Pedaling influence

All it took for Jacinda Gant to join the ranks of cyclists was a test ride. 

A regular walker, she was on Detroit's RiverWalk in early May and spotted the Wheelhouse at Rivard Park, just east of the Renaissance Center, where bikes are sold, rented and fixed. 

Gant, who works in the Salvation Army's food service offices, wandered up, asked some questions, and checked out a couple of the bikes. Leaving her purse and keys as collateral, she rode for all of 10 minutes before she rolled back to the Wheelhouse. Out came the credit card and the 25-year-old paid for half of a $340 model known as a "comfort bike" because its configuration makes it seem more like she's sitting in a chair than a saddle. 

"I haven't had a bike since I was 12," Gant says. "When I got my driver's license, no more biking. It wasn't cool anymore."

Three weeks later she had paid for the bike and was a regular rider, pedaling her way through the Motor City. She reports riding it every day the first week she had it. 

"I love the ease of it. I'm getting exercise, and it's not even like exercise," she said last week while casually pedaling among the mass of walkers on the RiverWalk. "And this is such a great view."

The New Center resident is one of a growing number of cyclists taking to Detroit's streets, greenways, sidewalks and — soon — more designated bike lanes throughout the city. Whether it's commuters on hybrid road-mountain models, families with children on bikes and in trailers, Lycra-clad club members on carbon-fiber racers or students on cheaper frames with other parts cobbled together, the city's cyclists could signal the arrival of a pedaling revolution that's made a mark on other hip cities all over the world.

In fact, because of a blend of conscious city planning, private and public monies, dedicated advocates, plenty of people willing to pedal, and, significantly, city streets built for the heavier car traffic of decades past that now leave room for bikes and designated lanes, Detroit is in a position to lead a two-wheeled transportation renaissance in southeast Michigan. 

"I think Detroit is kind of unique for a lot of reasons," says John Lindenmayer, associate director of the League of Michigan Bicyclists. "Industries have left, so transportation is one of the many things that have suffered here. With that being said, I think cycling is one of the most exciting things that's happening in Detroit right now. There are a lot of people on the ground."

Suburbs are continually adding multi-use paths around housing developments, and several municipalities are part of ongoing plans taking advantage of old rail lines to build extensive pathways. Sixteen communities in Oakland and Macomb counties have collaborated to link the extensive Clinton River and Macomb Orchard trails, and as many as 21 downriver municipalities are looking at bicycle connections there. Many Metroparks have paved or gravel loops, although advocates say there aren't enough safe, marked routes connecting them to each other.

Still, outside of Detroit, cycling hasn't been part of a large-scale, coordinated city planning effort until recently, and Detroit's plans remain the most advanced and ambitious. "Historically that just hasn't been done," says Kristen Wiltfang, an associate planner with Oakland County, although she says suburban planners are integrating considerations of safety and other aspects of biking into their thinking. 

In Detroit, support for cycling has been breaking away in a way that advocates hope will raise the city's ranking from the bottom of the American League of Bicyclists list of bike-friendly cities. A City Council-endorsed plan calls for as many as 400 miles of marked, dedicated bike lanes in the streets — that's 400 miles more than Macomb County has and 389 more than Oakland County. The ongoing construction of a network of greenways — which can be marked bike routes along streets, actual separate lanes in the roadways or separate pathways such as the RiverWalk or the Dequindre Cut — is beginning to link the city's popular spots and has garnered millions in federal dollars and private monies.

"I do think the recent city cycling boom is partly reflected nationally, but also the realization that the streets are empty and flat, and that most of the neighborhood-to-neighborhood commutes in the city are too far to walk, but an easy bike ride," says Bil Lusa, a lifelong cyclist, resident of Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood, and organizer of one of the city's biggest rides, the September Tour de Troit. "No one is walking from Corktown to Midtown to downtown to Woodbridge to Eastern Market out to Indian Village and up to Hamtramck, but these are all easy bike rides with lightly traveled surface streets connecting them."

Part nationwide
urban trend, part local movement, part regional planning effort, the Motor City's moves toward embracing cycling are impressive. 

