Road Cycling

High Risk: Bicycling the Streets of Houston – Houston Press

David Loredo peers out, watching cars pass on W. Dallas; the breeze ruffles the flowers and letters from loved ones that surround Shane McKinney’s Ghost Bike. Over a week ago, Loredo and other Pride Ride volunteers spent their evening cleaning the spot where their fellow rider had been struck by a vehicle to prepare for the ghost bike’s installation.

At the time of the crash, against Loredo’s continued requests, McKinney had not been wearing a helmet. McKinney was in the tail end of the group, and was hit among the other cyclists, which included his brother, Matthew. Loredo urges his riders to always have their gear, spare parts and be predictable in the moves they are making on the road. “There is always some sprawling, as I tell the riders to get over,” Loredo, the founder of Pride Ride, says. “But rather than vehicles giving leeway and having a bit of patience, they try to rush around us.”

Pride Ride was started in 2018, after Loredo noticed a need for a cycling community that catered to the LGBTQIA+ riders of the Greater-Houston area. Each of their rides can see anywhere from 50-150 cyclists showing up to The Eagle, a gay bar located in Montrose. This is the starting point of all their Tuesday night social rides. McKinney was a riding regular, after his brother, Matthew, asked him to join in on a ride a year ago. If you are seated on the deck, at the table in the upper left-hand corner, you will see a table that reads ‘rest in peace, Shane.’

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The Eagle, the starting point of every Tuesday night Pride Ride.

Photo by Faith Bugenhagen

“He inspired a lot of us, the pain is exponentially greater because it happened in front of everybody and it shouldn’t’ve even happened to begin with, it’s just not right,” Loredo says.

Danger Zones

According to David Fields, the Chief Transportation Planner, through Houston’s Zero Vision Plan, the city has identified the 6 percent of streets where 60 percent of crashes are happening. These streets are referred to as the Citywide High Injury Network, and in and around Allen Parkway, the Heights and Montrose, among other neighborhoods.

Though there have been measures to increase cyclists’ security, like the Houston Bike Plan, Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, points out that these projects are often catering to cyclists who are riders by entertainment, not necessity. “Having miles and miles of trails is an excellent thing, I don’t discount that at all, but the thing that I think we need to focus on the most is connectivity,” Cutrufo says. “What I am talking about is taking the infrastructure we have and filling in the gaps between the trails and protected bike lanes that exist.”

The Houston Bike Plan adopted by Houston City Council and Mayor Sylvester Turner in March 2017, includes an 1,800 mile-build out. So far, the city has built 394 miles, and has 1,406 miles to go. The plan tackles street-facilities, by improving street-sweeping to make sure that the protected bike lanes are clean and clear for riders. “We have proof of concept now, where we have seen lots of different types of bikeways and street-safety projects that have been implemented around town, that isn’t the problem,” Cutrufo says, “The problem is scale, we don’t seem to have the resources to implement these projects on mass.”

Without the ability to assist each high-priority street, cyclists are left with no choice except to bridge the gaps themselves. Unlike motorists, in a city where the infrastructure was created with their survival in mind, cyclists are having to find alternative ways to get from point A to point B, all while trying to ensure their personal safety and security. These choices that cyclists make, do not always align with the rules of the road. This can aggravate motorists who must share the road with cyclists.

“When drivers are stuck in traffic and they see cyclists riding into oncoming traffic or doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing, it definitely empowers the people in cars to exercise less than good behavior,” Fred Zapalac, owner of Blue Line Bicycle Laboratory, says.

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An employee working in Blue Line Bicycle Laboratory.

Photo by Faith Bugenhagen

Zapalac noticed an increase in tension between cyclists and motorists in 2020. He attributes this to the number of potential new cyclists on the road, following an uptick in bike purchases during the start of the pandemic. With the reopening of the economy following lockdown, these same drivers who grew accustomed to wide-open empty roads, now must share these roads with each other and cyclists, which can result in frustration and a lack of cautiousness in their driving.

Though the pandemic fostered some of this driver-hostility, Zapalac credits most of it to the miseducation of motorists. He mentions that most people driving cars do not know that bicycles have every right to be on the road with them. Most people don’t even know that it is illegal for cyclists to ride on sidewalks if there are no bike lanes available to them.

The treatment of motorists involved in cyclist crashes, only furthers the divisiveness shared between these two groups. “If you hit somebody while driving your car from behind, you’re automatically at fault, that’s something we learned in driver’s ed. when we were 16,” Zapalac says. “And for whatever reason, it doesn’t apply if you are on a bicycle and you get hit by a car, why is that?”

