Summary: By building a protected cycle path along North Maple Road between Jackson and Miller, Ann Arbor will fill a glaring gap in its transportation infrastructure and significantly improve the quality of life for its west side residents.
Ann Arbor has a conspicuous hole in its bike map (bike lanes in green). Do you see it?
Okay, there are a few gaps. Like most American cities, Ann Arbor’s biking infrastructure is limited, relying on unprotected bike lanes and sharrows (other cities have gone way beyond this). But for the most part, its major thoroughfares have bike lanes. The biggest exception is North Maple Road:
This is an essential transportation corridor. It connects to major bike lanes at the north (Miller), middle (Dexter), and south (Jackson, South Maple, Stadium). And it would break from a downtown-centric rut of thinking by enabling residents of many west side neighborhoods to bike to essentials (groceries, drugstore, library, shopping, Secretary of State), restaurants and entertainment, and community hubs like the amazing Westgate Library.
But it’s supremely unfriendly to bikes. It’s a 4 lane road with nothing to slow speeding traffic; the speed limit is 35 mph, though travel speeds exceed that. This road is not a destination, it’s a way to get somewhere, including serving as the primary route to highways (I-94 and M-14). Cyclists must “take the lane” for safety (the lanes aren’t wide enough for a car to pass a bike at the legal distance of 5 feet) and risk the abuse that comes with braving a car-centric roadway.
In my last 1,500+ miles of biking in Ann Arbor, I’ve only been yelled at to “get on the sidewalk!” three times. That low count is a credit to local drivers. But all three times have been on Maple between Dexter and Miller, despite this stretch comprising only 1-2% of my biking time.
I can’t fully blame my harassers. While the sidewalk is a more dangerous place than the street for cyclists, the drivers are channeling the truth that this particular road was made only for cars.
A relatively easy fix would be to apply a “road diet,” going from four lanes to three, and use the extra space for an unprotected bike lane on each side. This would feel like Miller or Packard: much better than North Maple is now – but still insufficiently “safe-feeling” for the average person to feel welcome.
And it would be quite doable. No major construction needed, just a traffic study, resurfacing, repainting. The lanes along this stretch are never full, and a recent closure of one lane each way (for road work) offered proof-of-concept that a single travel lane in each direction, plus a central turn lane, will be sufficient.
This would be doing the minimum. It would work for me, a dedicated cyclist, but most people – regular residents, from 8 to 80 – do not feel comfortable biking on a road with 40 mph traffic whizzing by, separated by a stripe of paint.
No, we can do better. Look at the picture above, and how much room there is to work with. Four lanes, plus large public access strips of grass on each side, plus the sidewalks.
It’s the perfect place for Ann Arbor’s first cycle track.
NACTO describes a cycle track:
an exclusive bike facility that combines the user experience of a separated path with the on-street infrastructure of a conventional bike lane. A cycle track is physically separated from motor traffic and distinct from the sidewalk. Cycle tracks have different forms but all share common elements—they provide space that is intended to be exclusively or primarily used for bicycles, and are separated from motor vehicle travel lanes, parking lanes, and sidewalk
There are lots of configurations, but at a minimum this cycle track would be clearly separate from the street, raised to the level of the sidewalk and adjacent to it, and with clear markings for both walkers and bikers.
There’s great food for thought in what other cities are doing. Sure, some European cities are in another league, but there are American cities innovating, too. In the time I’ve been dreaming about this space, I personally saw inspiration in Chicago:
(Here’s the rendering of that raised bikeway). And inspiration in Brooklyn:
In both cases, I happened to be walking or busing by and thought: we deserve this, too. This is a bike path that a ‘tween could ride to the library with her friend, or that a senior could take to Plum Market.
One two-way cycle track, or two one-way cycle tracks?
I would like to hear from experts on this. A one-way track in each direction seems cleaner to enter and exit, there’s no need to cross the street. And it seems safer as bikes would be traveling in the direction that cars expect.
But a single two-way track on the east side of the road might work better for the Jackson-Dexter stretch (see below).
Two sections: Dexter-Miller and Jackson-Dexter
The bike infrastructure gap on North Maple spans these two sections of North Maple. Dexter to Miller is simple: road diet that includes a turn lane (northbound cars often stop traffic to turn left into the Alano Club).
Between Jackson and Dexter
The two blocks between Dexter and Jackson are trickier. I’m less certain this could be subject to a road diet, at least not the southernmost block. There is more lateral movement of cars in this stretch, including turning into the Maple Village shopping center.
Here’s the middle of the stretch, looking north:
And the southernmost block might be the hardest for integrating bike infrastructure, given the traffic flow to and from Jackson. But it needs something. Approaching the Maple & Jackson intersection by bike, and navigating it, is a daunting feat (made worse by the fact that the approach is uphill and that cars swoop into the right lane to make turns):
(an electric-assist bike helps here, but that’s for another post)
Here is where I think a single, two-way cycle track could have the advantage. The city owns the land on the east side of Maple between Dexter and Jackson. If it’s not suitable to remove car lanes here, the track could be built along the west side of Vets Park without altering the road. There’s currently a footpath here for walkers and skaters and there’s plenty of room for a cycle track next to that (see the north-facing picture above).
