It’s a brilliant autumn Sunday, and a half dozen Houstonians are huddled inside Christ the King Church to save their cyclist souls.

Not to be overly dramatic about a routine bike-safety course, but Regina Garcia, our spandex-clad instructor, hints at the stakes. Garcia zips through her first PowerPoint slides filled with the basic tips—inflate your tires, check your brakes, strap on that helmet—before something of a record scratch.

It’s time to talk cars.

Cars, you see, are a Houston biker’s dopey sidekick. They’re always there, barreling down the road, careering from lane to lane, she explains. Their drivers have supposedly passed a competency test, and you’d think the cost of the vehicles alone would be an incentive to protect their investment (if not their lives). But that doesn’t mean we should trust them.

Instead, bikers must practice defensive riding, she says. We must assert our lane position, maintain eye contact, and, above all else, make no sudden moves. “That infuriates the motorist, it scares the motorist!” Garcia warns.

Her slides advance, and the lessons quickly lapse into what could be mistaken for advice on how to repel a two-ton mountain lion: puff out your chest; aim for a fluorescent outfit somewhere between crossing guard and air-traffic controller; throw up hand signals at utterly perfect, totally unambiguous 90-degree angles. Perhaps even take up yoga, she half-jokes, to keep your neck limber enough to crank over your shoulder and check for errant F-150s.

The bottom line: “We are more vulnerable than drivers, so we have to be more predictable.”

On some level, everyone here already knows the realities of pedaling across Houston—the honking, the trash throwing, the near misses visited upon cyclists by the motorists who rule the roadways. It was only a matter of time before a class member reached under his chair and waved around the day’s Houston Chronicle, a mangled bicycle dominating the front page. A record 21 cyclists perished in the region in 2017, the story reported. One National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official described Houston’s pedestrian-safety problem to the paper as a “public health crisis.” Solemn nods rolled across the rows.

 

“Those numbers sound very dismal, and they are,” says Inge Ford, Garcia’s co-instructor and education director for BikeHouston, the city’s primary cycling advocacy nonprofit. Ford tells the room about all the improvements she and her fellow bike advocates are working toward—the new lanes and trails, and the ongoing enforcement of the city’s three-foot safe-passing ordinance, meant to create a buffer between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. But her advice to us right here, right now? Never be intimidated on the road. “It’s not going to kill a driver to wait another moment,” Ford says.

In fact, given the numbers, advocates like Ford and Garcia are overwhelmingly, even suspiciously chipper. They’ll sincerely tell you how Houston is a biking town at heart, with flat surfaces and great cycling weather. Never mind the reality of our sprawling, often unattractive urban maze—complete with countless miles of worse-than-nothing bike lanes and crowded, pothole-ridden roads—that the rest of us would brave only from inside an air-conditioned vehicle. But perhaps because they love biking so darn much, they continue to believe that better days are on the horizon.

Garcia and Ford buckle their helmet straps, grab their bikes, and direct us toward an asphalt parking lot across the street at Rice University, where they set up a series of cones for bike drills in the shadow of the football stadium. We’re about to practice our newfound safety skills out on the open road, they explain—but first it’s time to learn some safety maneuvers. Our lives might depend on it.

BikeHouston board member Regina Garcia leads regular bike-safety courses for Houston cyclists.

Image: Daniel Kramer

It was about a year ago. Dan Phelps rolled out of his Fleetwood neighborhood on his blue 1984 Raleigh road bike, heading east down Memorial Drive on his early-morning commute. It was still dark outside, but he was lit up like a dying star with three flashing lights, and besides, he thought, most of the 9.5-mile route to his oil-and-gas gig near the Beltway follows bayou trails and quiet Briar Forest streets. His daily chore was navigating the busy, five-lane, mile-long gauntlet along Memorial before it empties off into Terry Hershey Park—and for the first few hundred yards, the ride was without incident.

Then suddenly an engine roared from behind. The driver started trailing within feet of Phelps’s bike, blaring the horn. He watched helplessly over his shoulder as the car nipped at his heels in the right lane and the driver impatiently searched for an opening to pass. “Finally he yanked over and passed about a foot from me, giving me the single-digit salute with the horn honking on his way by,” Phelps remembers.

That’s not the norm, he says, but the number of near misses he’s had with cars and motorcycles and pickup trucks on that same stretch have left him dreading the road. “If I’m going to get hit, that’s where it’s going to happen,” Phelps says. “The fear is always there.” Yet he keeps at it.

