Houston, sad to say, has a well-deserved reputation as a wasteland when it comes to bicycling. Recreational cycling and bike commuting alike are difficult within the city's 600 square miles, where would-be cyclists endure crushing heat and humidity along with unfriendly drivers and a street department that depends on torrential rains to remove broken glass from the streets.
There is now, however, a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon: as of May 2, 2012, Houston launches a B-Cycle bike rental program based at three sites in the city's downtown. The first 18 of the program's sharable bikes - gray, unisex three-speeds with flat handlebars and a big handlebar basket - are now in place at "B-stations," special kiosks near City Hall and the Central Library, the George R. Brown Convention Center and Market Square. Plans are to expand the program to include 200 more bikes and reach into the Texas Medical Center area by the end of 2012.
Fourteen other southern and western cities already participate in similar programs, including Denver-Boulder and Broward County, Fla. Here in Texas, San Antonio has had a B-Cycle bike-sharing in place for a year. The Houston program is in part federally-funded, with a total cost of approximately $105,000. Besides federal and city funds, additional support comes from local cycling chain Bike Barn, Bike Houston, Houston First and the Downtown District. The program will be overseen by a dedicated nonprofit organization, Houston Bike Share. Bike Barn will maintain the bikes.
Future expansion plans call for additional stations in the usual locations; including the Heights and Hermann Park. According to the Houston City Council, two of the three kiosks opening today are solar-powered mobile units that can be moved closer to special events. In other words, look for a B-Cycle kiosk next time you're at Discovery Green for iFest or in NearTown for the Art Car Parade.
Patrons may rent a bike at any station and return it to the same or another station. Kiosks will be open 6 AM to 11 PM. All riders must use a credit card to buy a 24-hour or 7-day pass or an annual membership. Once a pass is in hand, the first 90 minutes period is free; after 90 minutes the rental is $2 per half hour. Riders can always return the bike within the free period and then immediately check it out again to avoid paying rental. One-day passes are available at the docking stations; riders must sign up for 7-day passes and annual memberships at the program's website, houston.bycyle.com. Annual members will receive a personal "B-card" to expedite rentals.
As is typical in the Bayou City, no plans have been made to extend the system beyond the Downtown-Heights-Montrose area.