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The ups and downs of biking in Lansing

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On Sunday, herons took wing and bullfrogs grew silent as workers spread a fresh ribbon of asphalt on the wooded east end of the Lansing River Trail, from the Potter Park Zoo to Crego Park, thanks to an Ingham County trails millage that is invigorating and extending an impressive system of non-motorized paths.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Lansing, where most cyclists make their commutes and run their errands, the road is bumpier.

Compared to Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Traverse City, Lansing is inching forward painfully toward bike-friendliness, adding a mile or two of bike lanes a year on average. What is worse, many existing bike lanes are in dangerous disrepair or fading away.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Lansing has great bones for a thriving commuter bike culture — flat terrain, a friendly city grid and relatively calm traffic.

Jeff Potter, co-founder of the popular Lansing Bike Party, loves the bike culture in Lansing. The Bike Party holds weekly slow rides to parks, pubs, festivals and places all over the city.

“Road conditions are the worst hazard right now,” Potter said. “Pavement falling apart everywhere is really something.”

One of Lansing’s main east-west routes for cyclists, the bike lane along Kalamazoo Street, can only be discerned in some places by a curbside gauntlet of ruts, holes and slippery gravel.

“It doesn’t get swept, it’s full of holes. It’s really terrible,” Potter said. “It encourages you, although you feel strange, to veer into the middle of the road, where you can actually ride.”

Potter, a glass-half-full kind of guy, offered a quick fix — fat tire bikes. An increasingly common sight in the city, fat bikes are surprisingly easy to ride and downright fun to flub-a-wub over bumpy obstacles. A mountain bike with full suspension is another way to carom down Kalamazoo, free from care.

“A bike with big, soft tires around two inches wide can make our bad roads tolerable, even pleasant,” Potter said. “It helps to embrace the idea that our local biking can be a bit like off-roading.”

But is it really time to give up and treat Lansing roads as a sport? Public Service Director Andy Kilpatrick is aware of the problem. The resurfacing of Kalamazoo east of Pennsylvania Avenue was planned for this year, he said, but the bids came in so high that the project was delayed, possibly for “a couple of years.”

The city’s sketchy bike lanes are a concern for Kilpatrick. The streets are swept four times a year, he said, but trunk lines like Cedar and Larch streets and Oakland and Saginaw avenues, under the jurisdiction of the state Transportation Department, get first priority, while city streets with bike lanes, including Kalamazoo, come second.

Bike lanes on the north side, including Old Town, have faded to nothing in many spots. John Lindenmayer, president of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, took a spin on the north side last week and was shocked.

“I drove down Cesar Chavez, and all the cars were driving in the bike lane because people don’t even know it’s there,” Lindenmayer said.

“We know the striping in Old Town is pretty much obliterated, so this year we’ll stripe it twice, get a little more paint on there,” Kilpatrick said.

The city’s main east-west drag, Michigan Avenue, is gearing up for a major makeover that may include bike lanes, but that probably won’t happen until 2023.

Another east-west bike route is in the works, however.

The East-West Connector, originally scheduled to be finished this year, will be done in 2020, Kilpatrick said.

It’s a combination of bike lanes and paths connecting downtown near Lansing Community College to Clemens Avenue(Phase 1) and further east to the Frandor Shopping Center (Phase 2). The path threads through the former Eastern High School property, Marshall Park and various quiet streets. A bike lane or shared lane on Vine and Sellers streets will take bicyclists across the formidable barrier of U.S. 127.

Another proposed east-west connection, with no project date, would thread along May Street, a quiet residential street tucked between busy Saginaw Highway and Oakland Avenue, through Marshall Park and along Fernwood Street to U.S. 127.

“It’s not exactly better, but it’s an additional east-west link,” Kilpatrick said.

The city’s hands are tied on creating more north-south connectivity, because Cedar and Larch streets and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. are under state control.

“It’s difficult,” Kilpatrick said. “As far as the central part of the city, all our plan currently shows signed routes through neighborhoods.”

A five-lane section of Pennsylvania Avenue south of the former McLaren Hospital is wide enough for protected bike lanes, but with nothing to connect them to yet, the city is holding off.

Lansing is among 12 “bicycle friendly communities” in Michigan, as assessed by the League of American Bicyclists. The League gave Lansing a “bronze” rating, its fourth highest, behind platinum, gold and silver.

Lindenmayer said Lansing can do much better.

“We’re on the map, we’re OK,” he said. “But we need a bolder vision of what we want Lansing to be and expedite the time line of infrastructure projects.”

Lansing has 26.4 miles of bike lanes as of 2018, according to the city. The River Trail and its newer spurs adds 19 miles to the system. Grand Rapids has put in over 90 miles of bike lanes in the past 10 years. The city also launched a massive multi-media campaign educating drivers how to share the road and interact with bicyclists.

Detroit, too, has made aggressive investment in trails, greenways and bike lanes.

Both Grand Rapids and Detroit have non-motorized staff on the payroll.

“That’s something we’ve been asking for a long time from the city of Lansing,” Lindenmayer said. “When you have that, you can move the needle a lot quicker — 100 miles in the next five years, something the bicycle community can rally around.”

Buffered bike lanes are crucial to this vision, Lindenmayer said, especially in view of the rise of distracted drivers.

Kilpatrick said the city wants the bicycle community to take the lead in pushing for better infrastructure. He hopes that as the network slowly improves, more cyclists will use the roads until a comprehensive network of protected bike lanes can be sold politically.

“We are trying to keep pushing this so we can have more cyclists,” Kilpatrick said. “There’s definitely a tipping point and we’re not quite there yet.”

Besides limited lanes and bad roads, cyclists have to contend with another significant danger: automobile drivers.

Every bicyclist has stories of motorists telling them to get off the road, speeding up at turns to give them a scare and even throwing things at them.

Potter said Lansing drivers are generally friendly, but he advocates the “buddy system,” especially at night.

Groups of bikes, Potter said, get “100 percent driver acceptance.”

“If you’re by yourself, people are more free to be mean,” he said. “There’s a chance you’re going to be hassled.”

By contrast, dozens of Bike Party events, about half of which happen at night, have drawn zero negative incidents, Potter said.

“We didn’t get one mean honk or shout last year out of 30 group rides,” he said.

Lindenmayer is pushing for more buffered bike lanes, especially in view of another growing threat to cyclists, distracted drivers.

That’s what scares Alex Seddon the most.

Seddon commutes by bike, year round, from his home near Scott Woods in south Lansing to Fee Hall on the east edge of MSU.

“I see three to five drivers texting on most commutes,” he said.

Only last week, Seddon found himself behind a texting driver who veered into the bike lane on Kalamazoo several times.

“You can have all the bike lanes you want, but it’s hard to fix a problem like that,” he said.

Chris Gray contributed reporting to this story

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