No matter how you look at the data, Houston is by far the most dangerous place in the state to ride a bike. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, 374 cyclists were killed or seriously injured across Harris County from 2013 to 2017. During three of those years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports, the nine-county region’s average annual death toll—holding steady at about 19 cyclists a year—exceeded that of Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio combined. Each year more than a third of Texas’s fatal crashes involving cyclists occur right here in the Houston region.

Experts agree that a variety of factors converge to make our roads so deadly. For one, there’s a longstanding culture of reckless, distracted driving, in which phone-wielding motorists disregard speed limits and treat turn signals as a once-in-a-while courtesy. But a growing consensus shifts part of the blame to the roads themselves. Since the midcentury highway boom, short-sighted traffic engineers have created infrastructure that encourages rather than controls the dangerous driving responsible for so many biking deaths.

“The design piece is so critical,” says Kyle Shelton, a transportation researcher and director for strategic partnerships at Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “It changes people’s behaviors without them even knowing their behaviors are changing.”

Just think of the highway. Motorists feel comfortable zooming at 80 mph because curves are gentle, lanes are wide, and there are no stop signs, crosswalks, or pedestrians to slow them down. These are the same principles shared by many downtown thoroughfares and other one-way, multi-lane streets across Houston, where so many cyclists meet their end. The speed limit might be 25 miles per hour on Rusk downtown or 35 on Main or Emancipation, but the wide-open road lulls drivers into traveling comfortably at speeds considerably higher—and deadlier.

“If I’m a biker, my odds of surviving if I get hit at something like 25 miles per hour—I’ll have a 10 percent chance of dying,” Shelton says. “If I get hit beyond 40 miles per hour, might as well call it a day.”

Researchers pinpoint intersections, unsurprisingly, as the most dangerous spots for bicyclists. One 2017 Kinder Institute report analyzed Texas Department of Transportation data to find bicyclist-automobile crashes are “far more attracted” to intersections with traffic lights, where cyclists may be asked to navigate many lanes of traffic controlled by confusing signals. A significant portion of crashes were also located near “noncontrolled intersections” where pedestrians and cyclists attempt dangerous crossings because no safe, convenient alternative exists—think wide stretches of Bissonnet or Bellaire, where a dozen or more lanes stand before someone trying to cross. These findings helped spur city officials to identify and begin overhauling 12 of Houston’s most dangerous intersections in July of last year.

But why is this only happening now? Until recent decades, bikers simply weren’t part of the equation when it came to designing and expanding roads to accommodate an increasing number of automobiles. “There’s been a lot of focus on efficiency and speed and not necessarily the experience of people, especially people outside the car,” explains Dian Nostikasari, a Kinder Institute senior research fellow. “How do we change that? Maybe not every single choice needs to prioritize auto traffic.”

Yet that solution—designing roads for bikers and pedestrians, too—highlights a historical irony, Shelton notes, once you remember that bicycles predate the internal combustion engine. It was early Houstonians tired of their bikes getting stuck in the mud who successfully lobbied for the first paved streets. Only after car ownership became ubiquitous and brand-new jaywalking laws were put on the books, in the ’20s, did cyclists and pedestrians get pushed off the streets. Shelton identifies that shift as the genesis of a persistent logic in the Bayou City: “Basically, if you’re caught in the middle of the road, you’re a country rube, and if you’re hit by a car, it’s your fault.”

It’s that car-first mentality that Phelps, an ardent bike commuter of almost six years, found himself struggling with after his near miss that morning on Memorial.

“I was shaken,” he says. “I thought Did I do something wrong? Should I have been doing that? Should I have been over there? At the same time, I take it in stride—drivers are just mean people sometimes.”

Texas Department of Transportation data for 2016–17 shows dozens of incapacitating injuries (orange dots) and deaths (black dots) for cyclists on roads across Houston.

About a month before our safety class, we meet Garcia, our instructor, at a round table in Rice Village’s El Meson restaurant. She pours a glass of wine, sighs, and smiles weakly as she dives into talking biking in Houston. “I’ve always been optimistic that it’d get better—and I know that these things move very slowly—but here we are slogging along, just trying to keep the dream alive.”

