Metro Detroit biking: City vs. the suburbs

It’s an easy opinion to find on bike forums: Detroit is bad for cycling. Those opinions are usually based on cyclists who ride in the suburbs or exurbs where poor street planning, cul-de-sacs and sprawl means they’re forced to ride on busy arterial roads which don’t have bike lanes.

But it’s simply not correct to label all Metro Detroit as bad. Our cycling condition is far from homogeneous.

The city of Detroit riding is some of the best cycling in America: mostly complete street grids, low speeds, very light traffic — and now many miles of bike lanes.

Some of the inner ring suburbs designed during the streetcar era aren’t too bad or at least have good potential. That includes the suburban cities like Dearborn, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Berkley and the Pointes.

Beyond that, yeah, the cycling can get pretty rough. Cities like Novi and Ferndale have shown leadership on improving cycling opportunities. Royal Oak, Berkley, and Birmingham are coming along, but we don’t see many others following them – at least not yet.

Worse still, some communities have talked the talk on Complete Streets but are not committed to building them. They just don’t see bicycles as transportation and they’re willing to redefine Complete Streets as the status quo with improved crosswalks.

Still, it’s not just about building Complete Streets. A much bigger issue is land use. Sprawl hurts cycling and kills walking as transportation modes. There’s a real vacuum of regional leadership on that issue.

Suburban sense of entitlement

One other difference we’ve seen is the suburban sense of entitlement. Entitlement to the entire road, that is. Getting brushed by motorists and yelled at is a common story shared by many suburban cyclists.

And one of our favorite blogs, Bikes, Books, and a Little Music seems to share this viewpoint after their first ride in the suburbs.

In Detroit, drivers gave me lots of room when passing by and never yelled at me. In the suburbs, the drivers were much more aggressive, many times forcing me to the curb. During my first week of riding, two suburban drivers yelled at me to get out of the street and get on the sidewalk where I belong!

As I soon found out, there is a difference between city and suburban riding. For me, Detroit is a much more interesting place to ride.

Moving from Madison Heights

Here’s another related story of a former Madison Heights city councilman moving to the city of Detroit. This is less about the infrastructure than the culture.

Another roommate worked at the Hub of Detroit, so getting a bicycle was a first priority upon moving in. The bicycle culture here in the city is larger than I had imagined. From Critical Mass to Tour De Troit, to the Bikes and Murder Slow Ride to Slow Jams, to the Full Moon bike ride from Fender Bender, there is not a lack of people who are willing to take a ride on a nice day (or a rainy/snowy one!)

Troy loves sidewalk biking

For some cities, it’s difficult harboring any hope that they’ll ever value safe biking. For us, Troy is one of those cities.

The latest proof? The city of Troy touts their 500 miles of sidewalks… for bicyclists.

A community with sidewalks enables residents to walk and ride bikes. There is a clear correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and poor health. Thus sidewalks make walking & biking a viable option. Bike route signs are placed throughout the City.

Sidewalks are not a viable option for most bicyclists according to the national design guidelines nor their own non-motorized plan, which the Troy City Council paid for but never approved and is not implementing.

Unfortunately we’ve seen many local biking “experts” label this region based on their experience in cities like Troy.

Fortunately, they’re not correct.

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7 Responses to “Metro Detroit biking: City vs. the suburbs”

  1. Laura Harris Says:

    Please remember that not all bicyclists fit into one category. Some bicyclists (children and casual speed adult riders) will happily use those sidewalks safely and appropriately. Road racers and high speed commuters should not be on the sidewalks. Let’s be thankful for the infrastructure that we have and work toward the infrastructure we need.

  2. Todd Scott Says:

    Laura: Some seniors, children, and beginner bicyclists might use sidewalks safely because they’re traveling at near pedestrian speeds. But for most cyclists, not just road racers and high speed commuters, sidewalks are an inappropriate and unsafe design facility according to best practices and national design guidelines.

    AASHTO’s forthcoming design guide says, “There is significantly higher incidence of bicyclist?motor vehicle crashes with cyclists riding on the sidewalk than with bicyclists operating in the roadway” and “the most appropriate engineering measure to address this issue is to ensure that the roadway is designed to accommodate bicyclists, with techniques such as bike lanes on busy streets, and/or traffic?calming to reduce motor vehicle speeds and/or volumes.”

