Bike shares are booming. Can Houston become a cycling city?

Beth Martin | Houston Chronicle

When did you last ride a bike?

Whether you’re an avid cyclist or thinking back on a memory from childhood, you know the feeling of freedom and exhilaration — the sense of adventure and satisfaction that comes from being in closer contact with your surroundings.

At Houston BCycle, we see our riders experience these feelings when they use bike share to head to work, pick up groceries or ride along the bayou trails. People who haven’t been on a bike in years get past the first few wobbly moments on a BCycle bike, and soon they’re grinning ear-to-ear as they pick up speed and lean into long, smooth, looping turns.

So, what’s the opposite of that feeling?

It’s finding yourself trapped, alone in your car, waiting out your commute in start-and-stop traffic. As Houston continues to grow in population, car commuting becomes ever more difficult. Parking is growing scarcer and scarcer. And we’re beginning to realize that adding more lanes to our highways doesn’t solve the problem.

In 2019, we’re seeing a revolution that speaks to a real solution.

After years of steady growth, Houston BCycle ridership is up 60 percent from where we were at this point last year. We should see riders take more than 265,000 trips by year’s end.

Yes, people are still using our bikes for recreational rides — but hundreds more are using bike share every day for short, one-way trips in downtown, on college campuses, and in a number of other neighborhoods across the city. We’ve finally grown large enough to get a critical mass of people where they need to go. Both our ridership and membership are growing at an unprecedented rate, without signs of slowing.

Houston BCycle’s growth is great for riders, and also for the city’s culture. When you’re biking, you’re not isolated from the world around you, as you are in a car. You might notice the family-owned coffee shop on the corner for the first time. You could make a detour to a neighborhood festival. You can wave to familiar faces from across the intersection.

And bike share is good for the planet, too. At this pace, by the end of 2019 our riders will replace 1.5 million pounds of carbon emissions, burn 65 million calories, and ride BCycles for over 215,000 hours through the streets of Houston.

Biking’s growth is even great for drivers. As each new person chooses a bike over single-occupant car travel, our traffic congestion clears up, and our roads become safer.

With all that going for us, it’s not just our riders who are buying in. Houston has the makings of an ideal cycling city: The terrain is flat, winters are mild, and there are plenty of low-traffic, tree-canopied, residential roads that are great for riding. From supporters in the political realm to universities and private developers, Houston’s heavy hitters are showing that they understand the benefits of bike share — and of biking in general.

Public investments led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Commissioner Rodney Ellis — along with BikeHouston’s advocacy and the diligent work from Houston’s Planning and Public Works departments, Houston Parks Board and other committed partners — will have added 50 miles of high-comfort bikeways to Houston by the end of 2019.

One of those paths — a north-south spine from 610 North through downtown to Hermann Park — will fundamentally change how people travel through some of the densest parts of our city. Other paths will provide safer travel for cyclists in underserved communities.

METRO has unveiled plans to expand Houston’s rail system and to add tons of new access to their existing network, including “first and last mile” projects. Management districts and local governments are also improving our sidewalks and bikeway infrastructure.

As a nonprofit-run organization, Houston BCycle relies on funding partners. We’re grateful, for instance, that Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center renewed as our Official Healthcare Sponsor through 2021. For the next two years you’ll see their logo on the basket of every bike in our system — a sign of their commitment to creating a healthier Houston, one person at a time.

Whether it’s replacing one car ride per week, funding a new Houston BCycle station, or sponsoring our bikes and stations, every single effort makes a difference in Houston’s long-term future.

So what are you waiting for? If you’re nervous about giving it a go, take a safety lesson from BikeHouston. Check out a BCycle at Hermann Park and ride on the car-less pathways. Ride with a group and stay near the back. Your confidence will grow.

The question shouldn’t be: When did you last ride a bike?

It’s: When’s the next time you’ll ride a bike?

Martin is executive director of Houston Bike Share, the nonprofit organization that operates Houston BCycle.

Henry Morris