Plenty of Detroit Victories to Celebrate During National Bike Month

Originally published on the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative web site.

Maurice Cox addresses bicycle stakeholders in 2016The 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?

Senator Debbie Stabenow with the D-Town RidersBankruptcy 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.

“Detroit will be America’s best city for bicycling”

Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox and D-Town Riders CEO Ashia Phillips

Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox and D-Town Riders CEO Ashia Phillips

That’s not a quote from us. It’s a quote from Maurice Cox, Planning Director for the City of Detroit. He actually said it was a stated fact and it was something he wanted to accomplish during his tenure. He said it during a meeting last week with various bicycle stakeholders.

One way this will come true is by completing the Inner Circle Greenway. We were also at another meeting earlier that day with Cox and a couple of his planners, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Public Works, and others to discuss the city’s TIGER grant for the Inner Circle Greenway. The Inner Circle has become much more than 26-miles of rail-trail and bike lanes. It’s about connecting Detroit residents to jobs and schools, providing multi-modal connections, improving quality of life, and revitalizing the neighborhoods and business corridors. While the group has not agreed on the final grant language, there is consensus that we needed to put forth the best TIGER grant possible.

The next day we led a van tour of the Greater Downtown area from the Riverfront to the North End and from Eastern Market to Mexicantown. The tour included stakeholders, Cox and a few members of his planning department, and a couple consultants. We stopped at various spots throughout the area to show the different street types, e.g. wide spoke roads, wide one-way arterials, wide boulevards, and more. Detroit has a wealth of vacant land on its roads that can be converted to a protected bike lane network throughout the city — something that nearly falls within our Coalition’s vision.

The tour also stopped at some challenging intersections (e.g Gratiot/Randolph/Broadway, Trumbull, MLK, Grand River.) We also made sure to highlight the poor maintenance of the existing bike lanes. Safety and education were also discussed.

The only surprise of the tour was a quick positive update on a related project. We were told that information must remain on the van for now, but we can say that everything is on the table. Bureaucracy and status quo are no longer acceptable excuses for making bad transportation decisions in Detroit.

While the van limited how many could join in, we were very fortunate that Ashia Phillips from D-Town Riders Bike Club could participate and share some perspectives on how bike infrastructure can better support the city’s growing bike club scene. For examples, should we plan for more bike meetup/rest areas like Harmonie Park? These areas could have bike repair stations, water, bathrooms, and local businesses.

There will be followup meetings later this year with the opportunity to bring many more Detroiters and bike clubs into the discussion of how to make the city a better place for biking. This is just the beginning of a very exciting planning effort.

Our wide roads, low traffic volumes, and abandoned rail corridors give Detroit a big advantage over other cities when it comes to making better biking opportunities. With these opportunities as well as the bike clubs, rides and many other Detroit bicyclists, it getting much easier to envision being the number one city.

Growing city support for greenways in Detroit

2015 Bike Trails and Cocktails bike tour mapSeven years ago our only major biking and trails proponent was packing up his desk at the Detroit Mayor’s office and heading back to a job in the private sector. Our city support was looking bleak.

What a change we’ve seen since then!

We now have supporters throughout most city departments and in the Mayor’s office. Though Detroit has many challenges and priorities, our work is seen as an important quality of life issue from the neighborhoods to downtown.

This summer we’ve gained another supporter with the new Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox. We heard this support firsthand at a recent event on the RiverWalk

With help from the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative and Bedrock Management, the inaugural Bike Trails and Cocktails event was held. It began with a guided 8-mile bike tour of nearby greenway projects with assistance from Detroit’s Eastside Riders bike club. This tour included recently completed portions of the Detroit RiverWalk, the Dequindre Cut Extension, the planned Beltline Greenway and Elmwood Connector.

At the ride’s conclusion, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy provided more updates on their work and answered questions.

Next up was Cox who made a statement by riding to the event. This was not atypical for him though. He bikes to work, to Eastern Market, and all around town. Biking has been his primary means of transportation long before he got to the Motor City and he sees no need to change.

Bike-Trails-and-Cocktrails-by-Khalil-LigonLiving in Lafayette Park, he uses the nearby Dequindre Cut often. He told the attendees that every Detroit neighborhood deserves a great greenway like this — something that’s very much in line with the Detroit Greenways Coalition vision and Food and Fitness Collaborative goals.

One major project that will bring a greenway to many Detroit neighborhoods (as well as Hamtramck, Highland Park and Dearborn) is the 26-mile Inner Circle Greenway. Cox spoke highly of the project and the opportunity to look beyond just the trail. He added that the greenway can be catalyst for development similar to the Atlanta Beltline.

He also stressed the value in having the Coalition in Detroit to help show community support. He told the crowd that he would join the Coalition before the event was over. He also noted that he was heading to Copenhagen the next day as part of a study tour that looks at progressive European transportation and public space designs that are people-focused. We’re looking forward to what ideas he can bring back to Detroit.

What a change from seven years ago!

 

Mayor Duggan appoints a new Planning Director

Photo by Hawes Spencer, The HookWe’ve not met Mayor Mike Duggan’s appointee for the Planning and Development Department, but we like what we’ve read so far.

His name is Maurice Cox and he is coming to Detroit via New Orleans and Charlottesville, Virginia. According to this 2012 article in The Hook, Cox was long-time bike commuter and an apparent supporter of Complete Streets.

More of his background is available in this City of Detroit release.

That release also mentioned that Cox will focus on the neighborhoods:

With new businesses and residential developments already going strong in downtown and midtown, Mayor Duggan has charged Cox with focusing his energies on developing strategies to strengthen existing neighborhoods and reuse land in largely vacant areas of the city.

Mayor Duggan has expressed an interest in exploring new uses for large tracts of vacant city land, including green infrastructure to reduce storm water run-off and appropriate urban agriculture.  He also has talked about creating more densely populated and walk able urban neighborhoods throughout the city that are sustainable unto themselves with a diversity of residents and small businesses.

Cox thanked Mayor Duggan for this opportunity and said he hopes to build from the uniqueness of Detroit while bringing new ideas that represent the best of what he’s seen and done elsewhere.

“Detroit has a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-imagine the American city, transforming an abundance of land into a valuable community asset. We can take advantage of Detroit’s many historic neighborhoods to create new urban housing anchored by revitalized commercial corridors, parks and greenways, all working together to enhance the quality of life in this city for everyone,” Cox said.  “Detroit is well positioned to be the place where urban innovation and economic opportunity intersect, creating a new kind of sustainable city–one that is equitable, just and simply more beautiful.”

Those are his words but our underline. Yes, he mentioned greenways.

His appointment does require City Council approval, but so far he has ours.