Winning the battle for a bike lane on a busy road in Lansing

So, how big of a deal is a bike lane? On the outset, one might not think the newly painted stripe on Saginaw means much. But to members of the revamped Westside Commercial Association  (WCA), that one, long stripe means the world.

“In the 1960s MDOT widened the road,” says Lisa Benck, president of the Westside Commercial Association. “The road went way out, into front yards of people living there, and traffic got really fast. That really hurt the businesses along Saginaw.”

And the businesses along Saginaw are the business of the WCA. Their long-fought battle for a bike lane on Saginaw has certainly been about increasing non-motorized transportation options in Lansing, but slowing traffic through their district was considered indispensible to their revitalization efforts.

“It's the catalyst for a road diet,” says Benck. “Who wants to walk on the sidewalk on the four lane road with cars going by at 50 miles an hour? We figured that before any real change could happen, the bike lane had to come first.”

Perhaps only knowing how badly members of the WCA have been counting on a bike lane could make the more than seven-year quest for that long, white stripe seem even longer than it was. In fact, the push for a bike lane goes back as far as the WCA itself.

In 2004, the NorthWest Initiative led an effort to create a vision for Lansing’s Westside. Among the 500 residents who participated in the process to create a plan for the neighborhood’s future was now-councilmember Jessica Yorko.

“That action plan included everything from street cleanup and business surveys to organizational development to create a commercial association and a corridor improvement authority.”

Also part of the plan: a bike lane. When Yorko was later hired by the NorthWest Initiative as the part-time manager or newly WCA, the push for a bike lane on Saginaw officially began.

“A half-time manager couldn’t do all the work,” Yorko says. “We had volunteers, and they implemented programs, planted the flowers, and we did festivals. The big thing we didn’t do ourselves was stripe the road.”

For that, she needed the cooperation of the City of Lansing and MDOT. Years of meetings, studies and waiting went by.

“We were intentional and systematic about meeting with the decision makers,” she says. “We did some letter writing campaigning and phone campaigns and meetings with various department heads and offices. The process got volleyed back and froth between the city and MDOT.”

Yorko and the WCA continued to pursue the bike lane, even after she left her position with the organization, and the WCA began to change.

“When we were with the NorthWest Initiative, we were under one of their programs,” says Benck. “They focus on residents, neighborhoods, food assistance, tax assistance, and these things are really great, but we thought that it would be good to have a board that was focused on the revitalization of the corridor. We wanted to be a Michigan Main Street program, and we needed to be a separate board to even apply.”

The WCA became its own entity more than a year ago.

“We don’t have staff and we left without money,” says Benck. “It changed everything because we immediately became only volunteer driven. We are focused on making the programming as solid as it can be. If we can't do it well, we don’t do it.”

Then, just recently, a few things happened that made everything change for the organization once again. The WCA received its 501(c)(3) non-profit status, allowing the group to raise funds, just as they were ready to roll out a new brand identity with a new logo and website. Then, the real kicker:

“Last winter, I expressed to MDOT that we were kind of at the end of our rope,” says Yorko of the more than half-decade of waiting for a bike lane. “I asked, ‘Can you commit to a time frame? Can you just tell us yes or no?’”

MDOT said they could at least promise to approve or deny the bike lane by the spring of 2012.

“When they came back in the spring and said yes, I was pinching myself,” Yorko says.  

As if by providence, everything necessary for full-fledged community revitalization fell into place at the same time. The WCA celebrated their new status and bike lane with the Coast With Your Community event in October. On a Sunday afternoon, dozens of bicyclists met in Riverfront Park and rode a new route along the river trail and on the new bike lane. The event culminated with a ribbon cutting for the Saginaw bike lane and new bridge across the Grand River.

Though the WCA has been busy preparing for their new identity and bike lane for a long time, that didn’t prevent them from staying busy in other ways. Over the past year, the organization has also focused on public art, organizing a new mural on Sparrow Hospital St. Lawrence Campus parking structure. []

“We have a strong history as one of the older neighborhoods in Lansing,” says Benck. “We were the working class neighborhood with people who walked to get to work. We're still that way in a lot of respects. We hope to encapsulate that though the businesses that come here and how we work to promote them.”

Recruiting new businesses is high on the new WCA’s to-do list, wanting to fill the current vacancies along Saginaw with businesses conducive to the walkable neighborhood, and to give existing businesses more reasons to stay.

“Our goal is to continue to move forward,” says Benck, “to have fulltime manager, decrease the vacancy rates, strengthen our assets, and make people aware of their surroundings.”

Traveling by bike, it turns out, is a great way to do exactly that. According to Yorko, cyclists are already utilizing the new bike lane to traverse the neighborhood, despite the dip in temperatures.

“Plenty of people bike commute year round, including myself,” she says.

What’s more, Yorko says the speed of cars along Saginaw has noticeably decreased.

“Even though the volume of cars is about he same, it’s not as loud,” she says. “It’s extremely satisfying. It’s empowering that we can set a vision for what we want for out community to be like, and we can make it happen.”

Photos © Dave Trumpie

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

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