A New Motor for the Motor City

On Saturday, I rode with some co-workers in the Tour de Troit, a 30-mile loop around Detroit. The route begins in Roosevelt Park where the empty train station loomed large over the near 7,000 cyclists and beer tents at Corktown's edge.

The hordes rode through Southwest Detroit, the colorful and warm Latin-American neighborhood, up around Midtown, back down through historic Indian Village and around Belle Isle before heading back to Roosevelt Park for more music, beer and local food. Energy was high, a scruffy hipster rode with speakers rigged behind his bike, and the vegan chili from Slow's BBQ at the finish line was excellent.

A couple weeks ago, while running on the Riverwalk, I met a group of maybe 20 riding the most tricked-out bikes I had ever seen. They were beautifully painted, has all kinds of frames, some had studs, others had leopard-print, and a few had large leather-covered speakers on their rear wheels.

Then there is Apple's feature commercial on Slow Roll. Slow Roll is a Monday bike ride through a different Detroit neighborhood each week. Now in its fourth season, it is Michigan's largest bike ride summoning over 3,000 riders. A primary goal is to show the unexpected and the positive of Detroit. Its use of bikes to do so, and subsequent broadcast in national media thanks to Apple, furthers the role of bikes in today's Detroit.

Though Detroit has been nearly synonymous with cars, bikes are driving the "Motor City" more and more. When you think about it, the very plan of the Detroit streets themselves lends itself to bikes. Instead of a typical grid, Detroit's major thoroughfares emit in spokes from the city center at Campus Martius. This means that bikers have near "freeways" to cruise up and down with more streamlined traffic and fewer corners.

The wide avenues from eras past also allow bikers to have a wider berth. City planners are currently contemplating dividing such streets into a more normal-sized car lane and a generous bike lane as part of the redefinition of Detroit for the future. Recent infrastructure projects such as the River Walk and Dequindre Cut feature beautifully maintained bike paths along manicured beds and colorful graffiti.

Local bikers can take advantage of excellent bike stores such as Wheelhouse Detroit and Detroit Bikes. The downtown Family of Companies including Quicken Loans also has access to Zagster, the Cambridge-based smartphone bike rental company. And the near-iconic fashion brand Shinola manufactures bespoke classic bikes that I for one would love to frame on the wall but may be too cautious to take on the road.

The popularity of bikes is also a metric. More bikes mean more spending, more valuable real estate, and more talented workers (citation). The positive externalities of bikes ripple outward even further. For example, a study in St. Louis found that for every quarter-mile closer to a bike path, a home's value increases $510 (same citation).

All of this stems from the fundamental proposition that it is people, not cars that spend money. People on bikes can stop and shop, access "drive to, not through" sections of town and live the carless urban life. Perhaps it is bikes, not cars that will drive the "motor city" forward.