Citywide bike-sharing initiative reaching new Heights

Adam Zuvanich | The LEADER

The bike-sharing program in Houston is booming.

So is the Heights.

It was only a matter of time before the progressive concept and forward-thinking neighborhood crossed paths and rode together on a popular trail.

Houston BCycle, a nonprofit created by the city in 2012, started with three bicycle-sharing stations and has since expanded to nearly 100. It also has become increasingly prevalent in the Greater Heights, where seven stations have been installed since the spring of 2017.

The area’s two newest stations – Heights Central Station at 1051 Heights Blvd. and Heights Mercantile at 703 Yale St. – opened in May and are situated in the heart of one of Houston’s most bike-friendly neighborhoods. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Heights Mercantile location is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

“I think it’s going to be really, really great for our system. I think it’s going to be really great for Heights residents and visitors,” said Henry Morris, Houston BCycle’s development and communications manager. “It’s a really good mesh there, the type of service we provide and the infrastructure that’s already on the ground. Go to the Heights on a weekend and you’ll see a bunch of people riding bikes.”

Like many residents and businesses in the Heights, Houston BCycle strives to foster a healthier, greener and safer community that is more equitable and interconnected. There are similar programs in cities all over the United States, with many using the same BCycle equipment and technology owned by Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle.

City spokesperson Anna Sedillo said the bike-sharing program in Houston was initiated by the office of former mayor Annise Parker and has been embraced by successor Sylvester Turner, who has a similar vision of diversifying the city’s modes of transportation and decreasing its dependence on automobiles. The idea is to reduce traffic congestion and pollution while increasing accessibility to more affordable, energy-efficient means of traversing the city.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is a sponsor of Houston BCycle, which according to Morris tries to align its stations with METRO infrastructure and serve as a last-mile option for users of public transit.

“The mayor’s been talking since he was first inaugurated about a paradigm shift, moving Houston from an auto-centric community to one that is safe and provides efficient means for all Houstonians to travel,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, interim director of the city’s Planning & Development Department. “The mayor sees bicycles as one of the key spokes in the wheel.”

Planning & Development helps secure public right of ways, permits and easements for Houston BCycle and manages its grant funding. Sedillo said the initial stations were funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, and a grant from the Federal Highway Administration will help the organization expand to 130 stations by next summer.

A man returns a bike to the Houston BCycle station across from the Heights Mercantile. The station opened in May and is one of eight in the Greater Heights. Photo by Adam Zuvanich.

Morris said the rest of Houston BCycle’s money comes from sponsorships – Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center is a key supporter – as well as membership and user fees. The cost for non-members is $3 for 30 minutes of bike time, while memberships are available for $9 per month or $99 per year. Morris said the membership fees will change to $13 per month and $79 per year on July 1.

For members, the first 60 minutes of every ride come with no additional cost. Morris said members try to capitalize on that benefit by taking a series of short rides throughout the day, such as from home to work, from work to lunch and back and then from work back home.

“It’s kind of a bummer to be stuck in your car all day in Houston traffic,” Morris said. “It’s much more fun to be outside.”

Houston BCycle stations, which are projected to have 75,000 unique riders this year, are powered by solar panels and come with multiple bike docks, usage instructions and computer-screen kiosks that accept credit and debit cards. The bikes are big, sturdy and brightly colored with baskets in front of the handlebars and near the rear wheel.

Helmets are not provided to riders, who must sign liability waivers beforehand and be at least 18 years old. Morris said Houston BCycle does not have the manpower to monitor stations and riders but spends a good chunk of its operating budget on bike maintenance. He also said there have been no fatalities on Houston’s bikes and that the nonprofit gets “very few notifications” of injuries.

A first-time rider at the Heights Mercantile location, who asked to remain anonymous, gave a favorable review upon returning his bike to the docking station last week.

“It’s cool,” he said. “Nice and convenient. Clear on how to use it. It’s good stuff.”     

The developer responsible for the Heights Mercantile, a collection of businesses along 7th Street between Yale Street and Heights Boulevard, also has been pleased with the early returns. Mark Sumell, a senior property manager for Radom Capital, said Houston BCycle has complemented an already walkable, bike-friendly block while delivering more potential customers.

The Heights Hike and Bike Trail that passes through the Heights Mercantile extends west to North Shepherd Drive, where Radom Capital has an even larger mixed-use development in the works along with Triten Real Estate Partners. Their M-K-T project at the northeast corner of Shepherd and 6th Street is slated to open in 2020 and will have access points from the trail.

So it figures to be a fitting location for a future Houston BCycle station.

“We’re definitely excited about it being here,” Sumell said. “I think Houston BCycle is going to be great going forward.”

Henry Morris