Is Detroit is the Future of Bicycle Friendly Communities?


I might just take my next bicycle vacation to Detroit after watching this inspiring video produced by my old college friend Donna Terek, now of the Detroit News.  While Madison, with all it’s bicycle paths, bike lanes, and B-cycle bike share system might fit the League of American Bicyclists’ (and most people’s) definition of a Bicycle Friendly Community, Detroit appears to be a genuinely friendly city for people who want to ride bicycles. The difference is more than semantics.

I’m not saying Madison is not a friendly community, it is. And while I am sure lots of people who ride bicycles in Detroit would love to have all a bike share system like Madison B-cycle, and all the bike lanes (Detroit does have 170 miles of bike lanes), paths and other cycling amenities that Madison boasts, Detroit appears to have developed a wonderfully diverse, grass roots, urban bicycle culture that should serve as a DIY model of how to grow bicycling for free, even before you have the bicycle friendly infrastructure.

To become a League of American Bicyclists designated Bicycle Friendly Community, you have to fill out an application and the LAB scores your town based on a wide variety of factors. Here is their quick assessment guide:

1 ENGINEERING
Does Your Community Have A Comprehensive, Connected And Well-Maintained Bicycling Network?
Is Bike Parking Readily Available Throughout The Community?
Is There A Complete Streets Ordinance Or Another Policy That Mandates The Accomodation Of Cyclists On All Road Projects?

2 EDUCATION
Is There A Community-Wide Safe Routes To School Program That Includes Bicycling Education?
Are There Bicycling Education Courses Available For Adults In The Community?
Does Your Community Educate Motorists And Cyclists On Their Rights And Responsibilities As Road Users?

3 EVALUATION
Is There A Specific Plan Or Program To Reduce Cyclist/Motor Vehicle Crashes?
Does Your Community Have A Current Comprehensive Bicycle Plan?
Is There A Bicycle Advisory Committee That Meets Regularly?
Does Your Community Have A Bicycle Program Manager?

4 ENFORCEMENT
Do Law Enforcement Officers Receive Training On The Rights And Responsibilities Of All Road Users?
Does Your Community Have Law Enforcement Or Other Public Safety Officers On Bikes?
Do Local Ordinances Promote Safety And Accessibility For Bicyclists?

5 ENCOURAGEMENT
Does Your Community Have An Up-To-Date Bicycle Map?
Does The Community Celebrate Bicycling During National Bike Month With Community Rides, Bike To Work Day Or Media Outreach?
Does The Community Host Any Major Community Cycling Events Or Rides?
Is There An Active Bicycle Advocacy Group In The Community?

Those are all traditional goals that we at the Wisconsin Bike Fed advocate for in communities across our state. What we at the Bike Fed have not done a good job at is helping to grow grass roots bicycle culture through welcoming fun rides. Milwaukee has some similar rides in the Monthly Group Ride and Underwear Ride organized by Steve Roche of MKEBKE, but there is something about the Slow Roll Rides in Detroit that look even more inclusive. Perhaps because the start and end a little earlier, the Detroit rides get a wider range of ages, where as Milwaukee’s urban rides start later and draw mostly young people. Stevens Point has some similar rides organized through the  Poky Pedaling blog. 

“You Are Beautiful” – Milwaukee Underwear Bike Ride from Matthew Mixon on Vimeo.

As I said, I feel that we at the Wisconsin Bike Fed could do a lot more to help this sort of bicycle culture grow. I am going to discuss the Detroit model with our Executive Director and the rest of the Bike Fed staff and see what we can do to start some similar fun, open rides in communities across that attract a diverse group of people who just like to ride their bicycles. Stay tuned

Way to go Detroit! I’ll let you know when I can get a chance to come over for a visit to sample your Motown bicycle flavor.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

7 thoughts on “Is Detroit is the Future of Bicycle Friendly Communities?

  1. It’s not often that I read an outsiders post on the Detroit bike scene that hits the mark like this one does. The one thing I would add is that rides like the Slow Roll keep it real. I’m sure people have fun riding in their underwear, but who will that ride attract and does it inspire people in the neighborhoods to join in?

    That video is a bit old and the ridership for Slow Roll topped out at over 1,600 last year. On one ride I did some informal counts and half of the riders were female and half were people of color. The Slow Roll organizers and participants have created something crosses so many boundaries all by using bicycles.

    • Hey Todd,

      Thanks for chiming in with an update from the Motor (now Bicycle) City. I just heard from Mike MacKool via email too. I am serious about coming to Detroit to join one of your Slow Rolls this summer. I also extended the invitation to Mike to come visit Milwaukee for one of our rides. You might be surprised by our underwear ride. About 700 people do that, and it is about promoting cycling and a positive body image. But if you do want to visit here, I would encourage you to come for our Riverwest 24, July 25th. The Riverwest 24 is a 24 hour bike “race” that is more about activating a neighborhood and community than it is about bicycling or racing. Bicycling Magazine is doing a story about it for their July issue. It has spawned a similar event in Minneapolis called the Powderhorn 24. Why not one in a Detroit neighborhood?

      Here is a story I did about the RW24: http://wisconsinbikefed.org/2010/08/01/riverwest-24-hour-bike-race/

      And one our board member did: http://wisconsinbikefed.org/2012/07/31/rw24-its-gush-time/

      Let me know if you are interested in visiting the 414 and I will check out my calendar for a trip to the Motown.

