Designing Houston’s Bicycle Underbelly

DESIGNING HOUSTON’S BICYCLE UNDERBELLY Peter Muessig’s graduate thesis for the Rice School of Architecture imagines a system of symbiotic bike-only features he’s calling “Veloducts” that would be fused on, under, around, and through the city’s existing car-dominated infrastructure. This rendering shows just such a Veloduct, which appears to be similar to those foot bridges already spanning Buffalo Bayou. But OffCite’s Sara C. Rolater explains how a Veloduct is much more ambitious: In variations of concrete, joists, and steel, [a Veloduct] can be grafted onto the pillars of freeways, hang suspended by girders, or stand on its own columns. . . . [allowing] cyclists to capitalize on precisely those systems that have previously hindered them. That [the project] enables different modes of transport to coexist without crowding each other seems especially critical for Houston, where a lack of safe-passage laws have made many of Google Maps’ bright-green highlighted ‘bike-friendly’ roads anything but.” [OffCite; previously on Swamplot] Rendering: Peter Muessig

50 Comment

  • I would propose that METRO do this on a large scale in a manner that feeds P&R lots and transit centers, then lease its users small inexpensive motorbikes, shift buses to serve business districts and retail corridors from the transit centers, and see what happens.

    I don’t understand the fascination with bicycles, though. If cyclists want recreational amenities, fine. Give them a place to play polo. But cycling is not an effective alternative for commuting in a subtropical first-world metropolitan area developed almost entirely after WW2. Public policy should reflect that, and properly recognize the importance and necessary dominance of the internal combustion engine.

  • @TheNiche, I have biked to my office daily for years, around 10 miles round trip, rain or shine. Its not for everybody, but I would challenge you to try it one day, in fact try it this week, the weather is perfect and I think you would appreciate it.

  • Don’t be harshing that student’s idealism. He’ll be hitting reality soon enough after graduation when it’s time to find a job and start paying off those loans. :)

  • BTW @Niche, nice troll job on OffCite, what a laughable response, “militant cyclists”, have you seriously come under attack somewhere by a bunch of cyclists?

  • As a former 1980s BMXer, I’d say these already informally exist.

    ElNiche – the biker view (not really mine) is that if you are already paving the world, why not throw in a little for a bike lane.

    I was too rad for bike lanes. Bike lanes are too risky.

  • I love this. Houston should definitely go this direction along with what’s going to happen at the bayous, too. This will make it more interesting to ride a bike for people and make a new city life.

  • My wife takes our little ones down to the Rice area from the Heights for kiddie classes once a week in the afternoon. It is about a 5 mi drive. It takes about 15 min to get down there. It takes about 45 min to get back during rush hour regardless of the route you take. There is not a single road between the Heights and Rice that could be widened without having to spend billions on eminent domain and losing tons of critical retail square footage. Houston may not be designed for bycicles, but there are no options to make Houston better for cars. There are plenty of options to make Houston better for bycicles, many are on the way.

  • @ Northsider: I don’t commute for a week at a time, I commute for a year at a time. Also, I’ve never preferred to live very close to work because I’ve always had to work in the suburbs. Half of the region’s jobs are beyond the urban core, making bicycling much more impractical. Also, I prefer to sweat after work, not as I’m walking through the front door of the office building. Also…I live on a different continent right now.

    Re: “militant cyclists”, you know what I mean by that figure of speech. Let’s not reduce ourselves to semantic arguments.

    For the record, I was an avid recreational cyclist before I left. I’d do my cycling in neighborhoods and big parks or along bayous AFTER I got home, even in the heat of the afternoon. That’s not what phases me; my concern is for a practical commuting alternative that could more effectively address regional mobility rather than to provide a toy for a few close-in neighborhoods.

  • @Niche, bike transit could easily be a practical and/or supplemental commuting alternative for people who live within 15 miles of their job. That is easily covered if one lives and works inside the loop. I can beat the no-transfer bus route near my house direct to my office door by 10 minutes on bike; and my experience would be greatly enhanced and made 100% safer if all the bayous had paved trails and real bike lanes.

    In my opinion the solution to wider regional mobility outside the loop lies with commuter rail which could be integrated with bike transit, and of course existing light rail and bus lines.

