Last October, Jeff Gaydash gusted through a morning commute on his cyclo-cross bike, Tour de Truck style – in the back of a lawn care equipment hauler. After a second flat tire midway through his 13-mile route to work, the rider hoofed it along Warren Avenue in Detroit, where he was rescued by some impressed truckers. "They were doing their friendly thing and they wanted to talk bikes," he laughs.
Tire trouble aside, pedal pressing is a win-all for the web developer, who says, "You look over and see the gas price of $3.15 and you kind of just smile." Most April through November days, the Ferndale resident propels himself to the Wunderman Team Detroit advertising agency in Dearborn. Last year he tallied 1,500 miles, with benefits: "I get two hours of daily exercise, I've lost 35 pounds. … Once you start, it burns all that stress off and in rush hour, it literally takes me almost the same amount of time by car as it does by bike on the way home."
Geysering fuel prices and the clamor for sustainable lifestyles and cityscapes bode well for bicycle commuters, with Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer leading the pack. As head of the bi-partisan Congressional Bike Caucus, a group promoting public investment in bike transportation, Blumenauer's regular coasts to the office and the White House are Washington, D.C. legend.
Cities from Portland, Oregon to Boulder, Colorado are threaded with cycling networks.
Madison, Wisconsin (population 223,000), with 110 miles of bikeways and blustery weather is probably the closest model for Metro Detroit. Its Pedestrian-Bicycle Coordinator, Arthur Ross, recommends, "all new land use development should be done in a way that accommodates bicycling, and planning infill in retrofit to do that as well." He cites Madison's ordinance requiring all new developments to include bicycle parking.
So will the Motor City region (with three Congressional Bike Caucus members) shrug off its shroud of automobile exhaust and feel the oxy rush from the two-wheel revolution?
To date, Ann Arbor, a 2006 Bicycling top 21 city for cyclists, is the closest we come to a bike transportopia. Laced with nearly 22 miles of bicycle road lanes, the college town's 2.4% bike commuting rate (per the 2000 U.S. census) blitzes the 0.7% national average (as reported by the 1995 National Transportation Survey). Strong cycling communities like Madison and Boulder, with their attendant cleaner air and healthier citizens, consistently pop into best places to live lists. Not to be outdone, in 2006 CNN/Money magazine named it a top 25 city for living.
In 2007, Ann Arbor adopted a comprehensive non-motorized transportation plan calling for 56 total miles of bike lanes racing along half of the primary roads. There's an ongoing program of striping bike lanes on resurfaced streets; another six miles is scheduled for early this year. And all buses tote bicycle racks, making a seamless integration with mass transit.
To support these initiatives, 5 percent of Ann Arbor's state gasoline and weight tax revenues are earmarked for non-motorized transportation improvements; combined with the city's own funds, spending totals nearly $500,000 annually. "We're going to just keep on growing our system," says Transportation Manager Eli Cooper.
Great, but how about a $50 million federal grant in 2010? The Rails to Trails Conservancy has nominated the Ann Arbor area as a candidate for these dollars from the 2010 federal transportation reauthorization bill. Cooper, co-chair of the Ann Arbor area's campaign along with Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study posits, if the grant is received, " ... could we achieve the higher [bicycle commuting] percentages that are found in Berkeley, Boulder, or Madison – could we get from 3-8% by bicycling? That's why we're trying to collect data on the question of how the bike lanes we're putting in today actually change the travel patterns and if we receive a grant in the orders of magnitude that the Rails to Trails Conservancy [2010 Campaign for Active Transportation] is suggesting, I think we'd be well on our way to achieving the mode share shifts that are the goals of the program."
Cycling is merging into mainstream traffic. But Ann Arbor, despite its League of American Bicyclists "Bicycle Friendly Community" designation, still has some uphill roads. Kris Talley, chairwoman of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition (WBWC) points to the multitude of Michiganders unaware that bikes have a legal right to share the road. To that end, the WBWC is collaborating with Ann Arbor and its "Get Downtown" alternative transportation program on a "Same Roads, Same Rules" campaign, hoping to educate motorists and cyclists on the routes to road harmony.
Talley, a web project manager who has cycled to work for 20 years at the University of Michigan, believes bike lanes "send a visible message to motorists that cyclists are part of the transportation system. They're not toys that people ride in the neighborhoods and on the sidewalks; they belong on roads and can be used to get from place to place."
For over 10 years, Pete Hines bicycle-blazed 22 miles from Dearborn to work in Novi via Hines Drive (no relation). Now, the Ann Arbor resident pedals a daily six miles, winter-round; except during a week of illness, when he – cough! – drove. "With my car, just going three miles, when I got to work I was actually colder than when I rode my bike," he claims.
The electrical engineer burns 2,000 miles of caloric wattage annually on his Specialized Globe commuter bike, backed by ultra bright tail-lights he rigs from commercial truck trailer LED stoplights. His brights have attracted a star-struck following. "I've had six or seven motorists pull up next to me," he laughs, "[and] they're like 'Dude, where'd you get those tail-lights?' They can see me from half a mile down the road!"
Though it may be akin to urban planning training-wheels, four square mile Ferndale has added 3.5 miles of bike lanes. In 2006, the city met residents' top request by opening a bikeway network, with racks to be installed this spring, says Ferndale Recreation Director Julie Hall.
Ferndale Bikeway Network committee member Todd Scott is agitating for one in Royal Oak as well, which he claims "is always trying to find more parking spaces. If you've got a lot of people walking or biking to downtown instead of driving, [cities] can save a lot of money, so that makes it worthwhile to invest in facilities to help that happen."
One percent of the state road money Royal Oak receives from Michigan must go towards non-motorized transportation (per Michigan Public Act 51) which the freelance web developer says could fund the approximately $40,000 cost to prepare a non-motorized plan. "I'm just trying to find a city commissioner who's willing to pick up the torch and carry it," he explains.
A ride guide for the Detroit Bikes! To Work Day whose wheels spin 5-6,000 miles a year, Scott is practically evangelical when it comes to cycling. "You're more likely to shop locally, you're more likely to say hello to your neighbors and stop at the neighborhood lemonade stand," he observes.
Swayed by his passion and logic, this writer decides to experiment with the motor-free lifestyle. On a sunny but windy 23 degree January morning, I – a bike lane newbie – suit up to sample the Ferndale commute. Thermal shirt and tights, fleece-lined shell jacket, and helmet atop my woolly red hat complete the layers.
In the commuter zone, I zip off carting a backpack laden with notebook computer, spare shoes and garments, plus water. The wind pierces my helmet, humming peaceably as I crank along. Instead of global warming, I'm body warming by first mile's end. Other than a jiggly traverse across the snow and ice-crazed Eight Mile Road sidewalk connecting the Hilton and Pinecrest lanes, it's smooth flowing. Upon the approach to intersections, the bike lane glides between the straight-ahead and right turn lanes. Neat. And I brake for all red lights.
The verdict? After 10 miles round-trip, it's a rousing "Yay" for the biking way. I lament my return to the autohood, hoping that bike lanes will soon stretch near my house. Later, I steer over to Ferndale's Food Network-featured Flytrap Diner for a lunch date. As I loop-de-loop the block, trolling for parking, I muse on how simple bike travel can be … fun and meter-free.
Tanya Muzumdar is a regular contributor to metromode. Read her previous article A Hand Out.
Courtesy photo - Ann Arbor
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni