Building respect: Grand Rapids launches bicycle safety campaign to curb crashes, grow awareness

It’s no secret that motorists and bicyclists don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to navigating the streets of Grand Rapids.

Individuals have aired frustrations over how to interact with the 80 miles of new bike lanes introduced in the city since 2010, others are unaware of the bicycle ordinances, and people are fed up with bad behavior displayed by both motorists and bicyclists, according to research commissioned by the city in 2015.

Still, that same research reports residents believe that drivers and bicyclists can share the road together in harmony — something that is particularly needed in a city with the second highest fatal bike crash ratio in Michigan.

But, how, exactly can this happen?

City and state officials hope much of the answer lies in a bicycle safety education campaign, Driving Change, they unrolled Monday at City Hall.

“Our number one goal is that Grand Rapids is a safe place for everyone,” whether you are a bicyclist, driver, skateboarder, or pedestrian, Bliss said at Monday’s campaign launch.

A multi-tiered education plan that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is funding to the tune of $632,000, Driving Change culminates local officials’ year-long effort to better understand the reasons behind the high rate of crashes involving vehicles and bicycles. The campaign will feature television ads (which can also be seen here), billboards, radio commercials, and social media and other digital ads that aim to educate drivers and cyclists about safe behavior on the roads.

“We know we need to build respect between cyclists and motorists,” Bliss said.


Additionally, the city will be handing out 1,000 free bike lights on a first-come, first-served basis. The lights will be given out at various community events, and individuals can pick them up at the Development Center at 1120 Monroe.

The initiative will promote a series of key rules, including:
 
  • Motorists passing a bicycle must leave at least five feet between the right side of their vehicle and a bicyclist, a standard that was passed by the City Commission in 2015 and went into effect this year.
 
  • Bicyclists must make sure they’re visible on the road and use a forward white light and rear reflector, or white light, when riding at night.
 
  • Motorists need to watch out for their cyclist colleagues, particularly when making a right-hand turn.
 
  • Bicyclists must obey all traffic signals and signs.
 
  • Bicyclists should stick to the roads, not the sidewalks. Additionally, there are places where cycling on the sidewalk is prohibited, including downtown Grand Rapids.

Police noted during Monday’s event that the goal will not be to issue citations against drivers or cyclists who violate the bicycle-related ordinances, unless officers believe them to be necessary. Instead, law enforcement and more than 60 community partners, including the Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, will focus on distributing the educational materials.

“Grand Rapids will be a model for cities in Michigan and beyond,” said Grand Rapids Bicycle Police Officer Eric Gizzi, who was joined at Monday’s event launch by police officials from throughout Kent County, including East Grand Rapids and Walker.

Grand Rapids is the first city in Michigan that MDOT is working with on an initiative like this, and Josh DeBruyn, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at MDOT, noted that the decision to allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars in support stemmed from the fact that the city has one of the worst bicycle-related crash rates in the state. Between 2008 and 2014, the most recent data available, Kalamazoo had the highest fatal bicycle crash ratio, 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.

De Bruyn also noted that Grand Rapids has a large, and growing, bicycle culture, making it that much more important that a sustainable truce between drivers and bicyclists occurs. An MDOT-commissioned study shows the annual economic and health benefits for Grand Rapids associated with bicycling total approximately $39.1 million each year, including $8.3 million on the purchase of bicycling-related items, $2.6 million in manufacturing, $13.5 million in avoided health care costs, $10.3 million in reduced absenteeism (i.e. people are able to make it to work), and $4.3 million in event and tourism spending.

Plus, the community has the largest bicycle industry presence in the state, and bicycling is a crucial element of the city’s larger commitment to sustainability in the city, Grand Rapids City Planner Suzanne Schulz said.

“Our Driving Change campaign fits with the city’s placemaking strategies and aligns with the vision of Grand Rapids business and civic leaders who understand bicycling can serve as a tool to help attract and retain talent in an ever-increasing competitive employee recruitment landscape," Schulz said.

For more information, you can visit the Driving Change website and Facebook page.

Photos by Tommy Allen, logos courtesy of the City of Grand Rapids.
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