Is Detroit a Bicyclist’s Paradise?

Monday, September 27, 2010
Posted in category Detroit

NOTE: Some version of this will end up being published on tomorrow.

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.

A few of the guys hammin' it up on a city ride from 2003.

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11 Responses to Is Detroit a Bicyclist’s Paradise?

  1. Iluvatar says:

    September 27th, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    I shall ONLY comment on your last paragraph.

    DUDE! I know I am STILL in the doghouse for that rumble on your previous post (big wide toothed grin here)!

    It is good you know your direction and focus in life – congrats!

    But for others, let me offer this short story.

    Bertrand Russel once wrote a book (wiity one at that) called “Why I Am Not A Christian”.

    I read it.


    But despite it being an adolescent argument against Christianity (citing all their wrong-doings through time -whatever – there have been lots of f*ck-ups over the ages by many parties), my key TAKEAWAY WAS THIS:

    He said that the reason we are alive boils down to this:
    1) we live to LOVE,
    2) we live to become BETTER!

    And, I believe, that those words are true wisdom

    Regardless of the (much truer) reasons against Christianity (provided by Alan Watts, died 1973 – greatest comparitive religion philospher of the 20th century),

    it still all boils down to these 2 things: LOVE & BETTER!

    “Love will find a way”: group: “Spirit”, album: “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”, year?: before 1973.

    Peace brothers – Live Life…

  2. Iluvatar says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 12:39 am

    Short follow-up:

    This is one of my FAV LOVE SONGS:

    (It is from “12 Dreams” by Spirit (of Dr Sardonicus)

    Please pay attention to the Libertarian message buried therein..
    Yeh, when I touch you…

    peace, brothers…

  3. Atlas says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 8:49 am


    Thank you for this entry.

    Although we are both female anarchists living in metro Detroit and share some common interests like fitness and health, I think the two of us would not get along in real life– I often find myself offended by your presentation, and you might find my personality rather quiet and demure. So why am I drawn to keep reading what you write?

    It is summed up in your last paragraph: “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. ”

    It is such a rare event to see another person who has a passion for living. I am constantly disappointed by aimless people without purpose, without direction, and without motivation, seeking an external source to tell them how to be happy and how to value their own lives. It is lovely to know that a few other people exist who know exactly what they want and care to make the effort to achieve it.

    Dagny Taggart: “Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?”
    Fransisco: “The man without a purpose.” – Atlas Shrugged

    Thank you for having a purpose.

    PS. Have you ever watched the bike races at the Bloomer Park Velodrome in Rochester? At a kids race this summer, there was only one girl out of about 15 participants. She wore a pink shirt and a pink helmet. She won.

  4. Steve Haag says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I’ve been an avid bicyclist for 25 years and wish that others could experience its many pleasures. There is nothing quite like the FEEL of the road from beneath my two wheeler. The senses come alive as the endorphins kick in during rides through country roads. I often get quizzical looks from the SUVers as they power past me in their climate controlled cocoons. Their minds are dulled by the creature comforts and toys that must surround them or be within easy reach. Give me the FREEDOM of the road. Let my mind wander as the hills roll by. Let me hear nothing except the spinning of wheels over ribbons of asphalt. Let me know the peace that the quizzical lookers never experience or understand.

  5. Karen De Coster says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Atlas: hmmm, we may not be so far apart….not sure. I’m mostly quiet and keep to myself (people at work think so, unless I am challenged), very introverted, but definitely not always “shy.” Funny, but the feedback from high-level folks on my job is that I am “so easy to work with” and “a hoot.” And that’s true.

    Because I am a strong personality as a writer, that just means that my visions and thoughts are best put into written words because that’s where my skill is. This is why I’d much rather write than do speaking gigs. Where I rise to the challenge is when my freedom, or even the freedom of others, is at stake. It’s part of that “passion” thing. DON’T TREAD ON ME has more than a Tea Party meaning to me.

    My motto is “know your audience.” My work audience needs a different touch, less intensity, and real empathy. I help them to assess and control risk in their processes. The people who I battle, as a freedomist libertarian, are a different audience that deserve the full scale of my personality and intensity and vitriol, because they want to take away from me and all of us. I’m just that principled — people that know me get used to that. I get straight to the point, as folks say. Also, people are constantly “offended” by my cultural criticism – stuff that I mean what I say, but I really have a blast doing it, too.

