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. 

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.

Detroit’s updated bicycle ordinances

300px-The_Spirit_of_DetroitLong ago, most Michigan municipalities eschewed their local traffic ordinances and adopted the state’s Motor Vehicle Code and Uniform Traffic Codes, both of which are fairly up to date with national guidelines.

Last May Detroit did the same.

For such a sweeping change, it was surprising that the Coalition was the only one providing public comment before City Council. We spoke in support of the change (with one “minor” exception) since it meant:

  • Bicyclists would no longer be required to have a bell. We’re not anti-bell. We just don’t think you should get a ticket for not having one.
  • Stores buying used bicycles had to make weekly reports to the police with the sellers’ names and addresses. Stores selling new or used bicycles had to file weekly reports with the purchasers’ information to the police as well. Failing to do either was a misdemeanor. We suspect no one was following this. Both were removed.
  • Vehicles turning through crosswalks must yield to bicyclists as well as pedestrians.
  • Bike lanes are defined and it’s more clear that vehicles are not allowed to drive or park in them. Both are misdemeanors.

Council passed the ordinance and it went into effect on June 1st.

With these changes in place, the Coalition is now working on educational materials and communications for cyclists, motorists, and law enforcement to roll out this Spring.

As for that “minor” exception? Stay tuned.