Issues of the Environment: Safety a key issue in growing environmentally-friendly cycling community in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County
- Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County strive to be bike-friendly communities. Ann Arbor boasts 90.2 lane-miles of on-street bike lanes, 35.3 miles of shared-use paths, 8.7 lane-miles of marked shared lanes (sharrows), 1.8 protected bike lane-miles and 11.4 of buffered bike lane-miles. The city was named by the League of American Bicyclists Gold-level (2021) and a Silver-level Bicycle Friendly City in 2009, 2013, and 2017 (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/engineering/transportation/Pages/Biking). Washtenaw County has invested millions in the Border-to-Border Trail that connects numerous parks with non-motorized paths.
- Bicycling culture is synonymous with living in Washtenaw County, and there are several groups devoted to the biking community including, the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society (AABTS), Bicycle Alliance of Washtenaw, Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition (WBWC), Ypsilanti Bicycling, and the coalition Wolver-Bents (recumbent cyclists). Despite robust enthusiasm for cycling’s environmental and health benefits, a solid community of biking advocates, and dedicated infrastructure, safety is still an overwhelming concern for those who bike regularly in the county.
- UM researcher Fred Feng logged data from nearly 20,000 trips along Division Street bikeway between Ann and Catherine Streets for three months. Totaling 229 average daily trips counted from August 26 to November 19, 2022. Comparing data to pre-pandemic study from 2017, shows bike ridership is up, while walking has stayed about the same, and motor vehicle trips have declined slightly. Council Member Dharma Akmon, D-4th Ward, said the city’s Vision Zero goal of eliminating all serious and fatal crashes on city streets by 2025 demands the city be vigilant and responsive to crashes and crash data. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2023/08/it-was-really-scary-driver-speaks-out-about-hitting-cyclist-in-ann-arbor-bikeway.html)
- Those who use the new bike lanes are finding some challenges. Delivery trucks frequently park in the lanes (this is a ticket-able offense), snow and ice are not always cleared, potholes exist, and motor-vehicle drivers can be careless. Last week, two bicyclists were hit by cars in Ann Arbor in two different crashes in the same area. A vehicle and bicyclist were both traveling northbound on Packard Street approaching E. Stadium Boulevard around 10 a.m. on Friday, October 6, 2023, when the driver turned right into a gas station parking lot, striking the cyclist, according to Chris Page, spokesperson for the Ann Arbor Police. Immediately following the crashes, Ann Arbor added signage warning drivers to yield to bikeway traffic.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today, we want to spend some time covering issues of safety and access when it comes to cycling in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. Now, there is a robust bicycling culture in our area, and more bike lanes have been dedicated. That also means there's a greater opportunity for crashes involving cars and bikes. I'm David Fair, and this is Issues of the Environment on WEMU. As Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County work toward becoming carbon neutral, greater access to walking and biking will be a part of the solution. The question becomes can it be done more safely? Our guest today is Craig Stephann, and Craig is a member of the Ann Arbor Bicycling Touring Society. And thank you so much for joining us today, Craig. I appreciate it.
Craig Stephann: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
David Fair: Clearly, by association and affiliation, we know you are a dedicated cyclist. About how much do you ride in a given week?
Craig Stephann: I do a lot of short rides, probably 50 miles or 40 miles in a week.
David Fair: You call that short. For many of us, that constitutes a year's worth of riding. Are you among those that ride in the winter and the colder months?
Craig Stephann: Yes, I do. Yes, you have to be prepared for it. But it's definitely possible to do.
David Fair: Now, I have heard some call cycling therapeutic. I've heard others say it is cathartic. I have a friend who says he despises doing it but loves the benefit he gets from it. What do you get out of cycling?
Craig Stephann: I guess a number of things. I find it very relaxing to cycle. I think about things. Certainly, one of the benefits is the exercise you get from cycling. And I feel that to the extent that I do cycling as a form of commuting, I'm reducing my carbon footprint in taking a bike rather than a car.
David Fair: Do you feel safe when you're riding out on the roadways?
Craig Stephann: Yes, although I am aware of the dangers. I think of no other sport where the danger is from other people rather than the sport itself. You know, football players may get injured, but it's not the fans that are injuring them. With bicycling, you're out on the road, and, you know, you have to recognize that motorists may or may not be careful with that. So, I think an important thing is educating both cyclists and motorists to pay attention to each other and know what to do.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the environment. And we are talking with Craig Stephann. He is a member of the Ann Arbor Bicycling Touring Society. And the City of Ann Arbor, Craig, has put forth its Vision Zero plan. It aims to eliminate all serious and fatal car-versus-bicycle crashes by 2025. This program expands on the number of bike lanes, the kinds of signage that we see, and that allows for more quick and efficient response to any new crash data that would allow for improvements along the way. What are your sentiments on Vision Zero?
