We dubbed it the “BIKE-ruptcy” tour.
Following the route as best we could that was taken by Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on his bus tour last week, Todd Scott and I rode more than 50 miles through Detroit on Saturday. Todd, the executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, has probably logged more miles on the city’s streets than anyone and has a keen understanding of how non-motorized transportation can help connect people and neighborhoods.
From the perspective of our bike seats, we wanted to see what the judge saw and we wanted to be closer to it than he was to see if it changed how we thought about it. We wanted to take a slower roll through the city and better experience the neighborhoods than we do from our cars. We wanted to see what opportunities there are to meet people when you’re not caged behind the glass windshield of a car (or bus, of course…), and we wanted to see just what understanding about the city the judge’s entire route may have given him, the city attorneys, the creditors’ lawyers and the others on board.
Using the map handed out to media by the city attorneys, the tour was heavy on residential neighborhoods, mainly areas with single-family homes. We thought the blocks the tour organizers picked were extreme: some middle-class areas more densely populated than other comparable places in the city; some more decimated or vacant as well. Palmer Woods is clearly the best of the best in the city.
The route was light on commercial areas, with virtually no industrial sites. Little urban agriculture was in view, and few parks or gardens appeared. We didn’t ever see the Detroit River or witness the potential of some of its adjacent neighborhoods.
The bus traveled dozens of miles on freeways – we had to ride alternative routes, of course. Judge Rhodes was extremely concerned about secrecy and security, keeping the day, time and location of his route a secret from media until after it happened. We had little fear of a competing Detroit media cycling tour, and the most danger we faced was traffic on Eight Mile Road. That is NOT a street designed for anything but high-speed car and truck traffic so it was a little hairy at times pedaling next to high-speed cars. Why not ride the sidewalk? Well, first of all, in Michigan cyclists have a right to share the road. Second, the condition of the sidewalk pavement is often much worse than the roadways.
(Todd points out Eight Mile and Gratiot Avenue, our other most dangerous road, are both state roads and not the responsibility of the city…)
Along our 50-plus-mile route, we met some nice people, got invited to church, posed with a horse from the Detroit Police Department mounted unit, and wrapped up our tour with the most creative, exciting, historical and cultural site we’ve ever ridden.
We rolled into Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts, bikes and all.
Here’s a transcript of a conversation we had about what we saw. It’s airing on WDET 101.9FM today.
Todd Scott: So the route began in Brightmoor. We went through the west side. Then we came back north up through the University District and through Palmer Woods.
Sandra Svoboda: That part was really nice and residential. Then we went through the parking lot of the new Meijer’s at Woodward and Eight Mile and we had that long eight miles into the wind along Eight Mile and then we took Gratiot back into the city. A little job through the Heidelberg Project, through the downtown and by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
TS: I feel the judge saw a pretty accurate view of the city in terms of the positive and the negatives and how it rapidly changes between both of them.
SS: Let’s remember the tour was not designed as a bike tour. This was really for the judge, of course, to give him context for what he’s going to be hearing in the city’s bankruptcy trial on the Plan of Adjustment that restructures the debt and the city services. So the attorneys had asked him to go along and really get some kind of idea of what’s out in the city. I kept thinking as we were going along that really, again, we had time to think about it because we were on bicycles and not zooming through on the bus. But I feel like there were some really positive signs about city services. We saw some police out on patrol, the fire stations were well taken care of. We couldn’t judge the lights because we were there in daylight.
TS: That’s correct. The residential garbage collection seemed to be working. We did see some dumping in some areas and there were some road conditions that could have been improved especially some that needed some street sweeping.
SS: Again, I think the focus of the judge seemed to be on residential and we saw some extremes in that regard. We saw some beautiful houses, well-maintained in Palmer Woods. We saw some middle class neighborhoods that seemed to be occupied. But we also saw some really blighted areas that were probably more extreme than the norm in the city where there’s one house missing or a couple burned out. Some of those blocks were really, really vacated I’m sure that made an impression for the judge.
TS: I’m sure it did. We also saw a few business districts. Some that were operating really well and some that needed a little love. We really didn’t go through any industrial areas though. That was an oversight.
SS: Yeah, that was missing. I feel like the judge, he was in a bus, and they made a couple of stops abut they didn’t have a chance to interact with residents like we did. When you’re in a bike seat and people are saying hello, and you can hear their dogs barking and you can hear the lawn mowers going, it certainly gives you a different impression about the vibrancy of the city.
TS: Absolutely we got to wave to people and get out and stop and talk to folks and find out what’s really going on.
SS: We had a similar conclusion as the judge. We did not finish going up the Lodge Freeway. I should point out that we skipped I-96 of course because we can’t take bicycles on that. It was dangerous enough on Eight Mile. But we finished at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This has been a huge part of this bankruptcy case that I’ve written about and covered in terms of the creditors asking that the art get sold to pay debt. I thought it was a good finale for our tour.
TS: It was great.
SS: Thanks to the DIA for letting us in there.
TS: I’ve ridden in many different places but that was quite unique. We were both staking claims to being the first people to ride in the DIA which is something we’ll check off on our bucket
SS: Nothing I’ve done in my reporting career before.