Dearborn plots a transportation transformation

Tracy Besek estimates that she's biked on 80 percent of the streets in her hometown of Dearborn – but she says many other cyclists likely wouldn't be so bold.


"I'm comfortable riding on busier, higher-stress streets, but I think I'm kind of in the minority," says Besek, co-founder of a group called Bike Dearborn.


Dearborn's city planner, Mohamed Ayoub, echoes Besek's sentiment.


"I live three minutes away from work in a car, and I would love to bike to work when it's nice outside," Ayoub says. "But I can't because I've got to go through major freeways without a bike route."


However, numerous initiatives are currently underway to make the cycling experience considerably easier in Dearborn.


This June will see the addition of bike lanes along the length of Outer Drive throughout the city. The new West Downtown Discovery Trail will build upon existing bike lanes and paved trails along Monroe and Brady in west Dearborn to create a network of bike lanes along Garrison, Newman, the connector streets running between them and Michigan Avenue.


Plans are also underway for a Central Loop Greenway that would connect the Discovery Trail to major destinations including the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Fairlane Town Center, Ford World Headquarters, and Dearborn's civic center.


What's more, this summer will also bring a new way for those who live and work in Dearborn to get their hands on a bicycle. The city will open its first bike-share system on June 13, offering 50 bikes across 10 locations in Dearborn's east and west downtowns.


Ayoub says his intention is to begin making cycling a truly viable means of transportation in Dearborn. As Besek notes, the city's layout is certainly well-suited to that change.


"No one in the city is that far from the downtown areas," Besek says. "Once Dearborn becomes more bikeable, you're never more than three or four miles from somewhere you want to be."


A community consensus


This upswell of momentum toward walk/bike-ability in Dearborn has been many years in the making. It's the result of numerous community leaders converging around the issue of non-motorized transportation in recent years.


One major factor was Ayoub's arrival at the city in 2015. Another was a resurgence of interest in Healthy Dearborn, a community coalition of 200 Dearborn stakeholders including government officials, residents, and business owners, which has been enthusiastically championed by Mayor Jack O'Reilly.


"(City sustainability coordinator) Dave Norwood was kind of the lone voice talking about bikeability and walkability for the last 10 years, but without a lot of support," says Healthy Dearborn project manager Sara Gleicher. "Now that you have this community coming together and (Ayoub), who's bringing a young perspective that is sorely needed ... I think it's all coming together beautifully."


The missing piece, of course, was funding. Norwood notes that he's been attempting to get the city a bike-share system for years, but funds simply weren't there.


However, in recent years money has also begun to coalesce around non-motorized transportation in Dearborn. The Outer Drive bike lanes and bike-share program will both be funded out of a $600,000 donation to Healthy Dearborn from Donald and Mary Kosch, owners of Dearborn Sausage. The donation was matched by another $600,000 from Healthy Dearborn coalition member Beaumont Hospital.


"We're hoping it will inspire others to support healthy initiatives, particularly to support biking and walking programs," says Betty Priskorn, VP of community health and outreach at Beaumont. "We think there'll be other investment after (the Kosches') donation."


West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority executive director Cristina Sheppard-Decius says the involvement of Beaumont and other major Dearborn employers like Ford Motor Co., the Henry Ford, and U-M Dearborn has been hugely influential in moving non-motorized transportation forward for the city.


"They all have the same desire and need to really make it a much more accessible community for all people because they see it as a benefit to what they do in terms of bringing in more visitors and bringing in more students," Sheppard-Decius says.


Norwood puts it more bluntly, noting Ford's reinvestment in numerous forms of mobility beyond personal automobiles (including a shuttle service for its own employees in Dearborn).


"They're really trying to attract a 25-year-old with a master's degree who's looking for a walk-friendly and bike-friendly downtown," he says. "We could probably do five to 10 more (bike-share stations)."


Next steps


Dearborn's major employers are already stepping up to the plate to support the next stages of the city's transportation transformation. Ford Land and Fairlane Town Center have each committed $5,000 to the city's upcoming $200,000 effort to develop a multi-modal transportation plan. The city is currently drafting a request for proposals for a consultant for the study, which will create a strategy to better serve cyclists, pedestrians, autonomous vehicles, and traditional automobiles.


Ayoub says even some of the city's existing transportation strong points could still use improvement. Although he says Dearborn has a "great pedestrian network," he questions why there aren't pedestrian links between some "walkable campuses," such as having a walkable route from U-M-Dearborn to west downtown Dearborn.


The city is also searching to fill another important transportation gap – public transit – in the wake of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) millage's defeat in November. The RTA's plan would have used bus rapid transit and commuter rail to make new connections between Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Detroit Metropolitan Airport.


"For our businesses ... there's a loss of potential economic growth," Sheppard-Decius says. "As a community, we are trying to look at different ways that we can kind of fill the gap in between – with the walking, with the biking, but also we're looking down the road at maybe some sort of shuttle service that would help to navigate our community."


There's no clear consensus on how to improve public transit in Dearborn in the wake of the RTA vote. Ayoub says the solution must be a regional one, and suggests that DDOT and SMART, who both currently serve Dearborn, should team up to provide more comprehensive regional service. Norwood raises the possibility of a public-private partnership with the shuttle service Ford offers its employees.


Ayoub is less optimistic about significant changes in public transportation happening soon. "It's just a lack of everyone seeing eye to eye and a failure to collaborate," he says. But he's much more confident about the potential of biking and walking to being more energy to the city, and the possibility of bringing people together "for the pride and the growth and the recreation options it provides."

Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere
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