Craig Stephann: I think it's very important to try to achieve that. And you mentioned safety. I think making bicycling in Ann Arbor and in Washtenaw County in general not only be safe, but feel safe is very important in getting people to take bikes. But, far and away, the largest excuse I found in talking to various people for not riding is the issue of safety. So, I think in order to get to that Vision Zero, we need to make bicycling attractive and safe for people. And that means making bike lanes that people are willing to take and feel safe in doing it.
David Fair: I don't need to point out to anyone, but humans are imperfect. And all we are dealing with on this matter is human beings. As a cyclist, what is your biggest complaint about drivers of motor vehicles when you're sharing roadways?
Craig Stephann: You know, I feel safer in some ways in bicycling in traffic in downtown Ann Arbor than I do out on a lonely road where there's very little traffic. When there are lots of people, when there are lots of bicyclists, lots of traffic on the road, drivers have to be careful. It's out on the infrequent roads where people tend to drift off that they can not recognize that there are bicyclists there and cause harm. By the same token, though, I want to say that bicyclists have to be aware of motorists as well. And I've seen too many bicyclists behaving in irresponsible ways which not only endangers them but gives cyclists in general a bad name.
David Fair: I was going to mention that you're not only a cyclist, but you are a driver of motor vehicles on occasion, I would imagine. And that is the biggest complaint with cyclists, right? Just distraction or not paying attention.
Craig Stephann: Right. Yeah. Exactly.
David Fair: On that issue of distraction, it obviously is one of the more significant issues we have when it comes to car-versus-bicycle crashes. The state and municipalities can legislate and regulate all they want. We may see improvement when it comes to driver distraction, but it will not be eliminated. So, when you interact with other cyclists and when you're talking with drivers who are taking the same paths as bicyclists, what do you encourage as the best policy for the safest possible conditions?
Craig Stephann: I think simply being aware of other vehicles on the road, whether, as a driver, being aware of of other cars and of bicyclists and vice versa. So, it has to be a reciprocal thing. And I think education is a key part of that, of making drivers help drivers understand what cycling looks like from the cyclists' perspective and vice versa.
David Fair: We are talking with Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society member Craig Stephann on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. With the Border-to-Border trail expanding, cycling has increased. Additionally, in Ann Arbor alone, there were over 90 miles of bike lanes, more than 35 miles of shared use paths, nearly nine miles of marked shared lanes, nearly two miles of protected bike lanes and over 11 miles of buffered bike lanes. You add all that together, and the League of American Bicyclists has given gold level status to Ann Arbor as a bike-friendly city. Yet, how many of your cyclist friends have been involved in accidents with motor vehicles?
Craig Stephann: Too many. Too many. I don't have a specific count, but there are a number of interactions with motor vehicles and with bicyclists. And, you know, even one that results in a serious injury or fatality is too many.
David Fair: And I think sometimes what gets lost in this conversation is whether you're dealing with trying to pass new ordinance or new regulation is that this is a very human statistic. When somebody gets injured, it impacts the cyclists themselves, it impacts the driver of the car and, ultimately, those who love those people. Do we sometimes lose the human element in our conversations about how best to address this?
Craig Stephann: That's a good question. I mean, we need to address it by laws and by education. But, as you say, ultimately it's two humans interacting with each other. And, to the extent we can promote people's understanding each other, you know, not vilifying the motorist for causing a problem with the rights of bicyclists or vice versa, that's important to do.
David Fair: We talked a lot about safety, but you also did mention that you feel good about when you cycle that you are reducing your own carbon footprint. You're a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby, as I understand it. So, you have an interest in a healthy and sustainable environment. How much can the cycling community grow from this point forward without those better guarantees of safety?
Craig Stephann: I think it will grow. I think, in some sense, it's positive feedback that the more bicyclists on the road, the more motorists become aware of them and the more other cyclists--would-be cyclists--are encouraged to participate. That being said, I think, as I mentioned, perceived safety is the biggest obstacle to people bicycling, whether it's for commuting or just for touring. So, we do need to make bicycle paths that people feel safe in using.
David Fair: In addition to your group, there's the Washtenaw Bike Alliance, Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition and Ypsilanti Bicycling. And all have the same concerns. Are you all working in concert with one another to improve safety and environmental outcomes?
Craig Stephann: I think so. The various groups, you know, have a lot of members in common. And while there may not be formal arrangements, we certainly do work together. And that, as you mentioned, the Bicycle Alliance is an alliance of various groups under one umbrella that tries to promote that sort of working together. So, I think bicycling in general has improved greatly over the past ten years or so, in terms of the infrastructure that supports bicycling. And I think a lot of that is due to the various groups representing cyclists advocating putting in that infrastructure. So, I think the group aspect of that is very important.
David Fair: Well, I think there's been a lot of progress made and a lot to look forward to. I thank you for your perspective and sharing time with us today.
Craig Stephann: I thank you. And I've enjoyed it.
David Fair: That is Craig Stephann. He is a member of the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society and has been our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information, visit our Web site at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. We bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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