Saturday, May 3, 2014

Starting today, I will bike everyday

View east on the Detroit River (from a bike!)
I went out on my 'home bike' today, not my first ride of the season (I have been out on my campus cruiser, and out around Detroit, as well), but a most wonderful ride all the same. Probably 'most wonderful' because I set out without any agenda, objective, or 'list of things to do'. I just started riding: first up to and around Eastern Market (late Saturday afternoon calm, with stores just closing, farmers and vendors loading their trucks), then down the Dequindre Cut to the Riverfront. The sun dodged in and out from behind incredible clouds; the wind picked up; other bikers greeted me: a mother whose son sped ahead of her ("he is just learning!"); a large biking group; a woman walking ("I just got back from a ride!"). Under the weight of the seemingly endless polar vortex, the demands of an intense semester, injuries and slow recovery, a spring season that has yet to commit - I had forgotten the simple joy of a bike ride. I am resolved: I will do my best to bike everyday from this day on!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A shadow of my non-motorized self

Cold Roll Detroit 2013, photo by Randy Repicky
Yesterday, I missed the Cold Roll ride sponsored by Detroit Bike City, which a good friend and dozens of other brave bikers completed in 17 degree weather!  This made me realize how long it has been since I had posted, and how separated I have become from my bike and my summer long commitment to a non-motorized life.  As soon as I returned from Torino, Italy in September, I was quickly seduced back into the tyranny of my automobile, justifying it as a necessity to meet the demands of my teaching, research and service responsibilities on campus (including cargo lugging).  I did share my 5x8 project blog with all of my students, as a means of introducing myself and my commitment to a more sustainable city and region. And, in other ways, I have continued to promote the values and goals of the 5x8 project over the fall semester: I commuted to campus with a colleague two days a week, made conference and field trips to Torino, Boston, and Toronto using only mass transit, and raised awareness by continuing to develop our campus bicycle program - Blue Devil Revolution (topic of another post) including Tour de Troit and Homecoming events. But now, as 'finals' begin and the fall semester comes to an end, I am reflecting on how I might integrate non-motorized movement into my life, year round.  Certainly, Detroit's weather and lack of a robust mass transit system make that difficult, but others do it!  Perhaps there will be some 'cold rolling' in my future!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

TO Bike in Torino!

Have you been to Italy? If not, drop everything and go right now! Just pick a city, any city! I was fortunate to spend Labor Day week in Torino with four students (a fitting end to my car-free summer!). Italian cities - especially their historic cores - are excellent examples of the "5x8" principle. We walked (and walked!), rode the bus metro system, and I was fortunate enough to have access to TO Bike - Torino's excellent bike share system. Just tap your card on the sensor and go! Much easier than Boston and London (2 other urban bike share systems that I have experienced).

Of course, the experience is about more than just overall scale - it is street width, massing, height, detail at an urban scale, etc.  And a deeply ingrained culture of movement...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Week 12: Time

It is generally more enjoyable and efficient to move through the city on foot, bike or mass transit. If we accept that daily physical movement is a desirable part of the human condition, then modes with a slower pace - where one can engage the city in a very different manner, though a full sensory experience - should be the most desirable (giving you opportunity to "look up", like this photo - look at that building against the bright blue morning sky! and, who knew that building had such a detailed facade? etc.). Walking is great, especially for shorter distance destinations like food shopping (which then becomes a weight bearing exercise!). Biking is particularly enjoyable. It is faster (and more empowering) than walking, and allows more creative (!) and flexible use of the public right-of-way, but it also allows you to connect with your surroundings, to see the expressions of and even speak with the people you pass. The bus is great too - I love being driven, and the freedom to read, text or just watch the scenery and relax for awhile. I feel like I am in Milano or Boston or all other cities with robust mass transportation choices. I have been back over 10 years, but I have certainly seen and experienced things in the city this summer that I never noticed before! The few times over the summer that I have ridden in (or more recently, driven) a car, I have been stuck by the sterility of the experience. Hermetically sealed in my little steel and glass cocoon, racing along at ridiculously high speeds, no real sense of the ground or micro climate or natural or built environment or other human beings surrounding me. Not to mention the massive scale and monotonous texture of highways. This last week, on my way back from a last "get away" up north, I was driving west on I-696, stressed by the traffic and that I might not make my "Welcome Back" meeting on campus. At one point I was so overwhelmed by my panoramic view (a wall of traffic traveling eastbound) that I almost slammed on my breaks. How did we come to accept this as a desirable state of being - either for ourselves or our cities/regions?

