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Michigan’s bike cities shift gears and commuting cultures

For a place that calls itself the Motor City, there was a whole lot of non-motoring going on in Detroit this summer.

Every day of the week, a cyclist could join a group riding for fun or fitness. The more serious can ride to work or run errands on the city’s 40 miles of dedicated bike lanes (70 more due to be completed soon). Bicycle-based businesses like Detroit Bikes, Shinola, The Hub and Wheelhouse Detroit are thriving.

One of those group rides is the Slow Roll, started by two friends who call themselves Detroit Bike City. It meets every Monday night at a local bar or restaurant and rides out for an hour or so at an easy pace, sightseeing and socializing. About 40 people showed up for the first ride, in April. The turnout doubled the next week and kept rising through the summer, and by September, about 1,500 were showing up.

“I guess we really had the right formula at the right time,” said Mike MacKool, one of the co-founders.

The time is certainly right for a cycling boom all over Michigan. Besides the planned recreation trail from Detroit to the Wisconsin border, which will be at least partially open to cyclists, cities are adding bike lanes to existing roads, to encourage non-motorized transportation. In Ann Arbor, Packard Street is going on a “road diet,” its four lanes reduced to three, with new bike lanes on the outside. Grand Rapids has just under 30 miles of bike lanes and shared lanes installed, 25 of them in the last 14 months, with a goal of 100 miles by the end of 2014.

And all for a percentage of non-motorized commuters that even in bike-friendly Ann Arbor only reaches 3.6 percent.

But that number is 50 percent higher than it was six years ago, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to climb as the infrastructure is built, said Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor. The state mandates municipalities spend 1 percent of their gas-tax revenue on non-motorized transportation; Ann Arbor increased theirs to 5 percent, Cooper said. And even with small numbers, he said, “You can’t walk on a street in Ann Arbor without seeing a bicycle, and not just in campus area. Name the road, you will see cyclists on it, at every time of day.”

The idea, advocates say, is for Michigan to fully embrace a philosophy known as Complete Streets, the modification of existing roadways to make them accommodating to all users, not just motorists. The movement’s mission is to make sure pedestrians, cyclists, transit passengers and the disabled should all expect to find helpful features in well-designed roads.

It plays out imperfectly in reality, but progress is observable, advocates say.

“When (Ann Arbor’s) first non-motorized plan was drafted, places like Boulder (Colo.) and Madison (Wis.) were around 6 percent. That’s our target. By being on our way toward 4, we’re quite pleased with the progress we’re making,” said Cooper, adding the more bike lanes go in, the more people use them. A bike-sharing program similar to those recently launched in New York and Chicago will be coming in 2014, and that will boost the numbers further.

And Boulder and Madison are now on their way to 15 percent non-motorized commuting, said Tom Tilma, president of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.

The idea, he said, isn’t necessarily to push people onto bicycles, but rather, to get them to consider cycling as one option to get around town. Tilma said he bikes three miles to work every day “in my street clothes” and “yes, sometimes I do show up at meetings with a sweaty shirt. After half an hour in the air conditioning, I’m not sweaty anymore. We’re trying to normalize the idea that this is just another form of transportation. You can combine it with transit” by putting a bike on a bus rack. The aim, Tilma said, is for “one seamless system of what we call active transportation, or active commuting.”

The growth hasn’t been entirely smooth. Bike-lane additions have faced “huge hostility from drivers,” Cooper said, but as riders reached critical mass, that eased. Data kept by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments showed there were 54 traffic accidents in Ann Arbor involving bicycles in 2012, 50 in 2011, 51 in 2010 and 53 in 2009, all while the number of cyclists has continued to grow.

The League of American Bicyclists already ranks Michigan 12th in the nation for bike-friendliness, singling out Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, as well as Houghton, Lansing, Marquette, Midland, Portage and Traverse City for distinction. Bill Nesper, the League’s vice president for programs, said the rankings are based on “the five E’s” – engineering, encouragement, education, enforcement and evaluation.

Nesper said cycling is growing all over the country, spurred by gas prices, health benefits, fun and the desire of many younger people to live closer to work, in rideable/walkable communities.

“It’s not going away,” said Tilma. “Cities that make bicycle-friendly improvements will attract and retain young people and millennials. It’s part of a culture shift.”

Michael Reuter, CEO of American Cycle and Fitness, agrees that municipal leaders will see this as a selling point in the future.

“It’s starting to snowball as cities are competing to attract residents. Ferndale is a good example. Even Detroit will be one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. We won’t be a Portland overnight, but we’re making some huge strides. It will take time, there will be pushback, and there has to be a lot of education.

“But we are doing great.”

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