How bike friendly is Kalamazoo, anyway?

Kalamazoo is making a push to be nationally recognized as a bicycle friendly community.

After all, its suburban neighbor Portage has been certified a bike-friendly bronze award by the League of American Bicyclists. Why not Kalamazoo?

In March, the city applied to the League's Bicycle Friendly America program. The League of American Bicyclists has detailed standards a city must reach to be considered bicycle friendly: laws must protect bikes, there must be an effort to educate drivers and riders, lanes and trails must connect all parts of the community, and there should be evidence that residents are riding regularly.

The awards will be announced around the date of Bike-To-Work Day, May 19, BFA director Amelia Neptune says.

The League's bronze award, the lowest of their five levels of bike-friendliness, went to Portage, Battle Creek, and Grand Rapids. In all, 10 Michigan communities have earned official bike-friendly recognition, with Marquette, Houghton, and Ann Arbor reaching the next level, silver.

There are many gold award communities across the U.S., and five platinums. (Madison, Wis., is the only one in the Midwest.) No town has hit diamond level, yet.

Kalamazoo: Bike friendly?

"Yes," says Paul Selden, director of road safety for the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club and head of local bike advocacy group Bike Friendly Kalamazoo. "It's bike friendly and becoming even more so.

"And that's in no small part due to a groundswell of grassroots organizations that are doing their part to educate people, make people more aware of the fact that bicyclists have a right to be out there, and educating their own members in how to be courteous to motorists as well."

It's been nine months since an intoxicated driver allegedly killed five riders and injured four others in Kalamazoo's Chain Gang bicycle club. It didn't take the tragedy of June 7 to trigger the effort to make Kalamazoo more bike-able -- that effort started years before -- but that certainly made the community more aware of the presence of bikes on the roads and the challenges bicyclists face. And it increased motivation to create safe bike routes. 

For the past few years, the city government has been actively making Kalamazoo a better place for pedaling, Selden says. 

For decades before, the city never put much effort into making Kalamazoo bike-able. But now, "There's this huge institutionalization of bike friendly spirit that's taking place," he says.

Mayor Bobby Hopewell, an active rider, has been a "tremendously positive" force, as have other city commissioners. Selden lists public services director James Baker and former city planner, now director of community development, Rebekah Kik as being drivers behind more bike infrastructure. He also notes that Kalamazoo Township supervisor Ron Reid has done work "that's really precedent setting" including establishing routes and bike boulevards.

"There are so many projects happening in 2017 to expand the city's bike lane and bike route system," he says. 

Portage goes for the gold

Confession: I (correspondent Mark Wedel) ride a bike. As a way to unwind, to exercise, to do errands, to have fun, to go on little adventures

I learned to do so on Kalamazoo and Portage's trails, lanes, and streets. A few times a week I'll go on 20-mile round trips, north from home to the KRVT or Kal-Haven, or south to the Bicentennial Trail and the new Eliason Nature Reserve Trail.

The Kalamazoo trails are great. But sometimes visions of downtown Kalamazoo traffic make me pedal south.

"Why wouldn't you?" Portage city manager Larry Shaffer asks. 

After that bit of boosterism for Portage/playful jab at Kalamazoo, Shaffer says, "We need the city of Kalamazoo to be successful." Eventually, the two cities' bike networks will be connected, and two-way bike traffic will bring bicyclist commerce to the shops, restaurants, and brewpubs of both, he adds.

Portage is proud that they have the League's bronze recognition -- and this year, they hope to go for the gold. Or, at least, silver.

"We've put together a task force" to level-up in bike friendliness, Shaffer says. It's not about just winning an award, it's about learning how to "get some real benefits for our citizens," he adds.

As seen on Portage's bicycle friendly report card, 49 percent of the city's arterial streets have bike lanes. Those, plus off-road bike routes, form a network that makes it fairly easy to pedal to most parts of the city, while avoiding busy streets like Westnedge Avenue, Shaver and Portage roads.

"We're very proud of it. Our city tagline is 'a natural place to move,'" Shaffer says. Bike friendliness is not a "tangential issue" for Portage, he says. "It's an existential issue. We believe in it. We think that people move to our community not only because of great schools and great parks, but because we've got a great bike network, a great off-road network." 

Kalamazoo: Old, crowded, busy, but bike-able

Portage, a rural township, became a city in 1963. It grew into a suburban community with booming commercial areas.

