Trail of the Month: February 2017
“We can barely get these trails built before people are on there. We’re on the verge of something here; we’re about to pick up the pace.”
While not generally known for its greenspace, Houston—the country’s fourth most populated city—is onto something big. Something Texas-sized big: the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which aims to complete a 150-mile network of trails along nine of the city’s major waterways in just a few year’s time. Houston is home to several bayous and other waterways (engendering the fitting nickname of the Bayou City) that crisscross the city from west to east. The longest of these, the Brays Bayou, is the close companion of the Brays Bayou Greenway Trail, which spans more than 30 miles, connecting several parks and running just a couple blocks north of NRG Stadium, where this year’s Super Bowl is taking place.
“Houston is having a green renaissance right now,” says Catherine Butsch, communications manager for the Houston Parks Board, which is spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.
An encouraging sign of this progress is the upcoming Houston Bike Summit, a first for the city, which will be hosted at the end of this month by BikeHouston, a nonprofit advocacy group, and attended by Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, who will give remarks.
A New Shine on an Old Idea
As early as 1913, the city’s web of bayous was envisioned by landscape architect Arthur Comey as the potential backbone of a sprawling park system. More than 100 years later, the Houston Parks Board—in collaboration with the City of Houston, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Harris County Flood Control District—is turning that vision into reality. About 70 miles of trail is already on the ground, and another 80 miles are planned.
“A lot of land along the bayous was underutilized,” says Butsch, who notes that the project will transform 3,000 acres citywide into publicly accessible greenspace. “We’re adding landscaping and turning them into destinations. As much as the bayou greenways are trails, they’re also, at their hearts, parks projects.”
It’s an effort that’s widely supported. The project got off to a running start in 2012 when a city bond referendum providing $100 million in public funding for Bayou Greenways 2020—which will be matched with private funding raised by the Houston Parks Board—was approved with 68 percent of the vote. And it’s no wonder: When complete, an estimated 60 percent of Houston residents will live within a mile and a half of a bayou greenway.
“We can barely get these trails built before people are on there,” says Butsch, adding that more ribbon cuttings are anticipated for 2017. “We’re on the verge of something here; we’re about to pick up the pace.”
From Black Gold to Bike Gold
Much of the buildout of the network will include filling in gaps in the existing trails. One such gap on the Brays Bayou Greenway will be eliminated later this year when a new pedestrian bridge connecting the University of Houston and MacGregor Park is completed. The park, situated on the east end of the trail, will be the site of the annual Bayous Greenway Day coming up on Saturday, April 29. The free event—anticipated to draw more than 2,000 people—will offer family-friendly activities, music and giveaways to promote awareness and usage of the city’s growing trail system.
Another jewel along the Brays Bayou Greenway is picturesque Hermann Park, offering a smorgasbord of attractions over more than 400 acres, including the Houston Zoo, an outdoor theater, public gardens, a lake, a golf course and even a miniature train. As if that weren’t enough, the park is bordered by the Museum District, which is sprinkled with nearly a dozen museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions.
But the trail is not just used by recreational riders. Surrounded by the University of Texas, Rice University, the Texas Medical Center (the largest medical complex in the world) and other major schools and workplaces, the corridor presents a safe and efficient route for bike and pedestrian commuters.
Enhancing the city’s burgeoning connectivity, a revision of the Houston Bike Plan is underway which would support trails and other alternative transportation efforts. It is hoped that the plan—if approved by the city council (an announcement is expected later this month)—will help catapult the city from its Bronze status to a Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community within 10 years, as determined by the League of American Bicyclists.
BikeHouston’s executive director John Long notes that a well-developed trail system brings with it a higher quality of life which is anticipated to draw a talented pool of workers to the city. “Houston is always driven by economic factors. There’s a great awareness of the rise of the creative class who choose where they want to work.”
With at least 100,000 people expected to flood the city’s core during the Super Bowl, Houston’s host committee has looked at solutions to ease the traffic congestion during the big game and the special community events leading up to it. In a city known for its ties to the oil industry, it’s worth noting that the official “Complete Transportation Guide” for Super Bowl 51 includes a bike valet service that’s being provided by BikeHouston volunteers and free rides offered by Houston B-Cycle, the city’s bike-share program. The Houston Parks Board also put its own creative spin on the festivities with its list of “51 Super Places” along the bayou greenways; a dozen spots on the Brays Bayou Greenway, which lies closest to the stadium, made the list.
“There’s tremendous enthusiasm for it,” says Long of the greenways project. “There’s no controversy about it.”
Now that’s worthy of a touchdown dance.