I’ve been somewhat amused and dismissive about the bike paths that have been painted on Grand Rapids streets, considering it more a marketing ploy for our city to call itself “cool” than a true municipal service.

But I am whistling a different tune today, having used one of the paths on Leonard Street to -- ironically enough -- get to my car that was being repaired at Tom’s Service Center.

After riding about 10 miles on the path, I’ve come to the conclusion that:

  • Bike paths are not a subversive communist plot to take away our liberties; 
  • They provide a way for neither bicyclists nor motorists to feel molested by the other; and, 
  • They simply formalize what have always been the rules of the roadway.

What does this mean for attracting talent to Grand Rapids? Very little in my book. I think young, energetic job seekers are stuffing the bike paths page near the bottom of the stack of factors such as pay, benefits, housing costs and schools when they decide to relocate.

As to economic benefits, I’d say that premise is riding on the rim of a flat tire. According to a study commissioned by the Michigan Department of Transportation, the economic and health benefits for Grand Rapids associated with bicycling total about $39.1 million annually. But look where the benefits come from, and it seems a stretch:

  • $8.3 million on the purchase of bicycling-related items;
  • $2.6 million in manufacturing;
  • $13.5 million in avoided health care costs;
  • $10.3 million in reduced absenteeism; and,
  • $4.3 million in event and tourism spending.

Here’s what I do know. When I was riding my 3-speed Huffy with coaster brakes on my way to Tom’s, I felt secure on busy Leonard Street. Don’t ask me why, because the only real barrier between me and a full-sized pickup was a painted line a few mils thick. But things were defined. When there was a right-turn only lane and I needed to go straight, I became comfortable standing in the middle of the eastbound lanes because the path was clearly marked.

It was defined for the motorists as well. On one a section of roadway that didn’t have a path, motorists consistently crossed the centerline when there was enough room for both the vehicle and my bike. On the bike path, this never happened.  So on the whole, I'd say they did their job.

The paths are already in place, Grand Rapids, so we might as well use them. It’s the only way we can reap that $39 million bonanza.

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