Melanie Manos



(This story continues our month long (and beyond) look at the automobile and transit in the Detroit area. Check our features and archives for previous related stories.)

Call me crazy (you won't be the first) but I rode my bicycle for an entire year while living in Detroit. By choice. As the story goes, I planned to move here from Los Angeles (call me crazy again) and rather than risk blowing up my red four-door Geo Metro somewhere in the Rockies, I opted to sell the car and take a plane. Probably a wise choice but it landed me in the Motor City without wheels.

I told myself, "No problem, I'm a public transportation advocate…there's something really freeing about not having a car, and I can take the bus to my new job right down Jefferson!"

Obvious answer to an obvious question: The REASON I didn't immediately buy another car is because I didn't have the cash. How much do you think one can get for an '89 Geo Metro?

Again I assured myself, "No problem, I'll take public transportation until I save enough dough to start looking for a car. Meanwhile I'll keep fit walking and biking!"

All I can say is, thank the gods for my great friend Steven who loaned me his Raleigh Technium "The Chill" mountain bike and even put super tough new tires on it for me.
Since this is an article about bicycling as urban transportation and not about public transportation, I will refrain from pontificating about Detroit's sorry state of public-trans, except to advise against depending on Dot or Smart buses to have bike racks. The driver will likely give you a look like you're from another planet and close the doors in your face, with the admonishment: "No bikes on the bus!"

The cool thing - one of the cool things - about Detroit is that you can get around on a bicycle. This is not true about Los Angeles. Another cool thing is that the traffic is not as congested here by any stretch of the imagination.

That isn't to say there aren't hazards. Just like in autos, potholes make for extremely unhappy moments in a bike-rider's day…."Oof…ouch…damn! Lost my Werther's…oh, there it is, on the left pantleg. Shit."

Then there's the issue of Detroit's drivers, who rival Italian drivers for independent thinking. Red lights apparently mean stop-and-then-go….or don't-stop-at-all. This means for bicyclists that, if you're pedaling down Grand River for example, and you approach an intersection with a green light in your direction, SLOW WAY DOWN AND LOOK ALL WAYS! DON'T ASSUME THAT THE DARK BLUE MARQUIS CRUISING TOWARD YOU ON WARREN IS GOING TO STOP JUST BECAUSE OF A RED LIGHT!!

If you're a bicyclist, here's an important mantra to keep running through your brain: "cars are bigger than me; they can hurt me." It's easy to feel macho while riding - your adrenaline is pumping, your heart is beating, you're feeling strong. I've screamed at many an irresponsible, rude and downright stupid driver from my two-wheel perch, but I don't make the mistake of playing chicken with a Motor Vehicle (remember the mantra).

To survive with just a bike for your ride in the D, one needs a good helmet (see images for head-gear options), a really good lock, a sturdy backpack (for provisions), lights (if you're planning on night-time riding), a job that doesn't require wearing a perfectly pressed suit or a mini-skirt, a steely nerve, and strong legs. With these items intact, one can function considerably well without a car in the D.
That isn't to say there aren't drawbacks to the two-wheeling, non-motorized mode of transport. Riding in the winter is tough, particularly when it's windy. Hauling groceries is a balancing act in the best of weather - carrying bags of heavy groceries while bicycling in slushy snow sucks. This is when you walk, take the bus, rent a car, or call a friend. My Detroit friends never seemed to mind picking me up when we had social plans, or stopping at a market on the way home. A few would even lend me their cars while they were out of town, and then I would feel like a teenager who's parents split for the weekend leaving the car keys. "Whoo-hoo! Crank the tunes! I'm cool… I'm DRIVING! "

But even if you do have a car, there's no reason not to enjoy a pedaling cruise through the city, especially on a lovely spring day when the trees are blossoming and there's a light, warm breeze. In fact, I highly recommend biking for taking in the sights and energy of the city. It's surprising what you can observe from the vantage point of a bicycle that you completely miss in an auto.

Have you ever really looked at the Mies van der Rohe townhouses near Lafayette Park? Have you ever wandered down the curving sidewalks throughout Lafayette Park itself and contemplated the splendor of an inner-city park? What about cruising s-l-o-w-l-y through the Boston Edison area and viewing the beautifully crafted houses? Or cruising to the Dally in the Alley and not having to worry about parking?

One of the most spectacular areas I just happened to come upon while riding is historic Elmwood Cemetery - an absolute must for bike-touring in the autumn, with meandering trails, surprisingly beautiful landscape and some crazy tombstones and statuary. Perfect for October pre-Halloween jaunts.

And of course, there's the lovely Belle Isle, designed by Frederic Law Olmstead (who also designed New York's Central Park in case you didn't know). I've enjoyed riding by the Conservatory's elegant outdoor gardens in the summer, riding over the Belle Isle Bridge as the sun sets over the Detroit River, riding by the old brick Police Station while the guys are in the front yard doing calisthenics…

You can do all these things in a car of course, but it's the pace of bicycling that makes it special.

Detroiters generally responded favorably to my bicycling endeavors - probably because bike-riding in the city is still not terribly popular. One fella encouraged me to "Ride that thing, baby!" Lots of folks would wave to me from their front porches or front yards. Several people rushed over to me to make sure I was okay after a nasty spill (avoiding a car). On the other hand, a teenage girl walking with a friend called out, "You're a joke!" as I pedaled by (I almost circled around to get specifics, but thought better of it.)
So that's my story. Now you try it.




Melanie Manos is a performance and visual artist living and bicycling in Detroit. Her next performance will be Feb. 12 at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids. She can be contacted at melanieviola@yahoo.com.


For other links to her work, check out:
www.markszine.com (in the archives)

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