The Legacy of Bicycles in Detroit, Michigan: A Look at Greenways Through Time
Todd Scott, Detroit Greenways Coalition, firstname.lastname@example.org
Gwen Gell, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, email@example.com
Greenways are constantly evolving and changing infrastructure. Greenways are trails accessible to non-motorized forms of movement which provide ecological, transportation, and connective functions within an urban area. For the purposes of this indicator report, the term “greenways” also includes bicycle infrastructure on roadways. As a city’s land uses change, new administrations come into power, and the economy fluctuates, greenways and bicycle routes shift. This brief report highlights the change in greenways overtime in an effort to illustrate the story of non-motorized transportation in the City of Detroit.
Detroit’s topography is favorable to bicycles. The expansive flat land makes for a pleasant experience biking thought the city. While there has been an increase in ridership and bicycle infrastructure in recent years, the known legacy of bicycles began prior to the automobile and contributed to the development of the Motor City.
Download an animated gif of the timeline of greenways in Detroit HERE
- Established Native American networks throughout the region were the first greenways in Southeast Michigan (Sewick, 2016; Mason, 1959; Hinsdale, 1931). Early surveyors map the trails created and used by the Anishinaabe, Wyandot, Iroquois, Fox, Miami, and Sauk tribes (Herberg, 2017). The present-day grid patterns of the region follow these original Native American pathways.
- Cadillac establishes Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit - this is considered the ‘founding’ of the modern City of Detroit
- The first velocipede is for sale in Detroit
- On December 18th, on Jefferson Avenue, the Detroit Journal reports the first velocipede ride in Detroit.
- The first bicycle club in Detroit is formed
- The Good Roads Movement Begins in the United States, started by cyclists, to advocate for improved roads
- The Detroit Free Press publishes an expose on an international cycle tour, titled The Great Canada Bicycle Tour (Bates, 1884). Written by President Bates of the Detroit Bicycle Club, the piece highlights the journey starting in Detroit, Michigan on July 2, 1883, crossing Ontario, and ending in Buffalo, New York on July 12, 1883.
Cycling, at this time, was an activity engaged primarily by upper-class men and was considered a gentleman’s sport. From the drawings in the article, we can infer these men were crossing the country on bicycles with a very large front wheel, or Penny Farthing. Cyclists, or wheelmen, were likely riding on gravel, wood, and dirt road conditions.
The article highlights not only Detroit’s bicycle legacy, but the beginnings of an international bicycle relationship.
- Mayor Pingree’s unrealized initiatives included developing the riverfront as a public space and expanding the inner greenspace of the city for citizens of Detroit - part of his expanding welfare platform (Stark, 1943).
- In April, the Detroit Free Press publishes an insert called Outside Runs: Guide Map of City of Detroit for Bicyclists, Showing Pavement (Calvert Lithographic and Engineering Company, 1896). This map indicates the material of roads for cyclists including, wood, asphalt, brick, macadam, and granite. In addition to materials, the map also highlights longer day trips outside of the city.
(Charles Brady King drove the first automobile in Detroit the month prior to the bicycle map being made)
- Ed Hines, an avid cyclist and leader of the Detroit Wheelmen, is elected as Wayne County Road Commissioner. He is a passionate supporter of the Good Roads Movement and is influenced by creating safe roads for all users. He begins implementing the median line on roads in Southeast Michigan.
“I can remember in the early ‘90s when it seemed as if every man in Detroit rode a bike. Now it seems as if every other man you know owns an automobile and the ‘bikes’ have been relegated to the rear for use by messengers and errand boys.” – Wayne County Road Commissioner Ed Hines, 1914 (Detroit News, 1896)
- The Ambassador Bridge opens between Detroit and Windsor, for cars, bicycles and pedestrians.
- The Detroit News Hiking Club is formed. This club was active up until WWII.