Time. More than object desire and cargo capacity, I think time is what motivates our obsession with possessing our own vehicle. Precious time - a "non renewal" resource - and our ability to have some command over time) is what separates the wealthy from the not so wealthy and the impoverished. Command of one's time translates into self determination to a great extent (unless one spends hours a day stuck in that traffic on I-696!). Of course, this evaluation does not take into account all the other collective impacts - to environment, to public health, to urban form - and the collective resources devoted to mitigating those impacts.

Time has been on my mind as I contemplate how I will (can?) continue my "experiment" as my fall semester begins and teaching and other responsibilities will require me to be on campus at least 4 days a week.  While I could keep biking and taking the bus, will time force me back into my former "motorized" lifestyle? Might I make it work with my new Zip Car membership (oh, forgot to tell you - thanks to Matt Rolling at Rock Financial, I am a member! My first Zip Car experience will be the topic of a future post!)? Commuting two days a week with a colleague who lives nearby? Hmmm....just how much resolve, energy, and time do I have to devote to this?  The other day I once again rode the 23 Hamilton to Northland, then biked to campus. About 1 hour 45 minutes total for the trip up (bike from home to Rosa Parks (about 15 mins), bus to Northland (about 1 hour), bike to campus (about 30 mins). Later that day, my friends sent a text that happy hour was about to commence on the Campus Martius beach. Not for me - no fast way to make it back downtown. I stared at the sunny clear blue sky out my dungeon faculty office window and felt sorry for myself, then reminded myself of my own self imposed goals! When I finally did leave campus and biked down 10 mile to Southfield and onto Northland (always a busy scene, and a culture unto itself, above), I had missed the 23 Hamilton and had to take the 16 Dexter (much more of a "local" bus, making stops every few blocks). It took me almost 2 hours just to travel from Northland to downtown (complete with standing room only most of the way, no a.c., shouting fights, and a seatmate at one point - let's call him D.H. - who was quite bright and verbal, wanted to pursue college, but confessed he had spent 6 years in prison). Note that driving home from campus is 30 minutes, max. I thought of my friends and their cocktails on the beach. After biking home in the dark, I arrived exhausted, annoyed, questioning the value of my experiment (I had imagined generating much more dialogue through this blog!). Then I thought of D.H. He, and all my fellow bus riders, which helped remind me that I have a choice while many do not.  If we are going to expand mass transportation options in our city and region, those of us with choice need to inspire those in power, to make equitable, beautiful and sustainable decisions and investments which serve all citizens! I hope that the time I have devoted to the 5x8 Project this summer has given me the experience and standing to become a better advocate for that future.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Week 11: Reactions

I have shared my summer "experiment" with many friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues, though I have yet to aggressively promote my blog on the web (I would like to do that, ideas welcome!). So, in absence of comments on my posts, I have relied on the (generally) positive reaction I have received when I tell people what I am doing. However, I am beginning to think that my closest friends are tiring of it!
Of all the "needs" for a car that I identified in my initial Analysis (see earlier post) I have experienced the most challenges around meeting the needs of my social life. Over the summer, I have been able to get to lots of great summer events Downtown, in Corktown and Midtown and even out to Belle Isle, Maheras Gentry Park and the "Villages". In many cases, it has been to my advantage to be on a bike, avoiding the traffic jams and parking challenges which my friends in cars face. But my relatives live in the suburbs (granted, a bus and bike ride away), and many of my friends live on the far Eastside, so I have seen them less this summer. I had naively hoped that I could get them to come to me and/or focus my social life within my own neighborhood (neither strategy exactly worked out!) . While getting to the far east or west side of the city on a bike is no issue, it is the return ride home - in the dark and after an evening of imbibing (!) that becomes a challenge. Often, I will cut my evenings short and head home around sunset, or simply try not to overindulge so when I ride home at midnight I have all my faculties (when drivers often do not!).

