Yesterday, the City of Grand Rapids sponsored Grand Rapids first Bike Summit. The gathering brought together a wide variety of people–members of local government, regional planning groups, advocates, cyclists, and others–to discuss the state of biking in Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids: A Bike Friendly Community?
One of the primary goals of the summit was to talk to about the possibility of Grand Rapids being designated as a “Bike Friendly Community.” The League of American Bicyclists certifies municipalities with a four-level classification system, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum based on how “bike friendly” they are. Among the things evaluated are a city’s planning for bikes, its plans to measure improvement, the amount of on-road and off-road facilities (for example, trails, bike lanes, and bike parking), and programs to encourage people to bike.
Bill Nesper of the League of American Bicyclists spoke to the benefits of biking, saying that many car trips in the United States are for short distances. He said that 40% of trips in the U.S. are under two miles and that 90% of those trips are made by cars. Aside from the obvious physical and environmental benefits of riding a bike, Nesper said it’s also cheaper for cities. $100 pays for parking for two bikes, but a space to accommodate a single car in a parking ramp can cost as much as $40,000. Moreover, Grand Rapids would benefit by becoming a “Bike Friendly Community” as it would provide recognition of its work thus far, a vehicle for promoting biking, benchmarking, and technical help for city planners.
Nesper said that Grand Rapids has some things going for it as it moves forward with its application for becoming a “Bike Friendly Community.” He pointed to statistics showing that more people in the city are riding bikes, said that the city has a good advocacy community, and praised the summit as an example of the kind of work that goes into making a city a “Bike Friendly Community.” He said that two easy things that the City could do to improve biking would be to adopt a “Complete Streets” ordinance that would require new road work to accommodate all users (i.e. bikes, cars, and pedestrians) and to build more bike parking.
Ann Freiwald of Alta Planning and Design also spoke, sharing a number examples of best practices from bike friendly communities. She said that bike friendly cities such as Portland, OR and Madison, WI have cultivated a “bike culture” in addition to facilities and policy improvements that get more people biking. She also emphasized that it is important for cities to focus on the 60% of riders who are interested in biking more but are concerned about their safety.
Biking and Policy in Michigan
Josh DeBruyn of the Michigan Department of Transportation spoke about bicycle transportation in Michigan at the state level. He said that in a recent survey by the League of American Bicyclists, Michigan ranked 12th in the United States for friendliness towards bikes. Among the reasons for this ranking, DeBruyn pointed to Michigan’s education and encouragement efforts (both through the state and independent advocacy organizations), trails in the sate, and the prevalence of bike routes.
DeBruyn said that there are areas for improvement, especially in the policy realm. He said that in Michigan bicycles are not classified as legal vehicles and that there is no statewide “complete streets” policy.
Biking in Grand Rapids
Unfortunately, when Susanne Schulz from the City of Grand Rapids spoke, it became clear that much of what was talked about during the day–bike lanes, changes to roadways, and incentives for people to drive instead of bike–were a long way off. She showcased a number of “traffic calming” devices used by the city, but no bike lanes. She said that there are very real questions about who would maintain bike lanes and where funding would come from.
Nevertheless, she said that the city does envision a network of bike trails and paths for the city. She pointed to the Green Grand Rapids process, the city’s bike map, the 2004 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, and a recent ordinance change that requires bike parking to be built into new developments as examples of recent progress.