ULI Houston News

BHP Local Spotlight: Cycling in Houston


Adele Houghton, Biositu, LLC
Ellen Schwaller, Harris County Public Health


Building Healthy Places Spotlight: Cycling in Houston

In spite of decades of auto-centric policy and funding priorities, Houston has made strides over the past few years to encourage cycling. While the motivations behind these efforts are varied, it is clear that positive health outcomes could be one result of a more cycle-friendly city.  Having adequate bicycle infrastructure has economic benefits, as well. According to the AARP, having designated bicycle lanes and infrastructure has shown to improve business through increased spending, job creation, and the development of bicycle tourism.

Building on ULI Building Healthy Places Toolkit Strategy Physical Activity #4: Provide Infrastructure to Support Biking, this blog post lays out a local case for the health benefits of enhancing cycling infrastructure in the Bayou City.

Interested in hearing more? We invite you to join us at a panel discussion on this topic on April 27, 2017: BHP Series – Two Wheel Society. It will highlight local initiatives supporting cycling in Houston.


The potential for cycling to positively impact our community’s health can be roughly grouped into two areas: reducing the risk of chronic disease through physical activity and improving mental health. Additionally, both poor air quality and perceived or real risk of injury must also be considered as possible exposures for cycling.

Cycling can lead to increased physical activity. Cycling is one way to meet the Surgeon General’s recommendation of 1 hour (kids) / 2.5 hours (adults) of moderate exercise per week. Health benefits include: reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, and premature death (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC).

The local picture in Harris County of relevant existing health concerns is mixed. On the positive side, Harris County is on track to meet the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Healthy People 2020 (HP2020) goal for moderate or vigorous physical activity (just one percentage point away). We also meet HP2020 goals for the percentage of the adult population that is overweight (63.5% in Harris County v. 66.1% HP2020 target) or obese (27.8% in Harris County v. 30.5% HP2020 target).

On the other hand, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both Harris County and Texas. Harris County exceeds the Texas average percentage of adults diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (a risk factor associated with obesity – 10.7% in Harris County v. 8.3% in Texas). We also exceed the HP2020 goal for the maximum percentage of adults diagnosed with high blood pressure (33.5% in Harris County v. 26.9% HP2020 goal). While Houston’s population as a whole could benefit from increased cycling, individuals at risk of or already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or related chronic diseases would benefit the most from enhancing our local cycling infrastructure.

Cycling, like other forms of physical activity, can improve mental health. Specifically, it can reduce the risk of depression, help you sleep better, and help you maintain a high level of cognitive abilities as you age (Source: CDC). The percentage of adults in Harris County reporting five or more days of poor mental health (18.7%) is slightly lower than the statewide average of 20.1%. However, increasing community-wide rates of physical activity could help to reduce that percentage further.

Given the fact that most cycling trips in Houston require sharing the road with motorized vehicles for at least a portion of the trip, it is important to consider the potential real and perceived health risks posed by choosing to bike rather than drive to your destination. In spite of, or perhaps because of, our car culture and incomplete cycling infrastructure, bicycling injury rates in Harris County fall in the bottom 30% per capita compared with other counties nationwide, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The Alliance for Biking and Walking ranks Houston 33rd out of the 50 most populous cities for Ped/Bike fatalities per 10,000 commuters (rate of 18.7). This was ahead of El Paso, Dallas, and Fort Worth but behind Atlanta (20), Los Angeles (21), and Arlington, TX (31).

Additionally, Houston sees a gender disparity among cycling commuters – roughly half as many women as men commute to work on a bicycle in Harris County (0.2% women v. 0.5% men in 2013, according to the American Community Survey). This disparity is not repeated among other forms of active transportation, such as walking and using public transportation. Research suggests that many women in the U.S. have more complicated commuting trips than men, because they are often responsible for transporting children to and from school. However, perceived risk of injury is also a major contributing factor to reduced cycling trips among women.

Air quality is also a concern in the Houston region and may impact those traveling by bike. Motor vehicles compromise air quality in a number of ways, including increasing levels of ground-level ozone, large particulate matter (PM10), and small particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is of particular concern, because it has been linked with cancer and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma. (Source: U.S. EPA) Research has suggested that active commuters (bicyclists and pedestrians) may not be exposed to higher concentrations of certain air pollutants than motorists. However, their inhalation rates are higher than motorists, because they inhale pollution directly, rather than after it has passed through a filter. On the other hand, the health benefits associated with physical activity have been found to outweigh the risk of exacerbating respiratory conditions by cycling in areas with poor air quality.

Bottom Line: it is important for cyclists to consider the potential exposure to poor air quality on some roads and in some areas of town when planning their trips. Air Quality in Houston suffers from both traffic congestion and industrial emissions generated by refineries, chemical plants, and activities at the Port of Houston. Harris County exceeds the EPA limit for ground-level ozone concentrations (Source: TCEQ) and is approaching the regulatory limit for PM2.5 (Source: Air Alliance Houston). Exposure can be reduced by rerouting non-motorized transportation routes away from high traffic streets to residential streets or dedicated trails. (Sources: Cepeda, et al., 2017; Hankey, et al., 2017) Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies cycling networks as one possible approach to reducing air pollution which would benefit everyone’s health while simultaneously assisting in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Cycling infrastructure that routes cyclists away from streets with heavy motorized traffic –via separated bike paths or along streets with traffic calming measures – are likely to result in the highest overall health benefits by increasing ridership and reducing exposure to traffic-related air pollution.

Portions of the Houston Bike Plan follow this recommendation by routing cyclists along neighborhood collector streets that are parallel to high traffic streets. For example, Wakeforest Street is identified as a major North-South route in Central Houston rather than Kirby.

Strategically located infill developments may also be able to help fill gaps in fragmented cycling networks, which will help reduce the real and perceived risk of collision with cars, trucks, and buses.

The Rice University campus is an informal example of this model. Cyclists regularly favor passing through campus, which is both bike friendly and has a very low speed limit, rather than riding along the bordering streets.

Also, the Bayou Greenways 2020 project is famously developing a citywide infrastructure for non-motorized vehicles along the many bayous that crisscross town. Trail- or bayou-oriented development is a key strategy of the plan, which touts unique advantages to new housing and businesses located along greenway routes.

Active transportation has been found to have more health benefits if used for commuting and daily activities rather than strictly as a recreational activity. Therefore, cycling infrastructure should connect residential areas with commercial, office, and other centers of activity. It should not be designed exclusively for recreational use.

The hike and bike trail that connects the Heights neighborhood with Downtown Houston is an example of this model. Not only does it connect the residential areas in the Heights to workplaces downtown; along the way, it passes by several shopping centers serving Heights residents, thereby increasing the convenience of running errands.


Cyclist Health Chart  *Sources & definitions below



Cyclist Health Chart Sources and Definitions

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