Aside from teaching safety courses and co-owning this tapas restaurant, Garcia is a BikeHouston founding board member who’s been showing up at City Council meetings and pestering bureaucrats to build out the city’s bike infrastructure for nearly a quarter century. Some of her fellow elder statesmen from Houston’s tight-knit circle of bike advocates are assembled around the table, including David Dick, a former member of the city’s bicycle advisory committee, and Dan Lundeen, a lawyer-slash-wheelman who’s been around the block himself as a past president of the Houston Area Bicycling Alliance, the BikeHouston precursor.

Were things any better in past decades?

“The bicycle friendliness was nonexistent, pretty much,” Dick says of the Houston he arrived to in the ’80s after college. Sure, the traffic wasn’t quite so apocalyptic, but there were no scenic bayou trails, no on-street bike lanes, and certainly no BCycle stations to grab a rental and go—not that this stopped any of the three from joining burgeoning groups such as the Houston Bicycle Club, which Dick reckons, at its peak, boasted 1,200 members who would travel in packs along city roads.

Each has spent decades trying to carve out a place on the road for bikers because, for them, it’s personal. Dick says he met his best friends through cycling, and Lundeen gleefully passes his phone to show us pictures of the bizarre sights he’s found traversing the city’s back roads and trails.

Garcia, a Houston transplant, says she’s not sure she’d have remained here without the sense of discovery inherent to biking. “I’ve always said I fell in love with Houston at 15 miles per hour,” she explains. “I just never understood it at 60 or 45.”

Even more, each member of the trio believes Houston possesses the raw ingredients to become a biking paradise. “The weather’s great for cycling,” reasons Lundeen, and our deflated prairie terrain makes riding about as easy as can be. Meanwhile, the community aspect has always been there, with dozens of clubs hitting the road every day of the week—not to mention big-time charity rides such as the MS-150 and Moonlight Ramble that turn out thousands each year. Even if somebody isn’t a spandex-clad road warrior, data shows the average car trip is less than six miles, so there aren’t a lot of excuses for even casual bike owners not to make the occasional two-wheel trip, they contend.

Of course, this is all ignoring the four-wheeled elephant in the room.

Back in the ’90s under Mayor Bob Lanier, the three stumped for the city’s first extensive bikeway network. Pain from the oil bust had mostly dissipated by then, and Lanier, a real estate developer by trade, was looking for opportunities to reverse the exodus to the suburbs. So the biking community started crisscrossing the city and compiling a list of potential projects, mostly off-street trails and on-street lanes. To their surprise, city officials listened.

In 1992 Lanier announced plans for an unprecedented 360-mile network of dedicated trails, on-street lanes, and designated “bike routes” with signage and painted “sharrows” that would at least pressure motorists to give cyclists some space. Better yet, the thing would be funded via a whopping $34.3 million chunk of federal matching funds—optimistically intended to convert drivers to cyclists in the service of improving Houston’s abysmal air quality—bundled with another $8.9 million from local sources, including METRO. The projected-completion date for key components? A decade.

Looking back on that rollout, the group at El Meson sigh. At first the plan was everything they’d asked for, and at the 1997 groundbreaking—which already trailed the plan’s announcement by half a decade—things were still looking up. “It’s really going to be something to see ‘cars-only’ Houston turned into a cycling paradise,” Lundeen, then HABA president, told the Chronicle in 1998.

Then came more delays—to be expected, sure—followed by shortcuts. Lundeen remembers how, the following year, the city raced to meet bike-lane-mileage targets tied to federal air-quality goals and (perhaps more importantly) future highway funds, “expediting” deployment of certain projects that make up much of the current cycling infrastructure. Trucks began fanning out across the city overnight, hastily striping the gutter of the road, and calling it a day.

This is the genesis of the lanes found along many Houston roads today. Advocates are still complaining about the grab-bag of horrors awaiting those who use them: dustings of broken glass, missing storm grates, massive puddles, cavernous pot holes—you name it. Even if they were properly maintained, advocates argue, the too-narrow lanes were implemented as an afterthought rather than a feature. “I remember going to City Council and saying, ‘if the bike lane is not as wide as my butt, it’s not a bike lane,’” Garcia says. She began calling the Department of Public Works, sometimes twice a day, stopping only after the department hired a full-time bicycle coordinator.

Today, the three agree, it’s often safer just to ride in the street.

