The city of Houston plans to add 155 miles of bikeways by the end of 2023, in an effort to increase safety for the city’s cyclists. But one key gap in bike lane implementation continues to render many of these lanes ineffective.
“It is not common practice to erect no parking signage in lanes that are utilized by bicyclists,” Billy Rudolph, chief of staff for the city’s administration and regulatory affairs, informed me earlier this week.
You’ve probably wondered about this at some point, while navigating around this city, where it’s not at all uncommon to see bike lanes obstructed by cars and trucks – including vehicles performing official city duties.
It is actually illegal to park in a city bike lane, thanks to an ordinance passed in 2020, which set fines at $100 per violation. But just how often is that ordinance being enforced?
Not often, according to city data.
In 2020, the city recorded 17 parking citations in bike lanes between the October passage of the No Parking in Dedicated Bicycle Lane Ordinance and the end of the year. The following year, Houston logged 95 citations; in 2022, 105 citations were issued.
And so far this year, only 33 citations have been doled out.
That’s … not a lot — especially when you consider there have been at least 14 cyclist deaths so far this year, according to the organization BikeHouston, already eclipsing the number recorded in all of 2022.
And bike lanes, by definition, are designed to reduce harm to bicyclists. In 2019, Mayor Sylvester Turner signed the Vision Zero Executive Order, committing the city to completely eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. While Vision Zero doesn’t have its own funding stream, Houston has directed more than $5 million to improving cyclist safety in recent years. And those investments appear to be paying dividends: According to Vision Zero’s 2022 Annual Report, spans of roads that have had safety improvements have seen significant dips in deaths and serious injuries.
For example, on Austin Street, between Holman and Commerce, the number of crashes resulting in injuries dropped by 17 percent after the addition of a bike lane.
That kind of impact is great to see. And I’d love to write a column crammed full of positive statistics like that. But Houston must work a bit harder, and certainly smarter, to be able to reach Vision Zero’s actual goal of reducing deaths by 100 percent.
And employing systems that ensure these bike lanes are not obstructed by parked vehicles can go a long way to get there. Because, as BikeHouston noted the other day, when the bike lane in front of the Houston Public Library’s downtown location was blocked by city barricades, it’s illegal for cyclists to take their wheels to the sidewalk when their bike lanes are blocked, according to City Ordinance 45. That means the only legal place for cyclists to go is back out onto the main portion of the street.
So how can the city fix this issue? Easily. Here’s a two-step process that could pay huge dividends.
Step one: update the Vision Zero Action Plan (VZAP) to include a mandate that bike lanes that abut curbs be accompanied by “No Parking” signs. I asked the folks at Vision Zero whether such efforts have been included in its action plan, which identifies 50 actions the city can pursue to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on Houston roads. According to David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, “efforts not identified in the VZAP, such as the suggested change to signage implementation, are not currently being pursued.”
Step two: increase enforcement.
“During regular daily patrols, parking enforcement officers issue tickets to vehicles that are witnessed blocking bike lanes, but they do not proactively monitor that offense over other types of parking violations that they are also on the lookout for,” Rudolph told me.
If the city were to assign parking enforcement officers to seek out these offenses — perhaps in targeted areas, like the 2300 block of Polk, which Rudolph says has the highest share of such citations in the whole city — the narrative about whether parking in these lanes truly matters would shift.
The city is allocating real resources to improving bike safety, and it’s inspiring to see the dedication behind the push to make this a safer city for cyclists. But it’s frustrating to see that in a year when Houston is adding those 155 miles of bike lanes, they’re falling just a few feet short of finishing the race to zero deaths.
See the signs, Houston. Then add them to the bike lane plan.