Detroit makes room for safer street cycling

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is on a path to making biking safer, even if it takes motorists a little time to get used to.

Brightly painted green and white, new “protected” bike lanes — those with a separation between bike and parking lanes — are popping up in the city, at the cost of nearly $150,000 per mile, to ensure a safer ride.

Jessica Cooper of Detroit rides down the bike path on Michigan Avenue,  "Most days I bike and in general I use the bike paths.  I try to go places where they are at and I bike to work and there is about half bike paths, half not."

That’s money well spent, according to Emmanuel Nelson, 31, of Detroit, who rides his maroon, old-school Schwinn practically every day.

“I love the idea of all the new protected bike lanes because of the sustainability, clean energy, the adrenaline rush of just getting out there and riding every morning, getting exercise and saving on gas,” said Nelson, who switches to driving his car in the winter. “And having protected lanes helps a lot because the only accident I ever had was from a car door opening, so I feel safer.”

Installing protected bike lanes projects a more cosmopolitan, green-conscious image for the city, while keeping bikers safer, according to some bike lane advocates. But despite all the white arrows and modern new logos painted on the bike lanes, they can be confusing to drivers who still drive and park in them, risking a $45 ticket.

The first protected bike lanes in Detroit appeared on East Jefferson at Chalmers in 2015, while others are under construction or on the drawing board. Jefferson and Michigan avenues already feature protected bike lanes, and Midtown is being transformed into a biking mecca. From Larned to West Grand Boulevard along Cass, streets are being ripped up as orange barrels line both sides to warn drivers of construction while protected bike lanes are being installed.

There are 212 miles of bike lanes in Detroit but only nine miles of them are protected. With current construction on Cass and on East Jefferson from Rivard to Lakewood, 10 more miles will be added. The city has requested that a $1.5 million road project on Grand River include protected bike lanes.

Detroit’s Department of Public Works typically budgets $150,000 per mile for all improvements associated with installing protected bike lanes, according to director Ron Brundidge. The cost of a non-protected bike lane is about $20,000 a mile.

The work is paid out of city or state transportation-related funds or grants, Brundidge said.

The city’s Planning & Development department has taken the lead in developing plans for revitalization projects that include bike lanes, Brundidge said.

Brundidge said a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, influenced his ideas about bicyclists in the city.

“One thing that stood out was recognizing that the development of a safe, efficient, comprehensive biking network has a tremendous impact on the numbers of people who will actually choose to bike as an optional means of transportation,” he said.

It’s a great idea, according to the co-owner of Slows Bar BQ on Michigan Avenue and 14th, which has protected bike lanes out front.

“They have not yet had a positive or negative effect on business, but we love bike culture and the idea of the city of Detroit supporting it,” Phillip Cooley said. “We hope they consider thinking of some additional slow-down interventions with Michigan Avenue because people still drive too fast on it.”

Cooley noted the city’s commitment to more biking opportunities, including the recent addition of MoGo, Detroit’s first public bike sharing system, with 430 bikes at 43 stations across 10 Detroit neighborhoods.

The new bike lanes are confusing to some motorists, who park in the bike lanes rather than outside of them. The van above almost has it right, but the cars behind block the lane.

“Mobility is a huge issue in our city, and giving people a healthy and affordable way to access food, jobs and diverse communities throughout the city is forward thinking,” he said. “We still have to be considerate to the automobile in such an auto-dependent town, but hopefully, over time, we will be less so.”

Drivers must beware when parking along Michigan Avenue in front of Slows and farther down Michigan near the protected lanes. Instead of parking along the curb, cars must park close to the middle of the street to allow bike riders a safer ride.

Brundidge said moving parked vehicles away from the curb creates the space needed for protected bike lanes.

“The parked vehicles then become the separator between bikes and vehicles, creating a safer path for bicyclists,” he said. “Bike lanes that have been installed on segments of Livernois and East Jefferson follow this same format of parked vehicles being moved from the curb to create protected bike lanes.”

The planning for additional bike lanes takes into consideration that for many, riding bikes is not just an option. It is their only mode of transportation.

“Biking provides a mobility option in a city where one in five residents do not have access to a car, and 32 percent of Detroiters’ income is spent on transportation,” said James Fidler, lead planner for Downtown Detroit Partnership, which supports the downtown through initiatives and programs.

To make way for more bike lanes, some roads are being placed on a “road diet,” according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“A road diet involves reducing the width of the roadway or reducing the number of lanes,” MDOT spokeswoman Diane Cross said. “The Grand River Avenue project is not reducing the roadway width but is reducing the number of lanes to two travel lanes and two protected bike lanes.”

She said the $1.5 million to complete the Grand River road project is being financed with mostly federal funds, but also some state and city funds.

Isabelle Clarenson, a disc jockey, dancer and event organizer visiting Detroit from France sees the city from a bicycle down Cass at Michigan Avenue. Detroit has 212 miles of bike lanes, but has made an effort to construct protected bike lanes along more city streets.

A public meeting recently was held to garner feedback about adding bike lanes to the project.

“The large turnout at the August 10th public meeting was in favor of the implementation of the protected bike lanes,” Cross said. “A few local business owners were concerned about street parking on Grand River. While most businesses along Grand River have their own private parking, we will be providing some on-street parking.”

Brundidge said the city is committed to providing affordable and convenient transportation options to all of its residents and visitors.

“Having a safe, comprehensive biking network is a key component of this commitment to ‘mobility for all,’ ” he said.

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