Originally published on the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative web site.
The city of Detroit has faced many major financial challenges after year after year of downsizing prior to its bankruptcy. Detroit simply could not provide the same level of service that other cities could. Parks were underfunded and many not maintained. Biking was often seen as a dispensable recreational activity, especially when faced with issues of crime, street lighting, blight, a declining population, and more.
But many in the community and philanthropy thought differently – and brought the city along.
Bicycling and trails were a means for economic development, inexpensive transportation, quality of life, and improved health. Through many years of working collaboratively with the city, much has been achieved. Trails such as the Conner Creek Greenway, Dequindre Cut, Detroit RiverWalk, and Southwest Detroit Greenlink were constructed. Not only did Detroiters embrace these biking options, they demanded more.
These trails along with Detroit’s flat terrain, moderate weather, lightly-traveled and overly-wide streets fostered a bicycle culture not seen in anywhere else in America: neighborhood social bike clubs that are largely African-American and embrace DIY customized bikes with music and lighting. Most of these clubs shun the stereotypical cyclist Lycra for regular clothes with club patches and more, not unlike motorcycle club colors. Each of the over thirty-some clubs have their own priorities. Some require club members to do community work often focused on getting more kids get on bicycles. Others are more about the fun and social aspects while lifting up better health.
These clubs embrace riding together, welcome diversity, and have a very low barrier to entry.
Interestingly enough, this Detroit club culture more closely mirrors that of the Golden Era of Bicycling (1890s) rather than the typical U.S. or Metro Detroit suburban club culture.
Slow Roll is another phenomenon that has helped define Detroit bicycle culture. This modest bike ride has grown from a handful of people to become one of the largest weekly bike rides in the world – and certainly one of the most diverse.
Where do we go next?
Bankruptcy has allowed Detroit to offer greater services. Detroit parks have certainly benefited from this as has the planning department.
New Planning Director Maurice Cox is rebuilding the department, hiring staff, and taking a much more active role within the city. This goes for biking too. Cox rides his bike to work every day and is a strong supporter for better and safer cycling options for all Detroiters.
The Planning Department, Public Works, consultants from other U.S. cities, the Detroit Greenways Coalition along with the clubs, Slow Roll, and others have collectively convinced the Mayor that building a healthier, more bike-able (and walkable!) city is a competitive advantage for Detroit. It can bring in greater economic development and more residents, with the latter being the Mayor’s self-prescribed metric for evaluating his job performance.
Just last month the Mayor kicked off a two-day workshop on reimagining all of East Jefferson and Grand River Avenues. He said we need to take advantage of our wide, lightly-traveled streets; make them more walkable, bike-able while improving transit. “We can’t out-suburb the suburbs,” he added but we create a great urban environment. He said Detroit could even experiment a bit as NYC did with converting street space to public plazas.
Just weeks later, the extension to the Dequindre Cut was officially opened. Again, the Mayor touted walking, biking and trails, and how they can reconnect this city. He also touted the recently submitted US DOT TIGER grant request ($18.8 million) to build over 30 miles of rail-trails and protected bike lanes as part of the Inner Circle Greenway. This grant included an emphasis on making walking and biking connections across freeways, many of which were intentionally routed through and divided communities of color.
Detroit bike culture is growing exponentially along with the demand for more. Understandably in the beginning our expectations were tempered with the city’s many challenges. Those expectations have been shattered.
In a meeting of Detroit bicycle stakeholders held earlier this year, Cox proclaimed of his tenure, “It is a stated fact that Detroit will be America’s most bike friendly city.” There wasn’t much reaction, which was likely due to incredulity rather than indifference. Is the city seriously on board with this?
Yes, it’s serious.