Bicycle safety is a Kalamazoo priority – but how to choose the safest route?

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Featured in the video is a Slow Roll sponsored by ModeShift Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Valley Community College on May 13 to try out possible routes for biking between KVCC's downtown facilities. Here they start at the Bronson Park Bike Show, and roll along the pilot bike lane on Westnedge.

Choosing a bike route in Kalamazoo

It's a question that involves many variables.

How do you choose the best route to bike to work/school/store in the Kalamazoo area?

Depends. Do you have an e-bike or is it all you-powered? Are you surrounded by high-traffic roads in Downtown Kalamazoo, or do you have access to Portage's bike infrastructure? Are you biking with your kids, or is the perceived risk all on you? Have you been biking for decades, or did you just get that bike? 

The majority of car trips in the U.S. are less than three miles. Regular biking makes such trips a breeze using pedals. E-bikes expand the possibilities for those who find biking difficult, for those who need to tote groceries and/or kids, and for those who might need to ride farther, faster, and up steeper hills. 

Would you like to save gas money, or maybe sell that second car and save a lot more money? Turn a chore into a fun activity? Build fitness, feel the freedom, feel like a kid again?
Sounds great -- but then comes the complicated question of how to get from point A to B and back safely.

We talked to a few riders in Kalamazoo and Portage to see how they map out their routes, and where and why they ride.

Riding in the neighborhoods, getting out of the neighborhoods

Nora Hauk and her spouse moved to Kalamazoo, the Stuart neighborhood, around 2011. They didn't have a car, so they would walk or bike everywhere. 

They now have two kids, one six and the other four and a half, and live in the West Main Hill neighborhood. They have one car, with bikes in the place of that second-car option.

Nora Hauk captures herself on her new cargo e-bike, reflected in a window. Hauk lives on West Main Hill, and prefers to ride on quiet neighborhood streets.Hauk has a long-tail cargo bike, non-electric. "Just this past weekend we got a second-hand cargo e-bike!" she says, excited.

She's been able to take kids to and from the Montessori School on Howard Street on her old cargo bike. They do rides -- her kids carefully guided on their bikes -- to the Kalamazoo Public Library. She'd like to go to the Farmer's Market on Bank Street, but it's difficult for her to find a reasonable route from West Main Hill to Edison.

"The routes I use are through neighborhoods," Hauk says. "I use residential streets whenever I can." 

Neighborhood streets usually have low and slow traffic.

But how to cross over between neighborhoods? The map shows Hauk's problem -- West Main Hill is surrounded by high-traffic West Main and Stadium Drive, rivers of cars all flowing into Michigan Avenue. 

Crosswalks across wide roads are a challenge. "The busy crosses can be really hard, and especially with two kids on the back of my bike, it takes more pedaling effort to get up and rolling," she says. 

Along with old bikes, new e-bikes showing off cargo and kid-carrying capabilities were at the Bike Show.Academy is a comfortable street to take into downtown, she says. But she has to face a crosswalk across six lanes of traffic where Stadium merges with West Main.

There is a handy pedestrian island, but still, there are no signals stopping cars, and drivers frequently ignore Kalamazoo's crossing ordinance requiring motor vehicles to stop for pedestrians and bikes at or in the crosswalk.  

"I do get worried as a parent," Hauk says. When on bikes, her kids are on the sidewalk, with her riding alongside them. It's an education in how to navigate city streets for them -- better that they have this knowledge early on than not, she says.

But those family outings get exceedingly stressful at that crossing. "It feels bad to be yelling at a four-and-a-half-year-old, 'We really gotta run across the street!'" 

North Street is a low-traffic way to get across town, but to get to that street, Hauk has to cross West Main at the un-signaled marked crosswalk at Woodward Ave. where West Main becomes one-way, just after Douglas Avenue merges and adds to the traffic flow. 

She sees cars changing lanes as they jockey for position entering downtown. "Cars don't stop. Or, people stop in the lane closest to me, but then the people in the lanes furthest from me have a worse view, they can't see that I'm there and they keep running through." 