    Does that make any sense?

    You say, “I am constantly disappointed by aimless people without purpose, without direction, and without motivation, seeking an external source to tell them how to be happy and how to value their own lives.” ….. Well, ditto x 20. “Seeking an external source” being right on. That sorta thing is a source of great agitation for me. I have spent a lot of time as a “Life Experience Ambassador,” teaching people how to know how to live. Sometimes it’s fun, but I can’t understand why they don’t get it without someone showing them.

  6. Karen De Coster says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    I have been to Bloomer — I used to ride with the Wolverines back in the day when we had the old velodrome (Dorais) in the city. They plan to fix that thing up you know.

  7. Iluvatar says:

    September 28th, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    OK – 3 small amplifications (that’s all, promise!!)

    @Atlas: part of what you are seeing is a direct result of our country becoming more socialist since FDR.

    As a result, people begin to lose their “moral compass”; they also lose their sense of SELF-WILL!!! They become reletavist (from Existential/Transcendental points of view) ethically speaking – NEVER a good thing!

    And oh, it is not so much about losing your purpose – it is ALL about: losing your HOPE:

    Please don’t go there. The battle ends when WE GO THERE!

    @ Steve Haag: yes man! As an EX-road runner (& soon to be new), everything you said has been my experience! You forgot to mention listening to songs in your brain as you did this (typ’ly: Eloy or Yes: “The Revealing Science of God”).

    But the buzz at =the- end is superb!

    Some cool drugs at work there hoss!

    @ Karen: don’t sweat being an introvert. I am (and it has gotten much stronger as I have aged) extremely introverted!!! DUDE!

    It is ONLY about where we get OUR POWER – that’s all!

    Introverts get their POWER by staring WITHIN, extroverts get their power by SOCIALIZING.

    AT work, I am typically outgoing and friendly. But where I really noticed it was when coaching my kids’ teams – I would come home exhausted – not physically – emotionally!

    I really need the “quiet time” to regain my power.

    It’s all good and normal.

    Rock on! (after your break time – grin!)

  8. Robert Noval says:

    September 30th, 2010 at 2:49 am

    I’m wondering if you have what has become the global tradition of the last Friday-of-the-month Critical Mass ride.

    Here in Miami we usually draw about 300 riders.

    Maybe it’s the robot corkers…

    —The Bikemessenger

  9. Pam Maltzman says:

    September 30th, 2010 at 4:08 am

    I was born in Dearborn, and my father dragged our family down to Florida when I was 10, after having lived in various towns in the general area… Taylor, Warren, Oak Park, and finally Ypsilanti. I remember liking Detroit and its environs, and loving the change of seasons. I even skated at Belle Isle when I was a child. Lately, however, I’ve seen websites which feature the “fabulous ruins of Detroit.” Frankly, looking at those ruins makes me want to cry… many beautiful buildings which have been abandoned and/or vandalized. I look at those buildings and wish I could go in to see what they look and feel like inside, especially buildings with oddly-shaped rooms. I also hear a lot about how unsafe Detroit is considered to be these days, so your biking alone in the city rather amazes me. Many of the pictures I’ve seen of the ruins, and also the stories told about Detroit, make me think it’d be unsafe to bike, or even drive, through much of the area.
    I admire your bravery in doing so, and also your zest for living. I have to say that perhaps rather a lot of people need to be taught or need to learn how to live (at least certain aspects). Not everything is learned by osmosis, so your saying that you’ve spent a lot of time teaching people doesn’t surprise me. I can think of certain things which I wish had been deliberately taught to me, rather than having to stumble around and reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

  10. Pam Maltzman says:

    September 30th, 2010 at 4:11 am

    One more comment: My father worked for Ford Motor Company in some capacity (at least after they stopped asking about a potential employee’s religion on the employment applications). After he got laid off from Ford was when we moved down to Florida.

  11. Riley says:

    October 1st, 2010 at 11:44 am

    One of the more interesting paradoxes in U.S. history is that the city of Detroit — “Motown” — was destroyed by the automobile. One can argue that the automobile enabled the Greater Detroit Area to flourish in its textureless horizontal sprawl, but the city proper was eviscerated by the automobile-centric way of life.

    Perhaps now with the population of the city reduced to a level it last had in 1915, the city can now begin to restructure itself in a way that’s friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists.

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