  • @JCR – We need such young idealists to counteract the bellicose rhetoric of crotchity old-timers like you ;)

    Rice continues to throw off-the-wall ideas out there, and this is a strong contribution to the ongoing conversation as Houston develops. I work in the corporate world, and we do the same thing occasionally. We’ll bring in someone with no preconceived restrictions on thought or ideas (i.e. someone who thinks “what if,” not “how could this fail”). We then empower them with a blank slate, and let them create. We call it “innovation” in corporate lingo, but I personally call it the “grab your ears” method (as in do that first, then pull your head out of your ass).

    Mabye only 1 out of every 20 ideas will go anywhere, but that one will definitely be a real doozy.

  • I bike a 10 mile round trip everyday regardless of weather and I am also a very hot person and will sweat on the way to work if it gets above 50 degrees. Summer mornings with a low of 80 suck, but it doesnt come close to sucking as bad as sitting in a parking lot that should be a road. In rush hour from the med center to montrose I can travel 3 times faster on bike than by car. Any of yall that deal with driving in bumper to bumper traffic and like to bad mouth bikers are nuts (or are probably just jealous of our mobility).

  • Niche,

    So because bicycles aren’t practical for you then they must not be practical for anyone else? I don’t get it.

  • Build it. We’ll use it.

  • @JCR
    This connection that you are making between the veloduct concept and student loans has captured my attention, to say the least. Please tell us more.

  • I can’t bike to work. My commute is only a couple of miles but it doesn’t take much to get soaked with sweat and I work with clients and the public and I don’t have access to a shower at my job. So commutes are not an option for me, certainly not in the heat. I still support these ideas, though, because I can bike to a lot of other places: the grocery store. The pub. The park. Running various errands, whatever. This kind of infrastructure can still be useful to people even if they can’t use it for commuting purposes.

  • Niche: if your job is out in the suburbs, you should try to live out in the suburbs. It’s really a nice lifestyle. I live in Brays Oaks and work in Sharpstown. I’m not at all interested in going back to commuting to Midtown, and I certainly don’t want to fighing my way into Uptown every day.
    That said, I long for the day when I can ride my bike to work. I could theoretically do it now, but I’d have to ride along, and then cross the Southwest Freeway. That’s really what’s stopping me. That and the lack of shower facilities (or a convenient gym) at work.

  • @dom,
    And just because bicycles are practical for some person doesn’t mean they are practical for enough people to matter – i.e., to spend excessive transportation dollars, to rework our transportation system, or expect increased bicycle commuting to put any perceivable dent in our fair city’s congestion.

    I LOVE to get on my bike when I have the chance in my free time. I HATE showing up to work in the morning soaked – either because of rain or sweat. I like to pick up 10 days of groceries on the way home from work, and not just granola and tofu.

    And bicycling to my workplace takes me the same amount of time as driving once the parking garage and walking from the parking garage is factored in. If it is impractical for me, I have to think that it is impractical for all but 0.5% of commuters. Oh … whaddya know: less than 0.5% That’s for the city. It’s much, much lower for the whole metro area.

  • The biggest easily-fixed obstacle to biking – in my area at least – is Third World streets. Before we build half-pipes attached to freeway overpasses, how about accelerating the program to fix the damage done by the 2011 drought and years of neglect before that?!?!?

  • @Anse,
    I too tend to romanticize the idea of bicycling to the pub in order to avoid a DUI or parking hassles, etc., but it somehow seems a lot less practical at the end of the night.

  • Old School just exposed the inner loop traffic that so many seem to pretend does not exist.

  • @eiioi
    Very true. It’s much more practical to drive back home drunk.

  • @eiioi

    Can you explain your statement, “I like to pick up 10 days of groceries on the way home from work, and not just granola and tofu.’? Does it make you feel better to make low blows at people who choose to live a vegetarian lifestyle??
    And your argument that it takes the same time to get to work on a bike as the car, after parking and, gasp, walking, makes you come across even more arrogant because that is the complete opposite of impractical. It’s actually impractical for you to be driving a car when you can get there in the same time as biking. Here a few benefits for biking (though I’m sure you want to hear how YOU can be benefited, and not the city or environment); save on gas and vehicle wear and tear, save on parking, reduce amount of vehicle traffic, and EXERCISE while being productive (not just working out, but getting fit by just traveling to and from place of business) just to name a few.

  • Bikes are for kids. I want a alpine ski style chair lift carrying people overhead on every major street in Houston. Either that or a gondola. A six pack detachable quad travels faster than our current METROrail (12.5 MPH when you account for the stops). And there’s no waiting.

  • Niche, why do you and so many others always reject cycling on the basis of Houston’s weather? It hasn’t been “too hot” to cycle comfortably for nearly six months. It’ll be reasonable comfortable for nearly two more, until we near the end of May. Summer will suck, but thousands will still be cycling. The same is not true for large swaths of the country which are currently sitting under feet of snow. Houston Summers are less inhospitable to outdoor activities than Winters are in many large cities; and our Spring and Fall are as good or better than most. The “it’s too hot” mantra is tired, lame, and false.

  • Those who cycle must not have to be presentable at work, or have shower facilities available. There are also those of us who, even in weather like today, sweat enough to make cycling impractical without having showers available.

    Driving is always faster for me. I live 3 miles from the office, and can make it there in 10 minutes or less. A bike would take longer, plus I would have to get through the construction zone of death at T C Jester and 610.

  • Eh, I’ve carried way more than tofu and granola on my bike. I’ve ridden from Target with 14 lbs of cat litter and a 12 pack of Charmin attached to the bike. This was before the White Oak trail was complete so I got some awesome looks from motorists on the Taylor overpass.

    My last grocery stop at Whole Foods taken during my commute home from the Med Center to the Heights = 23 lbs of stuff (I actually weighed it). That included milk, cereal, shampoo, and a six pack of Alaskan Amber.

    Helps if you have a cargo rack and decent panniers on your bike, though.

  • @ WAZ: I lived within walking distance of a suburban workplace for a time, but usually ended up driving anyway in order to accommodate good hygiene and the professional necessity of free mobility.

    @ Northsider: 15 miles is a long way. I got to where I would cycle that far in Houston up to about last November, and that was pretty fun…but I was still breaking a pretty intense sweat and would arrive back at home totally exhausted and hungry. As a commuting method, it would be impractical.

    @ jon: I reject Houston’s weather as inhospitable because I’ve always had to commute year-round. It’s also a wet city, and one that gets polluted where the jobs are.

    @ everybody: Y’all missed an important suggestion. What would you think about building something like this for bikes with small motors on them? They’d be cheap, get incredible fuel economy, would pollute less, would go fast enough without any physical exertion that sweat would be minimal evaporate immediately, and would reduce the problem of the ‘last mile’. What’s wrong with that idea?

  • I have worked with folks with poor personal hygiene and it is not something I enjoy.

    I would put most bike riders in that category unless (and our company did not) your company provides showers to employees AND you take advantage of same.

  • @jon-

    Ever sat down to make a pitch in front of a client wearing a suit after a 5 mile bike ride in traffic on a 90 degree morning (with 100% humidity)? I’m guessing you won’t make the sale which is why I will be sticking with the car.

  • From Craig: “As a former 1980s BMXer, I’d say these already informally exist.
    I’m SURE you’ve seen the movie “Rad”. Do yourself a favor, download it and watch it again. I just talked my wife into watching it. Sure she rolled her eyes, but it was still fun :)

  • @txcon and others, you don’t need a shower facility to clean up before work, pack your pannier with work clothes, and 2 towels, one of which is wet and in a container to keep it separate from your clothes.
    when you get into work, take your bag with two towels and clothes into the executive stall (handicapped) conveniently, it is clean because you’re getting to work early and the cleaning crew cleaned it last night, once you’re in your skivvies, grab the wet towel and wipe down. It’s not a shower with soap, shampoo and conditioner for the hair, but it will get you clean enough for work, once you’ve toweled enough, dry yourself with the clean towel and put on your work clothes.
    while the example of buying 10 days worth of groceries, or having a meeting with a C level account is a good example of when you might want to drive in, rather than bike, I doubt you’re buying 10 days worth of food every day, and I doubt you’re having a meeting with a C level account every day.

  • People that think it’s not too hot to ride a bike to work or the sweat is no big deal are the ones in denial about their hygiene and why they’re shunned by their co-workers.

  • BMX 4 Life! Niche, what’s your BMI?

  • Stop arguing about commuting only! I get it, you all are important business people that don’t want to stink. However, you simpletons are missing the point. These paths can be used ANY time of the day. I wouldn’t use it to commute but would sure use it after work and weekends for getting around and recreation. What’s wrong with providing safe routes to people that would like to ride a bike outside of their neighborhood?

