Why the Cass Avenue bike lanes?

Mini-Festivus poles separate the bike lane

WDET held its annual Festivus Airing of Grievances show and perhaps surprisingly the Cass Avenue bike lanes rose to the top.

Show panelist Candice Fortman said, “The problem is that they put these bike lanes in, so now you’ve got the bike lanes and you’ve got the parking in the middle of the street, and then you’ve got one lane of traffic, and buses and cars and snow, and it’s too much.” Panelist Matt Marsden said he doesn’t see people on it but flashed his behind-the-windshield bias by saying he wasn’t a biker, “I’m a commuter” apparently unaware that bicyclists commute, too.

These grievances are not news to us, but think many are missing the larger picture.

We did appreciate the WDET commenter “Jennifer” who correctly noted that Cass Avenue got bike lanes in exchange for MDOT making Woodward much less safe for biking.

MDOT knowingly made Woodward significantly less safe for bicyclists by allowing the streetcar to operate at the curbs. Since the rails have been installed, we know of bicyclists breaking collar bones, hips, and loosing front teeth due to crashes. Though not a bicyclist, in August 2016 a Detroit senior crashed his moped and later died due to the rails according to the Detroit Police Department report. And because everyone knew these types of events would occur ahead of time, the Federal Transit Authority required an improved parallel route for bicyclists. That’s Cass Avenue.

Any discussion about the discomfort motorists have with the new Cass should be weighed against the sacrifices bicyclists made (and continue to make) on Woodward. While every road user group has made compromises with the redesign of Cass and Woodward, bicyclists crashes and injuries from the streetcar rails are atop the list.

But let’s also address the other Cass bike lane grievances.

There’s no one using them

Clearly that’s untrue. Back in September 2015 we took bicycle counts on Cass and recorded 300 in 24 hours on a Wednesday. There were probably another 100 we missed that rode on the sidewalk. That’s comparable to the bike counts we see on the Dequindre Cut at Gratiot.

With the new Cass Avenue bike lanes, we expect this counts to be much higher. Automated bike counters are being installed along Cass and we should have real data this summer.

A lane was taken away for motorists

Some segments of Cass south of I-75 did lose a lane but traffic counts showed they were not necessary to handle the traffic volumes. Most of Cass was and still is a two-lane road. The lanes used to be wider and people would drive in the parking lanes. That option has been removed. The expected result is more motorists will drive the speed limit and there will be fewer sideswipes from cars passing other cars on the right. Lower speeds bring a significantly safer environment for all modes, but especially pedestrians and bicyclists. Lower travel speeds have also been shown to improve sales for local businesses along the streets, too.

Pedestrians also benefit from these narrower lanes as there is now a much shorter crossing distance.

Motorists now open their doors into traffic

This is not new. However, before motorists could swing open their doors without looking and not get hit by another car due to the over-sized vehicle lanes. The newer narrower lanes make it more important to look before opening ones door into traffic. Opening a door into oncoming cars and bicyclists is illegal. We recommend learning the Dutch Reach.

Ideally there would have been more room for parking so people would be more comfortable exiting their cars, but there wasn’t enough room. This was one compromise among many.

There’s no education on bike lanes

This is an underlying problem in Michigan. There isn’t a mechanism for informing drivers about new road designs. There’s no longer testing for driver’s license renewals. MDOT has bike lane brochure for motorists, but it’s not been widely printed or distributed. The Detroit Greenways Coalition, City of Detroit, Jefferson East Inc., MoGo Bike Share, SEMCOG and others are working to develop and share information. While there is funding at the state level for education on these laws, we’re finding it very difficult to use effectively.

Change is hard but especially when there is not a good existing process for education. As we often tell people, bike lanes are the new roundabouts. Everyone will eventually figure this out. We’ll all work together to try make that happen sooner than later.

Photo by L. Demchak

Grievances from Bicyclists

We’ve also heard complaints from bicyclists, mostly about the maintenance of the new lanes with respect to debris and snow. The Detroit Department of Public Works is responsible for their maintenance and have told us the recent snow storm has been a major learning lesson for their staff. Certainly there is a learning curve to maintaining this new style of bike lane and Detroit will eventually get past this as other cities have.

Motorists are parking and sometimes driving in bike lanes. From what we’ve seen, there’s not been much enforcement. There has been a grace period to allow time for motorists to learn how to drive and park legally, but that won’t last forever.

