luna pierDuring 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.

tecumseh1The 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.”

freeportThanks 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.”

charlotteAwareness 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.clinton

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.

leslieAnd when all those cyclists hit the road, PALM is Placemaking on Wheels.

“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.”

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Author’s note: Due to technical difficulties, this blog post for Thursday, June 27, 2013 was delayed in posting online.

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Great road surfaces heading out of Grandville!

Every day during the ride this week, I’ve tried to focus on road and traffic conditions, and how they affect bikeability in Michigan.

“Every legislator should have to ride a bike across the state before they can vote on road funding,” said Ellie Knesper of Ann Arbor, a longtime PALM staffer who’s ridden in the tour for the past 29 years. She said it as we were riding alongside each other on a bombed-out stretch of pavement in Monroe County, notorious for its deteriorated road surfaces. My fingers ached from gripping the handlebars, and I could feel the constant jarring up through my elbows and into my shoulders and neck. I wasn’t the only one. At dinner that night, it seemed to be everyone’s favorite topic of conversation.

The memory was also still fresh of riding south and southeast away from Manchester. Traffic was heavy but in many places the roughly patched asphalt made it dangerous to ride far enough to the right to allow them to pass in the same lane. Not a happy scenario for the cars or bikes.

Roads this bad affect every user, not just cyclists. But even many “good” roads lack some of the elements that make a Complete Street that is fully functional, safe and accessible for all users, including pedestrians, assistive devices and bicycles.

About 100 Michigan communities have adopted local Complete Streets policies. The end result won’t look the same everywhere, of course. A city or village in an urban area might add designated bike lanes, paved curb cuts, signaled crossings and traffic islands in the middle of multi-lane roads. Another community might develop a comprehensive network of nonmotorized pathways. Even something as simple and straightforward as wide paved shoulders on a rural county highway can make all the difference in making a cyclist feel safe and drivers more able to maintain a safe passing distance.

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Retired Pontiac teacher Dottie Delehanty a few days after her road accident.

Even seemingly minor road engineering details can be treacherous in the right situation. In May 2012, Dottie Delehanty, a retired Pontiac special education teacher, was cycling to the post office from her Indian Village home when her front wheel was caught on the lip of a newly paved driveway that was not smoothly joined to the road. She woke up when they were loading her onto an ambulance. She suffered a concussion, severe bruising and abrasions to her arms and legs, and needed stitches to close the gash next to her eye. If she hadn’t been wearing a helmet, a much more serious head injury would undoubtedly have occurred. The homeowners have since shaved down the offending edge.

Dottie Delehanty at PALM 2012, about a month after her accident.

Dottie Delehanty at PALM 2012, about a month after her accident.

Last week the Michigan Legislature adjourned until September without voting on future transportation funding. Maybe this is a good time to write to your representatives in Lansing, and let them know what you want to see in the future for Michigan’s roads.

 

 

 

 

 

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The thunderstorms opened up over lake Odessa just before dawn. Most of us had barely gotten started in getting our gear packed  and with all the lightning there was nothing to do but eat a slow breakfast and wait for the rain to slow enough to tear down tents and load the trucks. But spirits were high and you could tell a little water wasn’t about to slow down this crew.

We rolled out at 8 am, hopeful that the forecast was right that a break in the storm would come sometime between 10 and noon.

For the next two hours and 26.5 miles the rain poured over us nonstop. But you can only get just so wet. After that you’re just part of it. I found myself grinning, smelling the wet green fields and enjoying the feel of the water running down my face and arms. A lot more pleasant than sweat.

Something about rain seems to wash more debris on the road. I counted ten flat tires in two hours. I learned later from PALM staffers that the rain washes up tiny slivers of glass to the pavement surface, where they can slice through your tire and into the tube. Nothing you can do to avoid it; just a matter of bad luck. I felt lucky to have been one of the lucky ones.

But my beautiful day nearly came to an abrupt end a few hours later beneath the clearing blue sky. I was rolling along on smooth blacktop among a wide open expanse of farm fields. I was on Columbia road riding east toward Dansville. That’s when I was nearly t-boned by a driver who blew a stop sign to turn left directly in front of me. I had watched him speeding toward the intersection and had started to ease up just in case. I heard two cyclists behind me shout and swear at him and he swore back, but I was too startled myself to do anything but keep riding.

Ten feet. If I’d been that much faster he would’ve hit me. It shakes you up at those moments to realize just how vulnerable we cyclists are. And believe me, we have all had those moments, or worse.

