Trail of the Month: January 2012
If there wasn't already a Motor City in America, Houston would surely vie for the title. Cars and trucks play such a central role in this sprawling metropolis that, until recently, cyclists and pedestrians here were viewed as strange or foolish—or both.
But a combination of enlightened leadership and government investment is starting to change that. As an article in the Houston Chronicle in 2010 noted, "This city ruled by the combustion engine is beginning, tentatively, to recognize that walking and biking are legitimate forms of transportation, and beginning to give them a little infrastructure of their own."
Exhibit A in that attitude shift is a new, four-mile path, the Columbia Tap Rail-Trail. This trail not only serves as a safe transportation and recreation venue for residents of Houston's Third Ward, but it provides a vital link to other trails and on-street bike lanes in the city—and a magnet for cycling advocates.
"It's a really great thing," says Veon McReynolds, head of the local nonprofit cycling group Tour de Hood, who lives just a few blocks from the trail. "Right here in the neighborhood, you see a lot of people using it for walking and cycling."
The roots of the Columbia Tap go back more than 150 years, when Houston was a small but growing center of commerce in the newly minted Lone Star state. The underlying rail line—known back then as the Houston Tap and Brazoria Railway—opened in 1856 and served as an important route for moving crops and people into the heart of the city from plantations and ports to the south. It eventually became part of Union Pacific Railroad's network before falling into disuse.
With federal and local funding, a four-mile section of the corridor from Dixie Drive to Dowling Street was later converted into a rail-trail and opened to the public in March 2009. Today, the 10-foot-wide concrete trail cuts a scenic line through Houston's Third Ward, the historic heart of the city's African-American community. Along the way, it passes through neighborhoods of small homes and apartment buildings, dotted with churches, schools and playgrounds.
Among the noteworthy sights along the Columbia Tap is Hermann Park, a 445-acre green space just two blocks from the southern trailhead. With its wide lawns, large ponds and meandering paths, this city park offers a peaceful respite from the bustle of the city. It also offers public parking, something currently in short supply along the rail-trail. The park and its surrounding neighborhood provide a wealth of educational diversions, including Rice University, the Houston Zoo, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum of Houston and the fascinating Buffalo Soldier National Museum and Heritage Center.
The multi-use Brays Bayou Trail (which follows one of several west-to-east flowing waterways that give Houston its nickname of the Bayou City) skirts the southern edge of Hermann Park and connects with the Columbia Tap. Less than a mile north of this trail access, the Columbia Tap slices through a 150-acre expanse of red-brick buildings, grassy fields and walkways criss-crossed by book-toting students. This is the campus of Texas Southern University (TSU), one of the country's largest historically black colleges and home of a nationally ranked football team, the Tigers.
Four blocks west of here is the home of McReynolds, a former TSU professor and administrator who is widely known as 'Dr. V.' McReynolds has a long history as both a competitive cyclist and community activist, and about eight years ago he began taking friends and family on informal rides through neighborhoods in the downtown area, and nicknamed the rides "Tour de Hood.'
The rides grew in popularity and turned into weekly events, and McReynolds began supplying bicycles and helmets to youngsters who couldn't afford their own equipment. The new rail-trail has provided another venue for his outings, especially those with young riders. "That's one of the things the trails provide is a safe haven for a lot of the little kids to ride up and down."
Equally important, the rail-trail is encouraging people in the neighborhood to get out of their cars and be more active, which improves their health, McReynolds says. "Obesity is a preventable disease and it comes from us being overly dependent on our cars and our technology."
McReynolds' is not the only group along the Columbia Tap looking to improve the lives of underprivileged residents. A few blocks north of the TSU campus and adjacent to the trail is the Third Ward Bike Shop, a project of Workshop Houston. This nonprofit provides area children with job-skills training, resources and academic tutoring.
At the bike shop, local students learn how to build and repair bicycles—and, by working there, can earn credits to obtain their own bikes. The bike shop moved to this location a few years ago because the group's founders wanted to be next to the new rail-trail. Now, it's not unusual to see youngsters testing bikes or riding to the workshop on the Columbia Tap.
North from the Third Ward Bike Shop, the trail runs through a hardscrabble section of the neighborhood, under a busy highway and into a warehouse district. From here, it curves northwest and spills onto downtown streets near the George Brown convention center and Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball; the stadium actually incorporates part of the city's historical Union Station.
Work is under way on a new soccer stadium only two blocks from the downtown trailhead—"the first time the city has built a sports arena where cycling is part of the planning," says Dan Raine, Houston's bikeway program coordinator. From the northern trailhead of the Columbia Tap, it's just a short ride on city streets to two other rail-trails—the Harrisburg and Sunset, and the MKT/SP (Heights)—and one that's still under construction, the Heritage Corridor.
These trails take riders to neighborhoods east and northwest of downtown. And together with the Columbia Tap and other multi-use paths, they form a 'critical mass' that is encouraging Houstonians to get out of their cars.
"People who once said, "I won't bike to work, ever," now are," says Raine. "They are also out recreating on the trails, and there's a lot of pedestrian activity. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing a variety of folks out there using these trails. The Houston bikeway program is really on a roll these days."
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