Dick shuffles through a stack of old documents and slides an old HABA newsletter across the table. It’s a picture of Lanier at the 1997 groundbreaking for the Brays Bayou trail. The sign behind Lanier announced that Houston had been recognized as a “bike friendly” city by the League of American Bicyclists, Dick explains, but that recognition was short-lived. “A few years later, when we hadn’t done the plan, they took it away,” Dick says, shaking his head.

After Lanier left office, the original timeline went out the window. Mayor Lee Brown showed minimal commitment to the plan, and while Mayor Bill White “kept the dream alive” in terms of off-street bike trails, Dick says that he did little to address the concerns of those who biked on Houston’s actual streets. Annise Parker did better: She received high marks for keeping bikeway projects in the budget as city controller before presiding over the unanimous 2013 passage of the local safe-passage ordinance.

There were other victories, to be sure, like the community letter-writing campaign that pressured METRO to finally add bike racks to its bus fleet in 2007, and the Heights MKT Trail, which now connects routes from downtown to far outside the Loop. And thanks to a 2012 bond referendum and a generous donation from the Kinder Foundation, the $220 million Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative has taken care of a number of long-delayed (and expensive) trail components. In fact, Dick estimates that today that Comprehensive Bikeway Plan from 1992 might finally be complete.

After nearly two hours of wine-fueled kvetching, we ask the table for a letter-grade assessment of Houston’s current biking options.

“It’s gone up a couple of grades—I’d say at least a B,” Lundeen offers.

“I’d proudly give it a D plus, maybe C minus,” Garcia counters. “From where we’ve come to where we are now—oh yeah! But when I try to compare it to other cities, that’s when it breaks down.”

As for Dick? “The bayou trails are at least a B,” he says. “The on-street is no better than a D.”

Even with all the setbacks, all remain committed to something they see as a necessity, not an amenity. “Not everyone can afford to have a car in Houston, and a growing Houston can’t afford for everybody to have a car,” Garcia reasons. Greater Houston’s population is expected to increase from approximately 7 million to 10 million by 2040.

“The fact that we’re still here talking about it,” she adds, “gives me more room for optimism.”

Regina Garcia still believes Houston is a biking city, even after decades of limited progress.

Image: Daniel Kramer

The sun is setting as Steve and Melissa Sims traverse an overgrown median toward an all-white bike chained to a telephone pole. Traffic streams past in the background as Steve zaps the frame with some white spray paint to erase the rust. Plastic zip ties snap as Melissa fastens bundles of artificial daisies and hydrangeas to replace bouquets of rotting roses. Then they snap a picture of the restored bike to post online, a dangling plaque labeled “Monika Lawrence” clearly visible.

Lawrence was an avid 55-year-old cyclist struck by a driver here on November 8, 2015—just across the street from the White Oak Bayou trail at East T.C. Jester and 18th Street in Shady Acres, not far from her home. The crash paralyzed Lawrence and left her under medical care for almost two years, until she died from complications related to the collision. Today her ghost bike is one of roughly 85 memorials set up at intersections, overpasses, and drainage ditches across the city.

“Sometimes this bike is the only representation that anybody even cared that something happened to their loved one,” Steve tells us. “That’s a pretty strong statement for some of these families—they’re grateful to have it.”

As de facto leaders of Houston Ghost Bike—a freeform volunteer group that’s one of hundreds of global chapters founded since 2003—the Simses essentially function as part-time funeral directors for cyclists hit by drivers. They and fellow volunteers regularly scan news accounts and police reports for fatalities that get posted in a Facebook group known to radiate white-hot indignation each time another incident occurs. Eventually, conversations turn to setting up yet another memorial.

The idea is for each bike to stand for a person—“gentle reminders to all” of what’s at stake, the couple says—which will then make the stories harder to forget.

Steve tells us about Marvin Rucker, an 85-year-old who rode his bike for exercise at night, when it’s not as brutally hot, and Benjamin Mendez, who would buy fruit at the farmer’s market and pedal around hawking it to his neighbors. Both were struck by drivers in the past five years; both have ghost bikes in the area.

Melissa shakes her head, incredulous, as she remembers David Rosenfeld. You’ll find his bike at the corner of Bissonnet and Newcastle in Bellaire, where he was struck and killed by a car in 2015—en route to a memorial ride for another biker struck and killed by a car. “It was just horrible,” Steve says.