There is a certain irony that the RiverWalk and the Dequindre Cut — which don't allow cars but manage to effectively connect pedestrians, cyclists and skaters to dining, entertainment and shopping districts — are two of the Motor City's freshest attractions. 

Group rides have exploded in popularity while the city's population shrinks. The Tour de Troit annual ride has doubled attendance in each of the last few years and had 2,000 cyclists of all ages, styles and abilities ride its two courses last year. This year, preparations are being made for 4,000 riders, but "Who knows?" Lusa quips. Buses have added bike racks, making it more convenient to ride the downtown routes if you live in the suburbs and don't want to pedal that far, and the People Mover allows bikes aboard too. Riders are clamoring for accessibility for whatever new bridge — or bridges — to Canada might be built, since cyclists aren't allowed on the Ambassador Bridge except for one special ride a year.

Suburban cycling groups meet for rides to, and in, the city. A group of mountain bikers in the spring rode in from Ferndale and hit at least a half-dozen Detroit restaurants and watering holes, also visiting the Riverfront, the Heidelberg Project and the Spirit of Hope Farm in Corktown. 

The Hub, a bike shop in the Cass Corridor, supports youth and educational programs with all its profits, and has volunteers staffing many of the bigger organized rides in the city. The Wheelhouse's tours — rides to Civil War-related sites, public art and special architecture, for example — fill up. "We were trying to think of any reasons to get people out on bikes," says Karen Gage, co-owner of the Wheelhouse. "We get to show off the cool stuff, why we live here and bike."

Detroit Bikes! (part of the Detroit Synergy group) runs beginner-level paced monthly rides and the annual Ride to Work Day. Critical Mass rides draw hundreds of urbanites out to the streets and bars on the last Friday of each month. Bike commuters are locking up their frames at campuses and downtown offices in increasing numbers by all observations, and cyclists use the RiverWalk for casual rides and a scenic, relaxed stretch of longer city rides.

"Everybody rides here," Gage says. "With this location, we get a lot of commuters who are working downtown, bikers who are coming in from Grosse Pointe and Ferndale, and we also see a lot of kids who are just out on rides. They're not just on short rides, they're coming in from all over."

Reasons for cycling's popularity in Detroit also include:

Economics: Bikes are cheaper to buy than cars. Riders' legs are fueled by their lunch, which they're going to eat anyway (instead of a $50 trip to the gas pump). And you don't have to pay to park your bike.

Practicality: Detroit has some bus service, but it doesn't reach everyone or provide needed routes for residents' commutes, shopping trips, entertainment or family visits. With an estimated 21 percent of Detroit households not owning cars, according to the U.S. Census, bicycles are often a necessary form of transit.

Infrastructure: As the population has shrunk, so has the number of vehicles on the roads, making them more open for bicycles. In addition, the growing number of greenways and marked routes connect neighborhoods and encourage riding. Detroit's most popular cultural, art and sporting institutions are only a few miles apart, easily rideable distances. Sure, not all roads are suitable for skinny tires — the bricked sections of Michigan Avenue and the warehouse district are a challenge — but there's always a relatively smooth route cyclists can find to get from here to there in Detroit.

Environmental consciousness: Cycling waste includes only what the rider exhales. Compare that to a tailpipe. No emissions, no noise, no fossil fuels, no carbon wheelprint.

Health consciousness: Riding at any pace is exercise. Sitting in a car or on a bus is not. And it's more convenient than a trip to the gym.

It's social: Group rides begin and end with a gathering, often at a bar or restaurant. Conversations can continue during big rides or smaller group commutes. Cyclists report high-fives, fist bumps and shouts of "good morning" from bus stops that balance the occasional animosity from motorists who take exception to sharing the road.

But in addition to the "bottom-up" groundswell motivated by individual riders, the city has been part of an organized effort to promote not only all alternative forms of transportation — "alternative" meaning "not a car" — but cycling in particular.

"For some people, it's not happening as fast as they would like, but I think the city has come to recognize there's some real value to a non-motorized plan. There seems to be sympathy — much more sympathy than there was a couple years ago," says Tom Woiwode, director of the GreenWays Initiative at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. 

