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Rising Number of Cyclists Prompts Excitement, Calls for Greater Safety

The number of Grand Rapids residents who bike to work has steadily increased over the last five years.

Jay Fowler, the technical director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycling Coalition (GGRBC), started tracking bicycling traffic counts in 2011. According to Fowler’s most recent data, an estimated 730 Grand Rapids residents bike to work on a regular basis. This September, Fowler plans to work with the City of Grand Rapids to receive a more precise total bike count by expanding the locations and hours of data collection.

When asked about this upward trend, Amy Duggan, who is one of Fowler’s fellow GGRBC board members, expressed excitement about the rising interest in cycling among Grand Rapids residents. Duggan attributed the growing awareness of the cycling community to events like last month’s fifth annual Active Commute Week, an annual weeklong challenge in which participants travel as many miles as they can without a car.

This year’s Active Commute Week broke records for participation. The 314 participants who enrolled for a single trip logged 1,935 trips on the GGRBC website.

Among this year’s many newcomers to Active Commute Week was Roberta King. After hearing about Active Commute Week from two of her co-workers at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, King decided to try an active commute for the first time.

“I’m fifty six. I normally ride a bike that’s not meant for speed – a city commuter bike. I’m not very serious,” said King.

King decided to bike over forty miles from her office in Grand Rapids to her home in Muskegon. After packing a GU Energy Gel packet and a water bottle and memorizing her route, King took over three and a half hours to complete her trip on a hot day.

“It was more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge,” said King. “You have no choice but to finish the ride. I had to make this happen. It’s a state of mind. If I want to do something, I can go ahead and do it.”

Though some commuters pushed themselves to bike great distances, others took advantage of shorter, more accessible routes like Diana Capen, a veteran cyclist and regular Active Commute Week participant, who has long encouraged beginners like King to try cycling. Since moving close to Mary Free Bed Hospital where she works as a physician assistant, Capen bikes to work each day.

“Cycling is a lifestyle choice. I wanted to make my world a little smaller. I wanted to live and work in the same area,” said Capen. “Cycling gives you the chance to get a little more engaged in the area that you live. You notice the nuances of your community more than when you’re in the car.”  

As more Grand Rapids residents become interested in cycling to work, Duggan argued that Grand Rapids must help new riders to bike safely. The League of American Bicyclists, a national bicycling advocacy group, recently assigned Grand Rapids a bronze-level bike-friendliness rating. The rating is determined by a variety of factors including infrastructure, awareness efforts, and safety and education programs.

Since 2010, Grand Rapids expanded its bike lanes by over 70 miles. Grand Rapids’ bike lane expansion led to higher cycling rates, but also a fatal bike crash ratio three times higher than the state average.

To lower the number of crashes, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) partnered with GGRBC to launch the Driving Change campaign. Using TV spots and billboard advertisements, the Driving Change campaign seeks to help Grand Rapids residents better understand how to navigate new bike infrastructure.

“I ride a bike so I see a lot more people on bikes than I did in the past. Having more bike lanes, more awareness – it’s made such a difference,” said Duggan. “But there’s still room for improvement. There are still people riding on sidewalks, getting hurt. There is still a need for making Grand Rapids a better place to ride.”

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