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For years, they’ve known Muskegon from the seat of a bicycle.
They’ve seen its growth while maneuvering through city streets, toured its murals on two wheels, stopped at front porches to meet people who once were strangers and are now friends.
They call it—bicycling and the community surrounding it—therapy. And breaking down walls. Social justice on two wheels. Or just plain fun.
Now, this group of individuals who make up the relatively new Muskegon County Bicycling Coalition (MCBC) are determined to make our region one of the best places for bicycling in the state—or even country. It’s a big goal, of course, but, step by step, or, rather, pedal by pedal, the organization that formally launched a little more than a year ago is doing everything from advocating for safer roads for bicyclists (and everyone) to connecting neighbors in areas that can face tension from gentrification and promoting equity and healthier lifestyles through cycling.
“I’m excited about how positive the community is and how welcoming the community is to cyclists, and how motorists are more and more cognizant of their responsibility to share the road,” said Ray McLeod, a coalition member who also runs the Roll On Muskegon group and started bicycling groups at Fetch Brewing in Whitehall and Unruly Brewing in downtown Muskegon. “The whole mood of this community is pretty powerful.”
As development continues to come to Muskegon County—there are major projects totaling more than $1 billion in the Muskegon area—and local officials increasingly support outdoor activities—the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, for example, launched a campaign that aims to shed a spotlight on the region’s outdoor activities and venues—the MCBC sees a significant chance for the county’s growing municipalities to better incorporate bicyclists into their infrastructure. This chance, coalition members emphasized, also comes at a time when the public is increasingly embracing bicyclists and bicycle culture with the new bike share program in Muskegon, a growing number of bicycle and bike rental shops—including the new Lake Effect Sport in Lakeside and downtown’s City Hub Cyclery, and a generally more open attitude about sharing the road with cyclists.
“This community keeps improving for cyclists,” McLeod said. “I especially love giving a shout-out to bus drivers; when they see us riding, they’re so courteous. They squeeze over. They’re so encouraging.”
Becoming the bike-friendly area for which the MCBC is working consists of a lot of layers—a melange of everything from better road signage and crosswalks to drivers giving cyclists five feet of space as they pass them, as well as something bigger, coalition members explained: a world in which bicycling is a catalyst for social, environmental and economic change. A world in which people can, no matter where they live, safely get to work on their bicycles, in which individuals, companies and municipalities understand the economic, environmental and health advantages of bicycling. Where people meet and respect their neighbors, where they slow down and get to know Muskegon’s streets not as a driver zipping through them but as someone who wants to build relationships with the people around them.
“The thing I like about biking downtown is, historically, Muskegon has been very segregated, and this brings people out of their own bubbles,” said Melanie Meade, a Muskegon County Bicycling Coalition member and one of the organizers of Roll On Muskegon, which provides weekly neighborhood bike rides during the warmer months. “When you’re on a bike, you’re pretty vulnerable and not a threat to anybody. When we go into different communities, we’re treated kindly by everybody. The more biking we can get into the community and the more people we can get on bikes, the more people will come together.”
The seeds of the Muskegon County Bicycling Coalition
About three years ago, McLeod; Julia Miller, an MCBC member, the former owner of City Hub Cyclery in downtown Muskegon, and one of the founders of Roll On Muskegon; and Tom Lindrup, the president of the Fred Meijer Berry Junction Trail Friends Group—an 11-mile biking, walking, skating, and skiing trail that spans from Whitehall to North Muskegon—knew from their involvement in Muskegon’s bicycling landscape that they wanted to see a safer community, for cyclists, walkers, runners, and drivers alike.
So, after more than a year of conversation and research, the Muskegon County Bicycling Coalition was born just over one year ago.
“About 14 months ago, we felt like we were ready to formalize our group and start pushing for improvements,” McLeod said while sitting with his fellow coalition members at Unruly Brewing. “This last year was our real year of beginning to accomplish things.”