- Bicycle interest and funding stagnates for nearly 80 years - between the 1890s and the 1970s. Automobiles provide personal freedom to travel but lead to auto-dominant roadways. Building a city which accommodates the automobile becomes the top priority for Detroit, the Motor City. Industrialization and urban sprawl, amongst many other factors, creates roadways hostile non-motorized forms of transportation.
- In the 1970s, due to national oil shortages and the environmental movement, cities across the nation became a platform for bicycle activism and insurgence. The Bike Boom brought bicycles to the attention of decision makers. City leadership across the country completed feasibility studies, but little action was taken.
- The State of Michigan road funding changes to require a minimum of 1% to be spent on non-motorized uses. The legislator who led that effort, Dick Allen, suggests Detroit use its funding to build a protected bike lane network.
- The publication of a report titled The Land & The River by the Interagency Task Force for Detroit/Wayne County Riverfront Development. This study inventories riverfront lands and takes stock of future possibilities beyond an industrial waterfront.
- City administration completes an exploratory study of linking the riverfront, Policies and Possible Futures for the Riverfront, 1977 (DeVito et al., 1977). This conceptual plan examines the feasibility of non-traditional uses of the riverfront, including providing accessibility to bicycles, access for pedestrians, and building dense housing along the Detroit River.
- Linked Riverfront Park Projects is a report of recommendations for the Detroit Riverfront created for the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department.
- Marina/Canal Feasibility is developed out of the Linked Riverfront Park Projects (Schervish, 1980).
- West Riverfront Bicycle/Pedestrian Route is an analysis of the riverfront which identifies different possible routes, designs, and implementation (Krichbaum, 1981). This is prepared by the City of Detroit’s Recreation Department and developed out of the larger Linked Riverfront Parks Project.
- Mt. Elliott Interpretive Center: an adaptive reuse plan (Schervish, Vogel, and Merz, 1981) reports on the possibilities on how to reuse the US Coast Guard Group/Base between Heart Plaza and Belle Isle
- Detroit’s East Riverfront: the people and places of yesterday is a historical report identifying recreation opportunities on the east riverfront for the City of Detroit’s Recreation Department (Kozora. K. 1982).
- Detroit East Riverfront Bikeway Construction Project is a report containing details about implementing a bicycle path along the riverfront. This was prepared for the City of Detroit’s Recreation Department (Detroit Recreation Department, 1982).
- Know Your Riverfront: a historical information brochure is published by the Detroit Recreation Department (Detroit Recreation Department, 1985).
- In 1986, the Rails to Trails Conservancy is established. This organization spurs greenway development and efforts across the country.
- The Michigan Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is founded. It coordinates the construction and transition of old rail lines to greenways across the state.
- Throughout the 1990s, Southeast Michigan and Detroit sees an increase in organizing and planning for greenway and bicycle infrastructure.
- Southeast Michigan Greenways Initiative is established to champion greenways
- City of Detroit Land Use plan includes greenways as one of their 5 keys to city redevelopment
- Southeast Michigan Greenways: Wayne County Report
- Rail to Trails publishes Southeast Michigan Greenways: A regional overview – Vision, Tools, Process (Deck et al., 1998).
- Rails to Trails Conservancy and National Park Service releases: A Vision for Southeast Michigan Greenways (Deck et al., 1998).
- Detroit River selected as 1 of 14 American Heritage Rivers, established under the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition. Creating linked greenways is identified as 1 of 5 top priorities.
- Southwest Detroit Riverfront Greenway Project Publishes: Detroit’s New Front Porch (The Greenways Collaborative, 1999).
- Downriver Linked Greenways Initiative establishes linked greenways between 21 Downriver Communities
- As the City’s agency and momentum for greenway projects begins to wane, smaller neighborhood level community development organizations begin to plan their own communities. Planning and implementation are made possible through matching grants from the Southeast Michigan Greenways Initiative, spearheaded by the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.
- Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan launches its Greenway’s Initiative to build a regional network of greenway trails. Over $33million is awarded and $125 million is leveraged to build over 100 miles of greenways in Southeast Michigan, including Detroit.
