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Biking Data analysis Local reporting

One Year of the William St. Bikeway

A year ago, Ann Arbor opened its first protected bike lane & cycle track: the William St. Bikeway. From my individual perspective, it’s been a huge hit. My family bikes on it to reach the downtown library, NeoPapalis Pizza, and the university. I see it used by other cyclists, skateboarders, and scooter-riders, snow clearing was decent last winter, and it’s only infrequently blocked by parked cars or trucks. Car traffic on William is calm and not noticeably backed up.

Construction of the city’s next protected bike lane is well underway, on First Street. And the city experimented this fall with temporary bike lanes around downtown, some of which have been great. The Division St. Cycle Track provides a divided, protected two-way bike highway without affecting car travel and it intersects conveniently with the William St. Bikeway, opening up travel in all directions. The William St. Bikeway was the proof point that made these other installations possible.

So it improved my family’s experience biking downtown and paved the way for other infrastructure. Did it change people’s behavior? In my post last year about the Bikeway, I displayed a snapshot of the Strava cycling heatmap that I took on November 1st, 2019. I grabbed one today, November 2nd, 2020, to compare. Here’s last year (see the old post for interpretation):

heatmap showing cycling traffic on the Strava app

And here’s today’s map, for comparison (I couldn’t exactly match the magnification levels):

This would be better with raw data – who knows the exact parameters for determining path brightness – but it’s clear: the line on William St. is much brighter than it was last year! In particular, compare it to Washington (running parallel, two blocks north). In 2019, Washington was more trafficked, especially near the university’s quad (the Diag is on the far right); now William has leapfrogged Washington as the more-used east-west path.

The original plan was for a painted advisory bike lane to go in on William last year between First and Fourth. My understanding is that this work has been delayed due to the construction on First, though I hope it is installed in 2021. Interestingly, though, this unchanged section of William seems to have nevertheless been activated by the finished, protected bikeway segment to its west. Some share of riders appears to leave Liberty at Fourth, switching over to William and riding the rest of the way in to campus, increasing the traffic we see on the east end of William.

It’s hard to say how COVID-19 might have affected this year’s bike travel. If I had to guess, I’d say an increase in pleasure riding (probably in neighborhoods and trails, not the center of downtown) and a decrease in commuting (particularly to the university) and errand-running downtown. So I’d bet on the pandemic suppressing traffic on the Bikeway and expect it to be even more heavily trafficked in future years.

And of course, Strava skews toward serious cycling devotees, while the Bikeway is built for casual riders like college students heading toward Main St. This also makes me think that, if anything, the heatmap understates the Bikeway’s usage.

Next year should be another good one for cycling infrastructure in and around Ann Arbor:

  • The new tunnel to the B2B trail under the train tracks by Depot St. just opened
  • The First St. Bikeway is mostly done, opening in 2021
  • We might see the advisory paint completed on East William St.
  • Perhaps some successful pilots like the Division St. Cycle Highway will be made permanent; the pop-up pilots are great, but rough around the edges. For instance, it’s dicey to bike south on Division as the traffic lights, built for a one-way northbound street, are not visible from the north.
  • New stretches of the Border-to-Border trail are being completed around the county

The last couple of years – since the William St. Bikeway construction started – have seen more meaningful improvements to Ann Arbor’s cycling infrastructure than the entire decade preceding them. This is only the beginning, to be sure, but it’s heartening to see meaningful progress toward becoming a more pleasant, healthy, and sensible city.

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