Texas cities are trying to reduce traffic congestion by promoting bicycling. Austin is adding bicycle-only lanes on city streets. Houston voters recently approved $166 million in bonds partly for hike and bike trails.
But on some roads in Texas, bikes are banned, raising questions about just where bikers have the right to ride.
In the city of Anna just north of Dallas, a stretch of FM 455 has been off-limits to bicyclists since 2006 when the city council deemed the two-lane road too narrow and dangerous to accommodate both cars and bicyclists.
“Motorists couldn’t pass them. I’m told drivers would try to run them off the road,” said Chief Kenny Jenks of the Anna Police Department. He says a solution is in the works: a project that’ll widen the road and add a hike and bike trail.
In what are known as the Memorial Villages just west of downtown Houston, a stretch of the two-lane Memorial Drive has signs that warn “Bicycles On Roadways Prohibited.” The road winds past multimillion dollar homes and is a favorite for cyclists.
“I’ve ridden on here many time and I’ve never noticed the signs,” said one cyclists who ask his name not be used after a reporter told him about the local ordinance.
The ordinance says that when bicycle paths are provided, cyclists “shall use such path and shall not use the public street.”
“Ridiculous,” said the cyclist. “It’s a perfectly good road.” He said it was more dangerous to ride on the adjacent hike and bike trail that looked very much like a typical sidewalk.
“There’s a very good change you’re going to run into a dog or a person or something like that. I feel safer on the road,” said the biker.
The Memorial Village Police Chief, Haril Walpole, said the 1987 ordinance is enforced but he says he couldn’t recall any bikers receiving tickets.
“When we do see violations, we typically just warn them and they jump up on the sidewalk and move along,” Walpole told StateImpact.
The right of municipalities to ban bikes was the subject of a 1989 opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office. The opinion seemed to offer a rather weak endorsement, contending bans were legal but should be judged “on a case-by-case basis.”
While such ordinances are rare, there were efforts over a decade ago to ban bicyclists from FM (farm to market) roads statewide. Cycling advocates were outraged and the bill died in the legislature.
“Banning bicycles from the roadway with no alternative, that’s a fight like the Alamo. We can’t lose our freedom of movement,” said Robin Stallings, Executive Director of BikeTexas, an advocacy group in Austin.
Stallings is working to advance bills in next year’s legislative session to give bicyclists more protection on the road. One that made it through the 2009 session but was vetoed by Governor Rick Perry is the “safe passing” bill that would require cars to give cyclists at least three feet clearance. Perry said existing laws already addressed the liability of motorists who hit cyclists so the new law wasn’t needed.
Another bill the group hopes is re-introduced supports the concept of “complete streets“. The idea is to mandate that when new roads are built or old ones reconstructed, they should be designed to specifically handle the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians, not just motorists. In the 2011 legislative session, the bill passed out of committees but went no further.