Detroit: The Return of the Repressed (Bicycling Culture)

big_empty_downtown_intersection_8342.jpgDetroit’s once bustling streets are a bicyclist’s paradise now, wide open and empty.

Visiting the ghostly motor city these days is an eye-opening and surprisingly inspiring experience. The city has fallen from more than 2 million residents a generation ago to around 800,000 today. A great deal of the land area where homes and factories once filled the blocks are now expansive vacant lots, masquerading as greenways in this wet June, filled with grasses and wildflowers. Some of these vacant lots have been converted into urban farms, but the larger majority is simply empty, reverting to some version of nature. Wild pheasants skitter across the vacant lots while songbirds, from bright red cardinals to brilliant yellow finches, fill the trees and bushes with their cheerful sounds.

wild_pheasant_8384.jpgWild pheasant runs across empty lot in east Detroit.

Detroit, like everywhere in the U.S., was a big bicycling town during the 1890s. Lost to most of our memories now is the relationship between that bicycling boom in the late 19th century and the automobile industry that came to dominate personal transportation and 20th century industrial life.

In 1894 more than 250,000 bicycles were manufactured in the United States; 400,000 in 1895. In 1899, 312 bicycle factories, with capital worth $30 million and a production of 1.1 million machines, worked to satisfy enthusiasts. The bikes cost $100 plain and $125 fancy, a not inconsiderable sum of money at the time. But within 10 years the bicycling fade began to fade, replaced by newfangled motorized contraptions.

Many auto manufacturers got their start as bicycle makers, notably Dodge, whose namesake brothers produced bicycles until 1901 when they opened a machine shop in Detroit to make stove parts, and later auto parts. In 1910 they established The Dodge Brothers plant in Hamtramck, where they made engines and other parts for Ford and Olds. In 1913 they began making cars and by their deaths in 1920 their company was one of the largest in the industry.

henry_ford_w_bike_8264.jpgHenry Ford with a bicycle in the early 1890s.

Henry Ford got his start making bicycles too, and when he came out with the quadricycle he set off a craze in Detroit. It wasn’t until 1902 that he got his first motorized vehicle going but it was so fast that he was afraid to drive it himself.

lr_cycling_on_east_canfield_w_fields_8415.jpgLisaRuth cruising through the empty fields of eastern Detroit.

In Detroit for the US Social Forum (I’ll have a report posted shortly at my blog) we spent some happy hours bicycling around the wide open city. An early stop was The Hub, Detroit’s most vibrant community bike shop, where one of the guys got excited by our questions and immediately pulled out their only copy of an old 1896 bicycling map of Detroit.

cc_and_hub_guy_admiring_map_8263.jpgOgling the 1896 map.
cycle_map_8259.jpgThe full 1896 map of bike ways in Detroit, color coded.


cycle-map-road-type-key_1.jpgThe conditions for bicycling by color code.
cycle_map_downtown_section.jpgClose-up on Downtown area of Detroit.

After three days at the Social Forum, more and more bicycles piled up on every lockable fence and pole in front of the big downtown convention center Cobo Hall (I’m sure it had never experienced so many convention goers arriving by bike), we helped our hosts promote Critical Mass on Friday night.

bikes_at_cobo_8328.jpgBikes locked all over the front of Cobo Hall convention center in Detroit.


Detroit has had a small-ish Critical Mass going back some years, but this was its biggest ever, about 375 riders. A great route was planned and most followed, which took us downtown, along the riverfront, out into eastern Detroit, through the remarkable Heidelberg Project, and finally back into the center of the City. Here’s a gallery of shots.

cm_rolls_through_heidelberg_project_8537.jpgCritical Mass rolls through the Heidelberg Project in eastern Detroit.
mt_elliott_turn_8508.jpgIn eastern Detroit.

passing_cobo_hall_8463.jpgRollling past Cobo Hall in downtown.
inbound_gratiot_8559.jpgThe arterial routes in and out of town are incredibly wide. This is Gratiot inbound.
north_on_cass_8580.jpgRolling back out of downtown towards the end of the ride.

One of the best parts of this Detroit Critical Mass was the enthusiastic reception by locals all along the way:

cheering_bk_workers_8560.jpgEnthusiastic fast food workers take an unauthorized break to cheer us on.
cheering_drinker_8493.jpgA front porch bbq greeted us with hoots and hollers.
cheering_guys_in_front_of_bar_and_grill_8567.jpgDowntown bar patrons came out to cheer too.
kids_on_fence_8497.jpgThese kids were climbing the fence with excitement.
little_girl_waving_8556.jpgPassersby greeted us everywhere.

Detroit is a city reinventing itself. After a generation of abandonment by business and capital, the residents who have stayed are fully engaged in a process of rethinking what their city should look like, who should have the power to make decisions about it, what kinds of work should be done, and so on. The bicycle is making a comeback too, and though it’s still at the beginning of a regenerative process, the roots are well implanted and it’s very exciting to see what develops in the years to come.

kool_kid_8470.jpgThe next generation of Detroit bicyclists, already riding in Critical Mass!

  • “Detroit’s once bustling streets are a bicyclist’s paradise now, wide open and empty.”

    This is how I feel about biking in Oakland. On streets like Franklin and Webster we can often have two whole lanes to ourselves (with two to spare for the odd car or two!)

