Life on two wheels: How Grand Rapids is transforming itself into a bicycle-friendly city

For the past six years, Grand Rapids has set its sights on becoming a bicycle-friendly city. Nearly 80 miles of bike lanes have been implemented and more are in the works, an increasing number of residents are hopping on their bikes to get to work, businesses are accommodating their employees who are cyclists, and bicycle advocacy groups have become integral parts of the city's civic fabric. However, a dramatic change in the transportation landscape has led to growing pains, which Grand Rapids is now attempting to navigate in order to become one of the country's best metropolises for those on two wheels.
For the past six years, Grand Rapids has set its sights on becoming a bicycle-friendly city. After nearly 80 miles of bike lanes have been implemented, with more in the works, a dramatic change in the transportation landscape has led to growing pains. City officials and grassroots leaders are now attempting to navigate these challenges in order to become one of the country's best metropolises for those on two wheels.
When Grand Rapids began painting its first bike lanes six years ago, the city’s transportation landscape was a dramatically different one, for bicyclists and motorists alike. Few people were biking to work. The idea of navigating city streets on two wheels was a daunting one, with bicyclists often giving up on trying to maneuver major roads, and even side streets, because of safety concerns. Drivers often found themselves frustrated with bicyclists. Resentment among bicyclists and drivers was palpable, with both camps saying they felt the other routinely flouted the law.

But, since the city began to invest in bike lanes and other bicycle infrastructure in 2010, creating nearly 80 miles of bikes lanes over the past six years, the area’s bicycling culture has rapidly evolved. The number of people biking to work in Grand Rapids has skyrocketed, growing by more than five-fold over the years (a number that hovers around at least 1,730, and, now, likely more, according to state statistics); a system of bike lanes throughout the city has emerged, leading to far more bikes on area roads; bicycle advocacy groups, such as the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition and She Rides Her Own Way, have formed and quickly woven themselves into the community’s civic fabric; and city leaders have prioritized making Grand Rapids bicycle-friendly by, for example, incorporating plans for bicycle lanes into essentially every design project that comes their way.

D'Onna King uses a bus bike rack, one of the investments the city has made to support bicyclists.

Plus, businesses are increasingly offering bicycle infrastructure for their employees, bicyclists report feeling safer on the roads, and the growing bicycle culture has translated to annual economic and health benefits totaling about $39.1 million annually (including $8.3 million in the purchase of bicycling-related items, $2.6 million in manufacturing, $13.5 million in avoided health care costs, and $10.3 million in reduced absenteeism
 i.e. people are able to make it to work because they can hop on their bikes), according to a June 2014 Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) study. And all of this is happening in a community that has the largest bicycle industry presence in the state, being home to such companies as CycleSafe, Velocity USA, and TerraTrike. The same study reports that the bike industry is responsible for generating about $2.6 million each year in revenues and accounts for a couple dozen jobs in the local economy.

Still, this doesn’t mean we’re living in a utopia in which cars and bikes coexist with no problems far from it. While drivers are increasingly used to seeing bicycles on the road, the new bike lanes have presented confusion and anxiety for plenty of people behind the wheel, as well as behind handlebars: What, exactly, are you supposed to do to share the road? And how do you do that safely? How does Grand Rapids continue to grow its bicycle culture and add bikes lanes  something it will soon be doing  while ensuring the safety of both cyclists and drivers?

These are questions that the city, in partnership with more than 60 community organizations, is hoping to, at least in part, answer with its relatively new “Driving Change” campaign, a multi-tiered safety education initiative that MDOT is funding to the tune of $632,000. Prompted by a number of issues, including the fact that Grand Rapids has the second highest fatal bike crash ratio in Michigan, the initiative, when it was kicked off in May, culminated local officials’ year-long effort to better understand the high rate of crashes involving vehicles and bicycles. The campaign features television ads, billboards, radio commercials, and social media and digital ads that aim to educate drivers and cyclists about safe behavior on the roads. Ultimately, city officials say they hope the campaign, something which other cities around the country are closely monitoring for possible replication, will significantly curb the number of crashes in the city. Between 2008 and 2014, the most recent data available, Kalamazoo had the highest fatal bicycle crash ratio in Michigan, Grand Rapids had the second highest, and Detroit and Lansing came in at the third highest. In Grand Rapids, there were 71 bicycle-involved crashes in 2014, 85 in 2013 and 93 in 2012. Of these crashes, there was one fatality in 2013 and another fatality in 2012.

In addition to aiming for a reduction in crashes, community leaders are hoping to, in general, build respect among cyclists and drivers, paving the way for a city that embraces cyclists to the point that environmentally and health friendly transit is not longer known as “alternative.” Instead, Grand Rapids hopes to be heading the way of other bike-friendly cities around the country, from Minneapolis, which routinely ranks as having the top bike infrastructure in the United States, and Portland, Oregon to Denver and Tucson  places where impressive bicycle-friendly policies have translated to booming bike-related economies, job growth and plummeting healthcare costs.

What works, what doesn’t and where we go from here

When city and state officials began analyzing a decade’s worth of crash data to formulate the “Driving Change” education plan, they knew they needed to do something different from past safety initiatives. In other words: they didn’t want people barely giving the ads a glance and then immediately forgetting them. So, the question became: how do you create something that will actually change people’s behavior on the roads?

“We looked at 10 years of crash data; we had a focus group to understand the issues between bicyclists and drivers, and what is happening with the angst between them,” says Grand Rapids City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz. “We also looked at literature and past campaigns around bicycle safety to find out what messages worked and didn’t work. Everyone says, ‘share the road,’ but saying that is found out to not be very effective. People think, ‘I am sharing the road. Are you saying I don’t share?’”

Grand Rapids City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz

Instead, Schulz says the city tailored the campaign to focus on the reasons behind the high number of crashes in order to get out a “message that will resonate with the community.” Specifically, the ads, which show up everywhere from Hulu to gas station televisions, inform both cyclists and drivers what they are required to do on the road, including: motorists must leave at least five feet while passing a bike; cyclists need to make sure they’re visible on the road and use a forward white light and rear reflector when riding at night; drivers must watch out for their cyclist colleagues, particularly when making a right-hand turn; bikers must obey all traffic signals and signs; and cyclists need to stick to the roads, not the sidewalks.

“We discovered people felt like they could generally get along on the roads if they knew the rules,” Schulz explains. “We’ve implemented 77 miles of bike lanes over the past six years. People say they don’t know what to do with these new symbols on the road; they want to understand what they’re supposed to do. We’re not shaming motorists; we’re not just targeting bicyclists. We’re saying the responsibility lies with everyone.”

Grand Rapids Traffic Safety Manager Chris Zull, who helped to spearhead the charge for better bicycle infrastructure in the city, too stresses this. “It’s bringing the attention that you, as a cyclist, need to operate more like a car. You need to behave predictably and follow the laws, and, on the other side, for cars, it’s knowing that bikes are allowed to be on the road,” Zull says. “That will help to build mutual respect that our community needs.”

And, it’s not just cyclists and cars involved in the campaign  the city buses are a crucial part of the picture as well. Jennifer Kalczuk, a spokesperson for The Rapid, and Jeremy Mlaker, a training officer at The Rapid, say they are pleased to see a campaign that focuses on everyone on the road taking responsibility when it comes to safety, and Mlaker notes that all bus drivers are trained to share the road with bicycles, particularly when it comes to leaving five feet of space when passing a cyclist.

Jennifer Kalczuk, The Rapid.

Explaining that The Rapid has been a major proponent of the “Driving Change” campaign, in part because they’ve long supported bike infrastructure and have, for about 15 years, offered bicycle racks on public buses, Kalczuk and Mlaker say they hope the campaign brings awareness regarding the needs of bicyclists and buses alike.

“There are lots of marked bike lanes, especially in the city of Grand Rapids, and in some cases our buses need to pull into them to access stops,” Kalczuk says. “Our drivers need to be able to do that safely. We want bicyclists to understand our buses will briefly be in those lanes.”

So far, the response to the campaign seems to be a positive one, with Schulz noting that media outlets from as far away as Australia have picked up the news regarding Grand Rapids’ initiative. “We’re hoping this spreads, that it’s not just a Grand Rapids thing,” Schulz says. “People are very excited about it, especially the bicycle advocates, who have been watching this very closely.”

To help other communities assess the potential of a similar campaign, Schulz and Zull have traveled to cities around the state to present information about the initiative. “The state of Michigan is curious to what we’re doing and how it’s working,” Zull says. “It’s definitely spurred some conversation. It’s helping to encourage that cultural change when it comes to the perception of bikes and their intent.”

Jay Fowler, the interim director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, a group that formed around the time the first bike lanes were being implemented, notes that while it’s too soon to definitively say whether or not the campaign has made a difference when it comes to traffic violations and crashes, he believes that people are taking note of the message.