And of course there’s Chelsea Norman, the 24-year-old killed riding along Waugh mere blocks from home in 2013. The combination of her story—a beautiful young woman holding down a good job at the Montrose Whole Foods—and the circumstances—a hit-and-run in a neighborhood perceived as bike-friendly—ignited a groundswell of outrage from the community that awoke the Simses to just how frequently these incidents occur. “That’s pretty much where it started for us,” Melissa says.

By now the couple is used to rattling off a list of names and stories to reporters every six months or so. Longtime bikers themselves, they’ve been at this for five years, and neither feels that Houston has gotten the message. Standing next to Lawrence’s bike, Steve argues that no amount of lanes or trails will help this problem if cyclists continue to be mowed down trying to reach them.

“There’s really this us-versus-them attitude,” he says, nodding toward the road. “I keep trying to push drivers to feel empathy for these people because these people are them. That’s why we tell the stories behind the bikes—we want them to see these bikes as people.”

Maybe drivers would feel differently if they looked at the photos the couple sometimes includes on a bike's plaque, or if they attended one of the ceremonies for a new memorial. Lately Steve finds himself channeling his Baptist preacher grandfather, presiding over crowds of up to 60 people who gather each time he dedicates a new bike to another deceased child, parent, sibling, spouse, or relative.

The Simses’ biggest takeaway about Houston cyclists: “They’re not hipsters drinking Lone Stars, throwing empty bottles as they blow through stop signs, you know?” says Steve. “These are people who, for whatever reason, don’t have enough money to drive a car, or just someone who is trying to be active in a world that is more and more sedentary. It’s a sad situation.”

Diesel fumes permeate our conversation as he stares off into the failing sunlight. The couple remembers how the group once employed guerrilla, make-them-remember tactics by which ghost bikes popped up almost as soon as bikers went down—sometimes before anyone could remove the blood from the pavement. And then some families explicitly have declined memorials; turns out certain mothers don’t want to pass their kid’s ghost on the way to work each morning.

Which is why, at some point, they decided the Ghost Bike project had to focus primarily on helping families honor the dead on their own terms. What’s the use of shaking your fist at a public you feel remains largely indifferent to the problem?

“To see the lack of movement, it’s hard,” Steve says, walking back to their minivan.

“Really, even now,” adds Melissa, “the hope is that people will start listening.”

Melissa and Steve Sims regularly touch up Monika Lawrence's Shady Acres ghost bike memorial.

Image: Daniel Kramer

Ask City Hall about Houston’s bicycle problem, however, and they’re all ears.

“Public safety is a top priority for my administration,” Mayor Sylvester Turner recently told Houstonia. “Since my inauguration in 2016, I have launched several initiatives to keep all road users safe while improving our neighborhoods and the roadways that connect us.”

To his credit, there has been some movement—on paper, at least. In 2017 City Council passed a new Houston Bike Plan that outlines a future network of 1,789 miles of bikeways—a figure that more than triples the roughly 500 existing miles (of which only half are worth using, the plan states). That means tripling the number of off-street trails to 668 miles, octupling bike lanes to 816 miles, and roughly doubling the number of shared bike routes.

Looking at the maps published in the report, you can see how the network could one day explode from a handful of routes concentrated in the central and western portions of Houston to a tightly woven lattice that gets riders within spitting distance of anywhere they could hope to go in the city. By 2027, the plan predicts, Houston should be able to move from a Bronze to a Gold Level certification from the League of American Bicyclists as key components are completed. The estimated long-term cost of this pretty picture? $500 million cobbled together from an unguaranteed (and so far, largely undetermined) mix of funds from the city, county, METRO, bond elections, grants, TIRZs, private sector, and more.

In other good news for cyclists, last summer the Houston Police Department demonstrated new radar-like technology that will help undercover bike officers enforce the city’s Safe Passing Ordinance, which requires that motorists provide a minimum three-foot berth for bikers while passing. About 100 drivers have been cited or warned under the law since its 2013 passage, although Police Chief Art Acevedo has stated a preference for increasing awareness of proper roadway etiquette with measures like pamphlets and videos over penalizing drivers with fines, which can run up to $500.

The city of Houston also will join the Vision Zero network of cities committed to the elimination of all traffic fatalities and serious injuries. As of this writing, Turner told Houstonia, officials are coordinating as-yet unscheduled meetings “to begin laying out the work plan for joining the Vision Zero initiative.” (This follows years of backlash against Houston’s status as the largest American city not to join, with Turner describing it in a May 2018 Council meeting as “an issue of resources.”)

