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Cycle-friendly Michigan – A work in progress

When your local FedEx or Postal carrier arrives at your door with a sanguine smile, leaping on the last step in the dance of your order from Tree Fort Bikes, you may have noticed that your package shipped from a city called Ypsilanti, just off of Interstate 94 in the Motor City state’s densest corner, thronged within a thick suburban cluster huddling around Detroit.

Hearing it that way, you may have to wonder: That’s where you picked to open a bike shop?

Sure – while we’ve been long fortunate with local trail systems, much to local mountain riders’ delight, you might say that our daily road riding can be something of a challenge. We live inside of auto-centricity, and like most metro areas across the States, highways have long cut deep, criss-crossing gorges under, over, and between so many of our neighborhoods, where exit ramps lead to thoroughfares of too-often broken asphalt, putting up best efforts to service the traffic that uses it most. It’s a jungle; many of us know all too much about it; and we keep on riding, still.

But in recent years, and even in recent weeks, Michigan cyclists are surprised to see new challenges to auto-priority, as even the Motor City starts to concede: There’s more to getting around than the motor. Planners and powers seem to be awakening to changing economic realities – upward-inching fuel costs, chronic unemployment, more-limited personal spending – as well as the increasing pressures of interstate economic competition, where the battle to recruit and maintain workforce talent means investing in urban development, growing the kinds of walkable, neighborhood-focused, green-planted cities that so many young workers want to see around them. Plenty of us are looking for alternatives to life and leisure driven by car, and from tourism boards to government leadership to private entrepreneurs, Michigan’s not only noticing those changing interests, but taking some meaningful action to help them thrive.

Dequindre Cut construction in 2010

Projects to Watch

Detroit

Blight is a huge problem in Detroit neighborhoods, but some can see the flip side of emptiness, finding opportunities for new growth and strengthened ties between smaller communities. Cyclists are finding the side of opportunity. They’ve been eyeballing the city’s increasingly wide-open, low-traffic streets, and enjoying new pathways designed to show off Detroit at its best. They’ve watched real estate values hit rock bottom, luring entrepreneurs, frame builders, and artists to build new retail outlets. Detroit’s a city of transportation – why not by bike?

Riding: Detroit Riverwalk, Corktown Bike Lanes, and Dequindre Cut Greenway

It was around 2007 that Detroit started to see real improvements on non-motorized paths, and new federal grants are enabling an even bigger round of construction to come. The Riverwalk was an early project, bringing a strolling-eye view of Detroit’s International Riverfront. Bike it, walk it, fish it, skip it. In a city where downtown foot traffic was once so much more sparse, it’s a nice place to see people out and enjoying the day. Corktown Bike Lanes and the Dequindre Cut Greenway are more recent projects, designed specifically for bike use; Corktown converted a low-traffic motor lane for cyclists, and Dequindre repurposes the old Grand Trunk Western Railway line. Together, they bring miles of new routes for commuting and exploration, and by next year, you’ll find even more – construction’s just begun to complete 20 miles of continuous paths connecting Midtown, downtown, Eastern Market, and Hamtramck. Take it in solo, take a tour, or join a group ride. Visit Wheelhouse Detroit for more.

New vendors: Detroit Bikes, Shinola, and Detroit Bicycle Company

Ride in Detroit – or buy your ride in Detroit. A handful of new makers are building and assembling in the city, with offerings that emphasize craftsmanship, simplicity, and an old-industry nostalgia that shines in the details. Bicycle Times talked to Zak Pashak of Detroit Bikes, who summed up a feeling that seems to resonate in each of these young brands: the desire to “fill the gap left by Schwinn’s absence.” Pashak envisions simplicity of form and price tag, with completes topping out around $550; Shinola, built by the branding company known for its apparel and accessories chain, Fossil, may be reaching for loftier ambitions, seconding its storefront presence this year with digs in Lower Manhattan and maintaining other premium product lines in hand-assembled watches and leather goods. But most common among them all is an energy and passion for bikes; we’ll be eager to follow the course of their momentum.

