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Michael Smallegan: Riding dirty

By Michael Smallegan, Columnist
Published October 11, 2012

As fall descends and Mother Nature exerts an even greater effort to make Michigan commuters miserable, some of us will stop cycling to class. For others, though, riding is the best option even in fall showers and light snows. Those bikers will face a difficult choice between what’s good for them and what’s good for their bike. This shouldn’t be the case.

The University is a leader in numerous areas, but it lags behind in the area of sustainable bike infrastructure. Last year, the League of American Bicyclists awarded a bronze-level Bike Friendly University designation to Michigan State University. Almost a year behind them, the University received that same designation. Bronze is by no means the top though, and administrators clearly see this as a growth area. In January, high-ranking campus officials held a forum to discuss bike transportation on campus, and it wasn’t an idle talk. This fall, the announcement of the Blue Bikes rental program through Outdoor Adventures signaled that supporting sustainable transportation is an area of focus and action.

There are many directions the improvement of campus bike infrastructure could take, including the expansion of bike lanes and bike pathways, implementing a bike-sharing program, increasing the availability of bike education and constructing enclosed, secured bike parking. All of these are fantastic solutions, and all may need to be explored if we aim to match Stanford University’s level of bike friendliness, the only school with a BFU platinum ranking. However, the most pressing and immediately helpful measure costs a lot less: providing sheltered bike parking.

In Michigan, we all know that if one minute it's cloudy and raining, in the next five it could be pleasantly sunny. The opposite is also true, and without covered bike parking, conscientious bike owners’s days are disrupted facing these concerns. Physics Prof. Gus Evrard, a committed bike commuter, has often had to leave meetings to retrieve his bike from sudden inclement weather. Unlike cars, bikes have all of their most important components exposed to the elements, and, if left uncovered, can deteriorate very quickly.

The bicycle graveyard that we witness every spring is an unfortunate side effect of winter exposure. Biking is considered sustainable, and yet snowmelt uncovers rusty frames, missing wheels and broken spokes all over campus. Not only is this a waste, but the Department of Public Safety has to incur the cost of impounding and disposing of the bikes. Certainly, increasing educational programs that teach the basics of bike maintenance can help minimize this, but if bikes are covered, this simple protection may keep them usable enough to discourage student abandonment.

Covered parking does exist on campus, notably on the east side of North Quad Residence Hall and underneath the backside of Hatcher Gradate Library. It’s clear from the crowding of the North Quad bike racks that the introduction of the shelter was not only valuable, but also popular. However, additional bike shelters don’t need to be as costly as the one installed at North Quad. A lightweight model made from sustainable materials could easily be adapted to enhance the University’s current bike parking layout. Evrard, who has given the issue considerable thought, envisions a bike shelter project that unites campus under a shared goal.

“We have all the resources right here for the whole process,” said Evrard, elaborating on his vision of a design competition to choose the best innovation to install across campus.

Parking and Transportation Services released a 70-page report on the future of University bike infrastructure in 2009. Three years later, very little of that “Bike Blueprint” has been implemented. Fostering bike transportation is a priority for the University, and it’s important that planners know the direction that the community needs most. In this case, it’s easy to have your voice heard — the University is listening. Make a bike parking request on the PTS website. It’s time for action before our bikes suffer another Michigan winter.

Michael Smallegan can be reached at smallmic@umich.edu.


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