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A feature story about how the former Motor City is looking at ways to increase its cycling mode share in a push to become a greener and healthier city.
By Todd Scott
Photos by AJ Manoulian Vanessa Miller Geronimo Patton/Heidelberg Project Archives.
With its humble beginnings as a French outpost in 1701, the city of Detroit, Michigan has seen more than its share of booms and busts. A century of modest growth ended with the great fire of 1805, which gave the city its motto: ‘We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes’, a motto that remains valid more than two centuries later.
But while Detroit looks to move forward through today’s hard times, it’s also looking back. Certainly, alternative energy, new vehicles and medicine are the future, as are urban agriculture, streetcars and bicycling.
And for most residents outside the city’s boundaries, it’s a tough sell to imagine Detroit – a metonym for the American auto industry – as a great bicycle city rather than just the “Motor City.” For those living within the city limits, there’s a growing recognition that this is one of America’s best urban biking environments. Even David Byrne lists Detroit among his top eight favorite biking cities in the “Great rides where you least expect it” category.
Wide Open Roads
Detroit has the basic ingredients for bike-friendliness. The terrain is flat and the streets are in well-formed grids. From here, though, Detroit’s path to bike-friendliness doesn’t follow the commonly accepted route.
This is a city with a road network built for nearly two million residents. It later invested heavily in a well-connected urban expressway system that pulled vehicles from the main arterials. Then a million residents left the city to sprawl across the suburbs.
Unlike most other cities where traffic engineers struggle to carve separated biking areas from busy roads, Detroit’s streets have excess travel lanes. Motown cyclists may not always have their own four-foot bike lane, but they often have their own 10-foot vehicle lane – or two. With the same amount of car traffic, a five-lane road in many cities is a seven- or nine-lane road in Detroit.
Still, Detroit is investing in bike facilities to encourage more riding. In 2008, the city council passed an ambitious non-motorized transportation plan that called for nearly 400 miles (643.7 kilometers) of bike lanes, nearly all of which were to be created through road diets. That plan’s implementation is underway with 30-some miles of new bike lanes planned for 2010 alone.
Cassandra Spratling, a newspaper reporter who enjoys riding to work and to Belle Isle, says “there’s a misconception that these city streets are bad for biking. The opposite is true. The key is knowing the streets with the least traffic.”
Growing Trail Network
There has been a substantial public and private investment in off-road bicycle facilities too. There are a dozen non-profit organizations planning, developing and maintaining trails within Detroit. These organizations – along with government officials and other stakeholders – meet on a regular basis as the Detroit Greenways Coalition. The Coalition has developed a 70-plus mile (112.6 kilometer) interconnected greenway network vision. A couple of the highlights are the existing RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut trails. There are also plans to run a trail from the river to Eight Mile and an ambitious greenway that would loop around the entire city.
Detroit also has singletrack! Rouge Park on the west side has a modest 1.5 mile (2.4 kilometer) hiking and mountain biking trail. The plans are to expand that to a three mile loop in the near future.
Metro Detroit Cycling
It should be noted that while the city of Detroit offers great bicycling infrastructure, the surrounding suburbs typically don’t. The inner ring suburbs – those designed and developed during Metro Detroit’s streetcar era – offer decent cycling opportunities. These older suburbs also offer many weekly rides for the go-fast Lycra crowd.
Unfortunately, as is too common across America, the metro area’s newer suburban communities are auto-centric. Rides there often begin by loading the bike onto the car. The unfriendly roads keep cyclists mainly on rail-trails and at Metro parks.
Detroit faces many challenges, including the nation’s highest unemployment rate and the cultural issues that come with being the Motor City. Bicycles are often pegged as a last choice mode of transportation, i.e. riding a bicycle means one cannot afford a car.
Nationwide, bicycling advocacy is not very diverse. Detroit’s large African-American, Hispanic, Arabic and Muslim populations are all too often under-represented and under-served in the cycling world. Detroit bicycling advocates look to be leaders in diversifying the cycling movement.
While on the subject of “under-served,” Detroit is nearly 140 square miles (363 square kilometers) yet one cannot buy a Trek, Giant or Specialized within the city. In fact, no city shop fully stocks new bicycles. Filling that gap are bicycle co-ops like The Hub of Detroit – Michigan’s First Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Business. Their popular Earn-A-Bike program and bike shop are helping get a lot of Detroiters on the saddle.
Joey Rodriguez-Tanner, The Hub administrator added, “There’s still a lot of room to grow.” As a positive sign, during a recent ride into work, Rodriguez-Tanner noticed many other riders on the road – and he didn’t recognize any of them.
A related challenge is improving access to healthier food within the city. One result has been a major push into urban agriculture. According to Ashley Atkinson with the Greening of Detroit, there were 11,000 Detroiters engaged in urban agriculture in 2009. “Detroit has the highest participation rate for any major urban area,” said Atkinson. During the summer, cyclists can see this “growing” movement through farm-to-fork bike tours or the Detroit Agriculture Network Tour scheduled for August 4, 2010.
Bikes Belong and REI have recently awarded a $15,000 grant to the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. This grant will be used to help Detroit gain recognition as an official Bicycle Friendly Community in the League of American Bicyclists program. Applying for Bicycle Friendly status may be illuminating since the current process isn’t geared towards cities that have become bike-friendly by reverting to their pre-WWI population levels.
Detroit is not Portland. Or even Los Angeles.
LA artist Alex Aranda, who now lives in Detroit, added, “Compared with Los Angeles, the Detroit biking scene is a smaller community where you tend to know most everyone. Also, riding here is not just a fashion statement. People often ride out of need rather than to be seen.”
The city of Detroit is also continuing their Safe Routes to School efforts and is exploring a possible Complete Streets ordinance.
All told, Detroit is clearly more than just the Motor City.