Since becoming Mr. CiclaValley, I assumed my duties would require me investigating all things valley and along with other local issues. I dedicated myself to the cause so much, I even had an ankle bracelet attached restricting my movement outside the county.
Well, this urban superhero also has mortal duties, such as bar mitzvahs in foreign lands, so I dusted off my passport, sawed my lower leg off and headed to the great white north.
The destination was London on the River Thames. No, not the municipality that’s full of Spice Girls, but the Canadian one in Ontario where their citizens have far superior dental care.
Located between Detroit and Toronto, we flew into Michigan to see additional family before heading to the land of colorful money. I’ve been to the Motor City plenty of times before, but never quite with a cycling eye before.
We started the trip by checking into our hotel in Farmington Hills right off of Twelve Mile Road(that’s 50% more Eminem) and later joining my relatives for dinner in West Bloomfield. The ride from the airport was fast moving, even during rush hour, but the view from the freeway did not expose many details of nearby life to the point that it almost seemed on purpose.
Once we exited to the streets, my cyclist’s radar was tuned to spot anything on two wheels, but from looking at the infrastructure I could tell I’d be coming up goose eggs. The main arterials post a 45 mph speed limit, meaning most drove well above that at near freeway speeds. The lanes didn’t look wide enough to accommodate cyclists and the road surface looked questionable if you wanted to ride at higher speeds. The only space you would consider safe were the narrow sidewalks fifteen feet off the roadway that were even bumpier than the streets. Make no mistake about it, cars rule this universe. Doing simple tasks by walking would take a herculean effort. Not once did I see a person in a crosswalk. It truly was the rise of the machines.
For about a twenty four hour period, I saw only one cyclist commuting and another riding recreationally. That’s it. Almost zero.
I did not expect for it to be this scarce. The only other rationalization I could make was the temperatures being so freakin’ cold. Deep down I knew I was probably lying to myself, but this California boy couldn’t wait to get back to the desert heat.
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After annoying my family with my Ernie Harwell impressions involving every Michigan town we passed through, we made it into London after a little more than two hours of driving. If you’re unfamiliar with this municipality(admit it), it is Canada’s 15th largest city and has a population about the size of Bakersfield. In other words, not giant, but large enough that you have urban issues.
It’s similar to Detroit in that there’s an older urban core surrounded by flatlands where suburbanization took hold. Of course, we were lodged in the outskirts again, so I didn’t expect to see much on the cycling front, but maybe that’s why I shouldn’t make assumptions!
Obviously, I saw a lot of cyclists. It wasn’t Amsterdam, but possibly more than you’d regularly see out on the roads in LA. It wasn’t the numbers that necessarily shocked me, but the whole atmosphere itself.
People were cycling among traffic without the regular fear and rubbernecking of being rear ended like you see out here. Drivers weren’t showing the regular signs of displeasure of having their progress impeded by tailgating, honking or speeding past. Furthermore, you were more likely to find helmets on the Boston Bruins of the 70’s than most of the cyclists out there(Plus, it’s cold. Shouldn’t you wear something out there?).
While London’s streets do not contain a great deal of bike lanes, there is a great network of bike paths that cut through the city through the Thames and its forks. My cousin even uses the river biking to work saying it takes him just as long as driving during rush hour, but mentioned that for every commute, you’ll obviously need to be on the road at some point.
You can call London an anomaly because of its smallish size, but it is encouraging to see a city embracing cycling and reaping the benefits.
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My trip ended with a straight shot from London to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. We took a direct route this time along I-94 taking us along the outskirts of downtown. Although we remained on the freeway, I could see all I needed.
Block after block, homes sat in various forms of dilapidated states. Most were either unkept, burnt, boarded up, graffitied or a combination of all four. I understand a little urban decay here and there, but I have never experienced it to this scale.
These houses used to form communities central to the American dream. They have porches where families used to lounge around on summer nights. Upstairs bedrooms where children would run around before going to bed. Garages were rarely built meaning you may actually see your neighbor. I know, because my family has history there.
Seeing a post-Katrina New Orleans brought a sickness to my heart, but Detroit brought this to a new level because this catastrophe was completely man made.
Thanks to the automotive industry. after World War II, freeways were carved through the city dividing communities and shuttling those who could afford it to move away from downtown. The region continued to grow concentrically, slowly eroding the quality of life in the urban core. Rail was dismantled, businesses moved away, corrupt leadership festered and the corrosion continued.
Can you blame car manufacturers for ripping apart our cities? Absolutely. But we also bought into this dream too.
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With Los Angeles being known as the “freeway capital of the world”, you wonder why we haven’t experienced the same fate to Detroit’s degree. We witnessed the same exodus from our city center into the suburbs, yet now downtown is the hottest growing part of Los Angeles.
Even though our metropolitan area has monumentous size, there’s many our cities I’ve been to, like Dallas, Tampa, Phoenix, where the damage seems harder to be reversible. There are a few reasons why LA has been more resilient. Traffic has reached a point where moving out to the Valencia’s of the region will require a significant commitment in commuting time that has become undesirable. Our many hills and mountains also have restricted the sprawl associated with freeway expansion. Los Angeles has also been fortunate enough to invest in mass transit systems which have produced direct benefits.
We know that with this new shape of the city, cycling will play a larger role as more people move inward reducing our reliance on the automobile. This has been the most exciting era during my lifetime in Los Angeles, not for where we are now, but where we will go.
The good news about Detroit is that it’s trying to learn from being Detroit. Across the country, we are growing a next generation that understands the benefit of urban living. They’ve experience their early part of life being shuttled around in their parent’s cars, now they want to re-enter the world.
If there’s anything we can look back on for the past sixty years, it’s that cities always strive towards a better future. They always want to progress, but may not know the proper way to get there. We are learning from our mistakes. Now let’s use the means to right them.