Hauk will wait for a break in the traffic, but "it takes so long for it to clear, and because of people changing lanes, it's a really dangerous cross." 

She wishes the City would add infrastructure to make safer crosswalks. 

"There's a lot of investment into putting bike lanes onto major roads, rather than thinking about our neighborhoods. How do you get in and out of these neighborhoods and how can you make that safer?"

Practical cycling

Marc Irwin prefers the term "practical cycling" when talking about using bikes for everyday transportation. "Commuting sounds too much like work, and transportation just sounds f---in' boring," he says.

Irwin has been a practical rider "for about 50 years as an adult," from the small town in Illinois where he grew up, to Atlanta, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina; and the Kalamazoo/Portage area.  

Marc Irwin has been using bikes for everyday transportation "for about 50 years as an adult."He has six bikes, "all have practical applications. They aren't just fitness machines or some sort of high-tech crotch rocket."  He's also a member of the Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study's non-motorized planning committee

Irwin sees biking as "a convenient way to work some activity and recreation into the daily routine."

He works as a substitute teacher, so Irwin has had to plot many routes to area schools. To newbies thinking of doing their own practical cycling, his main advice "is to avoid traffic. The least-trafficked area, residential streets, designated bike routes, bike lanes wherever they are, bike trails if they're available, use those whenever it's possible just to separate yourself from traffic."

But one can't avoid all traffic. "I do ride out in traffic on a daily basis."

Since he's been biking for 50 years, has he noticed the risk has changed, for better or worse?

"There is much less risk now than there was," Irwin says. "Forty-five years ago, I was basically ally-catting my way through rush hour traffic in downtown Kansas City to go to college classes. It was back when the idea of a bike lane or a bike route was simply laughable. It wouldn't have even occurred to anybody. There was no courtesy shown to cyclists whatsoever."

He makes the point at KATS meetings that Kalamazoo's bikers have an improved and improving environment to ride in, even though the perception is that since the pandemic drivers have gotten worse.

"My experience, even recently, has been that people are very courteous to cyclists, to me when I'm riding... The biggest danger I run into are people being too courteous and yielding when they shouldn't, holding up the regular traffic pattern and possibly causing an accident that way." 

Drivers will sit and wait for him at a four-way stop when it's their turn to go, for example. "When it comes to how to react to a bike on the road, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary confusion," Irwin says.

Irwin hears a lot of cyclists "complain about rude or dangerous maneuvers cars make around them, and I think it might be that I've been doing it for so long and in so many different situations that I'm callous to it. I just don't see that happening," he says. "Occasionally I'll have someone say something rude or crazy or even threatening at times. But that's very rare." 


Nathan Browning lives on a hill in the Winchell neighborhood. 

Around 2021 he began thinking about how he should be able to bike around town. This began when a friend handed him a copy of the 2019 book "Strong Towns"  by Charles L. Marohn Jr. 

Nathan Browning's e-bike at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. "I realized there's so many places Close to me, especially with an electric bike. There's no excuse."An advocate for the new urbanism movement, the author takes a look at how urban areas, including traffic infrastructure and transportation, could be made more sustainable and livable.  

"I started thinking about the ways we get around," Browning says. He got out his old college road bike. And he found himself "huffin' and puffin'" uphill getting back home.

So he got an e-bike in the spring of 2022. 

"It's fun... Vroom-vroom!" he says with a laugh. "It gets me out there, it gets my heart pumping, otherwise I'd just be sitting in the car." 

"I realized there's so many places close to me, especially with an electric bike. There's no excuse." 

He rides up Parkview for groceries at D&W. Every Saturday he goes to the Farmers Market on Bank. His ride there "is not too bad, and there's bike lanes pretty much the whole way for me." 

If there are no lanes, he manages to find quiet residential streets. 

