What’s going on with Detroit bike trail projects? Todd Scott brings us up to speed.

A scene from Slow Roll, a huge weekly group bike ride in Detroit.
A scene from Slow Roll, a huge weekly group bike ride in Detroit.

Bike culture is flourishing in Detroit, with plenty of exciting projects to point to as evidence. The city recently installed its first protected bike lanes along East Jefferson Avenue, a public-private bike share program hoping to launch next summer just announced new title sponsors in Henry Ford Health System and Health Alliance Plan, and a half-mile extension of the popular Dequindre Cut is taking shape.

There’s no one more immersed in efforts to expand bike and pedestrian trails in the Detroit area than Todd Scott, the executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition. Scott, who I’ve gotten to know through my work helping to plan Bike to Work Day events in Detroit, has worked for years to help make Detroit more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

I spoke with him yesterday to get a rundown of the many projects he’s involved with and find out what’s coming for cyclists in 2016. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and it suffered early on from dead batteries in my recorder (derp).

When I contacted you about doing this interview, you said there was a lot to talk about. What’s new and exciting?  I think the big thing that’s changing is the city is getting more and more in tune with what we’ve been saying for so long about being bike friendly, and building trails, complete streets. They’re starting to come on board with all this. I think the one big thing that everyone can point to is the new planning director, Maurice Cox, is just a major, major cyclist.

So trails and all that come under his purview?  What’s interesting is that in the past, the planning department would be more just zoning and redevelopment and that sort of thing. But he has a much more urban planning perspective and everything kind of connected. For example, they’re talking about redoing major roads. He told the Department of Public Works that any major roads project, he wants the Planning Department involved to make sure that it accommodates pedestrian movement and biking and fosters more development. Everyone on the mayor’s staff knows that he rides his bike to work every day.

(…) It’s not public yet, but it’s probably safe to say that we expect a lot more planning for a protected bike lane network for much of Detroit and we expect that planning to be occurring soon.

The Dequindre Cut extension, which will go up through Eastern Market all the way to Mack Avenue from Gratiot, looks like it’s taking shape nicely. What are you hearing about when that’s supposed to be completed and what’s still left to be done?  I got the update there this morning. The main construction is almost done. There’s some issues with bricks popping out of the wall that they’re fixing. But they still have not started getting the cameras and call boxes up and running.

Like security cameras, you mean?  Yeah, so the RiverFront Conservancy is thinking that may not get done until spring now.

Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Alliance.
Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Alliance.

The Dequindre Cut is part of the whole Inner Circle Greenway, a big pedestrian and bike trail loop in the inner city. How’s that coming along?  There’s some stuff I can’t publicly (talk about) at this point, but we expect the city to close on or acquire the property next year.

All of it?  Yeah.

How much of that greenway is actually in existence at this point?  All of it except for 8.3 miles. That’s what they’re going to be acquiring from Conrail.

We did not get our $10 million grant that we applied for. It would’ve built half of that 8.3 miles, so we’re looking for alternative money to get it done.

Earlier this year, you generated news when you pointed out the work that the Detroit Grand Prix was doing on Belle Isle, taking away sidewalks and other Complete Streets features. Has there been any resolution, or any work to fix that?  Basically, no. I was told that maybe there would be some funding available to do some trail work. I have not seen that yet.

That’s disappointing.  Yeah. Very disappointing. I can say that the Grand Prix race this year had a large number of lead passes, where vehicles are passing to get into the lead, which is something that had never happened before because the road was too narrow, which basically explains why they did what they did. The roads are wider now.

The last time I caught up with you, I was asking you for your thoughts about the Woodward Avenue Complete Streets plan, which is really exciting. Any new developments on that?  I’m not sure if I mentioned that the Woodward Avenue Action Association board endorsed it, and now they take it to all the communities along the route to get their approval.

How long do you think that whole process might take?  It’s difficult to say. I’m not clear yet how fast they’re going to move. They have not been ready to push on the trails yet. There are some organizational changes, I’m not sure they’re all public yet.

