What are metro Detroit's most bike-friendly communities?

Warren, Michigan, is in many ways the prototype of postwar suburbia. From its tracts of single family ranch houses to its strip malls, Warren looks like a city developed as much for the automobile as it was for people. Yet along with several other traditionally auto-centric metro Detroit communities, Warren is taking steps toward becoming a city that values bicycles and other non-motorized forms of transportation, most notably through the recent installation of bike lanes along busy Van Dyke Road.
But who is leading the way locally in becoming a bike-friendly city? It depends on who you ask.
"We really don't rank or evaluate communities on their bike-friendliness," says Brian Pawlik, a bicycle and pedestrian planner at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). "Context is everything when you're trying to understand if a community is bike-friendly. Is it a city, a village center, or a rural community?"
What's most important, says Pawlik, is if a community has a bicycle and pedestrian plan, be it a standalone document or a component of a master plan. "Having a vision [for bicycles and pedestrians] is one thing we encourage for all communities." SEMCOG offers technical assistance to its member to help develop that vision and implement bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, agrees with Pawlik on the importance of community vision. "The first thing is to have a non-motorized plan. If cycling is in an adopted plan, it puts pressure on engineers to incorporate elements early on when it's easy to do." But he notes that not all plans are created equal, some being nothing more than recreational trail plans. "Others—the good ones—treat bikes like transportation," he says.
Scott is unequivocal when talking about leaders (and laggards) in the bicycle-friendly movement. He breaks down metro Detroit communities into two categories: contenders and pretenders.
"A few communities need to be lifted up for trying," he says, "and a few need to be called out for pretending. A few only view cycling as recreation."
For Scott, the contenders are clear. "Ferndale and Detroit are definitely in the lead," he says.
Detroit adopted its non-motorized transit plan in 2006, and in just a few short years, the city went from having virtually no cycling infrastructure to having a growing network of over 170 miles of bike lanes and greenways. (Read about the growth of Detroit's non-motorized transportation network here.) The city is on the verge of another first for the region as it builds out protected bike lanes on a stretch of Jefferson Avenue on the city's east side.
Ferndale has consistently added cycling infrastructure as it undertakes road improvement projects, most recently along Livernois between 8 and 9 Mile roads, which now features bike lanes and occasional protected bike racks in on-street parking spaces, along East Nine Mile Road between Woodward Avenue and the Hazel Park border, which also features bike lanes and on-street racks, and along Hilton Road between Woodward Heights and 10 Mile, which now features bike lanes. (Track the growth of Ferndale's non-motorized transportation network here.)
Of course there are also communities who, while not as far along as Ferndale and Detroit, nonetheless deserve credit for making an effort to improve their bike-friendliness. Scott points to cities like Birmingham, which is experimenting with putting Maple Road on a "road diet" by reducing the number of vehicle lanes and adding bike lanes (a plan, it's worth noting, that was met with significant opposition by residents) and Warren, which added bike lanes to a 1.5 mile stretch of Van Dyke to connect with the Conner Creek Greenway that leads all the way to the Detroit River.
"Even Novi is doing well despite land use challenges," says Scott.
The pretenders, on the other hand, engage in tokenism when it comes to implementing bicycle infrastructure. A prime example would be the installation of "share the road" signs and street markings in a place where cyclists would not conceivably ride. "The share the road signs on Crooks Road north of 13 Mile make it into my PowerPoint presentation as what not to do. I just don't understand it."
As opposed to non-motorized plans, Scott sees local complete streets ordinances as largely irrelevant. "They were sold as a way of getting state and federal money, but they've largely been ignored," he says, pointing out that Detroit, the city that's doing the most locally when it comes to implementing non-motorized infrastructure, doesn't have an ordinance.
Despite many making significant strides, no metro Detroit municipality has been recognized on the League of American Bicyclists' list of Bicycle Friendly Communities. (Nine out-state Michigan cities, including Marquette, Ann Arbor, and Grand Rapids, made the list). In order to be considered, the League requires communities to submit individual applications, which four metro Detroit communities (Detroit, Dearborn, Ferndale, and Rochester) have done in the past. But Scott argues that the program's evaluation criteria are flawed and lack sensitivity to local contexts.
"If you're trying to be the next San Francisco or Portland, [the League's rankings] work for you. They really value bike to work numbers," he says. "When I filled out Detroit's application, we had to write in a lot of things in the comments section. For instance, having wide streets with low traffic volumes doesn't score you points. We're arguably the center of African American bike culture in the U.S., but that fact was hard to account for on the application."
Connecting the dots
Metro Detroit communities, particularly the small ones, can only do so much by themselves to create bicycle-friendly environments. For cycling to become a commuting option more metro Detroiters seriously consider, connectivity between municipalities must improve. Anyone who has attempted to cross I-696 between Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak or 8 Mile Road between Detroit and Ferndale on a bicycle knows as much.
But the barriers to cycling through the region are lessening with new infrastructure projects on the horizon. The Iron Belle Trail, which will stretch from Belle Isle in Detroit to the Wisconsin Border in the Upper Peninsula, and the Inner Circle Greenway, which will span 26 miles and connect parts of Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Dearborn, are proposed non-motorized pathways that will allow cyclists and pedestrians to pass more easily through series of metro Detroit municipalities.
Pawlik is optimistic about connecting individual communities' visions for cycling through SEMCOG's "Bicycle and Pedestrian Travel Plan" for the region.
"The thing I'm seeing the most is that communities across the region are thinking about walking and biking," he says.
Matthew Lewis is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.

All photos by the author.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.