Lastly, we’ve heard from fast cyclists saying they don’t feel safe in the protected bike lanes — and that’s totally understandable. The new lanes are designed for slower, less confident bicyclists. MoGo riders, too. Under Michigan law, bicyclists can ride in the vehicle travel lanes and are not required to use the bike lanes. As far as we know there are no plans to change the traditional bike lanes on parallel routes along Second and Third Avenue.

If there are design deficiencies at specific locations along the route (e.g. bad sight lines), the city has shown interest in tweaking the design to make it better.

And it will get better. It’s part of our mission to make certain.

UPDATE: We were reminded by Alice on Twitter that left turns at many intersections are now more challenging for bicyclists using the bike lanes. It’s more difficult to get to the vehicle lane and make the left. This is certainly a trade off of having protected bike lanes. At some intersections, a two-stage turn can help especially those with green bike boxes. 

New Detroit Hockey Arena Development

Bike improvement opportunities around Detroit hockey arena district

The blue lines represent potential bike route improvements

Detroit City Council will vote on a couple critical rezoning requests this morning for the newly planned hockey arena district (aka Catalyst Development.) One concern raised by Council as well as the Detroit Greenways Coalition is how this development will affect the new bike lanes being built on Cass Avenue this year.

Olympia Development, the organization planning the new arena, was asked by Council member (and Coalition board member) Scott Benson to meet with us to coordinate efforts. We did that.

One shared goal is connectivity. For the Coalition, that’s from a walking and biking perspective. The district area is not very walkable today, not due to the sidewalk conditions so much as the land use. Vacant fields don’t make for good walkability and the new district development will undoubtedly change that. It was great that they were already familiar with Complete Streets.

For biking, our first concern is preserving the Cass Avenue bike lanes being constructed this summer from the RiverWalk to W. Grand Boulevard. Here are our official comments from a letter we wrote to Olympia Development and shared with City Council and others:

A major bicycling connector is Cass Avenue. The bike lanes to be installed this year are a critical north-south route from the Detroit River to New Center. MDOT and the FTA have identified and invested in this route as an alternative to bicycling on Woodward due to the safety issues related to M1 Rail. . We are also actively working to extend them to the Detroit Zoo.

Closing or taking vehicle travel lanes on Cass during events has little affect on bicyclists so long as the bike lanes remain open and safe. We believe the ingress/egress concerns at the parking garages can be addressed through good design and traffic control personnel. Colored pavement can highlight any potential vehicle/bike conflict areas. Designs should make the motorist feel they are crossing a bike lane rather than make a bicyclist feel they are crossing a driveway. This can encourage proper right-of-way yielding.

When Cass Avenue is redesigned, we propose changing the buffered bike lanes to protected bike lanes. This is a low-cost upgrade that studies show increase bicycle ridership.

We also discussed adding protected bike lanes on Grand River Avenue from Downtown to W. Grand Boulevard. This would also involve improving the unsafe and inadequate intersections at Trumbull/MLK and at Temple.

With regards to the arena itself, we did note our appreciation for their planned bike parking at each of the main entrances. The location and number of racks looks great.

It’s still early to say what the final outcome will be, but Olympia Development wants to maintain a regular dialog with us. We’re looking forward to that and ensuring that Detroit is a better place for walking, biking — and playing hockey.

Historic note: James Norris had been a member of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association whose logo was a winged bicycle wheel owing to its cycling heritage. (They also played hockey and won the first ever Stanley Cup.) When Norris established the Detroit Red Wings, he borrowed the logo design and changed the bike wheel to a car wheel.

Top 5 Detroit bike and trail projects for 2015

Let’s start by saying it’s not easy picking only five — and that speaks well about all that is happening to make the city of Detroit a better place for biking and trails. But here we go in no specific order…

Link Detroit

Link Detroit project for Tiger-IIIThis multi-faceted $20 million non-motorized project will be completed by the summer. Yes, it was supposed to be completed by last November but construction was delayed with unexpected utility issues and a polar vortex.

What does this project involve?

  • Extending the Dequindre Cut from Gratiot to Mack Avenue with a additional connecting trail into Eastern Market along the north side of Wilkins.
  • Adding bike lanes from the end of the Cut to Hamtramck, mostly along St. Aubin. These are done.
  • Replacing three bridges over the Dequindre Cut. If you’ve ridden the pothole-ridden Wilkins bridge before then you know this is good news for bicyclists.
  • Improving Russell Street. This mostly focuses on pedestrian improvements, but it also include some very nice bike parking stations.
  • Adding bike lanes and a Midtown Loop path connection from Eastern Market to Midtown.

