I saw the documentary “Motherload” in September and meant to write a review. I wish I had done it fresh, but I keep thinking about it, so better late than never.
Motherload connected with me on an emotional level. I teared up as it captured on film and described feelings and moments I’ve had biking with my kids that I’ve never heard anyone articulate. People know I’m the crazy guy on the bike with his kids; this film told my story, our story. In this post I’ll remark on a few parts that stuck with me. Here’s the trailer:
Based on what I hear from cyclists in other cities, Ann Arbor drivers are relatively kind toward bikes. But maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, as I was harassed twice while dropping my kids off on the way to work.
I hate it. Car-to-bike yelling and honking carries the underlying threat that the driver could, if they wanted, kill you instantly and likely not even face repercussions. You’re alive because they tolerate you. By virtue of their speed and windows, they dictate when an exchange will happen, when it starts, and when it’s done.
When I get harassed, my heart starts racing, I second-guess myself, I stop chit-chatting with my kids. If I was harassed more often I’d be discouraged from riding my bike, and it’s undoubtedly keeping others off their bikes now.
None of that is news. But the two incidents this morning provided a useful contrast and left me slightly hopeful.
Driver #1: I was biking up Seventh Street north of Huron with two kids on the back. There’s decent room to pass here and cars often do, as they’re unable to on the previous block. A man in a pickup pulled up alongside me and drove parallel to me while he shouted, “that’s seriously unsafe, bro!” Then, not sure what else to add: “Seriously unsafe!” and sped off.
I didn’t have a snappy comeback, and don’t have one now. Bike safety is more complicated than a soundbite. My kids and I were quiet. They were rattled like I was. To the extent our trips to school are dangerous, it’s because a man like this could kill us. So it’s disconcerting to hear a warning from him.
I’ll just note here that the underlying issue is Ann Arbor’s terrible transportation infrastructure. We should not have to share a lane with this truck. In fact, the city just last year considered installing a bike lane on this stretch, but decided to use the space for storage of private cars instead. Yeah, the guy shouldn’t yell at me, but the City of Ann Arbor takes the assist on this one. I used to get harassed on North Maple Road, now there’s a buffered bike lane there.
Driver #2: having dropped the kids, I headed inbound on Miller toward downtown. The bike lane was pure ice so I took the lane. A Pontiac Vibe laid on the horn as it passed me – then had to step on the brake as the light at Seventh turned red. I pulled up alongside the car and told the driver, “the bike lane was full of ice so I had to drive in the car lane, sorry.” He rolled down his window, fumbling for words: “Sorry. It’s just hard.” Pause. “I get too pissed off, I’m sorry.” I smiled, and told him no worries, we are all trying to get to work. “Have a great day!”
His contrition buoyed my spirits and offset the incident with the truck. He was a normal human: a decent person on foot and an impatient, unkind one behind the wheel. This near-universal transformation applies to me, too, and it’s been widely acknowledged since before this 1950 Goofy clip, where driving a car transforms him from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:
I was lucky to catch Driver #2 at the light for this moment of redemption. It left me optimistic about the power of people to get past differences, see each other as humans worthy of respect, and come together – once we log off our devices and get out of our cars.
The William St. Bikeway officially opened last weekend, though it is not yet finished and is in fact entirely closed in segments as construction is finished. Here I am with my boy at the grand opening:
I realized I should grab a “before” shot of the Strava cycling heatmap so I can eventually compare it to “after.” [the hardest part of data analysis is collecting the right data]. I took this November 1st, 2019, though a week ago would have been better:
In it we see that William is less popular for East/West travel than either Liberty or Washington. This might have been due to its more peripheral location at the south edge of downtown, confusing lane changes, and higher traffic speeds. The latter two are mitigated by the protected bike lane.
Will we see traffic spike? The biggest increase in ridership will likely be in the non-Strava-using crowd, i.e., regular people. And that will be my explanation if this heatmap looks the same a year from now. I’m not sure if those cycling for sport will find the protected lane more appealing. The data service Strava Metro would allow for better analysis of this question, including looking at those rides tagged as “commutes”, but I don’t have access to that data.
Incidentally, I’m curious about the “advisory bike lane” unprotected segment between First and Fourth. With winter approaching, I don’t expect that segment to be painted anytime soon. An informational poster on William St. describes how it will work and it doesn’t sound like anything I have seen around Ann Arbor.
I wrote about how the cargo bike changed my life. The #1 game changer is how mundane car errands become joyful adventures. Whenever I can, I haul things by bike, and it’s become a game to see what new objects I can haul.
Here are some favorites. Photos 2016-2020.
Babies & Toddlers
Babies love the Yepp seat. They start off awake:
Then quickly doze off (don’t worry, he had his helmet on during the ride):
I don’t have hard data on this. Ann Arbor should collect this kind of data – Portland, OR has being doing bike counts since 1991. But I feel confident that the number of electric-assist bikes and cargo bikes on the road in Ann Arbor is growing rapidly.
Yesterday I parked in the excellent covered bike parking in the 4th and Washington structure and when I returned saw five e-bikes parked there:
Ann Arbor is a good town for an e-bike. It has some serious hills, which many people can’t or don’t wish to ride up while commuting. It has people with disposable income and environmental leanings who can be the early adopters. And we have two great stores for e-Bikes, Human Electric Hybrids and the newer Urban Rider (same ownership).
(Regarding one particular hill: the William Street Bikeway is slated to open this fall. This will be a veritable sales pitch for e-bikes, offering a safe and pleasant way to get to campus and downtown … to those riders who can surmount the steep, short climb up William from First to Ashley. Increase your assist level!)
