Motorless in the Motor City

Out of necessity or by choice, a growing number of area commuters are adapting to life without an automobile

When Stacey Reed turned 16, she didn’t bother getting a driver’s license — like many of her friends.

“What was the point?” Reed asks, standing outside of a bus stop near downtown Detroit. “I didn’t have money for a car. Still don’t. And my mom never had a car.”

Reed is among a growing number of people in metro Detroit — about 30,000 in 2014 — who rely on public transit or a bike to get to work, according to the U.S. Census. An additional 23,000 people walk to their jobs.

For many like the 23-year-old Detroiter, going motorless in the Motor City is a necessity. But for an increasing number of others, it’s a lifestyle choice.

The Motor City has a complicated relationship with cars. From 1910 to 1950, good-paying jobs in auto factories were plentiful, enabling the working class to buy cars. But as factories closed and moved away, the city’s auto-centric economy began a six-decade decline that left hundreds of thousands of people without work or stuck at low-paying jobs.

In Detroit, 26.2 percent of households didn’t have a car in 2012, compared to 21.2 percent in 2007, the largest increase among the nation’s 30 largest cities, according to a recent University of Michigan study by Michael Sivak.

One big reason is that Detroit has the nation’s highest auto insurance premiums, according to a 2014 NerdWallet study. The rates are 10 times higher than Salem, N.C., where premiums are the lowest. Michigan also leads the nation with the highest rates.

In Detroit, the average price of insurance is $5,000 a year. Mayor Mike Duggan proposed a D-Insurance plan the city estimates could save drivers between $600 and $2,300 a year. It needs state approval and is wending its way through the Legislature.

Doug Grosjean doesn’t have to worry about car insurance and other related automobile costs. The Dearborn resident pedals everywhere in a $10,000 velomobile, a 60-pound, aerodynamic tricycle that resembles a plump hot dog.

The velomobile is designed to reach relatively high speeds, so his commute is almost as fast as it would be in a car. On a stretch of Woodward Avenue, Grosjean once reached 46.9 mph.

“I cruise at 25 to 30 mph, so a reasonable distance of 15 to 20 miles is not a big deal to travel,” he says.

Before 2015 was over, Grosjean trekked 6,100 miles inside his enclosed velomobile, visiting his family in Ohio and commuting 21 miles round trip to a job in Livonia.

“This sounds crazy, but it’s actually cheaper than driving,” says Grosjean, who now has a job closer to home. “You don’t have to buy gas or insurance.”

Not only is he reducing his carbon footprint, but he’s also incredibly healthy at 53.

There is one catch: Grosjean gets pulled over by police — a lot. As of November, “I had about 50 traffic stops this year,” he says. “Police don’t know what it is. But once I explain that a bike has the right to ride in the right half of the right lane, they let me go.”

Grosjean’s ride may be unique, but he’s not alone in forgoing cars. By choice or necessity, the number of metro Detroiters who rely on public transit or bikes to commute to work increased 8.5 percent from 2014 to 2010, according to U.S. Census estimates.

For decades, public transportation has been abysmal in the Motor City, beset with unreliable schedules, poorly maintained buses, and crime. But those times are changing. Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation is buying new buses and expanding service. And the Detroit Department of Transportation has added buses, drivers, cameras, transit police, and a cellphone app since Duggan took office January 2014.

For the first time in more than two years, DDOT’s ridership reached 600,000 in one week, says DDOT Director Dan Dirks. Just under two years ago, the city had 140 buses on the road. In November, there were 229, according to Dirks.

“It proves the adage that people will use transit if you have buses that are reliable and clean,” Dirks says. “We think ridership numbers are going to increase.”

For Reed, who never got her license, the improvements have been gradual and then sudden.

“I don’t have to wait for the bus as long as I used to,” she says. “They (DDOT) are getting better.”

Dirks says the plan over the next year is to meet the national standard of buses arriving on time or no more than four minutes late for 80 percent of the stops.

Crime also is down 70 percent on buses, Dirks says, crediting surveillance cameras on buses and the hiring of 29 transit police.

