March 21, 2017

 

 


  
Dear Friends and Neighbors:

Tomorrow Houston City Council will vote on "The Bike Plan." I will vote against it. I think you deserve an explanation by me and every Council Member. Here is mine.

The reasons I am voting against the Bike Plan are numerous. In sum, they are as follows:
  1. Exorbitant Cost ($500 Million minimum upwards to over $2 Billion)
  2. No Funding Mechanism
  3. Usage--Insufficient Ridership to Justify Cost
  4. Subjugates Other Priorities
  5. Environmental Issues-Tree Killer
  6. Defies Common Sense
  7. Practical Experience Over Past Year
 
Let me start by saying that I am not against all bike plans. I am against this bike plan. I am also not anti-cyclist-I am one myself. I have two bikes in my garage and on occasion I ride. I am what you would call a leisure cyclist. I also have donated time, money and bikes to Chain Reaction Ministries, a charity run by a good friend of mine who repairs bikes and gives them away to those who need them for transportation and/or recreation. I am pro-bike and I would love to see a good, effective, cost-efficient plan which would remove the dangers cyclists face in and around Houston. This plan does not do that. In my opinion it is costly and increases the dangers to the cyclists. Plainly speaking, Houston is being sold a pig in a poke.
 
Brief Background
 
In order to discuss the Bike Plan and the reason it is being implemented, we need a bit of background. When discussing cyclists, most break them down into four categories based on a study by the City of Portland back in 2012. This breakdown is as follows with my label on the right:

Portland Label                            % in Category           Travis Label

No way No How                           33%                          Not Cyclists    
Interested but Concerned              60%                         Leisure Cyclists
Enthused and Confident               7%                           Everyday Cyclists
Strong and Fearless                     <1%                         Hard Core Cyclists

The labels and the study along with the percentages are from the Portland Study which pro-cyclists tend to look to when selling the community on a bike plan. They may or may not be representative of Houston. Do you see what I see? 93 % are either not cyclists or only ride leisurely. There is no definition as to leisurely as it encompasses those who ride once a year to those who ride when they get off work.

Why am I looking to this Portland Study? Because I have not been provided with any accurate numbers for Houston. I have asked for these numbers and I am told that they do not exist. Nobody bothered to count. Further, I have asked for a Cost-Benefit Analysis of this Bike Plan, and again, I am told that one does not exist. Nobody bothered to do one before committing the City to spend upwards of $1.5 Billion. Simply, if Portland has these numbers then Houston's will not be any greater. I am giving my critics the benefit of the doubt here.

When looking to the Portland Study, we must keep a few things in mind to make an accurate comparison of the possible ridership we might expect here in Houston. First, Portland is a northern city with more moderate temperatures than Houston. Its lowest temperature during the year is in the 30s while its highest is in the 80s. Compare this to Houston which ranges from the 30s to the 100s. Second, Portland is a younger city demographically so is more likely to contain a higher number of potential cyclists. It is reasonable to assume that a generic 30-year-old may ride a bike more readily than a 70-year-old. Third, Portland is a smaller city. Its entire city is 133 square miles compared to Houston's 644 square miles. Further, it has a population of around 650,000 compared to Houston's 2.3 Million. Lastly, Portland is a city which prides itself on progressive ideas and like Austin sees itself at the forefront of the bicycle movement.

The most interesting part of the study is also the most revealing--93% of the population are either not cyclists at all, or are leisure cyclists. This is important because if the same holds true for Houston, and I would suspect that the numbers are even higher due to the factors listed above, then we are doing a bike plan for no more than 7% of the population. The critics will state that this Bike Plan is for everyone-but it's not. This will be shown throughout. This Bike Plan is for the hard core or everyday cyclists who want to ride in the city streets. So, we are going to spend Billions for 7% of the population?

I have always believed that the role of government is not to try to be all things to a few people as that is manifestly unjust. It is also not to be all things to all people as that is cost prohibitive. Rather, government's role is to do a few things (the basics) for all people so that they can go and live their lives as they choose and they see fit. These priorities are public safety (police and fire), mobility (roads and traffic management), and core basic services (water, sewer and drainage). If the Bike Plan passes in its current form, we will be sacrificing mobility and core services so that some can ride their bikes.

