Houston is not known as a bicycle friendly city. In years past this reputation was well deserved. The city, though, has recently made an effort to promote bicycling. It has improved and extended bicycle trails and enacted a bike share program. But bicycling in Houston is still a high-risk activity. If you insist on cycling in Houston, you can increase your chances of staying alive by carefully choosing where, when, and how you ride.
Ride on Trails, not Streets
According to the Houston Parks Board, by 2020 Houston will have over 150 miles of bicycle trails in the city, along nine Houston waterways. The city is working on connecting these trails to make longer continuous trails so that cyclist can ride further without the need to ride on city streets. This is a great development for cyclists and drivers. After all, cars and cyclists don’t share the road well, especially in Houston, where fatal accidents between cyclist and vehicles has risen dramatically in recent years. According to the Guardian, around 1,700 cyclists have been hit by cars in Houston since 2013, resulting in 23 dead cyclist. In Houston, as in most big cities, drivers are in a hurry, distracted by their cell phones, and are not looking for cyclists.
Ghost Bike Memorial on Houston (Carlos Martinez, Flickr)
Cyclists on Houston city streets are increasingly a hazard to drivers and to themselves. The statistics bear this out. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cyclist fatalities have seen their highest increase since 1995, with a 12.2% jump in 2015.
Therefore, stick to the bike trails when possible, like those along many of the bayous that wind through the city. The best of these trails is the Hershey Park trail that runs along Buffalo Bayou. Currently this trail is under repair after it was damaged by flooding in 2016, but it should be open soon. After it is repaired, you can take this trail from Beltway 8 to Highway 6. From there, you can connect to the paved trails in George Bush Park and ride safely all the way to Katy, TX, a sprawling and equally car-centric city on the western outskirts of Houston. You can ride for more than 30 miles round-trip without any exposure to vehicles.
Hershey Park trail (Google maps)
The Hershey Park trail is popular with walkers and joggers, so be careful, especially because unlike most bayou trails in Houston, this trail has some sharp curves and steep inclines. Because this asphalt trail was built with private funds, it does not adhere to strict government specifications, and thus, it is one of the most enjoyable trails to ride. But, because of that popularity, crowds can be a problem during peak hours (weekends and workday evenings). At these times you can’t ride safely at full speed, especially if you are using a fast road bike.
While not nearly as scenic or fun to ride as the Hershey Park trail, the trail that runs along White Oak bayou on the northwest side of Houston does provides over 7 miles of continuous riding (twice that distance when current construction is complete). The trail is between 11th Street and Pinemont Drive, running parallel with the bayou and T. C. Jester Boulevard. With a few short connections, you can even use this trail to reach downtown Houston.
White Oak Bayou trail (Google maps)
If you are into long distance road cycling, you can’t ride safely in Houston. Instead, drive about an hour outside of Houston, to the small towns and less populated rural areas, where the farm to market roads are well maintained. Some have decent shoulders. But even so, I would ride only in the early morning on the weekends and in groups. You are less like to be run over in a group and if you are hit, at least there is somebody with you to get help (hit and runs are not uncommon, unfortunately). Check out the local bicycling clubs who organize group rides, such as the Houston Bicycle Club and Northwest Cycling Club.
If you live in the inner city, another option to consider is the Memorial Park picnic loop, which is a 1.1 mile paved loop that is closed to cars in the evenings. Many mountain bikers and road cyclists use this loop for training rides.
For mountain bikers, Memorial Park is also home to the Color Trails (formerly Ho Chi Minh Trails) on the South end of the park. These surprisingly hilly (for Houston) and challenging trails are the best mountain bike trails in Houston. You are safe from cars on these trails, but not from tree roots or other cyclists.
Houston is becoming more bicycle friendly, but only because the city is adding more dedicated bike trails, not because Houston drivers themselves are more tolerant of two-wheelers. Bike lanes that are created simply by painting lines on existing streets give an illusion of increased safety, but they don’t actually make you more visible to motorists. Stick to dedicated bike trails in the city or ride in groups on lightly used farm to market roads outside of Houston. If you must ride on city streets, wear a helmet, dress in bright colors and attach blinking safety lights to your bike to at least increase your odds of being seen. And get a good life insurance policy.