Detroit going “Zero-to-sixty” on protected bike lanes

Livernois protected bike lane under construction near Michigan Avenue

Livernois protected bike lane under construction near Michigan Avenue

Yes, “Zero-to-sixty” is a car term unless you’re a really fast cyclist and thinking in metric. However, it was used by city staff and it’s certainly accurate.

Detroit has three of the nation’s longest protected bike lane (PBL) projects under construction now. Four more significant projects are planned for construction in 2017. With only 0.3 miles of PBL completed today, Detroit is ranked #78 among US cities. We expect it to be in the top ten by the end of the year and in the top five next year.

We’re jumping from one end of the bell curve to the other.

While this is really exciting it also brings concerns about how this rapid change affects the users.  Whenever you add new designs to the roads (e.g. roundabouts), it takes education and time for people to adjust. It’s not just motorists. It’s bicyclists, pedestrians, public transit users, DDOT drivers, law enforcement, delivery vehicles, street sweepers, snow plow operators, local businesses and more.

The good news is there’s a group meeting to discuss safety and education programming with some likely funding behind it. We’re working with MDOT on updates to their “What every motorist must know about bike lanes” brochure since it doesn’t include PBLs. It’s going to take time.

In the meantime, here are four suggestions for all of us:

  1. Be Careful & Considerate — Don’t expect everyone to instantly know how to operate around the new lanes, but especially if the planned two-way PBLs for Downtown get installed as expected. This is a major change for everyone. (Imagine the Dequindre Cut being routed on Downtown streets!) If you’re ever unsure, just be especially careful, go slow, and watch out for others. Remember that next year, Detroit Bike Share should get more people on bikes that may not be as experienced.
  2. Be Patient — As much as the city is trying to get PBLs designed perfectly from the start, they may need to be tweaked over time (see the next suggestion.) In some cases what’s wanted in the design is not yet approved by MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. That could take additional time.We also need to step up education on motorists and where they should be parking. Motorists have been parking against the curb for the past century. Until we get to the next phase and start replacing the PBL separating posts with raised curbs, it’s going to look odd parking in the street. It’ll take time getting this message out to everyone.Lastly, sweeping and snow removal maintenance is a work in progress. The city is investing in special equipment that fits in the narrow PBLs. In some case they’ll be maintaining the PBLs on MDOT roads. They need to coordinate snow removal so that they’re not pushing the white stuff back and forth between the vehicle travel lanes and PBLs — or blocking the sidewalk. It’s going to take some time to get this working well.
  3. Provide Feedback — Please document your concerns and send them to us, info@detroitgreenways.org. We’ll share them with the city. We’ve already heard about drivers opening passenger car doors in the E. Jefferson lanes. Those buffer areas are much narrower than what’s typical due to the lack of space between the curbs. On the new projects, most of the buffer areas between the PBLs and parked cars will be twice as wide.
  4. Be aware of your options — PBLs are intended to create a safe riding area for less experienced and less confident bicyclists. That may not be you. State law doesn’t require that you ride in PBLs (or any bike lane for that matter.) If you’re going fast or riding in a large group, it may make more sense that you stay in the other travel lanes. We’ll educate local law enforcement on this legal option.

We will vouch that the city and all the stakeholders are putting a great deal of effort into this. There’s a huge learning curve for everyone. We’ve seen nothing but the best intentions from all involved to get over that curve.

As more Detroiters feel comfortable biking in PBLs (and we have the data to prove it), we can expect more investment in them. Over time, those white plastic posts can be enhanced with planters or replaced raised curbs. It’s going to take time, effort, education and bit of discomfort, but working together, we can adjust and improve — and get a whole lot more people feeling comfortable riding bicycles in Detroit.

Lastly, with this rapid change, we expect the national bicycle organizations won’t have a choice but to start acknowledging Detroit’s bicycle friendliness. Add in the nation’s most diverse bicycle culture and they’ll realize we’re the role model they’ve been looking for. The spotlight is coming. Let’s make sure we’re ready for our closeup.

Posted in Greenways, Safety & Education and tagged , , .

4 Comments

  1. I live in Cedar Rapids, IA and we rolled out Iowa’s first protected bike lanes a year ago and were hoping it helps us achieve silver status in bike friendliness. The biggest problems I’ve seen is in diagonal parking areas where people pull in too far, or just go to the curb regardless of signage, and out of towners who are unfamiliar with them.
    When cars aren’t intruding into the lanes, they’re great but it will definitely take time for people to get used to them. And, of course, you’ll always have the guy who parks in them just to be a jerk because a bike held him up for a minute or so when he was driving.

    • Fortunately we don’t have any diagonal parking here or in most of Detroit. It’s parallel parking. The city has had success with towing vehicles of those who are jerks about it.

  2. How is a passenger supposed to leave the legally parked car in the area of Jefferson mentioned in the article? Simply do the courteous thing, and look first?

    • Yes. One suggestion is to get in the habit of using their hand opposite the door to open it. It makes you turn your body and easier to see if a bicyclist is coming. The buffer area is three feet (though less on E. Jefferson) so it reduces the conflict between passenger doors and bicyclists.

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