Upcoming Houston Avenue redesign has cycling advocates, impacted properties wanting more

The City of Houston is adding medians to a stretch of Houston Avenue north of downtown, in order to make what is now is a six-lane street easier to cross for pedestrians and less congested and complicated for drivers.

Houston Avenue Crosswalk
File photo
Pictured is the crosswalk on Houston Avenue between Sixth Ward and Houston Municipal Courts.

James Midkiff was riding his bicycle along Houston Avenue on the night of Nov. 19 when he was struck by the driver of a white sedan who did not stop after the collision, according to the Houston Police Department. The 36-year-old Midkiff died in a hospital three days later, becoming the latest cyclist to lose his life in a city that has pledged to end traffic fatalities by the end of this decade.

A few blocks south of where Midkiff was fatality struck – he is at least the 16th Houston cyclist to die this year in a crash with a motor vehicle, according to local advocacy group BikeHouston – the city is starting a road redesign project it bills as bringing "multimodal improvements." But no protected bike lanes or even unprotected bike paths are part of the planned work on Houston Avenue, where a series of medians are being installed between Memorial Drive and Center Street to the north, in order to make what is now is a six-lane street easier to cross for pedestrians and less congested and complicated for drivers.

BikeHouston has organized a "Ride & Rally for Safe Streets" at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Market Square Park, with attendees planning to then ride to the intersection of Houston Avenue and Spring Street, which runs alongside the MKT Trail. BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo said his organization is calling on the city to add bike lanes to the aforementioned street project and all the way north to Spring Street, which would close a gap in the city's gradually expanding network of bike lanes. BikeHouston started a related online petition Tuesday.

Winter Street, which is where Midkiff was struck by a driver who had yet to be identified by police as of Tuesday, is four blocks south of Spring Street and part of that gap.

"We're not the first to call for protected bike lanes on Houston Avenue," Cutrufo said. "It's in the Houston Bike Plan (adopted by the city council in 2017). This is not some arbitrary ask. ... So let's do right by James' family and improve Houston Avenue all throughout the entire corridor and make it safer for everyone, and not just people in cars."

In a sprawling city with a patchwork collection of streets, sidewalks, highways and green spaces, road redesigns tend to happen slowly and in pieces. Houston Public Works spokesperson Katelynn Burns said in an email Tuesday that while "future bike facilities may be constructed at such time as the corridor is prioritized for bikeway improvements," the impending work on Houston Avenue is too small in scope to "incorporate all desired long-term outcomes, including dedicated bike facilities."

Burns said the $100,000 project was initiated early last year by Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros, who represents the area and contributed money from her council district service fund, which is funded by dollars from regional transit provider METRO. That part of Houston Avenue was identified as part of the city's Vision Zero High Injury Network, meaning there is a history of significant collisions there, and the project is considered to be a short-term improvement ahead of a Washington Avenue corridor study that will be conducted.

The intersection of Washington and Houston avenues is particularly busy, includes METRO bus stops and is near the north end of the project area.

"The original goal was to specifically improve pedestrian crossings at the intersection of Washington at Houston," Burns said. "After further review, it was determined that introduction of a median along the corridor would be the safest, simplest way to improve those pedestrian crossings. It may also have additional benefits, such as a reduction in unsafe turning movements at midblock locations and in prevailing vehicle speeds."

Cisneros, who is term-limited and concluding her tenure at City Hall at the end of this year, acknowledged in a statement provided by her office that a "whole lot more needs to be done to make all roads safer for all road users throughout the City of Houston." But she also said she is fully supportive of the project and proud to provide funding for it as it contributes to outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner's "Vision Zero" initiative to eliminate traffic deaths in the city by the year 2030.

Trinity Downtown Marquee
Nathan Marquez
Pictured is the marquee at Trinity Downtown, a church at the southeast corner of Houston Avenue and Washington Avenue in Houston.

At least one longtime resident of Houston Avenue is not behind the project, which spans a few blocks of the street immediately north of Interstate 45 and calls for reducing vehicle lanes from three in each direction to two each way, while incorporating some right-turn lanes and limiting left turns at some intersections. The work is expected to be complete by mid-December, weather permitting, according to Burns.

The reconfigured road will eliminate left turns into the main entrance of Trinity Downtown, a Lutheran church that has operated for more than a century at the southeast corner of Houston and Washington, according to senior pastor Michael Dorn. He and church CFO Ron Lacy both said they support street safety and acknowledge there are traffic hazards that need addressing, particularly at their intersection and at the intersection of Houston and Lubbock Street to the south, but they question the city's reasons for making the changes and say they worry the project will have unintended and potentially dangerous consequences.

They are worried that too many church visitors will need to make U-turns in order to access their property and also said the addition of medians might encourage more people to cross the street on foot and might also promote panhandling in those medians. Dorn said the church provides sack lunches to upwards of 100 homeless people per day.

Dorn and Lacy said they asked the city more than a year ago to provide traffic data in support of the changes but never received such information, with Dorn adding that he's aware of one traffic fatality near the church in the 20 or so years he's worked there.

"We are very supportive of activities related to safety and making our neighborhood a better place for everyone," Lacy said. "We just don't think the city's got it right. They're spending money they may have to un-spend (to make additional changes) or that we suffer from for years to come."

Feeling like their concerns were not being heard and they had no options left to challenge the road redesign, Dorn said Trinity Downtown used its street-facing electronic marquee to voice its disapproval of the project. The church has displayed a few rotating messages during the last week or so that invite members of the public to call the city and express their concerns about the project, suggesting it is not supported by traffic data and will negatively impact commute times.

BikeHouston shared images of the marquee messages on social media, and Cutrufo said he wondered why a church would be opposed to a street safety initiative in its community. Dorn said he was "deeply saddened" about the hit-and-run collision that killed Midkiff, with he and Lacy saying they both support more bike lanes along Houston Avenue and think they should be part of the upcoming construction project.

"We've got a crisis on our hands, and we need to make sure the next mayor understands that," Cutrufo said. "We want to make sure that the next mayor of Houston, whoever that is, understands that traffic safety is public safety. We want to make sure that the next mayor knows that people who bike also vote. We desire and we demand safer streets."