Features

Bitten by the Biking Bug

Groups, civic leaders work to make area more bike-friendly
encore-magazine-feature-bike-travel-pedal-riders-july-21
A group of riders organized by Pedal passes through downtown Kalamazoo on a Thursday night ride.

© 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

It felt like our reality shifted in so many ways in March 2020. As Covid-19 hit and the world shut down, I decided to ride my bike.

This is a normal decision for me every spring, but I felt a little guilty. The official message was that we should all be staying home. But the sun was out, and I wanted to be out as well. I felt more guilt at my twinge of selfish excitement, thinking, "The roads will be free of cars, and the trails free of bikes! I'll have it all to myself!"

And for a Tuesday afternoon, there really was little traffic. I felt more guilt as I enjoyed a little last-man-on-Earth feeling as I rode my bike from my home in the Edison neighborhood to downtown
Kalamazoo, nothing but me and a few discarded medical masks drifting along Bank Street.

I reached the Kal-Haven trailhead on 10th Street, and — oh, no — the trail was packed. Kids and parents, walkers, hikers, baby-stroller pushers, experienced and inexperienced cyclists.

I did my best to pass people safely at the recommended 6 feet of distance, but it was almost impossible. This isn't what those apocalyptic movies about worldwide viruses promise, I thought. Instead of experiencing lonely desolation, I found crowds of people having fun and being healthy.

Now, more than a year later, with vaccines available and a slow crawl back to normal happening, people still have the biking bug. It's helped to fuel the continued push by local organizations and civic leaders to make the Kalamazoo area a more bike-friendly region with safer biking routes.

However, with more people riding on roads, nonmotorized paths and trails, it has also led to a shortage of new bikes.

More than bike-curious

Tim Krone has some frustrated customers.

The owner of Pedal Bikes, which has locations in downtown Kalamazoo and on Romence Road in Portage, has had to tell angry people that "it's 100 percent beyond our control" that there just aren't any new bikes in the shop.

There is a huge demand for bikes worldwide "that just sucked all of the bikes out of the supply chain,” Krone says. “And I would say the supply chain was empty probably as of September of last year — it was just completely dry. There are no bikes to buy at wholesale. We order bikes, the bikes come to us, and, nine times out of 10, we put somebody's name on it and roll it out the door."

The industry is working at capacity and has yet to increase production enough to meet demand. "You don't just say, 'Hey, let's build another factory,'" Krone says of bicycle manufacturers.

The shortage of bicycles and bicycle components will likely continue until 2022, according to a November 2020 story in Bicycling magazine. It'll be 2023 for eventual bike shop normality, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. report in March.

Krone recommends people find a used bike or just keep the bike they have in shape. An old bike from the back of the garage can be made rideable again, though new parts are also scarce.

"Last year it was just Crazytown" in Pedal's maintenance department, Krone says. The influx of new customers created long wait times for bikes to be fixed, which isn't what the customers or Krone wants. "We want you to be on your bike. We don't want it here. We don't need to be buried with them," he says.

After encouraging customers to get their bikes worked on the during the winter months, Pedal's maintenance department was relatively calm in early March. But, Krone says, "we get a 70-degree Saturday, everything changes."

All these new bicycle riders have meant more than just a financial upside for his business, says Krone. While the crowds that rolled onto the trails during the spring and summer of 2020 were "a full-on freak show," Krone thinks many of those new riders will keep the habit, potentially making bikers a larger, more visible segment of society.

"The more of us who're out on the streets, the more people see us, and the better it is," he says. In other words, the more motor vehicle drivers are made aware of bicyclists on the streets, the safer biking will become.

Two-wheeled safety

There are four types of people when it comes to attitudes about biking on roadways, and safety is a big concern for the vast majority of them, according to a survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Transportation and published in the Southwest Michigan Region Nonmotorized Transportation Plan.

Those whom the plan refers to as "The Strong and the Fearless," who make up 1 percent of respondents, will ride on any road no matter the conditions or traffic levels.

