Grand Rapids paves way for bicycle-friendly roads with bike lanes, safety grant

Grand Rapids is working to build a bicycle-friendly culture one bike lane at a time with a new grant that will increase awareness and safety for cyclists and motorists alike. Marla Miller reports on where the rubber meets the road for local riders and city planners.
Bicycle enthusiasts like Aaron Smith, Paul Smith and Josh McVety managed to maneuver through the streets of Grand Rapids long before there were bicycle lanes. But, they say, the new infrastructure has really helped the city be more bicycle friendly, especially for those who use it as a regular mode of transportation. 

In 2010, the city started adding bicycle lanes on city streets where possible and restriping and installing signs as part of its plan to create an urban bike network. When complete, it will provide linkages between roads, paved bike paths and greenways, mountain bike trails and regional trail networks, says Chris Zull, traffic safety manager for Grand Rapids.

About 33 miles of bicycle facilities are now in place, including 14.2 miles added this construction season. Another 26 miles are planned for the 2014 season, for a total of nearly 60 miles, Zull says. Initially, the proposal included 100 miles of bicycle facilities, but Zull says 70 miles by June 2015 is a more realistic goal.

The city commission adopted an on-street bike implementation plan earlier this year and provided the financial support, says Suzanne Schulz, Grand Rapids’ planning director. Beyond bicycle lanes, the city recently received a $485,000 bicycle education grant through the Michigan Department of Transportation to focus on safety and education and promote a “share the road” culture.

“As we’ve been putting in this infrastructure, we realized there’s not a clear understanding of what vehicles are supposed to do,” Zull says. “That was the impetus for the safety grant as we develop a cycling culture.”

The three-year grant will create a comprehensive bicycle safety education campaign targeted at bicyclists and motorists. The goal is to provide education and training on the operation of a bicycle in traffic and increase the knowledge of the responsibilities of bicyclists and motorists.

“This work can’t be done alone,” Schulz says. “We plan to bring in other partners as we move forward. There may be workshops on how to fix your bike, how do you ride on a busy street. There are multiple avenues to raise awareness and build this culture of people respecting each other within the right-of-way.”

Bikers praise bike lanes, say education, more facilities needed
Many bicyclists say there seems to be a lack of knowledge on the part of drivers and riders regarding traffic laws and who has the right-of-way. For example, it’s frequently illegal for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks and unsafe with pedestrians. And, they have equal rights to the road.

It’s going to take bicyclists learning how to obey the rules of the road and drivers being more aware when they come to an intersection, make a right turn or open their car door to check for cyclists, says cycling advocate Paul Smith.

Smith has been active in Grand Rapids’ cycling community for the last 15 years through various cycling clubs and as a former manager of a local bike shop. He considers himself a recreational rider, but logs several thousand miles on his bike every year. He sees the upcoming education and safety campaign as an important next step in improving motorist-bicyclist interactions and advancing the city’s cycling culture.

“The bicycle lanes have been a wonderful thing as far as making drivers more aware,” Smith says. “It’s more about the attitudes of all the parties involved than the infrastructure. If everyone isn’t abiding by those rules, we end up with people frustrated and/or hurt on either side.”

Beyond commuters, Josh McVety says the city has an active, growing bicycle community that stays connected through races, group rides, bicycle shops and other events. He encourages newcomers to the city or those who want to join a club to visit a local bike shop for trail maps and information.

“The biking community is friendly and incredibly helpful,” McVety says. “All these serious enthusiasts and racers help out everyone else." Many enjoy riding in groups for exercise, social interaction and a safer way to travel in the city. Smith agrees, saying there are more than a dozen cycling clubs in greater Grand Rapids, twice as many as a decade ago. Smith will soon launch Umbrella Cycling as a Facebook group and has a website in development, It will go live in early spring and serve as a hub for clubs and bike shops to post rides, races and other events.

Aaron Smith, a local attorney (and no relation to Paul), lives in East Grand Rapids and rides his bike to and from work the majority of the year. The four-mile route takes him along Lake Drive, one of the first streets with a bike lane. He thinks the city’s efforts have been a boon to commuters and recreational riders alike. Since his passion is mountain biking, he has found an extended path home taking him along some of the paved bicycle paths and mountain bike trails.

Smith says there are still dangers and issues to be addressedHe would like to see Michigan follow other states and enact 3-feet or safe passing laws, designed to ensure motor vehicles allow adequate space to avoid sideswiping bicyclists. Smith works downtown and says he is fortunate his office has a place to store his bicycle inside, as well as shower. But it’s going to take more employers providing such facilities for commuting via bicycle to become a feasible option for many.

“Bike parking is important,” he says. “Owners of buildings don’t want bikes in the lobby. They need to have a place that’s safe and convenient so they can park it there.”

