Sunday, January 24, 2010

The case for Bikeability in Houston - Why it could be better for us than Walkability.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently published a study, “Cities for Cycling,” in which they review emerging best practices for the engineering of roads for bicycles. The goal is to make cities more bicycle friendly, so that people can use bicycles for transit; not just for recreation and exercise.

Urbanists spend a lot of time on walkability, but bikeability is often ignored. That’s a shame for Houston. Walkability is easiest to accomplish in dense urban cores, where travel distances are short. Houston has a handful of those, but most of the city was developed after World War II. Most of our neighborhoods are too spread out for walking. In many Houston neighborhoods, bikeability could be drastically improved with a few small changes – a new path here; a footbridge there; a crosswalk. Compare that to the upheaval of trying to turn suburbs into dense urban cores in order to get walkability.

Houston’s natural features lend themselves to cycling. The City is flat, which makes it easier to cycle. But more importantly, Houston is criss-crossed by bayous. Many of those bayous have become greenways – the longest of which goes for eleven miles. These are in addition to the greenways we’ve built on old railroad rights of way – something most cities have done. Greenways can be to cyclists what highways are to drivers; a fast, direct way from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. They just need to be properly linked to on-street bikeways and transit centers, so that they are more than just recreational parks.

Houston’s handful of dense neighborhoods should keep working on walkability. It’s the right answer for places like Downtown, Montrose, and Midtown. But for the suburban neighborhoods where most Houstonians live – bikeability is a much more reachable goal.

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