GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mitch Mileski is an avid bike rider and said since COVID broke out over a year ago, he’s been seeing more people out and about on their bikes.
“We’ve got everything from, I’ll say, super tight spandex racers to, I’ll say, punk crusty kids floating around town. There’s a lot of good road riding, a lot of gravel riding,” Mileski said during an interview with FOX 17 on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve also got like a boatload of people who just commute around, just ride around town for like leisure or pleasure.”
There’s also racing and bike polo events around the area, said Mileski, who manages the Grand Rapids Bike Company. However, despite the rise in interest and in bike sales, he wasn’t surprised when he learned that LawnStarter ranked GR as the 68th-most bike-friendly city in the U.S.
“It’s always going to be, especially in the Midwest, hard to get higher ratings just because of the weather,” Mileski said. “Out of the riders I see, maybe 25 or less percent are yearlong riders.”
Kristin Bennett said it’s something she and the GR Mobile Department with the City of Grand Rapids consider when keeping the roads safe, removing snow and filling potholes.
“People do ride year-round here. Some of those top cities that are on that list are places like Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, MN, they have high rates of cycling even though they’re very snowy and cold cities,” Bennett said during a Zoom interview Tuesday morning. “So, a lot of the time I get people telling me that ‘well, people only ride bikes a few months out of the year,’ but it’s not true. The more you provide, the more they can choose that as an option year-round.”
LawnStarter—a lawn care startup that does studies on lifestyle and leisure—judged a city’s bike friendliness or bike culture on its accessibility, safety, bike events, climate and others.
However, Bennett said the rankings that the League of American Bicyclists puts out is the “gold standard.” Currently, GR is a “bronze-level” bike-friendly city. Her goal is to raise the city to the higher levels of silver, gold and platinum. She believes the Bike Action Plan of 2019 was a good start.
“The focus on the plan was, How do we make bicycling safer and more affordable?” Bennett said. “It’s a healthy option and it’s certainly very sustainable. So, it really supports having a more environmentally friendly travel option as well.”
Bennett said that before the plan was released they sought and received a lot of input from bicyclists and the community. One of the major concerns they heard was safety, that casual riders would bike more if there were more space between them and motor vehicles on the roads.
“We’re limited. We can’t just build trails everywhere and we have over 80 miles of just neighborhood bikeways and routes that we proposed in that plan,” Bennett said. “Another key one is bike parking. A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, we’re very concerned that when we get to our destination, there’s nowhere to park, and we’re concerned about our bike being stolen.’”
Bennett said they hear all the concerns.
She added in regard to the Final Streets Income Tax Program that voters approved years ago, they’re “piggy-backing as many changes” onto the paving and reconstruction projects, whether it’s upgrading old facilities or creating new ones.
“We also make changes with our annual pavement-marking program that we run out of our department. We work on projects to expand and connect our trails network not just within the city but we’re trying to connect to neighboring communities too so people can come and go,” Bennett said. “Last year, we added eight and a half miles of new bike facilities, including a really extensive two miles of buffered bike lanes south of Wealthy and Market.”
Mileski has seen these changes. He said the city’s bike lanes and infrastructure has improved and he’s seen more bike-repair stands around town. He believes it’s a sign that the city is headed toward being dubbed bike friendly.
“There’s definitely going to be room for improvement. I think it’s headed in the right direction,” he said. “But, definitely [it's] more than just as a city. It’s the community of us too. I think it’s going to take a lot more of us to step up and get a little bit more involved and help each other out a little bit more.”