Focus, Economic Development, and Travel & Tourism

New rules of the road

Growing Grand Rapids biking culture could strengthen the local economy.

June 12, 2015
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The bike-repair stations that are showing up around town include tools for adjusting seats and handlebars, as well as an air pump.

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Anyone who’s been living or working near downtown Grand Rapids for the last five years has noticed a cultural shift in modes of transportation.

Cars and trucks still rumble along the S-curve and drivers still scramble to find free parking downtown, but a popular double-wheeled, pedal-driven vehicle seems to be becoming more and more the transportation choice for the age of the Grand Rapids Renaissance.

Bring on the bicycles.

“There’s been a culture change, and certainly over the last five to six years it’s been dramatically different. As recent as 2009, there wasn’t a single bike lane anywhere in the city. Now I think we’re up over 70 miles of either dedicated bike lanes or shared paths — a share-row — on the street,” said Bill Kirk, mobility manager for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

“The city has definitely placed priority on better bike infrastructure, and that would certainly align with where the bike coalition is coming from. … We definitely do see a rising bike culture in Grand Rapids, which is really encouraging.”

Kirk’s job is to help provide options and guidance for employers and employees traveling into and throughout downtown in ways that don’t require automobiles. He is working with The Rapid, the city, parking services, and the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition to create more sustainable modes of travel in the city.

For the last several years, he’s had his eyes on bikes and has been working to install more bike infrastructure downtown.

“Anecdotally, you totally do see more people cycling. You see a lot more people on the road of all different ages, shapes and sizes. The influx that we’re seeing is certainly on the younger end of things — milliennials and all those folks — but yeah, we see more bike travel, in general,” he said.

“And we’re seeing a higher demand for those entities that we provide. We’re getting a lot of requests from different businesses for additional bike parking in front of their shops.”

Building a more sustainable biking infrastructure for downtown Grand Rapids is a multi-faceted project, Kirk said. One step taken last month was to install three bike-repair stations around downtown. A fourth station is being planned near the Downtown Market and a fifth station is also in the works, he said.

“(Bike repair stations) are basically a public work stand that has … a basic set of bike tools to make seat and handle adjustments, and a traditional air pump,” he said.

“There’s one at the backside of Rosa Parks Circle, there’s one over at the Seward Avenue bike facility at Lake Michigan Drive and Seward, and there’s one down by Founders Brewing Company across from The Rapid.”

As far as the teamwork between the various pro-cycling agencies in town, there are three efforts currently in the works, Kirk said. One is a bike safety and education project.

“Basically, we’re just starting the second of a three-year public-facing campaign geared at motorists and cyclists to promote a ‘share the road’ culture,” he said.

“As we see more people biking, we want to make sure cyclists know what rules they’re supposed to follow, and motorists know, as well.”

A second project looking to create a more sustainable bike culture in Grand Rapids is focused more on the infrastructure and planning side, he said, and it involves the Vital Streets Oversight Commission, an appointed body of the city overseeing the recent income tax extension that’s funding road repair work in Grand Rapids.

“Out of that will likely come a non-motorized master plan, as well — a big component of which will likely be a bike plan,” he said. “That’s everything from what the on-street network looks like to basic amenities all over town to make cycling easier.

“I think they’ve issued an RFP to bring a consultant on board to help write the plan. I’m guessing they’ll start by the end of the summer, and then it’ll probably be a year-, year-and-a-half-long plan, so that’ll really focus on what’s on the street.”

A third project is the GR Forward process, a downtown master plan that is currently in its final stages of preparation, Kirk said. One of its major components is mobility, and Kirk currently is studying a draft plan he’s hopeful will be presented in the next month or so.

“Some of the high-level recommendations out of there are protected on-street amenities, like protected bike lanes as opposed to a lane right in traffic,” he said. “That’s something we heard from a lot of public input from this year and last year. One of the top things people said they wanted was protected bike lanes.”

Kirk said another component of the GR Forward plan will be to recommend and implement a bike-share program, which would create publicly available bikes for rent scattered around the city like “an extension of public transportation.”

Between the city, residential developers, commercial property owners and the community, in general, there has been a lot of support for the implementation of such a system, he said.

With all the effort going into making Grand Rapids a more bicycle-friendly city, it begs the question as to what this culture shift would actually mean in terms of dollars. But Kirk assures that comparative analysis of corridors with bike improvements have produced better retail sales tax data than those without. One such study was done recently in New York.

“What they’re finding is the corridors with bike improvements are doing better economically. Not necessarily that people riding their bikes are spending more money per visits, but they’re making more visits. It’s more convenient,” he said.

“It would be a boost for downtown and the neighborhoods. The more we can really make meaningful connections between downtown and all the wonderful neighborhoods we have in Grand Rapids, the less you have to rely on a car to make those connects, and the more you’ll see people shopping downtown, going up to Eastown — all that sort of stuff.”

Part of the reason cycling is becoming a national trend is because of the economic motivations coming out of the Great Recession. Although health and wellness are a factor, as well, cutting back on automobile costs is especially important to a generation burdened by student debt and shaky job prospects.

This is why studies are finding more and more that young talent is choosing cities in which to live based on how well that city does in terms of public transit, Kirk said, adding that bike sharing is “the purest form of public transit.”

“I think part of it relates to the mentality of the younger demographic of wanting to be more connected wherever they live,” he said. “A lot of what we’re seeing playing out nationally is millennials are picking a place to live before they have a job there, and they’re picking it based on things like, ‘Is it walkable? What kind of public transit system does it have? Is it bike-friendly?’”

Cities like New York have privately operated public transits and Washington, D.C., has a publicly operated one, but a growing Midwestern city like Grand Rapids would be more likely to implement a public/private partnership, where usually the city or transit authority will own the asset of the bike-share system and then contract with a nonprofit to run it, Kirk said.

“As you look at the systems around the country, the ones that are in the middle — the public/private — are the most successful because they have buy-in on the public end, but then they can also garner support from the private end, as well,” he said.

As the bike culture in Grand Rapids grows, the main thing to keep in mind is to make sure the city is providing a suite of options, Kirk said. What Grand Rapids really needs to stress is providing as many viable options as possible, and that involves balanced investment, he said.

“It’s not like, ‘We have to get everyone to stop driving cars and riding bikes.’ It’s more about providing equitable options. So if you make that choice, the road fits you, as well,” he said.

“As we think about how we spend public dollars in the years to come, putting an overemphasis on any one mode is really a mistake. I think we have to spread it out and balance it so people have great options.”

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