Michigan Puts Road Engineers on Bikes

Michigan DOT has been putting engineers on bikes since 2005. Photo: MDOT

Do you ever feel like traffic engineers just don’t get it? That there is a hopeless disconnect between the world of sustainable transportation and the world of “level of service” and “vehicle throughput?”

Well, the Michigan Department of Transportation has a remedy for that. They call it “Training Wheels.”

Since 2005, MDOT has been putting traffic engineers, planners and public officials behind the handlebars for a view from the other side of the windshield. Hundreds of transportation officials and decision makers have received training in bike planning, but perhaps more importantly, experienced the streets from a cyclist’s perspective.

Demand for Training Wheels has been growing in the Wolverine State, as more and more communities see the benefits of encouraging cycling. As a result, MDOT doubled its offerings in 2008. They now offer four to eight voluntary trainings a year for local officials at field offices across the state, said Josh Debruyn, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for MDOT.

“There’s a knowledge gap between what is taught at the university level and what people are being asked to design,” said DeBruyn.

Since many planners and engineers have little formal training in bicycling facilities, the program begins with two hours review of the AASHTO bikeway design guide. That is followed by a few hours of “field training.” For this portion, participants don helmets and orange vests and take to the streets on two wheels.

Many participants haven’t been on a bicycle in decades, DeBruyn said. But MDOT makes every effort to make them feel comfortable.

“There is some reluctance by many people to get on the bike,” said DeBruyn. “The field exercise is at a very casual pace at 5-8 miles per hour.”

A typical Training Wheels “field exercise” might include a trip down a four-lane, high-traffic arterial without bike treatments, as well as a three-lane road with bike lanes. Wherever they pedal, there are lessons to be learned.

“It’s very eye opening,” DeBruyn said. He takes participants to roads that would be good candidates for bike facilities or shared markings. “Then they could take it to another community and apply that concept. ”

When engineers and planners return to their offices, MDOT hopes the lessons they learned on a bike will give them a more holistic perspective. At least one of the program’s trainees went back to his community and suggested bike lanes for a road where none were planned.

“I think a lot of communities are starting to put these on road facilities where in the past they might choose not to do that,” DeBruyn said.

One example is the town of Marquette, which recently added 12 miles of paved bike trails.

12 thoughts on Michigan Puts Road Engineers on Bikes

  1. While I applaud this, it is such an incredibly obvious thing to do (have designers experience what they are designing from a user’s point of view) that I can’t believe it’s even noteworthy. I guess as Voltaire said, common sense is not so common. Congrats to the Michigan Department of Transportation for being sensible, and let’s hope other states follow their lead.

  2. So important to know what, why and how what you are designing for is experienced and will be experienced by others. Love this way of working.

  3. Great idea. Should be mandatory for those working in the nation’s newsrooms, too, or at least part of j-school curricula.

  4. Karen,

    This is really just half the story of why this program is so successful. The program instructors are John LaPlante and Mike Amsden from T.Y. Lin/Chicago. Their engineering background and experience make it all but the most impossibly stubborn engineers and planners to buy in. The first time we brought this program to the city of Detroit left a major positive impact.

  5. Roadway engineers on bicycles? Really? This just goes to show all the pinko commies have already won.  What gives Michigan DOT? Put engineers in a mode of transportation and in situations that appropriately represent the the most important users of the roads, and those you should be most concerned with.

    These engineers need be in Suburbans, (not so) minivans, and big euro touring wagons with a cell phone in hand, duct taped to the side of their head. Everyone knows that these are the most important users of the roads.

    Obviously, I am kidding. This is some of the best news I have read today. Wow to think at least one state is evolving to meet the demands of its road users. Well done Michigan, well done.

    So where are the engineers on bicycles in San Francisco, or California?

  6. Great news, but they definitely need to study the NACTO Bikeway Design Guide as well, since this is now the gold standard in cycling design guides. AASHTO still opposes separated bike facilities, despite all the evidence in favor of them.

  7. Another great reason to do this is to see the road condition from a cyclist’s perspective.  Roads which are merely annoying in a car are downright exhausting on a bike.  The majority of NYC streets nowadays are full of patches, ripples, and potholes.  If some some DOT people actually took a bike on these roads, they would fast track a major rebuilding effort.

  8. I have been fortunate to be an instructor for the MDOT
    Training Wheels Program since 2007 and I must say, it is the most enjoyable,
    and professionally gratifying work I’ve been a part of as a transportation
    planner.  I have witnessed the most
    conservative, anti-bike/ped engineers transformed over the 6-hour course,
    primarily because of the on-bike portion of the class.  It’s amazing how one’s viewpoint can change
    once they are on a bike and realize firsthand the challenges and obstacles
    bicyclists face.  This training, along
    with similar pedestrian and ADA
    trainings, should be offered by all state and/or municipal DOT’s.  

  9. Thanks Mike, for providing this training. It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve read about transportation in a long while.

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