Tracy Besek started Bike Dearborn about five years ago with a simple hashtag: #bikedearborn. That soon turned into a partnership with Dearborn Bikes, the city, and has grown to include many in the current Healthy Dearborn coalition, a team of partners that strive to promote healthy living in the city.
“I just wanted to ride my bike and have a few people join me,” says Besek. “It was getting boring doing it alone.”
She’s far from alone these days. Besek says the Walk and Rolls have grown tremendously in the past few years, from 13 participants in the first year in 2016 to around 80 at the most recent event.
“We’ve got a positive relationship with the City and its leaders,” she says. “We keep an open dialog with ideas and projects that we want to accomplish. We couldn’t do it without the team we have.”
“The bike share is expanding,” says David Norwood, Dearborn’s sustainability director. “A new station is coming to The Henry Ford, and probably the UM-Dearborn campus.”
Norwood says that Zagster also agreed to set up a pop-up bike share during the city’s popular Homecoming festival Aug. 3-5. There will also be a temporary bike valet set up during the festival so that guests can ride their bikes to Ford Field Park. Both will be located on the tennis courts.
“I have been pleasantly surprised at how what we do in Dearborn is being noticed around the state,” says Besek. “The League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB) in Lansing has recognized our efforts as well as the Sierra Club’s Southeastern Michigan chapter. “
Besek's efforts are part of a growing culture of multimodal transportation in Dearborn, and city leaders are taking note. The City of Dearborn is in the midst of a multimodal plan that will combine many facets of connectivity to make transportation easier for citizens, employees, and visitors.
Dearborn Walk & Roll. Photo by Dave Lewinski
Planning for mobility and connection across transportation modes
Last December, an advisory committee was gathered consisting of over 30 different people from different organizations to formulate the city’s first multimodal plan. From there, a series of public engagement meetings gave the community a chance to weigh in. An additional round of public engagement is planned.
“It’s our first multimodal plan,” says Dearborn Senior Planner Moe Ayoub. “We want to get it right.”
The committee included representatives from Ford Motor Company, Dearborn Public Schools, University of Michigan-Dearborn, MDOT and others.
“This was an extensive process,” says City of Dearborn Economic Development Director Barry Murray. “It was a broad-based approach, to try to get as much input as possible from the community.”
At first, the plan focused just on greenways and biking. It has since evolved into an all-encompassing proposal to define current and future needs and desires for people who walk, ride and drive. Proposed improvements to walkways, roads, and trails are incorporated.
“There’s traditionally a fear that people have,” says Murray. “Changing the roads around gets people kind of nervous. Then we do the analysis for a while, and people see that it could work. Then they want to ride their bikes!”
The City brought in Norm Cox, President of The Greenway Collaborative and a premier non-motorized planner in the Midwest, to consult on the issues and solutions that Dearborn faces in the plan.
Cox says that there are many “cool” things to do in the city, but often, it is hard to find where they are.
“The thing that stands out for me is the cultural richness of the community,” says Cox. “I love the variety of grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants representing numerous Middle East cultures. This gives the City a distinctive organic sense of place.”
He also mentions Ford’s presence in the city and with product development and manufacturing and cultural landmarks such as The Henry Ford and Henry Ford’s Fair Lane estate, as key icons in Dearborn’s landscape.
“It is something to be treasured,” says Cox. “The biggest challenges are the many physical obstacles that fragment the city, such as the river, railroads, large private properties, freeways, and busy multi-lane boulevards.”
Cox explains that Dearborn’s center was originally planned around the automobile, with large buildings surrounded by enormous parking lots.
“The focus was on moving objects rather than how people experience a place,” says Cox. “And now the goal is craft a plan that reflects the community's values and offers multiple viable options for people to get from one place to another.”
Through the public engagement process, Cox and the rest of the committee felt that a consensus was that commuters and residents both want to feel that they are part of a vibrant community and not just get “shuttled in an out of an isolated workplace.”
