Detroit is a city with many needs. So why are bikes such a priority?

bike lane

Bicycle infrastructure on Detroit roadways varies from street to street. This marking of a cyclist with two chevrons is known as a “sharrow.” As the sign says, it means, “share the road.” (Bridge photos by Nancy Derringer) SLIDESHOW: Click or swipe to see how the city is being transformed to accommodate cyclists >>

bike lane

This dedicated lane is for bikes only. Motorists and pedestrians should stay out.

bike lane

A curbside bike lane with a striped buffer and parking spaces on the other side means cars should park off the curb and allow cyclists the inner lane. This is safer for cyclists than one that sits on the other side.

incorrect bike lane

These drivers on Livernois are doing it wrong, and risk tickets for obstructing the bike lane.

green paint

Green paint indicates a bike lane, but the paint is expensive and most lanes only have it in spots. Here, it indicates to motorists that they might be turning across a bike lane.

jeff chalmers bike lane

This short stretch of Jefferson in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood near the Grosse Pointes is the prototype for a planned extension of the lane down Jefferson nearly into downtown – a curbside lane with flexible plastic posts to discourage motorists veering into it.

Two Detroits: Motor City and Bike City

Infrastructure for bicyclists is increasing rapidly in Detroit, but it’s typically in more affluent areas of the city. Here’s a look at the location of bike lanes – and MoGo bike sharing stations – overlaid with demographic information. Click to find out income of areas with the lanes and bike sharing stations.

Source: U.S. Census, Data Driven Detroit, MoGo

Toyia Watts is the fourth generation of her family to live in her east-side Detroit house on Baldwin Street. Retired from General Motors, she serves on her block club and does what she can to keep the neighborhood, Charlevoix VIllage, in shape. Not that it’s an easy task.

Many neighbors are “burned out” on neighborhood service, she said. The area is generally lower income but “decent” and “could use a little help,” Watts said. It would be nice to have better public transit and a place where children could use computers with wifi and maybe learn robotics, she said.

When she drives around the neighborhood, Watts sees one improvement coming on strong.

Bike lanes.

Kercheval Avenue, nearby, has been striped with lanes that are reserved for cyclists. East Jefferson is slated to get them in the coming months, as is Grand River on the west side. All over the city, infrastructure for cyclists is on a fast track, with signage, paint and welcoming accommodations in what is still called the Motor City.

Watts isn’t resentful so much as she is bewildered. Why are cyclists getting more attention from the city than children who need computer time?

“We’re out here with the block clubs and organizations, trying to keep things clean,” Watts said. But “when we ask for what we need in our community, we can’t get it.”

Recent years have been very good to cyclists in Detroit. Besides the dedicated lanes on the city’s wide main arteries, a new bike-share service opened Memorial Day weekend, mainly serving the central-city neighborhoods adjacent to downtown and Midtown. All over the city, main arteries are being put on “road diets,” reducing lanes for motorists and adding lanes for cyclists.

But it’s not exactly smooth pedaling in the chronically poor city, where the lanes have become a source of tension among some neighbors who question City Hall’s priorities.

Detroit leaders say the lanes are designed to make streets safer in a city that federal report this year said had the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation. The report from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration showed Detroit had 46 pedestrian fatalities in 2015.

“(Detroit is) a dangerous city to bike or walk in. We have an obligation to improve that,” said Janet Attarian, deputy director of planning and development for the city of Detroit.

The city’s multi-lane thoroughfares, built to handle traffic in a far more populous city, offer a perfect canvas to carry out a relatively new urban ideal of “complete streets,” i.e., streets that are designed and built not just for cars and motorists, but cyclists, pedestrians and public transit riders. The costs of the lanes, which can run about $300,000 for 2.5 miles, are typically split between the city and Michigan Department of Transportation if they’re on a state road.

Cycling advocates say a more progressive transportation policy will help neighborhoods by making its roads safer. It will “calm” traffic (which is, no getting around it, a synonym for slowing it down) and make residential areas more attractive to those who don’t necessarily want to use a car to get around.

Feelings weren’t exactly calm, however, at a recent community meeting about proposed bike lanes on Grand River between Interstate 94 and Cass Avenue.

Cyclists complained about allowances for street parking that pushed them into shared lanes with cars, which they said were unsafe. Business owners worried about losing parking. State officials warned of increasing traffic with four major-league sports teams all playing in the central city and pushing crowds out onto newly narrowed boulevards.

Arinett Ross, a year-round cyclist and Detroit resident, counseled patience with an incremental approach.