“Anecdotally, people are aware of it,” Fowler says. “I went to a festival a week ago, and we handed out literature. The event had nothing to do with bicycling, and people came over and said, ‘I saw those billboards and ads,’ so I think it’s having a good effect.” And Johannah Jelks, the founder of She Rides Her Own Way, a group that aims to empower female cyclists and which is partnering with the Driving Change campaign to, for example, hold a bike and yoga ride in the near future, says she is also “seeing more awareness” in regards to heeding cyclists on the road.

Johannah Jelks

“I’m not sure if people are really changing their driving habits, but they’re much more aware of cyclists than they were before,” Jelks says. “I’ve seen a lot more awareness, a lot more patience. I think because there’s so much more cyclist awareness, driver awareness, people are starting to see how this can be a positive relationship.”

For Schulz, Zull, Fowler, and Jelks, this seemingly positive change doesn’t, of course, only stem from the newly launched campaign; it also, they say, is born from that deliberate move on the part of the city and grassroots organizations to make Grand Rapids more bicycle friendly, including implementing bike lanes and signage  a move that has in turn brought far more people out to ride. With more people riding, cyclists say they feel safer, in part because drivers are getting used to navigating the city streets with them by their side. 

Chris Farber, who has ridden his bike to his job as a software consultant and developer at Atomic Object for the past four years, says he too has noticed a distinct change when it comes to recent road culture.

"When I started bicycling to work, I lived in Belknap Lookout, so I went through downtown to get there, and people would yell at me to get off the road or flip me off," Farber says. "A couple years ago, I moved to Eastown, and not much happens anymore when I ride to work. Over the winter, there was one experience where a guy got mad, was honking his horn and passed me really close, but that's really the only thing that has happened."

Bike lanes: Past, present and future

“Back in 2010, the city had zero bike lanes, and the leadership at that time was pretty status quo: leave us alone; we don’t need bike lanes,” Zull says. “But that opinion was fading fast. We had a change in our organizational structure. I became department head and had a much different view on cycling. From there, we started putting in bike lanes, which came out of the city’s sustainability plan. Then Commissioner [Rosalynn] Bliss had gone through grassroots initiatives to do bike summits; the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycling Coalition was forming. The city was picking up momentum.”

With both those at the top and those in grassroots organizations working hand-in-hand to bring about bike lanes, and other bike- friendly infrastructure, transportation in the city quickly changed.

“We’ve done lots of expanding and growing since then,” Zull says. “We’ve taken an opportunistic approach to building bike lanes… We started incorporating consideration for bike lanes into every design project; we didn’t do that before. We asked: Was it on the Green Grand Rapids map? Do we have an average daily traffic that could sustain a bike lane? Is there demand for the bike lane? Does it connect to trails, parks, businesses?”

As previously mentioned, about 80 miles of bike lanes have been introduced since 2010. To see the location of a number of these lanes, you can go here, and Fowler notes that the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition will soon be issuing an up-to-date map, which will be available in area bike shops.

A major catalyst for driving a bike-friendly culture, these lanes, as Zull is quoted saying above, are transforming what has, for close to a century, been a car-dominated culture. Now, more than half of those who identify as bicyclists in Grand Rapids say they hop on their bicycle at least twice a week, and about 18 percent of cyclists commute to work on two wheels, according to MDOT.

“The community is changing,” Zull says. “We’re seeing younger demographics more interested in socializing and community and exercising in different ways. We’re not all as dependent on the automobile as the Baby Boomer generation might be. That’s put a lot of initial pressure to change the ways we look at our infrastructure. Roads take up the most real estate of any publicly-owned facility in this city. This idea that roads are places too has really been pushed.”

All of this is good news to cyclists in the city, with, for example, Fowler, of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, noting that the increased visibility of bikes on the road draws even more people out, creating what has, over the past six years, been an ever-increasing number of cyclists traversing the city.

As part of an effort to document the growing bicycle culture in the Grand Rapids area, Coalition members take an annual assessment of bike activity on a series of streets, including Lake Drive (where some of the first bike lanes were implemented), Seward near Lake Michigan Drive, Grandville south of downtown, and Division, just north of downtown (the study of Division was just added this year). In addition to seeing a growing number of cyclists using the bike lanes on these streets, Fowler says they have noticed that helmet use is up and cyclists are increasingly abandoning the sidewalk for the street.

“The trend is more people over time are following the rules, and that’s a good thing,” Fowler says.

After implementing this extensive network of lanes, city officials say they definitely have learned a few things that will help them as they now plan for future lanes and infrastructure. Currently, city officials are in the process of assessing how to better connect the current system of existing bike lanes, which some residents have complained can feel piecemeal, as well as add new bike lanes.

