Is Traverse City Bucking A Nationwide Decline Of Bike Commuting?
By Craig Manning | Jan. 18, 2019
Fewer people are riding their bikes to work, but according to Julie Clark, executive director for TART Trails, Traverse City might be bucking that national trend.
Based on the most recent nationwide U.S. Census data, from 2016 to 2017, the number of commuters listing “bicycle” as their go-to mode of transportation dipped 3.2 percent. Even as trails, bike lanes, and bike share programs become more common, the number of people using bikes to get around is apparently dropping.
Clark says local numbers tell a different story. In 2014, TART started tracking trail visits using counters along the trail. The first year, the trail recorded 232,000 visits. In 2018, the figure was up to 375,000. A survey of Leelanau TART users indicates that at least 10 percent are utilizing the trail for commuting or transportation. TART also committed six years ago to clearing the trail system regularly throughout the winter. Since then, TART has recorded 25 percent year-over-year increases in trail visits during the snowy months.
And every June, TART hosts a “Smart Commute Week.” The event encourages businesses and community members to form teams and challenge one another in the “Smart Commute Challenge.” Teams then earn points by riding their bikes, walking, carpooling to work, riding the bus, or using other “smart commute” tactics.
Clark says the event has grown each year since its inception in 1995, with the last 10 years marking an especially notable expansion. In 2008, TART had 36 teams and 461 registered smart commuters. In 2018, those numbers were up to 75 and 1,269, respectively. And while the event only occurs over the course of one week – and incentivizes participants with prizes and free breakfasts – Clark believes Smart Commute Week often inspires community members to change their commuting style during the rest of the year, too.
“What people tell us is that Smart Commute Week introduces them [to the idea of biking or walking to work],” Clark says. “There’s a safety-in-numbers feeling of, 'Oh, if lots of people are doing this, I can do this too.’ It’s an entry point for folks looking to try out smart commuting.”
For Ty Schmidt, founder of Norte, building a community of people who use bikes to get around is a long-term goal. Schmidt doesn’t have a driver’s license and hasn’t been behind the wheel of a car in 16 years. His bike is his main mode of transportation year-round. He’s seen more people out biking this winter, a fact he attributes to city investments in bike-friendly infrastructure.
“Having safe places to bike helps,” Schmidt says. “When people feel safe and comfortable, they are more apt to do anything, whether that’s walking or biking to work. I’m excited for the new Eighth Street because, as far as I’ve heard, it will help with that.”
One bike-friendly option Traverse City doesn’t have yet is a bike share program. In many major cities, it’s possible to rent a bike at a kiosk, ride it across the city, and leave it at another kiosk near your destination. In 2018, Grand Traverse County teamed up with Norte to offer a pilot bike share program for county employees. The program allowed participants to rent and drop off bikes in three locations: the Civic Center, the Governmental Center, and the Commission on Aging. But Schmidt says the program wasn’t open to the public and was more of an employee wellness program than an effort to get people out of cars.
Schmidt isn’t sure Traverse City is big or dense enough for a bike share program – especially outside of the summer tourism season. A challenge, he says, would be encouraging anyone who doesn’t live in or near town to use the bikes. He’s interested in putting together a pilot program that would include not just bike share, but also a “last mile” program with BATA to take residents from their homes to a location where they could rent a bike. Those individuals could then travel the rest of the way to work via bicycle.
“It would take money and some political will, but I would love to try a small pilot with a few bikes, especially in the summer,” Schmidt says. “The whole idea is to give people options that are equitable. Ultimately, I think that people will do whatever is easy and convenient, and right now, we make driving very easy and convenient.”
PHOTO CREDIT: GARY HOWE