Maria Nash, a Detroiter, doesn’t drive. Despite her city’s association with all things automotive, she has no desire to own a car. She commutes from her home to the brewpub where she works downtown, a few miles away. For her, cycling is simply the easiest and fastest way to get to work.
She’s not alone. Between 2000 and 2013, the percentage of U.S. commuters regularly biking to work increased by 62 percent, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the (admittedly not entirely unbiased) League of American Bicyclists.1 It found that some 883,000 people commuted by bike—a group almost equal to the population of Austin, Texas. Although nearly three quarters of bike commuters were men, the number of female bike commuters had more than doubled from 2006 to 2013. Among cities of 200,000 or more residents, Portland, Oregon, ranked highest in terms of the percentage of bike commuters, with 5.9 percent. In some smaller cities the number was even higher; Boulder, Colorado, for instance, clocks in with more than 11 percent. Washington, DC, which came in second among larger cities, saw the greatest growth in ridership from 1990, when only 0.8 percent cycled to work, to 2013, when 4.5 percent of commuters did so—a nearly 500 percent increase. Although just 0.6 percent of Detroiters rode their bikes to work in 2013, that marked a massive jump from 1990, when only 0.1 percent did. The Motor City stood 44th in terms of the share of bicycle commuters but third (behind DC and Pittsburgh) among major cities where bicycle commuting grew fastest.
“North America has never been a bicycle commuter’s paradise”, as Robert Hurst, author of The Bicycle Commuter’s Handbook (2013) puts it. The reasons are several: the relatively long distances our huge continent provides; daunting weather in much of the country, whether too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; and the fact that, with the rise of suburbia, more would-be commuters live pretty far from their offices compared, say, to those in places like Amsterdam or Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro. As bike commuters know, the latter situation is exacerbated by the fact that lots of American cities are sited along rivers, which usually means a mainly downhill pedal in the morning when you’re fresh, and an uphill gut in the early evening when you’re bushed. Then there is the shower issue. If someone wants to commute by bike a fair distance, he needs a place to keep his office clothes and shower up once he arrives; if no such facility can be secured—and very few city office buildings are sympathetic to the needs of commuter bicyclists—then either the would-be commuter has a problem or else all of his or her office mates do.
Nevertheless, a not insignificant number of people recognize the fairly obvious benefits of commuting by bike: It saves money (especially if cyclists abandon cars for good) and it’s healthy (as long as one avoids the dangers of urban riding, such as potholes, glass shards, popped sewer grates and manhole covers, oblivious motorists, and, cyclers’ ultimate dread, trolley tracks). The League of American Bicyclists’ parsing of American Community Survey statistics in fall 2014 only covers journeys to work. Though unmeasured, riding for other reasons—to run errands, as exercise, or simply for fun—is on the rise as well. That could make for a more bike-friendly environment, and a more bike-friendly infrastructure could in turn lead to lots more pedaling. Think of it as two wheels, rolling in tandem.
Take Slow Roll, for instance. It’s a group bicycle ride around Detroit that happens every Monday night from spring through fall. Started in 2010 by Jason Hall and Mike MacKool simply as some friends riding together, it grew to an average 3,000–4,000 participants each week by 2014. The idea spread to other cities around the country (such as Buffalo, Chicago, and Cleveland) and around the world (including Berlin and multiple spots in Sweden).
While Slow Roll is the biggest weekly ride in town, it’s not the only one Detroit has to offer. Indeed, except in winter, there’s a group ride practically every day. There’s the Phat Kid ride on Tuesdays. Biking Belle Isle happens on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Moreover, as in other cities, annual rides serving as fund- and awareness-raisers (for bike-related and non-bike-related causes) have proliferated and expanded. The Tour de Troit, which strives to promote bicycle safety initiatives and support non-motorized infrastructure (bike lanes and such), had about fifty riders in 2002, its inaugural year. A dozen years later, the thirty-mile ride, for which streets are closed to motor vehicles (even motorcycles), attracted more than 7,000 cyclists.
While cycling certainly has a practical side, like getting to work, its increasing popularity may be due at least in part to its social side. As Slow Roll and other events show, people like riding bikes with other people. Nash, for one, loves “how it brings people together.” She sees it as community-building and estimates that riders are about half city residents and half suburbanites, with some tourists mixed in each week, especially during summer months. (Participation dwindles as the weather gets cooler.) People on the rides look out for each other; they stop to help if someone gets a flat; they form friendships. Smaller groups, such as Grown Men on Bikes (GMOB) and its female counterpart, Grown Ladies on Wheels (GLOW), regularly join the larger Slow Roll family, so the whole phenomenon has a kind of modular or distributed-system character. Very modern. In its first four years, Nash says, there have never been any serious problems or conflict among Slow Rollers, which is surprising given the sheer number of people involved and the frequency of the activity.