- The Ambassador bridge closes bicycle and pedestrian access in 2001.
- City of Detroit creates a riverfront vision.
- Abandoned Rail Corridor and Inventory Assessment is published by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for the Greenways Initiative. This proves to be the future foundation for successful greenway projects throughout the city (Rails to Trails Conservancy, 2002). The development of the Inner Circle Greenway, known as the Joe Louis Greenway, is a result of this report.
- The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is established.
- Detroit hosts Super Bowl XL, significant efforts towards beautification are implemented throughout the city, including investment in the Conner Creek Greenway near Detroit City Airport.
- Detroit develops a non-motorized plan (Patel, 2006). The plan is adopted by City Council in 2008.
- Ribbon Cutting ceremony for the first two completed miles of the Detroit RiverWalk.
- The Detroit Greenways Coalition is formed.
- Community Foundation funds several construction grants throughout the city, including Southwest Detroit Greenlink.
- Ribbon cutting on the Dequindre Cut.
- A concept is developed for the River Rouge Greenway.
- Detroit Greenways Coalition develops Detroit Greenway Network Plan.
- In the 2010s, community organization plans are realized. Construction is funded and underway. The City of Detroit goes into austerity measures during the bankruptcy. Post-bankruptcy the city begins to comprehensively plan greenways on a city-wide scale.
- City of Detroit files for Bankruptcy.
- City of Detroit emerges from Bankruptcy.
- Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (2014) publishes: Nonmotorized Plan for Southeast Michigan.
- Iron Belle Trail is announced linking the Upper Peninsula to Detroit on a 3,520-km (2,200-mile) greenway.
- Dequindre Cut Extension Opens.
- Envisioning Detroit as the World’s Greenway Capital: A 50-year vision of the Detroit Greenways Coalition is published.
- A US-Canada Greenways Vision was created in 2014 calling for a bicycle/pedestrian lane on the Gordie Howe Bridge, improvements to the tunnel bus system, and re-establishment of a cross border ferry (Detroit Greenways Coalition, 2014).
- Joe Louis Greenway named as a 41.6-km (26-mile) greenway that will eventually encircle the city and connect neighborhoods.
- Detroit sees an expansion of bicycle infrastructure along Jefferson Ave and the Lower-Eastside Neighborhoods, intend to create a comprehensive greenway network (Detroit Transportation Department, 2018).
- Construction of the Joseph Campau Corridor (City of Detroit, 2019).
- Detroit Greenways Coalition publishes Bike and Walk Detroit City: 2019 Route Map and Safety Guide.
- Expected date of completion for the first phase of the Joe Louis Greenway.
- Expected date of completion of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park on the Detroit RiverWalk.
- Expected completion of the Gordie Howe Bridge, uniting Canada and the United States through a multi-modal byway.
Management and Next Steps
The City of Detroit is in the midst of implementing new greenways, specifically, the Joe Louis Greenway, extending into the neighborhoods on the Westside of the city. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2022. The City also intends to extend the Dequindre Cut to the north. The Conner Creek Greenway is under negotiation to be rerouted in order to accommodate an expected increase in truck traffic due to the new Fiat Chrysler plant.
The new international Gordie Howe bridge, expected completion in 2024, has incorporated plans for a non-motorized lane creating a formal bicycle/pedestrian connection between the United States and Canada. The bridge will result in international connections to greenways in both countries, ranging from a small local loop to larger cross-country paths.
Continued priority should be placed on identifying creative financing options for greenways, as well as a provision for long-term maintenance and security. Research should address these issues to work toward collaborative solutions to financing, construction, long-term operation and maintenance, and security.
Greenways are constantly evolving to rise to the spatial opportunities and meet the needs of users. Detroit’s legacy of bicycle usage within the city began prior to the automobile and continues today. The rise of bicycle related infrastructure – including greenways – is evidence of the City’s bicycle tradition. The future holds many opportunities to expand and connect Detroiter’s to their neighborhood, city, and nearby towns and countries.