Over the past year, the group has added members, sent out surveys to get feedback on what both bicyclists and the general public want to see, connected with local leaders on bicycle-friendly legislation, and generally spread the word about the coalition. Throughout it all, they kept a focus on their mission statement: “To realize an inclusive, diverse and accepting community where people of all ages and backgrounds bicycle for recreation, transportation, and errands, and where bicycling brings people and neighborhoods together throughout Muskegon County.”
It’s a multi-year, if not decade, mission, one filled with making the roads safer and easier for everyone to navigate, whether you want to bike, drive, walk, or run—and one in which municipalities protect bicyclists with legislation and street design, police officers know the laws regarding bicyclists, and drivers understand that bicyclists have just as much of a right as they do to be on the road.
These endeavors are rooted in, well, a lot, coalition members explained. There’s a desire to see the economy grow because of bicycling—such as through tourism, as well as a hope that a bicycle-friendly Muskegon County will draw more people who want to live and work here. And there’s a big focus on bicycling being able to support everyone, from those who bike to work because of financial constraints to those who hop on their bikes for fun.
“Recreation is great; trails are great—but who can avail themselves of that recreation?” McLeod asked. “MCBC advocates for recreation and trails, but we’re also advocating for the people who are on the roads because they can’t afford bike racks; their bike is a tool of transportation. We’re working hard to advocate for all cyclists.”
Breaking down barriers
The idea of working with everyone is embedded throughout the MCBC’s work; coalition members emphasized that they want to break down barriers to bicycling, including addressing the fact that, as is the case across the United States, Muskegon’s recreational bicycling landscape is one often filled by white and more affluent individuals, while those who use bicycles to get to work are often people of color and those with lower incomes. [The League of American Cyclists has noted, however, that this is changing, and there are more recreational bicyclists who are Black, Hispanic and Asian across the country.]
All of this can be daunting work, but, coalition members emphasized, it’s something they are deeply passionate about—and they’re determined to see Muskegon’s bicycling culture continue to grow, evolve and become more inclusive.
“If you come to one of the Roll Ons, you’ll see we’re about 99 percent white and old people,” McLeod said. “We’re trying to change and make ourselves more accessible.”
Change, MCBC members emphasized, isn’t always easy—but they’re working hard to ensure the status quo does not remain. Already, they’ve seen more women in Muskegon feel comfortable bicycling—something Miller worked hard to do, beginning years ago—and they believe the landscape will only continue to be increasingly inclusive, as well as safe.
“When we originally opened the City Hub Cyclery in 2014, we were trying to get more women involved in cycling; it slowly changed over the years,” Miller said, referring to herself and former City Hub Cyclery owner Jennifer Wever.
“As more women saw women riding, more women got involved [in cycling],” she continued.
Now, Miller said, decades after she first moved to the Muskegon area in 1983 from California, bicycling is undergoing big changes in the area.
“I moved here in 1983—I’m from California and my folks were in Spring Lake—and cars just didn’t like you on the road then,” she said. “It’s more recreational now—the bike paths weren’t around here when I moved here. Those bring in a lot of tourists. I really think we’re on the cusp of becoming more bike-friendly, especially in the Muskegon and Whitehall area.”
What do people want? Safety and education
During this past year, coalition members knew they wanted the dialogue around expanding Muskegon’s bicycle culture to involve as many people as possible. So, they sent out two surveys, the first to cyclists and the second to the general public. From those two surveys, respondents overwhelmingly focused on safety and education—such as educating municipalities and police on laws regarding bicyclists—being the two biggest issues for cyclists.
“For 2020, those are our marching orders: how do we improve the safety of our roadways?” McLeod said. “We recognize that this isn’t just about cyclists. We can improve the safety of the roads for all road users, whether they’re a walker, a runner, a cyclist, or a motorist. What we want to do is create environments that will encourage motorists to drive closer to the posted speed limit. If cars are traveling the posted speed limits, there are substantially fewer accidents.”
