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G-Sync: Pick a Lane

Choosing to ride a bike can be good for you -- and our roads.

When the price of gas jumped to over $4 per gallon last weekend, conversations around the table migrated easily from sporting events to the current events. Urban dwellers, after all, often consider navigating their city a sport itself. One thought was pretty clear: under the golden glow of the summer sun, many feel now is a great time to think about making some changes and power of two. Two feet, two wheels, and our willingness to make change from the common single-person vehicle commute. 

Considering our city’s big changes over the last couple years concerning bike lanes, plus the myriad of events focused on the growing cyclist community, it might be just the right time to add a bike to your commuting options.

When you look back on the last few years in Grand Rapids, we have gone from a place where 'critical mass' was necessary in order to raise the visibility of cyclists and highlight the importance of sharing the road, to instead a community that has begun to understand the real benefits of embracing the bike as a viable transit option.

"We are excited to see how area roads, when marked for bike travel, are beginning to see an increase in people on bikes using them," says the newly hired Executive Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, Thomas Tilma. "After studying three areas of the city last year, it was at the Seward Avenue bike lanes that we saw a significant jump. Between June 2012 and September 2012, we saw a doubling of use from 76 in June to September's 148 cyclists."

Over the next couple years, Tilma is optimistic that we can get Grand Rapids to make their target goal of 100 miles of marked bike lanes or sharrows in the city. 

If all goes according to plan, by the end of summer, Grand Rapids will have 34 miles of bike lanes -- all within a very short 22-month period. According to Tilma, who knows firsthand from their studies conducted on these new bike lanes, if you build them, they will come.

Another person who is optimistic about the benefits of bike lanes on a city's infrastructure is Grand Rapids Planning Commissioner Suzanne Schulz.

"A lot of people do not know this fact, but sharing the road with a bike actually saves roads," says Schulz.

Now you might think this is due to the fact that there are fewer cars on the road for every bike that appears, and that is partly correct, but it's not the only reason.

"When we stripe a road for a bike lane, we are actually creating a barrier for cars not to cross," says Schulz. "This is a good thing since roads begin to deteriorate at their edges where cars tend to ride when there are not bike lane markings. Now with cars riding more towards the center of the street and with low impact bikes on the edge, the roads are not prone to breaking down as fast, thus saving us money in the long run."

But what really is the cost of a road these days?

For Schulz, this is a simple answer and one on her mind as the city and a task force both work on finding the funds to repair our streets before we have complete street failure.  

"It costs us $1 million per mile to build a new city street," says Schulz. "But to service a bike lane only costs $3,000 – $5,000 per mile. It is much cheaper and a bike lane helps extend the life of a road, saving our city money."

According to Tilma, it also makes more sense to focus on the benefit of adding bike lanes over more recreational bike paths, like the White Pine Trail, which, while valuable on one level, still cost approximately $200,000 per mile to create.

Parking your car often comes with other benefits besides those to your health. Schulz estimates that the average person in Grand Rapids spends $12,000 a year servicing an automobile, factoring in the car payment, insurance, fuel, and maintenance. Whether you get rid of your automobile or simply park it a few days a week in favor of another form of transportation, you are in turn putting money back in your pocket.

And lest you think this is just a singular savings or health benefit issue for the individual, companies like Steelcase, Amway, Priority Health, Village Bike & Fitness, and Catalyst Partners have all seen the advantages of adapting bike-friendly policies. These local firms have all become certified by the GGRBC at either the bronze, or in CP’s case, gold level. (Cascade Engineering will soon be receiving their certification as well.)

These are also businesses in the market to attract and retain talent.

In the energy-focused book $20 Per Gallon by Christopher Steiner, it is clearly stated that an emphasis on bicycle lanes will create critical networks to navigate a city, but also attract families and individuals looking to save money and change their commute patterns.

Imagine a person or a staff accustomed to a 60-plus minute ride to work every day. Suddenly a bike-friendly city is a great attractor for talent to an existing company, or for firms looking to relocate or open additional offices.  

In the months ahead, we can begin to see not only the striping of those new lanes, but, according to Tilma, we can also expect to see a new service added to their site. The Bicycle Coalition hopes to organize the many bike-themed events happening in our city as well as connect people with any one of the too-many-to-list organizations -- like The Spoke Folks, a group of volunteer bike enthusiasts who are committed to taking away the fear of those first cranks of the gear shaft.

There are a few great bike-focused events on the horizon, including the exciting debut of the Grand Rapids Public Museum's RIDES Twilight and Midnight, the New Belgium Clips Beer and Film Fest at Ah-Nab-Awen Park, and the Bike Polo Cascadia Regional Qualifier with cyclists competing from the East Coast and Canada. 

If Schulz is able to raise the matching funds of $100,000, Grand Rapids will be able to access the $400,000 MDOT has awarded us to be applied toward bike education and safety.

Pick a Lane

While the city has passed an ordinance that states cyclists downtown must be on the street and not the sidewalk (pay attention Jimmy John’s delivery folks), it is acceptable for folks in our neighborhoods to still use a sidewalk to get around.

Schulz, however, cautions folks to think twice about the sidewalks in other parts of the city.

"In reality, the odds are stacked against you when you ride on an urban sidewalk," says Schulz.  "You are in far greater danger of being hit by a car when you are on a sidewalk than if you use a bike lane or are in the road riding with traffic."

So, if you have to pick a lane for your commute, just make sure it is the right one.  

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Here are the fantastic four events you will not want to miss this week. Trust me. These are all winners for you and our community.

Lifestyle Editor's Note: A big congrats to Thomas Tilma of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, the first paid Executive Director. After Tilma's two years of solid advocacy work in our region, it's great to see him hired as their ED, and it's a fantastic sign of good things to come from this group. Rapid Growth advocates for more of these types of conversions of our talent to from volunteers to full-time champions. These people truly advance our community's assests forward. A reputation is earned and solidified by these folks and Tilma is a big part of our changing culture.  Congrats, Tom! - Tommy
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