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Bike Summit 2011 – What Are We Planning for?

May 9, 2011

On Friday, the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition held its second Bike Summit in the Eberhard Center of the downtown GVSU campus. The one-day conference brought together bicycle enthusiasts, city planners, bike commuters and business owners to discuss the future of bike transportation in Grand Rapids.

This writer was only able to stay for the morning keynote speaker and the two breakout sessions, so these observations are limited in scope.

The morning kepnote speaker was Darwin Hindman, the former Mayor of Colombia, Missouri. Hindman began by saying he is impressed with Grand Rapids and mentions the Chamber of Commerce award for most Green Mid-sized city, how Grand Rapids has great philanthropists and Art Prize, all indications of sustainability for the former Mayor.

He says that a sustainable city will happen with a knowledge-based economy, with “engineers, scientists and poets.” Hindman said the sustainability of Grand Rapids will be with “smart people, people who are drawn to the arts.” In fact, most of his opening remarks seemed to be targeted at young professionals who might want to raise a family here.

Eventually Hindman stated that bicycling is also important for the future of any city since health care costs are a big part of the economic cost for any community. In addition, “more bicycling promotes more ecological sustainability, shorter trips, less pollution, less fossil fuel dependency.” Hindman also noted that it is just cheaper to bike. People will save money and more money will stay in the local community.

The former Mayor then shifted his presentation to talk specifically about what has happened in Colombia, Missouri. Hindman said they took advantage of rails to trails in the 1980s that resulted in the MKT Trail project. The MKT Trail project even led to an increase in bicycle commuting. Hindman said this was important since about 1/3 of most car trips are 1 mile or less. In fact, the former Mayor made the claim that cities have designed physical activity out of the lives of people.

Hindman went on to say the MKT trail gave people a reason to change these attitudes, which eventually led to the City’s creation of a walk-able city manual. The PedNet Coalition was created to look at the interconnectedness of all forms of non-motorized transportation, which Hindman stressed was essential for long-term benefit.

Policy was key to making this all happen, whether it was sidewalk policy, working with school routes and all new construction. The next component was a complete streets program, which is designed to stop the bleeding – meaning as new infrastructure is completed it will include sidewalks, bike paths and landscaping to connect to the rest of the city.

Another aspect of the larger plan is to have neighborhood parks for every half-mile of the city, with no parking to encourage people to walk or bike to these parks. The parks also include a bike trail system as another way to connect the city.

Colombia, Missouri also received a $25 million federal grant to build this system to be able to demonstrate a shift in people’s behavior from car use to walking and biking. Part of the money was used to rebuild intersections, created bicycle/walking underpasses and a broad interconnecting of these systems in the city. All new businesses are required to put in bike racks and the city will provide economic incentives.

They also have put in sharos, which is a bike image and sends the message to the car drivers that they need to share the road with those on bikes. These are areas where there is not enough width to have bike lanes. Some of the intersections have included artwork as part of the re-design and as a way of sending the message to the community about changing habits.

Another project was to create a walking bus plan. A walking bus plan is getting adults to walk part of a route to school and meet kids along the way, so that kids are accompanied by adults on the whole way to school. This seems like a really creative project that has great community building potential and sends the message that all residents can take some responsibility for the safety and well being of children.

The former Mayor of Colombia ended his remarks by pointing out that promoting more non-motorized transportation was good for economic development. Hindman said that Real Estate companies have been including biking and bike paths as part of their sales pitch to selling homes in Colombia and IBM even recently open a facility in Colombia because of the City’s shift in developing more non-motorized transportation systems.

Planning for Bicycle Facilities – Breakout Session

Suzanne Schultz with the Planning Department of the City of Gran Rapids was the first presenter for this session. She presented a list of questions that they have been hearing from people and then responds to each question.

The first question is what has the city done since the last summit? Many people think nothing, but Suzanne says that the Green Grand Rapids plan has been completed, the city has been working with the bike coalition, a Complete Streets Solution is being developed and a Complete Streets Policy.

Question #2 addresses why the only bike lane in the City is on Lake Dr. Shultz argued that they are trying to get everybody involved with City Planning on the same page in order to make bike lanes happen. Once everyone is on board she thinks more bike lanes will happen, but no timeframe was provided on when new bike lanes would happen.

The next question dealt with road diets. Schultz said there have been about 13 miles of road diets, where there are one less car lane and now there are spaces for bikes to ride, such as E. Fulton St. They have plans to do the same for Division beginning in June.

Schultz also said the City is developing more sharos and are looking at what can happen since you need at least 5 feet on the outer part of a street for bike lanes to be added. The City has done traffic calming projects, some under/overpasses redesign, as well as adding new requirements for any new construction.

