Traverse City Steps Up to Smart Commuting
Food and fun promote alternatives to one car, one person
June 6, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Studies indicate that bicycling to work is easier, safer, and less sweaty than many people presume.
TRAVERSE CITY — If pricey gas and thickening traffic won’t get people out of their cars and onto a bike or a bus, people here in northwest Michigan figure they know what will: fried eggs and potatoes.
From June 7 to 11, anybody bicycling, walking, busing, or carpooling to work earns a free hot breakfast and some cool conversation at a rotating site in this city. It’s all part of “Smart Commute Week,” the 10th annual event meant to coax people away from solo auto commutes and toward other, more sustainable options.
“I have a sense that there are more people seeking transportation choices and also making a decision to live here because of the option to bike to work,” said Bob Otwell, who runs the affair as executive director of the regional trail-building group called TART Trails and also serves as a volunteer breakfast cook for the event.
The numbers prove his point. What started a decade ago with a few dozen people has blossomed into a sizable event with a few dozen sponsors. Mr. Otwell expects countless casual participants and well more than 1,000 employees from about 45 area companies to participate in the Commuter Cup Challenge, a friendly competition to see which businesses are most dedicated to alternative transportation. Winning teams receive a bicycle to park at their workplace for shared use, plus some local acclaim as progressive employers and employees.
It’s a relaxed and inclusive way to deal with an increasingly tense and divisive topic in Traverse City: How best to deal with traffic congestion. In just the last few months, civic debates have raged here regarding whether to build a bus station downtown (approved) and a ring road around the city (stalled), and who’s most fit to lead a regional study of transportation needs and solutions (unresolved). The local tourist bureau, concerned about sprawl and loss of rural character, even brought in internationally acclaimed author and architect William McDonough to lead citizens through a visioning process to help decide in what direction the rapidly growing region wants to go (unclear).
Local model for state initiative
Through it all, Traverse City has slowly put into place the foundation of an alternative transportation system. The city has long been rich with sidewalks, sits at the center of a soon-to-be two-county paved trail network, continues to add bicycle lanes, anchors a two-county bus system, and is expanding the region’s biggest downtown. While traffic issues remain a sore spot for many, Mr. Otwell’s approach — social change induced by free coffee and bagels — is making inroads and leading an emerging statewide movement toward healthier, more active communities.
Last August, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council recommended steps for increasing bicycling and walking options in Michigan’s communities. The council report said that communities “should provide non-motorized, public transportation alternatives, safe routes to schools, and recognize non-motorized transportation as a viable method of transportation” in order to cut congestion, enhance public health, and boost tourism. The last point has particularly resonance in Traverse City, which depends heavily on grabbing its portion of the 350,000 jobs and $12 billion in annual business that tourism provides the state.
But the health implications for Traverse City and for the entire state are also enormous. A study by the Michigan Department of Community Health found that physical inactivity in Michigan is costing $8.9 billion a year, including the direct and indirect costs of medical care, workers compensation, and lost productivity. If current trends continue, the study said, the cost of physical inactivity will increase by 42 percent to $12.6 billion by 2007. Such finding have spurred the department to launch its Michigan Steps Up Initiative, which aims to increase physical activity through smarter community design, on June 29.
Knowing where you want to go
While there’s no estimate of the health costs on a local level, it’s clear to those with a statewide perspective that Traverse City is ahead of the pack in breaking free of auto dependency and the idleness and ill health it promotes.
“I think Traverse City and the folks who live there and make policy are doing a fabulous job,” said Lucinda Means, who directs the League of Michigan Bicyclists in Lansing and is engaged in statewide efforts to promote healthy living. “Are Traverse City and its residents where they want to be yet? No. But they know where they want to go, and they’re making progress. People there care, and they get involved.”
Tracey Welch, 46, is one of those people. Five years ago the Traverse City resident pedaled over to a free bike-to-work breakfast and became hooked on "green commuting." Now, several times a week, she rides or walks to her job. It’s less than a mile, so she’s not setting any distance records, but she does this in all four seasons and largely regardless of the weather.
“It’s made me feel more connected to my neighbors and my community,” said Ms. Welch, whose family chooses to own only one car and pocket the savings. “It’s certainly less stress and a little more activity in my life.”
