On Saturday morning, thousands of people assembled in front of Michigan Central Station for the chance to ride bicycles (and the occasional tricycle) en masse through the streets of Detroit. Black and white, male and female, young and old, MSU and UM, Christian, Muslim, and Jew, wearing spandex and wearing jeans, all came together for a four-hour-plus celebration of pedal-powered transport in the Motor City. For a brief glimpse of the festivities, see the slideshow below and MattMTB’s delightful video.
Since its 2002 founding by Edward Potas and Mike Kiewicz, the annual Tour de Troit has seen phenomenal growth. Starting with a total of 50 riders, the event ballooned to 300 in 2006, 1,000 in 2008, and 2,000 in 2009. Saturday’s Tour, sponsored by the Southwest Detroit Business Association, drew 3,225 registered riders.
In what usually gets dubbed a “shrinking city,” this is an especially remarkable trajectory. Indeed, the Tour is on its way to becoming one of the premier annual events, like the Freedom Festival fireworks and Jazz Festival, that bring people from across southeast Michigan to Detroit. It’s also one of the few that brings visitors to Detroit neighborhoods, as well as the downtown. Watching residents greet the riders with waves and high-fives was a sight not to be soon forgotten.
The Tour’s dedicated organizers deserve credit for their success. But they’ve also got larger trends blowing at their back: a resurgent interest in rebuilding the American city (and Detroit especially) as a sustainable, just, and prosperous metropolis, and an emerging global movement advancing bicycling as a healthy means of transportation in these times of sedentary lifestyles, economic dislocation, and mounting climate change. Given the symbolism of bicycling in the world’s automobile capital, the Tour’s ascent is a bellwether of truly national significance.
“It’s just like Amsterdam, with helmets,” one rider exclaimed as the Tour prepared to depart. Her comment reminds the writer of a remark by New York Timescolumnist David Brooks, who sneered at the prospect that the United States could ever become “a nation of bicyclists.” In fact, as the Tour suggests, Americans and even the people of the Motor City already enjoy riding bicycles, perhaps just as much as the Dutch. True, they don’t like bicycling amidst lots of cars going at very high speeds. But they jump at the chance to ride bikes free from that prospect. They love bicycling so much that many will voluntarily pay $30 for the opportunity. Curiously, despite the nation’s oft-cited love affair with the automobile, few Americans are known to pay an equivalent amount for the sheer pleasure of spending four hours driving on an urban freeway.
By raising funds for the Corktown-Mexicantown Greenlink, the Tour de Troit helps to ensure that in the future, more area residents will be able to ride bicycles in comfort without a police escort, for pleasure and to meet their daily needs. The problem isn’t that we don’t like to bike; it’s that our cities don’t have the facilities necessary for bicycling. The Tour revealed some of the new facilities beginning to happen in Detroit, including the freshly striped bicycle lane on St. Jean, although the mammoth group of bicyclists ended up bypassing the Dequindre Cut.
Getting bike paths and bike lanes built across Michigan will take a long campaign. Events like the Tour de Troit, however, can build momentum towards that purpose and give us a glimpse of what the future can look like.
There’s already talk about making the Tour and other rides part of “a Detroit Bike Week.” A range of opportunities exist for building on the Tour’s success. Large cities across the United States, including Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and New York, now hold multiple annual “ciclovias,” in which a set of city streets are reserved for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized users for the duration of a day, frequently in conjunction with other free outdoor activities. Foundations, take note: it’s high time that Detroit followed suit. Southwest Detroit would be ideal for Detroit’s first ciclovia circuit, given the Colombian origin of the concept and the area’s Latin American heritage.
In any event, it’s clear from the Tour that bicycling in Detroit and across Michigan has nowhere to go but up.
Read more reviews of the Tour de Troit at the Free Press, News, and m-bike.org.