“This is not going to be an overnight thing,” he said of motorist-cyclist relations. “But (bike lanes will) cut down on accidents.”

Can we all get along?

Tensions about bike lanes aren’t unique to Detroit. In New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C., they’ve prompted accusations of gentrification, along with dog parks and other new urban accommodations.

In Chicago and Portland, researchers at McGill University and the University of Quebec in Montreal concluded there was a “bias towards increased cycling infrastructure in areas of privilege.”

A Bridge Magazine analysis of the city’s current bike lanes (see map) shows they are more prevalent in neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Midtown, while they’re less common in heavily populated residential areas such as the northwest and northeast sides.

Steve Hood, a longtime political consultant in Detroit, bluntly sums up the complaints of many residents about bike lanes: “Everyone I know hates them.”

Hood and others said they fear for their safety parking near the lanes. Livernois Avenue in northwest Detroit was recently dieted down to two lanes in each direction, with curbside reserved for bikes and cars directed to park well off the curb. That can leave motorists feeling as though they left their vehicle in the middle of the street.

“I think there’s going to be an accident here,” said Trevell Randolph, 42, who manages the Lavish Car Wash & Detail Center on Livernois. “I’ve seen some near misses.”

trevell randolph

Trevell Randolph prefers his Harley-Davidson Street Glide to a bicycle. New protected bike lanes outside the car wash he runs are an accident waiting to happen, he said.

That opinion is shared by Lee Yancy, who works at his family’s business on Livernois. He wouldn’t mind bike lanes, but he wants them on the other side of the parking lane.

“Drivers are confused,” Yancey said. “When you push them that far out, you always feel like the traffic is going to hit you as you’re opening your door.”

City planners consider the design the safest for roads with higher travel speeds, like Livernois, because it shields vulnerable cyclists from traffic.

But if anyone has told Detroit motorists that, Yancy and Randolph aren’t among them. To them, years of driving experience is being upended to accommodate a mode of conveyance they don’t even see all that often.  

It may take time, but drivers will get used to the changes, predicted Todd Scott, executive director of Detroit Greenways, a nonprofit group that promotes cycling and pedestrian safety.

Once motorists notice how others are correctly parking around bike lanes, “most people will fall in line,” he said.

Training wheels

Advocates say they want to encourage Detroiters in all neighborhoods to use the new bike lanes. A 2014 report by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments on nonmotorized travel found over 4,000 miles of bike lanes, paths, shared lanes, paved shoulders and other cycling-usable pavement in the region. In Detroit alone, Janet Attarian of the city Planning and Development Department puts bike-lane mileage at over 250. The percentage of bicycle commuters is small relative to those who drive or use public transit – under 1 percent – but growing, especially among younger people.


A MoGo bike-share rack is nearly empty on a recent summer evening on the Riverwalk downtown.

MoGo, the city’s new bike-share network, has a $5 long-term membership level for any individual receiving state assistance, and 15 percent of monthly or seasonal passes sold have been to those on assistance, said Lisa Nuszkowski, executive director of the MoGo program, part of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

However, the network’s stations, where bikes are rented and returned, don’t reach far into the city’s neighborhoods and are mainly confined to the central business district. Nuszkowski attributed this to the newness of the program –  it opened in May –  and the intent of the service.

“(MoGo bikes) aren’t really meant for commuting, but for shorter, quicker trips,” she said, with riders including office workers heading out for lunch, sightseers or commuters grabbing a bike for the last few blocks between a bus stop and a final destination.

Nuszkowski stressed that the first year of the program will be to see how and when Detroiters use the service, to guide future expansion, and to encourage people just to try getting around in a different way.

While white riders are visible in the city’s core, Detroit supports many clubs of mainly African-American cyclists who stage regular group rides as social events, and join the high-profile weekly Slow Roll as well, said Dywayne Neeley, a 48-year-old Detroit resident and roofer. Fifteen years ago, he weighed 260 pounds and was looking at a lifetime of insulin shots for diabetes. He and some friends and family started biking together, in a club that came to be called the East Side Riders.

Now at a stable 195 pounds, he and the Riders are still rolling, in a slow-ride style very different from the speeding pelotons of Spandex-clad cyclists often seen in the suburbs. Their bikes are works of art, built from the frame up to be distinctive and personal, decked out with elaborate lights and even music.


Dywayne Neeley lost 65 pounds going on group rides with friends and family. He shows off his custom-fabricated “card bike.”

Neeley is all for the new lanes. He wants more people like him, African-American longtime residents of the city, out and about on two wheels.

“It helps us,” he said. “We say, ‘If you ain’t got a bike, you ain’t got a life.’ You’re missing out.”