Pedestrian crosswalk at US-23 interchange (above) and ReImagine Washtenaw plans (below). Photos courtesy ReImagine Washtenaw

Ann Arbor

Just ten minutes from Tree Fort Bikes, Ann Arbor is a mid-size college town that’s home to a few us here at the shop, and for good reason – the Tree City ranks regularly among American’s most livable cities, and its current projects to enhance downtown access for cyclists could place it even closer to the cutting edge of urban mobility redesign.

Riding: ReImagine Washtenaw, Downtown and North Main lanes

Even a few years ago, Ann Arbor looked a lot like any other car city, where roadways, new car garages, and parking lots seemed to occupy vast-majority slices of the development pie. But after taking care of the cars, Ann Arbor’s aspiring to much more. Take ReImagine Washtenaw: a long-term, multi-jurisctional effort to transform the heaviest trafficked avenue in the county into a more habitable, better developed, and more comprehensively accessible area. Backed by federal stimulus funds, the project’s moving right along; within two years, construction sites have produced a mile-long closed bike path connecting the University of Michigan to surrounding shopping districts, improved bus access points, and completed a crosswalk path guiding pedestrians through a major highway interchange. Now, the project’s most ambitious construction plans are up for review – planners are proposing “super stops” for buses, greenways, buffered bike lanes spanning two cities, and new mixed-use development for dead storefronts. Together with more targeted bike and pedestrian improvements across the city, Ann Arbor’s showing a passionate dedication to renewing area transit, bringing people into and around town by safer, simpler, and more beautiful means.

Services: Bike houses and bike sharing

Sample bike share station. Photo: City of Ann Arbor

For many of us, path improvements are enticement enough to get out and ride, but at ride’s end, plenty would prefer not to leave their stallion chained to a lamp post – or even more simply, you might not have a bike to start enjoying the path. Ann Arbor’s building up bike-related services to offer some solutions to those problems, and to make motor-less commutes as convenient as possible. A bike house opened this year inside a downtown parking garage, offering 35-secured storage spaces for commuters; with passes priced at $75 for the year, spaces filled up quickly. But undoubtedly, the most impressive development in the works is Ann Arbor’s bike sharing program. Like other cities launching bike shares, Ann Arbor will offer a fleet of wheels at key locations around town: 125 bikes at 14 automated stations, available for day-long or yearly rental. Construction is set for Spring of 2014, with sites launched on both University and city properties; students, local residents, and tourists alike will enjoy access to a ready set of wheels. The program still needs a name! Throw in your suggestion for a chance to win a year-long pass.

Greater Michigan

The Great Lakes State has never lacked for places to enjoy the outdoors, and from singletrack to rail trails, it seems we’re always watching them grow; in 2013 Governor Synder proposed a connection of trail systems that would link lower Michigan to Wisconsin, an effort that would surely raise Michigan’s already-strong status for destination cycling. But how does the recreation state measure up when it comes to one of the simplest recreational interests: using a bike to get around town?

Policy: Vulnerable Roadway User and Complete Streets

One reason why we don’t see more cyclists on the road is because the roadways aren’t as safe as they should be, and part of the problem lies in lax penalties for driver recklessness. In recent months, the Michigan legislature began considering a Vulnerable Roadway User law, which heightens penalties for killing or injuring a cyclist; offenders could now face up to $7,500 in fines or up to 15 years in prison, mirroring enforcement practices that currently protect construction workers in construction zones and school children in school zones. It sounds like commonsense policy, but it’s long in coming – today, drivers involved in lethal collisions with cyclists commonly leave Michigan courtrooms facing little to no penalty. Michigan’s working on statewide construction efforts, too. Passed in 2010, the state’s Complete Streets legislation is working to bring greater inclusiveness to all Michigan roadways, assessing planning responsibilities for local governments that would grow transportation access for cyclists and pedestrians alike. Learn more about Complete Streets plans in your area – and how you can help keep its progress moving forward.

For more updates on pro-cycling projects in Southeast Michigan, check out:

The League of Michigan Bicyclists  |  http://www.lmb.org

http://www.m-bike.org