  3. Dave Says:

    Here’s a thought, and I’m sure it’s one that has been tossed around before. Detroit is not the same as the suburbs in terms of its density and traffic in regards to cycling. However, would making Detroit a shining example not make communities in the suburbs perhaps take notice? Or is this too ideal, and there are different forms of separation in place (sort of like the Madison Heights councilperson being unaware of such activities and culture)? Would the progress have to be so great for the communities to take notice?

    I admittedly have not stayed caught up with what is going on inside the city in regards to cycling real close, but close enough by paying attention to this website. I had the idea recently (and thought I’d mention it here since it seems the tone of your article is that suburban cities are immune to bicycle planning and funding) to start a grass roots effort designed to raise awareness about not only the rights of cycling in the roadway, but the feasibility, safety, and benefits of doing so. I would stress all of those components. This is because of the perception and beliefs about such “territory” which has not been explored before and one’s thoughts on IF something could work, or imagining how drivers would react, or how safe it would be. I had my first ride on a portion of Woodward north of Campus Martius this past summer, and had not done so prior to that in the four years I’ve been riding my bicycle in the capacity that I am now (in the road) because of how I imagined it would be. It wasn’t bad at all. It sure is not fun trying to cross it as a pedestrian, but that’s different, and what mainly “informed” me.

    It would be inclusive in who would participate. Whether walking by a bus stop with people or while riding a bicycle. The idea behind anyone being able to be involved in such an awareness effort could give encouragement to others start to and sustain an effort to partake in this.

    I primarily became interested in this idea because it seems like there are some elements in place to encourage use of cycling in Detroit–the first that gave way to this idea being a public transportation system that was already not the greatest, and now is not working to its full potential and with disrupted service and perhaps cuts on the way, leading to increased wait times (and who else knows–I have read articles of full buses passing people waiting) which is ultimately not likely to be very productive. Second, a local economy that is below the national average, and therefore reduced use of expensive use of automobiles would perhaps be attractive to others, a reduced population leading to excess road capacity.

    The two main groups as far as doing so on foot or by bike, would be people riding a bicycle on the sidewalk and people presumably waiting for the bus.

    Todd, let me know your honest opinion. This idea wasn’t even originated based on the suburbs, but I thought one way to address the problem you speak of is to make progress in the city of Detroit.

  4. Joel Batterman Says:

    How about Ann Arbor? The city’s not always included in the “metro Detroit” category, but it might as well be, and although it has a long way to go, it probably has the most comprehensive bikeway network in the region.

  5. Todd Scott Says:

    Joel, Thanks for bringing up Ann Arbor. They are the tops in the state and I should have mentioned them. I use the common definition of Metro Detroit as Wayne, Oakland, Macomb counties. Sometimes St. Clair is thrown in there because it’s the fourth county in the MDOT’s Metro Region. The Southeast Michigan definition, which includes Ann Arbor, is the 7 county SEMCOG region. I do a fair job keeping these definitions consistent in my mind, but not m-bike!

    And I typically don’t include Ann Arbor (and Ypsi) on m-bike because I’m not that up to speed on all the fine work they’re doing.

  6. Todd Scott Says:

    Dave, I’ve tried using Detroit as a shining example with mediocre results. Some communities cannot believe that Detroit is better than them at anything. In some communities I was advised ahead of time *not* to mention Detroit because of their official’s negative views of the city. (You can read into that what you may.)

    I think this angle will be worth revisiting once Detroit gets their Bicycle Friendly Community award. (No, the application hasn’t been submitted… yet!) This national recognition might spur neighboring communities to look at the city and the award application.

    BTW, Ferndale did apply many years ago but didn’t get an award.

  7. Tony C Says:

    Hiya. Going to Ann Arbor for a wedding on August 17th and planning a follow on Michigan bike tour with a friend of mine. We’re planning on a day wandering around metro-Detroit. I heart urban riding and much agree with your urban vs suburban comments. I’m coming from Hartford ( and can’t get enough. We’ll be and camping for accommodations. Looks like a lot of hosts in the Detroit area. Keep up the good work!

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