But sometimes it's tricky. Browning plays league disk golf every week at Oshtemo Township Park. One member of the league who's a regular biker always arrives on his wheels. Browning realized, "If he can do it on a regular bike, I could do it on an electric bike."

Browning had his doubts that any route to the park could be bikable. But he studied the Strava heatmap, as well as Google Maps, and plotted out a route that felt mostly safe.

Nathan Browning's e-bike on a shopping run to D&W.Heatmaps take advantage of bikers, joggers, and others who use GPS to track their fitness. Strava and other platforms like Ride with GPS take the data of the many daily rides of users and overlay them on a map. The stronger the line on a road, the more popular it is with riders. 

In other words, there are likely good reasons if a length of West Main has a very faint line on the heatmap, or if a winding road through a residential development is bright with riders. "Use the wisdom of the crowd to try to get there safely," Browning says.

He finds Google Street View handy for street-level views of what he'll be riding on, to "assess, are there sidewalks? How busy might the street be?"

Browning came up with a winding route, involving Parkview west into Oshtemo, a bit of Stadium where a side path exists, the "nice little winding residential area, wide road, hardly any cars" which is Quail Run Drive, 9th Street, then reaching West Main a short distance from the park entrance.

"Ninth Street is a little frustrating because they have a mixed-use path along some of it, and then it just ends," he says. "That's the sketchiest part of my ride." 

New e-bike belonging to Second Wave's Mark Wedel, on its' first grocery shopping trip. ("Columbo" sticker because he feels like the bumbling detective whenever doing interviews, often asking "just one more thing" after the interviews should be concluBut there's more sketchiness. He has to navigate a left turn onto the only mixed-use path on that part of West Main, which is on the left side of the road. That path ends at the next street, 8th.

This is "where West Main turns into a really fast highway, and you have to ride against traffic to get to the park." 

Michigan law requires bikes to ride in the same direction as traffic. For Browning to do this, he'd have to cross four lanes of high-speed traffic, plus the center turn lane, ride on the shoulder to a point across from the park, then turn left back across the many lanes.
For his safety, he makes a judgment call, to ride on the left shoulder with "cars barreling toward me at 55 MPH." The shoulder is wide, and it only takes his e-bike a half-minute of travel to reach the park at this point. Whereas crossing M-43 twice seems riskier.

(Bicyclists often face such decisions, a study from 2017 found. Forbes wrote about the report, "Researchers have found that almost all road users break the law, but the reasons for the infractions differ between modes. Motorists break road rules to save time, while cyclists do so to save their necks... Getting out of the way of larger, faster, often lethal motor vehicles was the main factor influencing bicyclists' rule-breaking.")

Browning later says he didn't know that his 30-second maneuver against traffic was not legal. But what led him to do it -- a mixed-use side path suddenly ending -- is the kind of erratic infrastructure that inspired him to join Imagine Kalamazoo's Complete Streets Advisory Committee in the fall of 2022. 

He's had frequent meetings with the City's traffic engineer, Dennis Randolph, and has participated in discussions about bike infrastructure, like the bike lane pilots on Westnedge and Park.

"This is a really interesting way things are unfolding," Browning says. As he sees it, the city is focused on calming traffic, with bike infrastructure secondary. "The primary motivation of the city is to calm traffic, slow people down, make the streets safer" for all, including drivers, he says.

E-bikes are becoming increasingly popular. Here we see Mark Wedel's relatively new acquisition."What they probably didn't anticipate was this kind of response." 

Since the pandemic, according to a May article in Bicycling magazine, many people started riding, and are now looking toward their cities to improve infrastructure.

"There's this urbanist trend" happening, with "Strong Towns" and YouTubers like "Not Just Bikes," gaining popularity, Browning says.

"The unintended consequences of the bike lanes are people coming out of the woodwork saying, I actually like these changes that you're bringing about, and they're demanding the next step." 

For example, Kalamazoo bicyclists would like something stronger than intermittent flexible bollards separating them from the high traffic of Park and Westnedge. Bike lanes "need to be more protected, that's what I've heard from a lot of folks," Browning says.