  • The arguments for not being able to bike to work seem to be all hinged on anecdotal evidence and somewhat of a red herring. Yes, many many people cannot/will not bike to work, even if convenient bike trails existed, and even on a pleasant day such as today, myself included for various reasons. Having said that, I’m sure there are people that would and could. Look around… not every one is going to work in offices in business suits and making sales pitches for a living. The question is how many would bike to work if convenient enough infrastructure existed? Also, how many people would be willing to say, bike to a restaurant across town, or visit a friend, or go to the gymn using a bike? I submit there are plenty that would.

  • Cody, That was my favorite movie growing up (and a great soundtrack). I still ride a 24″ bmx around town for fun and I’m rebuilding my old school (83 GT).

    These “veloducts” would be awesome for cruising around (not just for commuting). I normally drive to work, but on the weekend I almost always put more miles on bike/longboard traveling to stores/restaurants/bars than my motorized vehicles.

  • Agree with #34 and #35.
    Car travel is likely our future, no matter the fuel, but the infrastructure for cars seems substantially complete: I like the idea of interesting enhancements and alternatives to it. We may not all be cyclists, but we’re all pedestrians.
    Mine is an eight-to-ten minute (depending on whether I’m running late) walk to work; on rainy days I carry an umbrella, in the most brutal sun I carry the same umbrella but call it a parasol. It’s a tip I picked up from the maids who get off the bus and solve the “last mile” problem on foot.

  • @ Brian: On the weekends or in the evenings, when traffic is light, I’d rather be beneath a streetside tree canopy than riding along some kind of “veloduct” that’s been tacked onto the side of a freeway.

    @ Jerry: Contemplate a realistic view of how many people not only could bike to work for practical purposes, but that would want to. And then consider that just because a type of infrastructure might convey an option to a commuter, that does not mean that it is a worthwhile project. Resources are finite and must be put to maximal use. I like the concept, but again, only if it embraces the notion of having small internal combustion engines attached to the bikes. Even that’s a hairbrained scheme, but its still more practical than what this architect has proposed.

  • @ross “I would have to get through the construction zone of death at T C Jester and 610.” It’s really not that hard.

    And three miles? THREE MILES?

  • @Brian,
    Any time of the day? Most people work all day. As long as we’re clear what the goals are and the costs vs. benefits are, then there’s no problem. I just don’t like it being presented as an expenditure that will make any noticeable difference rush hour congestion. And rush hour congestion is THE single biggest transportation problem in Houston and in most growing U.S. metro areas.

    @cg I happen to like granola. The statement was made in anticipation of those who say you can carry groceries on your bike, which for most people, is not the case. Most people are buying groceries for more than just one person and not shopping 3-4 times per week. But apparently some Swamplotters still want to insist that it is practical to do all shopping by bicycle…

    Regarding “… arrogance …”. I do not think that word means what you think it means. I’ve demonstrated, I think pretty clearly, that even though it is a shorter trip for me (which cannot be said for the vast majority of Houstonians, even those who currently bike to work), it is still impractical. It’s not that I haven’t tried; I have. If it doesn’t work for me, I have a hard time believing it will work for enough other people to be significant. But hey, I don’t have to speak for them and their preferences – I’ll let the statistics on commuting do the talking.

    @Sunsets, yes I used to do crazy stuff like that as well. These war stories are just that – war stories. Who wants to do that ____ any more than they have to after a long day at work? My first responsibilities are my career and to the people who rely on me. Doing things which I can later use as evidence on Swamplot that biking is practical is no longer a priority to me.

  • Old School – you are right in how difficult it is to go north/south inside the loop. We leave near Rice and rarely stray north of Westheimer outside of the weekend because of traffic. Perhaps a new toll road along the railroad right of way? I guess that’s a non starter because it runs through West U/Bellaire/River Oaks…etc.

  • TheNiche,
    I wasn’t asserting that there would be (at least currently) enough demand to warrant building an elaborate veloduct to accommodate bik-commuters. I doubt it. But since a lot of arguments against this were phrased in terms of office hygiene, I was only pointing out that there are a lot of people out there for whom that kind of thing is a non-issue. When you’ve worked in an office all your adult life (as I have), you tend to associate and relate only to other people who work in offices. For example, I’m hard pressed right now to think of somebody who I know personally who has a blue-collar job (except my car mechanic) or works outside. I was also pointing out the other component in this which is how much this could be used for weekend stuff, like just going for a drink, a meal, or going to a friend’s house, etc. I’d be willing to guess that a lot of the same people who wouldn’t use it for their commute would in fact use it for that.