“The Enthused and Confident,” 6 percent of respondents, are comfortable sharing a roadway with motorized traffic but prefer to do so in designated places.

The "No way, No how" crowd, 33 percent of respondents, have no interest in biking on roads, whatever the reason.

But the largest segment of those surveyed, 60 percent, are "Interested but Concerned" people who would ride more on roads if they felt safer there.

Krone says that for new riders there are two critical steps to being safe before they even put their feet on the pedals. The first is to go over their bike before they leave the garage. "Make sure you've got enough air in the tires, make sure your chain is in good shape, make sure your brakes work, make sure your wheels are on tight," he advises.

The next step is to look up rules of the road for bikes. Krone recommends guidance from the League of Michigan Bicyclists, which has a website listing Michigan bike laws. Those laws define bikes as traffic, require that bicyclists obey the same traffic laws as motorists (with a few exceptions), and allow bikes on all roads except for limited-access highways (also with a few exceptions).

A big issue when it comes to bicycle safety is that both those behind the wheel of a car or truck and those behind the handlebars of a bicycle need education about biking, says Paul Selden, who founded and heads Bike Friendly Kalamazoo (BFK), a volunteer-driven nonprofit focused on making the Kalamazoo area safer for bicycling. "We have to have better education for motorists and bicyclists," he says.

BFK has two approaches to improving biking in our community. Its "harder approach" advocates for better infrastructure, more bike lanes, and mapping and installing of signage for safe bike routes in the community. Its "softer approach" involves safety education, Selden says. BFK gives grants to local schools so bike skills can to be taught in physical education classes, gives away helmets and bike lights, and collaborates with the Kalamazoo Bicycling Club (KBC) to stage inclusive community bike rides and "bike rodeos" (bike skills events).

BFK and KBC are also behind the printing and distribution of the "Give Them 5" yard signs that have popped up around town and are meant to educate people about ordinances requiring 5 feet of passing space between cars and bikes on roads in Kalamazoo and Portage.

Selden acknowledges that Covid-19 has put a damper on some of the groups' fundraising and their ability to have group events. But the pandemic has shown that "bicycling doesn't need much encouragement to break out all over the place," Selden says.

"Bicycling is going to be a part of the 'we're in it together' feeling that I think this community developed so wonderfully during Covid — coming together, helping each other, realizing we have to be courteous to each other," he says.

Wearing masks, staying 6 feet away from others during the pandemic, giving a warning when biking toward walkers on a trail, or being a considerate motorist who puts 5 feet of distance between their vehicle and a person on a bike when passing are all covered by Selden's favorite safety rule of all.

"That's all a part of the Golden Rule," he says. "Just respect each other and treat each other as you would like to be treated. Give people a half lane of safe passing room if you're a motorist. And don't run stoplights if you're a bicyclist — you're putting yourself in danger and you're going to ruin someone else's life if you goof up and they hit you."

Selden emphasizes that in a car–bike collision, one side is going to do more damage than the other, and it’s not the bike. “Motor vehicle drivers are in a position to hurt bicyclists if they wanted to," he says, asking that people remember that "the grandkids and nieces and nephews of our community are out on their bicycles on the road. They're in our hands."

So many places to pedal

Among the most appealing aspects of bicycling in Southwest Michigan are the many options for where to ride: trail or road, pavement or gravel or dirt. You can pedal out of your garage or carport to explore your neighborhood streets or put your bike on a rack and drive it to the Kal-Haven Trail.

No matter where you're going, Krone suggests you study a map before riding.

"It's good to think about where you're going and how you're going to get there,” he says. “It's not, in my opinion, super fun to have a ride in mind where you have to spend three miles on M-43. I don't think that's anybody's idea of heaven.”

Digital apps are helpful in this regard. Google Maps (google.com/maps) has a bicycling option to highlight trails and roads with bike lanes. You can also look up cycling options on Open Street Map (openstreetmap.org), which gives a more detailed look at bikeable routes. Strava (strava.com) and Ride With GPS (ridewithgps.com) have "heatmaps" that highlight the most popular roads and trails based on users' recorded rides.

