Back home after my bike trip (photos coming soon, I promise), I thought for sure the last place I’d want to be is on two wheels biking around. Not to the store down the street. Not to work. Not to anywhere. But aspiring bicycle tourists beware. It turns out that body and mind get into a routine about that sort of thing and form a rebellion if you do not continue with the exercise. They insist that you keep moving.
Last Saturday, obliging my antsy legs, I tossed some sunscreen, snacks, and water into my bag and prepped for destination Royal Oak. Now this is the kind of town you would normally bike in but not really to, particularly from Detroit. It’s not that far. Or dangerous. Just not something that isn’t really done. But the distance seemed about right to work out some of the energy, and it was a fairly straight shot. So I pulled up some quick bike directions and rolled out.
Everything was fine and familiar until I snapped back into reality up near Palmer Park and noticed that the directions were about to take me onto Woodward Ave. My brain argued back. Now Siri and Google were clearly conspiring to kill me in an auto-on-bicyclist showdown. This was the “beta directions” part they always warn you about.
Maybe it was the hubris of conquering mountains that got to me, but I decided to take that challenge and give old Woodward a go. And as cars whizzed by, I started thinking more about what the road is and what it means to Detroit(ers) today and what it will mean for us in the future.
ten lanes of asphalt
Why was I so surprised by the directions? Woodward is the road in The Motor City. Also known as M-1, it’s a surface street with a highway name. The first automobile in Detroit was driven on Woodward Ave, and the first mile of paved concrete in the US was on — you’ve got it — Woodward Ave.
This is one wide surface street and has five lanes running in each direction. On the quiet afternoon of my ride, most lanes emptied to nothingness after short, punctuated bursts of traffic from periodic green lights. Still somehow despite all of that space, my presence as a cyclist near the shoulder of the curb lane confounded drivers. A few honked. Some whizzed by so closely I thought I’d taken on the magic power of invisibility.
It turns out, all of that space was not originally built for cars. An historic streetcar city, Detroit supported multiple lines which operated successfully (even carrying autoworkers to factory jobs) well into the middle of the 20th century. The Woodward line survived the longest but finally succumbed to the tide of the automobile when it rumbled to a stop in 1956.
But in the Detroit of the not-too-distant future, Woodward again will be synonymous not with cars but with transit. M-1 RAIL specifically. When the road reopens next year after 120 days of closure for construction, the infrastructure will be in place for the return of rail to Woodward Avenue in 2016. While the first phase of M-1 will only run from downtown to New Center, a streetcar along Woodward can — and should function — as a backbone in a re-envisioned transit network for the city.
two wheels and a superhero
Back to those powers of invisibility I’d picked up, it turns out, someone else on Woodward last weekend actually did have special powers: Spider-Man. At 8 Mile Rd, I encountered a dude in the full spandex garb of our favorite superhero walking down the street. Emboldened by the anonymity of the costume, he stopped and posed for several shots as people drove by yelling “Hey, Spidey! Spider-Man! Over here!” Not to be outdone, I flagged him down and snapped a selfie of my own.
Like everything else in Detroit these days, Woodward is changing quickly. Natives and newcomers alike bring different views on what is important and what it should look like. For me last weekend, change looked as simple as like choosing to take the lane and biking the change.