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. 

Proposed Detroit streetcar ordinances affects biking

There is a public hearing on Monday, May 8th at 10:06AM for new Detroit ordinances relating to the QLine. They mostly relate to streetcar operations but some affect bicycling on Woodward Avenue.

The initial ordinance language raised a couple primary concerns for Woodward bicyclists.

  • Though not intended as such, 58-10-18 appeared to prohibit bicyclists from riding near or across streetcar tracks.
  • Both 58-10-11 and 58-10-51 prohibit bicyclists riding “in a manner calculated” to delay the streetcar.

The ordinance specified these as misdemeanors with up to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

We met with MDOT, M1 Rail, and Council member Scott Benson’s office to review the language and address these concerns. Council member Benson was able to get positive changes made to the ordinance language before Monday’s hearing.

For the first concern, the intention was to prohibit people from making devices that could ride specifically on the rail. The language has been clarified to better match this intent.

As for the second concern, the wording was changed from the “calculating” to the more common legal term “intentionally”. While still open to interpretation from enforcement, it’s an improvement. Besides this may not end up being too much of a concern as the QLine is rather slow and makes numerous stops. It’s more likely to impede bicyclists than vise versa.

Enforceable?

Although the ordinance is expected to pass City Council on the 9th, we still have questions of how enforceable these bicycle ordinances will be given the State’s Motor Vehicle Code (MVC). The MVC smartly tries to keep road regulations uniform across the state while requiring notice to users when they are different at the local level.

The MVC does allow local governments to regulate the operation of bicycles, but those regulations must be posted.

An ordinance or regulation … shall not be enforceable until signs giving notice of the local traffic regulations are posted upon or at the entrance to the highway or street or part of the highway or street affected, as may be most appropriate, and are sufficiently legible as to be seen by an ordinarily observant person.

There had not been any prior plans to post such signs.

Another question involves conflicts between this ordinance and the MVC. The latter gives bicyclists the right to ride on the right side of Woodward. The local ordinance (58-10-52) says bicyclists lose that right when the streetcar gives a signal. That seems to conflict with the MVC language on local regulations, but that’s unclear.

Be Safe!

None of this is to say you shouldn’t get out of the way of a heavy streetcar for your own safety. However, given the meandering rail alignment, safely getting of the way of anything is a challenge enough without adding the fear of a misdemeanor.

Other tips: Always try to cross the rails at a 90-degree angle and remember that wet rails are extra slippery.

Under many circumstances, Cass Avenue and John R will be the safer bike routes. As a result of these Woodward bicycle safety issues, MDOT is funding improvements on Cass Avenue. Protected bike lanes from Lafayette to W. Grand Boulevard will be built this summer after the road is repaved.

Above all, if you ride Woodward, be careful! We’ve already heard of far too many bicycle crashes due to the rails and that was before streetcars were added to the mix.

We don’t want to add your name to the list.