Frontier Spirit, Urban Ideas

The temperature is 97. Crabby and dry as dust, I pop into a Denver natural foods store for a cold tea.

"What are you up to today?" I hear while passing a faded George Washington to the tall blonde with the pierced lips. I look up. Crikey! Well, if he really cares – he does – then allow me to unload a tale of walking miles to replace pricey backpacking gear lost while shuttling boxes from Bloomfield, Michigan to Denver, Colorado. His friendliness, in the context of thousands of polite but rote retail encounters I've had, is a nice exception. Receptiveness to strangers goes with laid-back urbanity, a new horizon for a girl who now splits her time between the Rockies and Metro Detroit.

Gold seekers coined this resource-rich area Denver City in 1858. Denver now has 600,000 residents and is the nexus of a metro area of over 2.5 million. This means an urban sensibility at the base of the Rocky Mountains, a novel combo for one who has lived mainly in the Great Lakes region. I now rent a sunny vintage studio apartment for $525 a month, most utilities included. My Craigslist find sits in bohemian Capitol Hill, near downtown and a few blocks from the nighttime glow of the Colorado State Capitol, in an older neighborhood ripe for exploration. I decide to do a little street-level prospecting for ideas as to how Detroiters can make better use of their own resources.

One recent afternoon, the mile-long pedestrian mall hums with urbanites, more or less: commuters, leathery cross-dressers, and a proselytizing panhandler in a sombrero. No cowboys in sight. Given the big hiker community here, I'm far more likely to see a bandanna used as a sweat rag or a dishcloth.

With enough treading of the sandstone sidewalks, though, it becomes clear that this city was made for walking. In fact, calls Denver a "Walker's Paradise". This high-plains city scores 95 out of 100, as defined by the ease of accessing amenities like shops, cafes and coffee houses, parks, and libraries without needing to nurse the gas tank.
Unsurprisingly, my mid-century Bloomfield neighborhood, while hardly an exurb, scores a 15, flatly rendering it "Car Dependent." However, Metro Detroit doesn't need to look afar for good places to ramble. Royal Oak and Ferndale score a very respectable 77 and 86. Birmingham, a few short (by car!) miles south of Bloomfield, its downtown feting everyone from the pub and martini crowd to canine couturiers, beats all… a 98.

Building a better horseless carriage

In Denver, though, I motor only on the weekends to go out of town. And that depends on which town. A few weeks ago, a light rail train looping the business district and sports stadiums and running ten miles south to downtown Littleton, a mini Birmingham, is a smooth carriage of people and bikes.

While this western portal, originally settled by the Arapaho Indians (migrants from the Great Lakes region), was bypassed by the Pony Express, it's now on a transit relay run. By 2016, the Denver Regional Transportation District plans to install another 122 miles of light and commuter rail lines, including a route to the airport and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. The city also runs free hybrid electric shuttles down its pedestrian mall for about 20 hours a day.

How many are aware that a developer of these vehicles resides just outside of Detroit? Azure Dynamics, a maker of hybrid-electric drive train systems, relocated from Vancouver to Oak Park in 2007 and just received a $5.6 million contract from MDOT to supply 50 small hybrid buses to transportation agencies around Michigan. According to a recent Crain's Detroit Business article, the itty-bitty (pop. 2,700) northern city of Charlevoix, 274 miles from Detroit, is expected to make the first purchase. Hel-lo!?

Perhaps the Wayne County Airport Authority could secure these buses for Detroit Metropolitan Airport passengers. Compared to other cities Detroit has great newer terminals, but limited ground transport options make it hard to leave the grounds without a private vehicle. Per the airport website, arriving passengers can choose between car rentals, private limousine services costing anywhere from $41 (for 15 miles to Dearborn) to $80 a pop, and SMART buses (mentioned in two lines at the bottom).

Meanwhile, getting from the Denver airport to downtown sans car is easy and cheap. I can take a dedicated frequent bus service for $10 or a $19 shared shuttle van ride for the 26-mile trip. Surely, Detroit fliers would like more environmentally friendly options for saving a buck.

Idea roundup

In addition to the biggies like, well, mass transit, I've seen some nuggets here that would work in Southeast Michigan – and that don't take millions of years and billions of dollars and scores of politicians and agencies and municipalities and white knuckles to implement. Let's call them garden-variety chic.

To begin with, there's no need for us to try so hard. Let our gardens be a metaphor for a philosophy of growing and hanging loose. Many Denver street-side yards and corners are cascading with foliage like flopsy tall sunflowers that give the place a relaxing natural vibe. Plots in my part of Oakland County often speak of a clipped, restrained one-inch lawn perfection.

On the outdoor circuit, it's not stylish to
see abandoned shoes and rags on the ground. One answer: freestanding recycling bins on business properties for the collection of clothes, shoes, and linens. I give used clothing to charity, but not until a whole pile coats the bottom of the closet. These bins, besides being a convenient way to rid us of rags, are enviro-cool.

Continuing my ride on the environmental bandwagon, pedicabs should be part of our non-motorized transportation plan. These human pedal-powered rickshaws would work in any downtown, especially one with hotels and nightlife – Detroit, Birmingham, Royal Oak, say. Heck, they are a form of nightlife. Who wouldn't look and smile? If you want to power the solution, it's a great way to get in shape.

While landmarks, natural resources, and entertainment (and pedicabs) all attract visitors and potential residents, lodging also matters. We all know of boutique hotels, but clean, professionally managed hostels, with their dorm-type demeanor (many also have private rooms) make an inexpensive and accessible base to explore an area and check out new places to live. Hostels tend to attract adventurous, well traveled, and yes, educated types. European and South American cities are brimming with them. I've stayed at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and the Boulder International Hostel, and Denver has a few. A web search, including one of the Hostelling International site, turned up no such lodgings in Metro Detroit. There's nothing like filling more beds and an unmet need!

Whatever the scale of material means to an economic end, we're always striving for better, as we should.  Yet it's also about maximizing what's already here, starting with Metro Detroit's 4.4 million faces. Ultimately, after all the clamoring to build a creative class and funding for quality-of-life measures like transit and walkability, in my mind, simple and free intangibles like congeniality have mileage to spare.

So in the spirit of living on a pleasant peninsula, ask people you don't know what they're up to today. And remember to tip your cowboy hat to a stranger.

Tanya Muzumdar is the only member of Metromode's editorial pool who knows how to properly mosey. She is also a freelance writer. Her previous article was The Rail Thing, Is Metro Detroit On Track?

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City and County Building, Denver, CO - photo by Tanya Muzumdar

Colorado State Capitol - photo by Tanya Muzumdar

Pedestrians walking in West Bloomfield

Free hybrid public shuttle, downtown Denver - photo by Tanya Muzumdar

Denver pedi cab and lamps as tree art - photo by Tanya Muzumdar

Bicyclist in West Bloomfield

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here