Opinion: Slow Roll has lost its way

If you didn’t know otherwise, you'd be forgiven for mixing up two of the major bike rides that come through Detroit these days: Slow Roll and Critical Mass. The former is ostensibly a leisurely pedal for all age groups through a different neighborhood every Monday. The latter is a monthly ride designed to snarl traffic and raise awareness of the need for better cycling infrastructure by deliberately clogging city streets and tying up intersections.

Though their stated goals differ, these days it's tough to tell them apart.

I should state a few caveats from the beginning: first, although I do own a bike and enjoy riding it, I have never participated in Slow Roll. Second, I live in Hamtramck. And the events of the Monday, June 6 Slow Roll that began and ended here have left me, and many of my fellow Hamtramckans, with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The ride began and ended at the Fowling Warehouse on Conant Street at the invitation of Fowling ownership. Neither Fowling nor Slow Roll informed anyone with the city of Hamtramck at any time before the event that it was to take place here. The only warning for city residents and officials came from a Facebook post a few hours before the ride, written by a Hamtramck resident who just happened to find out about it. City officials—and more importantly, police—were simply never told that nearly 6,000 bikers would be taking over the streets in just a few hours.

With a Detroit Police escort directing traffic.

In an already parking-challenged city.

On the first night of Ramadan.

It was not what I would call a good PR move for Slow Roll.

Cars were parked illegally and ticketed. Cars were broken into and laptops stolen from them. In the days after the ride, Facebook pages for both Hamtramck and Slow Roll were full of vitriol and name-calling between members of the two groups. Admittedly, some of it was hilarious ("Boycott Hamtramk" [sic] was a popular phrase, and one wit referred to Hamtramckans as "banjo-playing hipsters"), but overall the tone was a far cry from the camaraderie Slow Roll hopes to foster.

So what went so wrong? Three days later, Slow Roll leader Jeff Herron and Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski issued a joint statement. Here is an excerpt:

"The police departments of Hamtramck and Detroit work together, sometimes informally, to accommodate incidental overlaps with Hamtramck by the DPD. Slow Roll and the police departments utilized these informal mechanisms when Slow Roll rode in Hamtramck in 2015, so it was not unreasonable for Slow Roll to rely on the same informal mechanisms for the June 6th ride. However, it is apparent that reliance on informal communications was not effective this year. Slow Roll and Hamtramck agree that the growth in Slow Roll’s popularity make it an event for which informal mechanisms should not be used in the future, and Slow Roll will utilize Hamtramck’s special event permit process in 2017."

And there, I think, lies the problem. "Informal communications" are simply no longer enough for an event that has grown so massively in such a short time. I'm hardly the first to notice there might be a problem with Slow Roll's laissez faire approach. In 2013, Detroit city council members wondered at the lack of planning and permitting. By last year, riders were publicly dropping out and community backlash was increasing.

The ride through Hamtramck brought these tensions to the boiling point. Much as they wish it were still a small group of friends rolling through town for a pleasant ride, the event regularly swells to thousands of riders, along with dozens of volunteer nurses and a paid escort by the Detroit Police Department. In almost every neighborhood they ride through, that police escort shuts down major city streets.

Hamtramck Police Sergeant Dave Cornwell issued a statement as well. According to Sgt. Cornwell, there were approximately 6,000 riders, and "a great majority of these vehicles were parked illegally. There were cars parked on sidewalks, blocking driveways, handicap spots, and bus stops." He also noted, "In the future if they want to have this event in Hamtramck, they should contact us and coordinate with HAPD and not just assume it is ok for DPD to take over our streets without even notifying us."

Assumptions seem to be a major factor in what went wrong. For Slow Roll organizers to knowingly bring Detroit officers to direct Hamtramck city traffic is a gross assumption. Compounding the problem is the fact that the ride ended in Hamtramck, when many of our residents were hoping to celebrate iftar, the after-sunset meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan. Instead they found themselves stuck in traffic or waiting in line at restaurants crowded by Slow Rollers. And as with any large group, some riders littered on the streets and lots where all those cars were illegally parked and ticketed.

While Slow Roll might have started as a casual, vastly smaller group ride, it has grown to the point where much more stringent measures must be taken to ensure safety. The membership program, adopted last year, has done little to curtail the growth. At what point, it must be asked, will Slow Roll reach critical mass? When does it need to start turning riders away, or splitting the ride into smaller, more manageable groups? At what point are the crowds and the traffic and the inconvenience more damaging to the communities through which Slow Roll travels than they are pleasant for the riders?

Not every Slow Roller needs to be an ambassador for the organization. But it's time for Slow Roll leadership to consider that the astonishing success of the ride necessitates better organization, and, yes, maybe even a cap on riders.

If they don't take steps to change, to get back to their roots and original mission of fostering a "positive energy and community driven atmosphere," Slow Roll will lose the goodwill of the neighborhoods through which it rides. It already has in Hamtramck.
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Read more articles by Mickey Lyons.

Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.