Is Detroit a Bicyclist's Paradise?

In July 2009, the New York Times published a piece about urban bicycling in Detroit titled, "Bike among the Ruins." The gist of the piece was that Detroit, the city where I was born and lived for a decade, is an undiscovered gem in urban cycling.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I did a magnificent bicycle ride after work as I often do during the warm months. Occasionally I’ll start from my employer’s parking garage in the heart of downtown Detroit, but that evening I scooted on over to Belle Isle, Detroit’s island park, for my starting point. The island was unexpectedly quiescent, even at 6:30 pm. I rode the outside loop, explored some of the inner veins of the island, headed off down Grand Boulevard for a spell, then back around to Jefferson Avenue and down to the Riverwalk. The air was warm-turning-to-chill, and the shadows were very Oktoberfest-y (oh so sexy). The traffic was barely noticeable, and I only passed a few other cyclists and the occasional runner.

Many of the folks who did see me waved, happy to see a warm body gracing the chilly city streets alone on a pink bike, I guess. (Pink helmet, too.) When I posted about my ride — along with a photo — on my Facebook page with a network of almost 5,000, I received a few comments and many private emails with folks essentially summing up the all-too-popular notion … “Detroit?! Huh? Who would’a thought?”

I started riding routes in the city in 1982, when I first moved into English Village on the East Side. But it’s really been the last 10 years or so that I finally recognized what great riding opportunities Detroit offers. I’m a realist and not a utopian, and I perceive things for what they are according to my experiences and knowledge. My reply to some of the Facebook folks was that even though I now live in the ‘burbs, my road riding experiences there are mostly the following: traffic zinging by me, intentionally taking a close run at me; small items flung at me; abusive comments (from men); a consistent chorus of “Get the F_ _ _ off the road!”; middle fingers being thrust out the window; and once, I even had two men in a pickup aggressively stop in front of me and back up toward me. Additionally, most suburban riding offers up mostly tediously conventional landscapes — strip malls, Home Depots, and McMansion communities. Boooring.

Of course I get the occasional idiot in the city, but the jackass experience isn’t as panoptic as it is in the hyperventilating suburbs. Heck, people wave, give me a thumbs up, say hi, … whatever. Especially in the poorer neighborhoods. They think it’s cool.

When people think of "cycling friendly" cities they tend to think of more sumptuous cities — such as Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle — where government planning and tax dollars have generated miles and miles of greenways, bike paths, and bike-friendly lanes on surface roads. They don’t tend to think of Detroit, which is just starting to accommodate the bicyclist attitude. For many years now, I have traveled to Minnesota and biked hundreds of miles in the Minneapolis-St. Paul twin cities, covering most of the greenways and bike paths. Clearly, those are some spectacular trails that provide riders with safe and feasible routes for transportation as well as pleasure riding.

Nonetheless, in Detroit we have a city that has lost over 1 million in population from its peak. We have more and bigger empty spaces than any other urban area in the country. We have room to ride. We have space. We have little traffic. We have homesteaded farms, industrial ruins, architecture, sadness, blight, undiscovered pearls, great churches, resplendent neighborhoods, amazing historical points, and much more. Endless eye candy, as I call it. And it seems to me that we members of the cycling culture may not be doing nearly enough to exploit our opportunities or advertise this unconventional gem. The city is really a cyclist’s jewel, and living in the D, or nearby, is certainly a bonus for any adventurous rider who rejects sanitized rides on suburban sidewalks. As Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times piece,

While bike enthusiasts in most urban areas continue to have to fight for their place on the streets, Detroit has the potential to become a new bicycle utopia. It’s a town just waiting to be taken. With well less than half its peak population, and free of anything resembling a hill, the city and its miles and miles of streets lie open and empty, beckoning. And lately, whether it’s because of the economy or the price of gas or just because it’s a nice thing to do, there are a lot more bikers out riding.

Indeed, I can vouch for that last comment. This leads to a mention of my ride this past weekend: the annual Tour de Troit. I wait all year for this ride. 3,400 bicyclists registered for the ride, and even if all of them didn’t show up, it was a massive show. The starting point was the famed, old Michigan Central train station that sits in wretched ruins. We did a 30-mile route with police escort (blocked intersections) through some of the great, old historic areas of this city. Thousands of people: serious cyclists, racers, tourers, city bikers, kids on trick bikes, recumbent bikers, grandmas, families, locals, curious suburbanites, etc.

As we ride, people pop out of everywhere to watch. Businesses and shops empty out. Who can resist watching a line of 3,000 cyclists passing by? People hang out of apartment and residential home windows — waving, cheering, watching, and smiling. My friend’s 18-year-old daughter said she was quite taken by that whole experience. She had only seen and known about the warts of Detroit, with its all-too-obvious ramshackle topography. Yet there is another and more extraordinary side to the city, one that most people never experience because they only zing through Detroit on freeways or crawl along the surface streets behind glass.

Cycling activity in the city is on the rise, and not just for the benefit of transportation. There are organized bike clubs and informal bike groups that put together structured rides and tours. A group called Detroit Bikes does monthly rides with various "themed" routes in the 20—30 mile range. A week prior to the Tour de Troit, the group ran an "industrial ruins tour" and about 80 people showed up. Some of these folks come from the suburbs to experience something unconventional. The one common thrust among the various people I talk to, especially those who are newbies to riding in the city, is — "I never would have expected this." They have a blast and recognize that there is more to the city than its very public ruins.

Unfortunately, perceptions are often built on hearsay rather than concrete experience. It’s easy to sit around all day watching anemic television programming and news bites, yet pretend to know what’s going on outside of the uninspiring shelter so many people create for themselves. Criticism is an important outcome of critical thinking, but it should be the culmination of one’s own experience and taste, not the result of impetuous me-tooism. Accordingly, getting out and seizing the adventure firsthand is the only valid way to form judgments and gain knowledge of the orbit around you. So, even if Detroit is not exactly the traditional bicyclist’s paradise, spontaneously exploring the city and its history on two, non-motorized wheels is undeniably a memorable experience.

Along the way, I meet many unique and interesting and eclectic (thinking) people on these rides: Marxists, anarchists, left-wing do-gooders, card-carrying UAW’ers, Tea Party’ers, and yes, classical liberals and libertarians. As one downtown friend told me, "We’re not all left-wingers down here."

This afternoon, while musing on ideas for this article, I passed a small church with one of those signs out front that displays Christian phrases. Today the sign read, "Do you ever wake up wondering what you were born to do?" I thought to myself, never. Not a day goes by when I wonder what I should be doing, and that’s because I am either doing it or I have already done it. I am just fortunate that some of what I was "born to do" can be experienced from the seat of a bicycle that was born to roam.