My first bike was a powder blue Huffy for girls. No amount of checkered racing pads or black BMX tires could disguise that fact—I was the laughing stock of the first grade. That didn’t deter me from cycling and neither would growing up in a town made famous for its automobiles. I tasted freedom that day and from then on, going places would never be about getting from point A to point B.
I’ve been cycling Detroit since the late ‘90s, and even though it took a couple of decades for the city to experience a renaissance and gain popularity for its bike-friendly infrastructure, I cherished my commute. Every day, I huffed down the sidewalks of Woodward—America’s first paved road—to get to Wayne State University. There wasn’t another cyclist in sight but there were signs of life everywhere. There was the ominous smell of a rainstorm as it approached and the aromatic oils that arose from the pavement long after it passed. In the heat of summer there was the intoxicating perfume of flowers growing with wild abandon in deserted lots. In the dead of winter, the warming incense of chimney smoke.
Sometimes there was so much broken glass along a stretch of road that when the sunlight hit, I imagined the streets were paved with diamonds.
Being on a bike is a total sensory experience that makes my heart race in ways a car never could. No two rides are ever the same and you can’t predict what you will see or smell or learn when you head out for the day. One fall morning, a pheasant flew right in my path and met me at eye level. I could make out every feather as we moved together at the same speed, acutely aware and in awe at the interconnectedness of all living things.
A whole year went by before I spotted another cyclist in the distance one morning. Harry Denman was a professor of physics at Wayne State and was 75 years old at the time. It was encouraging to find someone else who appreciated the gifts that life in the bike lane brings. Not that he waited for bike lanes to give him permission to get where he was going.
When bike lanes entered the picture in 2005, they were a catalyst for cyclists of all types to take to the streets. I remember playing a gig at the TrumbullPlex, a little punk rock collective in Woodbridge, and seeing over 20 bikes hanging in the front room. Things were shifting. Singlespeed fixies made for cheap and easy rebellion, but what started as a counterculture movement quickly turned into the inspiring collaborative community you see today. Those kids grew up and some of them started the bike shops that are helping to change the landscape of the Motor City.
Ten years ago there was only one shop in town, Back Alley Bikes, and it was a co-op that sold used bikes and taught folks how to fix them. Now there are several shops in the city that not only sell bikes but service them. They are beacons in the community. Wheelhouse is a great spot for short-term and long-term rentals, as well as a variety of fun tours.
Organizations like Detroit Greenways Coalition are advocating for cyclists and making big strides in creating a safer, more bike friendly community. I’ve been to meetings where they lay maps on the table and let cyclists mark it up with their favorite routes, so they can establish bike lanes in the places where people want them most.
There are now more than 200 miles of bike lanes throughout the city and a couple hundred more planned for the near future.
Slow Roll and Tour de Troit have done an impressive job getting people out of their cars and into the city—and not for a sporting event or concert, but for the sake of getting to see Detroit up close. On these rides, people are exposed to the good and the ugly and that awareness is paramount to creating change. They get to see the lots where urban farms are breathing new life into a block and the blocks that have yet to recover from blight.
A lot has changed in the last twenty years. The League of American Bicyclists reports that Detroit has had the biggest increase in bike commuting of any major American city since 1990. While we’re looking to places like Chicago and New York for inspiration, I anticipate that we’ll be spearheading the movement in the near future. Maurice Cox, the city’s planning director, declares that Detroit will become the #1 bicycle city in the U.S. on his watch. The momentum is palpable.
I’m not the lone ranger hauling down Woodward anymore. I take the neighborhood streets and pedal through Palmer Park just to see the mounted police horses and savor the intoxicating scent of the pines. Even though it adds a couple of miles to my commute, it’s worth it to pass by the old man sitting on his porch at Third & Euclid who shouts go, go, go as I pass by each morning. And the crossing guard at George Washington Carver Elementary who I can always count on for a weather report. Hours later, I often find myself smiling from those little exchanges. It sets the tone for my whole day.
Cycling facilitates connection. That connection, to your neighbor and the world around you, is what will save Detroit. It already has.
Tips for new commuters:
- Leave a spare change of clothes and a towel at the office
- Pack a mid-day snack to refuel
- Download GPS-based apps for timed challenges and alternative routes
- Invest in bright lights and hi-viz riding gear (looking like a construction zone helps drivers to notice you!)
- Carry a spare tube (you will get a flat!)
- Buy a Shinola Runwell Bicycle (shameless plug, I know, but it is the perfect tool for the job!)