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Downtown Houston Will Get Its First Protected Bike Lane

Houston's protected bike lane should look a lot like this one from Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT, via Flickr

Houston’s protected bike lane should look a lot like this one in Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT/Flickr

A piece of top-notch bike infrastructure is coming to the largest city in Texas.

That’s the word today from Kevin McNally at Houston Tomorrow, who relays the news that a two-way protected bike lane is on tap for downtown:

The City of Houston will install the City’s first on-street protected bike lane along Lamar Street in Downtown, possibly as early as October, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Morris. The two-way protected bike lane will help to connect Downtown to both the Buffalo Bayou trails and the Columbia Tap Trail.

The bike lane will be three-quarters of a mile long and will be painted green, the Houston Chronicle reports. It will be separated from car traffic by “armadillos,” or hard, low-lying plastic bumps. McNally says:

Based on the description from the article, the bike lane should look similar to the above photo of a two-way protected bike lane in Seattle, with the exception being that the white plastic bollards will be replaced by plastic “armadillos” or “zebras” (see examples of those here).

Bike Houston Executive Director Michael Payne said the objective is to make “people feel comfortable” about biking and getting “out of their cars.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Washington Bikes shares a poll showing overwhelming support for Safe Routes to School among the state’s residents. And Bike Portland reports that advocates in that region are trying to ensure that every school district has a Safe Routes to School program.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Zoned Out

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Welcome to the dog days of summer! Before skipping town, Congress passed a transportation funding patch so they wouldn’t have to deal with the real problem of the unsustainable way our nation builds and pays for infrastructure. I give the briefest possible rundown of where we are now before Jeff and I launch into discussions about the issues of the day: zoning and ride-share.

Houston is famous for its wild-west attitude toward zoning, but that laissez-faire approach was put to the test recently when residents of a single-family neighborhood protested the construction of a 23-story apartment building. No matter how the situation resolved itself, it was bound to have ripple effects.

We also talk about new services offered by Lyft and Uber that bring them a little closer to true ride-sharing — though, as we note, they’re still a far cry from the platonic ideal: hitchhiking.

The comments section is open for your witty comebacks and retorts. Check us out on iTunes and Stitcher, or sign up for our RSS feed.

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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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The Bayou Greenways Plan: A Game-Changer for Houston?

Image: Kinder Foundation

The Bayou Greenways project will add 150 miles of biking and walking paths, but will Houston residents be able to safely access it via local streets? Image: Kinder Foundation

Houston’s Bayou Greenways plan is perhaps the largest active transportation project in the country right now — if residents can actually use it for transportation when it’s completed.

Jen Powis of the Houston Parks Board has described the greenway project as a cross between the Atlanta Beltline and the Portland Bike Master Plan, which “re-envisions transportation” in the city. The project is undoubtedly ambitious, but it remains to be seen whether the city will create safe street-level walking and biking connections to the greenway network.

Construction of the Bayou Greenways is already underway. Once complete, it will consist of a comprehensive network of greenways and walking and biking trails along the city’s many natural bayous.

The plan comes from a blueprint more than 100 years old. It was part of early city planner Arthur Comey’s vision for the Houston park system back in 1912. And in many ways, it’s brilliant.

Greater Houston has 10 major natural bayous, which flow out toward the Gulf of Mexico, spread fairly uniformly across the region. These marshy areas aren’t suitable for development, but they can be used for active transportation and recreation. Already there are some 70 miles of disconnected biking and walking paths along these waterways.

The $480 million project will create a network of 300 miles of paths and some 4,000 acres of parkland along these waterways over seven years. If it were completed today, it would be the country’s largest urban trail system.

Linking together the bayous and sprucing them up is expected to pay big dividends. For one, it will greatly expand recreational amenities in the region; six out of 10 Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of a trail or greenway. The city has estimated the combined economic return at $70 million per year. Of that, $10 million is expected to accrue annually from increased property values near the parks and improved business attraction and retention. Another $10 million is expected to come from enhanced water quality and reduced flooding. Finally, the expected increase in exercise and physical fitness is valued at $50 million annually.

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Parking Craters: Scourge of American Downtowns

Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt popularized the term ”parking crater,” defined simply as “a depression in the middle of an urban area formed by the absence of buildings.”

Various types of “meteors” left behind parking craters in the 20th century — sprawl subsidies,  highway building, the erosion of manufacturing. Whatever the cause, parking craters destroy sections of downtowns and make the environment inhospitable and unattractive. In these areas, there is virtually no street life. In warm weather the asphalt makes the air more oppressive. It’s hell on earth. It’s a parking crater.

In this Streetfilm we talk to advocates in Cleveland, Dallas, Hartford, and Houston about the parking craters in their downtowns – several of which have been contenders in Streetsblog’s annual Parking Madness tournament – and how these awful craters came to be.

A final note: If this Streetfilm is well received, we intend to do a follow-up film looking at the flip side – cities that have undone their parking craters by adopting better policies.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Houston, Transit Paradise?

Welcome to a super-long extra-bonus episode of Talking Headways! We only took on two topics this week, but we got so enthralled by both of them we just couldn’t shut up.

First, we talked to Christof Spieler, a member of Houston Metro, about the “blank-sheet” bus overhaul he helped design. Instead of trying to tweak the current system around its edges, Metro decided to start again from scratch, planning routes and service that make sense for the way the city is now. Metro thought the upside would outweigh the downside, but the agency wasn’t prepared for this: There was almost no downside. By eliminating redundant and inefficient service, Metro could optimize routes without eliminating low-ridership routes that people depend on. And to hear Christof tell it, what they’re accomplishing is pretty amazing:

What we’re really doing is focusing on frequent service. We’re basically doubling the number of routes that offer frequent service, and we’re extending that frequent service to seven days a week. So: every 15 minutes, seven days a week, network of about 20 routes.