Krone says the websites for the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club (kalamazoobicycleclub.org) and Bike Friendly Kalamazoo (bikefriendlykalamazoo.org) are both good resources for routes. For mountain bikers, the Southwest Michigan Mountain Biking Association (swmmba.co) provides information on local mountain bike trails.

Many routes, lanes and trails can provide for a safe ride of a few miles to hundreds of miles. Bike tourists are willing to ride for days to traverse the Great Lake-to-Lake Trail No. 1, a 275-mile route from South Haven to Port Huron, with segments that run on the Kal-Haven and Kalamazoo River Valley trails.

Whats the difference between a bike trail, lane and route? Click here to find out.

However, everyday routes that bicyclists might use to get to work, to shop or just to get from point A to point B are often cut short by incomplete on-street lanes or off-street pathways.

For example, Lovers Lane has bike lanes on the Portage part of the road but not the Kalamazoo part. Even though the road is marked as a "Bike Route," in Kalamazoo there are just a few inches of paved shoulder on a narrow road, with not much room for motorists to pass safely.

Another example: The city of Portage recently laid an off-street paved path along Portage Road across from the Pfizer plant, but it dead-ends at its southern point, forcing bikes to try to ride over grass or hop over to the 45-mph five-lane road. However, Portage City Manager Joseph La Margo says the city does have plans to extend the path soon to Latitude 42's beer garden.

Incomplete bike routes such as these are why, since its inception in 2011, Bike Friendly Kalamazoo has advocated for a Southwest Michigan Bikeway, a potential network of bike-friendly routes in Kalamazoo, Portage, other parts of Kalamazoo County and beyond.

The organization's proposed routes were adopted into the 2016 Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan and are part of MDOT's Southwest Region Nonmotorized Transportation Plan 2020, and progress on establishing these routes has been inching forward each year.

Advocates of the Southwest Michigan Bikeway aim to connect all Kalamazoo-area neighborhoods with safe and practical bike routes, Selden says. "That has a lot of implications for equity and inclusion," he notes, because the route would connect neighborhoods that have long been separated by high-traffic roads.

For example, the route would link Kalamazoo's bikeways to Portage's extensive network of bike infrastructure via an extension of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail from Upjohn Park (on Crosstown Parkway) to Blanche Hull Park (on South Burdick Street). That project could be completed by 2023, Selden says, and could be "the most highly used trail in the whole regional network."

When it comes to creating a network of nonmotorized trails, bike lanes and other bike infrastructure (see infobox for examples), there are aspirations and then there's reality.
Bike trails can cost "a half-million a mile," Selden says. "People talk about infrastructure, (but) sometimes they ignore the fact that it's a wealthy community's game. And you have to have the real estate for it. You can't just be knocking down people's houses just to put a trail in."

In many urban and rural areas, "it's not practical or cost-efficient to build trails," says Selden, "and that's where these bike routes come to the rescue."

The Southwest Michigan Bikeway will make use of existing bike lanes and trails, low-traffic roads and roads with wide shoulders to develop routes connecting the neighborhoods within Kalamazoo and Portage and linking urban centers to villages and townships, from Vicksburg to Cooper, Augusta to Paw Paw.

In the plans

Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson says that the city's ultimate goal is to be bike-friendly.

"I think that we are working toward that goal," Anderson says. "Each year we continue to expand our bicycle network."

However, any bicycle network has to be a part of a "multimodal" system, she says, one that also incorporates privately owned motor vehicles, public transportation and pedestrians.

Kalamazoo is following a transportation philosophy that focuses on moving people, not just cars, around. New U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a March video he tweeted that "it turns out that we're better off if our decisions revolve not around the car, but around the human being. ... Sometimes that human being is on foot or on a bicycle."

Having someone on the federal level who has experience with the transportation issues of a Midwestern city is "pretty exciting," Anderson says. When he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg oversaw the transformation of that city's downtown, converting one-way streets to two-way streets, reducing speeds and narrowing roads.