So, what have city officials learned when it comes to bike lanes?

“The community loves separated bike facilities,” Schulz says. “The space next to Riverside Park, along Monroe, that has been extremely popular. People, especially families, like to be separated from the road.” Additionally, the next generation of Grand Rapids bike lanes will likely be implemented on what are known as “neighborhood greenways,” or paths that run through neighborhoods but parallel to main streets  something akin to what a city like Portland, Oregon does.

“Now we’re working on building a network of places we need to connect, and create this neighborhood network for people who aren’t the spandex crowd, the road warriors,” Schulz says, noting that the city aims to bring more families and amateur cyclists out to the bike lanes by, for example, offering the neighborhood greenways. For example, Schulz says the city would like to see bike lanes on Jefferson, running south of Wealthy and parallel to Division Avenue. On the West Side, officials are looking to implement bike lanes on Courtney Street, which runs parallel to Leonard  Street. Instead of creating bike lanes on Michigan Street, the city is looking at developing lanes for Lyon.

And, as part of the city's "Vital Streets," a 15-year tax residents approved in 2014 to improve road infrastructure throughout the city, Zull says the city will "emphasize bike corridors, connect bike lanes, build more protected facilities [for bicycles]."

"That cycle track on Monroe? What a wonderful facility," Zull says. "It's buffered by parking; how cool would that be in a downtown area?"

Such new bike-friendly spaces would be embraced with open arms by the cycling community, says Jelks, who notes that some of her favorite places to ride in the city include East Hills, Uptown, Creston, Riverside Park, and downtown. “The area I feel the least safe is on Leonard Street and on Hall Street, where the bike lanes cut off, and Eastern going towards 28th,” she says. “Any time you get into neighborhoods without signage or lanes. My biggest fear is being on Leonard, by the freeway, where there’s not much room.” When it comes to the future of bike lanes, Jelks says she’d like to see brightly colored bike lanes  something akin to what Chicago and the Twin Cities have.

“I don’t want to see just the stripes, but have them painted green, orange, purple  something that will stand out,” she says. “That’s what makes places like Chicago and Minneapolis safer. It makes the driver see this is our section of the street; it’ll help save lives.”

Bikes parked at Atomic Object.

An economic boon

As mentioned in this article’s introduction, bicycling can play a major positive role in a city’s economy. Here in Grand Rapids, the strong bicycling community has translated to $39.1 million in annual economic and health benefits through everything from job creation to a reduction in obesity. Plus, Schulz notes, it has led to a strong network of bike shops and bike shop expansions.

“We are seeing really healthy bike shops growing,” says Schulz, who adds that an increasing number of people are exploring neighborhoods via bicycles, which can lead to an increase in shopping locally, as well as an overall investment in an area.

“People seem to be more in tune with their neighborhood because they’re experiencing it at a more intimate level from their bike,” Schulz says. “There’s an ownership and caring what happens in our community.”

Plus, more and more people are taking their bicycles to work  including those who may have been left out of the workforce entirely had they been unable to ride a bike for their commute.

“There are people who, for various reason, cannot use a car, due to handicap or economic situations  they simply can’t afford a car  or perhaps due to legal troubles, like a DUI,” Fowler says. “Being able to facilitate keeping people in the workforce in spite of those kinds of troubles is a very important economic goal.”

As individuals like Schulz and Fowler note, an increasing number of Grand Rapidians are taking their bikes to work, and businesses throughout the city, including places like Atomic Object and Steelcase, are working hard to accommodate them. Both Atomic Object and Steelcase, for example, have offered bike amenities, including bike racks, for years.

“At Atomic Object, we have bike racks outside and inside the building for when the weather’s not good,” says software developer Patrick Bacon, who has used his bike to commute to Atomic Object for the past eight years. “There’s been people commuting year-round here for years. At our building, we have a shower maintained for people riding bikes.”

And, as part of the 2008 federal stimulus package, Atomic Object employees are able to be reimbursed $20 per month if they primarily commute via bicycle, says Bacon, who too notes that he has witnessed a significant uptick in the number of people using bicycles to get to work.

“There’s no question I see more people community on bikes,” he says. “I live fairly close to Aquinas College, and there’s always been students riding in that area, but I see a lot of older people now with saddle bags and heavy duty lights; it’s clear they’re riding across town or to work. I was never seeing that eight years ago. I think there’s been a change in people trying to take advantage of [the new bike infrastructure]. As more bikers come out, the city has responded to that by making it friendlier.”

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth.
You can reach her by emailing [email protected], or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Photography by Adam Bird
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