Access for all

Jeffrey Nolish recently completed an 18-month term as a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, part of a leadership program for the city administered by Wayne State University, and worked in the city’s Planning and Development Department on bike infrastructure. He said the issue of bike lanes, wherever they are in the city, is a matter of “mobility justice” for a city that has a high rate of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in crashes with motorists.

He concedes that new infrastructure for cyclists can look like a favor granted to newer, more affluent residents.

“A lot of the city’s nightlife is in the central business district, and there you can see a lot of white people on bikes, and think it’s only for white people,” Nolish said.

But most people who ride in the city are African American, he said, pointing to crash data that shows two age ranges most often involved in bike-car collisions – younger teen boys and men in their 40s. In a city that’s more than 80 percent black, “it’s reasonable to conclude most of these are African American,” he said.

Bike lanes will make riding less hazardous for those groups, he said, and most are far from the city’s center. Narrower arteries mean fewer lanes for pedestrians to cross. With protected lanes, cyclists have less worry about colliding with cars. And with traffic generally moving through fewer lanes, reckless motorists who weave in and out of traffic are discouraged from doing so.

“We want (cycling) to be a normal form of transport, to be enjoyable and healthy, green transportation,” Nolish said.

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William C. Plumpe
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:06am

I no longer live in Detroit but at one time not too long ago I lived near Belle Isle and
often hung out on the island. I found most of the bikers to be respectful but some
who appeared to be very snooty and uppity probably racers acted like they owned
the road and didn't have to follow the rules because they were so "green" or so "cool".
I don't want to hurt anybody but if you're on a bike and I'm in a car and you do something stupid and don't follow the rules and end up under my wheels your fault not mine and you being stupid not me. Again I don't want to hurt anybody but if you don't follow the rules and as a result get hurt I say serves you right. Follow the rules and ride more carefully and don't take stupid chances and you and I will be a whole lot safer.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:07am

Thanks, Nancy, for writing this article. I got the impression from this story that motorists were being blamed for the deaths of pedestrians. It would be interesting to know how many of these fatal accidents were actually the fault of those behind the wheel.

John Nash
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:23am

There needs to be open discussion before municipal action. Understanding before emotional judgements are made and then fostered. Bike lanes are good and relatively inexpensive. How about demolish a house, build a pocket park. Help residents learn the health benefits of biking. Use the polices many, many stolen bike inventory and donate those bike to less fortunate kids - even better still have volunteers help the kids personalize and fix up the bikes that are being donated to them. Traverse City has a free bike share program with brightly painted bikes that anyone can use. Ask instead of just do. Have city officials go to local neighborhoods and talk to the people about how they think the city should be best spending their funds.

Charles Vamos jr
Sat, 08/26/2017 - 1:22pm

Please tell me how taking a whole 8 foot lane just for bicycles is relatively inexpensive? A busy street like Livernois lost a whole lane to this garbage.

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:27am

Detroit is not alone. Communities all over Michigan, encouraged by the Michigan Municipal League, are devoting more resources to bikes than to real infrastructure or (God forbid!) addressing their unfunded pension liabilities. It is easier to respond to the yuppies in spandex than to tell the truth abut limited resources.

John Q
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 11:25am

I'm sure you can show the numbers to back up your claim that communities are "devoting more resources to bikes than to real infrastructure". I would say that claim is false in about 99.5% of all Michigan communities. I also doubt that most of the bicyclists in those communities are " yuppies in spandex". But why talk about things factually when you can just make it up.

Sun, 12/17/2017 - 11:08am

Roads are literally crumbling as they're being repainted with bike lanes. Are you seriously trying to argue that Michigan dis not have an infrastructure problem?

John Q
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:44am

How many tired cliches could Ms. Derringer pack into one article? The "speeding pelotons of Spandex-clad cyclists often seen in the suburbs"? Most people I see riding in the suburbs aren't speeding, aren't wearing spandex and aren't riding in a peloton or anything resembling it. They are people who ride to get from point A to point B or for exercise or to do something fun with their kids and/or spouse. The same is true for bicyclists in the city and many riders in Detroit use them to reach school and work. Even though the majority of riders in Detroit are African-American, how is it that Ms. Derringer only managed to find one African-American bicyclist to talk to for this article? Perhaps the headline was already written and Ms. Derringer wanted to make sure the narrative fit it, cliches and all.