That puts a million people within walking distance of those routes; it puts a million jobs within walking distance of those routes. It is going to be one of the largest coverage areas of high frequency transit in the United States. And that is a huge deal for our existing riders, because currently only about 25 percent of our boardings are at stops that have all-week frequent service. This will take that up to 73 percent.

Once we tear ourselves away from Christof and his beautiful vision of the future of transit, we do a debrief on what’s going on with the transportation bill in Congress. The Senate bill isn’t all it could be, but in Congress nothing is ever all it could be, and this one at least stands a chance of passage — or it would if there were an actual, realistic funding stream attached to it. No such luck. Tune in for all the gory details.

Side note: Big thanks to all who have donated during Streetsblog’s spring pledge drive, especially those of you who specifically mentioned the podcast as why you’re giving. We appreciate you! There’s still time to get in on the fun: Please donate today!

As always, Talking Headways is available on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed, and this right here is where you leave your snappy comments. We welcome your backtalk and your sassy mouth.

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Talking Headways Podcast: From the Free Market to the Flea Market

You think the conflict between Uber and regular taxi drivers — and cities like Seattle — is bad? Check out how new taxi apps in China are upending the transportation system and central economic planning. Meanwhile, in Houston, a flea market has brought revitalization without gentrification to a depressed area near the airport, and now an urban design firm is bringing in pop-up infrastructure like mobile libraries and grocery stores, along with sidewalks and bikeways. And Californians are proving that the culture shift away from the automobile and toward other modes of transportation is happening — maybe even faster than we’d thought.

And for a real downer, check out U.S. DOT’s big idea about how to hold states accountable for better safety outcomes — by not holding them accountable at all.

Enjoy this week’s podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

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More Mayoral Results: Minneapolis, Houston, Boston

This week’s mayoral elections yielded good news for transit and safe streets in both Houston and Minneapolis. In Boston, meanwhile, the results are less straightforward.

Annise Parker, right, won her third term as Houston's mayor this week. She has been a proponent of safer streets. Image: Houston Tomorrow via Culture Map Houston

Transportation reformers in Minneapolis are generally pleased about the election of City Council member Betsy Hodges (runoff votes are still being counted, but the second-place contender has conceded). Hodges is a strong smart growth proponent and a supporter of the city’s streetcar plans. Some transit advocates are concerned her strong support for rail will mean less investment in buses. But she definitely speaks the livable streets language.

“In my vision of Minneapolis,” she told Streets.mn this fall, “our streets are for all residents of Minneapolis regardless of the mode of travel they choose. Our neighborhood commercial corridors should not be [our] raceways out of town, but vital destinations — in and of themselves.”

In addition, Minneapolis City Council candidates with strong transit bona fides also knocked off a few incumbents. Sam Newberg wrote today in Streets.mn that “now is the time to make some very real and meaningful changes to the development of our city.”

Meanwhile, Houston incumbent Mayor Annise Parker fought off two relatively conservative challengers to win her third term in the nation’s fourth-largest city. Parker, one of the country’s first openly gay mayors, recently instituted a complete streets policy in Houston by executive order. She has also helped move forward the city’s light rail system, building a diverse coalition around transit. Parker has been ranked as one of the country’s top 10 “green mayors.” She has promised to help make cycling safer in the city and joined in on some group rides.

In Boston, labor leader and state lawmaker Martin Walsh scored a surprise upset over City Councilor John Connolly in the race for mayor. Advocates in Beantown report that Connolly was clearly the more progressive choice on transportation. Connolly’s campaign featured bike rides around the city to highlight his complete streets plans; Walsh’s campaign focused more on bread-and-butter economic issues. Only three of the 12 mayoral candidates skipped a forum on transportation held by the nonprofit group Livable Streets in the run-up to the election, according to Boston Streets. Walsh was one of them.

While he’s not expected to be a visionary leader on transportation issues, there’s reason to think he’ll move the city in the right direction. He has stood for lower speed limits in urban areas. In his transportation plan, Walsh said his priorities include dedicated bus lanes in underserved areas and making neighborhoods more livable by improving conditions for walking and biking.

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Final Four Parking Madness: Tulsa vs. Houston

Which city has the ugliest asphalt expanse? The deadest downtown? The most awful place to sit and eat lunch? Those are the questions you must ask yourself as we approach the finale of Parking Madness, our hunt for the worst parking crater in the U.S.

We’re wrapping up Final Four competition today with Tulsa and Houston vying for the chance to take on Milwaukee in the championship game.

Here we have Tulsa, where the south half of downtown has pretty much been replaced with thousands of 9 foot-by-20 foot stalls:

Our friend Steve Lassiter in Tulsa sent along these shots to give us some historical context. Here are views of downtown Tulsa, facing north from the same point, in 1978 and 2005:

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“Elite Eight” Parking Madness: Louisville vs. Houston

NCAA basketball has nothing on the drama, the intrigue, the heartbreak of a competitive parking crater tournament. We’re now into the “Elite Eight” round of Parking Madness, and today’s winner will join Dallas in the Final Four. It’s going to be a fierce competition between Louisville and Houston.

Louisville’s downtown, you’ll recall, looks like this:

This entry was submitted by Patrick Smith (@cityresearch on Twitter). Note that the grey boxes are buildings that haven’t been uploaded yet to Google Earth. Local urbanists conservatively estimate that at least one-third of downtown Louisville’s land area is occupied by parking.

Now southward to this anonymously-submitted Houston parking crater:

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