On August 12, 2013, my friend Jon Lennard was hit by a car and killed while riding his bike in Memorial Park. Four months later, Chelsea Norman, a beloved Whole Foods employee who was well-known in Houston’s cycling community, was struck and killed on her way home from work. Chelsea’s death became the flashpoint for a still-unrealized movement in Houston to create safer streets for vulnerable road users. The culmination of that movement is the Houston Bike Plan, which City Council is expected to vote on next Tuesday, February 28.
Think Local, Act Global
With everything happening in the world right now, it’s important to remember that one of the easiest ways to effect political change is by starting at home, locally. So here’s an action item you can complete right now. Send an email and/or call your local city council representative and ask them to vote yes on the Houston Bike Plan. Do it ASAP. Before this week is over.
You can go to the City of Houston website to find the council member who represents your district. This step is especially important because your district council member was elected specifically to represent your interests. Mine is Ellen Cohen, who also happens to be the Mayor Pro-Tem and the committee chair for the council’s Quality of Life Committee, which oversees things like Parks and Recreation and Planning and Development. Here’s her email address:
And here are the email addresses for Mayor Sylvester Turner and the at-large council members. Be sure to include these.
If you prefer to call, you can find phone numbers for each representative’s office on the City Council website. Many of the city council members are also on Twitter and you can contact them there too if you like.
Here are two sample scripts from Bike Houston that you can use to help craft your own email. Remember: be polite, but direct in what you are requesting.
“I moved here from the Northeast a few months ago. I have rode my entire life and don’t plan on stopping, but there are substantial gaps that need to be filled here. The Houston Bike Plan is our best bet for fixing them!”
“My husband and I both bike frequently. We appreciate the strides Houston has made for people on bicycles: safety, trails, public awareness. The Houston Bike Plan is the guide for improving bicycling in Houston – please pass it.”
Why Is The Houston Bike Plan Important?
In the week before Super Bowl LI, as tourists were streaming into Houston, two separate cyclists were victims of fatal accidents after colliding with METRORail trains. Since 2013, nearly 1,700 cyclists have been hit by cars on Houston streets, and nearly a quarter of the accidents were hit-and-runs, according to data from the Houston Police Department. Twenty-three bicyclists have died, seven of whom were killed by hit-and-run drivers. And it’s not just cyclists. Pedestrians and other vulnerable road users are also at risk.
Since Houston last hosted a Super Bowl in 2004, the city has made strides in building a nascent light rail system. And while public transportation is an important aspect of bringing the city into the future and making it a more desirable place for tourists and young professionals, a recent study by the Houston Chronicle shows that METRORail leads US light rail systems in the number of collisions per mile. Part of that danger is the lack of holistic, mixed-use planning in the creation of the system in the first place. The city has tried to remedy those issues in a piecemeal way by installing green bike lanes downtown and installing safety beacons at each METRORail intersection. But what Houston still lacks is a comprehensive bike plan.
These are the goals of the Houston Bike Plan:
- Vision — By 2026, the City of Houston will be a Safer, More Accessible, Gold Level Bike-Friendly City
- Improve Safety – To provide a safer bicycle network for people of all ages and abilities through improved facilities, education, and enforcement
- Increase Access – To create a highly accessible, citywide network of comfortable bike facilities that connects neighborhoods to transit, jobs, and activity centers, including schools, universities, parks, and libraries
- Increase Ridership – To exceed average ridership levels in peer cities by implementing policies and programs that enable more people to ride bicycles and encourage healthy, active transportation choices
- Facilities – To develop and sustain a high-quality bicycle network, including both bikeways and end-of-trip facilities
Change is Possible, But It’s Gonna Take Work
Below is the letter I’m sending to City Council.
I’m a resident of the Houston Montrose, and I’m writing to ask you to vote yes on the Houston Bike Plan.
I’ve spent the past 15 months living in Amsterdam, a city that is well-known for its cycling culture. But Amsterdam wasn’t always a cycling city. That didn’t happen until 1971, when more than 3,300 people died in vehicle collisions. More than 400 of those deaths were children. That was the beginning of a critical mass (pun intended) of support for the creation of car-free infrastructure throughout the country. The citizens protested, and the government listened. Cycling routes were built completely from scratch, starting in The Hague, as an experiment. The experiment worked. Not only is cycling now an integral part of life in the Netherlands, it’s also one of the biggest draws for tourists.
Houston and Amsterdam have a lot of similarities on this issue. Like Houston, Amsterdam is mostly flat and has mostly intolerable weather (and yet the Dutch, famously so, ride in all conditions.) Like Houston now, Amsterdam of the 1970s was absolutely clogged by vehicle traffic. But with a lot of work, political action, public service campaigns, and cooperation, minds were changed, and so was the city.
My dear friend Jon Lennard lost his life while cycling in Memorial Park in 2013. Please don’t let his death be in vain. Leah Boone. Chelsea Norman. Marjorie Corcoran. These are all people whose lives have been lost due to the lack of safe cycling in Houston. As Rachel Fairbank, herself a survivor of a pedestrian-vehicle collision on the Rice campus, recently wrote in the Houston Chronicle: “How many more senseless deaths will this city claim before we make conditions safer for cyclists and pedestrians?”
Please vote yes on the Houston Bike Plan.
Note: In the middle of writing this post, since I had the number already pulled up, I also called Ellen Cohen’s office. Here’s what I said, in case you need a quick and easy script:
“I’m a constituent of Councilmember Cohen and I’m calling to voice my support for the Houston Bike Plan.”
I seemed to catch the person who answered the phone off guard, because they were at a loss for words for a second. But they took down my name and phone number — I also offered my zip code — and said they would let Councilmember Cohen know that I called. The entire thing took less than five minutes. If you’ve been wanting to get involved in politics, there’s no better place to start than in your own town.