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Houston Biking August 19, 2013

by Jonathan Flynn, Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy

About a year and a half ago, I started routinely biking to work. As a graduate student whose job largely consists of sitting in front of the computer, I have not regretted that decision at all. Two factors have made it appealing to me: 1) It’s a form of light exercise, and 2) it’s often faster than any other form of transportation in Houston.

As researchers, we often have little spare time for things like exercise. It is ironic that many of us study health issues yet take so little care of our own. Living a sedentary lifestyle is one of the leading causes of preventable death worldwide. It is a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, and pretty much everything else that can go wrong with the body and mind. Even if you exercise, sitting still for long periods of time appears to harm the body. If you can move around, instead of sitting on a train, shuttle, or car, you probably should.

Of course, there are lots of things that we should do that we don’t. Many things, like eating right or reading a novel instead of our Facebook feeds, take additional time and effort. What surprised me about biking to work is that it was often more convenient than any other form of transportation. When I started biking, I lived near UT student housing, and worked at the Medical School Building at the very north side of the medical center. Without pushing myself, I easily got to school in less than 20 minutes. This was faster than the student shuttle, the train, or car (once you factor in parking and walking), which were my previous methods of getting to work. Riding my bike to work also meant, somewhat obviously, that I had my bike at work. If you need to get around the medical center during the day, there is literally no faster way to do so. Considering my bike ride also acted as basic cardio exercise, I started saving a whole lot of time overall.

If you want to start biking, whether to work or somewhere else in Houston, it’s beneficial to know where the bike lanes are. While it is perfectly legal to bike on any road in town, it’s usually best and safest to find bike paths. Google maps  is your best friend for this. It will give you the best route to your destination via bike. Many areas where students live are very close to major bike trails that lead to the medical center. If you live farther from the med center, then the bayous (river/drainage areas for the city of Houston) are very useful for getting into town. The banks of the bayous usually have bike trails devoid of any other traffic. For very long commutes, another alternative is biking to a bus or train stop. However, bringing a bike on a train during peak hours  (7 AM to 9 AM, or 4 PM to 6 PM on weekdays) is not allowed.  Buses have bike racks on their front, but you always run the (low) risk of them being full.

Bike maintenance is an important part of biking safely. If you are mechanically inclined, then YouTube videos are an excellent way of learning how to fix any problems that occur. Entire channels are dedicated to showing how to take care of bikes . If you don’t like getting your hands dirty, then there are many shops around that can be reached with a quick Google search. However, a lesser known one that I would suggest is the Rice Bike Shop . It is a non-profit shop that is student run – parts are sold at cost, and the staff is a group of friendly volunteers. During the summer, service is by appointment. During the academic year, service is more constant, with office hours being listed on the Facebook page.

As for what type of bike you should get, that’s largely up to you. Different types of bikes have different advantages and disadvantages. Mountain bikes are good all around bikes that are usually relatively inexpensive. Road bikes tend to be a bit more expensive, a little lighter and faster, but have a little less traction (i.e. their tires might slip in some conditions that mountain bike tires would not). Hybrid bikes are a mix between the two. Folding bikes have a slightly bumpier ride, but have the perk of being able to be taken on the train during rush hour, as well as taking up less space in your home. Mountain bikes and hybrids are a good place to start if this is the first bike you have ridden since grade school.

I would suggest not spending too much on a bike to start, but perhaps getting something in the $200-$300 price range. Pawnshops and Craigslist can have very good deals, but have a friend who knows bikes help you buy one. Bikes from Target and Wal-Mart are functional, but often contain cheap parts that will wear down much faster than slightly more expensive bikes. It will eventually cost you more for less performance to get a Wal-Mart bike. If you are uncertain about whether you want to commit to buying a bike, I would suggest renting one from one of the many stations in Downtown, Midtown, and Herman Park.  Try it out, and see if it works for you.

One last note about biking in Houston: the weather. 9 months of the year, Houston is great for bicycling. During the summer… not quite as great. The breeze from the bike alleviates the problem to a much larger extent than you would initially think. Still, July and August get very warm.  For the sake of others in your lab, bring a change of clothes during the summer. If you have a particularly long ride, most of the buildings in the medical center have employee showers. Ask the front desk if yours does, because often times their locations are not common knowledge.

That’s about it. If you have any questions about biking in Houston, feel free to email me [link jonathan.r.flynn@uth.tmc.edu]. I hope to see some more people out in the bike lanes in the coming months.