  • I have ridden to work for years, but I also have access to showers and use them. While I agree its not practical for those without showers in our climate I would also point out that we do have infrastructure in place for cycling around town, they are called roads. In fact by law it is my right as a cyclist to take my position in the right lane and be protected by the same laws as a motorized vehicle. That being said, I am also expected to obey the laws as well and I do, but many don’t. The problem in Houston is that there are far to many people who don’t realize that it is perfectly legal to ride on the road (unless marked otherwise) and in fact illegal to ride on a sidewalk unless it is 8′ wide minimum IE hike and bike paths. I race and ride thousands of miles a year and I take my place on the road and fight for my right to do so. I just wish everyone who tries to kill me and or curse me out would listen when I tell them that it is legal and a right of everyone to do so.
    While I think the project under discussion is graphically interesting, it is a ridiculous concept based on “hipster” bike ideals. Bike polo and a velodrome suspended from bridges is not only impractical, but totally benefits about 0.002% of the cycling population. If there is to be a grand scheme devised, lets think practically about how to do it and not have it aimed at whatever is cool and trendy at the moment. Many cities have utilized practical infrastructure in a way that allows cyclist and other modes of non-motorized transportation to be separated from motorized traffic, but this city would be hard pressed to be able to do that. Until then I will be on the road commuting and riding away.

    PS: Try and give cyclist whether right or wrong a little more room and respect on the road while you are in your car. While some ride for fun, some of us do it out a necessity as well. Having a family with 1 vehicle makes this the only practical way to get around town.

  • On a side note, if you have never experienced Houston by bike you are truly missing out. I think it is the best way to see the true jewels of our town and a great way to find the hidden jems that we never knew existed. Get outside and ride a bike people!

  • Cody,

    I’m rad but have never seen Rad. I’ll check it out.

    Still kicking it on my 26″ Texas Firemans Cruiser.

  • @ Jerry: The plan being proposed is oriented toward downtown, not Pasadena. It has office workers in mind.

    @ luciaphile: Empirical studies have indicated that most commuters are unwilling to walk further than a quarter mile at a stint. Beyond that, the numbers drop off precipitously. The “last mile” from a transit stop is a legitimate problem, particularly in a city with as much residential sprawl as Houston. The jobs are better concentrated. This is why the P&R model works so well here as a regional transportation solution.

  • Niche,
    Incorrect. The proposed map clearly shows a four feeders from Heights, 6th Ward and Montrose to Buffalo Bayou which of course feeds into downtown if that’s where you need to go. When someone could go from somewhere on Studewood to somewhere on South Shepherd in more or less a straight southernly line, that’s hardly “oriented” to downtown. Stop making things up.

  • @ Jerry: The architect’s intent is clear from the graphic he created. There are little bicycle icons at the origin points with arrows pointing to where they’re all headed, which is the Buffalo Bayou corridor, which feeds downtown and lacks a little bicycle icon.

    Sure, a cyclist could go from the Heights to S. Shepherd, but why would any significant fraction of them want to? If your response is “recreation”, well yeah I know. That’s why from the very first of my posts I made it clear that recreational cycling is awesome and should have its own infrastructure…but that we shouldn’t confuse it for anything that’s especially practical.

  • The Niche, get down off your Huffy bike: I never supposed that many people are going to rollerskate to work on a half-pipe. Your warranted scepticism that Texans will give up their cars in numbers that would ever justify the investment in urban rail doesn’t obviously have anything to do with this not-very-radical proposal to attach bikeways to existing infrastructure (underway, with less novelty, elsewhere – What I was agreeing with in the other posts was the simple observation that this might offer a pleasant way to get around the city for recreation or for errands. Maybe you could view it as a series of very linear parks.
    As to whether people will walk no more than a quarter-mile if they can avoid it, I believe you; but then I think people tend to do whatever they have to do, so I’m not sure of the value of studies showing what people will or won’t do, as prescriptions for public policy. That’s a little hazy to me.

  • cool, its about time