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Houston Wants Cycling To Be Safer

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In Houston, a new volley has been launched in the ongoing cold war between cyclists and motorists that occurs in every city. In addition to the previously-announced plans to close certain thoroughfares to automobile traffic over the spring—a plan intended to benefit pedestrians and cyclists both, perhaps at the expense of some people’s most convenient commuting routes—the city’s doing a few other things. 

One of those things is developing a comprehensive bike safety program, which will cost $50,000 and result in an official-sounding Bicycle Management Plan that will provide guidance for infrastructure development and offer recommendations on where and how to create more dedicated bike lanes on Houston streets

That’s a useful goal, because Houston is a dangerous city for cyclists: A report from the Houston Chronicle last month found that since 2009, at least 23 cyclists have been killed by drivers on city streets. That’s a fair number of deaths that, often, can be easily prevented by both parties paying more attention to one another. 

To that end, Houston Police are also attempting to ensure that drivers obey the law regarding how to treat bikes on the road. They’re doing this through undercover stings, which is a fairly Dragnet-y way of saying that police are out in street clothes in Houston riding bikes around during some of the prettier months of the year. As KHOU reports

The enforcement effort that started three weeks ago focuses mainly on Houston’s Safe Passing Ordinance, which dictates that drivers should stay at least three feet away from bicyclists they pass on city streets. It also calls for cars and trucks to stay at least six feet behind bicycles they’re following.

Police say they’ve had problems enforcing the ordinance, mainly because it’s difficult for a patrol officer in a passing car to quickly determine whether a driver veers closer than the prescribed three feet.

So HPD officials say they’re deploying undercover officers in high traffic areas like downtown and the Washington corridor. After three weeks and about 80 hours on the streets, police say they’ve handed out only three citations and one warning.

That’s not a ton of action on the issue, which is good news—it appears most motorists do recognize the need to properly share the road with bikes. 

Still, its worth remembering that a small number of bad actors in either camp can inflame tensions and create dangerous situations. Some cyclists ride in an unsafe—even illegal—manner, blowing through red lights, or riding the wrong way down one-way streets, or flying down sidewalks on the side of the street opposite the flow of traffic. This behavior endangers both themselves and other cyclists, as it enrages drivers who are thus less inclined to treat the next bike they see with appropriate caution.

Drivers, meanwhile, have a disproportionate responsibility to cyclists, given that what might be a boneheaded forgot-to-look-before-turning move on their part can be a matter of literal life or death for the cyclist they don’t see. 

Increasing awareness is a tough thing to demand, though—which makes the city’s attempts to create safer bike lanes and close certain roads a more logical pursuit. If the undercover officers, meanwhile, can help curb the behavior of the worst actors on the road, and instill a culture of responsibility, Houston’s streets may end up a little safer. 

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