And her positive experience bicycling to work has spurred her to pedal to other destinations too, such as the grocery store with a small bicycle cart in tow. She sometimes even visits the doctor’s office without a car by putting her bicycle on a local bus and then pedaling back.
Buses, bicycles, and a long way to go
She’s able to do that because the Grand Traverse region’s bus system — the Bay Area Transportation Authority — has bicycle racks on all of its in-town buses. BATA is one of only about a dozen public transit systems in Michigan to do so. The system also is a partner in Smart Commute Week, hosting breakfast on Wednesday and offering free bus rides to everybody that day.
Joe DeKoning, who heads up BATA, said his fleet of 25 buses supplies 400,000 rides a year and is a key to maintaining a high quality of life as the area continues to grow. “We want to position ourselves as a reasonable alternative to the daily auto commute,” Mr. DeKoning said. “Certainly with fuel costs going up, we’re becoming more attractive. And with just 10 riders on a bus, we’re taking 10 cars off the road on that route.”
For all the good feelings surrounding Smart Commute Week, Mr. Otwell and others readily admit that they face a significant challenge getting people to weave alternative transportation into their work routine year-round. A cold and snowy climate adds to the challenge, as does the sea of sprawl south of the city.
Data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average trip time for Grand Traverse County’s 36,000 daily commuters increased almost 25 percent since 1990, to 20 minutes each way. During the same period, vehicle registration in the region increased at almost twice the state’s rate. And a recent survey by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments found that, if their route to work or the store was congestion-free, 87 percent of respondents were “very likely” to drive alone to get there. But, more encouragingly for advocates of transportation alternatives, the same survey determined that about 75 percent were “somewhat or very likely” to walk and about 40 percent “somewhat or very likely” to bicycle to work or for errands at times if it were more convenient to do so.
The backers of Smart Commute Week plan their own survey this year to see what barriers might be holding people back from choosing an option to the solo car commute. And they remain both practical in their goals and optimistic in their outlook that Traverse City is heading in the right direction.
“Clearly, it’s going to take more than another 10 years for us to resemble the Netherlands, with its remarkable bicycling and walking facilities,” said Laura Otwell, Bob’s wife and a key force behind the advent of Bike-to-Work Week, which morphed this year into Smart Commute Week. “But 10 years ago we didn’t have bike lanes downtown or intersections designed for bicycling and pedestrians. The changes are subtle but they’re real. It’s becoming more mainstream.”
Journalist Kelly Thayer is a statewide transportation policy analyst and directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Traverse County and Benzie County Smart Growth projects. Reach him at Kelly@mlui.org. Bob Otwell is an Institute board member.
From the Traverse Trails Web Site Page on Smart Commute Week:
Often misconceptions about biking or walking dissuade people from trying a green commute. The following information addresses some of the common "myths" about biking (or walking) to work.
- Myth: It takes too long.
- Fact - Cycling in urban areas generally takes less time than driving and parking for trips of three miles or less. Some people utilize time spent walking too and from work as a form of relaxation.
- Myth: I can't ride because of the weather.
- Fact - New cyclists usually start in fair weather. Experienced cyclists find that rain and cold weather can be addressed with proper clothing. Bike to Work Week in Traverse City is held in June to take advantage of wonderful summer weather.
- Myth: Traffic makes it unsafe to walk or bike.
- Fact - If you obey traffic laws and ride visibly and predictably, you are at no greater risk cycling than driving a car. By following pedestrian rules and utilizing pedestrian crosswalks, your walk to work can be safe and carefree.
- Myth: There is no place to park my bike.
- Fact - You can always find somewhere to park your bike, normally very close to your destination. Traverse City has many designated bike parking areas throughout downtown. At work, you may be able to ask your employer to provide covered, secure parking or bring your bike inside.
- Myth: I'm too out of shape to walk or bike to work.
- Fact - This is one of the reasons to bike or walk to work. Walking is an excellent way of getting exercise, and can be very practical for short trips. Cycling is less strenuous than walking and you will gain fitness as you ride regularly.
- Myth: I can't bike, my job requires professional attire.
- Fact - Some bike commuters ride in dress clothes, some ride in casual attire and change at work.
- Myth: Biking or walking will make me sweaty and there's no shower at work.
- Fact - Most bike commuters don't need a shower at work. Commuting by bike (or walking) is generally not a sweaty affair.
Source: Smart Commute Week