Say hello to the Mobility City

Recently there have been prominent editorials and comments about the loss of “our culture” because of changes in road safety and accessibility. In a recent Op-Ed, Keith Crain of Crain’s Detroit Business said that bicyclists “must have a powerful lobby.” We agree.

The Detroit Greenways Coalition and its coalition member organizations and the city have been honing their skills for well over fifteen years. Our organization has garnered significant support from the public to support the State of Michigan efforts to build Complete Streets that balance the needs for everyone who uses and pays for our public roads. It is important to note that these efforts do not diminish vehicle access but improve them for everyone’s use, to save lives and spur neighborhood growth and economic development. Our organization does not derive our support and lobby power from big bucks, we get it from the thousands of grassroots voices that say we can make our public roadways work better for everyone.

To the assertion that we should say “good-bye to the Motor City”, that’s just not true. Even Ford Motor Company accepts the fact that transportation is changing and every type of choice made by a Detroit resident is important. To further dispel what made Detroit transportation hub is that in 1868 the first person rode a bicycle in Detroit on East Jefferson – nearly 28 years before the first motorized vehicle.

Now 150 years later, the city of Detroit is making East Jefferson safer for everyone, bicyclists, pedestrians as well as motorists. The goal is to make it a neighborhood road where driving the speed limit feels right, where pedestrians can safely cross the road and where bicycling is a viable option for residents to shop, visit neighbors, shop and eat Downtown, picnic on Belle Isle, enjoy the RiverWalk and live the urban lifestyle of everyone strives for.   Jefferson can no longer be a “speedway” designed only to accommodate and encourage high-speed automobile traffic. Studies show that changes like this are important and impactful to revitalizing commercial corridors – something East Jefferson can certainly benefit from.

Over the past decades, the approach to East Jefferson and the neighborhoods along its route has not changed. And admittedly any change can be difficult to adjust to. Unfortunately it is even harder for those that think their time “behind the wheel” and their hurry to get to their next destination is more important that quality of life, safety or the economics of the neighborhood corridors through which they speed by.

The following are common refrains and misconceptions, along with the clarifications needed to educate those unwilling to recognize the importance of these changes or even to have the patience to accept the improvements that come over time.

“Bike lanes came without notice.”

Detroit started its citywide bicycle planning in 2005 with a non-motorized transportation master plan. There have been hundreds of public meetings since then for bike lane projects. Public feedback at these meetings has helped shape what the city is installing. East Jefferson in particular has seen significant non-motorized planning and meetings, including the “2012 Visions of Greenways” plan, the Detroit East Riverfront Framework Plan, and countless neighborhood and business meetings along the corridor.

“No one bikes in Detroit.”

This has not been true for over 150 years. While no city has exact numbers on bicyclists, we do know that there are at least 68 bike clubs in Detroit, each with many members who regularly ride throughout the city.  Slow Roll is the largest weekly bike ride in the United States with many rides topping well over a thousand participants. On an average day over 1,200 people use the Dequindre Cut, both pedestrian and bicyclists. The very popular MoGo bike share program hit its annual 100,000 trip goal in under 5 months and has shown non-motorized transportation is needed by both residents and visitors. Few cities in the country can make similar boasts.

“Bicyclists don’t pay their fair share.”

There is an unfortunately universal misconception that State and Federal taxes on motorist fuel and vehicle registrations fees cover Michigan’s road costs. They don’t. In 2014, those collected fees only covered 62.1% of the state road costs. The balance comes from the general fund and property taxes, which every Michigander pays, those with or without motor vehicles. The cost of bicycle and pedestrian facilities are just a fraction of the transportation costs in this state. If anything, bicyclists and pedestrians subsidize motorists.

“Bicyclists don’t follow the rules.”

Nationwide studies show this is not true.  It is simply that motorists notice others breaking the law more than they notice themselves. There is more severe and permanent danger to pedestrians and bicyclists from motor vehicles than the other way around.

It is worth remembering that the rules of the road were birthed by the auto industry to gain a competitive mobility advantage over other modes of transportation, be it bike, horse, cart or tram. The speed limit on East Jefferson used to be 12 MPH and everyone using it had to yield at every intersection. The industry pushed for higher speeds, stop signs, traffic lights, one way streets and later freeways so the convenience of motor cars over other modes would help sales. They coined the term “jaywalking” and restricted the pedestrian rights to the roadways. Cities nationwide are re-evaluating these archaic rules to bring more balance to the public rights-of-way. Having rules that make sense for pedestrians, bicyclists and motor vehicles will lead to greater safety in our neighborhoods.

