With 60 bicycles crowding the Bike Valet Parking area and around 200 attendees inside to learn how to make Grand Rapids into a Bicycle Friendly Community, I would call the first ever Grand Rapids Bike Summit a big success! In the crowd there were young people, old people, roadies, mtn bikers, casual bicycle riders, hardcore cyclists, fixed gear riders, gov’t officials, politicians, and many others.
We had fantastic City Commissioner, Rosalynn Bliss, to start things off with introductions. Ms. Bliss explained how the Bike Summit began as an idea over a cup of coffee between herself and Bob Zylstra. They brought in help, including committee chairperson Kevin McCurren, myself, and many others. With many Monday morning planning meetings and funding from our many sponsors, the result was this summit.
Bill Nesper from the League of American Bicyclists was our keynote speaker. Mr. Nesper is head of the Bicycle Friendly America program, and he was there to provide the inspiration for what Grand Rapids could be in the future as a Bicycle Friendly Community. He provided plenty of examples from Portland, OR, Boulder, CO, and Davis, CA, the three current “Platinum” Bicycle Friendly Communities. He explained that while we have an excellent start, and a lot of great things providing momentum, Grand Rapids has lots of room to improve our 5 “E”s, Engineering, Education, Enforcement, Encouragement, and Evaluation. And he said that improvement will have to come from both the top and the bottom of our local city and county governments. We need the support of the Mayor, through activities such as the first Mayor’s Bike Ride, and the support of the community, who showed up in great numbers for this summit. I was also happy see that Interim City Manager Eric DeLong took time out of his busy schedule to attend and hopefully get an idea of what is possible with strong leadership and support within City Government.
Following Mr. Nesper was Ann Freiwald, from Alta Planning and Design, the national leader in bicycle friendly design and planning. Ms. Freiwald was there to show us how to actually make our community more bicycle friendly. She began by stressing that one of the keys to increasing bicycling is to create a welcoming bicycle culture that includes everyone from kids to seniors. The bicycle culture must be visible and be accepted as part of the community to create a sense of pride. To do this, you must convince the 60% of riders who are “interested, but concerned” that it is safe and healthy for them to ride their bicycles everyday.
After a break for lunch, we heard from Josh DeBruyn, who works for MDOT as our federally mandated state Bicycle & Pedestrian coordinator (every state must have one or they miss out on some federal road funding). Josh talked about the reasons why Michigan ranked 12th overall in a recent League of American Bicyclists study ranking states on bicycle friendliness. Our highest rankings were 7th, in Education and Encouragement, and 8th, for infrastructure. In Michigan 35% of roads in the MDOT system, over 2,925 miles, have a shoulder 4 feet wide or larger. Statewide we have over 1,576 miles of rail trails. We placed lowest, 35th, in the legislation category, where we have no statewide complete streets policy, and bicycles are not considered a legal vehicle, despite being given all the rights and responsibilities to operate as one.
After that we heard from Suzanne Schulz, our tireless Planning Director at the City of Grand Rapids. She talked about the City’s efforts to improve bicycling after it came up in the talks for the 2002 Master Plan. In 2004, the city developed a Bicycle Plan and have since put many roads on a “road diet” going from four lanes to three, with a striped shoulder. However, many of these shoulders have not been wide enough to meet the technical standards to be labeled a bike lane, and in the past, the city has been concerned about liability for maintenance of a labeled bicycle lane. These are two of the reasons we do not have a single marked bicycle lane in the City of Grand Rapids. She talked about the money for implementation and maintenance being a large obstacle to the widespread implementation of bicycle lanes throughout the city. The city roads dept. is already beyond it’s budget just trying to maintain the status quo. She did mention that shared use facilities, such as sharrows, may be an option because they do not require much extra plowing or maintenance. She also said that bicyclists need to advocate strongly on their own behalf or the city will not budget for facilities that take them into account.
Ms. Schulz also mentioned that the Green Grand Rapids master plan process currently underway will be producing a new, more detailed Bicycle Plan. A draft of this plan is available here. I hope that the city will be able to use this plan to leverage funding. Possible sources include the Transportation Enhancements program, and the next Federal Transportation Authorization Act, which may specifically set aside $50 million for improving the bicycle infrastructure network in Grand Rapids through the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s 2010 Campaign for Active Transportation.
Next were the four breakout sessions to brainstorm ideas from community members on what priorities should be addressed and what actions we needed to take to improve bicycling in the Grand Rapids area. The breakout sessions were:
- On-Road (2 groups)
- Policy, Law, and Enforcement
- Advocacy and Education
I was moderating the Advocacy and Education, with the help of Barb Schmid and Ann Freiwald, and thought we had a lot of good ideas that were discussed amongst the four small groups in our session.
After the breakouts, our panel summarized the sessions and then we had some open question and answer for our experts. Although the crowd had thinned out some by this time, we finished with remarks by Kevin McCurren and a big round of applause.
A big thanks to all who came out to make the first Grand Rapids Bike Summit a success. We’ll be looking at our feedback forms, compiling the data from breakout sessions, and trying to figure out how to move forward and implement the ideas spurred on by this Summit. Watch PedalGR for ways to get involved in this process. I think we can make Grand Rapids a better community for bicycling and a better community for living! See you on the road!
Check out the very good story that Fox 17 News did on the Bike Summit. Thank you Carl Apple and crew: