Biking in Grand Rapids: A commuter perspective on culture and safety

It's been 2 years since the launch of the City of Grand Rapids' Driving Change Campaign. Since that time, how has the city and its citizens improved in cycling safety and awareness?
As Grand Rapids continues to grow, so does its biking culture. Today, nearly 32 percent of downtown residents choose to walk or bike to work. In 2009, there were no dedicated bike lanes, now there are 70.5 miles of bike lanes with nearly 117 miles planned to be added. And while we are still waiting on the completion of the comprehensive Bicycle Action Plan, past strategic outlines for Grand Rapids’ development like GR Forward and the Grand Rapids Vital Streets Plan cite biking as an important consideration.

In fact, GR Forward’s third goal is the implementation of a 21st Century Mobility Plan. If such a plan were to be fully implemented, Grand Rapids might be on track to become, as they predict, “the most bicycle friendly downtown in the Midwest.” Even while a formal Bicycle Action Plan is still in the works, Grand Rapids seems to be growing more bicycle-friendly by the day.

Since the Grand Rapids Vital Streets Plan emphasized multimodal development to grow our city into one safer for cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike, we have seen city planners fund studies to see what types of improvements can be made at key intersections. We’ve also seen extensive bike parking and several public bike repair stations installed in biking hotspots like Brewery Vivant and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Infrastructure improvements aren’t the only method the city is considering to spur bike use. A recent study concerning the viability of a bike share program in Grand Rapids was completed and showed promising results.

Bicyclist safety is also making major improvements in Grand Rapids. In 2018, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Advisory Commission honored the City of Grand Rapids with the Outstanding Traffic Safety Achievement Award and for good reason. Grand Rapids saw just eight reported bicycle related traffic accidents resulting in serious injury or death in 2017. That’s a 27 percent reduction since 2015. We might attribute this success to our nationally heralded Driving Change bicycle safety education campaign, the 2015 Safe Passing ordinance requiring five feet of space between a car when passing a cyclist, or the recent infrastructure improvements. No matter the cause, more and more bikers are feeling safe enough to try commuting. However, despite the recent progress, safety remains an issue for the many cyclists that rely on their bike to get to work.

Joel Campbell is one such commuter who remains concerned about safety. Campbell, an employee at Voices for Health, a languages services provider, started biking to work consistently this year to save money after gaining experience riding downtown during his undergrad at Grand Valley. His story suggests that while the number of serious injuries and deaths may be down, unrecorded accidents may be as common as ever. “I was hit in January,” he says.

Campbell was unhurt, thanks to his helmet, and went on file a report with the police. He says, Nothing much came of it. No follow up really. I wanted to see what the ramifications would be.” Campbell laments what is from his perspective a one-sided system, noting that unless there’s serious injury, many bikers don’t have much protection beyond their helmets in terms of legal liability or insurance.

When asked how to keep bikers safe, Campbell suggests, “Better public policy and real infrastructure.” He continues, “We should look to European cities, like Amsterdam.” Campbell went on to emphasize that safety precautions like protected bike lanes—lanes separated from the road with a barrier, car parking, and/or ‘green’ partitions—and paths dedicated to bike traffic are important to making biking accessible for all levels of ability. Grand Rapids city planning reports like our Vital Streets Plan agree, citing such infrastructure as important to our bike friendly development goals.

Indeed, modeling development after other bike friendly cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Madison, which all feature protected lanes and bike share programs, may be the best path forward. And Campbell wasn’t the only one interviewed to suggest that we should look to strong biking communities for inspiration, either.

Aileen Strickland, design researcher at Steelcase, has been a bike commuter for nearly ten years now. She spent four years of her commuting career in Minneapolis, and the last six in Grand Rapids. This means that, not only has Strickland witnessed the recent progress Grand Rapids has made, but she’s also lived and biked in Minneapolis, the city ranked most bicycle friendly in 2018 by Redfin.

