When Nate Phipps, the co-founder of Bike Alliance of Washtenaw and managing director of the Center for Education Design, Evaluation and Research at the University of Michigan, first moved to Ann Arbor from Boston in 2014, he said he felt disappointed by the comparative lack of biking infrastructure. Since then, Phipps decided to get involved in community organizing to make Ann Arbor more bike-friendly.
“My (first) impression was that (Ann Arbor) is fine for me, but it’s not fine for people who are more cautious or less experienced riding in a city,” Phipps said. “For a decade, Ann Arbor was behind (in) real progressive bicycle infrastructure.”
Since Phipps arrived, biking infrastructure in Ann Arbor has improved substantially. In December 2021, Ann Arbor was named by the League of American Bicyclists as a Gold-level Bicycle Friendly Community in recognition of recent infrastructure improvements, with its bike lanes expanding from 37.4 miles in 2012 to 90.1 miles in 2022. Across the U.S., 35 of 850 communities who applied were awarded Gold-level status, with just 5 awarded the highest status: Platinum-level. This award is not only based on quantitative data — such as the number of bikers and miles of bike paths — but also takes into account community education and biker advocacy.
In July 2020, the city of Ann Arbor also implemented the Healthy Street Pilot Projects, which included closing off downtown streets to expand social distancing procedures for pedestrians and bicycle traffic. State Street and its intersection with North University as well as Catherine Street and Miller Avenue are two major street areas included in the project. City Council’s July resolution asks the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to implement the project through 2022, so the project will return again this spring.
While the city is supportive of biking infrastructure, since it aligns with the A2ZERO plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, biking development in Ann Arbor still has room to improve. To take a deeper look into the current state of biking accessibility, The Michigan Daily spoke with multiple cyclists and bike-lane advocates to discuss safety and accessibility concerns they have about biking infrastructure in Ann Arbor today.
Inter-campus commuting concerns
Fred Feng, U-M Dearborn researcher and assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, said he biked over the East Medical Center Bridge hundreds of times during the five years he was a Ph.D. student at the Ann Arbor campus. The Fuller and East Medical Center Bridge leads to the University’s medical center and connects the Central and North Campuses. Recently, the Ann Arbor City Council approved a proposal to widen the bridge with a fifth lane for automobiles, which prompted community backlash, particularly from pedestrians and cyclists who rely on the bridge for daily commuting.
Based on his research into safe and sustainable transportation methods as well as his personal experiences, Feng said the proposed design for the Medical Center Bridge is not only counterproductive to climate change mitigation efforts — by accommodating more vehicle traffic — but also exacerbates existing safety challenges to cyclists.
“The Federal Highway Administration recommended a minimum of 5 feet width for people to walk side-by-side (in one direction),” Feng said. “A total of 8 feet, which is the width of the new design on the west side, was too narrow even for current bi-direction walking and biking traffic.”
The University’s community relations director Michael Rein suggested at the Feb. 7 City Council meeting that reducing the width on the west side of the bridge to 8 feet will be offset by widening the east side of the bridge to 13 feet, which could divert some non-motorized traffic from the west. Feng, however, warned it might be more difficult than the University thinks for commuters to adjust their usual routes in light of the changes.
“If we learned something from the past decades, it is that some people are going to do things that make the most sense to them,” Feng said. “Simply narrowing the west side of the bridge, which is the most straightforward connection for many, and telling (them) not to use it is highly unlikely to work.”
Plowing and clearing ice across the city for winter bikers
Engineering junior Zachary Eichenberger said he prefers taking State Street to Fuller Road when going between Central and North Campus to avoid the heavy vehicle traffic on the Medical Center Bridge. But in the winter time, Eichenberger said his preferred route was impassable due to ice and snow coverage.
“There are a few sections that are very hard to get through in winter,” Eichenberger said. “The path that goes up to Fuller and shared paths near North Campus are completely not maintained during the winter, which makes it easy for me to fall.”
Eichenberger was not the only biker who felt concerned about biking around campus in the winter. Ann Arbor resident Rachel Jacobson uses her bike as her main source of transportation to get to work and participate in recreational activities. When winter came and the neighborhood streets along her usual route were not sufficiently plowed or salted in time for her to leave for work, Jacobson said she was left scrambling to adjust her daily schedule.
“Our family only has one car,” Jacobson said. “I work in Ypsilanti and sometimes it coincides with my husband’s meeting schedule, so it definitely affects my family. It feels like the city is deprioritizing clearing snow outside driveways and major arteries.”
Ann Arbor resident Adam Goodman, another avid cyclist, said he has seen ice patches on the bike paths in different parts of the city when plowed snow melts and freezes over on the sides of the road.
“The road is curved, so the drainage goes to the sides and stuff runs over there and then freezes, leaving giant ice sheets,” Goodman said. “I have heard multiple city administrators saying that the policy is plowing curb to curb, but we have to do something more.”
Goodman also pointed to the larger picture: more advanced biking infrastructure with better plowing quality is concentrated in the downtown area, which puts commuters and residents in the outer city or lower town at a disadvantage.
“We have a housing crisis that’s pushing people out, but we’re also not making it possible for them to have options to commute into town on bikes,” Goodman said. “If you look at Ann Arbor’s borders, especially near the highways and connections to neighboring townships, that is where we are doing the worst.”
Conflict at road intersections
During the public comment section of the Feb. 7 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, community members spoke about their concerns regarding the Medical Center Bridge intersection. According to the city’s 2021 Crash Review, which is released annually, the majority of crash events between 2016 and 2020 occurred at the road intersections.
Molly Kleinman, the chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Commission, told The Michigan Daily she had a close call while biking along Packard Street recently when she was traveling to Central Campus.
“That kind of crash is called a right hook, where drivers turning right onto a street drive across the bike lane, and they don’t check for bikes, or they don’t correctly estimate how quickly the bike is moving,” Kleinman said. “So they turn in front of the bike and either hit the cyclist or the cyclist doesn’t have a chance to stop and they run into the car.”
Crashes are not inevitable, Kleinman said, they could be greatly reduced by adjusting how the roads are designed. She said implementing protected or separated bike lanes is one idea that might help improve bike safety along transportation corridors in Ann Arbor that do not already have them.
Ann Arbor resident Nick Else, who drives and bikes around the city on a regular basis, said he understands drivers’ reluctance to support bike lanes on every street since his travel time while driving along Main Street is now longer due to the presence of new bike lanes.
“With the protected bike lanes, they now want you to follow the crosswalk signs on a bike in the protective lane,” Else said. “So that confuses a lot of people, especially cars, because they’ve been told all along that bikes have to follow the same laws as cars at these intersections.”
Having experience with bike riding and driving a car in Washtenaw County, Else said Ann Arbor needs to update its driver education to better accommodate the cyclists.
“Ann Arbor is a city that is built on car culture, so there is a big discrepancy on what cars expect bikes to do and what bikers end up doing sometimes,” Else said. “A lot of times drivers get this sense that bikers just disobey all the laws and defy the cars, but bikes are doing either what they’re supposed to be doing or they have to do to travel.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.