Cycling ForwardModified: September 30, 2020 | Story by Sandra Svoboda
Detroit is creating a solid infrastructure for scenic and safe transportation by bike, scooter and even skateboard
Not even a decade ago, people who rode bikes measured Detroit’s cycling friendliness by the few city blocks that were painted with simple stripes to designate bike lanes.
Now Detroit hosts miles of protected bike lanes that are marked, painted and built to physically separate riders from cars on Detroit’s five- and seven-lane roads. They run along Jefferson Avenue between downtown and the Grosse Pointe border on the east side, and they let riders on bicycles, scooters, skateboards and in wheelchairs safely move on Cass Avenue from downtown past Wayne State University’s campus to the New Center area.
The lanes completely change the character of riding on a city street, insulating the rider from traffic. But these bike lanes are not without debate. Some motorists challenge their “intrusion” into a vehicle’s space. Regardless, they do serve as a friendly welcome mat for people who want to experiment in Detroit with warmer-weather-dependent transportation options like bikes, shared Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition (DGC). The DGC is working to build a network of greenways and bike lanes that will connect people, beautify communities and stimulate neighborhood-level economic development in Detroit.
“These lanes are kind of an advertisement to come ride,” said Scott. “And more and more Detroiters are choosing to do so because they have so many options.”
Find Your Lane
D-curious visitors can easily experience the city on two wheels not only on the cherished Detroit riverfront but through southwest Detroit, Palmer Park and east-side haunts. Weekend warriors wanting to log dozens of miles can pedal from corner to corner of Detroit’s 139 square miles often in marked lanes as well as on the growing number of organized rides like the Wayne State University’s new Baroudeur ride (Aug. 17) or during Tour de Troit (Sept. 14).
Looking for camaraderie and cocktails with your community cycle? Try a Motor City Bike and Brew tour (motorcitybrewtours.com) May through September. The popular guided miles-long rides have a relaxed pace, offer themes (from Prohibition and street art to automotive history) and a couple brews at Traffic Jam & Snug restaurant and brewery in Midtown are included with your ticket. New for 2019: a Hamtramck route. Motor City Brew Tours is also hosting a Cruisin’ for the Trails ride along Oakland County’s 16-mile Clinton River Trail on May 4.
If you’re feeling more nostalgic, you can also pedal the city’s first bike lanes, which also remain some of the most picturesque. These roughly five miles of striped roadways circle the circumference of Belle Isle Park (belleislepark.org). You can reach them by riding your bike over the park’s MacArthur Bridge to the island or by driving. (If you drive, you’ll need to purchase a vehicle park permit.) You’ll find plenty of parking for unloading your bike from a rack, trunk or tailgate.
Belle Isle Park is popular and offers some of the best riding in the city — cars go one way with a low speed limit. You do have to share the lane with joggers and walkers, but with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources maintenance schedule, you’ll find well-maintained pavement.
“The island is better than it has ever been, and I constantly see new riders out there,” said Grosse Pointe Woods resident Gary Baun, who rides hundreds of miles in the city each year solo, with groups or with a few friends. “Not only do I get to know riders, I’ve met so many Detroiters. You just learn and connect with the city in a better way when you ride.”
Belle Isle Park is also home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Belle Isle Aquarium, Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, paddle sports, picnic areas, fishing, freighter watching, beaches, hiking, kite flying, cricket and other outdoor recreation. Stop, lock and stroll. Bike racks are available at most of these locations.
Flash-forward to 2019’s cycling offerings, and the “Motorless City”is a conscious, visible thing. Planners, neighborhood organizers and sustainability advocates, to name a few, are creating connections between cultural sites, entertainment attractions, businesses and people. Look for routes near the Detroit Institute of Arts to ride around Midtown. Ride on the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge over I-75 that connects Corktown to Mexicantown. Find the Lafayette Boulevard lanes from the Dequindre Cut to Indian Village.
“Hopping on my bike from my downtown office, I can ride by so many cool sights,” said Andrea Thrubis Stanley, a communications specialist and instructor at Michigan State University who has worked for sports teams and nonprofits in Detroit. “The city has just gotten better and better for being on a bike. And with so much of downtown and Midtown getting popular and crowded, biking lets you avoid car traffic and gets you into more neighborhoods.”
Visitors for a day or a weekend could spend their whole time on a bike and still not ride every route — marked or not — in the city. That’s because, in addition to the designated bike lanes on the streets, Detroit’s new bicycling infrastructure integrates motorless transit into other city features.
The Detroit International RiverWalk, for instance, connects to the Dequindre Cut, built on a former railway bed, which extends from the waterfront past Eastern Market with intentions to go farther. That means you can ride, walk, skate or otherwise roll off-road from vehicles alongside the Cut’s ever-changing graffiti art. In 2018, the Dequindre Cut Freight Yard —a weekend spot for beverages, food trucks and music — officially debuted and is also easily accessible by bike.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and his administration recently touted plans for an inner-ring greenway that will be located miles from — but will be connected to — downtown. Named for legendary boxer Joe Louis, the route will offer riders and walkers an alternative to driving for errands, recreation and exercise when it’s completed in the next few years. It will also connect neighborhoods and institutions outside of Detroit’s downtown, such as Marygrove College, the University of Detroit Mercy, the Historic Avenue of Fashion and Palmer Park.
In addition, the much-anticipated Gordie Howe International Bridge project design is set to include a biking/hiking trail across it to Canada that will connect with a 26-mile bike route in Windsor. The multibillion-dollar project’s expected completion is 2024.
Throw in the city’s new indoor Lexus Velodrome, dozens of smaller cycling clubs cruising neighborhoods, pedal bars perusing the downtown streets and weekly organized rides like Slow Roll, and it’s not a matter of where you will bike in Detroit but on what bike, with how many people and on what type of street, waterway, greenway or track.
Indeed. Whoever you are and whatever your riding interest, someone just like you is cycling Detroit’s streets and greenways. And if you don’t already own a bicycle or you’re visiting without one, no problem. The MoGo bike share program will let you borrow one. Launched in 2017, organizers hoped to reach 100,000 rides in the first year. They snuck up on that number in less than five months. Now MoGo is expanding to metro Detroit suburbs like Berkley, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Oak Park and Royal Oak.
DGC’s Scott confirms that Detroit’s cycling culture is migrating to more of the suburbs’ infrastructures. While the Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Michigan’s rail trails and state parks are destinations, suburban leaders are realizing the wisdom of integrating bicycling into everyday life.
“To date, Ferndale has been the top suburb,” Scott said. “But Birmingham has done a modest amount of work, and Royal Oak is starting to do a little bit more.”
With a MoGo expansion into northwest Detroit and some connecting suburbs, Scott expects ridership to increase overall and in even more communities. For all the improvements, however, Scott thinks we’re still in the early construction phase of building metro Detroit’s cycling infrastructure. That’s good news for riders and visitors to The D who like to ride.
“This is probably our golden age of construction,” said Scott. “You don’t just go out and build something like this. It takes a number of years to get things in place and moving forward. I think in a few years, maybe by 2022, it’s going to be an even better landscape for biking.”
Sandra Svoboda – While her career has evolved from print to public television and becoming a program director and digital media specialist, Sandra Svoboda has ridden her bike thousands of miles on Detroit’s streets and greenways.