Houston continues to bet big on bikes.
Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis pledged Monday to donate $7.4 million to help complete Bayou Greenways 2020, a transformative public-private project that aims to create 3,000 acres of greenspace along Houston’s watersheds along with 150 miles of connected trails for hiking and cycling. In conjunction with the final stages of the initiative, the Houston Parks Board announced two inaugural events planned for the spring that will showcase some of the recreational space and cater to the city’s expanding bike culture.
The Sights & Sounds Festival will be held April 4 along a 2-mile stretch of White Oak Bayou from Stude Park in the Heights to the University of Houston-Downtown. Then the Art Bike Parade, in the same vein as the popular Art Car Parade, will take place May 9 from Allen Parkway to Sam Houston Park.
“We didn’t (used to) think of ourselves as a bicycling town,” said Heights Realtor and Houston Planning Commission member Bill Baldwin, who attended Monday’s announcement at City Hall. “Now we are a bicycling town.”
Beth White, the president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board, said the nonprofit is donating more than 250 bikes to Houston ISD to spark interest in the inaugural Art Bike Parade. Cyclists of all ages can register to participate at houstonartbikeparade.org.
The free and family-friendly Sights & Sounds Festival will feature an array of performances by acrobats, jugglers, magicians, musicians and poets, headlined by Houston rapper Bun B. The idea of the event is to celebrate the natural beauty of Houston’s urban core.
The Bayou Greenways initiative, in the works for nearly a decade, is about much more. Mayor Sylvester Turner said it aims to promote alternative transportation, healthier lifestyles and more connectedness between communities while also combatting flooding.
“It’s not only for the enjoyment of all of our residents,” said Abbie Kamin, the Houston City Council member for District C, which includes the Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest. “It’s also protecting us from flooding, it’s cleaning our water, it’s removing carbon from the atmosphere and improving air quality. The focus on these greenspaces are allowing us to also look at our neighborhoods and how to connect our neighborhoods, which is just a great enjoyment opportunity for families.”
Turner also called the Bayou Greenways project the city’s “single biggest down payment on park equity.” The parks board said about 1.5 million Houstonians will live within 1.5 miles of a bayou greenway upon completion of the project, which is scheduled for 2021.
While there is a concern in some parts of town that the expanded trails could lead to gentrification, thereby pricing out existing residents, District H city council member Karla Cisneros said increased mobility by bike is welcome in some low-income neighborhoods.
“I’ve got people that don’t own cars, that rely on mass transit, and it’s not optimal yet,” she said. “I’ve got people that ride bikes to get to work and school and wherever else they want to go. It’s really important … that we have safe ways for people to get around where they need to be, and this is just one piece of it.”
Former Mayor Annise Parker helped spearhead the effort, with Houston voters approving a $100 million bond for help fund Bayou Greenways in 2012. The parks board then set out to raise another $120 million, with an initial $50 million gift from the Kinder Foundation.
Rich Kinder said he and his wife, Nancy, supported the project because it creates a system of linear trails that allows Houstonians to avoid driving on the city’s crowded street. He said they also wanted to make sure there would be adequate funding for maintaining the greenways once they are constructed.
Ellis, an avid cyclist and original champion of the initiative during his time as a state senator, said he wants to see the greenways eventually expand throughout the region. For now, though, he’s glad to see the original plan near fruition.
Ellis said the idea was first hatched a century ago by Arthur Comey, an architect who envisioned a Houston parks system anchored by its bayous.
To help pedal that vision across the finish line, Ellis is donating $7.4 million from his Precinct 1 transportation funds, contingent on approval next week by the Harris County Commissioners Court.
“Why is it so important to do this and do it on time?” Ellis asked the audience at City Hall. “I love biking and I want us to do these things in our lifetime, 100 years after Mr. Comey came up with the idea. I want to enjoy these amenities while I’m still on my bike before I have to get on a trike.”