We thought it would be invaluable to count how many people are using this new section of the Dequindre Cut, so we got the DEGC (who’s managing the project) to add 3 automated bike and pedestrian counters.  These will count 24/7 and the data will be part of the Coalition’s much larger city wide effort to count usage and document trends.

Inner Circle Greenway

Inner Circle GreenwayDetroit city staff refer to this as the “mother of all non-motorized projects.” If you’ve not heard about it before, the Inner Circle Greenway is a 26-mile pathway that encircles the city of Detroit while passing through Hamtramck, Highland Park, and a little bit of Dearborn. It makes use of existing trails such as the Southwest Detroit Greenlink, RiverWalk, and Dequindre Cut, so roughly half of the pathway is complete. For all these reasons and more, it is a very high-priority project for our Coalition.

The largest gap is an 8.3 mile segment of abandoned railroad property. If all goes as planned, we expect Detroit will purchase the property this year using $4.5 million in grant funding the Coalition helped secure. We will be making another announcement soon about additional grant funding for planning. We will also work with the city on a substantial federal grant to build out the Greenway while also trying to get funding for more community engagement.

Lastly, we are finalizing some nice new maps of the trail. We’ll have those by the bike show in March.

Conner Creek Greenway

This Greenway begins at Maheras Gentry Park on the Detroit River and heads north roughly following Conner Avenue. It’s a mix of bike lanes, shared roadway, and off-road paths — and it’s nearly complete. This year it will get extended from Conner along E. Outer Drive to Van Dyke, crossing Eight Mile, and ending at Stephens Road (9.5 mile.) While this seems like a modest project for the top five, one should consider how many organizations were involved in making this happen: Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, Nortown CDC, Eight Mile Boulevard Association, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, City of Warren, City of Detroit, SEMCOG, Wayne County and two MDOT TSCs.

It also is significant since it crosses Eight Mile and is part of the Showcase Trail between Belle Isle and Wisconsin. Look for plenty of green bike lanes in Warren’s section.

Separated bike lanes in Chicago via NACTO

Separated bike lanes in Chicago via NACTO

E. Jefferson Bike Lanes

A very short segment of E. Jefferson will get bike lanes this year from Alter Road to Lakewood. Why is this a big deal? They’ll be the first separated (aka protected) bike lanes in Southeast Michigan. This is precedent setting and could serve as a model for all of Detroit’s major spoke roads.

East Jefferson Inc. is also working with other members of the GREEN Task Force and the city of Detroit to extend those bike lanes to the Belle Isle entrance at E. Grand Boulevard.

Cass Avenue Bike Lanes and Midtown Loop

Bike counting kiosk example from Montreal

Bike counting kiosk example from Montreal

M1-Rail is creating a major cycling safety hazard on Woodward by locating streetcar rails near the curbs where bicyclists ride. As a result, the FTA and MDOT agreed to make Cass Avenue a more attractive cycling option. This summer Cass will be getting bike lanes (some buffered) from W. Grand Boulevard to Lafayette. A mixture of bike lanes, sharrows, and off-road paths will connect Cass to the RiverWalk via Lafayette, Washington Boulevard, E. Jefferson, and Bates.

But that’s not all. Public bike repair stations and air pumps will be installed along with automated counters including two kiosks that display bike counts in real-time. Those counts will also be automatically uploaded and available on the web as well.

This project also completes the final leg of the Midtown Loop along Cass Avenue between Canfield and Kirby.

Honorable Project Mentions

  • The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy should complete two new sections of the RiverWalk in 2015: Chene Park East and Chene Park West. A third project will begin later this year that connects the current dead end near Riverplace to Chene Park East.
  • The Downtown Detroit Partnership is becoming our non-motorized champion in the downtown area. They are currently developing a plan for sorely needed biking connections. They’re looking to take the best of what New York City, Chicago, Portland have done and bring it here, which couldn’t happen soon enough.
  • We really need to mention the amazing work of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority. Their ongoing installation of new LED street lights is making biking and walking much safer. Pardon the bad joke, but it’s like night and day.

Complete Streets ordinance

This is not really a project but a policy change that the Coalition, Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative and others have been working on for years. We expect it to go before a City Council vote this year and we’d be surprised if it didn’t pass. For more information, check out Detroit Complete Streets page.

No, we didn’t mention the public bike sharing or the Uniroyal Site. We need to save some projects for future years!