On a number of occasions, my friends who know that I am on a bike or on foot will offer me rides late at night (in some cases loading my bike into their trunk!). This is very kind and I know is out of genuine concern for my safety, which I, of course, appreciate (and gives me some pause about my own insistence on remaining car free). But just yesterday, after the Detroit Bikes bike launch party at the Old Miami (great event - congrats to Zak and the whole crew!), my friends and I were due at a birthday party in Woodbridge Estates. One of my very kind friends offered that I could leave my bike at the bar and ride over with them (and she would drive me back to pick it up after the party). While I was locking up my bike and negotiating with the bouncer to keep an eye on it, the group walked away without telling me where the car was parked, so I lost them for a few minutes. It was a bit unpleasant, and the first time I got a sense that my friends' patience with my non motorized movement experiment was wearing thin.  We did not discuss it, but I think there may be various issues in play (Perhaps I haven't sufficiently explained my motivations and how I plan to carry these experiences forward in my teaching and research? Perhaps that I am doing this by choice, not out of necessity, and could end it any time (and so it is somehow less noble)? That the growing bike culture in Detroit is viewed by some as positive and cool and by others as obnoxious and self righteous? etc.). As I biked home at midnight (sticking mostly to the sidewalk along Mack!), I contemplated some of the unanticipated outcomes and impacts of my experiment, and how long I will keep it going. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Week 9-10: I am not alone

Living without a car in Detroit is only new to me - millions do it (have done it) for the last 100+ years of the city's history and since mass production of automobiles began in earnest (and for First Nations and early European settlers, about 1,000 years before that!). Perhaps first due to lack of access (as previously stated, approximately 1/3 of driving age Detroiters do not own a vehicle and of those who do, approximately 60% drive without insurance - according to Vince Keenan!), but increasingly, by choice (a big and increasing percentage of 20-somethings are choosing to live in the city, but not to get a drivers license, or own a car, for numerous reasons: cost, health, personal, ethical, political, etc.). So in the last decade or so since I returned to Detroit, I have noticed that I am not alone on my bike, or walking, or on the bus. This is all anecdotal, of course, and I need to do my "homework" - pursue the hard data (next steps...), but since I began this experiment, I have observed a lot more citizens on bikes - diverse people of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic profiles - biking not only for fitness or pleasure, but to commute, to shop, and likely to complete many other "informal economy" transactions (!).  I also regularly see lots of people walking (we do, in many parts of our city, have upgraded sidewalks and handicapped ramps already installed), and of course, many relying the bus (during the few times I have been at Rosa Parks Transit Center, my sense is that the majority of DDOT riders are not urban hipsters! One exception is one of my research colleagues, who lives in Royal Oak, works at the Federal  Building, and regularly takes the Woodward bus to Rosa Parks - convenient, affordable, and stress free!).

So, again, I need to get at the hard data, but for now, here is an incomplete and initial list of the growing New Movement Culture in Detroit including other people and initiatives related to (and supportive of) my 5x8 Project:
  • Me: car free since 01 June 2013 (though, I must confess, I have accepted rides to social events beyond the original city limits, and rented a car to get "up north" and to a family wedding over the last three months).
  • Bob at Simmons and Clark Jewelers, who moved to Corktown with his girlfriend and has been car free since!
  • An Artist in Indian Village who is attempting to live car free with several children (a neighbor of mine told me this - wow!).
  • Jeanette Pierce, of D-Hive, another neighbor of mine who I understand has been car free for 2 years!
  • Other citizens, who make at least a few trips on bike every week!
  • Transportation Riders United (TRU) the original, and still most effective advocacy group for non-motorized and effective regional transportation!
  • ModeShift - the "Young Turk" advocates on the scene!
  • Detroit Non Motorized Plan - and the experts at Giffels Webster and the City of Detroit who created it and are implementing the bike facilities in it - including dedicated bike lanes and bike racks- fancy ones, popping up all over town and near bus stops.
  • Passionate people and groups and annual events: Tour de Troit (started in 2002 with a hand full of bikers and now over 5K participate! This fall marks LTU's 5th anniversary of participation!), Critical Mass, Grown Men on Bikes, DSG's Detroit Bikes, Detroit Bike City (Slow Roll - understand over 600 participate each week!), et. al.
  • DDOT/SMART buses - 90% are equipped with front bike racks (!) and are, thanks to advocates above, improving their reliability and performance.
  • WSU's Detroit Public Bike Share Study (for the entire city, not just the campus!).
  • Zagster - okay, only for Quicken Loans types, but it is still a bike share program with seven locations downtown!
  • Zip Car - similarly, only for Quicken Loans and WSU types, but still, it is a start!
  • Investors: like Quicken, and Fontinalis Partners (Bill Ford's venture capital firm to fund the future of mobility)
  • Lots of downtown bikes shops: Wheelhouse Detroit (the original!), The Hub (home of the outstanding Back Alley Bikes youth "build a bike program"), Third Avenue Hardware, Downtown Detroit Bike Shop, etc. making it easier to buy and maintain a bike!
  • Bike Makers: Detroit Bikes (hiring and training locals!), Shinola, Detroit Bicycle Company, et al.