Even on East Jefferson.


Whose safety? The race of Detroit bicycle & pedestrian fatalities

Studies show that building Complete Streets designed for safer bicyclist and pedestrian travel saves lives. Complete Streets even reduce crashes for motorists by reducing bad behavior.

Studies show that adding on-road bike lanes can cut bicycle-vehicle collisions in half. Bike lanes, bump outs, and medians also reduce pedestrian collisions by effectively shortening the crosswalks.

Complete Streets are invaluable in Detroit given the large number of people dying on our roads each year.

In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found Detroit has 6.79 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents — the most of any major U.S. city. That 58% higher than second place Dallas with 4.31. Absolutely unacceptable.

They also reported Detroit’s bicycle fatality rate at 1.48 per 100,000 residents, which is for 26th among the 34 largest U.S. cities. Since bicycle fatalities fluctuate more year to year, we’re not sure how valuable this ranking is.

NHTSA also keeps all road fatalities in their Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) that includes race. We thought it would be interesting to see how bicycle and pedestrian fatalities aligned with Detroit’s overall demographics.

As it turns out, they align very closely.

2010-2016 Detroit Bicycle and Pedestrian Fatalities

 All Residents (2010)Fatalities

Looking at just bicyclists, there were 20 fatalities in Detroit between 2010 and 2016. Among them, 17 were Black (89%), 1 was Mexican, 1 was White/Non-Hispanic, and 1 was unknown.

The average age among these fatalities? 46 years old. 73% are men though that is trending downward.

Some have said we’re building Complete Streets and bike lanes for the new Detroit — a more white, more young. That’s not the case. We’re building them for all, but especially to decrease road fatalities.

The data shows we have a great opportunity to do that.

Why the Cass Avenue bike lanes?

Mini-Festivus poles separate the bike lane

WDET held its annual Festivus Airing of Grievances show and perhaps surprisingly the Cass Avenue bike lanes rose to the top.

Show panelist Candice Fortman said, “The problem is that they put these bike lanes in, so now you’ve got the bike lanes and you’ve got the parking in the middle of the street, and then you’ve got one lane of traffic, and buses and cars and snow, and it’s too much.” Panelist Matt Marsden said he doesn’t see people on it but flashed his behind-the-windshield bias by saying he wasn’t a biker, “I’m a commuter” apparently unaware that bicyclists commute, too.

These grievances are not news to us, but think many are missing the larger picture.

We did appreciate the WDET commenter “Jennifer” who correctly noted that Cass Avenue got bike lanes in exchange for MDOT making Woodward much less safe for biking.

MDOT knowingly made Woodward significantly less safe for bicyclists by allowing the streetcar to operate at the curbs. Since the rails have been installed, we know of bicyclists breaking collar bones, hips, and loosing front teeth due to crashes. Though not a bicyclist, in August 2016 a Detroit senior crashed his moped and later died due to the rails according to the Detroit Police Department report. And because everyone knew these types of events would occur ahead of time, the Federal Transit Authority required an improved parallel route for bicyclists. That’s Cass Avenue.

Any discussion about the discomfort motorists have with the new Cass should be weighed against the sacrifices bicyclists made (and continue to make) on Woodward. While every road user group has made compromises with the redesign of Cass and Woodward, bicyclists crashes and injuries from the streetcar rails are atop the list.

But let’s also address the other Cass bike lane grievances.

There’s no one using them

Clearly that’s untrue. Back in September 2015 we took bicycle counts on Cass and recorded 300 in 24 hours on a Wednesday. There were probably another 100 we missed that rode on the sidewalk. That’s comparable to the bike counts we see on the Dequindre Cut at Gratiot.

With the new Cass Avenue bike lanes, we expect this counts to be much higher. Automated bike counters are being installed along Cass and we should have real data this summer.

A lane was taken away for motorists

Some segments of Cass south of I-75 did lose a lane but traffic counts showed they were not necessary to handle the traffic volumes. Most of Cass was and still is a two-lane road. The lanes used to be wider and people would drive in the parking lanes. That option has been removed. The expected result is more motorists will drive the speed limit and there will be fewer sideswipes from cars passing other cars on the right. Lower speeds bring a significantly safer environment for all modes, but especially pedestrians and bicyclists. Lower travel speeds have also been shown to improve sales for local businesses along the streets, too.

Pedestrians also benefit from these narrower lanes as there is now a much shorter crossing distance.

Motorists now open their doors into traffic

This is not new. However, before motorists could swing open their doors without looking and not get hit by another car due to the over-sized vehicle lanes. The newer narrower lanes make it more important to look before opening ones door into traffic. Opening a door into oncoming cars and bicyclists is illegal. We recommend learning the Dutch Reach.