That’s what Protect Vulnerable Users legislation is all about.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists has this to say about HB 4792 and 4799 which were both introduced in May of 2013 and referred to the Criminal Justice Committee:

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Modeled after accepted European standards and containing penalties similar to those used in numerous states and communities across the country, this legislation creates enhanced penalties for drivers who injure or kill a vulnerable roadway user, defined as a bicyclist, pedestrian or wheelchair user. The enhanced penalties include community service, driver-improvement education, fines, and jail time, as well as a mandatory one-year license suspension. These would only apply if a driver committed a moving violation resulting in the injury or death of a non-motorized user who was following Michigan traffic laws.

In Michigan, similar enhanced penalties already exist for reckless drivers who injure or kill construction workers, children in designated school zones, or operators of slow-moving farm vehicles.

Currently, crashes involving bicyclists legally using public roads often result in minor consequences for careless drivers that injure non-motorized users. Unless a victim can prove that the driver was grossly negligent, he or she usually has limited legal recourse. In fact, blame often gets shifted to victims with statements like “this wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t in the road.”

Killing a cyclist rarely even merits court appearances. In practice, Michigan law places little burden on drivers to be alert for other roadway users. Non-motorists have every right to expect that drivers will safely maneuver around them. Drivers who injure or kill bicyclists and pedestrians deserve to have their driving skills called into question and face stiffer penalties under state law.

A vulnerable roadway user provision would provide law enforcement and prosecutors with an enhanced set of penalties that fill the gap between basic traffic infractions and more serious crimes.

Michigan currently leads the nation with over 80 locally adopted Complete Streets ordinances and resolutions. As communities implement Complete Streets, more and more individuals will choose active transportation, like walking and biking. Improved infrastructure alone, however, does not guarantee safety, as demonstrated by a marked increase in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. To remain viable, “Share the Road” principles must have a legal backbone, the foundation of which is stiffer penalties for drivers who fail to safely coexist with other legal roadway users.

Similar versions of these bills (HB 4958 and 4959 of 2009) were passed in 2010 with broad bi-partisan support. Unfortunately, they were never taken up by the Senate.

Recognizing that penalizing drivers after the fact does not alone protect users, we also support parallel efforts to enhance Michigan’s driver’s education curriculum, helping to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place.

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Today we rode from Grandville to Lake Odessa along miles of busy highway, often without a bike lane or paved shoulder. Bike wheels dance in cadence along the white line behind me and in front–an endless disconnected parade of riders in neon yellows, greens and oranges.

Again and again the shout comes up the line, relayed from one cyclist to the next: “Car back! Car back!”You can see the message as it moves ahead like the ripple of a sound wave, as riders heed the warning and press even closer to that treacherous edge where asphalt meets loose gravel.

Some cars wait patiently for the lane to clear before making their move to pass. Some swing wide, sometimes even into the oncoming lane. Others blow by without giving an inch, and the wind of their passing hits your body like an invisible fist.

Every driver, it seems, has their own idea of just how much room they need to give to safely pass a cyclist.

Even a standard 3-foot bike lane provides only an illusion of safety, said LMB instructor Al Lauland.

“The problem is that uneducated motorists tend to view that white line as a brick wall and they will literally pass you even closer than they would on an unmarked road,” said Lauland. “Their attitude is they are in their lane where they’re supposed to be, even if that means they are just inches from your handlebar.”

And that’s exactly why Michigan’s roads can’t be truly bike friendly without a Safe Passing Distance law, says the League of Michigan Bicylists.

Give us 5: Enact a 5-Foot Safe Passing Law

According to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning1, 1,895 bicyclists were involved in motor vehicle crashes in 2011 alone. 24 of those crashes were fatal. Police reports indicate that 18 of the 24 killed were “going straight ahead” just prior to crash. Additionally, 79.2% of all crashes (including 10 of the 24 fatal crashes) occurred during daylight hours.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists says “The ambiguous “safe distance” language of Michigan’s current passing law provides little protection to bicyclists, and the lack of an objective standard frustrates bicyclists, motorists, and law enforcement alike. A five-foot passing rule delineates the legal standard for “safe distance,” allows bicyclists room to maneuver and avoid road hazards, and still provides ample room for motorists to pass safely under most conditions. This greatly reduces bicyclist’s risk of injury, eases tension between roadway users, and aids law enforcement.

“Safe passing laws to protect vulnerable roadway users will play an important role in encouraging the next generation of Michigan residents to stay active, which in turn will save lives and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on health care costs. Half the states across the country have adopted safe passing distance laws with defined distances. It’s time for Michigan to do the same.”