One obstacle to implement more bike lanes and other bike friendly projects is the lack of funds. Schultz admitted that finding money to pay for creation, operation and maintenance of bike facilities is a major challenge.

The second presenter in this breakout session was a representative with the Grand Valley Metro Council. They are trying to identify non-motorized transportation needs, identify gaps in existing facilities and develop prioritizing criteria. They are trying to help facilitate regional planning. There is a also non-motorized Committee, which is working on developing long range transportation plans for the region.

The Metro Council gets funding on an annual basis, about $1.3 million per year and nearly half of that is for non-motorized transportation. This money is used for sidewalks, bike racks and safety issues. There is also some State money through Fund Act 51, which is divided between MDOT, County road commissions and cities. She said there is a total need of $77.9 – 95 million for the next 25 years, but there is only $36 million identified so far.

The session ended with two representatives from the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). Both talked about the current economic conditions and the work they did to get public input. Based on the public input people said they want more retail downtown and the activation the river, particularly riverfront trails. They have divided the work into three areas – economic development, the environment and the cultural experience for people when downtown.

Some of the doable or “low hanging fruit” possibilities were then identified for the downtown area. The DDA spokesperson said there are currently 350 downtown bike parking spaces, some within the parking ramps and others along major roads downtown. They are looking at best practices from around the country, which may include bike storage shelters and other designs that would meet the needs of people.

Economic Development – Breakout Session

This breakout session involved 5 men all emphasizing the economic possibilities around bicycle use, but within a very narrow framework. All five of the presenters in this breakout session were businessmen who either sold bikes, sold bicycle gear or promoted bicycle events as a means of tourism.

Several of these speakers said that they specifically target a younger audience, what they referred to as Millennials, which they meant were young urban professionals who are less interested in owning cars and are part of the “knowledge economy.”

Two guys from Bike Friendly GR were part of this presentation. They both own a bike lifestyle company that is making t-shirts and looking to make other products that promote “Bike fashion.” The spokespersons from Bike Friendly GR acknowledged that it costs on average about $12,000 to won a car, but if more people could ride bike lots of money would be saved. They stated that if people only rode bike 31 days a year there could be a savings of over a million dollars in Grand Rapids. However, they both stressed that this money could just be spent on something else as opposed to people being able to live a more downwardly mobil and simple lifestyle.

The main presenter in this breakout session was Scott Chapin, with RJF Agencies in Minneapolis. Chapin talked about attracting tourists, both seasonal and permanent. He also said that bicycling attracts commerce and enhances communities, even though he gave no concrete examples.

Chapin said there is different types of economic impact such as direct initial purchase of bikes and bike gear, cross industry investment and induced investment, which is where people will go to bars, cafes and restaurants after biking on bike events. He talked about bike trips and the expenditures, which is where the “real money is.” In Wisconsin there is more of an economic impact from biking than hunting, according to Chapin. People are driving to Wisconsin for bike riding. He even said that Towns are competing for bike races, because they know there are significant economic benefits. Charity rides also bring in lots of money, according to Chapin.

Chapin also claims that land values increase because of bike infrastructure. He thinks that if communities made these kinds of investments they could also get grants to continue the process. Chapin concluded with pushing silent sports and bike races, which will not only have a big investment for the race, but people coming to train for the race thus spending more money in your community.

Much of this emphasis on economic development seemed problematic. Why so much emphasis on attracting tourists and starting companies to promote bike fashion? I understand that people are looking to develop new businesses, but there was so little information or discussion about making bicycle transportation a justice issue.

Bicycling has significant justice implications. Biking can improve your health and cut down tremendously on health care costs. It reduces carbon emissions, which also reduces the risk of respiratory problems such as asthma.

Bicycling has tremendous implications for environmental protection. It lessens the need for fossil fuels, especially when there is a comprehensive bike-commuting infrastructure. High numbers of bike users means less traffic congestion, less land use by roads and parking lots, just to name a few.

While there were certainly some positive aspects to the Bike Summit, it raised many questions about the long-term goals of such efforts and who are the real beneficiaries of such planning. In looking at some of the sponsors of the event the emphasis on economic development seems clearer, with companies like Meijer, Atomic Object, Priority Health and the law firm of Varnum.

However, the largest sponsor was the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. This raises even bigger questions about why they would fund such an effort and how it fits into branding their image as philanthropists, especially while they fund campaigns to privatize government, social services and education, fund anti-gay campaigns and other religious rights efforts. These are important questions for the organizers of the Bike Summit and anyone who wants to promote greater transparency and shed light on the ultimate goals of such efforts.

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