What are some of the laws related to cycling in Houston? In particular, does the law require cyclists to ride on the street?
Most of the city's bicycle-related ordinances are in Chapter 45: Traffic. There are some others regarding bike racks in Chapter 26: Parking. Some of the important ordinances are discussed below.
- Here is the complete text regarding riding on sidewalks:
(a) No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district.
(b) The traffic engineer is authorized to erect signs on any sidewalk outside a business district prohibiting the riding of bicycles thereon by any person and, when such signs are in place, no person shall disobey the same.
(c) Whenever any person is riding a bicycle upon a sidewalk, such person shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian and shall give audible signal before overtaking and passing any pedestrian.
- There is also a provision to allow the traffic engineer to post signs forbidding cycling on roadways where it might be particularly dangerous.
- The law stating that bicycles must ride in the right-hand lane of a two-way street, or either the far-right or far-left on a one-way street, and as far to the side as practicable, is part of the state Motor Vehicle Code.
- Children must wear helmets when operating a bike or riding as a passenger. The city established a helmet fund to purchase helmets for low-income families. The fines for violation are not huge, and it's really only enforced when something bad happens as a result of riding helmetless.
- In 2013, the city enacted a Vulnerable Road Users ordinance, stating that motor vehicles must pass cyclists with at least three feet of clearance, pedestrians by at least six feet. Heavy trucks must give every non-motorized user six feet of clearance. This ordinance is important in demonstrating that the city gives a shit about cyclists and pedestrians, but cycling activists rightly complain that it has been very seldom enforced. It is unlikely for a violation to occur when a law enforcement officer is present, and even then, would LEO bother with it? A cyclist must be able to get the vehicle's license plate number and other information after almost being run into, run over, or run off the road. Violation of any of its provisions—including deliberately intimidating cyclists by driving your car or truck in a threatening manner—carries a fine of no more than $500.
Is it dangerous to ride a bike in Houston?
Well, yes. And sometimes it's deadly. The number of riders killed on the streets and roads of Greater Houston is far lower than the number of motor vehicle drivers and passengers killed in wrecks. (That 22% increase in fatalities from 2013 to 2014 is pretty chilling, but 2013 represents a low ebb in fatalities per 100,000 population.) Deaths per miles traveled, a more meaningful statistic, is a little harder to measure. But one death or life-changing injury is one too many.
What are activists doing to make Houston safer for cyclists and other VRU's (Vulnerable Road Users)?
For several years, Houston Tomorrow has been pushing the City of Houston to adopt a Complete Streets policy as part of its Vision Zero initiative. Bike Houston has also had a hand in advocating for Vision Zero. The concept of Complete Streets includes making thoroughfares safe and comfortable for all users: motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, and wheelchair users. Complete Street principles have already been applied to reconstruction on Bagby and Caroline Streets in Midtown.
Complete Streets designs include:
- sidewalks wide and smooth enough for wheelchairs
- protected cycling lanes
- traffic-calming devices such as bulbouts, narrower auto lanes, hedgerows on the sides, roundabouts, and easily visible crosswalks
The "wherever possible" must not have included the recently rebuilt portions of South Shepherd Drive, Westheimer between Shepherd and Weslayan, or the current mess on Bissonnet Street west of Kirby Drive. However, Almeda Road between Brays Bayou and Old Spanish Trail is having its huge median repurposed, and I hope that will bring the addition of a more bike-friendly Almeda.