Invisible no more: Brownsville’s neglected biking culture goes public

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

When the City of Brownsville decided to use bicycles to promote community health, skeptics said interest simply wasn’t there.

They aren’t saying that anymore.

Over the last decade—but especially in the past few years—the Texas border town has proven to residents and funders alike that its biking culture is alive and well. A series of well-attended open streets events and strategic partnerships have helped Brownsville raise millions of dollars to boost its infrastructure (including adding more than 30 miles of bike lanes in a year) and launch several community-based health initiatives. It’s even sparked local interest in someday bringing a bike share system to the city.

All this in a place known as one of the poorest and unhealthiest in the country.

Fernando Martinez, a project manager at BikeTexas, and Dr. Rose Gowen, a Brownsville city commissioner, were key people in facilitating many of the initiatives that pushed for the use of bicycles as a tool for social change. They both believe the successes of Brownsville offer good lessons for other cities.

Kidical Mass Brownsville

No money, no problem

“I think a lot of cities get stuck in a rut of thinking, we don’t have any money,” says Gowen. “You never get off page one of the plan because, heck, you don’t have any money, so why waste the effort?”

Gowen credits city commissioners and staff, as well as their community partners like the University of Texas School of Public Health or the health clinic Su Clinica Familiar, for not allowing themselves this easy way out.

“Instead, we put our thinking caps on. We don’t have any money. Great. We might not have any money for 50 years. That doesn’t mean we won’t do anything for 50 years.”

Brownsville’s bicycle efforts started out small, maybe even painfully so. Organizers set up a recurring farmers market along a bicycle trail that nobody was sure anyone used. Soon, people started riding their bicycles to the farmers market. Then, others began using the market as a meeting spot for group rides. Other organizations started hosting events along the trail too, increasing the visibility of the trail to any residents who never realized it existed.

Brownsville has held more Cyclovia open streets events than any other city in Texas. 

Eventually, they worked their way up to an open streets event called CycloBia. More than 4,000 people turned out to their inaugural event in November of 2012. The event opened up several miles of the main drag in downtown Brownsville, free of motor vehicles. Again, a few businesses scoffed at the initial plans but changed their tune when thousands of people visited their shops and restaurants by bike or foot.

Since then, they have held more of the open streets events than any other city in Texas, and turnout has peaked at more than 12,000. They have also introduced Better Block events that also temporarily transform public spaces.

“It’s nonthreatening because it’s temporary and people got to just try it,” says Gowen. “It doesn’t hurt the budget, and it’s planning in real time.”

These have, in turn, helped justify support for permanent, costlier efforts such as investing in bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure projects or adopting complete streets policies. It’s also helped them gain national attention for their efforts and brought in more matching funds and grant money for their efforts.

“Start small and go from there,” says Martinez.

Fernando Martinez of Bike Texas

Supply before demand

Located on the southernmost tip of Texas, Brownsville is home to 181,860 people. More than 90 percent are Hispanic. One of the poorest populations in the country, 80 percent of adults there are classified as overweight or obese. One third have diabetes, though only half of those with diabetes know it.

Those are troubling numbers on their own, and they contribute to a negative perception that residents there are uninterested in an active lifestyle. The public perception was that people who commuted via bicycle were simply the poorest in the community and couldn’t afford better options. A few years ago, the city only had one bike shop and one bike-related organization.

“The people on bikes, they weren’t Lance Armstrong in Lycra,” says Gowen, “so most people just didn’t notice them.”

Martinez agrees.

“When I ask people, ‘Do you know how many people in Brownsville ride bicycles?’ Ninety-percent of people say, ‘Nobody, it’s too dangerous,’” he adds.

Yet, when organizers made a fleet of bikes from BikeTexas Austin available at CycloBia in Brownsville, people waited for hours to borrow one. When one little girl noticed that there weren’t children’s bikes available for borrowing, she started letting other kids ride hers. The hunger for bikes was there.

“People wanted to be on a bike,” says Martinez.

This helped open up city and community leaders’ eyes to the ways people were already using bicycles. For instance, many were choosing to commute across the border via bicycle because it took less time than traveling via car. Also, when bike-ped usage counts were held in the evening rather than midday as they had been in the past, Martinez and others found that they were used far more than previously believed.

“If you go after 8 pm, they are packed; there’s so many people,” says Martinez. He adds that he also pulled data from one counter on a trail showing that more than 350,000 people had walked or biked past in the latter half of 2013.

There are now three bike shops and four bike groups in Brownsville, including a college organization with more than 200 student members. Martinez and Gowen both see much more room to grow. Martinez thinks a bike share system would fit in well in the city’s revitalizing downtown. While those plans may be a ways down the road, until then he and Gowen say they will simply be proud of the culture they have been able to help change.

“All of this has been built by these little pieces, all of these little pieces,” says Gowen. “We all believe community is looking for better—better life, job, lifestyle, health. We’ve proven that the community’s willing to listen. That’s our biggest strength.”

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write