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.

Building stakeholders and pathways

There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that that have nothing to lose. People who have stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Detroit Greenways Network Vision 2009The lense of equity is on everything we do. It has to be. Our Vision is for a pathway network that is shaped by the community, benefits everyone and connects every neighborhood. The process must be open so that everyone has a stake in this.

Unfortunately it hasn’t been that way in other cities that get plenty of attention for their bicycle infrastructure. Some of the stories we’ve heard out of Portland have had us shaking our heads in disbelief. Chicago, too, has issues. There groups like Slow Roll Chicago that are doing a great job highlighting the need for more equitable non-motorized investments.

In Detroit, the initial decisions on where to install greenways and bike lanes was dependent on the priorities of the local community development corporation, business association, or other non-profit. That’s why new bike lanes and trails appeared early on thanks to the Southwest Detroit Business AssociationDetroit Eastside Community Collaborative, and Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. Next, the city began pursuing safety funding that allowed them to build Complete Streets — often with bike facilities — on roads with high crash rates (e.g. W. Chicago, E. Warren, E. Seven Mile, Central.) Additionally, the city chose to add bike lanes to some strategic connecting roads, such as Trumbull, Grand Boulevard, Kercheval and Dexter.

So, the three major factors driving investments have been the local non-profits, road safety, and connectivity.

A result is greenways and bike lanes in Detroit have not been concentrated in the “prestigious” neighborhoods. In fact, Palmer Woods, Grandmont-Rosedale, and Downtown have fewer pathways combined than Osborne. The city’s first separated bike lane won’t be in Midtown or Downtown but in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood!

However, this certainly doesn’t mean the distribution is geographically equitable — it isn’t yet. Building the 26-mile Inner Circle Greenway will help, but more work is to be done, especially in Northwest Detroit.

Building Stakeholders

Just as the the equitable distribution of biking and walking infrastructure is important, so to is the commitment to welcome and actively involve the community in these efforts. We’re not just building pathways, but stakeholders.

We’ve held Complete Streets workshops and focus groups across the city and it has greatly shaped this vision, the priorities, and how we talk about them. We’re helping the city get more residents to their Complete Street project meetings.

We’ve done similar outreach for greenways, but it’s been more focused around specific projects. We are still seeking funding to update the city’s non-motorized plan, which would be a great opportunity to engage everyone in a citywide discussion.

We need to also thank Slow Roll Detroit for the job they’ve done of not only getting more Detroiters on bikes, but making them stakeholders in a movement. It has helped start discussions across all boundaries. It complements our work, and for that we are grateful.