Welcoming non-motorized transportation in northern Michigan villages

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Our town boasts a popular new trail that can lead you to the Dune Climb and back without keying the ignition; we’ve got a full-fledged bicycle rental and repair shop; we offer restaurants, grocery stores and a café for recharging. Oh, and we’ve got the best vistas in America.

But does Glen Arbor truly embrace bikers?

These citizens on two wheels represent a growing share of our tourism pie, as northern Michigan appeals to both recreational and athletic bikers. They represent an active lifestyle that fits our outdoor attractions like a glove; they don’t clog roads or parking lots; they don’t consume fossil fuels and pollute our air, and their leisurely pace makes them ideal targets to visit and financially support our shops, galleries and eateries.

“I think we’ve seen a shift in this area, in support of non-motorized transportation,” said Julie Clark, executive director of TART Trails, a key instigator of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, which runs from Glen Arbor to the Dune Climb and will one day stretch 27 miles, from the Leelanau-Benzie County Line to Good Harbor. “You can see that in our infrastructure itself, with more trails, road shoulders, bike lanes and sidewalks.

“But I think there’s a perception that cyclists are just coming through town and leaving. They’re not seen as what I think they really are, which is potential customers. If we treat them like customers, they’ll act like customers.”

Some in Glen Arbor worry that more bikers sharing Western Avenue with automobiles is unsafe and should be avoided. Indeed, one reason for the Heritage Trail’s popularity is that it allows non-seasoned cyclists, particularly senior citizens and young children, to pedal without fearing cars that speed by, mere feet away from them. In a national and state transportation culture still largely dominated by the automobile, the notion that bikes and cars don’t mix still prevails.

In mid-July the Glen Arbor Township Board voted unanimously to route the Glen Arbor portion of the Heritage Trail around downtown, and not through it. As reported in the Leelanau Enterprise, the Township’s proposed route would use way-finding signs to lead trail users north on M-22 to West Lakewood Dr. then south on South Lake Street to Northwood Drive. From there, the route goes east on Northwood Drive to South Fisher Road, and north to Co. Rd. 675. The route would continue east on Co. Rd. 675 to Westman Road to M-22, which would take trail users just north of The Homestead.

Township Supervisor John Soderholm presented the route based on comments submitted during public meetings in March that “expressed safety concerns for trail users traveling into the business district”. Soderholm followed the vote by seeking approval from the Leelanau County Road Commission. He expects the way-finding signs to be placed next year.

“Safety is a primary focus that the Township Board used in routing bike traffic away from town,” reiterated Soderholm. “Our major concern that came out of public hearings was of pedestrians and bikers coming through an area already crowded with cars.”

Public dissent was swift. On July 25, the Glen Arbor Facebook page, which is “liked” by — and thus has a viewing audience of — over 5,000 people, posted a clip of the Enterprise story and offered this: “Glen Arbor Township FAIL. How about we reroute cars around Glen Arbor … and keep the bikers?”

The post generated 26 comments, such as this one, by Wayne Martin: “Cannot image why Glen Arbor would want to keep the bikers out. This just makes as much sense as putting up signs telling the tourists and campers to please go to (competing tourist town) Leland.”

Clark wasn’t surprised by the Township’s decision. In fact, she interpreted it as a common reaction to growth spurts in crowded towns still dominated by the automobile. (In our upcoming September 20 edition, read about how the “Good Morning America” honor affected Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes this summer.)

“When you bring more people into a crowded area, the natural reaction that occurs is that ‘we can’t handle any more’,” offered Clark. “But I think you miss an opportunity there. I think Glen Arbor is equipped to handle lots of bikers, what it may not be equipped to do is share. We’ve been accustomed to cars being the ones that use the facilities. But lets mix it up between cars, pedestrians and bikes. Congestion can be a good thing, especially in a town like Glen Arbor.”

Suttons Bay leads the way

Photo by John Robert Williams

Julie Clark points to nearby Suttons Bay, on the eastern edge of the Leelanau peninsula, as a shining example of how communities should embrace non-motorized transportation in their downtowns. Earlier this summer, Suttons Bay officially opened the Leelanau Trail, which connects the village to Traverse City. That TART trail runs roughly parallel to M-22 along West Grand Traverse Bay and approaches several different wineries, giving bikers a destination, and the means to take a wine tour without using their car. Suttons Bay also offers a 10-foot-wide trail that runs to its high school.

“Suttons Bay is going to be the town that we all look to and say, ‘this is how we do it’,” said Clark. “They understand what residents want, which is a way to get around by walking or biking on trails that connect to parks and shops.”

Wally Delamater, Suttons Bay village manager, believes that any future planning must take all modes of transportation into account.

“Every time we redo a street, we have to consider walking, wheelchairs, carriages, bicycles and motor vehicles,” said Delameter. “If you’re a mother with a baby carriage, for instance, you should be able to go anywhere in the village without getting in car.”

