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BFC Steve: Slow Roll Revelations

I’ve written about key building blocks in my past few blogs — including having good laws in place and a full-time bicycle coordinator — and for at least some of you, it probably seems pretty wonky. You’re thinking, “This stuff Clark is writing about seems so institutional. I just want to have fun and ride!”

Well, in the spirit of “Ask not what city hall can do for you, but what you can do without city hall,” this blog is for you!

Welcome to the Slow Roll

I’m sure many of you know the famous Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” For me, Detroit’s Slow Roll is a perfect example of that ethic in action.

Initiated in 2010 by Detroit Bike City co-founders Jason Hall and Mike MacKool, Slow Roll is a mass bicycle ride that takes place every Monday night in the Motor City — and has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. Now Michigan’s largest weekly bike ride, Slow Roll rivals the monthly Friday night Bike Party of San Jose, or Denver’s weekly bicycle cruiser ride — events that share Slow Roll’s emphasis on  inclusivity, community, safety and celebration.

I was in Detroit for a late-August Slow Roll ride, and talk about safety in numbers! There were more than 4,000 of us out enjoying an evening in Detroit, traveling through a variety of neighborhoods and commercial districts, on roads ranging from local streets to one-way three-lane arterials. Touted as a way show off “our great city to residents and visitors alike,” the route and even the starting location changes weekly to capture all the different “neighborhoods, art projects, community gardens, beautiful architecture, historic locations, new projects, and uniquely amazing Detroit spots,” as well as to introduce people to all the cool restaurants and bars in this city that is constantly reinventing itself. 

My host, Detroit Greenways Coordinator Todd Scott, was all smiles with my frequent stopping to snap yet another photo, knowing that I was trying to capture history in the making: if not the largest event of its type in the nation, it’s certainly the most diverse. And so many happy people!!!

So what were the key takeaways?

Democracy is something that you do, not something that you have

We’re proud to live in a democracy, but outside of voting, many of us never truly exercise our rights to organize, speak out or simply celebrate life. The beauty of events like Slow Roll is they are nothing more than simple invitations for people to come out and enjoy the public space that exists. No registration fees are collected, no permits are applied for, nor are there any overhead costs for police or barricades — just people spontaneously showing up to ride and celebrate their community. It’s like an Open Streets event without the need to raise $50,000 or more to make it happen! Not unlike some of the DIY infrastructure projects bike advocates have launched over the years, this DIY event seems to have been accepted (if not outright embraced) by city officials. What was especially amazing to me is how the ride marshals, without being officially deputized, assert themselves at major crossings for total traffic control authority. (Don’t ask me how they do it, but it seems to be working!)

We really do have the best infrastructure in the world for bicycling…

… But most of the time it’s full of cars! When people make the choice to use this public space as cyclists and not as motorists the road suddenly becomes transformed. In a car, one desires to see fewer car drivers; with bikes, the more, the merrier! Consciousness is raised; bike culture advances. Happy faces, all ages and abilities, people from all walks of life… enjoying fellow human beings and truly celebrating urban space which hours earlier was filled with stressed-out, isolated drivers battling impatience, frustration and road rage.

But the disconnect continues

The Slow Roll has become so popular that many people are traveling considerable distances, often by car, to participate. Unfortunately, it was clear that the majority who felt so comfortable on the multi-lane arterials surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists would never dream of using those same streets the next morning as a bicycle commuter, even if  their work trip was a shorter distance than the 12-mile Slow Roll. This isn’t to say that Slow Roll type events or Open Streets campaigns are not worthwhile in helping people make the transition to using bikes for transportation, but it does raise some questions: What more do we need to do to make Slow Rolls more effective? How do we make people feel safe and comfortable and welcomed on these roads for daily life? How can this public space be permanently transformed as places of meeting people face to face and not bumper to bumper?

Signature events are just one building block

One block does not make a building. Events like Slow Roll, no matter how popular, are not sufficient to turn an auto-dominated urban area into a bicyclists’ paradise even if they are capable of doing exactly that when they’re happening. Still, there can be no argument that opportunities that encourage people to try bicycling are tremendously important. By demonstrating the potential of the bicycle, events like the Slow Roll build support for better infrastructure, education, and other efforts to promote safe cycling.

Bicycling is a community-creating, bridge-building endeavor!

The barrier busting aspect of the Slow Roll can best be appreciated by experiencing it. I’ve never seen such a wonderful mix of women and men, girls and boys, people of all colors, backgrounds and ages! Especially with the emphasis on slow, I was able to experience the bicycle as truly a great equalizer, a device that can bring us together: one gigantic, happy family of humankind.

And for that, I shall never forget the Slow Roll. Thank you DETROIT!

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Photos: Slow Roll riders (above) and BFC Steve with ride co-founder, Jason Hall (right)