Slow Roll is not a cycling utopia, however. The ride did experience some growing pains. In order to keep the riders together as a group, “corkers”—volunteers who block traffic at intersections as well as work to keep a lane open for car traffic (Nash is one of them)—sometimes kept drivers waiting for several minutes, which made for some testy motorists. Eventually, the Slow Roll squad started breaking up the ride at busy intersections to let cars through, which stopped most drivers’ complaints. (Once traffic clears, they try to close the gap between cyclists, which can be done easily because of the ride’s slow pace.)
Another budding problem was that some Slow Roll regulars equipped their bikes with sophisticated sound systems, which they wanted others to notice, leading to some grumbling about the music’s volume or lyrical content or both. The organizers drew up a Slow Roll Code of Conduct that, among other things, urges riders to stay to the right side of the road, leave lanes open for cars, and play music respectfully, but there’s not much they can do if some folks fail to share the road or decide to turn their stereos up to brain-vibrating levels. Hall, MacKool, and the Slow Roll volunteers express a desire to “encourage positivity”, but they can’t impose it.
In many respects, Slow Roll embodies the approach to bicycling advocated by Grant Petersen, the founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, California, and the author of Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike (2012). Petersen contends that people should forget about ultra-lightweight bikes and cycling-specific outfits:
In its need for special clothing, bicycle riding is less like scuba diving and more like a pickup basketball game. . . . The existence and popularity of specialty bike clothing sends the message to would-be riders that bike riding requires “bicycle clothing.” And by sending that message, I think it discourages non-riders from taking up the bike.
Slow Roll sends the opposite message: You don’t need a pricey bike, and wearing street clothes is fine. Riders gather to have a good time, not to compete.
Petersen endorses “unracing.” He believes that professional bicycle racing has had a deleterious effect on cycling by convincing many would-be riders not only that they need expensive lightweight gear and specialty clothing but also that every ride should resemble a race or training for one. Petersen claims too many riders view riding as a challenge to be met rather than the pleasant experience it should and can be. He counters that riders should go whatever distance (Slow Roll is usually about ten miles) and at whatever speed suits them. They can do so in clothing they won’t be embarrassed to wear once they dismount from their bikes. The aims of most cyclists and most racers differ, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise. If riders enjoy riding, they’ll probably do it for longer stints. (But if they don’t, he insists, that’s fine too, since there’s nothing wrong with short rides.)
The very slowness of Slow Roll makes it accessible to all levels of riders on all types of bikes. (Other, faster group rides typically don’t involve as many people.) While Slow Roll and other biking events do attract riders of sleek road bikes with click-in pedals, they also bring on riders of mountain bikes, cruisers, three-wheelers, BMX bikes, and every style imaginable. Some flashy rides, featuring an abundance of chrome and colorful lights, are definitely not built for speed. Bike riding “should be fun”, Petersen proclaims, and thousands of cyclists wouldn’t show up in the streets of Detroit every Monday night if it weren’t. If adults who haven’t been on a bike since they were children try one of the group rides, they remember how enjoyable it is.
Good times are only part of the story. Just as bike riding can be both fun and functional, it can also involve both socializing and social activism. People often call bicycling’s burgeoning popularity generally, and Slow Roll specifically, a movement. Nash believes it is one, although of an accidental sort. She says the Slow Roll movement is about getting people on bikes, generating positive attention for the city, and showing people parts of the city they wouldn’t otherwise see, or might otherwise even fear. She claims some people have ridden Slow Roll and then decided to move back to the city.
Yet the “movement” was totally unplanned. It started as friends riding bikes and then going to a bar. Over time, however, it took on greater responsibility. Beyond promoting patronage at the various bars and restaurants that serve as the rides’ starting and ending points, organizers have used the ride to coordinate coat drives for the poor. In other cities, such as Chicago, organizers aim to engage with the communities through which they ride, meeting with pastors and block clubs and generally trying to open eyes about biking’s benefits (both as a healthy activity and as an enjoyable alternative to staying home and watching television), and challenging misperceptions about who should or shouldn’t ride bikes. If one message of Slow Roll is to just ride, then another is that there’s no shame in riding a bike because you can’t afford a car. (The increase in bike commuting by Detroiters could also have something to do with the city’s dilapidated, unreliable public transportation system.) There’s at least one other contributing factor that wouldn’t necessarily apply nationwide: wide streets constructed for a population more than double Detroit’s current one. The city’s bikers enjoy the luxury of space. “There’s so much road here”, as Nash puts it.