John S.
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 10:08am

Do schools and/or police departments still hold classes in bicycle/pedestrian safety? I still see kids riding bikes in twilight or even at night without reflectors. They're not wearing helmets and, of course, they're riding in packs. I see pedestrians in dark clothing at night walking along the side of the road or crossing intersections where there's no lighting. Many are using their cell phones. Why not wear a reflective ankle or wrist band or put reflective tape on the back of the cell phone? Bicycle lanes may do little to address the causes of car, bicycle, and pedestrian collisions.

Justin Thompson
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 11:00am

The funds could be better spent on Syrian refugees like Hillary wanted to bring over.

Also the money could be spent on a shuttle service for aged or low income Muslims so they can attend their religious services.

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 11:30am

I am waiting for when there are autonomous there wheeler bikes for us half blind seniors who need to do their grocery shopping and go to church or the doctor.

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 9:23am

Transportation for seniors who can't walk to bus stations is a real issue. Even getting to nearby grocery stores, churches, and doctors, not to mention friends and relatives, is difficult or impossible. Three wheel bikes at slow speeds is a possible solution for some. I know that there are many of us, and isolation and lack of exercise could be addressed as well. Here's to creative bike thinking!

James Donohue
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 1:15pm

99% of motorists pass bicycles with 2 or 3 meters of clearance . It's the *other* one percent causing all the ruckus. If the penalty was increased for grazing the cyclists, or if a one-meter rule was implemented, drivers might be more cautious.
But let's keep in mind, these concrete barriers are to protect women and children , not just athletic men in their 20's .
Helmets are a good idea, but lights at night are more necessary.
Motorists need to figure out when a bicycle is only going to catch up with the car at the next red light, and decide NOT to pass.
Again, somebody (that will be me) needs to mention it's time to get out of your car and get a bike. You might want to google "electric motor assist" if you need help on the hills , or "veltop bike canopy" if you need to ride in the rain.
I hope you get your light-rail system in order, and give up driving altogether , or limit your driving to once or twice a week. Have goods delivered to your house by Amazon or FedEx...
Again, 99% of drivers are fairly decent . Try riding a Bicycle (or maybe some cyclists have made videos for you to watch...) , you'll soon see, 99% of drivers don't need a concrete barrier to keep the car from crossing the white line , it's the other one percent.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 1:29pm

I've seen people riding around the Eastside at night with enough lights on their bike to be seen from outer space. So riding around at night shouldn't be a problem.

What WILL be a problem is presuming that people driving around at night will even care that there is someone riding a bike on the street, no matter what markings they paint in the street (which won't be visible).

Looking at some of the pictures above, I noticed that there are more than a few sidewalks included in them. Why the rush to put more bikes on the street with cars, when you have a perfectly good sidewalk that isn't being used at all?

John Q
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 3:49pm

You don't ride a bicycle do you Kevin? Otherwise, you wouldn't even need to ask the last question.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 4:05am

I've been riding pretty much my whole life on road and off.

And one of the lessons that was drilled into me from the beginning was to stay off the road when there is a sidewalk nearby.

Really, it's not a difficult concept to grasp.

John Q
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 10:12am

Sidewalks are the worst place for bikes to be. It creates conflicts with pedestrians and drivers aren't expecting to see bicyclists on the sidewalks. No one recommends it except for children.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 12:24pm

Not only am I'm not seeing very many (if any) pedestrians in the images Ms. Derringer posted above, but I rarely see them when I'm driving around town.
Especially away from the Downtown Area.

If you strongly feel the need to get physically extracted from under a 3k# vehicle because you wanted to ride in the street in Detroit, then by all means, be my guest.

It's not something that I would recommend for very obvious safety reasons.

John Q
Sat, 08/26/2017 - 5:19pm

Most of the streets in Detroit have way more capacity than cars.

Charles Vamos jr
Sat, 08/26/2017 - 1:25pm

Lmao, and bicycling on roads doesn't cause conflicts between bicycles and 3000+ pound vehicles?

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 8:47am

Sidewalks aren't safe to ride on in an urban environment.

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 7:02pm

Next time, if you want to do journalism about prioritizing city expenditures, consider a piece about all of the corporate welfare associated with the arena project (i.e. BIG MONEY) rather than comparatively small potatoes of bike lane spending. Though if you do that, it would probably be harder to write since you can't resort to lazy cliches about bicycling.

EM Parmelee
Thu, 08/24/2017 - 9:28pm

1) get the parked cars off the road and into structures or behind businesses.

2) get the bikes onto lanes like the Dequindre cut, river walk and in neighborhood's.

3) put the main arteries on diets for public transit dedicated lines which can accodmodate bikes.