      BTW, I worked with Donna Terek at the Minnesota Daily during grad school.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Poky Pedaling Stevens Point in your comments about creating welcoming fun rides.

    On the same theme, I want to share links to two blog posts written by others. When you have those discussions with Bike Fed staff about, in your words, doing “more to help this sort of bicycle culture grow”, I feel these comments touch on key ideas to guide you in the right direction.

    The first is an article about a session from the National Women’s Cycling Forum as reported on the BikePortland blog this past March. This day-long event in Washington DC was organized by the League of American Bicyclists and was tied to the National Bike Summit.
    http://bikeportland.org/2014/03/03/costumes-not-commutes-and-other-tips-to-cultivate-the-all-powerful-bike-lobby-102410

    Although the whole post is relevant, I call your attention to the second half of it. Lilian Karabaic, who has been active for years in Portland’s bike scene, spoke at the forum about how “advocates should spend more time on ‘bike fun.’ “. Here is an excerpt from the BikePortland post reporting on Karabaic’s remarks:

    “All the talk from the ‘helmet mirrors and padded butts crowd,’ about gear, helmets, lane positioning, tire width and hand signals, she added, is doing nothing to get more people on bikes.”

    The second post is from Elly Blue’s Everyday Rider blog published in the online version of Bicycling Magazine. This post, entitled “Invitation to the Party”, is from February 2013.
    http://blogs.bicycling.com/blogs/everyday-rider/2013/02/21/invitation-to-the-party/

    Blue, author of the books Bikenomics and Everyday Bicycling, shares “the goal of seeing streets filled with people on bicycles”, yet implores advocates “to shift our perspective—and our language.” Here are a couple of quotes to give the gist of Blue’s post:

    ” ‘We’ve got to figure out how to get more people on bikes!’ How I hate this phrase.”

    “Think of bicycling as a party instead…At the best parties, guests feel welcome and excited to attend. You want them to know that your event is the one not to be missed…At the least successful parties, by contrast, guests often feel obligated to attend, and attempt to drag others along for the dubious cause of their well-being or advancement.”

    Neither Karabaic nor Blue is saying that traditional advocacy strategies have no use (although I suspect both see a need to adjust those strategies in the name of equity). What they are saying is that by creating fun events that encourage the full spectrum of community members to hop on their bikes and participate, this becomes a catalyst for making traditional bicycle advocacy more effective.

    Their sentiments are spot on regarding why I started Poky Pedaling Stevens Point two years ago. As my experiment enters its third year, I am sensing a buzz around urban bicycling in Stevens Point that didn’t exist before. And it’s coming from 30-year-old parents who like to ride with their children, and non-athletic 45-year-olds who simply take pleasure in bicycling once in a while, and 65-year-olds who enjoy the combination of bicycling, socializing, and exploration of the city they grew up in.

    Like many cities large and small throughout Wisconsin, the bicycle network in Stevens Point has uncomfortable gaps and key bicycle-unfriendly streets. Top-down efforts from electeds can only go so far to improve this situation because of political resistance they perceive.

    Community building efforts are key to demonstrate that the people truly want better bicycling in our cities. This community – and it has to include women and men of all ages, races, and economic classes – far outnumbers those creating the political resistance paralyzing elected leaders.

    We can’t simply wait for good infrastructure to get built in order to attract more bicycle riders, because in most places that isn’t going to happen on its own. This is why Bike Fun is a key strategy to prompt elected leaders to act in creating safe, comfortable, and convenient places for everyone to ride their bicycles.

    I encourage the Bike Fed, in the spirit of Blue’s blog post, to get the party started.

    Bob Fisch
    Chief Bike Fun Officer
    Poky Pedaling Stevens Point

  3. A few years ago my son moved to Michigan to go to grad school. For the last three years my wife and I have ridden in the Tour de Troit with him. Last year there were over 5,000 people riding Tour de Troit. It is a 30 mile urban ride through the neighborhoods of down town.

    There is the Detroit portrayed in the media of a failed city. But, it is also a city of wonderful, friendly people, amazing food, and great wide streets (it is the motor city). The ride is great fun. It begins and ends at Michigan Central station (the icon landmark of downtown Detroit). There is also great “bike art” throughout the ride. I have talked with people who have come for the ride from Seattle and also the east coast. It ends with a great party.

    The ride is a fund raiser to support biking in Detroit.

    • Yep, that ride looks super fun Roger. I think I am going to try to get to a summer Slow Roll though for sure and start one in Milwaukee. After all, I have not raced or trained in so long, slow is the only way I roll now :)

  4. A couple of things about Slow Roll that fuel its success- the organizers are extremely conscious of the impact on the community and they do an outstanding job of organization, especially route selection, traffic control and rider support on the road (all while maintaining the focus on fun). And, being the Motor City, the is a deep appreciation of the diversity of the people and the machines they bring every week; every Slow Roll is a rolling bike show, as well as a people-watcher’s dream. Every August, the Metro Detroit area has a car cruise event called the Dream Cruise. The Slow Roll is cycling’s equivalent of the Dream Cruise on a weekly basis. It captures the broad spectrum of how people relate to cycling in an inclusive, social and fun event..

    • Thanks for the additional insight Jon. I look forward to coming to Detroit this summer to experience a Slow Roll myself.

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