Kalamazoo incorporated as a village in 1843, and as a city in 1884. It was built in the bowl of a valley, with buildings, neighborhoods and roads crowding onto the available level ground for the past century. What were brick roads for the horse-and-buggy became massive one-way streets, pumping traffic from and to Interstate I-94 and U.S. 131. 

It's simply not easy getting bike lanes through Kalamazoo's downtown, Selden says. 

For the beginner or casual rider, biking through downtown feels like a perilous endeavor. Kalamazoo Avenue and West Michigan Avenue "form the equivalent of rivers that create barriers in people's minds," he says. "Psychologically, that's tough."

The city has long had plans to remake Kalamazoo's roads into something more-forgiving for bikes and pedestrians, but making those plans reality has been painfully slow.

Selden has worked with the city, Kalamazoo Township, and others to plan bike routes. Officials have been open and enthusiastic to his suggestions, but, "Man, it's tricky," he says, summing up the process. 

"I'm just painting a realistic picture financially, geographically, and spiritually in a way as far as the leaders' hearts go. Yeah, maybe Kalamazoo is a little bit behind, but it's in a different situation (than before) and I'm very optimistic about where it's headed."

Kik: Kalamazoo bike connections, KATS, and culture

Rebekah Kik lived for a while in Denver, Colo., without a car. Though there were some scary hill climbs on her bike commute at the edge of the Rockies, "what's scariest here (in Kalamazoo) is the culture."

In Denver or Boulder, "even the drivers -- they own bicycles as well -- they get it and are respectful of it. Whereas here, it's not like that at all. They see you as a plague on the road. So I think what we're working hardest on is the culture."

Not that there hasn't been hard work on infrastructure. When Kik became city planner in 2014, she discovered Kalamazoo's 1998 non-motorized plan had yet to be fully-implemented. She focused on the plan's east-west KRVT connection through downtown, a protected bike lane that, after many delays, should be done in the fall of 2017, she says. 

Next on the agenda, a connection south to the Portage trails. Kik is raising grants and plotting a pathway for a trail from Harrison Street to Kilgore Road. She's also been helping with the plans and gathering public comments on the KATS (Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study) Pedestrian Greenway Transit Plan.

Kik is a fan of the road diet -- the redesign of roads to make them narrower, with slower traffic. "There are beautiful neighborhoods ripped apart by really fast, angry streets in our downtown, and that's bad." She exclaims about a five-lane section of one-way West Michigan that cuts through downtown, "you could land a small jet on that road!"

But, she realizes, both drivers and bikers need to be educated about the post-diet roads. After a section of Portage Street was put on a diet last year, she noticed that there were still bicyclists on the street’s sidewalks, even though the diet added bike lanes. 

Some people in town have an ingrained tendency to ride on sidewalks because they never felt safe on the road, she suspects. "Those folks still don't feel safe, or they've been treated poorly by motorists while in a bike lane."

New bike infrastructure won't improve bicycle friendliness on its own. So Kik has been ramping up education for bikes and cars. 

Signs will go up telling motorists of the new five-foot passing ordinance, passed in September. At bike events, people have been educated on how to use public transportation with biking, such as how to put bikes on Metro buses. She credits Open Roads with educating youth in all things bike.

Kik is partnering with MDOT's "Training Wheels" program for an event on July 20, where city officials and employees will be put on bicycles and sent through the city to see for themselves how bike friendly, or not, Kalamazoo is.

It's one thing to get city traffic engineers on bikes to discover the joys and perils of riding, but Kik recognizes that non-motorized outreach needs to include all of Kalamazoo's citizens, and their transportation needs.

"I'd also like to say there are people who have no car." For them, biking is more than displaying an attitude of "oh, yes, I'm going to do good for my carbon footprint today," she says.

For some, other than buses and walking, a bicycle is the only transportation they have. They "need safe infrastructure" to get to work, school, and more. This includes teens and students, Kik says. "Safe walking and biking for them is critical to being independent, to being able to get your first job." 

Kik lists off greenway plans and biking events, the hunt for private funding and grants to pay for it all, the many Imagine Kalamazoo and KATS meetings to gather public input -- it's clear she's not kidding when she says the city hopes to get the League of American Bicyclists' gold award for being a bike friendly community.

But Kalamazoo hasn't even gotten to the bronze level. Why?

"Nobody's ever applied for it," Kik says.

Kalamazoo is more than bronze-worthy, she feels, "because we're really putting in the hard work."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist working out of southwest Michigan since 1992. For more information visit his website
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