In April 2011, the Suttons Bay Village Council adopted the Michigan Department of Transportation’s “Complete Streets” initiative, “a design framework that enables safe and convenient access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motor vehicle drivers of all ages and abilities.” In doing so, the “Village of Suttons Bay recognizes the importance of street infrastructure and modifications such as sidewalks, crosswalks, shared use paths, bicycle lanes, signage, and accessible curb ramps that enable safe, convenient, and comfortable travel for all users.”

Delameter admits that some recreational bikers don’t feel safe sharing a road with cars, whether or not the road is widened to include bike lanes. But he believes the population needs to be educated about the safety and needs of both bikers and drivers.

“If I’m biking on the shoulder of the road, for instance, cars need to move over the rumble strip when passing me,” he explained. “Even if there’s no traffic from the other direction, some won’t move. It’s a mental barrier.”

Will Case, a Suttons Bay jeweler who attended the Leelanau Trail dedication along with 150 others, believes that cultural awareness is changing in favor of bikers.

“Biking between my home and my work is a method of convenience and not just exercise,” he said. “Some ride purely to put on miles. I ride because it’s fun to look at the birds.”

Avid biker and Traverse City resident Gary Howe, who writes the influential “My Wheels are Turning” blog, was impressed when he saw on-street bike parking in Suttons Bay. To him it represented an effort to attract bikers as customers.

“When people ride bikes, they’re more like pedestrians than like people in a car,” said Howe. “And yet, typical street design treats bicycles like cars. You need bike racks that are relatively close (to a business). Take away a car parking spot and fill it with a rack for 12 bikes!”

Howe disagrees with the notion that the automobile culture is so embedded in us that we’re a generation away from truly embracing bicycles in downtowns.

“Most of us don’t wanna drive two miles to get a gallon of milk. You’d rather bike or walk.”

Signs, bike racks, bike lanes

What Glen Arbor and towns like it need, say advocates, are clearly marked signs that show bikers where to ride, bike racks in the heart of a business district where bikes can be kept and locked, and roadside bike lanes that delineate between space for automobiles and space for bicycles.

“I don’t blame bicyclists riding the wrong way down M-22, I blame the design,” said Gary Howe. “You start with way-finding signs saying, ‘the town center is this way’.”

Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) planner and programmer Jim Lively sees bike racks and striped bike lanes as clear signs that a community welcomes bikers and that they have a place at the table.

“We need to look at villages as small urban centers that should be attractive to people outside of their cars,” said Lively. “No one spends any money in our villages when they’re sitting in their cars. Economic development happens when they get out of their cars. If you have bike parking in front of your stores, you’ll get their money. Sending bikers around town doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint.”

While it may seem obvious to a local resident, or to a driver with a GPS system, how to reach downtown Glen Arbor, signs that route bikers new to the area away from downtown could prove counterproductive. Lively mentions a hypothetical example of couple that drove up from downstate and arrived late last night at D.H. Day campground near Glen Haven. In the morning, once they mount their bikes and ride the Heritage Trail, it might not be obvious to them how to find Glen Arbor’s shopping district.

Lively is also working with the BATA bus system, which offers rides between Traverse City and Leelanau County, to offer more bikers a way to commute to Glen Arbor with their bikes in tow. BATA buses are currently only able to carry two bikes at once. Lively hopes that the public buses might one day haul bike trailers, enabling Traverse City residents and tourists to visit Leelanau County by bike, but without having to pedal the arduous, 28-mile journey.

“It makes a lot of sense to invest in infrastructure that helps people feel good about using bikes in these villages,” said Lively. “But I see it as part of bigger transportation system. You should be able to drive to a village, park once, and get around the village on foot or by bike.”

What do Glen Arbor business owners think about bikers downtown?

“Trails are connectors,” said Cherry Republic owner Bob Sutherland, a key financial supporter of the Heritage Trail. “People want to ride out to Glen Haven and the Dunes, but they also want to come into Glen Arbor for lunch. They don’t want to just ride on bikes, they want somewhere to go.”

Matt Wiesen, who owns Crystal River Outfitters and the Cyclery, Glen Arbor’s new bicycle rental and repair shop, hopes that way-finder signs will help both athletic bikers and recreational pedalers.

“Signage will help to route bikers looking to stay on their ride and avoid slowing down, but I believe the majority of bikers (many of which are families with small children) will still opt to head downtown and support local businesses. It is my hope that the business community can embrace bikers and look towards ways to accommodate biking and make it as safe as possible.”

Does Glen Arbor need to re-think its streetscape to better accommodate bikers?

“The way in which towns (including Glen Arbor) were laid out some time ago need to be revisited,” Wiesen believes. “It is my hope that Glen Arbor is able to step back and observe the economic impact of the Heritage Trail and visitors coming to this area to experience the great biking northern Michigan has to offer. All of our businesses stand to benefit from increased traffic and biking offers an extended season and the opportunity exists to build the fringe months that have historically been slow months for business.”

Another consideration is that, as the Leelanau County tourism spotlight continues to expand, and as American cities and suburbs look more and more to bicycles as transit solutions, the bikers will flock to Glen Arbor regardless of signs, racks and lanes.

“It seems like a good idea to prepare for bicyclists,” offered Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich. “Even if you don’t route them through, you’re going to get more bicycles in downtown Glen Arbor.”