Motorless in the Motor City Part 2

Flipping the script from car to bike in the motor city.

A black city bike on a pathway in the Oudolf Garden designed by Piet Oudolf at Belle Isle Park in Detroit.
Taking a break at the Oudolf Garden on Belle Isle.

While my car was in the shop for a week this summer, and being too cheap to rent a car, I decided to flip the script. Rather than mostly drive and occasionally bike, I'd mostly bike and sometimes drive. It was a great experience, and I liked it so much that even after I got my car back, I continued to do the vast majority of my daily trips by bike. This includes my daily 12-mile round-trip commute, as well as errands and visits to friends and family in the suburbs.

So far, in 2022, I've biked 241 rides totaling 1,147 miles. That's 46 percent more miles than the prior year. The more miles I biked, the easier the biking became. Had I owned an e-bike or a cargo bike, there would have been more car trips made by bike.

A map of Detroit and vicinity showing bike trips taken in 2022.
My 2022 bike heatmap.

The mode shift broadened my mental map of the city. For example, the distance from my house to East English Village, a 20-minute drive down the Lodge and I-94 expressways, takes an hour by bike. But the bike ride is much more relaxed and pleasant. Maybe the endorphins take the struggle out of getting around town.

Detroit Bike City

Detroit is an ideal bike city. It's almost entirely flat, which makes for easy biking. In addition, this summer was dry, and the weather has remained consistently good even into the fall. I biked to work, to concerts, to the Detroit Film Theater, to visit friends and family, and to events like the opening of the first leg of the Joe Louis Greenway.

Construction barriers block a bike lane on Cass Avenue in midtown Detroit.
Protected bike lane on Cass Avenue under construction. Bikes must mix with traffic or use the sidewalk to avoid the construction.

But things could be better.

Detroit has made significant progress in installing miles of bike infrastructure, much of it protected bike lanes or even grade-separated lanes like the ones on Livernois. However, the city needs help maintaining bike lanes. Many delineators that separate bike and car traffic have been knocked over and need replacement. Broken glass and other debris are commonly found in bike lanes and pose a hazard.

The Damn Roads

The generally poor road conditions of many city streets make biking difficult. People on bikes need to constantly be hyper-vigilant, not just about car traffic when riding in the street and watching for pedestrians and other bikes. Bikers always need to focus on reading the road, scanning for potholes, chunks of concrete, bricks, broken bottles, mufflers, car parts, you name it. I've seen all this and more. Freeway underpasses, construction zones and industrial areas are particularly bad for this.

A bicycle wheel on the ground, a punctured inner tube next to the wheel, a pannier bag, tire levers and a spare inner tube.
Fixing a flat in the Milwaukee Junction on the way home from work.

This summer and fall, I had no less than four flat tires, plus a few other mishaps. Two of these flat tires were puncture flats. In one instance, I didn't have everything I needed to change the tire, but fortunately, I was near a DDOT stop. I could take the bus back home and put my bike on the rack on front of the bus. In the other cases, I could fix the flat and be on my way. I've gotten proficient at fixing flats. After this string of flats, I finally sprung for some puncture-resistant tires and also a pair of studded tires. I'm going to continue commuting through the winter.

A tiny sharp shard of metal measuring only a few millimeters held in a pair of tweezers.
The culprit for one of the flat tires this summer: a tiny shard of metal.

Something that needs to get more attention is bike parking or the lack of it. Except for major destinations like the Detroit Institute of Arts, Eastern Market or the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, there need to be more bike racks around town. Even in the heart of downtown Detroit at Campus Martius, there need to be more bike racks. Often, I'm locking up to a signpost or a tree. Many bike racks downtown are in abysmal shape and are falling apart.

A purple public bike fixit station and pump in a neighborhood.
A bright spot is the installation of new fixit stations around town, like this new one on Third and Euclid in Piety Hill.

Even at popular destinations like Woodward Avenue in New Center, home of Supino Pizzeria, Baobab Fare and other retail and restaurants, there are no bike racks to be found. However, building owners and neighborhood organizations can help make their businesses friendlier to people on bikes and bring more customers to their doors by installing suitable bike racks.

A bicycle is parked in a set of inverted u-shaped bike racks. The racks appear to have been hit by a car and are dramatically bent out of shape.
Damaged bike racks at Broadway and John R. in downtown Detroit.

Mixing it up

During the summer and fall, I took several train trips for work. It's about a 35-minute walk to the train station from home. But it would be about a 10-15 minute bike ride. However, I can only bike if there is a secure bike parking facility at Detroit's Amtrak station in New Center. As MDOT begins to plan for a new station at that site, it's essential to incorporate long-term indoor bike parking into the plan.

DDOT and SMART buses afford a great way to cover much greater distances than would be practical with just a bike. I took my bike on the SMART FAST Gratiot bus and went from my home in central Detroit to Sterling Heights. The biking was easy, through the city and then along the Metro Parkway mixed-use pathway.

Getting closer to nature

It's been truly incredible to get a closer look at flora and fauna of the city. On my rides around town, I saw geese, pheasants, squirrels, cats, dogs, woodchucks, and for the first time in almost 10 years of living in the city, raccoons. I even saw a coyote one night near Harper and Van Dyke.

Detroit is a great bike city, but there are many ways to make the city more friendly to people on bikes. More protected bike lanes, with real protection beyond a plastic delineator, would make a big difference in getting more people comfortable using a bike for transportation. And more people on bikes benefits everyone. Air quality is better. Fewer cars on the road mean less traffic for motorists. Biking is great exercise, leading to better health for Detroiters.

We live in a car-dependent part of the world. The bike often gets overlooked. Making the bicycle my default transportation option has opened a world of freedom and fun that I had been missing out on.