How communities are tackling Metro Detroit's biggest biking infrastructure challenges

This story is the second feature in 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.
Spinning bike wheels may be a fun diversion for a lot of folks, but for Detroiter Andrew Smith they're a neccessity. A resident of the city's Woodbridge neighborhood, he makes his living doing videography and an assortment of other jobs and has been active volunteering with local bicycle organizations.

Smith has never had a driver's license for a motor vehicle, so biking is his primary mode of transportation. He grew up in Minneapolis, which has an extensive network of parks and cycling infrastructure, and he relocated to Detroit eight years ago.

"In Minneapolis, there's a lot of reasons that [cycling] can be your only form of transportation, maybe supplemented by public transportation once in a while," he says. "When I came to Detroit I didn't change that. I bike everywhere."

While Smith primarily bikes around the city of Detroit, he also ventures out into other parts of Southeast Michigan. The Minnesota native recalls taking one such trip last spring to see a rock band play in Royal Oak. Google Maps recommends cyclists take Woodward Avenue to get there from Detroit, but Smith finds the busy thoroughfare "frankly terrifying" because of its multiple lanes and the frenetic pace of motor vehicle traffic. While he did come up with an alternate way to get to the venue and back that made use of a lot of bike infrastructure, Smith was frustrated by the frequent breaks in continuity between the bike-friendly terrain that he encountered along the way.

"I took a couple of different routes, most of which had a bike lane on it, but the connectivity between some of those sections is just across the board challenging a lot of times," he says. "It's hazardous a lot of the time, and I get honked at. I can navigate that, but it's definitely prohibitive to someone who is more casually cycling."

The bicycle commuter has experienced similar issues in other parts of the region. He points to Hines Drive, for example. The 17-mile Wayne County roadway, which follows the path of the Rouge River between Dearborn and Northville, features bike lanes as well as a number of side trails and connects with both the Rouge River Gateway Trail and the I-275 Metro Trail. But getting there from central Detroit has been a challenging experience for him in terms of finding a good route and on-ramp to Hines Drive in Dearborn.

He's also run into situations when he needed to leave Hines Drive to go to a restaurant in Garden City. As soon as he left, he immediately felt vulnerable riding on Middlebelt Road, a busy suburban thoroughfare where motorists aren't used to sharing the road with cyclists.  

"Every time I ride to places like Hines Drive or some of the other suburbs, there are sections of it where there is significant cycling infrastructure. But there are also significant gaps that as a cyclist make me feel like that's the border of my world."

Making connections in Dearborn

Smith isn't the only local cycling advocate who would like to see infrastructure improve in the region. Cycling organization Bike Dearborn sponsors regular rides and works to create a series of safe enjoyable bicycle networks across the City of Dearborn. 

Established in 2016, Bike Dearborn's advocacy work has included getting the city council to pass an ordinance requiring motorists to give cyclists at least five feet of space when passing. It also pushed the city to develop a Multimodal Transportation Plan (MMTP), which was approved in October 2020. 

The group's founder Tracy Besek is a professional photographer and, like Smith, cycling is her primary way of getting around. She's pleased that Dearborn's previous mayoral administration helped adopt the MMTP, but says there's still quite a bit of work to do implementing the plan.

Bike Dearborn"The few bike lanes that we do have are just the beginning of connectors in the west downtown district," she says. "The DDA has been instrumental in the development and implementation of these plans. Now it’s time to take the downtown hubs and expand the spokes to connect the neighborhoods to those hubs."   

Besek also hopes there will be better communication between the city and the county. Many of the roads she believes could benefit from lane width adjustments and traffic calming initiatives like Outer Drive are overseen by Wayne County. Outer Drive is of particular interest to Bike Dearborn as the city was awarded funding from the Kosch Family and Beaumont Health for the creation of bike lanes there between Ford Road and Southfield Freeway (M-39) in 2017. According to Besek, however, there has been little progress in actually building that infrastructure.

However, Bike Dearborn is enthusiastic about the new administration. So much so that the group is even planning a Mayor's Bike Ride for May 15 and expects the mayor to attend.

"I am optimistic [for] our new Mayor Abdullah Hammoud and the excitement he brings in creating a more walkable and bikeable city," says Besek. "The Bike Dearborn Team is ready to dive in with his team to do just that."