Electric-assist bikes will grow in popularity here, becoming a critical part of how we move around in a world without abundant gasoline. (Even in a world with cheap gas they’re gaining steam, since they’re more fun, healthier, and cheaper than cars). E-bikes are already hugely popular in Europe and China, and while America has been slower to catch on, sales have nearly doubled annually in recent years. They’re the future.
I chatted with the owner of the Sondors bike (pictured above) as he locked up. He said he had been close to buying a moped but a friend talked him into buying an e-bike instead. He’s happy he did.
It’s a pleasure to watch e-bike numbers grow here in these early years of adoption.
A few days in a row I saw the same bike locked up in the same place outside of Workantile (the co-working space I belong to on Main Street). And it was always locked like this:
This is insecure as only the front wheel is locked to the post. A thief has only to open the quick release skewer and then carry off the bike, leaving the front wheel behind. It would take seconds.
After several days of walking past this, I wrote a short message on a yellow Post-It note. I didn’t want to draw attention to the target by putting the text out in the open, so rolled it up and tucked it into a gap on the handlebars.
Not knowing anything about the rider, I took care not to mansplain. I politely suggested that their bike could be locked much more securely if the lock passed through the frame, and signed off “Happy Riding! :)”
The next day, their bike was locked in the same place – but with textbook-quality locking technique. The U-lock passed through both the frame and the front wheel. It’s appeared that way each morning since.
Today I saw a sticky note fluttering from the bike’s seat. It was a reply to me:
Here’s to anonymous kindness and old-fashioned passing of notes.
Cargo bikes, in particular those with electric-assist motors, are life-changing. They are also, unfortunately, expensive. (Mostly. For now. Which I’ll come back to). The price tags of most brands put them out of reach of many potential riders and make them appear to be toys of the comfortable.
This came up in discussion at a cargo bike group ride this weekend: we all field constant questions about the bikes from strangers and the one that makes us pause is, “how much did it cost?” To the owner of an average adult bike, a thousand-dollar bike can seem unfathomable. And even if you compare it to the cost of purchasing a(nother) car – which is often a fair comparison, say, for Hum of the City‘s family – the very top-end cargo bikes from Riese & Muller or similar can be half the cost of a subcompact car. And said Toyota Yaris can get you to your job 30 miles away, which the bike cannot.
This week I did 50 miles of bike commuting, mostly moving my kids around, and 0 miles of driving. It was delightful. And I remain confident that e-cargo bikes are the future. Here I want to put the high price tags in what I hope will be the accurate historical context and explore factors that will make them universally accessible. Time will tell.
I love biking and hate driving. Thus I try to bike as much as possible. Biking in the cold is easy enough, you just bundle up the right way. The only truly specialized product needed is pogies. I install my winter accessories on my e-assist cargo bike, which I can use for solo commuting but also ferrying children and fetching groceries.
This served me well until the current set of snow-thaw-freeze cycles in Ann Arbor. Water runs onto previously-clear streets from uphill snowbanks; this turns into ice at night.
Going downhill on Madison St last week, I wiped out hard on black ice, sliding sideways (along with my bike) down the icy pavement. Fortunately I was alone, and only bruised my elbow and my pride. This was my first fall since I started tracking my distance biked, so 2,900+ miles. I was riding a Yuba Boda Boda with relatively-wide 2.15″ Freedom tires – good grip by summer standards, but useless on ice.
That spill was enough for me to try studded tires. I put a 26″ Kenda Klondike on my front wheel. And the difference has been remarkable. I now feel my back tire sliding, but can recover from that; meanwhile, my front wheel grips the ice.
This morning I went through West Park, where snowmelt had coated the paved path in shiny ice for stretches of 10 feet at a time. No slipping! Ditto when navigating the bumpy ice ruts that have established themselves on my street in the last month. I’m riding both cautiously and with delight.
My verdict thus far is yes, studded tires make safe year-round biking possible! And that a single studded tire, on the front, is a big improvement from none (the internet had suggested this, but not unanimously).
My studded rear tire was a special order item because my bike has a 20″ rear wheel. The Schwalbe Winter Marathon is on its way and I’ll be installing it immediately upon arrival.
The studded tire makes a crackling sound, which I don’t mind except that it makes it hard to hear my kids on the back of the bike at speeds above 15 mph. It seems to grip clear pavement well, and while it’s designed for ice, the knobby tread is an improvement for navigating snow compared to the road-style tread of my Schwalbe Marathons.
And while it seems to slow the bike a little, I’m running these tires on an e-assist model, so that’s not a problem.
Speaking of which: studded tires and cargo bikes seem like the perfect pairing. Cargo bikes are already slow and heavy; they are costly, with the expense of studded tires relatively low in comparison; and they transport children, not just a single carefree rider, so safety is paramount. (And the bike looks more gnarly on studs).
I am surprised not to see more cargo bike purveyors pushing studded tires. Perhaps the cargo-biking demographic is more likely to just leave the bike at home when it gets icy?
In the summer of 2016, I was visiting Brooklyn for work. Walking down Fulton Mall during morning rush hour, I saw a man pedaling through traffic with his school-aged daughter perched on the back of his bike, her feet resting on running boards.
I had never seen such a thing and couldn’t get it out of my head. I did some research online, searching terms like “bike transport kids running boards” and encountering the proper name: cargo bike. When I found myself back in NYC a few months later, I stopped by 718 Cyclery, talked to Joe, and ordered a Yuba Boda Boda.
That bike changed my life. Let me count the ways:
My bike before the Boda Boda was an old hand-me-down Trek hybrid that I neither took care of nor rode much. At most maybe a 3 mile commute a few times per month in the summer.
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.
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:
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.