Eastown is home to the first official bike lane in Grand Rapids, running down Lake Drive from Robinson to Diamond. And Grand Rapids has plans for more. What might the future hold in store if the idea of commuter biking really takes hold in our city?
I took this question with me to Amsterdam and Copenhagen this summer on a trip funded by the Calvin College Alumni Association. Both cities are known for their biking cultures—more than 50 percent of commutes in their city centers are made on bikes. And almost everyone, it seems, owns and uses one: moms and dads taking their kids to school in cargo bikes, students getting to university classes, professionals gliding to work with cell phones in hand, others going to and from the market with baskets brimming.
No gas used; little parking space needed; zero exhaust fumes; little money spent on transportation; physical exercise built in to daily life; hardly any fatal accidents. What’s not to like?
There are many reasons why we in the States have not gone for commuter biking in a big way. One big reason is that it doesn’t look or feel safe. Our roads were designed for cars, not bikes and cars. This is where we might have something to learn from our European counterparts.
Amsterdam and Copenhagen not only have bike lanes, they have lots of bike paths. Bike lanes are created by painting a stripe down the street, marking that part of the roadway where bikes are given preference. But bikers are still exposed to moving car traffic on their left and often to opening car doors on their right. Bike paths are separated from auto traffic by a physical barrier of some sort—a curb, a median or a line of parallel-parked cars. Bike paths are safer and, on average, they increase ridership by 30 percent over bike lanes. The favored form of bike paths in both cities is an extension of the sidewalk. Typically, the sidewalk takes up about 8 to10 feet, then drops about 3 inches at a bevel, then extends 5 to 8 feet for the bike path, then drops straight down 4 to 6 inches to the street. After that is space designated for parallel parked cars or moving traffic.
Bikes are also given special treatment at intersections, where potential conflicts arise. Here, bikes going through an intersection will cross the path of right-turning cars; bike riders wanting to make a left turn will cross the path of through car traffic. In many cases, the cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen handle these conflicts with special traffic signals for bikes. Bikes are given a green light while the right-turn red light is on for cars; bikes are given a green left-turn light while red lights stop through car traffic in both directions. In the absence of a special left-turn light, bikers will often execute a “Copenhagen left”—a two-stage left turn where the biker goes just over halfway through the intersection, pivots left, stops, and then waits for the green light. In Copenhagen, residents learn how to do this in school.
In both cities I rented a bike to try things out for myself. The natives often complain about clueless tourists on bikes. Not wanting to be one of those, I rented an incognito bike—without a weird paint-job or rental company signs—and trailed the natives unto I got the hang of things. Bike commuting in these cities definitely requires a higher level of what military people call “situational awareness.” You have to track pedestrians, busses, trams and cars in addition to other bikers. But once you get into the zone, it’s a positive pleasure to glide through town on two wheels in cities where biking is not only tolerated but promoted. Maybe Grand Rapids will be like that some day.