Strickland agreed that Grand Rapids had made progress, and that since the Safe Passing ordinance drivers have been more considerate, but she mirrored Campbell’s call for infrastructure investment. “Bike paths and protected lanes,” she says, when asked about what made Minneapolis such a bikers paradise. Strickland is also quick to emphasize that the protected lanes in Minneapolis are well maintained. “Bike paths are shoveled in the winter,” she says. To keep year round bike commuting possible for all levels of ability, Grand Rapids would need to make similar investments.

Overall, Strickland was impressed by Grand Rapids’ fast progress, and was enjoying riding to and from work, but she recognized that there was still room for the city to improve, particularly in relation to how it supports newer urban bikers. Strickland says that her past experience as a cyclist is import to consider when she describes her commute as relaxing. New riders, she admits, might lack the confidence and knowledge base needed to face her daily route, which has her crossing both 28th and 36th streets, two roads notorious for heavy vehicle traffic.

“I feel in a small minority when I say I feel safe on the roads,” she says. For the time being, parts of Grand Rapids may be better built for seasoned riders, at least until we see the needed infrastructure upgrades.

While the infrastructure investment that will be most helpful to new riders will take time to finalize and construct, education has served as an important intermediary tool. Public awareness campaigns have worked to bridge the gap from novice to expert as riders learn to better handle what can be challenging street riding. Since deciding to become more bike friendly, the city of Grand Rapids has been focused on spreading information about basic rules and raising awareness surrounding proper cycling etiquette with campaigns like Driving Change.

By spreading key information, the city hopes to cut down on serious accidents. If bikers know to wear bright clothes, use lights, and wear properly fitted helmets, they should be involved in fewer accidents and will be less likely to be injured. When bikers know to stick to roads, obey traffic signals, and use hand signals, cars can better anticipate where bikers will be and what they will do. And now that bikers can plan safe routes with Apps like Strava and My City Bikes Grand Rapids, and website tools like those on The Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, they can often avoid busy streets altogether.

While many bikers are aware of these campaigns, other riders have noticed knowledge gaps in the community. Bikers like Emily Miner, who has been commuting to her job at the Water Resource Recovery Facility for three years, spoke to these gaps in understanding. She said, “There are recognizable subgroups.” She lists examples like road riders, mountain bikers, fixie-riders, fair-weather cruisers, and hard-core commuters.

She goes on to say that, “Within each of those groups there are differences in how riders use the road based on their priorities and knowledge levels.” Different types of bikers have different skill levels for certain situations, but when it comes to cars, Miner says, “Drivers seem to see a biker as a biker and to make generalizations.” Indeed, it is worth asking if public education campaigns are reaching all bikers in an equal way, but the risk of unpredictable drivers seems to be a pressing concern.

When talking about drivers, one rider, Mike Posthumus owner of Switchback Gear Exchange, says the worst are “upset with you simply for riding your bicycle on a street.” While much of Posthumus’ negative experience with drivers comes from cross country biking trips, it's clear that the need for driver education is an essential component if Grand Rapids hopes to become truly bike friendly.

Though shifting our cultural paradigm from cars to bicycles may still seem far off, Aileen Strickland offers a simple solution to safety concerns: “The more bikes on the road, the safer it feels.” To make Grand Rapids more bike friendly maybe the solution is as easy as biking more.

While it is a bit late to take full advantage of Active Commute Week, it’s not too late for those living in Grand Rapids to look at their commute and ask if they can bike it, maybe once a week, maybe just once to try it. Many have already given biking a chance and found it to be a better way. And many of these riders have gone on to find tangible benefits more personal than a reduced carbon footprint.

Riders like Strickland emphasized a sense of peace that comes during her commutes. She rolls into work feeling more energized and bring home less stress than before. Commuters like her are finding instead of the disconnect and anxiety of a drivetime commute, the bicycle offers an opportunity for quiet reflection and a moment at her own chosen pace. Of course, the endorphins released and the stress relieved by regular exercise might account for the enthusiasm of some, others in Grand Rapids have found that biking brings a deeper connection with the city.

For many cycling commuters in Grand Rapids, being able to bike to work is what makes this community home. With public policy and common courtesy, residents of Grand Rapids have a chance to give the cyclists among them a warm welcome.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.