Government and Travel & Tourism

Life in the fast lane might be two-wheeled in the future

Grand Rapids is going all out to increase use of bicycles in place of cars.

October 17, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Bike lanes
Piotr (Peter) Lewak is the Traffic Safety Department’s “bike guy” who is responsible for marking the bicycle-only lanes on streets. Photo by Michael Buck

The word is out from Grand Rapids City Hall to all motorists: As of Nov. 1, don’t even think of parking in any of the new bicycle-only lanes on the streets.

The city is aggressively encouraging bicycle use for commuting and general transportation in the city. A major bicycling safety education campaign — aimed at cyclists as well as motorists — and the dramatic increase of designated bike-only lanes on city streets are two major reflections of the city’s goal.

On Sept. 23, the City Commission amended the parking ordinance, adding a clause that a ticket will be issued to any vehicle parked “within, or on, a marked bike lane” or “in any place or in any manner so as to block or partially block a bike lane.”

In mid-October, the city launched a publicity and paid-advertising campaign informing drivers the amended ordinance will be enforced as of Nov. 1.

A news release issued jointly by the Design, Development & Community Engagement Department and the Traffic Engineering Department states that any vehicle “blocking or partially blocking a bike lane so as to force a bicyclist into a vehicle traffic lane” will result in a ticket. The release added that the “amendment (to the parking ordinance) recognizes cycling as a supported mode of transportation in the city and allows the ticketing of vehicles that are impeding bicyclists as legal road users.”

Before Nov. 1, the Grand Rapids police and parking enforcement staff will put “educational” stickers on vehicles parked improperly, and the stickers are also being provided to volunteers — “mostly cyclists,” according to the news release — who want to put them on cars they find parked in bike lanes.

Suzanne Schulz, managing director of Design, Development and Community Engagement, said the stickers are a collaborative effort between the city and Spoke Folks, a nonprofit bicycle repair cooperative in Grand Rapids.

“Cyclists are the ones out there encountering vehicles parked in bike lanes on a regular basis, so it’s great to get their assistance in educating the public,” she said.

In addition, according to the news release, the City Commission appointed a stakeholder steering committee now working with a hired consultant to develop a bicycle safety education program with “a comprehensive package of recommended ordinance amendments to better accommodate bicycles within our community in the next 12 to 24 months.”

Christopher Zull, Grand Rapids traffic safety manager, said the city did a traffic study on Michigan Street that indicated “if we don’t shift modes (of commuting), congestion is inevitable.”

Currently, about 1 percent of daily commuters in GR are riding bikes, said Zull.

“We’re aiming for 5 percent,” he said, “but even on Michigan Street, we have to be higher than that, or in the next 20 years, we’re likely facing gridlock.”

But there also has been pressure on City Hall from the bicyclers, Zull noted — “a grassroots push for equality between cyclists and cars for some time.”

Following the lead of some other U.S. cities, Grand Rapids put in its first half-mile of bike-only lanes on Lake Drive SE in 2010 while it was under reconstruction. The bike lanes were opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by the mayor.

“Since then, the city manager and city leadership has had a couple of bike summits,” Zull said. Cycling professionals were brought in to talk about bike infrastructure and the cyclist culture throughout the U.S., “which has encouraged us to continue to add more and more” bike-only lanes.

Zull said the city manager then set a target of 100 miles of on-street bike lanes, which was related to the city’s sustainability plan and the income tax increase approved by citizens.

“Since 2010, we have been systematically adding bike lanes” and setting policies, said Zull, adding, “I believe we’re at 55.1 miles right now, but we’re on our way to a hundred — or more, actually.”

In fact, that number could go to 180 miles, said Zull, but he noted there is “tension” between motorists and cyclists that must be addressed.

“We know this friction is there and we believe a lot of it to be related to education and information. The better that both sides understand each other, the better, I think, we can all play in the same sandbox,” he said.

