June 20, 2009 at 1:00 am

Michigan ramps up roads and trails to make bicycling easier

A cyclist pedals along the bike-friendly Dequindre Cut, a 1.2-mile road project completed last month. Cycling trails are located throughout southeast Michigan. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Mark McKinstry doesn't spend time anguishing over road construction or the price of gas. The 27-year-old hops on his new black Breezer Uptown 8 bicycle and pedals wherever he wants to go.

On a recent sunny afternoon, McKinstry rode 10 miles from his Allen Park home to take his first spin on the newly opened Dequindre Cut in Detroit. With its smooth, inviting asphalt, the 1.2-mile recreational path and greenway, between Orleans and St. Aubin streets, is a swath of heaven for bicyclists. "It is a great form of transportation," McKinstry said of bicycling. "No gas to buy and I don't have to worry about finding or paying for parking."

Whether to avoid eye-popping gas prices, commune with nature, cut one's carbon footprint or shed pounds, the popularity of bicycling is on the upswing.

Last year, the Outdoor Foundation cited bicycling as the second most-enjoyed outdoor activity of Americans. The first is running, jogging and trail running, and third is fishing.

Sales of bicycles and bicycle-related accessories increased $200 million from 2006 to 2007 and held steady last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The association also estimated that 15 percent of Americans, or 44.7 million, rode a bicycle six times or more last year, an 11-percent increase from 2007.

That's why Michigan, like other states, has been stepping up its efforts to meet the increased interest in bicycling with bike-hike friendly roads and projects like the Dequindre Cut, which opened last month, and the RiverWalk, which opened in 2007.

The Michigan Department of Transportation now maintains more than 2,560 miles of paved shoulder with bicycle access. The state also has more than 1,394 miles of rails-to-trails -- abandoned railroad tracks that have been converted into biking, hiking and walking trails. Combine those rails-to-trails with trails through parks and public land, and downtowns and neighborhoods, and the stretch increases to more than 2,000 miles, said Nancy Krupiarz, executive director of the Lansing-based nonprofit Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. Additional bike-hike trails and greenways are expected.

Like McKinstry, Krupiarz said more people are using bicycles, rather than cars or buses, for transportation. According to the Bikes Belong Coalition, more than 150 bicycle retailers from 40 states said sales of transportation-related bicycles, accessories and service increased in 2008 compared with 2007, and most cited high gas prices as the reason. Kiplinger.com has even created an online calculator (kiplinger.com/tools/bike) for those wanting to calculate just how much gas money they could save from riding.

"I have seen in many communities people are commuting to work on bikes or making a trip to the grocery," she said. "There's definitely more interest, especially with the increase in gas prices."

Rochester resident Colleen Brown said she often chooses to ride her bike over driving when doing simple errands.

"I never go to the store in the car," said Brown. "I take a bike and bring my kids and we go. I will (bike) to a doctor's appointment in Royal Oak. I have even started commuting to work."

The 36-year-old estimates that last year she racked up 3,200 bicycling miles -- 1,000 of which were commuter miles. "I am saving quite a bit of money in gas and saving the environment," she said.

Bicycling not only can save a buck or the environment, but can better your health as well, according to Dennis Kerrigan, a senior exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Hospital. He said bicycling is a great aerobic workout that can reduce high blood pressure and, in cases of diabetes, lower blood sugar levels.

Bicycling, he said, also can be an alternative activity for people with physical conditions that keep them from certain types of exercise.

"My father has horrible knees so biking is a good alternative for him," Kerrigan said. "It is also good for those with diabetes who often battle foot issues."

For Brown, bicycling also helped her heal emotionally.

Last year, while she was pregnant, she was put on bed rest for six months but the baby died. As might be expected, Brown went into a depression.

"I was off my feet, had gained weight and had nothing to show for it," she said. "Biking helped get me out of my depression.

"It's like being a kid again. I always tell people that no matter how bad you feel, get on a bike. Ride around the neighborhood, feel the wind and sun on your face. You see the world differently. When you bike you can stop and smell the roses."

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