Costs Are Exorbitant (Billions of Dollars)

Most recently on City Council when we were discussing the issues of the Bike Plan, the Administration informed me that there were no costs. Hogwash. There are costs-we all know there are costs. More importantly, that same Administration has estimated that the costs will be around One-Half Billion Dollars. What they don't say is that some experts have estimated that the cost will be triple to quadruple that amount and approach Two Billion Dollars or more. We simply cannot afford that. Where is that money to come from? The Plan does not say as it contains no mechanism for funding (see Funding below).

Why does it cost so much and why the discrepancy? The Administration estimates the costs will be lower as the bike lanes will be a small addition to the roads when each new road is constructed. They argue the bike lanes will be piggybacking off of the road construction itself. This may make sense for timing purposes, but not for cost purposes. The reason is that most of the bike lanes called for in the plan are "on road" and therefore will be an extension of the road itself (an extra lane if you will) along with all of the requirements (concrete thickness, density, etc.) which then adds essentially hundreds of lane miles to our already underfunded ReBuild program. These are additional lane miles so they are additional costs. Each two-lane road is now a three-lane road with one lane (albeit a little narrower) only for bikes. Based upon the costs of each lane mile the city now estimates for actual roadways, the costs associated with this plan skyrocket past the Administration's unreasonably low estimates (used for the purposes of selling this plan) to well over $1.5 Billion. Of course, some experts have estimated that urban lanes cost between $1.5 Million and $2.5 Million per lane mile depending on the construction. With a minimum of 620 on road lane miles, this would then mean an even higher cost of upwards of $3 Billion. Unbelievable. Unaffordable.   Something must give-and it will. You will see less roads being redone and less drainage projects completed (see Misplaced Priorities Below).

Funding

Nothing is free and this Plan is no exception. So, where do we get the money? What is the funding source? The Plan does not say. It simply does not contain a mechanism for funding. Yes, you read that right. The Plan, with all its costs, has no explanation of how those costs will be paid or where those funds will originate. Does this mean a tax? Possibly. More likely it means taking from other projects and priorities. A likely place will be to try to divert directly or indirectly ReBuild Houston funds into these bike lanes. Further, it will be done in such a way as to hide the costs within the actual construction of the road itself. They even indicate this in the Bike Plan where they say in a footnote on Page -ES-17 "On street bikeways will clearly have a cost as part of the full network build out but these would be included in the cost of the street reconstruction and therefore are not included here." Translation:  "We will hide the true costs of the bike lanes within the entirety of the construction so you will never see it and these costs will be born out of the ReBuild Program." They are going to rob Peter to pay Paul. That is how they intend to fund it. And they will do it each time they do a project hoping that no one notices their incremental costs. This is unacceptable. If you are going to pass a Plan that will cost Billions, then at least have the audacity to say so. Better yet, put it to a vote by the public.

Usage--Insufficient Ridership to Justify the Costs

How many cyclists are there really in Houston? How many leisure? How many commuter cyclists? No one knows.

I have asked for the number of bicyclists who ride daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. I have yet to receive them. They won't provide me these numbers as they know they are low. Rather, they provide me self-selected numbers with little meaning such as "modal share" within the Medical Center which has little to no meaning. What we do know is that in Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco, about 21,000 people a day ride their bike to work. This seems to be the goal of the Bike Plan. Boston on the other hand only has 6,700. I have heard there are probably about 5000 serious everyday cyclists in Houston-but again, nobody will say for certain. Interesting that we don't have those numbers for Houston. Perhaps it's because we have too far to travel as we are much larger in area than all of those cities. We are also hotter and more humid as we are in the South. If our number is closer to Boston than Chicago, then we looking at spending on average more than $300,000 per cyclist on this Bike Plan.

As I indicated earlier, they have no facts or figures as to how many cyclists will actually benefit from this plan. I repeatedly asked for a cost-benefit analysis and I have repeatedly been told there is none.   Rather I am told, "if we build it they will come." That might work in a Kevin Costner movie but that doesn't work in real life and this is no way to be a basis for a billion-dollar program. This is unacceptable. If we are going to vote to spend several billion dollars, then we need to know who and how many will actually use these new bike lanes.

Misplaced Priorities

Here is a question-would you rather reduce flooding or have a new bike lane? Or how about, would you rather have a road without potholes or a new bike lane? These are your choices. 75% of our roads are in disrepair. Let's not forget, the cost to each Houstonian each year due to improper road conditions is around $700 per year per driver.

