Blazing a Green Trail

For cyclists and walkers, connecting paths are opening up around metro Detroit


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Illustration by James Yang

Just to state the obvious for the millionth time: For all its troubles, past and present, southeast Michigan is a glorious celebration of the possibilities of the car. More than 22,000 miles of roads (by EPA estimate) are traveled by millions of cars. We make them, we talk about them, we love our wheels as if they’re family.

So it’s maybe no surprise that this region has lagged behind other major metros in the embrace of transportation options, and we’re not talking light rail. The idea of commuting via bicycle, or even of strolling joyfully along a motor-free path under the sky, seems almost sacrilegious in a place where people drive half a block to buy a loaf of bread, and feel good about supporting the local economy in the process.

So it’s impressive that the GreenWays Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, is wrapping up its first five years with a remarkable collection of accomplishments. The plan was to link communities and institutions by connecting them with a river of green, with paths for cycling, walking, and other non-motorized travel. Using abandoned rail corridors, publicly owned land and other right-of-ways, the GreenWays Initiative seeks to offer an alternative to automotive travel — to “get people out and connect them with one another,” says Tom Woiwode, director of the program.

In Midtown, construction is starting on a two-mile trail that will connect Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, the district’s museums, and other institutions via new and existing paths. When completed, this “Midtown Loop” will give cyclists and walkers access to a pedestrian-safe, no-cars walkway throughout the cultural district.

Downtown, the Dequindre Cut will soon be transformed from a graffiti canvas and hobo flop to a one-and-a-half-mile greenway. Originally a rail spur for one of the last passenger trains to serve downtown, the trail built there will connect the Riverfront with Eastern Market. The trail follows the rail bed, which dipped 25 feet below street level.

And the action isn’t just urban. Rochester Hills is building a park to welcome its portion of the Clinton River Trail, another former railroad bed. The newly paved portion will link communities to the west — West Bloomfield Township, Sylvan Lake, and Pontiac — to the Paint Creek Trail and Macomb Orchard Trail to the east.
In western Wayne County, greenways along Hines Drive have been extended under Ford Road, connecting to the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, which now allows those on two wheels and two feet to move along the Rouge River, around the campus, and bicycle commute from as far as Northville.

It was all done by leveraging private funds — mostly from foundations — to get public funds from a variety of sources, including gas-tax revenues and oil-and-gas leases on publicly owned lands. That money was dangled before municipalities willing to chip in and make the greenway connections with their neighbors. It paid for development and improvement of existing paths, land purchase, and other costs. Woiwode’s job for the past five years has been to make those connections between all those entities. It hasn’t always been easy in the sprawling, border-obsessed, jigsaw puzzle of communities, governmental bodies, and institutions that make up southeast Michigan.

“Virtually every other community in the country has developed greenways through an existing public agency, using public funding and under public governance,” he says, which is one reason Detroit’s greenways lag behind those of other metro areas. That wasn’t really possible here, where regionalism is still viewed with skepticism by some. So the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan stepped in to coordinate the public-private partnerships, in keeping with its mission to “improve life” in the seven counties of southeast Michigan, says president Mariam Noland.

To Noland, this five-year mark represents critical mass, when people will finally find enough greenway mileage to really start exploring the area. In keeping with that, the GreenWays Initiative will unveil an interactive Web site (southeastmichigangreenways.com) in late summer that will allow the curious to see the network in both map and bird’s-eye view form, plan trips, and leave feedback and suggestions on future work.

From here on in, the job changes. The $20 million in foundation money is all spent. But he and Noland are hopeful the tangible results will generate momentum. Bicycle commuting may not be realistic in an area with five months of winter. But people do want to be active in their communities, and greenways are a natural way to do it. Those who live in Midtown’s expanding housing stock will be able soon to ride their bikes off-road all the way to Eastern Market.

“What we’re looking for now is opportunities to fund on a project-specific basis,” Woiwode says, meaning if a community has a plan, the Initiative wants to hear about it and help make it happen. The work isn’t done, “and never will be,” he says. But it’s a start.

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