Ideally there would have been more room for parking so people would be more comfortable exiting their cars, but there wasn’t enough room. This was one compromise among many.

There’s no education on bike lanes

This is an underlying problem in Michigan. There isn’t a mechanism for informing drivers about new road designs. There’s no longer testing for driver’s license renewals. MDOT has bike lane brochure for motorists, but it’s not been widely printed or distributed. The Detroit Greenways Coalition, City of Detroit, Jefferson East Inc., MoGo Bike Share, SEMCOG and others are working to develop and share information. While there is funding at the state level for education on these laws, we’re finding it very difficult to use effectively.

Change is hard but especially when there is not a good existing process for education. As we often tell people, bike lanes are the new roundabouts. Everyone will eventually figure this out. We’ll all work together to try make that happen sooner than later.

Photo by L. Demchak

Grievances from Bicyclists

We’ve also heard complaints from bicyclists, mostly about the maintenance of the new lanes with respect to debris and snow. The Detroit Department of Public Works is responsible for their maintenance and have told us the recent snow storm has been a major learning lesson for their staff. Certainly there is a learning curve to maintaining this new style of bike lane and Detroit will eventually get past this as other cities have.

Motorists are parking and sometimes driving in bike lanes. From what we’ve seen, there’s not been much enforcement. There has been a grace period to allow time for motorists to learn how to drive and park legally, but that won’t last forever.

Lastly, we’ve heard from fast cyclists saying they don’t feel safe in the protected bike lanes — and that’s totally understandable. The new lanes are designed for slower, less confident bicyclists. MoGo riders, too. Under Michigan law, bicyclists can ride in the vehicle travel lanes and are not required to use the bike lanes. As far as we know there are no plans to change the traditional bike lanes on parallel routes along Second and Third Avenue.

If there are design deficiencies at specific locations along the route (e.g. bad sight lines), the city has shown interest in tweaking the design to make it better.

And it will get better. It’s part of our mission to make certain.

UPDATE: We were reminded by Alice on Twitter that left turns at many intersections are now more challenging for bicyclists using the bike lanes. It’s more difficult to get to the vehicle lane and make the left. This is certainly a trade off of having protected bike lanes. At some intersections, a two-stage turn can help especially those with green bike boxes. 

MDOT to add protected bike lanes to Grand River Project

MDOT recently held an open house on August 10th, 2017 open house to discuss their Grand River Avenue reconstruction project.

Although this project is already under construction, the re-striping will be changed before it is completed in September. The seven-lane road between Cass Avenue and I-94 will be road-dieted to five lanes and (mostly) protected bike lanes. On-street parking will be removed except in locations where it is needed by small businesses. In those limited locations, bicyclists will loss the protected bike lane and have to share a 14-foot vehicle travel lane.

That is not certainly not ideal. However, the MDOT project team was unwilling to remove another lane of travel at this time, especially given the uncertainty of the new arena and its new traffic patterns. City planning did propose an alternative pavement marking where the protection drops that would alert motorists and encourage them to stay left.

Some small businesses did attend and affirm their need for on-street parking since they did not have off-street options. There seemed to be a respectful acknowledgement from both bicyclists and these owners that the road design wasn’t ideal but a fair compromise to benefit both parties.

Bicyclists also raised concerns about the maintenance of existing protected bike lanes. The city confirmed that they now have specialized equipment to sweep these lanes that are too narrow for standard width sweepers.

These Grand River bike lanes provide a key connection between many destinations, including Downtown, Woodbridge, Beacon Park, RiverWalk and more. East of Cass Avenue, a two-way cycletrack is planned to connect through downtown. It is anticipated that they will eventually get extended for the entirety of the Grand River.

With the completion of this year’s E. Jefferson, Cass, Warren, and Grand River Avenue projects, Detroit appears to be one of the top five U.S. cities for miles of protected bike lanes, up from 76th in 2015.


Making the case for Detroit pedestrian investments

We spent time with city staff taking photos in Detroit neighborhoods that demonstrate the need for greater investment in better walking infrastructure.

From non-existent sidewalks to impassable ones, we didn’t document anything that was uncommon to Detroiters. In fact, during our journey we were stopped by neighbors asking that we visit their area in hopes of getting their sidewalks improved.

We thought it might be best to simply share our photos. Clearly, these need to be improved if Detroit is to become serious about building 20-minute neighborhoods.

Do you have any poor walking conditions in the city of Detroit that you wish to highlight?