County funds turning TSU campus and vicinity into living lab for biking and transit options
Standing on the campus of Texas Southern University on a cloudy day as construction equipment building a new library sat sinking in the mud, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis looked around and saw Seville, Spain.
Or at least what could be Seville, Ellis said, with a little sprucing up, some bike lanes and a little encouragement from the community. As water pools in potholes at the corner of Wheeler and Sampson and a trash truck splashes through, Ellis even sees a little Venice, Italy.
It’s not the food or the culture but the environment Ellis is describing. Third Ward has a lot of things, but the Plaza de Espana is not one of them.
What Ellis wants are the small streets that are safe for bicycles and a community that does not depend on owning cars. It is a way for children to be safe on their streets walking to class from elementary to graduate school.
“I want everybody to have that,” Ellis said.
It just is not how a lot of Houston, even some of its most downtown neighborhoods, operate.
“First, you’ve got to build the streets, or start to build the streets,” Ellis said as he started out on foot across the campus he once crisscrossed as a student. “But you’ve got to have the programming.”
Ellis’ goal is to bring biking and a few other things to neighborhoods in his precinct that have been left out of earlier efforts to add trails and options for avoiding car travel.
The campus and the neighboring University of Houston are primed to be test beds of new ways to move, officials said, ranging from better bikeways to streets and transit links more in tune with the dense but bucolic setting of colleges, small shops and houses built on city-sized lots.
Both have student populations looking for options other than car ownership, the fitness to bike or walk and welcome connections to downtown and other parts of the city where they can live and work.
In Harris County, 2.7 percent of households lack an automobile. In the Census Bureau tracts that include TSU, UH and the immediate surrounding neighborhoods, 9.4 percent of households do not own a car or truck.
Roland Cresson, 61, does not even own a bike. He said he proudly does not pay attention to politics but that he would cast a vote for better sidewalks. It would make his walk to the bus to get to his dishwashing job a lot smoother.
“All the construction going on around here, that’s something that (isn’t) getting done,” Cresson said.
Neighborhoods surrounding the schools are some of the most neglected in terms of rebuilt streets and safe bicycling amenities, Ellis said. It was the opportunity, he said, to improve the communities and campuses that drove the decision to spend county funds on the projects.
Precinct 1 is putting $10 million toward rebuilding Cleburne, partnering with Houston to redo storm sewers and turn the street from two wide lanes with no on-street parking into one with narrower automobile lanes that make room for cyclists.
After Cleburne, work will turn to Cullen — the entrance to the UH campus — giving both campuses direct, dedicated bikeways into the surrounding areas.
Funding comes from $30 million that Ellis announced in March to spruce up streets around the two campuses. Staff are finalizing designs and readying for construction to begin by mid- to late 2019.
Ellis, an avid cyclist, said the lane offers students and the broader community a major asset. In many neighborhoods within Loop 610, people rely on bikes to connect with transit or nearby jobs, especially those without means to own a car.
“They should have done the bikeways through some of these places a long time ago,” he said..
Within Precinct 1, officials have identified 24 miles of bike lanes that are priorities for neighborhoods and conform with Houston’s bike master plan, said Amar Mohite, Ellis’ director of planning and infrastructure.
Residents in the vicinity support biking efforts spilling off the campuses and into the community.
“There is an increasing interest in having more options, including bike lanes, that are safe and accessible, not only to the students at TSU, but to the residents and businesses in the adjacent areas,” said Theola Petteway, interim executive director of the Greater Southeast Management District .
The rebuild of Cleburne is just part of providing better biking access on campus and its vicinity. After slow growth over the past three years, officials with Houston B-Cycle are back in a building boom. That has brought five bike-sharing kiosks to the TSU campus and six to UH, from which riders can check out bikes and then use the trail system to access an additional 78 stations, mostly in downtown and Midtown and at the Texas Medical Center.
“Given our proximity to the Columbia Tap Trail, we look forward to seeing the red bikes rolling in, out and around our beautiful campus,” TSU President Austin Lane said in a statement.
Stations installed at UH starting in August already have logged more than 5,000 uses by 575 riders. While small when compared with the school’s 45,000 registered students, the bikes are gaining in popularity, especially for cross-campus trips, spokesman Chris Stipes said.
“They will leave the dorm and go to the student center and back,” he said.
At UH, officials are banking on the idea that more bikes on campus means fewer cars. The school, which has a huge commuter population that puts a premium on parking, is trying a host of initiatives to draw more students and visitors to transit or bicycles.
Officials have changed parking to a zoned system where permits are valid in a certain area in hopes of getting commuters to aim at specific parts of campus rather than circling around looking for spots everywhere. The university also subsidizes students $27.50 monthly on Metro to encourage bus and rail use.
The Tiger walk on the Texas Southern University campus, seen Nov. 19, is slated to test an autonomous shuttle as part of a pilot by Metropolitan Transit Authority.Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Along the Tiger Walk — the Main Street of the TSU campus, made up of a closed part of Wheeler — the surge of students biking and walking between buildings will be joined by a slow-moving, minivan-sized driverless shuttle.
The shuttle, part of a pilot overseen by Metro, will be the first deployment of autonomous vehicles for public transit use in the Houston area. Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said transit and university officials are working on an opening day, likely in mid- to late January.
Though it will run a small, circuitous route at first — mostly because it cannot safely navigate Cleburne in its current shape, nor during construction — the eventual goal is to shuttle students from TSU to Scott and the main Purple Line light rail station for the two campuses near TDECU Stadium. Eventually, the shuttle may connect to Metro’s Eastwood Transit Center, northeast of the UH campus on the other side of Interstate 45.
“The important thing for us is usage and ridership and getting as much data as possible from the users,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro.
Officials acknowledge that some of that is gauging whether people will trust something to drive them around using sensors and computers to avoid crashing.
“Part of this is educating the community on the potential for the project,” Williams said. “This is about getting the people ready for the technology.”
In some ways, Ellis said, all the changes are about getting people ready for new ways to move around the region and the return of old ways of getting exercise. City and county health department officials have said a lack of safe sidewalks and bike trails has kept some in the community from getting active, contributing to obesity and other health problems.
Ellis hired Fernando Martinez, who previously worked for the advocacy group Bike Texas and developed Brownsville’s bicycling plans, to spearhead activities in Precinct 1. In addition to seeking out grant funding, Martinez is working to add bicycling programs to local community centers.
“It is about bringing them out,” Martinez said of developing a bike culture in places that may not have one. “Showing them what it looks like and how it feels.”
Progress will be tracked in a number of ways, he said, ranging from bicycle sales in the area to the number of bicycle helmets given away to local children and agencies. Regional transportation officials also have counters on area trails to track use.
Though many of the efforts are focused on the university campuses and surrounding neighborhoods, Ellis said he believes these first projects can be replicated in every community. Developing that, however, will take funds from a host of sources, such as county money, state and federal grants, and investment from management and redevelopment agencies.
As each piece is improved, he added, the total network of where someone can ride increases.
“We will go where we think we can grow a network,” Ellis said of the next steps. “I think this work is going to create a lot of buzz and other people will step up and want some more of it. … But I’m dealing with what we can do. I think I want to go where I can get the money.”