Kalamazoo has been working toward similar goals, hoping to eventually convert the wide multi-lane, one-way, high-speed roads that carve up downtown into calmer two-way streets designed with the safety and needs of all residents in mind.

"We have momentum that I don't think we had before in looking at our transportation system in that multimodal way, looking at all users," Anderson says. The city has staff dedicated to implementing its Kalamazoo Complete Streets Policy, which considers all road users, from bicyclists and transit riders to freight and commercial vehicles, in the design of infrastructure projects, with an eye on equity and safety for all. The work is "picking up steam," she says.

In the plans are significant changes to downtown streets. "We just wrapped up Phase 1 of that project,” she says, “which was basic modeling to figure out what works, what can be converted to two-way in this first clump of work, what might need to wait until a later round, (and) where should the bike routes continue, what do we need to road diet (efforts to reduce traffic lanes and convert them to other uses), what streets serve what users."

Work on the series of two-way street conversions will begin "within the next 10 years or less," she says, "and I'm being very general with our timeline."

This year the city is planning pilot projects to help finalize what we'll be driving, biking and walking on about a decade from now. One of these projects is an extension of the urban trail through downtown that now connects the east and west sections of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. The new pathway will run along Kalamazoo Avenue to Douglas Avenue, and the city will be monitoring it to determine who will use it and how often they will use it.

Another pilot project will be the addition of buffered bike lanes on Park Street and Westnedge Avenue. These will add a buffer of space between streetside parking spaces and bike lanes to prevent "dooring" — that common urban mishap in which a driver opens a car door in the path of an oncoming bicyclist. These buffered lanes will also involve space between bike lanes and vehicular traffic.

Societal benefits of biking

Ours has long been a society focused on the automobile. When speaking about people who might need bikes for everyday travel, Selden interrupts himself to pick up the latest edition of Consumer Reports, the monthly publication that provides reviews and ratings of consumer goods, including automobiles. "An average new car, gosh, I can't believe how many tens of thousands of dollars a new car costs now," he says.

People need to work to afford the payments on a new car or truck, Selden says. Many can't even afford a used clunker. Still, "they have to have an easy way to get to that job."

The only options for many low-income workers are to go by bus, foot or bike — or a combination of the three. "So multimodal is the way it's gotta be," Selden says.

At the other end of the employment spectrum, companies are attracting white-collar workers with bikes. Employers seeking higher-skilled workers may find them among bike riders, Selden says.

"Some of the most highly sought-after, highly paid people are also those who enjoy bicycling as a means of staying fit, as a means of having a hip-pocket adventure once in a while, or as a sporting outlet," he says.

Selden's son, Paul Selden IV, did an internship at Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Washington, and the company "gave all their interns a bicycle to get to work," says his father. He notes that in
Kalamazoo, Stryker, Bronson Healthcare and Pfizer all have biking programs to attract employees. The programs provide on-site bike parking and storage, showers to use after a warm morning's ride, and incentives like earning "Downtown Dollars" for miles commuted to spend at downtown Kalamazoo businesses.

Selden also sees Portage and Kalamazoo's work on bike infrastructure as a way to attract new residents and make the area a destination for cycling tourists.

Similarly, Anderson says that Kalamazoo's mostly bike-unfriendly motor traffic has been an economic hindrance. While some might see reducing automobile use as a performative effort to seem "green," more ways for people using bikes and other modes to travel safely can mean more green for the local economy.

"When we did the 2025 master plan back in 2016–2017, we did a market study, and one of the things noted as a barrier was transportation issues, particularly one-way streets and the perceived difficulties in traveling them," she says.

Some road designs like that of Stadium Drive will likely continue to prioritize motor vehicles, Anderson says, but in a dense urban environment, streets have to prioritize everyone to allow people to feel comfortable shopping, eating, doing business and living downtown. These roads have to be "thought about as downtown streets, where the priority user might be someone who is walking, biking or taking transit," she says.

Most of those who drive downtown turn into pedestrians, she points out. "You drove, you park, and that's when you become a pedestrian, to move through downtown."

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