Still, two decades removed from the last go-round, a new generation of advocates is skeptical, while feeling renewed urgency.

“Millions. More. People,” says BikeHouston Advocacy Director Jessica Wiggins, slamming her fist on a table between words. “How is that going to work for traffic? It’s not going to. This Bike Plan is not an option—this is a mitigation strategy.”

Wiggins does praise this moment as a “turning point” for the conversation, one of the few times the city has demonstrated a commitment to a long-term transportation vision. This effort should go better than the ’90s boondoggle, she reasons, now that BikeHouston has full-time staff members lobbying for these interests and a brand-new Bicycle Advisory Committee has been established, by ordinance, as of 2017, to oversee funding and implementation. But almost two years into the plan—which, unlike its predecessor, passed unfunded without massive federal aid—she worries about who’s going to foot the bill. “The city only allocated a million dollars for the first year, which is peanuts in infrastructure—it’s no money,” she says.

In fact, the city confirmed to Houstonia that even the annual $1.1 million of city capital-improvement funds devoted to bikeway projects for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 are delayed for two years because of Harvey-related budget concerns. By the Plan’s one-year mark in April 2018, only 23 linear miles of on-street bikeways had been completed; according to the city, “construction should go quickly” on forthcoming projects in neighborhoods including Acres Homes, the Near Northside, and others.

A glimmer of hope did appear last year when Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis dangled a one-year, use-it-or-lose-it $10 million commitment to build 50 miles of bikeways laid out in the plan. It’s slated for completion by this April. But Precinct 1 encompasses only a portion of the city, and the one-time windfall, while significant, provides for only a small percentage of the plan’s estimated $500 million cost.

“What happens when this funding dries up?” Wiggins asks defiantly. “Well, BikeHouston asks all the other commissioners to give $10 million, and we do it all again.”

When we pose the same question of feasibility to Garcia, even she, the eternal optimist, has her reservations.

“There could be a bicycle fairy that drops a load of cash on the city with a big smile and a hooray—it could happen,” she tells us. “The interesting thing is, the bar keeps raising.”

Image: Daniel Kramer

But back in the safety course in the Rice parking lot, we’re focused on the present, not the future. Things, for the time being, are what they are, and our instructors, Garcia and Ford, assure us you’ll make it out there—if you’re prepared.

They line us up and run drills through an oval-shaped obstacle course laid out using halved tennis balls. One by one, we pilot our bikes through the yellow lanes and learn how to stop with our back brake, go around, stop with both brakes. Garcia walks us through how to avoid hazards like potholes and rocks with an agile flick of the handlebars. Finally, we barrel dead ahead before executing a controlled swerve to avoid a simulated right hook—the all-too-common situation in which a driver absentmindedly crushes a cyclist while hanging a right.

With that, apparently, we’re prepared to hit the road. Turning east out of the parking lot onto Rice Boulevard, the crew travels single file for a short ride to test our skills. We call to warn each other of looming manholes or divots and holler “Car up!” or “Car down!” to ensure we’re all aware of any sneaky drivers. At Sunset and Main, we glimpse the ghost bike for Marjorie Corcoran, the longtime Rice professor struck crossing the METRO tracks in 2017, and remember Sudipta Roy, the young woman killed last spring at the same intersection by a dump truck performing the same right hook maneuver we’d just practiced avoiding.

Their crashes linger in our minds as we round the strange traffic circle by the Museum of Fine Arts that, when you think about it, isn’t so much a circle as it is a vortex of confusing traffic patterns.

But by now we’ve spun around and emptied onto Hermann Park Drive, where we all wave to a quinceañera group taking photos before continuing on to the park. We linger in the Japanese Garden, then turn around and zip back toward the dreaded circular interchange, only to realize the caravan has arrived at a stop sign in the wrong lane to continue straight.

It’s the first snafu of our leisurely ride, but our instructors take care of it. Garcia waves and asks a Jeep driver if we can scoot in front. Amazingly, he obliges with the requisite lift of his index finger, and we bikers are off, rolling around the traffic circle that’s not really a traffic circle, safely back toward Rice.

Granted, it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon with little traffic, but this ride still feels like something significant—a glimpse at how biking should and possibly could feel every day. It feels good.

Garcia agrees.

“That was so civilized,” she says, signaling right to turn back onto Sunset, “and we’re not usually civilized in our cars around here.

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