Bicycling in the 21st century not only has a definite social aspect; it also has a social media component. (Perhaps you’ve seen Jason Hall, the face of Detroit bicycling, featured in a recent Apple ad highlighting how gadgets are used in event planning and promotion.) Social media sites certainly contributed to the expansion of Slow Roll by communicating each week’s meeting place and providing a forum that bolsters the sense of a community. Tuesday mornings bring floods of photos and videos from the previous night’s ride on Facebook and Instagram feeds. (This is also where the gripes about music are expressed.)
Henry Ford II is a compleat urban cyclist and Petersen’s ideal “unracer.” He rides about a hundred miles a week for recreation and for work. He leads guided tours for a shop that rents and sells bikes. He collects bikes. Around the same time Hall and MacKool started Slow Roll, which typically meanders through downtown areas, Ford began another weekly ride, which heads out from Palmer Park in the northwestern part of Detroit. Initially the Palmer Park ride was scheduled for Mondays too, but Ford switched it to Thursday so he could join the Slow Roll squad while also holding his own ride. On top of all that, he also makes bicycles.
A fact that can register as both good and bad news, depending on your interests, is that Motown now has more bicycle makers than car companies. Ford works for one of the former. Shinola, a purveyor of high-end products including watches and leather goods as well as bikes, assembles bicycles in a boutique using parts made elsewhere. (The frames come from Waterford Precision Cycles in Wisconsin, spurring some skeptics to question whether Shinola bikes legitimately qualify as “made in Detroit.”) Other firms, like 313 Bicycle Works and Detroit Bicycle Company, build handmade bicycles in the city. Perhaps more concerned with fashion than physical fitness, Shinola offers models, like the Bixby and the Runwell, that retail for about $2,000–3,000. Detroit Bicycle Company’s fixed-gear bikes with copper-plated frames can cost several thousands of dollars.
If these firms offer something like the Cadillac and Corvette of bicycles, then Detroit Bikes, where Ford is the master builder, provides something better suited to everyday use, whether for commuting or Slow Rolling. Zak Pashak founded the company in 2012 and started its manufacturing operation the following year. Ford estimates that in its first year and a half the company produced about 1,700–1,800 bikes, but Pashak aims eventually to up that to 50,000 bikes a year. Detroit Bikes’ first model, the A-Type, was available only in black, much like a certain other wheeled vehicle once built in Detroit. (No, Henry Ford II is not related to that other Henry Ford, but there’s no getting around the fact that he has the perfect name in the perfect place to make his point.) It subsequently added the B-Type (in white only) and devised plans for additional models. Unlike Nash, Ford has a car, but he commuted by bike to his first job as a teenager (caddying at the Detroit Golf Club) and still sometimes rides one of his ten bikes to Detroit Bikes’ facility on the city’s west side.
Bike makers are just one part of cycling’s economic impact. Stores selling the gear commuters and other riders want, among them Southwest Rides, Wheelhouse, and The Hub, have opened in recent years. Slow Roll sparked interest among corporate sponsors, such as Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company and Red Bull, that want to cultivate an association with the phenomenon. Some are in-kind arrangements; Bern Unlimited, for example, provided helmets for volunteers. Others are more extensive; Red Bull covered the costs of Detroit coordinators traveling to meet their counterparts in Chicago. New Belgium, which named its flagship beer “fat tire” and features a bicycle in its logo, contracted with Detroit Bikes for custom bicycles it planned to use in promotions.
In addition to running Slow Roll, Hall and MacKool organize Detroit Bike City, an annual exposition of all things bike-related. And at least some non-biking businesses see an upside to accommodating cycling consumers by installing bike racks out front. Still, racks are not yet as common in Detroit as they are in places with a more established cycling culture, like Portland. Nash and her friends will go to restaurants and bars where they can lock up their bikes, passing by those where they can’t. That’s partly because bike theft is a “horrible problem”, she acknowledges. Not only do she and her fellow riders want to secure their bikes; they usually want to keep their eyes on them, which would necessitate many more bike racks than have been installed around town to date.
