Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

25 May 2012

Detroit: The Next Portland--Or Amsterdam?

Henry Ford with his bicycle in the early 1890's. 

David Byrne has said that one of the most memorable bike rides he ever took was in Detroit.  He described the backdrop to his Motor City randonnee as a "postapocalyptic landscape at its finest" and rates that trip with his spin along the Bosprous and Sea of Mamara in Istanbul.

Somehow I'm not surprised that he was so taken with the devastation of Detroit.  He is, after all, David Byrne.  But, if you've been following this blog, you know that some of my favorite rides here in New York take me through industrial areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Long Island City, which are so free of traffic on weekends that they're weirdly bucolic.  I feel the same way about the Wall Street area; the only problem with it is that there isn't nearly as much of it as there are of those old industrial areas.

The thing about Detroit is that he's not the only one who thinks it's an excellent cycling city.  Many riders, who live within the city limits as well as in the suburbs, appreciate the fact that the city is flat, save for the area around Dorais Park. They also like the extensive networks of paths and greenways that line the Detroit River, which separates the city from Windsor, Ontario in Canada. ("Detroit" means "strait" in French.)  In fact, some people cross the border to ride in the home of the Big Three.  

Interestingly (and, I'm sure for the people involved, exasperatingly), there is no way to cycle between Detroit and Windsor.  In fact, the buses from Windsor will allow bicycles only if they're disassembled and in a box or bag.    Even then, the driver has the authority to deny access if he or she feels the bus is too crowded.  On the other hand, there is work on developing a water taxi between the two cities, and it's believed that bicycles will be allowed on them.

Another interesting aspect to Motor City Cycling is that it has a velodrome--in Dorais Park.  If you know about the city's history, it may not be such a surprise:  After all, it was a center for bicycle manufacturing and riding before the auto industry developed.  (In fact, Henry Ford and others associated with the auto industry began as bicycle makers and mechanics.) Even after Chevys and Fords started rolling off the assembly lines, Detroit kept the flame of bicycle racing alive during the Dark Ages (at least for American racing) that followed World War II.

But, in another layer of irony, the Dorais Park Velodrome doesn't go that far back.  In fact, construction on it began during the riots of 1967, and it opened on the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969.  It lay unused and all but abandoned until it was discovered by suburban cyclists who were using the hill for training.

I am not an urban planner or an expert on Detroit.  But I, like almost everyone else in the USA, have some ideas about what Detroit's future could be like.  Denizens of Pittsburgh realized that the steel industry would never be as significant as it was until the 1970's.  So, they took advantage of the fact that the city had some first-class academic institutions like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon, and turned the erstwhile Steel City into a center for biomedical research and technology, much as Boston did earlier.  

Detroit doesn't have the sort of academic institutions that Boston and Pittsburgh have.  But what a lot of people don't realize is that not very far from Detroit are vast stretches of farms.  Michigan has always been a leading agricultural state; perhaps Detroit could become a center of agronomy and other "green"technology.

But even more important (for the purposes of this blog, anyway), the city might be able to take advantage of the shrinkage even its Mayor, David Bing, has advocated.  A more compact Detroit could be ideal for the development of a cycling infrastructure.  Perhaps, in a smaller city, the residential and business areas would be closer together, which would make bicycle commuting--and cycling in general--more feasible and enjoyable for more people.  

Who knows?  Perhaps Detroit could be the next Portland--or Amsterdam.


  1. You make good points. The media isn't listening yet. Detroit didn't make the Buycycling "best" list. The closest to Detroit was Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids? However, before we anoint Detroit as a "new Amsterdam," let's see a good way to get across the river for cyclists.

  2. Steve, I agree with everything you've said. I also think that one of the things that will help people realize that cycling is a viable form of transportation, and part of an everyday person's lifestyle, is cities like Detroit becoming bike-friendly cities. Hey, forget bike-friendly: Why not base a significant part of the infrastructure and economy around cycling and bicycles?