From near tragedy comes action on better bike routes in Kalamazoo Township

Kalamazoo Township has trustees with skin in the game when it comes to non-motorized transportation.

The township's three-year-old non-motorized master plan is nearly half-realized, supervisor Ron Reid says. New and upcoming bike boulevards, sidewalks, and road diets have been in the works in part because of the times when trustee Steve Leuty was a witness to near-tragedy.

Twice while taking his son to King-Westwood Elementary on Nichols Road, Leuty saw children "being missed by less than an inch by a car as they crossed at a crosswalk to the school, with a crosswalk attendant there."

This was before the Kalamazoo County Road Commission, at the urging of former township supervisor Gary Cramer, put Nichols on the county’s first road diet in the mid-'00s. Leuty saw drivers, apparently annoyed at the slowing and stopped traffic, and unable to see the kids and crossing guard, take advantage of the four-lane road to speed through. "The danger of that was so incredible."

Then, really driving home these issues, was the time a car hit Leuty, throwing him and his bike into the middle of West Main (M-43). 

Leuty was a bicycle commuter at the time. The only safe option for travel on the busy four-lane traffic artery was the sidewalk. He stopped for a car on Prairie Ave. The car wasn't moving, so he pedaled forward, then found himself on the pavement in the middle of West Main.

He suffered no major injuries. Public safety officers arrived. "The person explained to the police that 'he shouldn't have been riding on the sidewalk,'" Leuty says. The officer said, "Lady, would you ride a bicycle on M-43?" 

Do The Westwood Wiggle

Kalamazoo Township's borders form two irregularly-shaped chunks of land to the north-west and east of the City of Kalamazoo and Parchment, with two bordered islands between.

Inside its borders are the large Westwood and Eastwood neighborhoods, the smaller Lakewood and Northwood, one of the county's major hospitals, schools, stores, places of worship and parks. A diverse population of 21,675 people require many methods of transportation to get to all these places.

"As a kid, I liked maps," supervisor Reid says. He sounds wistful at the changes he helped make on the township's map, having recently announced his retirement. Reid's last day is May 31. "This is in my blood."

Reid helped implement the non-motorized master plan, adopted in December, 2014. But he's not taking all the credit.

He credits residents who, in an early 2013 survey, let the township know what they wanted. "They want police, they want fire, they want EMS, they want good roads -- at that point we had pretty crummy roads -- those are the top four," he says. But next on the list, "we want sidewalks, we want pathways, we want trails, we want, especially, a walkable community." 

Reid also credits the township board and trustee Leuty. "He has been shepherding the implementation of that plan." 

"Some categorize me as a tree-hugger," Leuty says, laughing. "Anything that helps the environment, you can count me in. But I count myself as kind of a discriminating tree-hugger, in that I want our limited public resources to go toward the biggest bang for the buck, make the biggest difference for our residents." 

One relatively big bang for the buck came out of Leuty's near-death experience on West Main. There has got to be a better way to travel, on bike or foot, parallel to that road, Leuty thought. There are quiet roads through the Westood neighborhood, but none are straight east-west. 

"You'd have to wiggle," he says. "A wiggly route, it might take you a few more hundred feet, but it might be a much more enjoyable and safer experience." 

So bike route signs were erected over the last winter, pointing the way along the approximately 2.5-mile Wiggle between North Arlington Street and North Drake Road. 

It, and a matching wiggle in Eastwood, are examples of "bike boulevards," Leuty says. The method of directing bikes onto roads with speed limits of no more than 25 mph., with lower traffic, is becoming a standard practice in other communities around the country. They are ways to guide bikes to businesses and bus stops along West Main or East Main. They are also cheaper and easier to create than a paved bike trail or shared-use path.

Making idealist plans a reality, one sidewalk step at a time

Ironically, the drop in the price of oil helped to fuel the non-motorized plan, Reid says. In February of 2015, voters passed a road-repair bond request of $9.75 million. Around the same time, oil prices plunged. That led to savings for road construction, savings which were put "back into the non-motorized side and implement that non-motorized transportation plan," Reid says.

The township board has long embraced the complete streets concept, Leuty says. "Just biking to the grocery store, or using the sidewalk, on their wheelchair, to get to a church or a bus stop, all of those are just basic elements that a community should provide as their transportation network."  

That lead to the original plan being an "idealist listing" of "all the needs... which probably if you added it up would be hundreds of millions of dollars worth of work." 

He, trustee Don Martin, and citizens formed a citizen implementation committee, to make the list "more practical." Goals established ranged from the East Main road diet and the new bike routes, to encouraging residents to shovel their walks in the winter.

But many residents don't have much of a sidewalk to shovel.  

Generations of students walking to Kalamazoo Central High had to use road shoulders or pathways through grass. Now there are sidewalks on Grand Prairie Road, and they will soon be on North Drake. (Drake also has bike lanes, part of its road diet). 

Construction starts this summer on new walks where there's been none. These include walks on streets to North East Elementary, Parchment Northwood Elementary, and along Solon Street-Santos Avenue, providing a better pedestrian connection between West Main and Howard Street and the Western Michigan University area.

A major portion of the plan targets the township's "orphan sidewalks," pathways that date back to the neighborhoods' 1940's roots. Many end in grass and dirt before they reach the curb at intersections -- an insurmountable barrier to people using wheelchairs, Leuty says. Walks are being finished and made ADA-ready in township neighborhoods. 

Why spend motorists' tax money on non-motorized transport?

Nichols-- where Leuty saw elementary students endangered by four lanes of traffic -- and other primary roads of Drake and East Main have seen new dieting, with included bike lanes. 

The sharrows on Gull Road are part of an MDOT project, "no input by us," Leuty says. The arrows and bike icons painted on traffic lanes -- Leuty's input would've been that they're best for 25 mph roads, and are mainly reminders for drivers that bikes have a right to be there. 

"How does that fit for Howard Street (which also has sharrows by the WMU campus) in the city of Kalamazoo, or Gull Road?" Leuty asks. Bicyclists are "all struggling between that we-have-a-right-to-be-here, and boy-I-don't-feel-safe on this sharrowed-marked road at 40 mph." 

During citizen input meetings, "I've had two very fine gentlemen tell me 'that's a bunch of bunk, a waste of my tax money to put a sharrow on there. It's a road for vehicles!' These are kind people, but still have a Henry Ford mentality that cars are the only thing to have a right to be on a road." 

Both cyclists and drivers question sharrows, but why spend tax money on bike lanes, shared pathways, and all that goes into complete streets?

Leuty looks at it from a motorist's perspective.

"Some of these components are ways to give bicyclists their own space," to get bikes out of the path of motor vehicles.  

Taking a wider view, Leuty says improvements in non-motorized travel "benefits all property owners, in that it helps market our neighborhoods to younger and retired citizens... help keep our neighborhoods stable and attractive to people of all demographics." 

Plus, the majority of residents have told the township they "value non-motorized options," that they'd like ways to connect neighborhoods with the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and downtown Kalamazoo, that they'd like to not worry about their children walking to school.

Reid adds that the work "supports a healthy community. And it shows the vitality of a community." Biking and walking get people outdoors, to connect with their world at slower speeds. "It points to what a great community Kalamazoo is," Reid says. 

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