During the week of June 21-28, 2013, the PALM XXXII bike tour gave me the opportunity to experience bikeability issues in Michigan literally from the ground up. Now that the ride is over, I’d like to talk about how PALM itself affects bikeability, and all the ways it has been helping to make Michigan a more bike-friendly state for the past 32 years.
Back when the ride started in 1982, pretty much nobody in Michigan was talking about bikeability or Complete Streets, and certainly not about how those things can enhance placemaking.
The first annual PALM ride, from Berrien Springs to Detroit, was sponsored by the Great Lakes Bicycle Council with the help of Metropolitan Detroit Council of AYK, Southwestern Michigan Regional Planning Commission, South-Central Michigan Planning Council, and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
The goal was to promote bicycle tourism in Michigan, raise public awareness for safe bicycling, and encourage bicycling as an everyday mode of transportation. Those goals haven’t changed over the course of 32 years, said current PALM chair Kevin Novess Sr., but plenty has happened to impact them.
Urban sprawl has put a lot more commuters and commercial development on formerly quiet, rural roadways.
“It’s gotten more difficult to find routes. Some roads that were suitable 20 or 30 years ago aren’t anymore due to the increase in traffic,” said Novess. “On the other hand, thanks to Complete Streets legislation we’re starting to see more and more communities putting in bike lanes and such. But there’s still a big, big difference between what you see in the towns, and what’s out there in the townships in between.”
Thanks to the efforts of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, better legislation is making its way into state and local law to protect cyclists and make the state’s roadways more bike-friendly. That includes everything from local Complete Streets ordinances to the recent introduction of Vulnerable Roadway User bills in the State House of Representatives.
“PALM has been giving $1 from every rider registration to LMB for as long as I can remember because they’re right there in Lansing at the courthouses and the Capitol with their finger on the pulse of what’s going on with bicycle laws and legislation,” said Novess. “There’s all kinds of stuff they’re working on that we’re not always aware of. We rely on them.”
Awareness of the need to share the road is also growing among both cyclists and motorists, said Novess. Every night during PALM, LMB certified instructor Al Lauland holds free classes on topics ranging from basic bike maintenance to safe riding tips.
“Cyclists in general are more educated than they were. LMB plays a good part in that to educate cyclists and motorists to share the road, and we try to do that too,” he said. “And it’s a two-way street. For example, legally you can ride two abreast but we know motorists are already a little bit upset when they encounter several hundred bikes in a row, so we encourage single-file riding to promote some goodwill.”
Living an active, healthy lifestyle has also become more popular among all age groups and demographics. The first decade or two, it was difficult getting 500 riders signed up even after months of promotion and open registration. In 2013, registration filled in one day with 825 riders ages nine months to 91 years.
Ultimately, PALM’s biggest impact is the sense of empowerment it gives to every participant. By heavily promoting the ride as a family and age friendly event, PALM sends out a loud and clear public message that bicycling is accessible to everyone. And those are not just empty words. Daily optional add-on routes allow more riders of various athletic levels to participate without cramping the style of faster riders. The PALM committee makes sure special needs are addressed with a minimum of fuss. Each year’s century ride (a one-day, 100-mile optional route midway on the tour) is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Degen, a faithful PALM rider with cerebral palsy who was a prominent and popular role model and fund raiser for those with special needs until his death at age 52 in 2010. On this year’s ride, I saw young people with autism and Down’s Syndrome, two blind cyclists, hundreds of seniors on various styles of recumbent and tri-wheeled cycles, and countless families pedaling with an array of baby trailers, youth trail-a-bikes, and even multi-rider tandems. Free children’s activities are offered at the end of each day’s ride. A tireless army of 50-75 volunteer PALM staffers are patrolling the roads, staffing closely spaced rest stops, and preparing each night’s site accommodations so that even those completely new to multi-day touring feel safe and confident about pedaling hundreds of miles across the entire state.
“It’s a way to see parts of Michigan you would never see and towns you would never stop in driving your car,” said Detroit engineer Erice Rainer, who was on his third PALM tour. “Before I started riding PALM, I would’ve said where is Dansville and what the heck is Paw Paw? It takes me away from the city and shows me all these beautiful old downtowns that are just so peaceful and unique. Even if you’ve lived in Michigan your entire life, you always learn something new.”