The Detroit Comparison: Sam Willsey's Recent Cycling Experience

I ran into Sam Willsey just after finishing up a day of work recently, and, as always, was able to get into a great conversation about bikes. Sam is a three-year rider who cruises around on either his Schwinn Cutter SS, or his Trek 1000 road bike. You'd probably recognize him as the guy who wears his u-lock around his neck (I was dying to ask why, but decided to leave that one a mystery), topped off with a helmet (although he admits being a 99.9% of the time helmet wearer).

Sam had just gone up to Detroit for a few days, and brought his bike with him to get a feel for the two-wheeled landscape of our soul-sister city. The comparison is often made between Cleveland and Detroit...two cities with similar eras rich with steel and industry, and a sad decline into times of lost identity. Because of their pasts, it's easy to gauge each citiy's progress against the other, which is how Sam and I got off on our bicycle-driven tangents.

Sam recalled very easy and seemingly safe street riding, but admitted that it was likely due to the fact that there are less cars on the road. 24% of people in Detroit don't own cars, yet their public transportation system is continuing to cut routes off its schedule. While Sam referenced a study that showed that about two-thirds of Detroit suburban residents spend time in the downtown area on a regular basis, they're still not moving there, which severely decreases the chances of city development.

All of that being said, Detroit has active projects to install a large amount of bike parking, as well as bike lanes and trails. Detroit doesn't even have its own bike advocacy organization. The projects are being proposed and funded by a group called the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. To me, that shows a strong push towards cycling and riders. A city which is trying to actively improve conditions for cyclists is making a huge statement. That kind of legislation and activism is not easy, because many still don't perceive there to be a demand for it. But the more push towards cycling and cycle friendly streets, the more riders will be comfortable enough to be out there.

I feel as if I could go in so many directions with this issue. Sam brought it up just on the fly as I was finishing up work a few days ago, and maybe didn't realize how much there is to talk about when it comes to the subject. Cleveland is having a lot of the same type of progress starting up as Detroit is. In Lakewood, we're going to be seeing a series of new bike racks installed throughout the city very soon. We not only have a Cleveland advocacy group (Bike Cleveland) that is active and productive, but we even have our own infant Bike Lakewood making its comeback (albeit a slow one). It's exciting to see these things happen, and incredibly interesting to analyze everything that brought us to this point.

Now to get back to Sam for a bit (there is a connection here, I swear I'm going to make it). When I asked Sam why riding is so important to him, he responded that he feels cycling can help Cleveland and Lakewood to develop, much in the way it has been for the past few years. More cyclists bring more need for bike shops, and we've seen new ones cropping up lately, with enough business to go around. Bike nights bring cyclists to restaurants they may not have gone into otherwise. Cyclists have a stronger connection with their community because they are physically more a part of it. There is no disconnect like the one created by the four walls of a vehicle. If you're going somewhere on your bike, you're going to experience every moment of the city in between where you start and stop, on a very personal level. It's euphoric. You should try it sometime.

Sam is pumped about the new velodrome, and the potential it has to bring cyclists to Cleveland from other cities, to join us in the joy of riding. Like so many other things in the cycling world, this too has the potential to revitalize the neighborhood in which it exists.

Of everything Sam and I talked about, one very unique and humbling thing he said was that we should be grateful that we're able to ride the way we can these days. Although it's not perfect out there, a lot of progress has been made, even in the past 10 years. We might not have bike lanes yet, and sometimes still have to lock up to a garbage can or parking meter, but things are happening; a lot of people are working hard to make sure of that.


Erika Durham

I am a 26 year old woman who drinks coffee and beer, rides some bikes, reads, takes pictures, makes stuff, and runs long distances.

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Volume 8, Issue 9, Posted 9:55 PM, 05.01.2012