Because the city of Grand Rapids recognizes the need for a culture shift in the interaction between motor vehicles and bicycles, the city applied to the Michigan Department of Transportation for a grant to educate the public on bicycle safety. MDOT was able to pass on $485,000 in federal funds available for that purpose.

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., which administers Downtown Development Authority programs, is also involved in making the city more bicycle friendly.

Bill Kirk, mobility manager at DGRI, said the bicycle safety and education project Zull mentioned has funding of $631,652, of which the Dyer-Ives Foundation contributed $50,000, DGRI added $50,000 in DDA funds, and the city planning and traffic safety departments contributed a total of slightly more than $46,000.

Piotr (Peter) Lewak is the Traffic Safety Department’s “bike guy” — not just because he happens to be a cycling enthusiast but because he has been marking the designated bike-only lanes on Grand Rapids streets for two years now. Right now streets being marked with bike lanes include Century from Franklin to Wealthy, part of Three Mile from Plainfield to Fuller, Bridge Street from Mount Mercy Drive to Valley Avenue, and Alger from Kalamazoo to Plymouth.

“We are trying to minimize the impact on street parking,” said Lewak, because the addition of bike lanes necessarily eliminates parking on some stretches of streets. He noted that residents and businesses on Madison Avenue, which will later have designated bike lanes, are being sent survey cards to indicate which side of the street should keep its parking. In some areas where parking on the street is vital for business and residences, the city won’t eliminate parking but instead is marking “shared lanes” with a figure of a cyclist under a chevron. That serves as a reminder to motorists that they must share the traffic lane with cyclists.

Lewak, who has been employed by the city for 26 years, will also be involved with the city’s bicycle safety education project, which will last more than two years “to teach both motorists and bikers how to share the road and how to behave in a civilized manner and obey the laws,” he said.

When asked if residents are accepting the bike lanes, Lewak said “some people have doubts about it because our bike numbers are not there yet” like they are in Ann Arbor, where as much as 4 percent of commuters are said to be cyclists.

He said the city’s theory is that if bike lanes are provided, more people will bike to work.

“We have already been noticing it,” he said. “Our new bike lanes attract more and more bikers, and the safer we make them, the more people” are going to use them, he said, adding there is “safety in numbers.”

“The data shows that the more bikers are present on the road, the more awareness it creates, and motorists pay more attention and tend to treat bikers as equal,” said Lewak.

Supporting the city efforts are groups such as the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, “one of the loudest voices favoring bicycles,” according to Zull. There are also several bike shops and the Spoke Folks organization.

DGRI has $101,000 budgeted this year for bicycle-friendly improvements and another $100,000 next year. Bill Kirk of DGRI serves on the city’s bicycle safety steering committee with about 20 other people; he said cycling safety was a priority set by the DDA’s Alliance for Livability advisory group.

Over the past couple of years, DGRI has installed about 200 steel loops on downtown sidewalks, where cyclists can chain their bikes. In a few places, working with the city Parking Services division, they have put in “bike corrals,” clusters of loops where multiple bikes can be parked securely. “Corrals” have been installed near the entrances to MadCap Coffee, Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Cult Pizza and The Pyramid Scheme pub and music venue in the city’s burgeoning downtown entertainment district in the Heartside neighborhood.

Kirk said the word from those venues is that a lot of cyclists are using the corrals, and the businesses like it.

“Bike parking is definitely one area we intend to continue and expand downtown,” said Kirk.

He said DGRI is also working on a web-based mobile platform where cyclists can report their cycling routines and experiences in Grand Rapids to provide a better understanding of bike traffic downtown.

Other cities are attempting to operate bike-sharing programs, and DGRI is looking into that concept. Bikes can be rented at a kiosk using a credit card and dropped off at another kiosk location elsewhere. Bikes not returned are charged to the individual’s credit card, which discourages theft.

Kirk said DGRI is also considering off-street public locations, such as parks, where basic repair stations can be set up for use by cyclists in need of immediate repairs.

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