Two years ago, the Detroit City Council adopted such a plan and a task force formed. The results, thanks to the task force and other advocates, is the planned network of greenways, bike paths and bike lanes that will eventually be — planners hope — the city's new grid. 

The 50-plus-page report wasn't a document that was produced, heralded and then stuck on a shelf. Its recommendations are being fulfilled. This year there are new, designated, marked bike lanes on Belle Isle and a few other streets, and the Dequindre Cut's southern terminus has been extended a few blocks to meet Atwater Street. Construction has started on the Midtown Loop Greenway that will connect Wayne State University and Midtown businesses and cultural institutions with a marked, landscaped path, and a similar network will connect Corktown and Mexicantown. Rouge Park has the beginnings of a mountain bike trail, and the Conner Creek Greenway will have new completed sections later this summer.

Woiwode's employer, the Community Foundation, has ponied up $11 million for projects in the city that have leveraged another $75 million in matching funds from governmental sources.

"It's suddenly become acknowledged that those kinds of services serve an awful lot of people. People are starting to pick up on it," Woiwode says. "The city has really embraced the idea of investing heavily in nonmotorized transportation, and it's been a terrific transition."

What? Detroit outpacing the suburbs in a civic improvement? Woiwode responds with an emphatic "Yes."

No other city he knows of has a staff person dedicated to nonmotorized transportation as Detroit does in Prasad Nannapaneni, who is a traffic engineer in the Department of Public Works. And the city planners, unlike those in Oakland or Macomb County, for example, don't have to work with multiple municipalities to coordinate trails and routes. Routes can stretch for miles and still be in the city's borders.

Detroit also has a financial advantage in that major road reconfigurations aren't needed for bike lanes. The space is there.

"The cost of a bucket of paint is a lot less expensive than re-paving seven or nine lanes of highway," Woiwode says.

Last week,
Bicycle Advocacy Day in Lansing brought Michigan's three statewide cycling advocacy groups to the Capitol to lobby for bike-friendly legislation for the first time. About 80 people from the League of Michigan Bicyclists, the Michigan Mountain Biking Association and the Michigan Trails and Greenways Association rode the several miles from Michigan State University's campus to the Capitol. 

They congregated on the lawn with their bikes on a rack that stretched out along the main plaza in front of the domed legislature. They fanned out to meet with representatives and senators, urging support and passage of bike-friendly bills. Thrilled with the state's new no-texting-while-driving law that will be effective July 1, the cyclists are hoping for a few more legislative actions, among them:

The inclusion of bicycle safety in driver's education curriculum.

Better funding for state parks and recreation areas.

Increased penalties for motorists who injure or kill cyclists, similar to punishments for striking motorized farm vehicles.

Limits on ATV use on public lands.

But the focus of the three groups' efforts was new proposed legislation urging a "complete streets" policy in transportation planning. It's part of a national movement, led by the National Complete Streets Coalition, that seeks to have all users of roadways, not just cars and trucks, considered in construction and maintenance projects on state, county and local roads. That might mean adding bike lanes or center islands so pedestrians can cross the widest streets in two stoplight cycles instead of trying to run across in one. It could mean creating space for a bus stop or slowing traffic speed limits in areas with heavy foot traffic. It could include smoothing curb cuts so wheelchairs and strollers can better traverse the pavement. Among the ideas are lower speed limits in heavy pedestrian areas, and putting streets on "road diets" — in other words narrowing the car lanes to make room for bike paths or a safe distance between roads and sidewalks. Traditionally, the chief concern for road planners has been "to see how much asphalt they could put down for cars for the amount of money they had," says John Crumm, the program manager for planning and environmental services in Macomb County. "As time has gone on, it's obvious that people want to use other alternatives for transportation because of the price of gas and everything else."

The city of Lansing adopted a plan last year, and this year joined Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Portage and Traverse City as Michigan communities that have earned the Bicycle Friendly designation from the League of American Bicyclists. 

The national Complete Streets movement has brought together some potentially powerful voting blocks of people in the American Association of Retired Persons, the Safe Routes to Schools folks, environmental groups, health and fitness advocates — including those focused on reducing childhood obesity — and, of course, cyclists. Some 21 states have a type of Complete Streets policy, most adopted in the last three years.

Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pronounced the federal government would consider how Complete Streets concepts are included in local projects seeking federal funding as the department wants to foster more "livable communities." Translation: pedestrian- , bike- and wheelchair-friendly.

LaHood also made Complete Streets part of his focus in his Earth Day blog post, saying there are opportunities to use "highway" funds for such inclusive projects. "The upcoming reauthorization of DOT's surface transportation programs provides an opportunity for us to feature bicycling as part of a new American mobility within livable communities," he wrote.

And the movement is spreading around Michigan. The Grosse Pointe Board of Realtors endorsed the concept this spring, because communities viewed as family-friendly have higher home values, the thinking goes. The Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion also just received a grant of federal stimulus money to promote Complete Streets, and that could lead to a City Council discussion about formally adopting a policy by spring of 2011. 

Ferndale has a citizens' group drafting a possible ordinance for the City Council to adopt, says Melanie Piana, associate director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, who spoke at a hearing in favor of the legislation.

The state legislative effort seeks to steer statewide transportation planning toward the Complete Streets concept. Rep. Jon Switalski (D-Warren) and a handful of co-sponsors introduced the bill in early May. The House Transportation Committee held a hearing last week and could vote it out to the full house this week, Switalski says.

"As policymakers, we think about ... ways to revive our state and our economy. One element I believe is necessary to revitalizing Michigan is rethinking how transportation policy needs to meet the needs of everyone, including walkers, bikers, those who ride buses, those who drive wheelchairs in order to get around," he says. "In essence, that's what complete streets policy is."

Among the cycling advocates supporting Complete Streets at the bike lobby day was Michael Reuter, owner of metro Detroit's six American Cycle and Fitness stores. The legislation gets at exactly his customers' most common concern: "Where can I bike safely?" Reuter says they ask. Because many suburban areas don't have connectors between residential neighborhoods and the hundreds of miles of bike trails, his customers have to drive to a place where they can access the rides. The Complete Streets idea, he says, would help that problem.

The people
and groups behind the RiverWalk and the Dequindre Cut have been working at that concept for years, says Todd Scott, Detroit Greenways coordinator for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. As part of his work, Scott advocates and supports trail development within Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park and part of that includes efforts to make the Complete Streets approach part of Michigan law.

"We want to be able to ride our bikes to the trails, but trails can't be everywhere. They're not going to take us to every location, so we need on-road facilities," he says.

Scott was among the several supporters who spoke or submitted comments at last week's committee hearing, but representatives from the Oakland and Macomb county road commissions submitted statements of opposition. The County Road Association of Michigan, which represents all 83 county road commissions, opposes the bills as well.

"We're very, very concerned that this could dramatically increase the cost of road projects. We're woefully short of having enough money to even maintain the roads we have today," says Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Oakland County Road Commission. "If we had to abide by all the requirements in this proposal, we'd do a lot less roadwork."

Bryson says road commissions don't have the staff or the resources to do the kind of additional planning the Complete Streets legislation could require. "We're not opposed to the concept of pedestrians and bicycles, those are all great, we support those. Unfortunately it's a matter of vastly insufficient funding. It almost becomes an unfunded mandate," he says.

Pam Byrnes (D-Chelsea), who co-sponsors the bills, dismisses the unfunded mandate argument and says the policy does not mean increased costs, just a different type of planning that should include more community input up front. At the hearing for the bills last week, she described a larger southeast Michigan city that had at least two road construction projects that needed to be revisited and restructured to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation users.

"They didn't plan ahead. They didn't do what they should have done. Now they have to spend more money to go back and fix the situation," she says. "It's actually costing more money now by not planning ahead."

For planners who may think areas don't have enough cyclists to justify considering them in planning, Andy Clark, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, the country's oldest cycling organization, has an answer.

Or a question, really.

"How many people were driving across the river before a bridge was there?" he asked at the League of Michigan Bicyclists annual meeting in March. "We have to convince the street planners, the road engineers and so on that not only do bikes have a right to ride on the road, but most people won't ride on the road unless they feel like there's space for them."

In Detroit, there is.

Metro Times staff writer Sandra Svoboda probably rode to work today. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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