Cycling ahead in Pontiac

Pontiac is another Southeast Michigan community that's been making moves to enhance its biking infrastructure in recent years. 

Its first bike lane went up in 2017 on a stretch of Saginaw Street totaling about a mile a little north of the city's downtown. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) also gave a road diet, a motor vehicle lane reduction, to a section of Perry Street which now also bike lanes. This development grew out of a Complete Streets plan adopted by Pontiac the same year, which calls for the creation of 12 miles of bike lanes, 41 miles of buffered bike lanes, and around a half-mile of cycle track.

MDOT is also planning to convert Pontiac's Woodward Avenue Loop to a two-way traffic configuration and to rebuild Huron Street as well. Off-street shared use paths are being looked into for the loop and bike facilities considered for Huron Street.  

Todd Scott, Executive Director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, is a vocal advocate for Southeast Michigan's cycling infrastructure. While he is supportive of the work Pontiac is doing to make itself more bike-friendly, he would like to see the community implement its Complete Streets plan sooner. He also has reservations about the way the city initially handled its rollout of the Clinton River Trail, a 16-mile non-motorized path that crosses through Sylvan Lake, Pontiac, Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills, and Rochester.

"They made some missteps with the Clinton River Trail," he says. "They avoided going through downtown, which is kind of the opposite of what you'd want to do. It's a great way to bring people and vitality back through downtowns, so it absolutely should connect." 

Abdul Siddiqui, Pontiac's City Engineer, disputes Scott's assessment.

"Routing the Clinton River Trail through downtown has always been a priority for the City, but there hasn't been an opportunity to do so that the City has missed," he says. "We are working towards that goal."

The city held a stakeholder meeting on April 25 to present concepts for the connector. 

"[The project] would reconstruct the road and also add off-street cycle tracks or shared-use paths along Pike Street from west of downtown to the North Spur Trail at the east end of the Pike Street corridor," says Siddiqui. "As part of that project, the North Spur Trail would also be improved from the Clinton River to the Clinton River Trail trailhead on Opdyke [Road]."

The city is also working to get funding to complete the Clinton Trail along South Boulevard, which officials believe will benefit employment centers in its Diamond Corridor, including UWM and Williams International. The Pike Street Connector is expected to be completed in 2024 or 2025.

Rethinking regional infrastructure

Beyond what's happening in any one community, Scott feels it's important to also look at what's happening at higher levels of government. He's particularly critical of the Oakland County Roads Commission — which operates independently of the county government — when it comes to discussions about potential bike infrastructure. 

"They have a decision criteria where they don't prioritize biking and walking," he says. "In fact, they make projects [where] more biking and walking are either discouraged or prohibited. It's such a backwards system. I think, if the public weighed in on those decisions the road designs would be much different." 

Craig Bryson, a spokesperson for the road commission, disagrees with Scott. He says the lack of non-motorized infrastructure is the result of the state of Michigan underfunding county roads, to the extent that the commission is "constantly challenged when it comes to maintaining roads, let alone adding infrastructure." Because of this, the interest groups are expected to help pay for improvements if they want to see them implemented on Oakland County roads.

"There's a long-standing process, if a [section of the] community wants input, it needs to contribute to its cost," says Bryson. "What you see on the roads is a reflection of what the community wants to see." 

Looking more broadly at cycling infrastructure in the region, Smith certainly wants to see more bike-friendly transportation in the region. For him, it's hard to directly compare the situation in his native Minneapolis with what's happening in the Detroit area because of the differing histories of the two locations. That said, he would like to see work done to fill in regional gaps in bike infrastructure, minimize the physical barriers and access issues cyclists face when crossing into different jurisdictions, and developing bike routes that are separate but run parallel to major motor vehicle corridors. 

Beyond that, he tries to appreciate the work that's being done, but feels planners need to do a better job seeing roadways from the perspective of those who navigate them on bicycles, especially newcomers.

"I'm glad there's work being done," he says. "There's a lot of positive things happening in the metro area, but it has to be accessible to people if they are not experienced cyclists like I am, and it has to be done in such a way that is [economically] sustainable." 
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Read more articles by David Sands.