It’s a pretty ambitious plan.  It is, yeah. We’re still pushing real hard for the Detroit section, the 6-to-8 Mile, the cycle track down there. I did speak with Maurice Cox, the planning director, about that. He’s really supportive of that plan, his only concern is he needs to see how it connects in to the entire system, and so I’m going to be meeting with him to discuss that.

That 6-to-8 Mile section has always been envisioned as the first portion to be built, right?  Yeah, but the city of Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are really pushing to get painted bike lanes on their section as well. So it might all be part of one large grant application, to do both. It would be a really strong grant because you’re involving multiple communities, I’m just not clear on the timing whether it will be ready to go by April. That’s when the grants are due. I’ve got a feeling it won’t be ready in time.

A view of the Dequindre Cut, which is being extended from Gratiot Avenue to Mack Avenue.
A view of the Dequindre Cut, which is being extended from Gratiot Avenue to Mack Avenue.

You’ve been working on pedestrian-oriented, bike-oriented initiatives like this in Detroit for years now. How would you say things have changed during that time? Is this becoming a more bike-friendly region?  I think some cities are. I’m so impressed with what Detroit and Ferndale are doing, and other places are pretending. they’re not really committed to it. They’re putting out window dressing and making it look like they’re being progressive on biking and they’re just not.

There seems to be more of an interest here from bike riders themselves thought, right?  Oh yeah, there seem to be a lot more people riding bikes, for sure.

What do you make of all these recent stories, like the one headlined, “Motor City to Bike City”? Do you take a critical eye to them?  Oh, absolutely. I think the NBC one was pretty decent. I spoke with them ahead of time, and I said you’ve gotta make sure you show the diversity in Detroit bike culture, because oftentimes that’s not captured, for various reasons. I thought they did a pretty good job of showing that.

What else is going on? Anything else that people can look forward to happening in 2016?  The Cass Avenue bike lanes should go in by early spring or summer next year. That’s Cass Avenue bike lanes from Grand Boulevard to all the way down to the RiverWalk.

That’s great.  Yeah, that’s really exciting. It’ll have fix-it stations along the way, it’s going to have two big kiosks that’ll count in real time the number of bikes going by. Those will be some of the first in the Midwest.

What will that information be used for?  It does two things. One, it motivates people to ride more; when they see that, it’s kind of exciting. They’ll be taking selfies, I’m sure. But it also, I think, can open some eyes among people to say, ‘Wow, a lot of people are using this, so we can justify further investments.’

What I did this year is, we had some mobile bike counters. I went out and took bike counts on East Jefferson, before the protected bike lanes went in. And then I took them on Cass Avenue before the bike lanes went in. And so next summer we’re going to take measurements again to see how it’s changed. we’re hoping to see an increase.

A rendering of the protected bike lanes on East Jefferson, from Jefferson East Inc.
A rendering of the protected bike lanes on East Jefferson, from Jefferson East Inc.

Even the numbers I got on East Jefferson, approximately, just under 100 in a 24-hour period, which didn’t capture the people who were riding on the sidewalk, which is pretty substantial. So I would estimate we had probably close to 200 elope in a day, which is a pretty good number. We measured 200 people just going one direction on Cass Avenue in a day. So we’re probably getting closer to 500 people per day on Cass Avenue, which is just a huge number for Detroit.

Anything else?  There’s just a lot of small things happening and a lot of planning activities. It’s really great with Maurice there. Even looking at  the I-94 widening, I went on a bike ride with him and MDOT, and he’s just saying the same things we’ve been saying, but now it’s coming from the city, and it’s a little bit more. They can dismiss us, they have a harder time dismissing the city of Detroit.

Or even with the (bus) rapid transit. We’ve been pushing them to include bike lanes in all their drawings for Michigan Avenue and Gratiot, and haven’t gotten a lot of traction. And then they met with Maurice Cox and he goes, ‘Don’t bring me any more renderings until they show protected bike lanes.’

It’s amazing. I think Detroit has the opportunity, we’re really setting ourselves up to start looking at leapfrogging some of the cities that have been leaders in bike infrastructure in the past, and it’s super exciting. ♦

Creative Commons photos by Russ and Michigan Municipal League

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