Which metro Detroit cities are doing urban bike infrastructure well?

This story is the first of a two-part series covering which metro Detroit cities are doing urban biking infrastructure well, what's working (and what's not), and what we can learn as communities about transit.
Todd Scott knows his fair share about getting around Southeast Michigan on a bicycle. As the executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition (DGC), he advocates for better biking and trails in the region. And when it comes to who's doing the best job with respect to bike infrastructure in metro Detroit, Scott says Ferndale and Detroit immediately jump to the top of his list.

"I really don't see anyone else being competitive," he says. "They consider bikes to be [both] recreation and transportation, whereas a lot of places just see bikes as recreation, something that people can do on the weekend to get fit."

Scott admires the hard work and dedication that Ferndale has put into developing a top-notch bike network. While he says other municipalities in the region have done a decent job putting in a bike lane here or there, he appreciates the big-picture approach the Oakland County city has taken in regards to connecting different routes and linking up with neighboring areas. 

Beyond that, he likes the way Ferndale identifies places that aren't conducive to bicycling and made improvements to them. Scott is also a fan of the city’s innovative approach to bike parking, which involves on-street bike parking as well as a downtown bike storage facility.

With its many miles of bike lanes and projects like the Dequindre Cut and the upcoming Joe Louis Greenway, Detroit is also a leader in  Scott’s eyes. In fact, the cycling advocate believes the Motor's City's efforts in recent years making biking and walking safer and more convenient merit national attention.

"They're doing what major cities around the country, like New York and Chicago and San Francisco are doing," he says. "It's really impressive. They had a later start — and in many ways they're catching  up and in some places exceeding what those other cities are doing."

Photo by David Lewinski.

Ferndale: Embracing Complete Streets

There's a reason Ferndale has a reputation as a regional innovator for biking and walking infrastructure. Since 2014, the Oakland County city has added over 10 miles of bike lanes, upgraded more than 60 pedestrian crossings, upgraded around 800 sidewalk ramps to make them ADA-compliant, conducted more than a dozen traffic calming projects, and partnered with MoGo to bring a bike-sharing program to its streets.

The city was one of the first in Michigan to adopt a Complete Streets ordinance, which went into effect in 2011. "We were one of the first cities in the state of Michigan to pursue that policy, and basically Complete Streets is about making sure your streets serve all users, not just vehicles," says Ferndale’s mayor Melanie Piana. "It's something I'm very proud of as an elected official."

While bike lanes in Ferndale predate the ordinance, however, it did provide a framework for moving forward. Around that time, economic concerns also provided some motivation for upgrading the city's street infrastructure. In the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, investing in multi-modal infrastructure was also seen by city leaders as a tool that would help spur economic investment during a difficult fiscal time. According to Piana, residents had also been voicing strong demands for street improvements. 

In 2012, Ferndale began the work of making its Complete Streets vision a reality with a proposal to develop a multi-modal transportation plan called Ferndale Moves! The plan was motivated by a desire to improve quality of life for residents, while reducing traffic injuries and fatalities and making the area an attractive place for people to live, visit, and set up businesses. With input from citizens and stakeholders, Ferndale developed a network consisting of bikeways on every major road in the city as well as a variety of pedestrian improvements. 

The city spent the next five years implementing the plan, aligning it with other street repaving projects and other capital investment projects. Ferndale updated the plan last year with a new five-year vision. It's also coordinating with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the neighboring community of Pleasant Ridge on a planned repaving of Woodward Avenue between 8 Mile Road and I-696, which will include a road diet, bike lanes and on-street parking. Work on that is expected to begin later this year and stretch into 2023. 

According to Piana, the plan takes into consideration newer developments like the growing popularity of one-wheeled hoverboards and e-bikes and the city's pledge to move towards a carbon neutral economy.

"It really is about making sure our streets are accessible and provide equity in getting into and around our community," she says. "Those are our stronger lenses for how we're going to be making investments going forward, as well as sustainability."

Photo by Pravin Sitaraman.
Detroit: Innovating Streetscapes 

While it's nickname may be the Motor City, the city of Detroit has also distinguished itself as a bike infrastructure trendsetter in recent years. In 2012, there were only 58 miles of bikeways in Detroit, including those on off-street greenways and state and county roads. By 2019, there were over 162, 40 percent of which were protected bike lanes that were physically separated from motor vehicles on the road. And city officials haven't been afraid to try bold design choices like two-way cycle tracks, sidewalk-level bike lanes, and a shared street in Mexicantown where sidewalks are differentiated from the roadway by different colored bricks. 

Like Ferndale, Detroit has been guided in its bike infrastructure by a Complete Streets framework. The city's current interest in multimodal transportation planning started gaining steam around 15 years ago. The Dequindre Cut, an urban greenway constructed over an old railroad line in downtown Detroit, opened to the public in May of 2009. Around the same period of time, workers with Detroit's Department of Public Works (DPW) started to ramp up the expansion of city bike lanes

According to James Hannig, Deputy Director of Completer Streets with DPW, the new emphasis on bike lanes and Complete Streets came out of city officials observing the work other major cities were doing in these areas and wanting to keep up with the best practices they were seeing. A further push came in 2017, when a $125 million dollar bond was approved by city council to revitalize 23 neighborhood commercial corridors, $80 million of which was dedicated to streetscape projects. Examples of those projects include sidewalk-level bike lanes on Livernois Avenue and a shared street in Mexicantown where sidewalks are differentiated from the roadway by different colored bricks. 

"I think those projects really broadened people's imaginations for what their streets can really look like. I think that it's signaled to our neighbors that Detroit is still innovating and reinventing itself, and can be looked to as a leader [in street design]."

Photo by Marvi Shaouni.

Multimodal Tips and Tricks

Detroit's efforts to revamp its streets haven't always been universally popular. Its implementation of bike lanes on Cass and East Jefferson Avenues in 2018 generated some vocal pushback from residents. While Hannig understands people may not like certain aspects of a project or may see bike lanes as a signal their neighborhoods are changing in a way they might not like, he says the city has been making a concerted effort to listen to residents' and stakeholders’ concerns, talk about options and follow through with street projects that meet people's needs. He points to recent discussions over a streetscape on West Warren Avenue as an example where the city decided not to install bike lanes after speaking with residents.

"We welcome the feedback," he says. "At the end of the day, people need to see their streets as a reflection of themselves and their values."

Beyond getting community input, Hannig believes cities interested in upping their bike infrastructure should also start small and build on what works.

"Be willing to try and experiment," he says. "You can spend a lot of time planning and trying to finetune," he says. "But I think just being able to start with what you can, whether it's even paint or paver parking and posts, try to experiment and see the proof of concept."

Piana, who also serves on the National League of Cities Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, suggests that municipalities who want to improve their multimodal infrastructure need to do their research. 

"I think the cities that are doing it right are really listening to their residents and seeing what is working and not working," she says. "And they're looking at the data and working with road designers and engineers to redesign streets so all users are being taken into consideration."

Having a strong policy based on an existing framework can also be very helpful. In addition to Complete Streets Piana also suggests looking into The Safe System approach advocated by the Federal Highway System, a holistic view of road systems aimed at eliminating fatal and serious injuries for all users, as well as Vision Zero a strategy focused on putting an end to traffic injuries and deaths while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility. 

While that might seem like a lot of work, as an elected official, Piana feels strongly that embracing a multimodal framework that works for all users is a necessary step for creating a happy, thriving community.

"People want to live in a place where it's convenient and comfortable and they're not going to get hurt. I think we have a lot of work to do to make those improvements," she says.

Photo by David Lewinski.
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