Houston is on pace to see twice as many people die while riding a bicycle in the city this year when compared to 2022.
Ten cyclists have been killed so far this year, according to data from the Houston Police Department, which recorded nine deaths for all of last year.
And cycling advocates contend that the police department’s figures do not accurately reflect the true number. According to Bike Houston, 11 cyclists have died so far this year, matching last year’s tally.
The difference? Houston Police do not categorize people who are killed while walking their bike as cyclists; according to official data, that counts as a pedestrian death, HPD spokesman Victor Senties told me. Joe Cutrufo, executive director of Bike Houston adds that HPD does not count those on e-bikes as cyclists either. Bike Houston does.
And we haven’t even reached the most dangerous part of the year yet. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 percent of cyclist fatalities happened in the three months between September and November in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.
But let’s not sit here and argue about numbers. Numbers aren’t humans. They’re line segments and squiggles that stand in for real objects as they are tallied and totaled. Two-dimensional black-and-white symbols that tell black-and-white stories.
Humans are three-dimensional beings, bursting with vivid colors and buzzing with life. People with first breaths, first steps and first kisses. Each one of those cyclists who died was a human being. Not a number. And each one recorded their last breath, last step and last kiss too soon, due to Houston’s inability to make cycling safer for residents.
Steve Sims has spent the last decade getting to know the families of victims that have died while cycling in and around Houston. Since 2013, he and his wife have been the team behind Houston Ghost Bikes – the white-painted bicycles that pop up in the location of fatal cycling accidents to commemorate those who died.
A graphic designer at a sign shop by day, Sims first became involved when he volunteered to create a plaque for a ghost bike made by the family of Chelsea Norman, a 24-year-old who was killed in a hit-and-run while she was cycling home from her job at a grocery store in Montrose. While attending the bike placement, Sims spoke with many other cyclists who all agreed on one thing: People didn’t realize how frequently this happens in Houston. Something needed to be done to raise awareness.
In the decade since, Sims says he has placed 120 bikes.
One hundred and twenty bikes.
“And it’s not slowing down,” he says. “It’s just getting worse.”
Memorializing victims is a mission that routinely breaks his heart, but one he finds necessary.
“I would love to never have to do this again. But people keep getting struck and killed, and other people ignore it, so I have to,” Sims says. “And those families need to know there are people who care, and people who see this happening and do not want it to happen again. And I think that’s important for them.”
So why does it keep happening – even as the city of Houston continues to invest in infrastructure to make cycling safer?
You’ve probably heard it said before: Houston is a car city. A truck city, even. We build and rebuild ever-widening roadways, invest $400 million to create new parking garages in the Texas Medical Center and plan our entire city around the needs of cars. As a city known for its ties to the oil industry, it’s always just made sense as part of our identity.
Just the idea that Houston could evolve into a multimodal city brings resistance. This May, on Bike To Work Day, riders recorded a driver flipping them off at the corner of Lamar and Brazos downtown. A few minutes later, the driver aggressively cut off the cyclists, middle fingers still on display. The cyclists, understandably, were scared for their safety.
Not even 24 hours earlier, Sims had placed a ghost bike in memory of Rodney Adkins at the intersection of McKinney and the Columbia Tap Trail where he was killed – 2 miles away.
Attitudes, Sims says, are at the heart of this issue.
“A large number of people believe that anyone who was struck and killed on the roadway deserves it because they shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place,” he says. “And that’s just wrong. It’s so wrong.”
To make real change, there needs to be a shift in what we perceive as normal road usage.
“In our country and especially in our state and our city, elected officials seem to want to cater to people who drive cars and have a definite bias toward driving,” says Cutrufo of Bike Houston. “They themselves tend to see the city through the lens of a windshield. So when you start to see real change is when decision makers are willing to implement policies and projects that actually take space that’s being occupied by cars and turning it into space that’s dedicated for bicyclists.”
That is happening in some parts of the city, says Cutrufo. He points to the work that’s been done on 11th Street in the Heights to create a protected bike lane as an example of new infrastructure that has already improved safety for cyclists. But while the city has announced initiatives such as Vision Zero – which aims to reduce the number of traffic deaths recorded in Houston to 0 per year by 2030 – Cutrufo says there isn’t enough investment to reach such moonshot goals.
“We’re making progress at seeing change on the streets in real time,” he says. “But in a city of 660-something square miles, we would need to see the investment in safe streets at an order of magnitude higher in order to eliminate bicyclist deaths.”
According to Vision Zero’s 2022 annual report, 1 percent of Houstonians bike to work, yet 3 percent of the city’s traffic deaths last year were cyclists. In other words, cyclists are dying at about three times the rate you’d expect to see in a city our size. And that was last year, when the totals were lower than we’ll likely see by this December.
“I think the most important thing to note is that since the Houston Bike Plan was adopted in 2017, roughly 75 to 80 people have been killed while riding bikes in Houston,” Cutrufo says. “But none of those fatalities took place on a street where there’s a protected bike lane. So we know this infrastructure saves lives, we just need to expand the rate at which we’re building it.”
That takes buy in and political capital. It takes reframing the way we think about traffic deaths from a question of data to a question of human cost. It takes attending a Ghost Bike placement to see what Sims sees, and understand the toll that comes with every single crash. It takes empathy, which is never too much to ask.
“This is an emergency, and it’s not being treated like one,” Cutrufo says.
So let’s at least start with that.