“So we put the focus on the human experience,” says Cox. “And given the many unknowns as to how the market will react to the all the new transportation options, we try to build in some flexibility to the next generation of streets. How public funds are invested in transportation infrastructure has a profound impact on the transportation choices of individuals.”
He also says that despite that disjointed feeling, there are many opportunities that will make the transformation of the transportation network more efficient.
“These include both cost-effective, near-term opportunities as well as ways to retool the busy boulevards in the long-term.”
Dearborn Walk & Roll. Photo by Dave Lewinski
Coming soon: Bike lanes and trail connections
One such boulevard, Outer Drive, is due to get a makeover that will include state-of-the-art bike lanes for its entire six-mile length through Dearborn.
Donald and Mary Kolsch donated money through Healthy Dearborn and the Dearborn Community Fund for the project. The City started working on the details to implement that and found they had an opportunity to make it more efficient than the original design.
“We started to realize that this is not just a bike lane, but is a connection to the Hines Dr. Trail and a link to the entire region,” says Ayoub.
Ayoub says the city is working out the details on how to make it safer and to encourage riders to use the lanes more often, and that the paths should be implemented by 2019.
Other paths will eventually link Dearborn not only to other cities but to itself. The Central Loop will connect the John Dingell Transit Center through the Fairlane Mall area, through the Hubbard Drive UM-Dearborn campus, to the Ford Motor Company World Headquarters (WHQ) to the Dearborn Administrative Center and back to Ford WHQ.
“The goal is to get that built next spring, to at least get the five-mile loop in place,” says Murray. “That loop allows us then to connect on Hubbard Drive and to the neighborhoods to the east and the west, and the downtown area. And obviously, it connects us to the transit center.”
Those west neighborhood connections will also eventually include the West Dearborn Downtown Discovery Trail, which will include parts of Wagner Place, Ford’s major downtown development project.
“It’s conceivable that all three trails could be open by the end of next year,” says Murray.
Dearborn Walk & Roll. Photo by Dave Lewinski
Taking a fresh look at public transit and mobility
Dearborn’s main corridor, Michigan Avenue, is dotted with SMART bus stops. The new Frequent Affordable Safe Transit (FAST) bus line makes multiple stops along Michigan Avenue.
“People don’t think of these public transit options because it’s not in our culture here,” says Murray. “But we have to start thinking about these options. They’re out there, we are all paying for them, they work, they are new, and they are clean. “There’s often this thought of ‘oh I don’t want to ride a bus, they’re old, or crummy,’-- they are not.”
SMART is also working to improve some of the shelters along Michigan Avenue, which will include electronic message boards that display updated bus schedules and solar power roofs.
The main goal in reconfiguring public transit is asking how riders make it “The Last Mile” from a train, car, or bus to their jobs, work, or school.
Ford Motor Company recently acquired Chariot, one of the first self-sustainable mass-transit systems hoping to relieve congestion and offer a personalized commuting experience.
“Chariot not only does Last Mile but does specific routes,” says Murray. “They are a fixed route service.”
Using an app on a smartphone, riders can view routes from private organizations like Quicken Loans, and utilize those routes for their Last Mile destination. Chariot will monitor the use of the lines and then change routes depending on how many people are using specific routes.
“The busses may not go exactly where you want them to go, but chariot is going to go where the people go,” says Murray. “If they set the thing up, and there are ten stops, and no one’s getting on stops three, five and seven, they will eliminate those and try other ones, where the people want to be.”
“I’m kind of excited about the opportunity that brings to the city and maybe to the region,” says Ayoub.
Besek says the ultimate goal in all of this is to build a stronger, safer and more connected infrastructure.
“I want to see a city where people of all ages and backgrounds feel safe riding their bikes to get to where they need to go,” she says. “Whether for fitness, recreation, lifestyle, or work. More bike lanes, routes, and pathways where they make sense.”