If the Bike Plan passes, we will have bike lanes in lieu of new roads and drainage projects. We do not have the funding for the bike lanes as we have no money. So, if and when the bike lanes are built, they will have to siphon off monies from other areas. Experts have already concluded that money will be appropriated to the bike lanes from road projects and ReBuild Houston thereby meaning less roads will be reconstructed and more houses will continue to flood. So, for every bike lane built, there will be one less road lane built. For every bike lane built, there will be one less drainage project left unbuilt. Houston has a serious flooding problem. Our monies and are energies need to be directed towards solving the flooding problems which cost the citizens billions of losses each year. These are real needs. To allow money to be siphoned off for bike lanes is malfeasance on the part of the Administration and City Council.

Environmental Issues--Tree Killer

Over 62,000 mature trees stand to be sacrificed. I have asked for the estimate of the number of trees, mature trees, which will be removed or die if the Bike Plan is implemented. Again, no figures are given because no research was done. We do know that a considerable number of trees will be removed or die and this only makes sense since the bike lanes require a massive widening of the roads. With bike lanes in each direction and the required barriers, we are talking an expansion of 16 to 20 feet for each road. This means either smaller to non-existent medians or a major encroachment into private property and people's yards where many have trees in their front yards or close to the road. There are some experts who estimate that we will lose 100 trees per lineal mile. If so, then we are looking at losing 62,000 trees or more. If so, this will end up being an environmental catastrophe.   Houston as Tree City USA-no longer. How do you replace a 150-year-old Oak?

Defies Common Sense

This Bike Plan only makes sense if it gets a large number of people out of their cars and onto bikes-commuting to and from work. Over and over I am told- "if you build it, they will come." This defies common sense.

First, Houston has a very large land mass of over 644 square miles. It is not conducive to commuter cyclists except on a small geographic area. It might work in the Medical Center but only for those who live near the Medical Center. The same goes for the Energy Corridor. However, few if any will ride a bike downtown from the Memorial area.

Second, Houston is hot and humid for a good part of the year. Few will ride to and from work in the heat of the day when it is very warm outside, which means from April to October. Those cities in which some cyclists do commute are located in the North-Portland, Chicago, Boston, etc. It defies logic that people will trade in their air-conditioned cars for the sweaty commute of a bike. Further, once the cyclist commuters are at work, few have access to showers. You can expect the next government intervention to require ALL work places to install showers to accommodate those few commuters.

Third, Houstonians are car-centric. Our schedules require it. A typical Houstonian's work day starts with getting the kids off to school, driving them there and then going on to work. After working all day, they go to pick up their kids from school, then stop by the store on their way home to pick up groceries for dinner. I just don't see anyone taking their kids to school riding on the handlebars of a bike or carrying their groceries home in a side saddle basket. I also don't see anyone bringing home work to do in a side saddle basket.

Most bicycle usage in Houston is leisure riding in the evening and on weekends. Those who partake in this activity most often prefer quiet streets and trails. It makes sense to focus on those areas then-for leisure riders-safe streets and those trails which cyclists will use.

Practical Experience Over Past Year

Over the past year, I have personally experienced how the Bike Plan will be used going forth in the design and construction of new streets. It is not a pretty picture. Two weeks ago, on Council, I shared my experiences with the design of Kirkwood Road where the neighbors overwhelmingly did not want bike lanes. However, regardless of the overwhelming desire of the neighborhoods, they were told by the City and PWE that they were to get them anyway as they were REQUIRED by the Bike Plan. This occurred when there was no Bike Plan. Nevertheless, the non-existent Bike Plan was used to justify and require bike lanes on both North and South Kirkwood. What will occur when there IS a Bike Plan? This simple example gives lie to the claim that there will be community involvement and flexibility in determining the bike lanes locations.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of the bike lanes on Kirkwood then necessitated the reduction of the medians, thereby reducing substantially the number of mature trees aligning Kirkwood. Repeatedly, I tried to get those bike lanes removed so as to save the medians and the trees but also because Kirkwood is a major thoroughfare and I, while living nearby, have never seen a cyclist on Kirkwood. Apparently, the goal is to connect Westheimer to I-10. I just don't see it. Who rides a bike on Westheimer or I-10? Seems like a waste of much needed resources which could be used elsewhere in my district to reduce flooding or repair much needed roads. Further, by encouraging more people to ride on busy streets we will be increasing the likelihood of harmful encounters between cyclists and automobiles.

