About $1 million per year in public funds has been allocated for the Houston Bike Plan, which the city council adopted in 2017 to promote accessibility and safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians.
Near the top of the plan’s priority list is the intersection of 11th Street and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike & Bike Trail crosses one of the neighborhood’s busiest thoroughfares. City officials also identified safety concerns on 11th Street to the east and west of Nicholson, and they’ve put together a plan to address them.
If the Heights community shows sufficient support for the proposal, which includes a reduction of vehicle lanes, the addition of bike lanes and the installment of a median refuge island at the trail crossing, it could become one of the first put into action under the citywide cycling initiative.
“I think we’re really close. I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet,” said Ian Hlavacek, a Houston Public Works engineer who specializes in transportation and drainage operations. “Everyone’s a little bit nervous to pull the trigger. Have we done enough that we need to do? Have we talked to the right people? We want to make sure we’ve got all the right check boxes and we’ve checked them all off.”
Hlavacek and Jennifer Ostlind, assistant director for the city’s Planning & Development Department, helped lead an initial community meeting about the proposal March 5 and held another May 8. Fifty or so Heights residents attended each meeting, and the reactions were mixed both times.
Ostlind, whose department will ultimately decide whether or not to move forward with the project, said she’s still collecting feedback and gauging the neighborhood’s overall stance. She said she hopes that becomes clear by the summer, and there may or may not be another community meeting in the interim.
“It’s a good possibility,” she said of implementing the plan, “but it’s not a done deal.”
Ostlind said many citizens have expressed support for the “road diet,” which calls for reconfiguring 11th Street between Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street. Instead of having two lanes of traffic in each direction, much of that stretch would be restriped to have one lane going in each direction with a center left-turn lane and bike lanes on the outside of the road.
The idea is to reduce speeding, sudden lane changes, other forms of aggressive driving and collisions on that stretch of 11th, where 516 crashes were reported to the Houston Police Department between 2010 and 2019. Hlavacek said computerized traffic models suggest a lane reconfiguration would have little impact on congestion, with traffic counts on 11th having remained steady during the last decade.
“Road diets improve safety for everyone, including kids who need to get to school, the mom walking to the coffee shop, the family crossing the street, disabled and/or elderly residents who may not drive and, yes, even drivers,” area resident Monica Teachout Russo wrote about the proposal on Facebook.
Not everyone in the neighborhood is convinced that a road diet would be safer or make for more efficient traffic low. Timbergrove Manor resident Bob Choate, who attended both meetings, said in an email that he is against the plan.
Choate cited a METRO bus route along 11th as evidence that traffic would back up every time the bus stops, because other vehicles would not have a passing lane.
“Terrible idea,” Heights resident Scott Grover wrote on Facebook. “Doubling up traffic into one lane each direction means you’ll never get out of cross streets … if you have to make a left. It takes forever now at rush hour and all weekends.”
Ostlind said the city is receptive to community feedback and willing to amend the plan accordingly, and it already has in some cases. The original proposal called for the lane reconfiguration to extend east from 11th to Pecore Street until it reached North Main Street. But because property owners along Pecore wanted to keep their curbside parking, Hlavacek said, the proposed bikeway now turns south on Michaux and extends to Stude Park, where it can connect to trails along White Oak Bayou.
At the second meeting, city officials also provided more details about how the 11th Street intersections at Shepherd, Yale Street and Heights Boulevard would be configured. And to address concerns about the safety of cyclists traveling in close proximity to motorists along 11th, Hlavacek and Ostlind said they would install a series of small, rubber barriers – called armadillos – between the vehicle and bike lanes.
Ostlind said some meeting attendees opposed the addition of bike lanes altogether, and removing them from the plan remains a possibility even though that would also take funding from the Houston Bike Plan out of play.
Ostlind described the median refuge island planned for the intersection of 11th and Nicholson, which would provide a traffic buffer and safe haven for trail users crossing 11th, as non-negotiable.
“We have a directive from (Mayor Sylvester Turner) to solve the problem at Nicholson,” Ostlind said. “I think a road diet will do that and provide much-needed benefits along 11th.
“If we decide we don’t want to do bike lanes for whatever reason, we’re just talking paint. … It’s not an all-or-nothing deal, and we’re exploring.”
Jessica Wiggins, advocacy director for the nonprofit BikeHouston, wants bike lanes to remain part of the proposal and also wants to see it move forward sooner rather than later. She lives near 11th Street in the Heights and said fellow residents need to make community safety – and not their drive times – the priority.
Wiggins expressed disappointment in the opposition to the plan, but she takes comfort in her belief that the majority of Heights residents support it.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Wiggins said. “I think this project is going to move forward, and I think when it’s done people will love it.”