I was listening to the radio a week ago and Billy Dee Williams was talking about how he feels about Detroit. If you don’t know, Billy Dee Williams is Lando Calrissian from Star Wars. If you aren’t a nerd, then Billy Dee Williams is cool enough that you have to give his middle initial every time you say his name.

Anyway, Billy Dee was talking about how the poverty of our region depressed him, yet he still felt hope (perhaps a new hope?) for Detroit. He likes visiting here and wants to see Detroit come back. He mentioned being an “armchair city planner” and wanting to make changes around here. When asked what those changes would be Billy Dee mentioned our roads.

He said they were too wide. Everything was too spread out. He said that our city was built for cars and not for communities. Billy Dee, you beautiful man you. You are speaking to my heart. I’ve often spoke with friends about how a 5 mile bike ride feels like 10 miles because of all the abandoned lots you pass by to get to your destination. In other cities, the close buildings, the other folks on the streets and general community make things seem not as far away.

There has also been talk about how great Detroit is for bike riding. But is it really? I mean, I love biking in Detroit. The right parking lane is usually empty and you suddenly have a 6 foot wide bike lane to ride in totally not bothered. But wouldn’t it be better to bike around to destinations that aren’t always so far away? To ride down streets that have open businesses on them? To just have more destinations to bike to in general?

I think Billy Dee is right about our streets. While some see our streets as empty playgrounds for bikes, it doesn’t make community when you are the only one riding down that lonely road. Cars pass by but there is no interaction. It is just speed obsessed folks locked in a metal box. Some folks use this metal box (read “car”) as a way to protect themselves from the “scary” city surrounding them. Other locals have found a way to use cars as a way to connect. It isn’t rare to see a car stopped in the middle of the road; one person hanging out the side to chat with someone they saw walking down the sidewalk or in front of their house. With wide empty streets, you can park your car in the middle of the road and use it as a couch to lounge on as you have a chat with a friend.

So maybe we are finding ways to build community despite our lumbering over-sized infrastructure. But still a new kind of Detroit and a new kind of Detroiter (or maybe the old kind of Detroit that never left, but lost popularity) is emerging. And maybe Billy Dee is right – we are living lives that don’t fit within our awkward car shaped grid system.

A good example of this disconnect is this article going around online where a principal suspended high school students for riding their bikes to school. This isn’t a Detroit specific article, but it reflects a mindset that so many Americans across the board seem to have about their own streets and communities.  If you read the article, folks were waving at a group of high school student cyclists and cheering them on as they rode to school. Sounds like a sense of community was being formed on the roadways. The principal’s reaction?  They deemed this unsafe and suspended the students.

Are you serious?

Some of you get this maybe.  You are a parent and you know that streets aren’t safe for students to ride on.  Alright, I’ll give you that.  I understand you don’t anything bad happening to your child.  I feel the same way about my cat, but she is physically unable to ride a bike and she doesn’t go to school.  But still, it is a crazy world out there and we want our kids to be safe.

I understand that point.

But the question that I think Billy Dee and I have is…why did we allow our streets to be this unsafe place?  When did we just roll over and say, “Streets are scary places that we can’t let our kids use.  That is just the way it is!”  That is okay with everyone?  Really?

I should repeat, I’m talking about streets here.  Those are the things that connect neighborhoods and everyone has to use if they want to get…anywhere at all really.  Unless you live in a far out rural community in the woods, you are going to use roads.  There are even roads in rural communities.  Roads and streets are everywhere and they belong to all of us right?  So when did we make them adult only zones?  When did we decided that locking kids indoors for fear of them scraping a knee become standard practice?

Probably the same time we disconnected the fact that if we drive cars and cars are scary, then we are part of the problem (full disclosure – I drive a car).

Back to the point: So how does this connect to students here in Detroit? Previously I hung out with students at the School for the Performing arts and asked them “Why don’t you ride a bike to school?” in response to the empty bike racks out in front of the school. Recently Carlisha and Olivia went to Cody High School and I went to River Rouge and Osborn High Schools to ask the same question. Here is what we found:

There were 127 total responses to “Why do or don’t you ride a bike to school?” (11 from Cody, 28 from River Rouge and 88 from Osborn). I tired to break the answers down into groups:

  • Will get stolen – 32 (4 mentions of getting beat up)
  • Don’t have a bike – 23
  • Get a ride to school – 15
  • Not Safe – 10
  • No bike parking – 9
  • It’s fun – 8
  • It’s not cool / embarrassing – 6
  • Misc / not serious answers – 6
  • Not enough energy / too tired / lazy – 5
  • Too far – 5
  • Its good exercise – 4
  • Not allowed to – 4
  • Too many cars – 3
  • Walk or run instead – 3
  • People will gossip about you – 2
  • Don’t feel like it – 2
  • Bike is broken – 2
  • Lives too close – 1
  • Good for environment – 1
  • Not enough time – 1
  • Doesn’t go to school – 1

So what can we take from this and tie to Billy Dee? I see big differences in this data as compared to Detroit School for the Arts, a magnet school. The reason of it being too far to ride is much smaller of a concern for this larger sample of students. Instead, safety seems to be a big concern. Fear of getting a bike stolen, getting jumped, getting hit by a car and the general “not safe” situation of biking to school seems to be the biggest thing stopping these kids from riding their bikes to school.

Even if these students did feel that it was safe, some of the aren’t allowed to (a few said their school wouldn’t let them and some said their parents wouldn’t). Other students mentioned that they would get made fun of, get pointed out as an oddball, be embarrassed, or would have to succumb to some sort of social force shaming them for this behavior.

So for these students, the streets are there, the distance is ride-able, and some of them see that it is good for them and the environment…but they fear for their safety. This bring us back to Billy Dee. Our roads and by extension, our city was built for cars. This is only partially true. Our city was originally built for bicycles, but when cars boomed, things changed. Perhaps it is time to make a change back as Billy Dee wants. There are often news articles about what our youth need to fear while inside of school, but these kids can’t even trust the streets to get them there. The streets need to change. Also, another nod toward infrastructure is the good number of youth that mention bike parking is lacking at their school. This also brings us back to the issue of being able to afford and knowing how to use a quality lock as was mentioned with the DSA kids.

Also, a large number of these youth don’t have bikes. This is the part where I tell you that this is why the Hub exists. The is the problem we can immediately help solve as we continue our year-round Earn-a-Bike program for kids. For every bike you donate and we get a youth involved, that is one more student that can’t say “I don’t have one” when asked why they don’t bike to school.

Also, this Saturday we will start our weekly youth rides that will continue all summer to our last ride on September 1st (our annual Safe Streets Youth Ride). We hope that as we do more rides with kids we can help change our streets for our youth. Make them a safer space and teach our youth how to survive out there. Wouldn’t it make your day better if every morning you saw a group of high school students safely and competently riding to school in a pack? I know it would make me happy. Just about as happy as hearing Billy Dee saying those words that we’ve all been thinking. Automotive hegemony needs to end…and it will.

Whose streets?

– jason x