“Pedal Across Lower Michigan” Highlights State’s Bikeability
By ELIZABETH PHILIPS SHAW, Communications Coordinator, Michigan Municipal League
Don’t be fooled by the endless sea of pink-shirted cyclists that rolled into Luna Pier on June 28 after six days on the road. The PALM bike tour is not for sissies.
Wait a sec. Yes it is. And also for babies. And seniors. And those with disabilities. In fact, for 32 years Pedal Across Lower Michigan has been empowering, educating, and engaging cyclists of all ages, shapes and sizes.
PALM sends out a loud and clear public message that bicycling is accessible to everyone. And those are not just empty words. Daily optional add-on routes allow more riders of various athletic levels to participate without cramping the style of faster riders. The PALM committee makes sure special needs are addressed with a minimum of fuss. Each year’s century ride (a one-day, 100-mile optional route midway on the tour) is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Degen, a faithful PALM rider with cerebral palsy who was a prominent and popular role model and fund raiser for those with special needs until his death at age 52 in 2010. On this year’s ride, I saw young people with autism and Down’s Syndrome, two blind cyclists, hundreds of seniors on various styles of recumbent and tri-wheeled cycles, and countless families pedaling with an array of baby trailers, youth trail-a-bikes, and even multi-rider tandems. Free children’s activities are offered at the end of each day’s ride. A tireless army of 50-75 volunteer PALM staffers are patrolling the roads, staffing closely spaced rest stops, and preparing each night’s site accommodations so that even those completely new to multi-day touring feel safe and confident about pedaling hundreds of miles across the entire state.
From June 21-28, 2013, I biked PALM XXXII from Norton Shores on Lake Michigan to Luna Pier on Lake Erie as part of my job for the Michigan Municipal League, which advocates on behalf of municipalities to help build and sustain highly livable communities with a unique sense of place. Since physical design and walk- and bike- ability are key components to that goal, PALM was a great opportunity to see what Complete Streets progress is being made and to experience bikeability issues across the state literally from the pavement up.
I got a taste of bike-unfriendly behavior in Norton Shores on my first day on the tour. Some of us were riding the shoreline drive to wet our rear tires in Lake Michigan, a time-honored PALM tradition to christen the start of the ride, when a driver yelled at us to “get those bikes off the road.”
He was the rarity, of course. Everywhere on the route, I encountered drivers who smiled and waved as they passed, and cars that slowed and waited patiently behind a group of riders until they had ample clearance to move ahead. While waiting for the light at an intersection in Clinton, a friendly female passenger rolled down her car window to ask where we were all from.
“Everywhere!” one rider called back, returning the smile as the light turned green and we all rolled forward together across the busy street.
Bicycle safety education can go a long way toward ensuring both cyclists and drivers understand and obey the rules to share the road safely and efficiently. League of American Bicyclists (LAB) certified instructor Al Lauland teaches a free bike safety class every evening during PALM. But unless an education component is written into new legislation, it’s pretty much impossible to get the subject into any driver’s education curriculum.
“There is a very common misconception among motorists that bikes should not be on the road. If we had some education going on maybe that could change,” said Lauland. “Bikes fare best when they act and are treated as vehicles. In my estimation, the number one component to making Michigan more bike-friendly is to get drivers educated on how to share the road with bikes and educate cyclists on how to share the road with cars.”
We rode from Norton Shores to Grandville past rolling fields of blueberry bushes and asparagus fields, and quaint farmhouses and cottages overlooking quiet wetlands and lakes. We savored a midmorning watermelon break on the shady shore of a slow-moving river at Eastmanville Bayou Park. In Allendale, the school band boosters treated us to a fundraising lunch of sandwiches and homemade cookies in the shade, serenaded by tuba players playing Louie Louie.
We pedaled through rainstorms from Lake Odessa to Charlotte, and sheltered beneath a park pavilion in Vermontville, where the village church opened its doors to hundreds of drenched cyclists seeking a clean, dry restroom break. The night before the tour hit Freeport, the owner of the Shamrock Tavern told us she’d packed more than 100 box lunches in anticipation of drawing even a fraction of the 800+ tourists cycling through town.
We sipped icy slushes next to a river dam in downtown Manchester, and gorged on pulled pork sandwiches at the Grass Lake Diner. In Dansville, the mayor greeted us in the gym of the K-12 school, joking that we’d tripled the population of her village when we camped there overnight. In Washtenaw County, the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society hosted a rest stop heaped with fresh fruit and homemade cookies.
So it surprised me to learn from route planner Gary Kenyon that some communities want no part of being on the PALM route, which changes each year. The reason is simple.
“They’re concerned about cyclists interfering with traffic,” said Kenyon. “The east side is worse than west side; everybody is in a rush. The car is still king.”
As anyone who’s ever planned a tour route undoubtedly knows, Kenyon spends months each year working out the complexities of moving hundreds of cyclists safely through heavily populated communities with minimum impact on traffic flow. In Kent County this year, he had to nix plans to camp at Grandville High School because it was right across from a major shopping mall on a busy multi-lane highway. Even so, leaving the middle school we had to crisscross a subdivision to avoid about three miles of heavy traffic on the main road.
Complete Streets policies are slowly changing this dynamic, but the underlying need to fix the state’s aging transportation infrastructure is a lengthy and costly process made even more challenging by shrinking local revenues. As of this writing, the state legislature has yet to vote on future transportation funding.On Wednesday’s ride from Dansville to Manchester, PALM “Mail Granny” Ellie Knesper received an email from a self-described “concerned mom and citizen.” Here’s an excerpt:
“Austin (Road) is a 55 mph no shoulder road… a major route for gravel trucks which I (find) particularly intimidating as I am forced to be nose to nose with them time and time again...PALM, find another route, a safe and appropriate one for the sake of your riders and my children!”
I certainly understood this driver’s frustration trying to get past our endless line of cyclists. But I wonder if she realizes that her complaints exactly mirror those of most cyclists? She doesn’t think bikes belong on a “55 mph no shoulder road” in heavy truck traffic, and I wholeheartedly agree. I would like nothing better than to always ride on a separate non-motorized path, or on a wide paved shoulder that’s marked as a dedicated bike lane. And I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most cyclists feel the same.
But find a “safe and appropriate” route across Michigan where drivers are never forced to move into the oncoming lane to pass a cyclist? To be honest, I’m not sure that route exists, at least not in its entirety.
And that is exactly why, even people who would never, ever ride a bicycle should be standing on a soap box, demanding that Michigan’s roadways be made safe and accessible for all users. If we want a physically fit population that uses less fossil fuel and engages in healthy activities that promote family and community interaction, then we need to support the kind of laws and infrastructure that encourage it. That’s why PALM donates $1 from each registration fee to LMB’s advocacy efforts, said PALM Chair Kevin Novess Sr.
Rides like the PALM empower us all to share the road. Now we all need to do our part to ensure those roads are fit to share.
Captions: Elizabeth Philips Shaw, Communications Coordinator, Michigan Municipal League dips her front tire into Lake Erie at the end of PALM XXXII.
Local police and fire trucks led the PALM parade celebrating the ride’s end at Luna Pier on June 28.