Muskegon isn’t the most dangerous place in Michigan to ride a bicycle, but it’s also not the best. Of the 5,012 traffic accidents that occured in Muskegon County in 2017, 3.8 percent—a total of 190—of them resulted in a bicyclist being seriously or fatally injured, according to state statistics. That percentage is about the same as neighboring Kent and Ottawa Counties, but greater than Kalamazoo County’s 1.8 percent. Grand Traverse County had the worst percentage, with 5.9 percent of its 2017 crashes ending in bicyclists being seriously injured or killed, according to the state. Other counties, meanwhile, had 0 percent of their accidents resulting in serious or fatal bicyclist injuries that same year, including Newaygo, Oceana and Mason counties, the state reported.
To address concerns over safety, the MCBC aims to make the roads safer by advocating for local municipalities to include what are known as “traffic calming” features into their road designs—such as boulevards, roundabouts, crosswalks, signage, and traffic buffers, all of which encourage motorists to stop speeding and instead drive closer the speed limit. They too are pushing for all Muskegon County communities to adopt the five-foot passing rule—which stipulates that drivers give bicyclists five feet of space between them as the motorist passes. The city of Muskegon and Norton Shores have already approved the five-foot rule, joining such cities as Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Dearborn, among others.
Additionally, the coalition will spend this year encouraging residents throughout Muskegon County to seek healthier lifestyles by riding their bikes for recreation, transportation, errands, and more.
With all of this work surrounding bicycle infrastructure, coalition member Rob Taylor said he hopes Muskegon County municipalities will be able to apply for the League of American Bicyclists’ “Bicycle Friendly Community” designation.
“A community can apply for medals as part of it, depending on how much you’ve done to support and promote infrastructure—Grand Rapids is bronze, Ann Arbor is Gold, Portland [Oregon] is platinum,” Taylor explained. “I’d really like to see at least one, if not more, municipalities in this county apply for that.”
More bicycle infrastructure
Coalition members said they’re pleased with the growing amount of bicycle-friendly infrastructure in the area, including bike racks in downtown Muskegon and the Lakeside neighborhood, but they’d like to see that expand throughout the county—including more spots for people to park their bicycles at shops.
“We want to get places like Meijer and Walmart to have more bicycle racks,” McLeod said.
“Hospitals and big places like that often don’t have bike racks; we want to see that added,” he continued.
A caring community of bicyclists
When Taylor and his wife were looking for a house for their children in Muskegon, they found themselves falling in love with the area and decided to leave southeast Michigan for Muskegon.
“We were worried, moving over here—we left a great group of friends and wondered, ‘How are we going to make friends?’” Taylor said. “But that wasn’t a problem.”
Taylor, a longtime athlete who competed in triathlons for years, and his wife joined the Unruly bicycling group that McLeod had formed—and, he said, they knew they’d “found our people.”
It’s a story clearly important to Taylor—but it’s also one that coalition members said is emblematic of the kind of support and friendship they hope to continue to provide to Muskegon County newcomers and longtime residents alike.
And it’s the kind of story that Lindrup emphasized will help to draw people to the region—including himself.
“I was born in Muskegon and raised in Montague, and then I spent much of my life in Grand Rapids,” said Lindrup. “I did not want to come back to Muskegon; I hated the place. But then I was in Muskegon one day and saw all these cyclists—it was Pub Pedal day—and I saw there was so much going on.”
Ultimately, Lindrup significantly reversed course on Muskegon—he moved back in 2014 and is now one of its biggest advocates, especially when it comes to supporting and expanding its recreational opportunities.
“There’s such a positive attitude about getting outdoors here,” Lindrup said. “There are groups for running and riding and kayaking and sailing. It’s all here. You don’t have to go to Grand Haven; you can come here.”
Taylor also emphasized this.
“We’ll say, ‘pinch me; this is my backyard,’” he said. “ Living in southeast Michigan for most of my life, I had a view of Muskegon and said, ‘I never want to go there.’ I was so wrong. Muskegon is such a gem, such a treasure. We’ve fallen in love with Muskegon.”
As the cyclists have fallen in love with Muskegon, the coalition members said they hope the community is, in turn, falling in love with cycling.
“When we do our Roll On rides, there are so many of us and motorists could take offense to us—but they don’t,” McLeod said. “They wave us through the intersections; people wave at us. There’s one corner where a family is always out on the porch, and the matriarch of the family always says, “I’m so glad you came to visit our neighborhood.’”