Which is the most bike-friendly town on the St. Clair River?

I was given a task: Find out what's happening to make the area more welcoming to bikes. It started in Port Huron, where I found mixed answers. Then it followed the disjointed Bridge to Bay Trail south. It arrived at Marine City, a little town looking to increase bike tourism.

These are the questions I was trying to answer: Does either city fit the League of American Bicyclists' definition: "A bicycle-friendly place makes bicycling safe, comfortable and convenient for people of all ages and abilities?"

Are there bike lanes, non-motorized pathways? Are these lanes and pathways extensive enough to be useful? Do they connect neighborhoods? Whether they're on a lane or on a road without a lane, are bikers respected by motorists?

First, we asked people who pedaled.

Peter Michael, of the St. Clair-based Slow Cycle & Slow Paddle, says, yikes, "Port Huron is one of the worst places to ride a bike. It's not bike friendly at all."

Doug Borgman, Port Huron resident and member of the Chain Gang Bicycle & Adventure club, says, "I have ridden in all 83 counties in this state and I have rarely experienced the level of negativity from drivers that I have in this area."

Full disclosure: I like to pedal around 3,000-4,000 miles a year.  I've found that it's a complex thing, motorists' attitude. It stems from an area's cultural acceptance of bicyclists, as well as the likelihood that --- real or imagined -- bikes are "in the way" of drivers.

A biker knows that many times, to get from point A to point B, you've got to ride on a road with no bike lane or shoulder. Other options include sidewalks too narrow to accommodate bikers and walkers.

In Port Huron, there are a few bike lanes and pathways, Michael and Borgman say, but motor vehicles park on the lanes, and wide paths become narrow sidewalks which put bikes in conflict with pedestrians.

Borgman, who's just logged 6,500 miles on his bike this year, says of Port Huron, "Some limited progress has been made in making bike lanes and bike paths. However, I would say
this has been very limited."

He points to a designated bike lane by St. Clair County Community College. It's two blocks long, and in spite of signs showing it's for bikes only, people park on the lane. It's also in conflict with a bus stop.

"There is another two-block path along M-25. Both of these paths are so short and don't really connect to anything that they are one step above being useless. There is another path along the St. Clair River called the Blue Water River Walk. It is primarily used by walking pedestrians, and it, too, is only a few blocks long."

Borgman rides for fun and to run everyday errands. He says Port Huron is better than when he started biking in the 1970s. "I still get people yelling at me to get off the road, but I can say that I haven't had anything thrown at me for quite some time."

Michael's group, Slow Cycle & Slow Paddle, is for family-friendly, relaxed-pace bike riding and kayaking.

He's led a few rides into Port Huron, but not often, he says, citing many of Borgman's same complaints. It's possible to ride on the road to reach the River Walk, but then they have to ride around pedestrians. "I know a lot of the walkers get a little angry with that."

On the River Walk and portions of the Bridge to Bay Trail there are great river views, he says. Port Huron "is a nice town to go bike riding, but you've got to be safe. It's not made for it."

"If you're a veteran bike rider, you could be safe." But if you're a newbie, be careful. "The cars are really not too friendly. If you're riding in the lane, they'll pass you and lay on the horn."

Counterpoint: Port Huron is Working On It

Port Huron city manager James Freed says his town is "a very walkable and bike-able community."

They've been following their version of the Complete Streets initiative, adding infrastructure for pedestrians and bikes as part of street improvement. Much of this has been installed in the last ten years of the city's CSO (combined sewer overflow) work to stop sewage and storm water discharge into the Black River, Freed says.

There are bike racks, "all throughout town." As for signage for bikes, and to help motorists
be aware of bikes, "we have some, but not a lot," he says.

Along Pine Grove Avenue there is a wide non-motorized path, but that connects to narrower sidewalk.

"Do you guys consider riding on sidewalks biking?" Freed asks.

Well, it does lead to conflicts with pedestrians, isn't safe in crowded areas, and often motorists aren't looking for a bike to be crossing driveways (more personal disclosure: the only time I've been hit by a car was while riding on a sidewalk, crossing in front of a blind alleyway).

Freed does have bicycling experience. "I personally bike almost everywhere on the weekends, I ride my bike downtown, my wife and I bike to the farmers' market, we bike to lunch downtown to the brewery."

One motivation to making Port Huron bike friendly is tourism, he points out. "This is a tourist destination. People are on their boats -- a lot of people come here, they don't have a car, they have their boat in the harbor and they have their bike."

One can "ride the River Walk all the way down to the rails-to-trails, hop on that and go all the way out for miles," he says. "Most gorgeous scenery in all the state. Overlooking the Blue Water bridges and along the bay? I can't think of a better place to ride."

Rolling South

St. Clair County overall has better biking than Port Huron proper, in Michael's opinion.

The Wadhams to Avoca Trail is a 12-mile rail-trail starting in Port Huron Township and running north-west to Avoca. It travels through woods and farmland, taking pedalers over the stunning 60-foot high Mill Creek Trestle.

South of Port Huron, the "Marine City-St. Clair area, is a real nice bike riding community," Michael says. Uninterrupted pathways of the Bridge to Bay connect St. Clair to Marine City, allowing one to roll through countryside and along the river -- all "safe to ride," he says.

The area around Marine City has "been crazy" with bikes, Michael says. Many are coming over from Sombra, Ontario on the ferry, to ride south to Algonac to take that town's ferry to Walpole Island, then roll back up Sombra, a round trip of around 20-25 miles.

Michael's been working on organizing a mass bike ride of this route with someone who legitimately could be called Marine City's biggest booster, Gary Kohs.

"Here's the deal -- throw your bikes in the back of your car, come on out to Marine City, have breakfast...." Kohs says enthusiastically, doing a good job of selling me this international ride. "You've got everything you need in Marine City for the beginning of the trip and the end of the trip." Kohs wants to get Sombra involved, and is reaching out to the Walpole Island First Nation.

Bicyclists should know, he points out, that Marine City is also the starting point of US Bicycle Route 20, which stretches from the town ferry dock to the ferry at Ludington on the other side of the state. It picks up on the west shore of Lake Michigan and heads to Oregon.

They've met people from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York biking across the country. He tells of a recent pack of students arriving from Oregon, who were looking for a place to stay. He put them up in his theatre's loft apartment, and local restaurants gave them breakfast and dinner -- all free. "It's about the friendliest town you'll ever see for bicyclists."

The city's government is working on making it a center for biking. Elaine Leven, city manager of Marine City, knows the potential for bike tourism.

"And I think one of the reasons is, it's a nice small town, it's easy to maneuver in, and we do have direct access to rails-to-trails," she says.

But part of a town's bike-friendliness also has to be aimed at its pedaling residents.

Marine City is working towards becoming a redevelopment community, through the MEDC, says Levens. That process includes plans for "integrated access on the roads for multiple uses."

In downtown Marine City, "there's not a lot of public parking." So, to "kill two birds with one stone" the city is hoping to encourage bike travel for residents and visitors, since bike racks take up less space than parking lots.

They have a big advantage in being a small town. "So it's a little easier to get some of these things accomplished. Of course, funding is always the biggest hurdle."

She defends Port Huron's efforts. "You gotta start somewhere." Leven notes that PH has made progress along the waterfront and going south into Marysville. "They're really working on getting that all interconnected with the wide safety paths that are pedestrian and bicycle friendly."

Still, it seems the area has more work to do if it plans to become a bike-friendly destination of distinction.

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo. He's working on his book, tentatively titled "Raw Power: Casually Obsessive and Obsessively Casual Long Distance Biking."