes in the entire system operated at 15 minute or better frequency, down from 12 previously.
  • Meanwhile, overall service level on the city’s historic streetcar routes declined by only 9%, and the number of available vehicles (66) is the same today as in 2005.

What accounts for the difference between the relatively robust network of 2005 and today’s service offering? Obviously no transit agency would have an easy time recovering from the damage done to its vehicles and operational infrastructure by a catastrophic event like Katrina. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. But nearly a decade on, something has prevented RTA from ramping back up to its prior service level.

Read more…

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Today’s Headlines

  • DC’s Silver Line Is Open for Business (WMATA, U.S. DOT, WJLA)
  • So Is the Tucson Streetcar (APNews Now)
  • Matt Yglesias: DC’s Streetcar Will Actually Make Transit Worse (Vox)
  • Utah Sen. Mike Lee Launched His Devolutionist Bid in Hopes of Headlines Like This (Herald Extra)
  • Would You Pay 13 Cents an Hour for On-Street Bike Parking? (Bike Portland)
  • BART Gets $17.4M For Security (KVTU)
  • Salon Examines the Benefits of Free Transit
  • Why People’s Eyes Glaze When You Talk About “Infrastructure,” Even If You Say It’s “Crumbling” (E&E)
  • A Summer Reading List for Transportation Geeks of All Ages (Book People)