Protected trail will help make bike rides better

To grow a network, or a non-motorized trail, you've got to make connections.

National bicycle advocacy group, PeopleForBikes, recently awarded a $5,000 grant to go towards the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail's downtown connector. 

A protected bike lane will connect the two branches of the KRVT through downtown Kalamazoo, linking together a continuous 22 mile ride through the county (not including the connected 33.5 mile Kal-Haven Trail). 

Construction will start this spring. The bike lane will be complete by the end of the year, with final landscaping, signs and other accoutrements in place in 2017.

The city and the Parks Foundation of Kalamazoo County have been working together to raise funds, both public and private. They've been making connections, local and national, to get the project rolling.

The PeopleForBikes grant shows "we are incrementally getting to a place where the networks are coming together," says Kalamazoo city planner Rebekah Kik. 

Kik and the campaign coordinator of the Parks Foundation, Melody Daacon, sent an extensive application to PFB last year. The PeopleForBikes's response shows ”they're seeing that we have this master plan," Kik says.

The protected bike lane will show Kalamazoo is moving from being motor-vehicle-centered to being overall "transportation-centered," Daacon says.

"We basically have the construction funded," Kik says. The new grant will go toward the "bells and whistles, like really nice landscaping, being able to provide excellent way-finding" -- such as signs to guide riders to downtown culture, food and shops -- "so it connects the whole trail to the downtown... add that extra layer of what an urban trail needs."

Beyond funds for construction, money is needed for the connector endowment, to make sure money is available for future upkeep, she says. 

The grant is not the biggest slice of the project's entire funding pie. But the reason the PeopleForBikes support is important, Kik says, is that it's "a really big nod to Kalamazoo to have a nationally-known bike advocacy group" recognizing the city's efforts.

PeopleForBikes grants manager Zoe Kircos says from her office in Boulder, Colo., "At this point, our grant is so well-known that we can probably only fund fewer than ten percent of the applications we receive."  

She'd been seeing many applications for various KRVT projects from from the "proactive" Daacon, Kircos says, so "we've kept our eye on it."

Kircos is originally from southeast Michigan and knows and admires our state's trails. Aside from that, the application for the Kalamazoo connector "hit a number of sweet spots for us."

First, it will connect the gap in a major Michigan trail network, "a great regional trail system," that serves a lot of riders and hikers. 

Second, Kircos was impressed with the pop-up lane demonstration that happened last June, where local bicyclists tried out the proposed route and took a survey of what they thought. 

Third, it's "something we support greatly, installing protected bike lanes in key locations." 

One of the challenges of biking on busy urban streets is, of course, safety. A protected lane, which has barriers between motorized vehicles and bikes, plus barriers between bikes and pedestrians, is perfect for "riders who are not as experienced, who have kids, are a little bit older, haven't been on a bike in a while. It just makes it that much easier, to get on a bike and ride to places," Kircos says.

Completely coincidental and separate from the grant are the PFB billboards that have gone up around Kalamazoo, which are donated public service ads from billboard owners.

Those are part of PFB's campaign to get drivers to respect riders. "I'm a mom. I'm a nurse. I'm on a bike. Watch out for me," Kircos paraphrases. 

While driving, "you see a person on a bike as a barrier to you getting where you need to go, instead of a human being, like a neighbor," she says.

Future Waypoints On the Growing Kalamazoo Bike Network:

The goal of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail is to continue east to Battle Creek's trail system, which would complete 134 miles of trail starting with the Kal-Haven Trail at South Haven.

There are now eight miles remaining to connect Galesburg at 35th Street through Augusta to Fort Custer ending at the Battle Creek Linear Park. "We are really excited to announce a new partnership in 2016 with the Gull Lake Area Trail (GLAT) group, which will include an additional four-mile section of trail heading north from Augusta to the south end of Gull Lake Bay," Daacon says.
A Kalamazoo-Portage spur is expected to be completed by 2018. Construction begins this spring through Kalamazoo Valley Community College's new Bronson healthy Living Campus, through Upjohn Park. The plan is to continue to East Alcott St. They may "skip over the Allied site for now," Kik says, depending on the EPA's final ruling on the Superfund site this year. The trail will continue through Blanche Hull Park to the trailhead at Portage Bicentennial Park at Kilgore Road and Lovers Lane.

Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer and avid bicyclist. 

Making trail connections
Some of the funders of the downtown KRVT connector are:
Parks Foundation of Kalamazoo County
Irving S. Gilmore Foundation
Connable Fund
Burdick Thorne Fund
People's Food Coop
Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation 
People for Bikes
Spirit of Community (a grant administered by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation)
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