Green City Diaries: Walk the walk

Francis Grunow, a northwest Detroiter who moved to New York for school and stayed a few years for work, describes a transformational moment he experienced there after college:  the realization that he could get anywhere in the city he wanted to without a car. He felt, in that moment, "the distinct sense of being freer than (he’d) ever been before."

Francis is back in Detroit these days, working out of the Green Garage with New Solutions Group, a public policy consulting firm that’s concerned, in part, with improving transit in Detroit. (Read his recent Model D piece about Detroit’s transit history and potential future here.) His daily commute is a 200 or so foot walk from his home in the Canfield Lofts through the Green Alley adjacent to the Green Garage. He meets most of his clients by bicycle. While he doesn’t feel anything close to the expansive sense of transit freedom he did in New York, he does feel that "within a fairly defined area of greater downtown, I can get anywhere I want to most of the time with walking, biking, or the bus, and it’s pretty reliable."

Francis isn’t alone, and this phenomenon is worth a closer look: every day, in a city built resolutely by and for cars, people to choose to walk, take the bus, or ride a bike as a viable way of getting from here to there. As Detroit develops into a greener and more sustainable place, where cars play a smaller part in a more balanced and humanizing transit ecosystem, what can others learn from their stories?

That’s the question we’re exploring in this two-part diary entry. This month we’ll talk about taking the bus and walking, and next month we’ll look more closely at cycling.  

Let’s start with Billy Hunter, who catches the 445 or 475 SMART Bus every day from his home in Greenacres, near Woodward and 8 Mile, to the office of Data Driven Detroit, where he is an HR, finance, and office manager. DDD is currently headquartered in TechTown, about six miles from Billy’s home, but was until very recently located downtown. (The move didn’t affect Billy’s commute except to shorten it a bit.)

He didn’t start taking the bus to be green. He started because he moved about a half mile from a major bus line and was tired of paying rising gas prices. Before he moved to Greenacres, more than ten years ago, Billy lived in Hamtramck and drove regularly. After moving, his interest in the bus was piqued by his proximity to the line, and after trying and adopting it, he found that he was using his car less and less. So he got rid of it. It’s not a decision he regrets: "You get that hour back instead of getting pissed off at people all the time."

When I asked him what other benefits the bus offers besides saving money, cutting stress, and letting him reclaim that lost hour, Billy cites his morning walk through his neighborhood, which allows him to get in daily exercise and see his neighbors. He also referred to the social aspects of bus riding: "I talk to people all the time," he said, noting that over the years, he’s gotten to know many of his fellow riders, as well as the drivers. "Some of them are nice," he shrugged, "and some of them are mean. You get to know them because you see them every day. Then sometimes you start waiting for the bus that has the friendlier driver."

But Billy isn’t a Pollyanna about bus riding in Detroit. "If I had to transfer or take DDOT, I probably wouldn’t ride the bus," he admitted. "The DDOT stop is too far to walk to, and it’s a broken system that needs to be fixed. And (the proposed) rapid transit would only work for people who are farther out."

He’s figured out something that works for him, though, and he encourages other city dwellers who haven’t yet ridden the bus to do the same: "You just have to try it. It’s so much easier than driving. You just have to know the schedule and know your options."

Francis Grunow concurs: "Anybody who lives and/or works in greater downtown and has a reason to move around the area, they should try it. You may be surprised at how close things are and how relatively easy the system is to navigate. The biggest challenge is putting your faith in something, either yourself or a system that has well-known challenges, to put yourself out there and try it, because you might be surprised."

Not sure how to start? Both SMART and DDOT have trip planners and schedules on their websites. Google Maps, additionally, has added bus directions in recent years. You can use Google Maps to plan trips by bike or foot, too, which leads us to our next mode of transportation, the one that’s most inherent and natural, but increasingly under-utilized.

Lesley Brill, a professor of Film Studies at Wayne State, and Megan Parry, a painter and muralist, moved together to Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood from Boulder, CO in 1989. Having lived in New York City before Boulder, they were used to getting around by foot, so they started walking in Detroit as soon as they got here.

Lesley used to walk daily from Lafayette Park to Wayne State and back, an approximately six mile round trip trek that took him mostly down Woodward. But since he recently started caring for his elderly mother outside the city, he’s had less time to walk than used to. He and Megan have worked out a solution, however, that keeps them both on their feet: she drives him to school and he walks home; around the time he starts his return trip, she leaves their home on foot, meets him halfway, and together, they walk back. "It’s a pleasant time to connect and chat," Megan said.

After living in Boulder, Megan said she was excited to be back in a "Real City, with tall buildings," when she found herself in Detroit. She recalls setting out to explore the city on foot and being surprised and "sobered" by the reality of Detroit’s geographically small downtown; there just wasn’t very far to walk (and relatively little to walk to). That didn’t stop her from finding places, however, including the post office in the Renaissance Center, the bank, a handful of welcoming soul food restaurants downtown, and a drug store on Woodward. Today, she walks regularly to Eastern Market, the DIA, MOCAD, the WSU gym, and Utrecht, the Midtown art supply store. And like just about everyone else in Lafayette Park, she’s delighted to be able to walk to Lafayette Foods, the excellent small grocer that opened there almost a year ago.

For both Megan and Lesley, walking provides the valuable opportunity to become more intimately connected with a place and its people. "You’re not really in a place when you’re driving," Lesley said. "You’re going through a place, or past a place....And even if you’re not talking with people while you’re walking, you’re much closer to them, to their homes."

Walking between Lafayette Park and Midtown (before it was commonly called that) for nearly 25 years has given the couple a street-level view of the remarkable changes that have taken place since the early 1990s. They’ve seen their favorite soul food restaurants disappear, but also a number of decrepit buildings along Woodward that made the walk to Wayne State "harrowing," at times. They’ve seen shops come and go downtown, and street life continue to burgeon in Midtown after the College for Creative Studies and Wayne State both added student dorms, events that transformed an area that used to feel "totally deserted" at night.

To hear them tell it, it’s the close attention to the changing details of a place, as well as the regular exercise, sociability, and sense of adventure and discovery provided by walking that keep Megan and Lesley traveling their corner of Detroit by foot. In the country whose people apparently walk less than any other industrialized nation’s, most of us could learn a thing or two from them. Start very close to home, Megan suggests: "Begin by patronizing businesses that are within easy walking distance. That’ll get you out and walking around." Then, if you’re able to, walk a little farther. Then farther still. Step by step, you’ll get to know the city (and your neighbors) far more intimately than you ever could in a vehicle.

If you’d like to try a Detroit walk with some good company, we just learned about Detroit’s first Jane Jacobs Walk. The event honors the pioneering urbanist whose promotion of street life and walkable neighborhoods was a major influence in the design of the Green Garage and Green Alley. It takes place on Sunday, May 6, 2-4 p.m. in, of all places, Greenacres and Sherwood Forest. (Be sure to wave to Billy Hunter if you see him.) More information is available here.

We know that in its current form, mass transit in Detroit is broken and unsustainable, but for all the city’s legendary and ongoing struggles with it, many people do catch the bus daily without incident. For all the offhand references to the city as "not walkable," many regularly take to its streets, sidewalks, and alleys by foot. And the funny thing about those big, wide avenues, perfect to cruise down in an old Buick? They leave plenty of room for the cyclists who crisscross the city in ever-growing droves. We’ll get a few of their stories next month.

Green City Diaries is a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library. For more information on anything you read here, or if you have other questions about living more sustainably in Detroit, contact the library here.
Matthew Piper authors Green City Diaries and writes about design and the arts for Model D. Read his most recent piece, Urbanism from Outer Space.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at