Oct. 10 2012 12:00 AM

Saginaw Street bike lane is a happy ending for area cyclists


Inside every Lansing bicyclist’s helmet-covered skull is an invisible map full of hate pins. Here’s where a van made a right turn into my left leg (Kalamazoo and South Cedar). That’s where a frat boy threw a Slurpee from a car and hit my girlfriend (Grand River Avenue and Harrison Road). Here’s where an irate man yelled “Get off the road,” jumped out of his car and ran after me. (Michigan and Clemens avenues). Where is the love?

Last week, the city and the state gave area bicyclists nine dozen roses and a juicy sandwich kiss. 

The wide new bike lane along busy Saginaw Street and its deluxe link to the Lansing River Trail at the new Saginaw Street bridge over the Grand River is the most dramatic evidence yet of “complete streets” planning in Michigan.

It started out more like a turtle lane. Jessica Yorko, now 4th Ward Councilmember, and other west side residents began pushing for the bike lane in 2005. As a state trunk line, Saginaw Street is under the control of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“It went back and forth from the city and MDOT for years,” Yorko said.

At first, MDOT showed little interest in answering phone calls or meeting with the community, according to Yorko. Bike lane supporters stuck it out through three MDOT transportation service center managers. The newest manager, Steve Palmer, applied the gearshift when he came on board in January. “He should get a gold medal,” Yorko said.

In December, Yorko sat down with Palmer and Lansing Public Service Director Chad Gamble at Fork in the Road restaurant, where the Saginaw Street bike lane now begins. Yorko gave Palmer the history and asked him why it was taking so long.

Palmer promised an update in May, and came through with a plan and a timetable. City traffic studies concluded in February that Saginaw Street could be narrowed by one lane without causing congestion.

The bike lane would plug Lansing’s west side into the extensive Lansing River Trail system, so it seemed natural to get it done at the same time as the new Saginaw Street bridge and its River Trail underpass.

On a sunny afternoon last week, I eased onto the Saginaw Street bike lane at the west end, beginning at Stanley Street across from Fork in the Road. Riding a state trunk line with impunity, six feet of buffer to my left, I felt the breeze of a new transportation model for Lansing.

MDOT bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Josh DeBruyn said the buffered bike lane is the first in the state. Until now, buffered lanes have been confined to progressive cities like New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis and Boulder.

Now Michigan has two of them. The same week the Saginaw bike lane was finished, MDOT completed a second one, along a stretch of M10 (Northwestern Highway) in Oakland County.

Saginaw Street is a working route, not a scenic showcase, but the two-mile trip has its rewards. Motorists seem to appreciate the clarity of the arrangement. A few even smiled at me, as if to say, “Pretty nice, eh?”

“It creates order within the roadway,” DeBruyn said.

For the confused motorist, the Michigan Uniform Traffic Code says you can’t operate a vehicle “on or across a bicycle lane, except to enter or leave adjacent property.” John Lindenmayer, advocacy and policy director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists, says the 6-foot buffer is part of the bike lane, so motorists should make right turns from the car lane, not from the buffer zone or the bike lane. 

The lane also pares a sliver of daylight from the long shadow of the automobile. (Fittingly, the lane’s west end is within sight of two empty lots that once were General Motors plants.) The state’s Complete Streets law, passed in 2010, calls for an “accessible, interconnected and multimodal” transportation network that “safely and efficiently moves goods and people of all ages and abilities.” MDOT adopted the policy in July.

The law isn’t a mandate for bike lanes everywhere — feasibility and cost are factors — but it has made “multimodal” thinking the new normal, putting the burden onto the state to show a lack of need or exorbitant cost to avoid compliance. Over 80 Michigan municipalities have passed complete streets ordinances or resolutions. Lansing passed its ordinance in August 2009.

The state law also calls for close cooperation between MDOT and local planners, and the Saginaw Street project needed plenty. The bike lane is only the eastbound half of a loop completed by city-owned Shiawassee Street, which doesn’t have a bike lane, but was marked as a bike route last week, at a cost to the city of about $25,000 for signs, according to DeBruyn. (The state paid for the painting on the Saginaw Street bike lane.)

Save for a couple of congested blocks near Lansing Community College, the trip west on Shiawassee is a comfortable glide through pleasant urban neighborhoods.

The crowning glory of city-state collaboration is the new $6 million Saginaw Street bridge and its lavish River Trail connection, where the whole loop comes together.

I buzzed under the bridge the day it opened last week. Gone is the cramped wooden underpass that routinely flooded and froze, causing my only on-trail spill in thousands of River Trail trips. The new underpass offers gentle grades and lots of headroom, thanks to tapered steel beams in the bridge above. (Now that’s cooperation.) The city paid about $60,000 for the trail upgrades, according to DeBruyn. Palmer said the city was “forward thinking” in requesting the hookup with Saginaw Street as part of a larger plan. Yorko and other bike boosters credit Palmer and Lansing transportation planner Andrew Kilpatrick for closing the loop of cooperation between state and city.

“It’s a lot of communication,” Palmer said, “but everybody was focused on the task at hand, which was two really great pieces of transportation being completed at the same time.”

‘Coast With Your Community’
Walking and biking tour to celebrate new bike lane and bridge on Saginaw Street
1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14
Walkers start in front of Sparrow Hospital’s St. Lawrence Campus
Bicyclists start at River Trail entrance from Saginaw Street
Ribbon cutting with state and city officials to follow