Please feel free to comment and add to this list!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Week 8: DDOT

Okay, I am coming clean. my non motorized experiment has been, admittedly, a bit artificial. My primary need for a car (as with most people in our region), is to get to work. This summer, I have not had to be on campus every day, as I was teaching an online class. Further, I have been easily able to advance my studio[Ci] work from home (thanks to nearby clients and my colleagues willingness to come downtown!). But our final review was scheduled for Tuesday 23 July, and it was time for me to get to Southfield on the bus. After all, thousands of my fellow citizens commute this way everyday, so I needed to understand it.

I, like most architects and urbanists, rely on abstract data (e.g., the somewhat shocking Motor City statistic that 1/3 of driving age Detroiters do not (cannot afford to) own a car) and the excellent advocacy of NGOs like TRU, to explain the spotty service of, and incomprehensible lack of cordintion between, our local (DDOT) and regional (SMART) mass transit systems.  But few of us actually use either as a primary mode of transportation. I began by searching DDOT's website "trip planner". When my web search came up with a 2+ hour one way trip on three separate buses, I called the customer service #! Glad I did, too. I reached a very competent, kind woman, who basically told me not to rely on the website, always call if I want accurate departure and arrival times (!). She asked me what I wanted to do and then advised me to take either the 16 Dexter or the 23 Hamilton ("the scenic route") from Rosa Parks Transit station to Northland Mall Transit Center. I could then bike the x miles to campus from there.

Armed with this info, I was hesitant but committed, and headed out on my bike early on Tuesday morning. My plan was to make the 9:00am bus. Unfortunately, I didn't make it there before a torrential downpour hit the city. By the time I got to RPTC, I was soaked (even though I was wearing excellent rain gear), but was relieved to find the Hamilton 23 parked and several passengers waiting. Next challenge: RPTC does not open until 9am, and I did not have $1.50 in quarters. Luckily, I had just enough time to run inside and buy a Fare Card before the driver began loading the bus.  My next challenge was getting my bike loaded on the front rack. The Driver would not instruct nor help me (probably due to liability reasons), but fortunately, a kind passenger assisted me and taught me what to do.

Wet but relieved, I joined about 5 other passengers on the bus, which made the trip to Northland in just 50 minutes - right on schedule! I rode to campus (biking in Southfield is no picnic - which I will discuss in another post), attended a meeting on campus, worked out, and then completed my afternoon final review. I headed back to Northland around 5:30pm for my trip back downtown. Fortunately, the bleak weather of the morning had transformed into a beautiful summer afternoon. I was running a bit late (was due at my girlfriend's birthday party at 6pm), but was pleasantly surprised to roll up and find a 16 Dexter ready to depart. Great, I thought, a different route and experience on the way home! Again, I had to load my bike without assistance (though the Driver did confirm I had it in the rack correctly) and off we went. This route took a bit longer, was more crowded, but dropped me on the I-75 Service Drive on the corner of Clifford. I had a quick ride to Centaur and the celebration was still going when I arrived! All in all, I had a positive experience and was quite impressed with DDOT service. By the time I biked home, however, I was exhausted - this type of commuting is not easy!