Would a one-way cycle track on each side be feasible here? Perhaps a single-direction track could fit on the west side of Maple along Maple Village, for southbound bike traffic. This would provide the benefit of being on the natural side of the road, and access to Maple Village. Though it’s not a big deal to dismount at Dexter & Maple and continue into the mall on foot, and biking along the mall would be less pleasant than biking along Vets park. And the logistics seem trickier. There’s grass next to the footpath on the west side of the street, but ownership isn’t as clear to me (would eminent domain by on the table?) and the final few feet where the cycle track would pass the Shell station seems unsolvable to me.
The one-way and two-way cycle track options could be blended. For instance, take a one-way cycle track on each side between Miller and Dexter. At the point where southbound bikes would need to cross to their left to join the last stretch of cycle track in Vets Park, a clearly demarcated path could be shown on the pavement indicating how to do this via left turn. The bike would make a left turn from the left traffic lane (or from the cycle track, if it had its own turn signal cycle – this is a thing in say, Toronto) and then, instead of continuing east into the city, would make a wider curve onto the sidewalk area and join the cycle track.
This block, an extension of the North Maple Cycle Track discussed above, is also a bike infrastructure gap. And frankly an unpleasant place to travel via any mode: car, bike, foot. It’s often clogged.
If the cycle track is built between Jackson-Miller, attention will then be turned to this stretch, to complete the connection to bike lanes on Stadium and Maple. That would be hugely beneficial. But I don’t have the knowledge to suggest a solution myself. If you have ideas, please comment or write your own post!
Outcomes and feasibility
This post is long enough and others have made the case for the benefits of more biking to a city’s residents, so I won’t do that here. I’ll just note that Ann Arbor would benefit massively terms of health, air quality, environmental impact, social connections, traffic flow (yes, my car-driving friends), and overall happiness. But I will expound on benefits other than the generic ones of increased cycling share.
A calmer traffic flow with more non-motorized travelers would be an improvement for those who live along this stretch, creating a more pleasant atmosphere in their front yards and a safer place for kids and dogs. I’d also like to see the city take on the duty of clearing the cycle track of snow; this could be with a small plow, or using a tractor with a spinning broom, ala Water Hill’s SnowBuddy. With the track elevated next to the sidewalk, this snow removal will be straightforward – and the city can do residents a favor by clearing the adjacent sidewalk while they’re already out brushing. This would increase the perk of living along the cycle track. Construction would be an annoyance, but residents along the cycle track would likely see a bump in their home values as a form of compensation.
While the above benefits would accrue directly to those living along the cycle track, the primary benefit – access to the track – would reach those in many neighborhoods on the west side, on both sides of North Maple. Thousands of people would now find themselves with a comfortable, short bike ride to the essentials.
The cycle track would be good from an equity lens. The city’s premier non-motorized transportation projects are downtown (the proposed cycling improvements on First/Ashley/William) or in wealthier near-downtown neighborhoods like the Old West Side and Water Hill (the “Treeline” urban trail). While all residents and visitors benefit from improvements in downtown, it strengthens the city to have top-notch bike infrastructure outside of the city center. This project would primarily serve middle-class homeowners and renters, as opposed to the Treeline, whose chief beneficiaries would be the more-expensive neighborhoods of the Old West Side.
This project should rank high on the non-motorized transportation list. It compares favorably to the Treeline Trail as actual transportation infrastructure*, while also being a recreation opportunity. Our transportation conversation too often focuses only on getting people in and out of downtown. Downtown is great for restaurants, the Farmer’s Market, the Hands-On Museum – but it’s not where most people live day-to-day life. The North Maple Cycle Track reflects the reality of living on a cul-de-sac in The Crescents and needing parts from the hardware store to fix your sink; living by Hollywood Park and picking up a prescription from Walgreens; a one-car family wanting to attend preschool story time at the library.
How does it happen?
I hope planners and other experts will weigh in, likely with better ideas. I’m an enthusiast but not an expert. A study will be needed to measure car traffic volume. And there are lots of details to figure out.
This is not a small project. It involves pouring concrete to create the cycle track, not just repaving what’s there. So timing-wise, I expect this would be a ways off in the future, perhaps planned to coincide with other necessary construction along this road.
But it’s unquestionable that we must make North Maple Road more accommodating for bikes, opening up access from neighborhoods to the business corridor that is the heart of the west side (stretching from Maple Village to Westgate and then south to Stadium and Maple). We have an opportunity to do better than a buffered bike lane. Let’s show what’s possible and enjoy the city life we deserve.
* the Treeline began life as the Allen Creek Greenway, and its mission of bringing Allen Creek above ground has a significant environmental benefit that should not be dismissed.