How Houston will continue expanding transportation options in 2023

Several infrastructure projects are in the works this year that aim to improve and expand mobility for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users.

Rodney Ellis Bicycle
Florian Martin | Houston Public Media
Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis bikes around the City Hall area in 2018, when he and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a new partnership between the city and Harris County to create more bike lanes.

Gabe Cazares does not own a car and, because he is blind, says he never will.

But the executive director of transportation equity and advocacy organization LINK Houston, like most everyone else in the nation's fourth-largest city, still has a need to commute to work and buy groceries and still likes to get out and explore his hometown. That can be difficult even in his East End neighborhood, where Cazares said sidewalks are scarce.

"To get to my office, where I do transportation equity work, I have to leave my home and walk in the streets," he said. "I'm looking forward to a day when folks in the city of Houston don't have to worry about how they're going to move from one place to another if they don't own a vehicle."

That day is not coming tomorrow or next month or even next year in a region that has long prioritized highways and lane capacity for personal cars and truck. But the Houston area has made headway in recent years when it comes to implementing more infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit users, and that work is continuing in 2023.

While the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) continues to widen freeways in the region, there are many ongoing projects involving the city, Harris County, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) and Houston Parks Board that are expanding transportation options for residents in the interests of access and equity, safety, economic growth and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

The city, which adopted the Houston Bike Plan in 2017 and has since built more than 400 miles of bike lanes, is working on a series of road redesigns that call for adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks and reducing vehicular lanes. METRO is upgrading its bus stops and expanding its services with a $3.5 billion bond from county voters in 2019, and voters last year gave the county the authority to spend up to $900 million on transportation and drainage infrastructure, including facilities for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users.

"We need to see the progress continue at least at the current pace, but hopefully more quickly," said Joe Cutrufo, the executive director of cycling advocacy nonprofit BikeHouston, which has about 12,000 members.

The city recently completed the MKT Spur Connector, an 850-foot concrete path in the Heights that connects the popular White Oak Bayou and MKT trails, while the county is constructing a 10-foot-wide trail along Almeda Road that will help residents get to NRG Park by bike. Another bikeway is in the works on Patterson Street between Buffalo and White Oak bayous, according to David Fields, the chief transportation planner for the city.

Shepherd Pedestrians
Gail Delaughter/Houston Public Media
Police officers stop traffic to allow pedestrians to cross at North Shepherd Drive and 10th Street in 2019.

Here is a rundown of some ongoing city projects:

North Main Street Safety Improvements: In an attempt to reduce the number of crashes on North Main Street between Airline Drive and Boundary Street, where there were 224 collisions between 2017-21, the four-lane road is being redesigned and construction is expected to start within a few months. The city's work will mesh with METRO's bus-stop improvements along Airline Drive, which includes the addition of high-comfort bike lanes between North Main and West Cavalcade Street. To connect proposed bike lanes on Airline and North Main, the city is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill a half-mile gap between Airline and Cottage Street.

Lawndale Street Bike Lane Project: Fields said construction should be complete within a month on the stretch of Lawndale between Telephone Road and Forest Hill Boulevard in Southeast Houston. Identified through the Houston Bike Plan, the work entails reducing the number of vehicle lanes from two to one in each direction while adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks on both sides of the street.

11th Street Safety Improvements: Construction began last year and is expected to conclude midway through this year on a 1.5-mile stretch of West 11th Street in the Heights, where vehicle lanes are being reduced, protected bike lanes are being added and some pedestrian refuge islands are going in, including at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street near the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail. The work also includes a bike lane on Michaux Street between 11th and Stude Park to the south.

Parker Road Mobility Project: In the design phase, and in response to community concerns, the city is exploring ways to retool a 1.6-mile stretch of Parker Road between Exeter and Fulton streets in the Northside area. The goal is to reduce driving speeds and collisions, to keep vehicles from veering off the roadway onto adjacent properties and to improve crossings for cyclists and pedestrians.

Third Ward Bikeways: Per an agreement between the city, Harris County and Texas Southern University, Cleburne Street on the north side of campus and Blodgett Street on the south are being transformed with drainage improvements, wider sidewalks and bike lanes, with a reduction in the number of lanes for cars and trucks. Work is done on Cleburne and underway on Blodgett, with construction expected to be completed in the fall.

Additionally, the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, with the help of federal funding, is overhauling Durham and Shepherd drives between Loop 610 North and Interstate 10 to the south. Like some of the other projects, the years-long work entails expanding the realm for pedestrians and cyclists while reducing lane capacity for vehicles.

The city secured a federal grant last year for similar work on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in Southeast Houston, and Fields said another grant will fund design work for expanding the Hillcroft Avenue bike-lane network in the Gulfton area. Fields said the city also is seeking a grant to redesign a 7-mile stretch of Bissonet Street between Hillcroft and South Dairy Ashford Road.

Even more bike-lane projects are in the pipeline, with Fields saying corridors on Washington Avenue and Irvington Boulevard are next in line for redesigns.

"It's a big city. We're going to do it in pieces," Fields said. "When we make these streets safer, that's safer for drivers as well."

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A Houston-area resident boards a METRO bus on March 31, 2022.

Cazares of LINK Houston said his organization is especially focused on the work being done by METRO, which is retrofitting multiple bus routes across the city with new and expanded crosswalks and accessibility ramps along with shelters at bus stops. Work began last year and is ongoing on the 56 Airline/Montrose and 54 Scott routes, with construction expected to start in the second quarter of this year on the 82 Westheimer route.

Here are more specifics about those initiatives:

56 Airline/Montrose: A 23-mile corridor between the Texas Medical Center and Greenspoint is being updated with 200 new bus stops, sidewalks, ramps, street crossings and bike lanes. Segment 1 between White Oak Drive and Cavalcade Street is complete, while construction on the two segments between Cavalcade and West Gulf Bank Road is ongoing.

54 Scott: Construction started last year on the segment between McGowen and Mainer streets and is 30 percent complete. Work is expected to continue at least through 2024 on the project, which will update an 11-mile stretch between downtown and the MLK Health Center with 100 new bus stops, ramps, sidewalks, crossings and bike lanes.

82 Westheimer: A total of 175 bus stops will be updated, with new ramps, sidewalks, bike lanes and street crossings, on a 19-mile corridor between downtown and West Oaks Mall.

As of last year, METRO also had improved about 2,500 of its 9,000 bus stops through its universal accessibility program, to make its services more accessible for Houstonians with disabilities. That works continues as well.

"Things never move fast enough – or as much as we want them to," Cazares said. "So I think that in a year we will continue to see important projects move forward that center pedestrian infrastructure as opposed to vehicle infrastructure.

"Is that going to mean we're going to see a different city overnight?" he added. "No. That's why organizations like ours exist, to continue pushing every level of government to ensure they are protecting the interests of all people, not just vehicle owners."