City Looking to Make Non-Motorized Transportation Easier and Safer

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Monday, February 24, 2020, 8:30 am
By: 
Emily Joan Elliott

Above: The pilot protected bike lane on Bogue Street when it was implemented last fall (photo by Raymond Holt)

How do you get to work? East Lansing residents are significantly more likely to walk or to bike to work than other Michiganders, but last week’s discussion-only City Council meeting revealed that both pedestrians and bicyclists often feel they face less than ideal commutes here.

In 2009, the City of East Lansing began its research for a Non-Motorized Plan, which it revealed in 2011. An updated plan is now being sought to address both the shortcomings of the first plan and the realities of East Lansing’s evolving streetscape. The City is planning to issue a Request for Proposals for a consultant to help with development of a new plan.

New standards for non-motorized transportation, such as bike boxes and protected bike lanes, have changed since 2011, and new funding streams have emerged, including a grant from Safe Routes to School and the trails millage.

At last Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Ruth Beier summed up the 2011 plan by saying, “We built some nice bike lanes that no one uses.” But, she continued, “I do think that it had a positive effect. It slows drivers down and it does give you an option if you do want to ride on the road.”

Beier and Director of Public Works Scott House, who presented the issue, felt that bike lanes, even if underutilized, still serve the public good. They result in lower speed limits on the streets that have them. The presence of bike lanes tend to make drivers more cautious and reduce the number of rear-endings among motorized vehicles.

In the past nine years, the City has implemented new bike lanes, but often, these lanes are marked with faded paint and don't do much to protect bicyclists from motor vehicles.

Like car drivers, bicyclists deal with the poor conditions of Michigan roads that are marred by potholes. Council member Jessy Gregg also noted that her constituents voiced concerns over the gravel and debris that clog bike lanes and make them difficult to navigate, particularly for younger and more vulnerable riders.

Bicyclists often feel exposed to traffic, particularly on narrow lanes. As a result, some resort to using the sidewalks, endangering pedestrians. This problem shows up on MSU's campus, where pedestrians have suffered injuries after being hit by bicyclists on sidewalks.

Above: Another image of the protected lane on Bogue Street from last fall (photo by Raymond Holt)

During the fall 2019 semester, MSU ran a pilot program, implementing a two-way bike lane on Bogue Street. Plastic barriers separated bicyclists from motorized traffic, but eliminated a lane of southbound motorized traffic.

ELi’s Mark Meyer reported in August that the presence of the bike lane resulted in the temporary closure of several CATA bus stops. One ELi reader found that his route had a mile gap between stops as a result.

When Beier asked for data on the Bogue Street pilot program, Scott House said MSU was still studying it, revealing other issues that the planners face. Most bike rides in East Lansing involve students and residents heading to downtown or to campus. In order to make East Lansing a bike-friendly city, it must coordinate with MSU and surrounding jurisdictions like Lansing and Meridian Township.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens pointed out that some neighborhoods had easier access to campus than others. Those biking from the western parts of East Lansing to campus must cross Michigan Avenue and Harrison Road, a major point of congestion and traffic bottlenecks. In contrast, the Bailey neighborhood has easier access to campus.

The congestion at the Harrison-Michigan intersection makes it difficult to implement a protected bike lane, even though bicyclists are often forced into traffic at busy crossing times. Yet the relative lack of traffic on Collingwood in the Bailey neighborhood means it may soon see the addition of a bike lane.

Director of Public Works Scott House answers a question at the City Council discussion-only meeting on February 18 (photo by Raymond Holt)

The 2020 plan should address these issues of connectivity while also looking to other college towns to seek solutions. Some, such as Ann Arbor, have prioritized educating the population on bike lane use while implementing protected bike lanes. House believes the education component is crucial. He found that MSU students were sometimes confused on where to find information on bike lanes and safety in East Lansing.

The new plan will also grapple with how East Lansing has changed since 2011. The addition of large apartment buildings in downtown has changed where bike lanes might be most needed. Additionally, the advent of new forms of transportation, such as electric scooters, has raised questions over who should use bike lanes.

The Council seemed pleased with the possibility of expanding the infrastructure for non-motorized transportation. Stephens commended efforts to work closely with MSU to integrate city and university pathways.

But concerns lingered. Council member Mark Meadows mentioned that although Coolidge Road does not yet have a bike lane, it was constructed to accommodate one. However, he questioned if it could contain a protected bike lane and four lanes of motorized traffic.

Beier echoed concerns from her opening comments about bike lane safety, arguing that people are still hesitant to use bike lanes because they justifiably perceive them as unsafe. She supported prioritizing protected bike lanes and even suggested protected bike lanes on the sidewalk to allay those fears.

According to House, Council should have plenty of time to think over the issue and reopen the discussion before the 2020 plan is finalized.

 

Note: When this article was originally published, it indicated that pedestrians on campus are frequently hit by bicyclists on sidewalks. We have not been able to get confirmation about the statistics on this, so the passage has been changed on Feb. 26 to read, "Bicyclists often feel exposed to traffic, particularly on narrow lanes. As a result, some resort to using the sidewalks, endangering pedestrians. This problem shows up on MSU's campus, where pedestrians have suffered injuries after being hit by bicyclists on sidewalks."

 

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