The push back I received from PWE and those advocating this plan showed no regard for the requests and desires of the community. They were not willing to be flexible. Bike lanes were going to be on Kirkwood come hell or high water as that is what the Bike Plan required. Eventually the community felt forced to make a deal to get the bike lanes reduced and off road. PWE did acquiesce to this request though the community would still have preferred to have the lanes eliminated entirely. I received a letter dated March 10, 2017 from the community stating just that and supporting my comments on Council (see letter posted on my website).

From my experience, I feel certain that the Bike Plan is no outline and will contain little to no flexibility. Further, it will be used in such a way as to force neighborhoods and communities to accept bike lanes regardless of the community's desire. To put it bluntly, everything I am being told this Bike Plan is has been shown to be false through my experience with Kirkwood. I cannot ignore my experience or the experiences of my constituents in order to blindly believe whatever is being thrown out there now. Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us.

Bike Plan Proponents Counter and Why They are Wrong

Over and over the Bike Plan Proponents tell us the following:
  1. The Bike Plan is an Outline
  2. It's Flexible
  3. It Requires Community Input on a Case by Case Basis
  4. It is Affordable
The Bike Plan is an outline, but only insofar as it contains no funding mechanism. It is intended to be used to justify bike lanes everywhere shown in the plan. The claim of flexibility is patently false as has been shown by the Kirkwood design and the ensuing negotiations this past year. If they are not flexible when there is no Bike Plan, how flexible will they be when there is one? The same goes for community input-how are they to be believed when given the opportunity, they ignore the community and this is even before the Bike Plan exists. As for Affordability, see my comments above. You decide-can we afford billions for bike lanes while communities flood and roads are in extreme disrepair?

Solution

There is a better way to proceed. First, we should put this Bike Plan to a vote of the entire community. Doing selective surveys is insufficient when you are planning to spend billions of dollars. If we are going to forgo drainage projects and road reconstructions which are badly needed, we should have the communities' input and support. Second, we should proceed with smaller community-centric bike plans where there is a higher expectation of utility. A bike plan should be created for areas such as the Medical Center, Montrose, the Heights, the Galleria, etc. and each bike plan can be unique to those areas as they are unique areas within the city. Third, when the bike plans are created, they should concentrate on low hanging fruit such as the bayous, energy transmission corridors and less travelled streets. Doing this would improve the likelihood of the expansion of cyclists within Houston as they would be safe riding trails. Of course, this means focusing on the leisure cyclists, not the hard core or militant cyclists. But, then again, the leisure cyclists make up over 60% of the ridership. We should try and put their interests first. Who knows, maybe then we might even get a few of the never cyclists to give it a try and then that would truly be a plan worthy of support.
  
Please let me know how you feel. More importantly, let every council member know how you feel.

Brenda Stardig, District A, Brenda.Stardig@houstontx.gov
Jerry Davis, District B, Jerry.Davis@houstontx.gov
Ellen Cohen, District C, Ellen.Cohen@houstontx.gov
Dwight Boykins, District D, Dwight.Boykins@houstontx.gov
Dave Martin, District E, Dave.Martin@houstontx.gov
Steve Le, District F, Steve.Le@houstontx.gov
Karla Cisneros, District H, Karla.Cisneros@houstontx.gov
Robert Gallegos, District I, Robert.Gallegos@houstontx.gov
Mike Laster, District J, Mike.Laster@houstontx.gov
Larry Green, District K, Larry.Green@houstontx.gov
Mike Knox, At-Large 1, Mike.Knox@houstontx.gov
David Robinson, At-Large 2, David.Robinson@houstontx.gov
Michael Kubosh, At-Large 3, Michael.Kubosh@houstontx.gov
Amanda Edwards, At-Large 4, Amanda.Edwards@houstontx.gov
Jack Christie, At-Large 5, Jr.Christie@houstontx.gov
  
____________________________________________________________
  
Greg Travis
Houston City Council Member, District G
900 Bagby, 1st Floor
Houston, TX 77002
  
Mailing:
P.O. Box 1562
Houston, TX 77251-1562
  
Phone: 832-393-3007
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