Is America’s Car Capital More Bike-Friendly than Its Bike Capital?

Long championed as the cycling capital of North America, Portland (the Oregon one), has guided other cities striving to cultivate an active and educated populace yearning for two-wheeled mobility.

So many words have been written about Portland’s bike culture that a mass influx of new residents has spurred soaring housing costs. This new generation shunning the suburbs is now finding out the harsh realities of a real estate market willing to use bikes as a wedge marketing tool.

On top of this, there’s been a bitter ‘bike-lash’ to all those sleek cyclists darting past backed up automobiles on the road: Portland’s driving class seems hostile to the point of calling for violence against those wise enough to ride.

Take a look at some of the comments under a local news station’s Facebook post in response to a young Portland bicyclist who tragically lost his leg after a truck driver ran him over, and a subsequent protest at the unsafe site of the collision:


Talk about confirmation bias. One wonders where in the world Portland drivers lost their capacity for empathy.

Now, let’s compare the comments under a similar local news post in the car-capital of Detroit after a Michigan driver hit and killed a bike commuter, and actually got sentenced to three months in jail for it.


Notice the subject isn’t ‘bikers’, it’s the human life that was lost – practically a night and day difference in attitudes. What would account for this vast difference in car-crazy Michigan?

Ride a bike in Detroit and you’ll notice immediately that drivers are far more alert, more willing to yield to cyclists, giving them wide berths to avoid potential collisions. Part of this is certainly voluntary, but another part is a rare combination of wide lanes far below their designed traffic capacity.

Motor City roads were historically widened for cars to widths now considered insane by modern planners. Major Detroit surface streets are often six to eight lanes across, not including obligatory curbside lanes for parking. Yet this excess road benefits drivers and bikers alike.

Might a lack of competition for space serve to prevent road rage? It feels as though this dynamic creates a de-stressing effect for drivers; never have I heard a motorist complain about being ‘delayed’ by a bike commuter they couldn’t pass.


Detroit is big. Really, really big.

Once more than 2 million, Detroit’s population is now less than half that, spread out over 138 square miles. This leaves vast, flat tracts of land ideal for pedaling a bike. The only real hazard are crater-sized potholes hiding in the night under tens of thousands of non-functioning streetlights.

If you’re a proponent of vehicular cycling, Detroit is your city. Most times you own an entire lane with no motorists passing you at all. There are definitely bike lanes, too, even of the buffered variety. Soon, Michigan’s first physically separated bikeway will be installed on busy Jefferson street.

Totally off-road paved facilities like the Detroit river front and the Dequindre Cut offer miles of beginner/tourist proving grounds.

With no strictly bike-advocacy group in town, organizing rapidly evolved from grass roots beginnings to blossoming mainstream status in just a few short years. Detroit Bike City’s weekly ‘Slow Roll’ rides usually draw 3,000-4,000 riders most of the year.

This under-the-radar approach to cultivating bike culture in The D is no longer a secret. Rock star David Byrne named the city one of the 8 best in The World. National media has begun doting on Detroit as well, highlighting bikes as an integral component of the city’s resurgence.

This common understanding that favorably promoting bikes also favorably promotes cities is logic that Detroit’s leaders could teach Portland’s. Rarely does any story about biking in the Willamette Valley escape a narrative of sneers and ‘get-on-the-sidewalk’ language.

Without an antagonizing media environment, perhaps drivers’ anecdotal stories about all the scofflaw bikers they claim to see simply have no space to incubate.

For that matter, Detroit drivers don’t seem to care what people on bikes do at all. Running red lights, salmoning up 1-way streets, blowing past stop signs – all are rampant biking behaviors here that I’ve never seen elicit anger from a motorist, not even a disgruntled horn-honk.

In Detroit, people just have better things to worry about.

This relation may change as news of Detroit’s bike status grows. More mainstream stories of the D’s cycling ascendency are beginning to blanket the interwebs. To be sure, it’s already been reported Detroit is enjoying the largest increase in cycling of any major metropolis.

Now that Portland’s stale bike reputation is failing to break into top ten lists, it may not be long before Detroit starts taking its place.

You know big things are on the horizon when Sir Richard Branson rides into town wearing a ‘Detroit Hustles Harder tee to impress your bike scene.



    1. Thanks, Balto. Not sure where you’re commenting from, in the U.S. ‘capital’ is money and ‘capitol’ is a building or city.

  1. Very good article. I’ve always thought Detroiters were more tolerant of cyclists because for many, it’s their only mode of transportation, which fosters a sense of empathy within the city limits. Crossover into the land of the privileged impatient, and cyclists quickly become fair game to insults and road rage. Having said that, there’s also two sides to a coin. I’m a cyclist. When I’m a motorist, far too often I’ve seen cyclists put themselves in harms way.

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