A few other issues, as well as the potholes, can make city cyclists’ road a bumpy one. Some are simply matters of perception. Since most people don’t cycle to work, even in the most bike-happy towns, those who do are oddities. “The simple act of riding a bike for transportation is likely to leave a trail of blown minds and shattered perceptions at the workplace”, Hurst claims in The Bicycle Commuter’s Handbook. (Large group rides turn heads too, though the response is usually positive. In residential areas, families will come out on front porches to cheer and wave as the parade of cyclists passes their houses.) Surprised coworkers aren’t the main concern, however; other types of commuters are. In 2013, 27 bicyclists were killed and almost 1,500 were injured in Michigan. Henry Ford says he still hears the occasional ignorant motorist yelling at him to get onto the sidewalk. Yet he thinks that as drivers get used to seeing more cyclists on the road, awareness of their right to be there will increase. “In a few years”, he predicts, “they’ll know.” Riders are learning how to maneuver safely among cars, though the learning process continues on both sides. It’s still not that uncommon to see some cyclists riding against traffic in the wildly mistaken belief that facing drivers makes them safer.
Truth to tell, it’s more complicated than that. There has always been competition between different forms of human locomotion that use the same pathways. Joggers hate in-line skaters and skaters hate joggers when they try to share the scenic path along the river, for example. When the first motorcars scared the bejeezus out of horses and riders alike a bit more than a century ago, testy gesticulations were not scarce. Ask motorcyclists and 18-wheeler drivers alike what they think of clueless motorists and you’ll get an earful more often than not. Something just happens to people when they’re rolling in the company of other, heterogeneous rollers; they become alert, possibly from fear, and they often get sort of uppity, especially if they are operating the lighter of the vehicles.
There are many kinds of urban bike commuters in America, not to speak of the truly intrepid who ride between cities or, for that matter, all the way from sea to shining sea. Some commuters are long-timers and some are novices. Some ride with whistles hanging around a neck chain to warn clueless drivers when necessary not to do something thoughtless or rude; some don’t. Some are long-distance types who go all the way to work and back, while others just commute to bike racks at train, bus, or subway stations. Some ride only in nice weather; others prove a point by biking all year long, no matter the weather or the hours of sunlight. I’ve heard of one fellow who used to bike along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago every weekday, and there would be times when the wind would lash freezing spray from Lake Michigan onto him, leaving his beard an ice-art sculpture by the time he got to his destination. Some care about speed; others don’t. Some exert themselves not to be passed by other cyclists; others can’t or won’t. Some don’t respond when motorists do idiotic things, like lay on their horn just to let you know they are back there—as if there is any way on earth that a cyclist does not know the car is there. Others are free with loud verbal commentary or the display of ornithological gestures made with the fingers of the hand. Sometimes both.
As a general rule, the more hardcore the biking commuter and the more daunting the trip (defined by length, topography, weather, and other conditions), the smugger the cyclist and the initiated community of cyclists tend to be. (I do not include here big-city bike dispatchers; they are in a professional class all their own.) Some cyclists are very smug indeed, not unlike the smugness that can sometimes be detected in the presence of resolved vegans. Bicycle-commuting vegans, if there are any, probably approach stratospheric levels of smugness.
Motorists can sometimes sense this smugness. Take a typical laid-back bike commuter who happens to be driving a car out in the woodsy burbs one Sunday, and there in front of him he spies two bicyclists, all togged up in expensive gear, out for a pleasure ride right in the middle of the road despite the fact that there is an ample shoulder available to them. You know they hear you behind them, but they don’t move to the right. For the regular weekday bike commuter who happens to be in a car, this sort of behavior communicates a form of smugness that invites thoughts of vehicular homicide.
State and local governments have taken various measures recently to make bicycling safer and more viable. About 150 miles of bike lanes have been painted on Detroit streets in the past few years. (In Nash’s opinion, protected bike lanes that separate bikes from cars would be even better—there’s room for them in Detroit, after all.) In fall 2014, Michigan’s Governor signed into law the Nathan Bower Act, which adds information about bicycle and motorcycle awareness to the state’s driver education curriculum. (It was named for a motorcyclist killed in a traffic accident a few years earlier.) Other places have taken other steps to make streets safer for bikers and pedestrians alike. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently reduced the default speed limit on most of the city’s streets from 30 to 25 miles per hour, partly with cyclists in mind.
Whether or not such moves lead to more bicycling or are simply after-the-fact responses to bicycling’s growing popularity, there’s no question that more Americans are turning to two-wheeled transportation, whether for utilitarian or social reasons, or a combination of the two. Nash sums up the appeal of riding bikes succinctly if modestly: “I don’t see it changing anyone’s life for the worse.”
1Where We Ride: Analysis of Bicycle Commuting in American Cities (The League of American Bicyclists, 2014).