Grand Rapids initiatives seek to keep cyclists safe

As Michigan’s first municipality to implement Vision Zero strategies, the City of Grand Rapids saw bicycle crashes involving motorists drop to a 10-year low and vehicle-pedestrian collisions drop to a three-year low. Proven successful across Europe, Vision Zero originated in Sweden in the ‘90s — and has resulted in that country having the world’s lowest annual traffic-related death rate. Other U.S. cities adopting the initiative include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.

In Grand Rapids, Vision Zero comprises two public education efforts. One, the Heads Up, GR! pedestrian safety campaign publicizes the Grand Rapids’ ordinance requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians at all crosswalks. The new ordinance is helping the City address its higher-than-state-average rate of pedestrian-involved crashes with motor vehicles.

Two, Driving Change aims to reduce bicycle-vehicle crashes by informing the public about the City’s safe passing law. Passed in 2015, the ordinance requires motorists to maintain at least five feet between the right side of their vehicle and any bicyclists they pass. A City research project funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 77 percent of motorists are maintaining the safe passing distance. Grand Rapids reported no bicycle-related fatalities between April 2018 and September 2018. The 40 vehicle-bicycle crashes recorded during that six-month period were the City’s lowest total since 2008.

Veteran Grand Rapids cyclist, Josh McBryde, puts in between 50 and 100 miles a week on his bicycle. Since moving to a job in Rockford, he doesn’t bike to work every day but when he does, he enjoys taking the White Pine Trail. While he is seeing a culture of respect developing in Grand Rapids, he still takes great precautions when riding his bike on city streets.

“I don’t get buzzed quite as much. (Buzzing refers to passing motorists who come too close for comfort.) I think that people are more aware of bicyclists. The majority are respectful. But there are some people who are always going to be resistant to people biking on roads,” he says. “I think I’m probably safer on the roads, but that’s because I have changed and adapted my riding style after riding in the streets for 15 years.”

McBryde likes seeing more bike lanes being added, though he would prefer Grand Rapids take the added step of providing totally separated lanes for bikes. He’s been hit by vehicles three times over his many years of riding.

“Cars do respect us more in the bike lanes. Putting in more separate bike boulevards keeps everybody out of each other’s hair and it also gives people in cars a feeling that the bikes are legitimate there,” he says. “I still think the biggest thing is remembering there’s a person with a life on a bicycle and motorists have got to respect that.”

Another issue is that motorists from outlying areas driving within Grand Rapids are unaware of Grand Rapids’ bike ordinances and see bicyclists as nuisances. McBryde believes education about welcoming bikes to roadways needs to begin in drivers’ education so all motorists of all ages from all locales know bikes have the right to be in the road. He also affirms that bicyclists need to follow the rules, as well.

“The debate that always comes up in the cycling community is, ‘What can cyclists do to have drivers respect them more?” When I was a kid in my 20s, kamikaze riding through the city, there was the us-versus-them feeling that’s going on. Now I respect the rules. There’s not a whole lot of law enforcement towards bikes but there should be.”

Regular cyclists, like McBryde, took part in the City’s research that determined the bike and pedestrian safety improvement numbers. One set of riders recorded data all the time during every ride they took on city streets. Another set of riders traveled four specifically designated routes on scheduled days and times, Monday through Friday. In an additional survey, more than 75 percent of respondents said that they believe Grand Rapids is becoming friendlier to all road users — motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. This is promising news for avid cyclists like McBryde.

“There are so many good reasons to bike,” he concludes. “I’m almost to my 40s and it’s a good way to stay active — and not put more wear and tear and gas into my car all the time. The biggest thing for me is getting outside, fresh air, and all that stuff. Biking is a really good way to enjoy your environment.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy City of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., and Josh McBryde

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