On the Road: Model D Speaker Series recap on Urban Mobility

It may have been the end of May, but it still felt like the first throes of spring, with April-esque showers pouring down all afternoon. The rain didn't stop over 50 transit enthusiasts from driving, walking, busing and pedaling to the Wayne State Law School for the Model D Speaker Series on Urban Mobility, presented by Model D, MSHDA and Wayne State University.

The event celebrated those who chose alternative transit as a method of travel. Downtown bicycle business Wheelhouse Detroit donated snacks and patch kits to all those who made their way to the Law School in anything but an automobile.

This Speaker Series continued a discussion on alternative forms of transit begun two years ago, when we hosted our last meeting on the issue (the same day the Dequindre Cut opened to the public). What's changed since then? Perhaps the most startling transformation is the number of actors, including the city of Detroit, coming together to build greenways, bike lanes and better sidewalks to encourage city dwellers to leave their cars at home. Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel, who moderated the panel, began by noting, "a broader, non-motorized transit agenda is something we need to embrace and move toward, in a progressive way." We like those politics.

The good news? There's lots of progress in the city that's pro-pedestrian, illustrated in a presentation by Todd Scott of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance (MTGA). From the opening of the first leg of the Connor Creek Greenway to construction on the Port Authority site, lengthening the Detroit Riverwalk, to a new pedestrian bridge over I-75 at Bagley Street. Portions of the Midtown Loop on Kirby and John R are almost complete. Soon, bikers will be able to traverse West Vernor on brand-new bike lanes from the Michigan Central Station to the city of Dearborn. The City of Detroit is even trying to purchase more railroad to lengthen the Dequindre Cut from Gratiot to Mack Ave. "If you build it, they will come," Scott said. "They will use it."

They will come back, on bikes and buses and on foot, because urban mobility isn't just about transit -- it's about bringing people back to cities. Marja Winters, deputy director of the city's Planning and Development department, said non-motorized transit options are an essential component to the mayor's Detroit Works Project. Credit the growing movement across the country to urban areas, often for the diversity of options a city affords. "The quality of place is becoming the number one determining factor," she said. "And ranking high in the decision-making process is the notion of alternative forms of transit."  

But Metro Detroit still has a long way to go, said Wayne State University Professor Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "Planning is really about choices," he says. "And we need to give people choices, and not only push them down one particular track -- and in this case, it's auto dependency." Alternative transit, he added, is a way to reconnect the city and the suburbs (and more importantly, people within them). "Curiously enough, cycling and the connection of trails might be one example of how we can break the barriers that we've got," he said. "I want to change the way we have that regional discussion," he added, "and cycling is one way that we could do that."

Carolyn Helmke, a transportation consultant from Chicago, said the housing crisis of the past few years has created, amidst the chaos, time and opportunity for neighborhoods to re-examine their priorities. "There's an opportunity for people in the community to say, this is the way I want my neighborhood to look." Because alternative forms of transit do more than link us to the 'burbs --  they reconnect us to those we live among, helping build communities from houses and streets. "A byproduct that is so underrated about being outside, walking and biking, is how much you run into people and have a quick conversation," she added. "That's a high quality of life to me, when you see your neighbors and you know them."

Kelli Kavanaugh co-owns the Wheelhouse Detroit, a riverfront bike shop and tour outlet to the city via two wheels. She said that, in the past few years, the stereotype of biking as an inferior mode of transportation, or a form of recreation, is beginning to change -- and with that, her business is now more involved in selling and maintaining bikes than rentals. And cycling makes sense in a city like ours, she says, despite the "Motor City" moniker. "Detroit's street grid, overlaid with the spokes, is an amazing system for biking." For downtown workers, it's also a way to avoid traffic jams and the endless hunt for parking spaces. "You start realizing that transportation via bike isn't just fun, it isn't just exercise -- it's both of those things, but it's also a very practical mode of transportation."
In the end, the city needs more bike racks in front of businesses and on buses. More paths, lanes and bridges, and less freeways. But in the two years since the last time we met, definite progress has been made. Onward down the road.

Photo by Todd Scott, Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance
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