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Working towards a bike share program for Detroit

Velib and bike lanes in Paris
Velib and bike lanes in Paris
By Lisa Nuszkowski, Senior Project Administrator for Economic Development at Wayne State University 
November 20, 2014

Bikes are big in Detroit right now. Whether it’s large group rides such as the Tour de Troit and Slow Roll, the growth of bicycle manufacturing, or the more than 150 miles of bike lanes recently installed across the city, Detroit is quickly gaining a reputation as a place for biking.
In my role as Senior Project Administrator for Economic Development at Wayne State University, I’ve been working with business, community, and government stakeholders to start a public bike share system in Detroit. As we have been planning and raising funds for bike share, it has caused me to think more broadly about mobility and the role that active transportation can play in creating a healthy, vibrant city.
This year I had the good fortune to visit two cities that are globally recognized leaders in transportation and mobility: Paris and Copenhagen. My visit to Paris was part of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Leadership Seminar in France and Morocco, which explored themes of economic development, leadership, and inclusion in the context of global north-south relations. I became involved with the German Marshall Fund network in 2011 when I was selected for a Marshall Memorial fellowship, an intensive 24-day immersion trip covering five European cities to build capacity for transatlantic understanding among participants and foster collaboration and innovation.
While in Paris, I had the opportunity to check out Vélib' Paris’s public bike share system. Started in 2007, Vélib' has quickly become a vital part of Paris’s transportation system, providing over 20,000 bikes to Parisians and visitors alike throughout the city. The popularity of the system was evident in the hundreds of cyclists I observed pedaling throughout Paris over the course of a weekend. Yet Vélib' is more than just recreational or a tourist attraction. When we met with city officials, Vélib' was cited as one of the most important public transportation investments that Paris has made, along with investments in the metro system and car sharing. The role of bicycling in Paris’s transportation system was further reinforced by recent launch of P’tit Vélib', bike sharing for children 2-8 years old, aimed at promoting cycling as a form of transportation at a young age. The substantial investments in protected bike lanes, bicycle traffic signals, and wayfinding suggest that cycling in Paris not a fad, but rather an increasingly important solution for mobility.
Copenhagen is another city that has invested heavily in its biking and pedestrian infrastructure. In August, I attended a study trip there sponsored by the Knight Foundation and 8-80’s Cities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the transformation of cities into places where people can walk, bike, access public transit and visit vibrant parks and public spaces. The focus of the trip was to learn from Copenhagen’s success in encouraging a culture of bicycling and walking, and encourage civic leaders and public administrators to bring these ideas back to Detroit.
Much like Detroit is today, Copenhagen was once a city that relied on cars as the primary mode of transportation. In the 1960s, all of Copenhagen’s public squares were used for parking lots, and most people with means and access to a personal vehicle left the city to live in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Sound familiar?
To reverse that trend, the City of Copenhagen has strategically invested in public and non-motorized transit over the past several decades, with the goal of not only attracting people back to the city, but improving their quality of life and satisfaction with city living. By building a minimum grid of protected bicycle lanes and widened sidewalks, Copenhagen has created an atmosphere that promotes the safe and efficient movement of people in an environmentally conscious and healthy way.
Like Paris, bicycling in Copenhagen is not a novelty, nor is it just for recreation – biking there is viewed as a cost-effective and democratic form of transportation. With 52% of Copenhageners using bicycles to commute to work and school, safe and quality infrastructure have been key to increasing the number of people choosing bicycles over the previously more convenient, though more costly, car. Cycling there is a means to an end, not a goal in itself. Instead, the goal is to create safe, inviting public spaces that foster interaction, social connectedness, and build community. In Detroit, where 21.5% of people do not have access to a vehicle, providing infrastructure that supports a variety of affordable, reliable transportation modes is even more critical.
There is a lot to be learned from these and other cities that have invested in cycling as a means of transportation. Detroit’s roadways were built to accommodate over twice as many people than are living in the city today. Think about what we could do with that space – create protected bike lanes, widen sidewalks to maximize opportunities for social interaction, and dedicate lanes for bus and rail. With construction of the M-1 streetcar and studies for bus rapid transit underway, Detroit is at a critical juncture in building out this network, and we have a real opportunity to rethink what mobility means for our city. Let’s seize the moment and build a network of connectivity that includes bike and pedestrian facilities that are safe, widely utilized, and better serve the diverse mobility needs of Detroit. 

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