As public transit improves, the bicycle culture in the city grows. In Detroit’s North End, Greg Crawford chooses his bike over the bus. He rides wherever he goes and knows his community better because of it.

“Being on a bicycle, you have the ability to interact; it’s so much more common to meet people,” he says. “When you are in a car, you are sealed off. The car erases a type of human connectivity.”

Crawford is a sustainable design consultant, advising people on sustainable landscapes, home energy systems, and creative repurposing of materials. So the environment is important to him. He’s remodeling his home and using reclaimed materials. When he’s picking up bricks, stones, or wood, he uses a metal trailer hitched to his bike.

Crawford and his wife also use their bikes and trailers to deliver produce from a neighboring farm and to pick up groceries.

“Everything we need to live, we get with the bike and trailer,” Crawford says. “I generally stay in my neighborhood.”

For Jeremiah Chappelle, biking is more than a passion. 

“Biking is my addiction,” says the 39-year-old Lincoln Park man. “It changed my life.”

Jeremiah Chappelle

Every day, Chappelle delivers food to homeless people on his bike in Detroit. He fills three military backpacks with 200 pounds of hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, sandwiches, water, fruit, and granola bars. His friend is building him a trailer so he can haul soup.
Over the past five years, Chappelle says that Detroit has become much safer, prompting more people to travel by bike and enjoy the city.

“I’m just infatuated with riding,” he says. “I just love it. It’s a great way to look at the architecture.

“It’s what I do with my free time.”

The growing interests in biking can be seen with weekly and monthly events like Slow Roll and Critical Mass, as well as some bike friendly projects (see sidebar at right). Large, diverse groups of bicyclists converge on the streets of Detroit for long stretches.

“Slow Roll is an incredible thing,” Chappelle says. “It brings an unbelievable influx of money to Detroit. It seems like the number of people riding bikes is growing by the day.”

Aside from public transit and biking, walking is another option for motorless metro Detroiters. Beginning in 2007, Kurt Kazanowski joined the roughly 23,000 people in metro Detroit who walk to work. He lives in downtown Plymouth, where he owns a home health care business, Homewatch Caregivers.

With a few-minute commute, he decided to go motorless, even though he had the money for a car. After work, he often sauntered over to his favorite cigar bar, La Casa.

“Walking gives you a whole different perspective on the community,” the 61-year-old says. “You meet folks, and you have more of a personal connection with the community. It helped expand my social life.”

When Kazanowski needed wheels, he rented a car.

He kept it up for eight years before finally buying a Ford Focus in September because he opened two more Homewatch Caregivers in Grosse Pointe Woods and Rochester.

In the eight years and three months that he didn’t have a car, Kazanowski estimates he saved between $16,000 and $20,000 —money he used to help finance his vacations abroad.

“Even though I have a car now, I still walk a lot,” he says. “I have everything I need right here in beautiful Plymouth.”

Shifting Gears

Here’s a look at some bike-friendly projects around town

With more people looking to commute without a car, the region has responded with improved transit services and bike trails.

  • Protected bike lanes and a center lane for future rapid transit are planned for Woodward between Detroit at McNichols Road and Bloomfield Township at Quarton Road. The Woodward Avenue Action Association, which is behind the project, has dubbed the makeover as a “Parisian boulevard.”
  • On the southern end of Woodward, the long-awaited M1-Rail streetcar is expected to debut between New Center and downtown in spring 2017.
  • In August, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments announced more than $6.4 million in Transportation Alternatives Program funding for 2016. Detroit plans to launch a public bike-sharing program with more than $1 million from the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Detroit Bike Share is expected to launch as early as spring 2016 with 350 bikes at 35 stations in and near downtown Detroit.
  • Bike-friendly action is taking part in the suburbs, too. In Sterling Heights, $650,000 will be used for the Dodge Park Bridge over the Clinton River, which will connect to existing trails.
  • Lake Orion is getting $263,000 in federal funding for the Paint Creek Trail connection.

The projects are “part of connecting our region to a system of trails and bike paths,” SEMCOG Executive Director Kathleen Lomako said in a press release. “These are quality-of-life projects that impact us all.”