Safety, perceived and real

To kick off Bike Week, the Bronson Park Cycle Show was held at the park, on May 13. Rides spanning centuries were shown off, chromed and shiny to a bit rusty but well-loved.  

Kalamazoo Public Safety Captain Christopher Franks was talking with a couple dressed out of the turn of the 20th century showing off 100-plus-year-old bikes.

Cory Playford and Stacy Yates Droski of C.P. Cycle and Sundries talk antique bikes with Kalamazoo Public Safety Captain Christopher Franks.The show brought out some classic bikes, but there were many new varieties, such as cargo e-bikes with plenty of child-carrying space.

Has Franks been noticing more people on bikes, doing everyday riding, solo riders to families with children?

"Not as much as I would like to see," he says. "Right now I think a lot of people are a little apprehensive to ride." 

Safety is a concern, he says. "We're doing a lot to help enforce some of those rules and laws on the roads that make it safer for people." 

It's vividly clear to both bikers and drivers that there seems to be more speeding, more blatant red-light running, and just reckless driving.

Are these drivers even being pulled over? 

"Yes, we actually just recently asked our officers to do more of a push for traffic enforcement, to try to get things better for the residents. Because we see that people are speeding, they're running red lights and things like that," Franks says.

"In the last couple years we have instituted back a traffic officer that is strictly supposed to be out writing tickets," he adds.

There's one traffic officer for the entire KPS jurisdiction? And there were, in recent years, none?

Franks says, "We would like to get a second position but we are down 30 officers, so we're trying to get our force built back up so we can have those specialty positions -- for instance, traffic officers -- to be out and enforce these laws."

Aside from enforcement, the City of Kalamazoo is working on road safety for non-motorized transportation -- each new street project is incorporating traffic calming and bike infrastructure. 

Vintage bikes on display at the Bronson Park Bike Show, May 13.The city is at the bronze level as a bicycle-friendly community, according to The League of American Bicyclists.

But Portage is silver, and the city government is actively working on getting to the gold level, Paul Selden of Bike-Friendly Kalamazoo, says. 

He lives in South Portage, "a really good riding area." 

Portage has a network of bike lanes and mixed-use paths and trails. Still, "in most cases, at some point along the route, you'll have to ride on the road," Selden says.

Bicycling on roads isn't going to be perfectly safe, Selden says. "And it's a perceptual thing, too... What's safe to one person isn't safe to another."

"People over-dangerize things... Everything is amped up, everyone is on edge nowadays," he says. 

Bike safety is simple -- "You have to follow the rules of the road, watch in front of you, behind you, have good lights." Selden is a fan of bike rodeos and bike camps, events that teach adults and kids bike safety.

It's risky to bike to where you need to go -- that's the obvious theme that arises when speaking with bicyclists.

So, why is it worth the risk?

We met Jim Ratliff and his 1967 Stingray at the Bronson Park Cycle Show.

KVCC librarian Jim Ratliff and his 1967 Stingray. Ratliff has been bike commuting in Kalamazoo for 28 years. He sometimes seeks out the long way to work: "I'd rather go the longer route and feel better internally... have a much better experience."Ratliff, the librarian for Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Arcadia Commons, has been commuting in Kalamazoo for 28 years -- presumably on more-contemporary bikes.

People often ask him how they could plan their own first rides to work. "Do a practice ride on Saturday or Sunday, when there's no traffic when the stakes are down and you don't have a time-clock to punch," he says. "Have a good time just exploring all the routes to make that work for you." 

Some routes may seem short, but they can be more stressful. "I'd rather go the longer route and feel better internally... have a much better experience."

On his rides to and from KVCC, he sees regulars -- pedestrians, bikers, people sitting on porches -- and they exchange waves. "It's just community building that would never happen if I drove my car."

SW Second Writer and avid cyclist Mark Wedel wrote a book "Mule Skinner Blues," about his bike ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

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Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.