    Cool article.

    – J

  • Io

    What a great article. I grew up in Detroit and live in San Francisco now. I think it’s awesome that Detroit has Critical Mass again. The photos of the excited kids were a nice change from the bleak pictures I’ve seen of Detroit lately. These days all I read about are abandoned buildings and Kwame.

  • Sean H

    Detroit is ripe for a scraper craze.

  • sftigersfan

    Great stuff!
    Detroit has a great new bike path, too, the Dequindre Cut:

  • Perhaps Detroit gives us an insight into life after oil…

  • Alex

    Anybody know what font was used on the Critical Mass poster?

  • Thank you for this article. It’s really nice to see something hopeful from Detroit. Loved the 1896 bicycle map. Pretty impressive bicycle infrastructure!

  • Great article and photos. I’m glad to read you enjoyed biking in Detroit. It really is an urban paradise for cycling.

    One minor correction: Henry Ford’s first car — the Quadricycle — ran on Detroit streets in 1896, the same year as that bicycle map. He was not the first car driver in Detroit. That title belongs to Charles Bradley King who beat Ford by a few months. Ford did ride his bicycle behind King’s, becoming the first Detroit bicyclist to share the road with a car.

  • friscolex

    OK, bikes + positive news from Motor City + vintage cartography + enthusiastic bike-watchers = WIN WIN WIN! Not to mention the bonus shot of the ever-fabulous LisaRuth. (Hi, LisaRuth, it’s Alexis!)

    @Alex Poke around a typography blog, or maybe swissmiss. I feel like I’ve seen it on her site, or you could ask her…

  • Abe

    The font looks like Gill Sans (if not, try “what the font” over at

  • Erin

    It is indeed Gill Sans.


    Loved the Critical Mass article!! Was born and raised in Detroit. My son lives and rides his bike in Detroit, and often sends pictures similar to the ones in this article. Thanks for portraying the GOOD side of a soon to be again…GREAT CITY…DETROIT!!!!!!!!!11

  • J. Beaman

    Were they cheering you on or saying, “Whoa! Look at those crazy white people!”

  • Good stuff!

    I really enjoyed the historical background you provided. I see you’ve also discovered what many of us Detroit cyclists have know for years, Detroit is a great cycling city with wide streets and not much traffic.

  • LisaRuth Elliott

    Seeing Detroit by bicycle was not only a treat during Critical Mass, but also on our daily rides from Woodbridge to downtown and our explorations of community gardens and the severely deteriorating infrastructure of eastern Detroit. We were always greeted by smiles and waves from local cyclists who told us again and again how strange it was to not recognize everyone on a bike, but who were also energized by all of the new cyclists on the road. And it’s always inspiring to see how a sudden arrival of a group of hundreds of cyclists on the streets will animate and excite those we pass. Being on a bike in Detroit was definitely full of moments transcending conceptions of race dividing communities for the interactions it allowed.
    (hi alexis!)

  • mike white

    glad to see y’all loved the D. i was the lucky dad towing the ‘next-gen’ c-masser and had another great time. way more fun than riding with 12 people on a cold february friday. enjoyed meeting folks from brooklyn to SF(wassup LisaRuth?) and really enjoyed hearing good things said about my beloved city. now if only the suburbanites would get it.

    the motor city is being taken back…

    …and this revolution will not be motorized.

  • Linda Elliott

    Great article! Enjoyed reading about Detroit and seeing all of your wonderful photos. Especially liked seeing the one of Lisa Ruth 🙂

  • Tony T.

    Good article. A few corrections from someone who gave five years to the city, most of those involving cycling. The Critical Mass ride in Detroit was around for quite a few years, but it kind of died out. Someone picked up the torch about a few years back and it’s pretty good.

    There have also been some great Alley Cat races in the past, but those kind of fizzled out a bit. At their height, they drew about 200+ cyclists, and were a lot of fun.

    However, I will attest that this is a grossly over-glorified article.

    Sure, when you’re rolling 100 deep locals are supportive. However, I’ve been called quite a few names and had things throw at me while road riding solo at places like Belle Isle. This is not uncommon either.

    Riding within the city itself is pretty fun, but it can be quite dangerous. The speedlimits are low, and the roads are indeed fairly wide and empty. However, cross the city limits into the suburbs, which you almost inevitably have to do for work, food, etc, and it gets even more dangerous real quick.

    Detroit is by NO means a cyclists paradise, but there are those working tirelessly to make it so. Keep writing positive stories and hopefully the characteristics you describe will become a permanent part of life in the city. However, let’s not kid ourselves. I love Detroit for what it is, and it is hardly perfect.

    Cheers all.

  • Theodore

    It is true, Detroit is half the city it used to be, but it is still one of the most populated cities in the US. PEOPLE STILL LIVE HERE AND WE THRIVE.

  • Lizzy B

    Bike culture in Detroit isn’t just the critical mass either (which is mostly people from out of town)

    Check out this article on the East Side Riders:

  • Brendan OhUiginn

    Sorry, but unfortunately Detroit is no longer one of the largest cities in the US. It doesn’t even rank in the top ten. As of 2012 Detroit is ranked 18th in the US. It is, it seems, quite the cycling haven though.


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