Houston is a city built for the automobile. Without zoning, urban centers are spawned and neglected, grow taller and are abandoned in ever-widening circles, and reclamation of the previously destitute takes far longer than in a city more constrained by geography, a New York, Boston, San Francisco. In Houston there is no need, as long as the freeways run there is space, somewhere, out along their paths. There is a certain snobbery, those ‘in the loop’ or out of it, but it is snobbery of the largely young towards the largely indifferent, and little comes of it.
Houston is a city of the oil industry, of NASA, and of doctors. It is a city of the pickup truck and the SUV, where there seems to be no need to tell people to ‘buy American’ as they already have. Chevy and GM’s woes would be invisible here save for the news, as their products outnumber their Japanese competitors in a fashion unfathomable to a boy from the north east. This is a city where turn signals are optional, and cyclists given no quarter.
Yet there are cyclists, out among the cars, whispering by the dog walkers and joggers. In some parts of town they are hip, the fixed-gear crowd, and passing them in whooshes on the way to Montrose’s cafes and restaurants, gear colorful and bags handmade, they could be in Greenpoint, on their way to Whisk & Ladle. This is the part of Houston that east coast folk mention, along with the weather, when they note how they are pleasantly surprised with their lives in H-town. These, though, are not Houston’s cyclists.
There are high schoolers with Haros and Mongooses, sitting on their pegs while spinning their handlebars idly at corners, chatting up girls in Catholic-school uniforms while pedaling backwards. They would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though the girls would be dressed less formally, and the beach far closer. Neither are these Houston’s cyclists, though they are of the city and, like the fixed-gear riders who push past them as they idle at stop lights, welcome in it.
Houston’s crowd slips through my neighborhood in the early evening hours, their jobs done, faces weathered, minds on their family or friends. They work their way along the tree-lined blocks on bicycles well-used: old mountain bikes, a younger person’s BMX, a steel road bike. They are in no hurry, postures relaxed and paths weaving. I pass them smiling, always happy to see my neighborhood on two wheels. They smile back, under their mustaches, knowing that we will pass each other again tomorrow. They will be back far earlier than I will rise, though, at work at seven, cutting grass, trimming bushes, re-painting door frames and blowing leaves off expensive driveways. They will sit behind my apartment and smoke at lunch, talking in Spanish of lives I grow more curious about each day. This, then, is the Houston being built beneath and behind the SUV culture of those born to it. It is a culture of those who cannot or do not own cars, and unlike New York, unlike Tokyo, they are not those who have chosen this method of transportation, but those who have been forced to two wheels. With time, they too will purchase Ford F150’s, white and filled with lawn equipment, and pick up their friends, three to a cab carpooling to the rich neighborhoods of River Oaks, of West University.
Unlike the residents, with their helmets and lights, out for late night exercise, Houston’s other cyclists wheel through darkening neighborhoods as I do, almost impossible to see in the failing light, almost invisible socially. Drifting through intersections ahead of BMWs and Mercedes they are a danger, and a surprise. Yet they are also a portent of Houston’s future, as possible on two wheels as four, despite what this city was built for.