The traffic jams on Highway 59 and Beltway 8 have been replaced by a new “traffic jam” on the pedestrian trails throughout Lake Houston and especially on the popular Kingwood Greenbelt.
“Folks aren’t at work. They’re working from home,” said Ethel McCormick.
Because of COVID-19, families who led separate lives during weekdays find themselves quarantined at home, together all day, every day — probably with kids. Lake Houstonians suddenly are balancing stay-at-home jobs with caring for the kids, tutoring them, too.
How are families coping with new rules and frayed nerves?
“They’re hitting the trails,” said McCormick. “Bicyclers, runners, walkers, dog walkers. They are all on our trails. These combinations of people create quite a problem.”
McCormick is longtime managing agent for Kingwood Service Association, the nonprofit charged with providing for the community, civic and social welfare of Kingwood. She is the owner of Kingwood Association Management, which provides homeowner association management services to many of Kingwood’s community associations. When longtime residents think of Kingwood, they think of McCormick.
Kingwood trails are not owned by the City of Houston. They are owned and maintained by the various community associations. Some, like Mills Branch, Greentree and Sand Creek associations, maintain their own greenbelts. Seven trail associations maintain more than 70 miles of Kingwood trails, McCormick said.
“We have residents who’ve never been on the trails before or only on weekends,” she said. “This pandemic changed everything. The combination of so many people — and their pets — trying to get out of the house causes the problem.”
McCormick points out that playgrounds are built to be accessible by the trails, so families are gravitating to them.
“We’ve received a number of calls, including complaints about discourteous bicyclers who act as if they don’t care if there are walkers on the trail,” she said. “But residents call about other things, too. We even received a call about a microwave oven on the trail, wanting us to dispose it.”
An increase in “trail traffic.” Multiple activities on the trails. Dogs off their leashes. All that ruckus, all day long, causes problems.
McCormick said everyone knows about “golf course etiquette.” It is time for “greenbelt etiquette.”
“It’s just common courtesy to alert walkers if you’re on your bicycle,” she said. “Bicyclers come up on walkers so quickly that the walkers don’t know bicyclers are coming up behind them.”
“A resident suggested a campaign, ‘No Bell, No Trail,’ referring, of course, to bicyclists who ride too fast without warning coming close to hitting walkers,” she said.
Walkers and bicyclists should follow the example of Houston Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood on the Houston City Council.
“People in Kingwood are great about helping one another in this unique time where we are all out trying to get exercise,” said Martin. “Let’s make an extra effort at being neighborly. I am out with my family running regularly and have paid extra attention to giving a wave or greeting those I pass along my way. Stay safe, healthy and be kind, Kingwood.”
Some Kingwood bicyclists do endorse Martin’s advice.
“I ride trails some and always give walkers and joggers the right of way,” said Rick Ankrum.
Valerie Tate said Rick is the exception.
“The majority give no warning, like they don’t know how to speak,” she said. “Then there is the guy screaming along the greenbelt on his roller blades using poles to propel himself.”
“Automobile drivers who don’t use their turn signals or yield at crosswalks are most dangerous to cyclists,” said Dan Stanton. “I always announce my presence to walkers on the trails. It is simple courtesy.”
Kingwood has a bicycle patrol, the Houston police officers who watch over Kingwood’s trails.
“Bicyclists, especially fast ones, should announce their approach when they see a walker on the greenbelt trails,” said Sgt. Erick Schmidt, in charge of the police department’s Kingwood Bicycle Unit. “As we ride the trails on patrol and see a pedestrian ahead of us, we announce ‘walker up.’ This notifies the walker that another is approaching. It also notifies bikers behind us of the pedestrian ahead.”
Schmidt and his team are bike-certified officers patroling Kingwood’s trails on department-issued mountain bicycles. They have noticed an increase in usage on the greenbelts and they have several tips for the safety of everyone using the trails.
“These are pretty common-sense tips that all bicyclers should follow,” Schmidt said. “Always wear a helmet. Always look both ways before crossing a road.”
He and his team announce “passing on your left” as they approach, so the walker can merge or step to the right.
“If there is a large group of us on bicycles, the first rider to pass lets the pedestrian know how many bikes will be passing,” he said. “If the walker is going the same direction, the biker always announces which side they intend to pass on.”
Walkers with headphones or a hearing impediment are an extra challenge for bicyclists. Schmidt said ringing a bell helps notify walkers who did not hear the verbal announcement.
To report any incident on the greenbelts that is not an emergency, he said to call 713-884-3131.
“I know we’re all under a lot of stress because of togetherness or not being able to get out and do what we like to do,” McCormick said, “but, thankfully, we have a wonderful trail system.”
The pandemic has occurred at a time when the southeast Texas weather has been perfect for going outdoors, she said, comfortable temperatures with low humidity. The parks have been refurbished following damage from Harvey and Imelda. Dredging at River Grove Park is completed.
“River Grove is so relaxing. I was out there recently just watching the water. So peaceful. So relaxing. So many people having the best of times at the boardwalk,” McCormick said. “It just feels good to live in Kingwood.”