In many of these crashes, the motorists are able to walk away without a ticket. Zapalac references a recent crash resulting in an 8-year-old boy’s death in a cul de sac outside of Kingwood.It was reported that the driver who killed him was searching for a sandwich in her car as the crash happened. She walked away from the scene with no ticket or disciplinary action.

“Until law enforcement officials start enforcing the laws that they can and start treating cyclists as road users, not just as recreational toy users, nothing will change,” Zapalac says.

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Volunteers working at a recent ghost bike session.

Photo by Melissa Sims

Ghost Bikes

These aren’t new problems. Shortly after the death of Chelsea Norman in 2013, three other cyclists were killed in crashes. Melissa and Steve Sims couldn’t ignore the epidemic they saw unfolding in front of them. In response, they got involved with Ghost Bike, and started to make these bikes for members of the community who had lost loved ones to cycling crashes. “We, as a group, wanted people to realize that these are actual humans getting struck and killed, they have families, and that this is happening all the time in our community,” Steve says.

They receive donations of bikes that are not wanted or no longer in use. Once they are notified about the bike that is up for donation, either they or a volunteer from their Ghost Bike group will pick it up. They will then strip the bike of its chain, brakes and other parts that make it usable. Finally, they paint the entire base of the bike white, preparing its body to be decorated by mementos.

When requested, Steve and Melissa collaborate with families on this personalized decor that they want to appear on the bike. These decorations also appear over time, as loved ones and members of the community leave flowers, notes, and other personal items to pay their respects.

In this process, they like to prioritize what the family they are working with wants. When they initially began back in 2013, they would just put the ghost bike out because they wanted drivers to see it and pay more attention to the safety of cyclists. Now, their mission has switched to focus on and amplify the families, while also advocating for change to be made.

“One time we came across a family who was still cleaning after the accident and it was just so heavy,” Melissa says. “We talked to them and told them what we were doing, from then on we decided that we would get the approval of each family because we didn’t want to be putting something up that families didn’t want to see.”

Steve also attributes the lack of attention these families are already receiving from police that aren’t listening to them or telling them nothing can be done in these situations, as a reason that led them reevaluate their approach.

In total, Steve and Melissa, assisted by volunteers, have put up 100 ghost bikes. They have a list of 70-80 more cyclists whose families have not requested a ghost bike go up yet. Currently, they are working on two that will be placed out on the street soon.

They encourage everyone on their Facebook page to find the nearest ghost bike in their area and “adopt it,” whether that means tending to bike maintenance or just visiting it to pay respects to the cyclist who lost their life. “The families are always appreciative that someone is looking out for the memorial of their loved one,” Steve says.

City Plans

These deaths are not decreasing, and the city knows this. So far in 2022 alone, there have been 12 cyclist deaths. Though there are safety measures in place in the Houston Bike Plan, and data collected by the Zero Vision to make sure improvements are going to high priority neighborhoods, these programs are focused on the long-term, not how to fix the issues right now.

The city also has to address the fact that they are seeing a shift from recreational riders to riders that use cycling as an affordable and accessible mode of transportation. One way to do this is to tackle major issues like dangerous intersections on street systems, said Abbie Kamin, a representative of District C.

Making intersections biker-friendly is a huge issue that still needs work, Kamin is currently working on funding with her district and the Montrose TIRZ to make improvements to three intersections in the Midtown-Montrose area through their Midtown-Montrose safety initiative.

Future efforts of the city also include The Houston Bike Plan adding three additional high-priority areas: Irvington, Washington Ave. and Hillcroft, that they will be focused on in their upcoming improvement plans.

Pride Ride Continues

Despite the dangers that cyclists face, they continue to ride. Whether it is because they love to cycle or because it allows them to have a space to connect with their community, bikers have not stopped taking to Houston’s streets.

“What are we going to do? Put our tail between our legs and stop riding?” Loredo says, “It was difficult but once I saw that everyone wanted to get started up again, I realized that we couldn’t let Shane die in vain, that we had to keep on going.”

Since the crash, Pride Ride hosted a Ghost Bike Ride on October 16, in remembrance of McKinney. At this event, more than 150 riders showed up to pay their respects. These bikers were accompanied by McKinney’s two-year-old son, his brother and parents.

Loredo says that Pride Ride has turned into something bigger than he ever could have imagined. Not only is it a cycling community, but it is also a home for those who love the joy of riding and each other. Loredo continues to see more and more cyclists on their rides. This past Tuesday, they hosted their first social ride since the crash; there were over 100 cyclists in attendance.

“This tragedy really pulled us together even closer as a community,” Loredo says, “Also a part of me thinks everyone keeps going because it is what Shane would’ve wanted. I know that if he were right here next to me, he would say, ‘Why aren’t you getting back on that bike’?”