The city

David dorsette
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 12:33am

The problem is most of Detroit don't know how to drive in these bike lane the way they configured. Why would anybody put them on a street like livernois . It is a two lane street and the riders think they own it and to eliminate one lane on livernois is sheer stupidity.this can only be done in small city's lets look at ferndale you have a bike lane in the center of nine mile so are the needed no keep them in your neighborhoods not on any major street in the city of detroit

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 2:34am

This is the most obnoxious article I've ever read on this site.

Car insurance in Detroit is $5,000/year on avg. This in a city with extreme poverty where it may take 20-30% of your income to own a car that gets you to your job if you're not well-off.

And you want to say this is some stupid upperclass fancy..? Oh my lord.

Larry Peplin
Fri, 08/25/2017 - 9:15am

I have to sheepishly admit that I am not a fan of sacrificing traffic lanes for bike traffic that simply isn't there yet. I travel Kercheval a lot, sometimes 3-4 time per week, between the Jeep plant and East Grand Boulevard. It's my best route for many purposes and destinations. The addition of the bike lanes on that street took away any possibility of getting around the many car hauler trucks that stream out of the FCA plant. I can't say that I have EVER seen a bicyclist in that stretch, nor would I expect one to ride in the designated lane, six feet out from the almost-always empty parking lane at the curbs. Who would do that? Many of those blocks are empty of any activity at all, so there is usually little or no reason for anyone to need to park a car on the street.
On the other hand, I think the curbside bike lanes in the Jeff-Chalmers stretch are brilliantly done. When I'm on a bike, I want to be as far away from passing car traffic as possible, and that design works. Driving my car, I don't notice the loss of lanes, either. Go figure.
Bottom line? I think every street's usage characteristics are different, and a one-design-fits-all approach is not conducive to smart traffic control. Dropping the standard bike lane design onto that stretch of Kercheval is just plain dumb.

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 12:19pm

> I have to sheepishly admit that I am not a fan of sacrificing traffic lanes for bike traffic that simply isn't there yet.

Sounds like we should get rid of the parking lane, then.

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 4:59pm

I ride all the time but only on dedicated bike trails. I don't want to be anywhere near an inattentive driver who is probably texting on the phone and has zero knowledge of how to interact with bikes. If we collide he is not hurt and I am dead.

Sat, 08/26/2017 - 11:35am

As a kid from Wyandotte, we would ride our bikes all over the area. We just pretty much knew that the cars and trains were bigger than us.

Charles Vamos jr
Sat, 08/26/2017 - 1:20pm

I had to drive a few times down Livernois while they were redoing it for the bike path. It is the most asinine setup I have ever seen. Why do cars have to park a whole lane away from the curb? Also, where is the money coming from to redo the roads like this? Is it from the new gas tax that bicyclists do not pay into? Sure they may have a vehicle, but if they ride their bikes enough they aren't putting in enough to have a whole lane dedicated to bicycles. I do believe in the future bicycles will have to registered and pay a yearly fee like cars are.

J Hendricks
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 7:47am

"We want (cycling) to be a normal form of transport, to be enjoyable and healthy, green transportation,” Nolish said.

That pretty much sums it up. The progressive elitists have determined that bikes are good and cars are bad. So suck it up even if no one is using the lanes except for a few advocates that know better than you.

Mark W.
Mon, 11/27/2017 - 6:06pm

Bike lanes anywhere in Michigan are a waste of money. The roads are so bad they are dangerous to ride the bikes period, let alone the fact that this is Michigan where we have snow and ice for up 6 months of the year. Putting in bike lanes does nothing to slow traffic or make it safer for pedestrians to cross the wide roads. The only thing that will make it safer is people crossing in crosswalks and paying attention to the crosswalk lights. The crowds downtown make vehicle traffic very difficult and frustrating because of people walking in the streets, walking in front of cars, nit paying attention to the walking lights, etc. A person on a bicycle trying to ride in the same situations is taking his life in his hands due to the terrible roads, public disinterest in cutting vehicle whether it be cars of bicycles or motorcycles slack. If you really want to encourage better traffic flow, make lanes for motorcycles and mopeds that are free of huge potholes. Bicycles could use the same lanes and be much safer and the percentage of people using the lanes would see a 10 fold increase. Wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on bicycle lanes that are not used is nothing but the left using our tax dollars to increase automobile traffic and congestion as a way to justify mass transit. The City closing streets throwing up parks and "green areas" without following the law is standard operating practice for the left. Break the law ignore the law and then try to justify the actions by claiming the law is wrong or the end justifies the means. The State of Michigan is going through very rough and trying times as its roads are in bad shape and the cities are wasting money on purpose to further a liberal agenda.