Beyond Rapid busses hauling around bicycles and city installed bicycle racks, more bars and restaurants are investing in their own to cater to customers who prefer to pedal rather than drive.

Founders Brewing Company used to let patrons keep their bicycles on the covered porch. Its outdoor renovation project includes bike parking and racks should be installed yet this fall, says Dave Engbers, co-founder of Founders. The popular downtown brewery has sponsored its own mountain bike team for more than a decade and is a major sponsor for bike events and races locally and statewide, Engbers says. Founders created All Day IPA for its more active customers and now sells a growler carrier made for bikes, Engbers says.

“With the addition of bike lanes, it has increased exposure to the bicycling community,” he says. “It’s great that Grand Rapids has a contingent of people trying to stay physically fit and enjoy the outdoors.”

Becoming a bicycle-friendly city is a community effort
The effort to add bicycle lanes started with the city’s master plan update, Green Grand Rapids, after local residents and the bicycle community emphasized the need for more bicycle infrastructure and education for motorists and riders, Schulz says.
Several city departments and groups have collaborated in recent years to make the new bicycle lanes a reality, including the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition. Creating a culture that accommodates bicycles is also about economic development, quality of life and attracting millennials and the creative class, says Tom Tilma, executive director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.

“There are many benefits for the economy, public health and the environment,” he says. “Michigan has a high obesity rate. It’s a way to encourage people to be more active.”

The coalition, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization, evolved after a bicycle summit in 2009 that brought together more than 200 people who wanted to help metropolitan Grand Rapids create safe, convenient opportunities for all types of bicycling. While Tilma praises the city for its efforts so far, the coalition’s Room to Ride campaign wants to see 100 miles of bike lanes in metro Grand Rapids by 2015, Tilma says.

“We’re excited the city has about 30 miles of lanes after a lot of hard work over the summer,” he says. “Most of that has happened in the last 14 months. It’s a remarkable increase.”

The coalition also heads up the bicycle traffic counting program based on a national model. Each September, volunteers go out to three locations in the city and collect usage data during the same week at the same times and same locations.
“We saw a 16.9 percent increase in cyclists from 2011 to 2012, and a 34.6 percent increase from 2012 to 2013,” reports Tilma.

The GGRBC also organizes an Active Commute Week in May and double the number of employers participated this year. Thirty employers and 500 people competed in the Active Commute Challenge, Tilma says.

“We want to see more people commuting to work and school by bike,” Tilma says. “We want Grand Rapids to become part of a national movement and encourage a thriving cycling culture.”

Roadmap ahead focuses on safety, awareness
So far, the installation of bike lanes has been somewhat piecemeal, with city workers adding the lanes and stripes along with planned construction projects and annual road resurfacing. There are many factors to consider, such as the road width, if it has on-street parking, bus stops, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, Schulz says.

The bicycle network that Zull and Piotr Lewak, a traffic safety engineer for the city, have mapped out includes primary roads, neighborhood streets and trails that run through wooded areas and along the Grand River.

City officials anticipate traffic on the lanes and trails will increase as the network expands, increasing the need for drivers and cyclists to be alert and aware. MDOT and city staff, including Lewak as the city’s project manager, will work collaboratively to engage various community stakeholders and consultants in the study, development, implementation and evaluation of the grant. MDOT also hopes Grand Rapids’ program will serve as a model for other cities.

“This project is of a scale that’s never been done before,” Zull says. “We have a pretty large blank slate.” Officials intend to study and develop the program over the next eight to twelve months with implementation starting next summer or fall.

The implementation phase will likely include workshops on bicycle maintenance or how to ride on a busy street, as well as public service announcements, training videos and other outreach programs on driver and cyclist expectations, Zull says. The goal is to establish a culture that embraces high pedestrian, high cycling activity as well as the needs of the automobile.

“We want to help ease some of the friction that’s being created,” he says. “There’s been this tension around space and operations. Cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road as well as they should. Drivers think ‘Get off my road. Get out of my way.’ There’s education to be had on both sides.”

The total cost of the project is $606,651; $485,321 in Federal Transportation Enhancement funds and $121,330 in match from the City of Grand Rapids. The Dyer/Ives Foundation contributed $50,000 toward the project.

“The grant helps take it to the next level, which is building awareness and safety,” Schulz says. “It’s not just about building facilities, but also rules of the road for cars and bicyclists. Cars and bikes need to co-exist.”
Marla R. Miller is a freelance writer who enjoys meeting cool people and telling their stories. Her interests include arts, entertainment, entrepreneurs, food and travel, innovating organizations and the inspiring work of nonprofits. An award-winning features writer and former newspaper reporter, she is not putting her master's degree to use, but finally feels happy. Check out her website:
Photography by Adam Bird
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